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Vaccine engagement starts…knowing your role as an immunologist

We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.

BSI member, Professor Neil Mabbott is Personal Chair of Immunopathology at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute. He has been answering questions from the public about how COVID-19 vaccines work, while providing reassurance about their safety. Here, Neil recommends different strategies for effective communications and draws attention to the role and value of immunologists in vaccine conversations.

You have been carrying out numerous initiatives to address questions and concerns about COVID-19 and vaccination. How did you first get involved in public engagement and how would you describe your experience overall?

I originally got involved in public engagement thanks to the very active team from The Roslin Institute who organise an excellent programme of public engagement and outreach events. Over the years, we have created different activities to explain how the immune system works and also to explore how the immune response to pathogens and vaccines changes as you grow older.

Towards the end of 2020, right when the first COVID-19 vaccines were about to be rolled out, I took part in an Instagram Live organised by the Edinburgh Medical School. The aim was to dispel rumours and quench anxieties amongst medical students at the university through short online interviews with scientists. There was a big interest in how vaccines work in general and their effectiveness in different age groups, in addition to more specific questions about mRNA vaccines.

Overall, my experience has been incredibly positive – I’ve had feedback from family, friends and the wider public highlighting how helpful these conversations are in alleviating their concerns, and the difference that it made hearing this information from the friendly and trusted face of an immunologist.

There are many different ways to engage with the public around vaccination, from a wide range of different topics and questions worth exploring, to a variety of routes available and interested audiences. What is your usual approach and what have you learned in your extensive experience?

You do have to throw yourself into the deep end, but as everything in life, it becomes easier the more you do it. My goal is to present concepts in a manner that everyone can understand without talking down to people or oversimplifying the details. Before starting, it’s important to think about the level of understanding of your audience and to identify take-home messages. Conversations move very quickly and, as you’re chatting, you might not be able to get a chance to express the key points you wanted to convey.

Another piece of advice would be to choose your subject wisely. You’re under no obligation to speak about topics you’re not knowledgeable on or confident about. I’ve declined many media enquiries that weren’t my area of expertise. There are a lot of other immunologists out there who have been commenting wisely about those topics!

Speaking of interacting with the media, it always helps to come up with ideas of questions you might get asked beforehand so you have a chance to think about how you might respond to them. If you haven’t worked with the media before, I would recommend looking into media training. Most universities have courses to help prepare you for the experience and enable you to practice talking about your research with different audiences and without jargon. Universities are also a great way to receive enquiries – at the University of Edinburgh we have a very effective press office who have been working their socks off, and they’re always looking for scientists with different areas of expertise.

As you mentioned, there are a lot of scientists out there working relentlessly to explain complex topics and emphasise the importance of vaccination. What do you think your role is as an immunologist, and what is your personal motivation behind spending your time and effort on this?

Effective communication is important as a scientist. A lot of us are publicly funded so individuals from the general public are paying to support our research and I believe that they ought to know what we’re doing. And it’s always worthwhile! Whether you’re putting together a grant proposal, writing a paper or giving a talk, you need to be able to communicate on different levels. Public engagement really helps you to think about how you’re communicating different messages so that you can ensure they come across as clear as possible.

For me, my motivation is to allay fears around the use of vaccines and encourage people to take them up. If you’re apprehensive about public engagement, remember that your role as an immunologist is to explain, not to defend something. You’re there to provide information and explain complex immunological matters. We all have valuable input we can share, in all sorts of environments, even if it’s speaking to someone when you’re at the pub or getting a haircut!

Follow Neil on Twitter @neilmabbott1

Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.

Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.