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, Dr Zania Stamataki is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. She has been working closely with journalists to inform the public about the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and the importance of vaccination. Here, Zania highlights her positive experience so far, how she approaches different types of communication and how public engagement has opened a lot of doors for her career.
You have been working in immunology for over fifteen years and, since the pandemic, you have been conveying your expert perspective on important issues around the immune response to SARS-CoV-2. What led you to spending your time and energy on this?
I am a total nerd for viral immunology. When the pandemic started, I had just reopened my high containment virology lab to work on hepatitis viruses, but I decided to pivot my research and focus on understanding Coronavirus infectivity, transmission and neutralisation. It was a no brainer to shift to SARS-CoV-2 because we had all the resources – my aim was not only to pursue scientific research for the benefit of discovery but also, to give back and provide a service to society.
A new virus for humans was really exciting, and I learned a lot from reading new research during the pandemic. There were amazing papers coming out every day in preprint format and I felt that, as a scientist, I could help the public understand the impact of new findings. When you write in the press you develop a relationship, both with the editor and with your readers, which is something you don’t get a chance to do when you write scientific papers. People write to you and share how your article has affected them.
For a scientist who spent her youth in a dark room staring down a microscope, developing these relationships has been incredibly rewarding.
How has your experience been like working closely with journalists and what response have you received from the public to speaking out about COVID-19 and vaccination?
I had been warned by other scientists to be extremely careful when talking to journalists but so far, I haven’t had an experience in which someone has tried to catch me out. Before the pandemic I had gone through media training with the Academy of Medical Sciences – I learned about what journalists expect from scientists, how to avoid being misquoted, valuable interview skills and much more. I’m very grateful for this training.
I have spoken to countless journalists from various countries and different backgrounds, and my experience has been very positive. Journalists are really grateful for any time we can give them – especially for new faces and for getting the chance to increase the visibility of female scientists.
The public really appreciate what we do as scientists. On the back of this work, I have received lots of comments from individuals – they’re interested in knowing more and thankful for helping them understand COVID-19 vaccines better, I have even been told that they got vaccinated because of it. It’s such a great feeling!
You have also been engaging with the public in other settings and you recently presented at a public event from the Royal Institution. How do you approach these important conversations, and can you share advice on spoken vs written communication?
There are multiple ways for scientists to get our message across. If you’re writing, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re very used to writing scientific papers. I had to rewrite my first article completely after showing it to my husband who pointed out how dry it was. The best advice I received was to ‘write something from you’. For example, my opening sentence from that piece was: “As the daughter of an air force officer and a nurse, I am fascinated by defence systems.”
For the Royal Institution event, and others like it, I use different virtual backgrounds to tell a story when I’m speaking. Instead of presenting slides, I just change my background. You can get a conversation started with a piece of art, or by showing your human side along side your scientific expertise. I shared that I’m a mum of two primary school children, with all the limitations that it posed during lockdown, and I’m also a daughter, the wife of a patient-facing GP and, of course, a scientist who works on Coronavirus.
What would you say to BSI members who are looking to be positive role-models for speaking out about COVID-19 vaccination?
I highly recommend engaging with the public around COVID-19 vaccination and working with the media to anyone who wants to get involved in this area.
It’s very formative and you learn a lot. I now see my scientific papers with completely different eyes and my writing has improved a lot. It also opens a lot of doors, for example to new collaborations and funding. It has been a huge benefit for my grant applications, which are now more focussed on a lay audience. It also doesn’t take a lot of time because you write about what you know. If you have to do a ton of research, then you’re not the right person for the job!
This pandemic will not be the last. Now is the time for immunologists to make the most of the opportunity to communicate our knowledge to the public and build the systems and trust needed for global vaccination in the future.
Follow Zania on Twitter @ZaniaStamataki
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.