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Vaccine engagement the Swansea Science Festival

On Sunday 25 October 2020, the BSI South Wales Immunology Group ran a virtual #CelebrateVaccines session at the Swansea Science Festival. In an interactive and informative talk, they looked into how vaccines work, what long-term immunity looks like, how herd immunity is achieved and how this affects the development of a vaccine against COVID-19.

This live Q&A session is a brilliant example of how BSI members can be positive ambassadors for COVID-19 vaccinations. We're proud to showcase this case study as the first 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.

Here, BSI members Dr Becky Aicheler and Dr Simone Cuff give their perspective on the event and public engagement with immunology.

Becky Aicheler

Engaging with the public about science is something I love. I’m a viral immunologist and work as a senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University, inspiring a new generation of biologists. I often enthusiastically engage in passing conversations at the park or on the school pick up about the current understanding COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2. However, I rarely get the opportunity to formally interact with the public and, if I’m honest, this is something that terrifies me just a little bit. But when the BSI asked for help with their Celebrate Vaccines session at the Swansea Science Festival, I couldn’t say no. Vaccines are a current topic for members of the public and there’s a lot of misinformation so I felt I should help get the facts heard.

My nerves were quashed after talking with Erika Aquino (Public Engagement Manager at the BSI), ex-colleagues at Cardiff University and colleagues at Cardiff Metropolitan University who were all working on this project together – we were approaching this event as a team, something I love! During the weeks running up to the event we put a session together aimed at a family audience.

My role on the day was answering the audience questions. Here, my experience of undergraduate teaching was really helpful as I already had a lot of the language to explain complex topics in an understandable way – typing the answers rather than communicating them verbally was more of a challenge though! As we approached the end of the session, the Q&A team had been so keen that we’d answered all the questions and there were none for the presenters to answer live! I took on an impromptu role of ‘hosting’, selecting some of the more common questions and putting those to the presenters.

I think it can be easy to take for granted the expertise we have as a scientist and believe it’s important that we communicate our understanding to the general public.

There are lots of ways to communicate science and it’s about what types of communication you enjoy. You never know, by challenging yourself you might find a new love and confidence for science communication. I really enjoyed the session and will definitely be taking part in more outreach events in the future.

Simone Cuff

If you haven’t given public engagement a try yet, here are three reasons to give it a go:

  1. Learning by teaching. 

I’ve been an immunologist for a while now and am pretty confident in my knowledge base. Then for the Swansea Science Festival we had to explain to kids how CD4+ T cells help B cells without using the terms “cytokine” or “activation”. It’s harder than you think! The very act of having to explain to others deepens your understanding brilliantly.

  1. Helping others to understand immunology, and that it still contains unknowns.

As everyone knows, immunology is the best and most interesting of the sciences which helps enormously with engagement. But in addition to this, how wonderful is it for kids to find out that there is more to discover? That they can be the first at something? That curiosity is important and can lead to something greater?

  1. The people involved in science engagement tend to genuinely like helping others. These are people that are nice to know and work with. 

Counter-intuitively, there is plenty of room in engagement for those that might be a bit shy too. The brief for the Swansea Science Festival was to present the science of vaccines in a family-friendly way. The difficulty was that, due to COVID-19, we had to present on Zoom. The Festival organisers and the BSI’s own Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino, nimbly turned that to our advantage. In addition to having two live onscreen presenters, a text-based Q&A session ran throughout the presentation which allowed four more immunologists to answer all manner of questions from the public as the talk progressed.  As the finale of the talk everyone who wanted to be on screen was brought on to share their expertise in a live Q&A. This was brilliant at not only getting the public involved but at pooling our specialist areas of knowledge so that the whole was much more than the sum of its parts.

Science engagement. Give it a go. We have cookies.

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.