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By Zoë Wallace

Zoe WallaceA “typical” scientist may be an academic in a lab coat isolated from the public by the barrier of his or her lab and strange working hours. As a freshly minted first year Ph.D. student, I expected my Ph.D. to be like that, until my department asked me to partake in public engagement.

I was skeptical, partly out of ignorance for what public engagement meant. To me it was a nebulous term thrown out by funding bodies. How would taking time out of my lab schedule help my research? Would the imposter syndrome take over when asked to talk about a subject area with so many more experts around? I wasn’t alone in this mindset—perhaps postdocs had more confidence in their credibility to take part in public engagement, but for many, if the activity wasn’t producing data, then it wasn’t on their schedule.

Imposter Syndrome

I began my venture into the community helping at a science festival by way of a craft project-come-science lesson of DNA bracelets. In an attempt to channel my entire undergraduate degree, I babbled on, listing everything I knew. The lack of engagement was apparent in how quickly the first visitors exited the tent, and my opinion of public engagement was left unchanged.

Later, as I helped a young boy thread “bases” on the “DNA backbone,” his father said, “You’re a scientist: can you tell me why I need to get a flu vaccine every year?” Startled by the thought that someone saw me as competent enough to ask, the answer came quickly and was followed by a brilliant discussion. I realized that the engagement part of public engagement was not just a one way flow of me lecturing someone, but a return as well. I also realized that while there may be professors of vaccinology, at that moment this dad needed a scientist that he could interact with easily.

The more people asked questions, the more I enjoyed it—the language was the key. Knowing your audience and how you’re going to explain something is not “dumbing science down” but unveiling it in a new perspective. By explaining concepts to kids and adults alike I found new connections to translate back into my research; in academia I’m often discussing my work with outside researchers, and the practice I got with the public has been invaluable for these occasions.

The rest of my shift flew past, and one science festival led to many more. The enthusiasm on kids’ faces upon leaving the table and the thank yous were easy feedback that the public had gained something by me being there. The confidence I gained drew me out from the hyper-competitive, ever-changing world of academia and reminded me why I signed up for a Ph.D. Public engagement has helped me re-engage with my own research and enthusiasm for science. With the right attitude, public engagement can help inform the community while resetting your perspective on your own research, perhaps at a time when you need it most.

Zoë Wallace is a D.Phil. student at the University of Oxford, where she studies viral immunology with Lucy Dorrell. She is interested in HIV research with translational applications for vaccines and therapies.