The Robinson lab is a small cell biology lab based at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (CIMR), currently consisting of two long-term members, Professor Margaret (Scottie) Robinson and Principal Research Associate Dr Jennifer (Jenny) Hirst, as well as two PhD students and two postdocs.
Both Scottie and Jenny have been involved in public engagement for over 10 years, starting when Scottie’s daughter was in Year 4 at the Queen Edith Primary School and the whole lab visited her class with a somewhat overly ambitious programme involving human cells, plant cells, yeast cells, frog egg cells, and cells from a pond. Five workstations were set up, the children were split into five groups, and the plan was for each group to spend 10 minutes at a particular workstation before moving on to the next one. The event turned out to be a lot of fun but extremely chaotic, with only a small fraction of the planned activities being completed before the 10 minutes were up. But the team learned on the hoof about what worked and what didn’t, and they came back to the school by popular demand the following two years, with a somewhat more realistic programme. By this time Jenny’s son had also started school, so she put together her own programme of activities for Fulbourn Primary School, involving chemistry and physics as well as biology.
In the years that followed, both Scottie and Jenny became involved with the University Public Engagement team and began to participate in other events, including schools masterclasses, schools roadshows, and the Cambridge Science Festival. In addition, as a member of Jesus College, Jenny is an active contributor to their school outreach workshops. Events that have been organised by Scottie and/or Jenny include a guessing game in which each child brings in an everyday object and puts it under the microscopes and then the other children have to figure out what it is; conducting experiments on a mysterious egg that suddenly appeared in the Fulbourn playing fields; getting the kids to guess which has a larger diameter, a cell or a human hair, and then showing them what their own hair and cells look like under a microscope; warming up temperature-sensitive fruitflies that keel over at the non-permissive temperature because of a mutation in a membrane trafficking protein; and constructing a four-dimensional model of a cell, where vesicles and viruses can race each other along cytoskeletal tracks (now listed as a Science Festival Resource; see http://www.sciencefestival.cam.ac.uk/resources).
There has never been a shortage of students and postdocs in the Robinson lab and elsewhere who are keen to help out, and some of them have been inspired to carry out their own public engagement activities. For instance, one former student, Nienke Lubben, was a Researcher in Residence at a local secondary school; another, Patrycja Kozik, visited secondary schools in her native Poland to give lectures on “Viruses, Hillary Clinton and paralysed flies: transport of proteins inside the cell”; and a third, Nicola Hodson, was a runner up for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award, in which competitors have to explain to a wider audience why their research matters (see http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2012/11/02/cell-city/ ).
There is currently a lot of emphasis on public engagement, to the extent that some granting bodies insist that public engagement plans be included in applications. But even more importantly, engaging with schoolchildren is immensely enjoyable and rewarding. Sometimes the younger kids get so excited they literally start jumping up and down. They ask some great questions, such as whether one could use HeLa cells to recreate Henrietta Lacks (from a nine-year-old) or whether our white blood cells can recognise and attack cancer cells (from a teenager). The children’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it can make even the most jaded of researchers remember why they went into science in the first place.