October 2021 saw the MRC WIMM’s first in-person Public Engagement event since March 2020. The IF Oxford Festival aimed to engage people from across Oxford with current academic research. Gulnar Abdullayeva, a DPhil student in the Bodmer Group, volunteered at the MRC WIMM stall. In this piece she describes her experience.
Recently, I volunteered to participate in IF Oxford, the city’s Science and Ideas Festival for an event held in Templar’s Square shopping centre. I was made aware of the ‘Science at the Shops’ event by an email from Dr Catherine Seed (WIMM Public Engagement and Communications Officer) looking for volunteers from across the MRC WIMM to take part. From past experiences of public engagement activities, I knew how fun and interesting public engagement with the University could be. With great enthusiasm, I replied to the email and expressed my interest being a volunteer for both days. All volunteers had a training session which gave us a chance to have a play with the activities and ask any questions that we have before the event.
The stand was on Immune Responses to Viral Infection organised by the Dong and Rehwinkel labs. The aim of the stand was to provide a space to answer questions that people have and provide them with information on how and what we are researching to help in the fight against all viral diseases. This was a great opportunity for the public to speak to scientists directly and ask any questions they had about the immune system.
In this exhibition, we explained what a virus is, as well as how the innate and adaptive immune systems sense and fight against viral infections to keep us healthy. We had a number of activities to communicate the science, designed by Dr Dannielle Wellington of the Dong Group, and Lizzie Horton of the Rehwinkel Group.
The first activity was guessing the size of a virus. Visitors were invited to assume the size of a single virus in comparison to the length of the River Thames if the river was the size of an adult human body.
Then, they were introduced the way that viral infections are sensed by our immune system. For this scenario, there were plastic golf balls with holes in them representing endosomal bubbles filled with pipe cleaner DNA/RNA. Visitors took the DNA/RNA out of the bubble and then wrapped it around the appropriate (colour-matched) innate receptor. Then rang the bell to sound the alarm which shows host cells have detected an infection.
The following activity was breaking down viral proteins by feeding a string of magnetic beads through the proteasome tube and using the sliders to chop the string of beads into smaller sections. A key message of this activity was showing how these smaller peptides are crucial for activating the adaptive immune system.
The last activity was a scenario displaying activation of killer T cells, using a 3D printed bank of 6 cells displaying different peptide-MHC flags. Visitors must pick up the ping-pong ball T cells and find the infected cell that the T cell recognises. The T cell will flash red when it has found an infected cell and will kill it. The T cell will light up yellow if it recognises the peptide-MHC but does not want to kill as it is a healthy cell.
In addition to these hands-on activities, we handed out a leaflet designed by Dr Dannielle Wellington that explained the stand as well as went into a bit of detail on how antibodies help fight viral infections. Posters and cartoons explaining other elements of viruses and immune responses, such as mutation rates of viruses and MHC genetics were also provided, which were useful to aid in conversations generated by the activities. At the end of the exhibition, each visitor was given a sticker and some of them filled the observer sheets to assess the stand.
Over the course of six hours per day we welcomed more than 200 people and everybody seemed to have great fun guessing the size of a virus, learning the mechanism of our immune system or searching out and killing infected 3D printed cells. We had interesting discussions about COVID, MHC/HLA variability, and T cell responses. It was encouraging to see how excited children and adults alike were by what we presented to them and how people went on to explain what they had seen and done to their friends.
For me, it was a great privilege and experience to be able to delegate tasks to other people in this amazing team. I would love to take part in the next public engagement event, either as a volunteer or as an activity designer and developer. Luckily being based in the WIMM gives a lot of opportunities for involving public engagement activities. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Dr Dannielle Wellington, Dr Catherine Seed, all organisers, and volunteers.
Pictured above: Gulnar Abdullayeva, Pramila Rijal, Dr Danielle Wellington and Delaney Dominey-Foy (L-R) volunteer at the Science at the Shops Stand.
Gulnar Abdullayeva is a DPhil student in the Cancer and Immunogenetics Group at the MRC WIMM and Department of Oncology at the University of Oxford. Gulnar was an Oxford Regional Finalist of FameLab 2021. She also participated in the Medical Research and Summer Zones as part of "I am a scientist, Stay at home" in 2020.