Published: 12 February 2024
Every year, researchers from across the St George’s community get involved in engaging non-scientists with research in a variety of different ways. One route is through the seed funding available from the St George’s Public Engagement (PE) team, an initiative that is fuelled by connecting the university with the wider community to educate, spark conversation and build partnerships.
Here we explore the four projects that received seed funding in 2022/23.
Displaying the biology of female genitalia
Georga Longhurst, Head of the Anatomy Suite at St George’s, put PE seed funding towards attending ‘Bits and Bobs – The Anatomy of Sex’, an adult-only public outreach event for World Anatomy Day 2022.
Her group attended the event with a stall called ‘How C'literate are you?’. It engaged people with research into the anatomy of the clitoris and the diversity of biological female genitalia, with the aim of increasing public awareness about the variability in anatomy and female genital mutilation.
During the evening event at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, around 70 members of the public talked to Georga and colleagues about topics such as the history of the clitoris in medical literature, and the variation in size across each part of the clitoris. Hands-on activities included ‘pin the clitoris on the vulva’, measuring food items with callipers to gain an appreciation of the variability in the size of the glans of the clitoris, and comparing 3D-printed models of the clitoris of women with and without female genital mutilation.
Verbal feedback gathered on the night showed that this type of outreach event was new to most of the public and gave them an opportunity to learn about the clitoris and its anatomy in an environment where they felt safe to ask questions.
The stall was recreated in the St George’s Student Union to mark International Women’s Day in March 2023 with 50 students engaging with the content. Georga was also invited to host the stall again for World Anatomy Day in October 2023 at the University of Sunderland.
Engaging parents in research with babies
Dr Julia Bielicki, Clinical Reader in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at St George’s, led a public engagement project to align with NeoSep-ADAPT, a clinical trial of treatments for neonatal sepsis. The aim was to involve members of the public and clinical staff in helping to shape conversations with parents about including their newborn babies in the trial.
Any infection in a newborn baby is referred to as sepsis, and it can be unclear which antibiotics should be used, at what dose and for how long. Clinical trials are required to learn more, with a new type of clinical trial – the adaptive platform trial – offering the flexibility and potential to gather large amounts of information in a faster and more efficient way, while also improving treatment for participants.
The PE project so far has focused on listening to parents to find suitable and sensitive ways of talking to them about such trials at a particularly stressful time in their lives.
The seed funding was used to create and run a patient and public involvement (PPI) group made up of parents who have experience on neonatal units. Participants expressed the need for providing information to parents about trials as far in advance as possible, and the importance of explaining sepsis itself, how it develops and its severity. They also wanted information about the differences between the trial care and standard care, and suggested that simple, bite-size information be given initially, with access to more detailed information later.
Feedback from the group will be used to improve plans for future groups, as well as creating a communication strategy for NeoSep-ADAPT that is sensitive to parents’ experiences and concerns.
Involving minority ethnic communities in women’s health research design
In summer 2023, a team led by Dr Nafeesa Mat Ali, a Clinical Research Coordinator from Professor Sanjeev Krishna’s team, with the support of Dr Yolanda Augustin, invited community leaders in south London to take part in a programme engaging local communities in the design of two women’s health studies.
With the aim to engage with Muslim migrants and minority ethnic groups, they invited five community leaders from the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network, Tooting Community Kitchen, Muslim Women of Merton, Shree Ghanapathy Temple and Little ARK.
Community leaders gave their insight on the design of the ‘Know Your Lemons’ breast cancer educational awareness initiative and a cervical cancer health literacy co-design programme. They provided feedback on various aspects of the studies, including the study protocol and questionnaires, to ensure that they are relevant, culturally sensitive, reflect the needs and concerns of their respective communities, and make a difference to the target population.
All community leaders mentioned that they are aware of the impact that barriers to attending screening, for example, have on the health of their community, particularly women.
Their responses were positive and supportive of the research. One of the leaders shared the ‘Know Your Lemons’ breast cancer awareness materials at an annual community event at Wimbledon’s Shree Ghanapathy Temple. The researchers plan to continue working with the community leaders as the studies develop.
Taking STEM beyond the classroom
The ‘Rare Disease Research: Empowering the Next Generation of Scientists’ project saw Dr Reza Maroofian, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at St George’s, work with the Social Mobility Foundation to offer opportunities for ambitious and talented students from a diversity of backgrounds to explore STEM beyond traditional classroom settings.
Students in Year 12, aged 16-18, who were interested in pursuing careers in science were invited to take part in a series of interactive workshops where they gained firsthand experience of key molecular biology techniques used to study complex rare diseases. The programme included group discussions about contemporary challenges within genetics research, and activities engaging with scientific literature to nurture critical thinking, explore different viewpoints, evaluate information and develop research skills.
The sessions also introduced students to various STEM career pathways in academia and industry, and to lab members from various ethnic backgrounds. They were offered the opportunity to speak with senior clinicians and gain insights into the research process from ‘bench to bedside’ and its blend of scientific rigor and emotional resilience.
This project aimed to empower students to make informed decisions about their future career paths, with students commenting that they had gained valuable insights into research, as well as knowledge and skills during the experience.
“The PE Seed funded projects illustrate the exciting range and diversity of public- and patient-focused engagement work being undertaken at St George's. We look forward to the supporting the new round of applicants in 2023-24.”
- Dr Carol Shiels, Lead for Public and Civic Engagement at St George’s -
Learn more about public engagement at St George’s, University of London