The amazing placenta: why you should do public engagement


By Emma Lofthouse, @Emlofthouse, The University of Southampton

I have taken it upon myself to spread the word about the brilliance of the placenta. It’s a fairly tricky task but someone has to do it.

Like all public engagement, this is a two-way dialogue that enables mutual learning between scientists and the public. It both fosters understanding, while providing an opportunity to discuss opinions, questions and concerns in an interactive way.

I created an interactive game called ‘the a-MAZE-ing placenta’, a game of physical skill that demonstrates the complexities of pregnancy and the many roles of the placenta in growing a healthy baby.

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The object of the game is to tilt the placenta maze to guide the ball (representing nutrients) to the centre of the maze (the umbilical cord) in the fastest time possible while avoiding obstacles. These represent pregnancy conditions and risks: a ‘smoking forest’ traps the ball, toxins and infections block the path of the ball, and pre-eclampsia makes the ball hit dead ends or narrowed pathways.

During the game, we talk to both parents and children about the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease hypothesis, which suggests that the conditions we experience in utero can impact our adult health and relate this to the obstacles in the game.

Through pick-up on Twitter, ‘the a-MAZE-ing placenta’ has since debuted at conference,; open days, country shows, science festivals and schools.

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Public engagement is now strongly encouraged in the research community with many funding bodies requiring public engagement activities as a condition of research grants. Outreach has great benefits for the public but just as many advantages for the scientist. It provides an opportunity to improve your communications skills with all types of audiences and gives you the opportunity to inspire someone.

Many researchers realise the importance of public engagement but are unsure of how to get involved. However, by simply talking to friends and family, you are already sharing your research and encouraging people to consider the relevance of science in their every day lives.

If you are looking to get involved with outreach, have a look at the opportunities that The Physiological Society provide including public engagement grants, Physiology Friday, the public engagement toolkit and ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!’.

You can also become a STEM ambassador. Their events are designed to educate and more importantly, inspire young people to continue with STEM subjects at school and to help open their eyes to the careers that are available to them.

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