How taking research to a festival changed my view of science

Getting out of the lab and engaging with the public is a great way to take a fresh look at your research and can even be great fun, says postdoctoral research fellow Steinar Halldorsson. He tells us about bringing science from the Crick along to the Bluedot festival in Macclesfield.

The idea of science and art coming together is nothing new, but a weekend festival completely devoted to science, art and music is something unique.

I started working at the Crick in late 2017 as a postdoc, and in February this year I approached the Public Engagement team about going to the Bluedot festival. We assembled a team of PhD students, postdocs and two members of the Public Engagement team and started making plans. 

I knew the value of taking part because I’ve been before, when I was a DPhil student at the University of Oxford. That had turned out to be one of the best decisions I made as a DPhil student, including any decisions I made in the lab, even though I was busy writing up my thesis. 

Changing my point of view

Although this could sound like a cliché, the festival changed the way I think about myself as a scientist and how I see my work fit in with the rest of society. It was an amazing opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life and talk about science; the festival turned out to be even more rewarding than I had anticipated, and I knew that I had to go again.

Getting the chance to meet curious non-scientists and talk about science outside the lab is a fantastic way of rethinking our roles as scientists.

After a few months of planning and trialling our activities at the Crick’s family Discovery Day we set off early on a Friday morning in July to the site of the festival, Jodrell Bank Observatory. We set up a stall with interactive activities related to the infectious diseases we study here at the Crick. 

The Crick tent at the Bluedot festival

The Crick tent at the Bluedot Festival

We had a Flu Fighters game where visitors tried to outsmart the new incoming strain of seasonal influenza. The younger visitors were invited to 'infect colourful pictures of cells in petri dishes with glitter HIV and for the most curious budding scientists we had a Malaria Hunter game where people tried to spot the different stages of the malaria infection cycle with actual samples of malaria under a microscope. 

The audience’s reaction

The visitors were even more engaged and curious than we had hoped. Families were particularly drawn to the glitter activity and plenty of people were really keen to have a look under the microscopes. Personally, the most memorable thing was the breadth of questions we were asked: “How does this new HIV treatment work?” or “When will we finally get rid of flu for good?” or “How can my children get into science?”

It’s these sort of questions which really make you think about the current state of science. They encourage you to think about research in a broader context, and also see how your own work and your colleagues’ work is helping to solve international problems. It even gives you a chance to share your own personal experiences and talk about your journey to becoming a scientist.

The festival was also a fantastic opportunity to talk to the other researchers who were there and learn about science happening in other places. As well as the science, it was full of great musical acts and curious interactive art installations.  

Looking ahead to next year

Overall, engaging with the public at the Bluedot festival was fantastic. We all had a great time and as a group we got on really well. It is definitely one of the highlights of my calendar and I can’t wait for next year. Although a weekend at a festival might not be every researcher’s thing, I do think that getting the chance to meet curious non-scientists and talk about science outside the lab is a fantastic way of rethinking our roles as scientists.
 

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