Summer Science Exhibition: Guardians of the Gut

Posted on July 3, 2018   by Lindsay Hall

This week, Dr Lindsay Hall and her research group from the Quadram Institute are exhibiting ‘Guardians of the Gut’ at The Royal Society’s prestigious ‘Summer of Science’ event.  The event is running from 2-8 July and is expected to receive over 14,000 visitors over this period. Here, Lindsay Hall discusses what this engagement opportunity means for her, and how the week is going so far

I am the Microbiome Research Leader at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, and my group’s research interest revolves around understanding the role of the early life microbiota in both health and disease. Alongside our basic and clinical research, we are also very active in communicating and engaging others about our science, and the wider world of microbiology. I feel passionately about public engagement and its importance, and both myself and the group do this in a variety of ways including contributing to newspaper/magazine articles, writing blogs (like this one!), giving public talks, running sessions at science festivals and at schools, and appearing on the TV.

© Lindsay Hall

To reach wider audiences, we have been looking for other opportunities and funding, so we can make these ideas a reality. I’ve been lucky enough to be awarded a Public Engagement Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust (‘me and my microbiome’), which is aligned with my Investigator Award, and also very recently I was the recipient of the Microbiology in Society Award 2018 from the Microbiology Society.

Being a member of the Society has really helped me think about how we communicate our science, and engage with other members, both for science collaborations, and also more PE related activities. Being a member of the Microbiology Society has also provided additional opportunities to get involved in different Society activities, such as a live discussion at the 2017 Annual Microbiology Society meeting for the session ‘Microbiome Research: Opportunity or Over-hype?’, and also contributing to the Unlocking the Microbiome Report and launch event, where I talked about Human Microbiome: Opportunities for Translation.

On the back of the Fellowship, we wanted to make a big splash, so we applied for a stand at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2018. This was a highly competitive process and we were delighted to find out we had been accepted for this prestigious Public Engagement event. The event receives a whopping 14,000 visitors over the course of the week, and includes an ‘adult only’ night event, and two VIP nights. We wanted to have a wow-factor exhibit, so we were very ambitious and decided to design and build a giant walk through gut. This really brings to life the microbiota to lots of different people, and how explains how different factors, like birth mode, diet and antibiotics impacts our microbial communities.

Our 6-meter-long, 2-meter-high gut, has internal game stations to allow visitors to interact with their ‘microbes’. To top it all off, and to kick-start our exciting plans for the Microbiology in Society Award, we have also developed a lesson plan for primary school children, where they can explore their resident microbes, and learn about the jobs they do for us in their very own Gut Galaxy! This will be launched at the Royal Society, and will be an ongoing, year-long project, with the aim of sharing this resource with the wider microbiology community and Microbiology Society members and sending out the refined and final lesson plan and information to schools across the UK, so we can get loads of kids excited about the bugs in their guts!

© Lindsay Hall

This has been a fabulous Norwich community and interdisciplinary affair, with amazing help and support from the Norwich Hackspace (to help with the electronics and lighting), St Marys Works Norwich for providing our ‘studio’, and Tim from Tin House for the design and build of the gut (Tin House provides bespoke art solutions – and boy is this bespoke!).

I am writing this blog with only 4 days to go, with the final finishing touches going into the exhibit, and associated stands, which highlight our own microbiome research. The whole process for this exhibition has been long in the making, and wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Jenni Rant (SAW Trust, and freelance PE consultant), as it’s such a big job. The logistics have been crazy, two big houses rented in London for everyone to stay (and figuring out the room arrangements!), two huge online food shops arranged to come when we arrive (and who is cooking what night), the van to take the gut down to London (and to build it again in London!), our postcards for visitors to take away, our cartoon and comic book, updated website, video of ‘scientists at work’, and the list goes on!

Summer of Science is free to attend. More information about the exhibition can be found here.