Prize Lecture Q&A - Dr Tansy Hammarton

10 April 2018


Our Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from the membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Peter Wildy Prize Lecture, Rebecca Hall, from our membership, interviewed Dr Tansy Hammarton to find out what inspires her, learn more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

The 2018 Peter Wildy Prize will be awarded to Dr Tansy Hammarton from the University of Glasgow. Dr Hammarton has a long career in scientific outreach activities, working for over a decade to develop material that engages with a wide variety of audiences, ranging from teaching nursery school children about handwashing through to teaching educators about public engagement activities. Tansy has been recognised for her effort, energy and enthusiasm in public engagement, championing her research in parasitology. She is acknowledged both in her own right as a communicator who can encourage the curiosity of anyone she interacts with, and also as an enabler for others to learn how to engage the public effectively.

When did you first realise that you wanted to be a scientist?

I have been interested in the natural world since I was very little. I joined the wildlife conservation club Watch when I was around 8 years old and, when I was about 12, I did a project with ladybirds; collecting them out of hibernation, breeding them and making observations. I sent my findings into Watch and got a personal reply from the scientist who organised the project, congratulating me and answering some of my questions. It was really inspiring at that age!

I chose a natural sciences undergraduate degree that was broad and flexible, thinking I would study biochemistry, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I stumbled across pathology in my second year and discovered parasites. Two summer placements and my final year project confirmed that I definitely wanted to research how things work at the molecular level. I initially looked for a parasitology PhD but couldn’t find the right one, so I did a PhD on bacteria instead. After my PhD I found a post-doc position studying the cell cycle in trypanosomes.

What made you choose schools for your outreach activities?

When I started doing outreach as part of my RCUK fellowship in molecular parasitology, hardly anyone else in my department really did any, and I was told I could do whatever I wanted! I had always hankered a bit after being a primary school teacher and I have felt I would really enjoy working with younger pupils. Kids are so enthusiastic at that age and not afraid to get things wrong.

How did you decide what activities to run?

I did what I thought would be okay for the school children and I was lucky that it worked the first time. At that stage I wasn’t focused on the curriculum but more on what we could create that the pupils would enjoy. I created a slide show and designed activities that could be taken into the classroom as a prelude to workshops held at the University. In school, we talk about various microbial diseases and play games around bacterial multiplication, measure the length of a tapeworm, swab areas of the classroom and talk about antibiotic resistance. I designed the University workstations based on the tropical diseases that we study in our department because we had a lot of resources that could be put to use. These sessions were set up 12 years ago and have run pretty much unchanged ever since because they just work.

There has also been a big push to target the transition between primary and secondary schools because a lot of children lose their enthusiasm for science at this point. We set up a science club at two local secondary schools and did a variety of activities around parasites and bacteria and how microbiology is portrayed in the media. We encouraged the pupils to do independent research into a microbe, and they had the opportunity to interview scientists about their work on that microbe and to present a poster at a mini symposium.

Have you ever had anything go completely wrong?

Oh gosh, yes! We had a lot of IT issues, especially in the early days, and there have been a few episodes of school parties going missing on the university campus. We have had so much go wrong in the past that we can anticipate most things and our events now run more smoothly.

How much existing knowledge do the school children have about parasitology?

Primary school children have often heard of malaria, for example, but don’t always know that its caused by a parasite or the difference between a parasite and a bacterium or a virus. In secondary schools there is definitely more awareness. In Scotland, parasitology is now part of the Biology curriculum. The school children here know a surprising amount about parasites and certain schools do a lot on things like malaria during SCIAF (Scottish Catholic Internal Aid Fund) week where they fundraise for people in poorer countries.

What other outreach activities are you involved with?

I have done a session with Pint of Science; talking about parasites to a pub full of people was somewhat terrifying but really rewarding! I also now do public engagement training for PhD students and post-docs teaching them how to design and run their own events. In the last few years I have started teaching public engagement and science communication to undergraduates. It is really important for our students to be good communicators, and a happy byproduct is that there are many willing and interested undergraduate volunteers for my events! It has meant that some undergraduates now consider science communication as a possible career path.

Have you noticed a shift in the perception of scientists over time?

I don’t often work directly with the general public so it is hard to say whether or not there has been a change in how they view scientists. I like to think that we provide positive role models to the pupils we work with so that they realise that science is not out of their reach, and that people of all genders and backgrounds can become scientists. Schools are very keen to give their pupils the opportunity to interact with real scientists and, in general, I think we have always found that children, particularly the younger ones, are open to everything and just want to experience anything that looks fun and new.

Do you think all scientists have a responsibility to do outreach?

I don’t think every single scientist has to do it but I think every research group should have someone who is involved in outreach in some way. If you are funded by public money then the public have a right to find out what you are doing with it. The public cannot make informed judgements on many current issues and policies if they do not understand the science that underpins it. I think it is also good to let the public know about the science that is going on right on their doorstep. For us, it is nice to introduce local school children to what goes on at their local university and show them the sorts of opportunities that are there. It is worth remembering that outreach is not limited to talking to school children, so if that terrifies you or doesn’t interest you then there are many other approaches you can take, like writing blogs or articles online.

What advice could you give to early career researchers who want to get involved with science communication and outreach?

Be prepared for everything and anything! You will have a plan when you go in but you have got to be flexible. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement has got some great resources for anyone interested in designing their own outreach activity, as does the Microbiology Society. Individual universities have their own pubic engagement resources and you can find lots of ideas online. Logistics is another important consideration; schools, for example, are constrained by their timetable, facilities and health and safety procedures. If you are new to outreach then I would always suggest helping out at an already established event first. This will give you an idea of how things might run, how long it takes to prepare an activity and helps you to figure out what you might enjoy doing at your own session.

What are you going to be covering in your prize lecture?

I plan to talk about how I became a scientist and the way in which the things I did at a young age inspired me. I will be describing how I got into outreach, the main activities that I have been involved with and the problems I have encountered along the way. I may even mention the 7 meter long trypanosome I helped  parade around the Glasgow West End Festival! I am also going to talk about how I’ve gone full circle with the public engagement training that I run for our students. So a bit of everything!

This lecture takes place today at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference at 17:40 in Hall 1.

Inspired by our outstanding Prize winners? Nominations for 2019 Prize Lectures and the 2020 Prize Medal are now open.

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Image: University of Glasgow.