by Peter Gawne
It’s Monday morning, 8:30am, 2nd July. I’m at the Royal Society in London, surrounded by books – some over 100 years old – dressed in a bright banana yellow shirt with shorts and tennis shoes. Behind me, attached to a large backdrop, are a pair of similarly yellow headphones which will play a rap song when a similarly-still-yellow button beside it is pressed. I’m at the Royal Society, where some of the greatest scientists in the world are members, and occasionally pop by for tea. Suddenly, Professor Brian Cox, OBE FRS, celebrity physicist, science presenter and author, walks in.
The story of how I got to be in that situation starts roughly six months earlier.
I’m in a meeting in my research department, I’ve volunteered to take part in the organisation of a public engagement stand all about radioactivity: Hot Stuff. ‘Hot’ meaning radioactive. I chuckle at the pun. This will be a week-long event at the Royal Society where thousands of people will visit. We’ve been tasked to put together various activities to explain to members of public about the research we do with radioactivity. My part is all about how radiation is everywhere and not as scary as it first seems. The other aspects cover how we use radioactivity to detect, and to then treat, disease.
So over the coming months we all develop what becomes a really fun, interactive stand. I’ve put together a time trial in which participants rank everyday items (e.g. smoke alarm, bananas, Lo-Salt and brazil nuts) in order of how radioactive they think they are.
Other activities include finding a radioactive organ on an apron you can wear using a radiation detector, and an interactive game to teach people about the various ways we treat cancer with radiation. We test them on patients, parents, school children and colleagues and get lovely feedback and improvements to make. We design bright yellow shirts, with bananas and the words ‘hot stuff’ on them. The irony of wearing these shirts is not lost on me.
Back to that Monday morning.
Brian Cox is talking to another stand created by a charter school who won a competition. Their stand is all about ponds and the organisms that grow within them. They have a water tank containing various cool creatures – including a newt and an axolotl. Later in the week, the newt will escape and be found dried up and dead on the floor. It is picked up and becomes part of the exhibit.
I have fun, hilarious chats with people and then suddenly I’m talking with people who have cancer or have lost others to it. It’s humbling and interesting all at once.
The week at our stand begins. The response is overwhelming and heart-warming. Everyone seems to love what we’ve done. I have fun, hilarious chats with people and then suddenly I’m talking with people who have cancer or have lost others to it. It’s humbling and interesting all at once. One day I spend an hour chatting to a young kid. We’re both just sitting on the floor. I’m wearing one of the radioactive organ aprons, my small intestine is hanging off. Another day I discuss cancer treatments with someone who has just finished their therapy. She looks at the interactive radiotherapy game we just played together and tells me she now wonders whether she was given the right treatment or not. The whole week is made up of experiences like this. Some short, some long. Some forgettable, some quite the opposite, and the whole time I’m at the Royal Society in a bright yellow T-shirt that says ‘Hot Stuff’.
I’m shattered, but the good sort of tired. Euphoric pride. What a week.
It’s 8:45am on Monday morning. I never get to meet Brian Cox. He and his film crew have the footage they need of him with the school children and leave. But by the end of the week, I’ve forgotten he was ever even there. I’m shattered, but the good sort of tired you get after exercise. Euphoric pride. What a week.
About the author
Peter Gawne is a final year PhD student at King’s College London.
He spends his days in the lab investigating ways of using radioactivity to track cells and liposomal drugs in the body. Outside the lab, his time is spent telling friends/family about science and watching too much Netflix.
About this article
This is one of our shortlisted entries for The Cancer Researcher-EACR Science Communication Prize. Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult and we’re delighted to be able to share our amazing shortlist here.