Engaging us with science: Q&A with Erinma Ochu
I met Dr Erinma Ochu – public engagement specialist, writer and creative producer – to find out more about her new position as one of two new Engagement Fellows at the Wellcome Trust, the other being Professor Roger Kneebone. Erinma told me what she’d like to achieve and the progress of her current project, Turing’s Sunflowers, which investigates number patterns called Fibonacci sequences in the spiral patterns of sunflower seeds.
Why is it important for the public to engage with science?
Science is something you can be inspired by. It can get your mind thinking about interesting things. I think people should have a literacy around the processes by which science is done. In the same way that people might have in making art, like painting a picture, everyone should be aware of the processes involved in carrying out science. And what better way than to have a go.
What’s happened with your current project, Turing’s sunflowers, so far?
We’ve had lots of data in from all around the world, but the hotspot was in the northwest. That was great because part of our aim was to concentrate the project around Manchester. Now we’ve got enough data to confirm that, at least in the preliminary results, you do get Fibonacci number patterns in sunflowers. What’s even more interesting is that sometimes you don’t get Fibonacci numbers, but you still get the spiral patterns. That’s something we need to look into in the future.
How far has the project spread?
There have been some amazing examples of who we managed to reach with the project. I got a tweet from Palestine, with a picture of a guy growing his two Turing sunflowers. I was so shocked: someone in Palestine was growing sunflowers! At that point I said, “We need to make a map of everywhere people are growing sunflowers.” We saw them growing in South Africa, America, Canada, Brazil, all over. So that was pretty exciting.
How did you get into public engagement?
I originally did a degree in neuroscience at the University of Manchester. I then went to work in industry for about a year, but came back to do a PhD in neuroscience. I’ve always been a bit distracted. I’ve been involved in screen writing, short films, documentaries, a little bit of TV. I just work on what I find interesting, and I’m a bit geeky. I’ve always been interested in science.
Now you have the Wellcome Trust Public Engagement grant, what will you do with it?
At first I’d like to look at failures I’ve had in the past. Hopefully they can turn into learning points, so I can see what skills I need to develop, what partnerships I need to improve and possibly see how other people have solved similar problems. I really want to continue working in the spirit of a citizen science project, but I’m not sure how it will work yet.
What is citizen science?
Simply, the public does the science. What I’ve learnt is that people like to take part at different stages, and that’s OK. Some people might want to be involved with setting the research question, and others are more interested in collecting the data. Some might just want to come and see what you’re doing, and others might want to come up with ideas that are not related to what you’re trying to do. But it all involves the public doing the science.
How have you got people involved in Turing’s sunflowers?
Do you have any specific aims that you’d like to achieve with your Fellowship?
In everything I do, I always want to make a difference, and think about what the added value is of what I’m doing. Something I’d like to improve is carrying out citizen science projects with biomedical research. It’s quite easy to do citizen science with maths, because to some extent you’re doing it in your head. But what aspects of citizen science lend themselves to the biomedical sciences? I want to look at the whole process from setting the research question, right through to analysing the data, to see what could work.
What improvements do we need to make to how we engage the public already?
I think we need to be a bit more relaxed and informal about our approach to science. What science lacks is that playfulness that you might have in the art world. If you look at Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin, there’s playfulness in what they’re doing, and I think there needs to be a bit more of that in scientific engagement. When people laugh at something, it’s often the first step into a conversation.
What needs to change in science communication?
Image credit: Wellcome Images
We have also published a Q&A with Professor Roger Kneebone, the other new Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, plus you can listen to the first two Engagement Fellows – Richard Barnett and Kevin Fong – talking about their experiences earlier this year.