Engagement as a Driver for Research: Worm Wagon, Wriggling Rangoli, and Citizen Sensors

Leshner Fellow Sheena Cruickshank working with participants at a "Science Stars" event. | Credit: University of Manchester.

Sheena Cruickshank’s interest in science began with her brother’s fascination with marine life. As children in Scotland, they explored nearby tide pools and collected sea anemone and other creatures. Realizing that many people don’t have experiences that provide this window into the wonder of science and discovery, public engagement has been a way for her to share her appreciation for science.

Cruickshank, a 2017-18 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow, is a senior lecturer in immunology and academic lead for public engagement at the University of Manchester. The university was one of six “beacons for public engagement,” designated in 2008 by the U.K. funding and research councils and The Wellcome Trust. Through the Beacon program, Cruickshank was offered training and practice opportunities, which have proved very valuable, especially in finding community groups to partner with, sharing lessons between colleagues, and obtaining training in evaluation methodology.

Cruickshank’s forays into public engagement have grown and built on each other. She got her start setting up an activity to take to her children’s school, with one of her Ph.D. students. From there, Cruickshank and two colleagues created “The Worm Wagon” in 2009. The Worm Wagon resources contain a suite of activities linked to their research into infection, such as hands-on activities and videos focused on parasitic infections (a type of Neglected Tropical Disease) and on how they can trap communities in cycles of poverty. Worm Wagon resources are now used by many other people at schools, museums and festivals.

Wanting to reach members of communities actually affected by gut worms, Cruickshank later co-created the Wriggling Rangoli project. They worked with a South Asian immigrant community, finding that while most families were familiar with parasite worm infection and efforts to de-worm their children, they often didn’t know why it was done. As part of this exchange, the group drew “Rangoli” (a traditional Asian art form) designs based on their discussions about parasitic infections, which led to conversations with passersby on the streets.

This project caused Cruickshank to learn more about the concerns of this immigrant community. One of their worries was allergies, which many were experiencing upon their move to the U.K. Cruickshank says public engagement isn’t just feeding into her research, it’s becoming her research: while she still conducts basic research on parasites, she never expected to be studying allergies. Yet it connects with her expertise in immune response and how immune responses are triggered, and she is now part of a highly collaborative and multidisciplinary citizen science project called Britain Breathing. This project aims for the public to act as “citizen sensors,” to learn how the environment is impacting seasonal allergies such as hay fever and asthma.

The AAAS fellowship provided a rare opportunity: an entire week to reflect on public engagement. During that time, she began considering how to extend her reach with other scientists at her university, beyond those she mentors. This has inspired her to start writing blog posts about tips she’s picked up (her blog is called "Engagement Matters").

Cruickshank summarizes her top four overall tips for public engagement as: 

Cruickshank speaking at the Bluedot Festival in July 2017. | Credit: Bluedot
  1. Keep it relevant. Listen for what people want: they may not want what you think they do, or what you want.
  2. Seize opportunities and embrace the challenge. I never knew I’d be appearing on TV or writing pieces for the media. It terrified me. Ask for help, and don’t be scared to try new approaches.
  3. Make an impact and evaluate your work.
  4. Always start small.

As academic lead for public engagement at Manchester, Cruickshank has also been involved with developing a public engagement framework for the university, with five specific goals: to achieve high quality public engagement, create an even more supportive environment, improve coordination, diversity their audiences, and show evidence of impact. Now that the framework has been approved, the challenges will be communicating about it across all levels, and finding and empowering champions to help spearhead implementation. 

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.