In early September the annual BioMedEng19 conference took place at Imperial College London. Branded as the largest gathering of Bioengineers, Biomedical and Medical Engineers in the UK, the conference offered the opportunity to catch up on the latest trends and advances in the research landscape. In recent years the importance of engaging non-academic audiences with research, in order to increase its’ impact and reach, has been championed by funding bodies- many of whom now ask for evidence of public engagement in grant applications. In light of this, the CDT’s public engagement officer, Bella Spencer, joined forces with Sam Vennin, a public engagement ambassador and alumni of the CDT, to organise a workshop exploring how public engagement can be utilized to maximise research impact.

The workshop was chaired by Sam Vennin and featured members of the research community, at different stages of their career, who are experienced in public engagement. Jonathan Jackson, a second year CDT PhD student, has developed several engagement events including coding workshops for the Girl Guides and a panel discussion exploring the future of AI in healthcare, which was hosted at the Barbican. Christos Bergeles, a senior lecturer at King’s Surgical & Interventional Engineering Department, has worked closely with patient and support groups to gather their feedback in order to inform the development of the surgical robots. Lucy Foss, Research Programme Manager at Imperial’s Centre for Blast Injury Studies, has varied experience helping researchers increase their research impact- previously at Wellcome Trust as a member of their grant team, and now in her current role where she also acts as an engagement champion for the Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London.

The panel (from left to right): Christos Bergeles, Lucy Foss, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Vennin
The panel (from left to right): Christos Bergeles, Lucy Foss, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Vennin

To begin the discussion, the audience took part in a digital poll and 100% of voters agreed that public engagement could help increase research impact. Panelists built on this support to talk in depth about their original motivation for becoming involved in public engagement and how their research benefited from it. All speakers emphasized the importance of institutional culture in nurturing such activities by providing means and opportunities. They also shared examples of poor public engagement practice and tips for designing activities.

The audience were then presented with a fictitious case study of a request for a workshop on ultrasound-mediated drug delivery using micro-bubbles to 6 year-old children. They had to use what they had learnt from the speakers to brainstorm ideas; they identified the challenges of explaining the concepts of ultrasound and loading drugs inside small bubbles to such young children and tried to come up with solutions.

Word Cloud depicting the results of a live poll describing Public Engagement in one word. Enriching, Exciting and Fun came up as the most prominent answers. Others included resourceful, sharing, unpredictable, challenge, delightful, helpful, creativity, nature, motivating, invigorating, refreshing and adventure.

Finally, the session ended on a Q+A session between the audience and the panelists, before everyone was asked to describe public engagement in one word to generate a word cloud. “Fun” and “exciting” were the most frequent answers, followed by “enriching”. We hope that such opportunities to discuss and exchange best public engagement practice benefited the audience and will continue to flourish in the future.

Sam Vennin
Panel chair and CDT alumni, Sam Vennin

Straight from the horse’s mouth; Sam Vennin chaired the workshop and reports on his experience.

How was the experience of chairing a panel discussion?
It was a great experience, both organizing and chairing it! We put a lot of thoughts in the design of the session, selection of the panelists and interactions with the audience. Overall, the hardest part was sticking to time during the discussion while not disturbing the flow of the debate and covering all the points we had identified beforehand. I was also stressed about the case study part as it required the audience to be involved and engaging while this is sometimes not the case at conferences. Luckily for us, people had great ideas and were not shy to share them.

Did you learn anything?
Lots. For example, I learnt that you could host a conference on Twitter such as the one Lucy helped organize. I also loved how Christos and Jonny are collaborating with artists to provide the world with a different angle of their research. This is all very inspiring and I think really goes to show that PE is as multi-faceted as the bioengineering field itself. This is what makes it both so interesting and exciting to be involved in.

A cartoon produced by artist Ben Connors, illustrating different levels of machine autonomy in surgery (Level 1: human carries out the operation and robot retains control to ensure safety; Level 2: robot carries out the operation and human retains control to ensure safety; Level 3: full autonomy).
A cartoon produced by artist Ben Connors during a PPI workshop led by Christos Bergeles.

Would you do anything differently next time?
The caveat we tried to avoid was to not simply tell PE experiences but instead provide ideas and examples of how they can actually benefit the researchers themselves. I think we overall managed that but it would probably have helped to have someone who sits in a PE grant committee of a funding body to provide directions and examples.

If you are a CDT student interested in public engagement, please contact