By Samuel Vennin

Last week-end, many students from the CDT and staff from the division animated a stall at the Imperial Festival to present some of our work in medical imaging. The Festival is an annual event aiming to showcasing research and engage a large audience with science. From Energy and Environment to Robots, there was a wide spectrum of fields represented, each with funny animations and thought-provoking experiences to interact with the audience. I have attended the Festival as a spectator ever since I have been in London so it was great fun living it from the other side, and being the one trying to convey basic ideas about the science we carry in the CDT while making it entertaining and lively.

Our stall was located in the Health and Body Zone and we presented our research next to teams talking about detection of particles in the air that we breathe or measurement of the strength of the arm. We based our interactions on many easy experiments and materials covering the main imaging modalities (MRI, Ultrasound, PET) so that people can better understand how we obtain pictures of the bodies or why we use contrast agents.

For example, we explained the difference in the quality of images obtained with a MRI and a PET scanner and in which situations one would be favoured over the other. This served as an introduction to contrast agents whose design and conception was also explained by a video "starring" one of the CDT supervisors, Dr Phil Miller, which you can see below. 

A little game helped to explain the use of those contrast agents. Four vials were filled with an invisible liquid and in one was added a colorant that would only turn blue when illuminated by a specific light. Using a UV-flashlight, people had to identify the vial containing this colorant.Another station involved spectators guessing which body part of a foetus on an echo scan was highlighted. We could then introduce the iFind project and the concept of atlases common to other imaging techniques.

Finally we carried out a survey for our own knowledge, and as a conversation starter. We wanted to know whether people would agree that their anonymised scans be shared with private companies for research purposes. People had to place a ping-pong ball in a “Yes” or “No” box. At the end of the day, the Yes box was more than full (some people had started to use tally marks to make their vote count) with 120 balls while the No one only contained 5 balls. This seems to indicate that people have no problem helping science at the condition that their identity remain unknown, regardless of if the research is public or privately funded. Obviously though, the audience attending Imperial Festival might bemuch more biased than the general population. 

I was surprised overall of how quickly people could pick up complex ideas like the concept of contrast agents and the differences between an MRI and a PET scan. Kids were very insightful and we couldn’t get away with just saying “we put the body in the scanner and we obtain those beautiful pictures”. We had to explain the signals that we get from the scanner and where they come from. As a kid told me, “it is actually much more complicated than taking a picture with my camera”. Adults could relate more to the experience of being in a scanner and were mostly keen to know more about the operating details like why is an MRI scanner so noisy or why is there no one else in the scanning room other than the patient during a scan. Both the kids and adults, really liked the game on the body parts of foetuses as they found it enjoyable and playful. Some children were happy that they don’t look like a 20-week old foetus anymore.

The whole event lasted 6 hours each day and we were all both sore and voiceless at the end of it. Having to force your voice in a hall filled with hundreds of people was quite exhausting but it was worth it as visitors seemed really interested. Maybe we sparked vocations in some children? It was also interesting because we couldn’t have a prepared speech since we always had quickly questions that forced us to go off-script. It kept us on our toes the whole time but was also mentally demanding. Finally, I loved the fact that, for once, I felt knowledgeable and was able to answer the questions asked. We are training to become experts in our field and unknown is a part of our daily life. Transmitting a knowledge, rather than acquiring it or creating it, is a different game as maybe the phenomenon we describe are basic and simple, but we don’t have the help of the jargon words we would normally use. We had to think about our research in a different way. I love those opportunities to convey research in basic and simple terms to a diverse audience and it was great fun to engage with all those people. I would love to do it again.


*Staff from the CDT included: Matt Allinson, Josephine Bourner, Christopher Bowles, Cen Chen, Marta Dazzi, Rhiannon Evans, Jorge Mariscal Harana, Sophie Morse, Rob Robinson and Samuel Vennin,