Following months of preparation and on the warmest day of the year so far – even hotter than in Hawaii – students and alumni from the CDT teamed up to present a stall at the Great Exhibition Road Festival on 29th and 30th June. Led by Sam Vennin, with the help of the CDT ‘s public engagement officer Bella Spencer, the stall was called “Peeking Inside the Human Body” and aimed to showcase the research of several of our PhD students and to demonstrate the concept that modern medical imaging offers many more possibilities than just imaging the body. The exhibits focused on how virtual reality, 3D printing and theranostics are benefiting from smart medical imaging. Over the course of the Festival, the team interacted with over 700 members of the public.

Here, the students who designed the 3 activities presented discuss their experience:

Elsa-Marie Otoo, 2nd year PhD student

Can you tell us about the activity you designed?

For the activity, participants were immersed in a virtual environment (VR) built from various medical images (most of them obtained by a CT scanner). Two types of tasks were available depending of the understanding of human anatomy of the participants:

  • For people already used to medical images, they had to manipulate a CT scan using intractable menus to find the right orientation and contrast to allow an easy diagnosis
  • For others, they had to find a ball hidden in a giant heart model, grab it and tell what picture was displayed on the ball

A final task allowed the participants to draw in 3D around a heart model to showcase how VR allows for surgery planning and medical image analysis.

What made you want to participate to the Festival and to STEM outreach activities in general?

I wanted to showcase some of my work to the public and highlight how technology is used in medicine. I also wanted to break stereotypes of what engineers looks like.

Any fun fact to report while doing outreach? 

I had to adjust the sensors tracking the headset and controllers higher as our bodies kept blocking the way while we were guiding people in the activity. However, because there were many people waiting to do the activity, I didn’t have time to recalibrate the VR room and change the sensor position. Sometimes, kids were too small for the sensor to catch the signal from the controllers and we had to lift them up (with their parents’ consent of course!).

Can you tell us about the activity you designed?

For the activity, participants were immersed in a virtual environment (VR) built from various medical images (most of them obtained by a CT scanner). Two types of tasks were available depending of the understanding of human anatomy of the participants:

  • For people already used to medical images, they had to manipulate a CT scan using intractable menus to find the right orientation and contrast to allow an easy diagnosis
  • For others, they had to find a ball hidden in a giant heart model, grab it and tell what picture was displayed on the ball

A final task allowed the participants to draw in 3D around a heart model to showcase how VR allows for surgery planning and medical image analysis.

What made you want to take part in the Festival and in Public Engagement opportunities in general?

I wanted to showcase some of my work to the public and highlight how technology is used in medicine. I also wanted to break stereotypes of what engineers looks like.

What challenges did you face during the Festival?

I had to adjust the sensors tracking the headset and controllers higher as our bodies kept blocking the way while we were guiding people in the activity. However, because there were many people waiting to do the activity, I didn’t have time to recalibrate the VR room and change the sensor position. Sometimes, kids were too small for the sensor to catch the signal from the controllers and we had to lift them up (with their parents’ consent of course!).

Shu Wang, 1st year PhD student

Can you tell us about the activity you designed?

The participant had to use an anatomical map, which showed the function of the areas of the brain, to link the actions on the card with the brain area which would be associated with the action. After they had guessed the brain area, they would return the card to see if they had guessed correctly and if its colour matched that of the map. 

What made you want to take part in the Festival and in Public Engagement opportunities in general?

I wanted to get some research Public Engagement experience, and see how the general audience would react to the research I am doing now.

What was your favourite moment of the Festival?

We ended the activity asking participants to write on a post-it note what they would do with a 3D-printed version of their own brains and some answers were really funny. For example, one kid wanted to put it the pot while his parents were cooking so that he could eat it and hopefully be twice as intelligent as he is.

Jonathan Jackson, 1st year PhD student

Can you tell us about the activity you designed?

We wanted to give attendees a better understanding of how and why we use radioactivity in hospitals. Although it is harmful to the body, radioactivity is also very helpful to diagnose and treat diseases. To do this, Aish and I set up an interactive demonstration of how PET scanners and molecular imaging work.

There are two aspects to clinical molecular imaging: first we administer a dose of radio-labelled molecules (called a radiotracer) designed to target specific receptors within the body and accumulate there; then we visualise those molecules using a PET scanner, which detects the signature high-energy light given off by the radiotracer via radioactive decay.

We demonstrated the way radiotracers work using a pinball style game, in which popping a spring-loaded launcher sent several tiny steel balls around a series of rubber pipes designed to represent the circulatory system. Magnets hidden underneath the pipes caused the balls to accumulate in those “unhealthy” areas in the same way targeting molecules bind to their intended receptors in the body.

To explain the need for the PET scanner, the setup was covered with one-way reflective glass that prevented the inside from being seen under normal conditions. In order to see the interior of the body and where the balls had clumped together, the patient was “scanned” by switching on a set of LED lights in the interior of the box. This switched the direction of the one-way glass, allowing people to peer inside their patient.

What made you want to take part in the Festival and in Public Engagement opportunities in general?

There is always a need for researchers (and any expert for that matter) to explain their work to the general public, in order to promote the advantages of furthering the progress of science and technology. Anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers are examples of groups of people who we’ve failed to adequately inform about the basis of scientific method and academic rigour behind every claim made by scientists. My own research is strongly focused on machine learning, so I am very aware of the potential for my work to be perceived as untrustworthy. For that reason, I really enjoy talking about the research going on in the department and seeing people appreciate the potential impact of human innovation in a new, more positive light.

What was your highlight of the Festival?

Watching kids’ faces light up when the “scanner” was turned on and they could see inside their patient’s body for the first time was definitely the highlight for me.

Aishwarya Misha, 1st year PhD student

Can you tell us about the activity you designed?

The whole setup, housed inside a big wooden and perspex glass, showed vasculature in the form of tubes and radiolabeled nanomedicines as metal balls. We used LED lights inside the exhibit to create a scanner like environment for the audience.

What made you want to take part in the Festival and in Public Engagement opportunities in general?

I participated in the festival for two main reasons:

  • I had heard about the amazing and fulfilling experiences of students in CDT who had been involved in Imperial Festival in the past, either as organizers, volunteers or visitors, and I wanted to experience it myself.
  • My own love for STEM public engagement, which enables good and healthy conversations between the general public and science community about everyday science, busting myths and getting kids excited about STEM topics.

What did you particularly enjoy about the Festival?

The engagement with kids, a.k.a future scientists, and also some very smart people made this hot weekend very enjoyable. Hearing parents telling their kids after the activities that they could be like us one day was a great feeling.