15 minutes to open the minds of kids, cooks and colleagues

January 28, 2005

Susan Smith, a cook, turned up after hearing Dundee Discovery Day advertised on local radio. "It's my day off, and I'm interested to hear whether these people can deliver in terms that we, the public, can understand. It's all very well talking to people who are technically knowledgeable."

In a radical shift from normal academic practice, new professors at Dundee University are being asked to give a 15-minute talk on their specialism before an audience that includes the public and schoolchildren as well as staff and students.

Over two Discovery Days last week, 18 professors gave presentations on topics ranging from the secularisation of Europe and the management of estuaries to the increase in the incidence of diabetes and the 18th-century gambling craze.

The talks attracted audiences of several hundred each day. Dundee styles itself "City of Discovery", taking the name from Scott of the Antarctic's ship, which was built in Dundee and which is berthed there.

The university uses the Discovery tag to build awareness of research and innovation in higher education. Dundee's principal, Sir Alan Langlands, took the idea of the professorial presentations from the Royal Society's induction of new fellows. "Trying to get very complex messages across in 15 minutes is a huge challenge, and to do it in front of a broad-based audience and colleagues from other disciplines is an important test," he said. "We are focusing on their research, but they are all teachers as well, and to be able to communicate effectively should be part of their arsenal."

Andree Ryan, a complementary therapist, approved of the mini presentations.

"You get a little chunk of something that's interesting, but in a long lecture, you'd get lost with too much information. This is good. I haven't found anybody who's out of reach."

Ms Smith had been alarmed to find that the first presentation was by George Macfarlane, a professor of bacteriology, on gut bacteria in health and disease. "I thought I knew nothing about gut bacteria, but he was talking about probiotics, which I have heard of from yoghurt TV ads. It brought it all to life. It's encouraged me to look at more academic things."

As well as communicating the university's cutting-edge research to the public, there is also the prospect of the Discovery Days boosting interdisciplinary work.

Peter Stonebridge, professor of vascular surgery, lectured on blood-flow patterns, and he was followed by Simon Unwin, professor of architecture.

Sir Alan said: "The questions from the architectural community began to focus on what they could learn from blood flow in terms of designing air-conditioning systems."

Sir James Black, Dundee's chancellor and a Nobel laureate, added: "I don't think (Sir Alan) realised what a catalytic effect he's had. It's been electrifying."

Dundee's efforts to bring together minds from what are normally distant fields do not stop at Discovery Day. Watching the public cross-fertilisation campaign was David Mach, a contemporary artist and sculptor, who has been appointed visiting professor of inspiration and discovery.

His role is to encourage artists and scientists to find out more about each other's work in the hope of fostering the creation of new works of art on aspects of science.

"This is promoting the notion that we could do more to encourage the public understanding of science," Sir Alan said. "One way of doing that is to show people things in an easily accessible way. Why not think both from a scientific and an aesthetic point of view?"

Mr Mach told The Times Higher: "I'm trying not to explode in a severe bout of overstimulation because there are so many interesting things going on here. This really is a kind of Dundonian Enlightenment."

He is working with staff in internationally renowned life sciences and medical units and with the university's top-ranking art school, and at the same time he plans to create a sculpture for the campus.

"I don't know exactly what I'm going to do yet, but I've got lots of ideas.

There's a 'campus green' (a proposed open gathering space) that I've got my beady eye on. I'll see if I can't make it really worthwhile hanging about," he said.

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