Talking it over

Her work communicating science to the public has won Ceri Harrop an award - and reignited her passion for research

December 10, 2009

For Ceri Harrop, explaining science to the wider world is at least as important as doing it. The 26-year-old was inspired to pursue a career exploring respiratory diseases by her cousin, who suffers from asthma and spent her childhood in and out of hospital.

However, shortly after starting a PhD at the University of Manchester, she found herself struggling with the daily demands of research. Relief came in the form of an advertisement looking for postgraduate students to deliver public workshops at the Manchester Museum Life Lab.

The experience reignited Dr Harrop's passion for her subject: "I loved seeing the interest on students' faces as they realised that the things they learn about in the classroom are tools that scientists use to solve real problems," she explained. She also found that spending time communicating science to the public made her own research more productive and focused.

Dr Harrop, who is based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research at Manchester, said she believed that too often science is labelled as something people do not enjoy at school, rather than a tool that assists everyday interaction with the world. "I try to suggest that a computer-games designer working on a new project will approach a problem using a scientific mindset," she added.

In the lab, she is currently developing a biological model of human airways, which will help explore how asthma and other respiratory diseases can lead to changes in the ways that different types of cell tissue communicate.

However, she is continuing her public-engagement work, and recently completed a programme for the Teachers TV series, How Science Works. The programme is aimed at schoolchildren and focuses on Wayne Ashall, a young 400m sprinter who suffers from asthma.

Her work has won her a Society of Biology Science Communication Award, and she recently contributed to a multidisciplinary workshop hosted by the Wellcome Trust that brought together scientists, designers and computer programmers to develop new products that will help scientists to encourage wider interest in their work.

She believes strongly in the duty of academics to engage with the public, whose taxes pay for their work, but acknowledged that time can be a limiting factor.

"Communicating science as a practice has been slow to get off the ground because so often the activities of professional scientists are directed towards publishing research and securing grants," she said. "I don't want to feel compelled to choose between biological research and science communication."

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