What’s this science communication and public engagement stuff all about?

By Helen Obee Reardon

Helen is a guest writer for The Brain Domain, and is the Impact Specialist in the Business Interface team at Cardiff School of Engineering. She has an MSc Communicating Science and fifteen years’ experience in engagement and science communication.

Science communication and public engagement are terms often used by organisations involved in research, particularly those who spend public money. It’s a requirement of many funding bodies and both are important to universities thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) . But what are they all about?

For me, as for most things to do with engagement, the answer is “It depends…” – the explanation changes depending on the background of the person or organisation providing it and the context of the activity but it’s all based on the same thing. Here I discuss some of the questions I’m regularly asked.

Is STEM communication and science communication the same thing?

It depends (see?). Science communication and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) communication can be considered the same with “science” used as an umbrella term for the STEM subjects. This must irk technologists, engineers and mathematicians somewhat but it is the current common usage: it’s not unusual for those outside the sector not to know what STEM means. However, organisations such as the British Interactive Group (BIG) refers to STEM communicators; this reflects the broad base of their membership and our sector is familiar with the term. From now on I’ll refer only to science communication to avoid headaches.

So what’s the difference between engagement and public engagement?

It depends (just kidding). Nothing at all: you’ve just specifically defined the audience. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) definition is useful:

Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.

The key points here are:

  • the two way exchange – without it it’s not engagement, it’s probably outreach
  • mutual benefit – each party should get something from it. To realise these benefits the needs of the audience must be considered and met before meeting those delivering engagement: if the audience isn’t considered from the start it’s unlikely to go well

Audience? Eh?

Not necessarily to do with a show, it just means the group of people you’ve identified to work with. They could have an interest in your specialism or be an identified group you want to work with such as a school, community or organisation. It can be as broad as “the public” or as specific as a named community group.

Outreach? Eh?

This is an interesting term as it means different things to different people. In my experience it’s often a default setting: let’s go and impart our knowledge to a group who will be grateful to receive it. To put it politely this is patronising and unpleasant, reinforcing a negative stereotype of science (see NCCPE’s definition above). It’s also an application of the deficit model which is generally acknowledged as not the way things are done nowadays. There is a place for this form of outreach but only as long as it’s honestly the best way to deliver this project for this audience.

So is science communication the same as public engagement?

It depends (no, really it does). To me the core skills, tools and techniques are the same but the application can change; a science communication project might have public engagement as an element and vice versa. Science communication is the thing you do, the public is who you do it with (note: not to).

1 PE vs Sci comm
Depending on the project public engagement and science communication can be the technique or the overarching aim. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

What does good science communication and public engagement look like?

It depends (I did warn you). That’s a tough one. “Good” is different to different audiences, projects and practitioners so it’s hard to point at one thing. Below is my model of thinking about both which may help; my model evolves and changes over time depending on who I’m working for, the audiences I’m working with and the aim of the project.

2 PE model
An engagement or science communication model. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

I also recommend looking at Participation Cymru’s National Principles for Public Engagement. By following these you should produce a good piece of engagement.

3 National-Principles-for-Public-Engagement-in-Wales-English

What is the public?

Interesting question, NCCPE have discussed this and whether it should be “public” or “publics”; while technically you may be working with publics the more common usage is “public”.

When should I engage?

It depends (there I go again) on the desired outcome: do you want to inform research, find research subjects or partners, or disseminate your findings?

4 When to engage
The points in a project when engagement can be useful. Orange arrows show inputs and outputs. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

Why should I do engagement/science communication? What are the benefits?

It depends (seriously). There are various reasons and benefits, these are a few of them:

  • To inform your project
  • To gather data (make sure you sort the ethics out)
  • To disseminate your findings
  • To get a fresh perspective on your work
  • Because you want to
  • Because someone said you have to (it happens)
  • Because it’s in the funding application (it also happens)

Do I have to do it? What if I’m no good?

In an ideal world you wouldn’t. But let’s face it this world is far from ideal: sometimes we have no choice if it’s been written into a funding application or we’re instructed by someone higher up. Look for support to help you, the steps above can help you plan and deliver something that should be successful. Please don’t let the audience know you don’t want to be there, it never ends well for you or for them.

The trick is finding out what type of engagement you’re good at and start there. I’m rather good running projects that involve face-to-face engagement so that’s mainly what I do: this whole written word thing doesn’t come naturally but I’ve decided to learn through writing this blog.

This is a field where you learn by doing; pick up the basics first and then there’s no substitute for getting out there, doing, reflecting, refining and doing it again. And again, and again…


Never fear: your organisation is likely to have support available, it’s just a matter of finding it. Please ask, all of us involved in science communication and public engagement have asked for help at some point and this is a highly collaborative field. To help you out I’ve written a blog about sources of support. If you have any questions pop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.

Good luck and I hope to see you out there sometime.

This article was originally posted on Helen’s personal blog.

Edited by Jonathan

Lecture Summary: Dopamine Neuron Regulation & Its Implications for Schizophrenia

Speaker: Professor Anthony Grace, University of Pittsburg

Date/Time: 13 October 2016, 4-6pm
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University
Lecture Summary: Dopamine Neuron Regulation & its Implications for the Treatment and Prevention of Schizophrenia
     Most drug treatments for schizophrenia target the dopaminergic system, but many gene variants linked to schizophrenia (and subsequently targeted for research) are relevant to NMDA receptors (NMDARs) in the hippocampus. In his lecture at Cardiff University’s Hadyn Ellis Building, Professor Anthony Grace sketched out an important pathway linking the NMDARs of the hippocampus and the dopaminergic system which may shed light on pharmaceutical trials of new schizophrenia drugs.
     The hippocampus is important for creating context for environmental stimuli. When incoming stimuli is deemed irrelevant due to context, the hippocampus normally stimulates the release of GABA to suppress the responsive dopamine neurons. Hippocampal moderation of this system may be impacted by genetic variants of NMDARs. If the hippocampus fails to properly suppress the dopaminergic system because of this, dopaminergic responses cannot distinguish between salient and irrelevant environmental stimuli, leading to hyperawareness. A patient might start to confabulate reasons for this state, leading to the delusions characteristic of schizophrenia. No context is irrelevant, so the patient may feel constantly alert and threatened.
     Current antipsychotic drugs target the dopamine system rather than the hippocampal NMDAR response upstream in this pathway. These dopamine targeted antipsychotics may interfere with new pharmacological tests targeting NMDARs. While typical clinical trials of new drugs take patients off of their current medication for seven days before test administration, Professor Grace anticipates this is not enough time to reset the patient’s dopamine system. When his lab introduced this pattern of medication and testing to their MAM model of schizophrenia* (a neurotoxin administered prenatally) , it interfered with the successful treatment effects they had previously observed using their NMDAR targeted drugs on naive schizophrenia animal models. These results suggested some failed clinical trials using drugs targeting NMDARs may warrant further investigation.
*the accuracy of any rodent model of schizophrenia is debatable, but useful for the purpose of this talk.
Relevant literature:
Du, Y., & Grace, A. A. (2016). Loss of parvalbumin in the hippocampus of MAM schizophrenia model rats is attenuated by peripubertal diazepam.International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, pyw065. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27432008

Genome Browser Tutorial Level 1

Welcome to Genome Browser! This overview is meant to introduce you to a few of the basics of this tool. We’ll go through the process of looking up a gene, finding the databased information about that gene (including the sequence), and locating chromosomal elements around the gene such as CpG islands and chromatin modifications. This tutorial works well if you have a simple gene to search for alongside your reading of the tutorial.  If you’re looking for a more basic introduction to what this tool actually is and what information it contains, check out “Genome Browser Tutorial Level 0”.

If you’re using UCSC Genome Browser, this is the first page you will see when you pull it up on google. Notice there are several different tools, one of which is Genome Browser. Along the column on the side, you’ll see Genome Browser and Blat (Basic Local Alignment Tool). Genome Browser is useful for searching for a gene name or a chromatin locus (when you have the numerical position of the area you’re searching). Blat is useful when you have a sequence and would like to locate it in the genome.

genome-browser-walkthrough-1 (1)

If you click on Genome Browser on the side column, the page below will be the first to appear. The “Genome Browser” link along the top tool bar will shortcut you to a scalable view of the genome. We’ll get to that later.


While the default is set to the human genome, you can choose other species.


Be aware also that due to the nature of genome sequencing, there are different versions you can search under the “assembly” list. If you’re having trouble locating a region someone else has referenced, they may be using a different assembly than you are. Feb 2009 tends to be the default assembly.


If we know what gene we want to search, we can enter it’s name in the “search term” box.

Here, we’ll look for corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). Genome browser will suggest several search terms–choose the one that best fits you or type in exactly what you’re looking for.


Once we hit “submit”, a scalable view of the chromosome along the gene you’ve searched will appear. This is also the scalable view you will see if you click on the “Genome Browser” link at the top toolbar (this link takes you straight to this view without allowing you to specify the gene for which you are looking).


If you were to search “CRH” alone, without selecting the more specific option Genome Browser suggests, you might see this page appear. Don’t panic… Just choose whatever seems to best fit what you’re looking for. In this case, it is the first option on the list.


If we return to the scalable view, we can work on simplifying what we’re looking at.


Right clicking on elements in the center (look for the text descriptions in black and circled in red) will make the list below appear. Click on “hide” to hide single elements in a section.


Alternatively, we can work with whole sections at once. Hover over over a grey bar on the side to highlight the section you’d like to manipulate. You can drag this section to reorder or right click to configure or hide the section.


When you right click, this menu should pop up.


Click “hide track set” to make the entire section disappear. Don’t worry! You can get it back later.


We can also zoom in or out, showing more or less detail using these buttons:


If you wish to drag to reorder rather than hide, click, hold, and drag the grey bar on the left side. Here we’ll move “CpG Islands” below “H3K27ac Mark”.


Ta Da!


If you use your cursor to highlight a section of the gene, this dialogue box will appear:


This allows you to zoom in to the section you’ve highlighted or to overlay color onto the section highlighted, effectively HIGHLIGHTING it.


We can add items to the visual window by scrolling down to the various menus and selecting new information. If I wish to show the CpG islands on the gene, I would select “show”, “pack”, “dense” etc to display them. Each of these options will show a different amount of information in the space, spreading it out or condensing it. “Hide” will remove this information from the visual window.


An example of the menu under each of these blocks of information is displayed here. The “Ensembl Genes” feature shows genes annotated on the chromosome within another genome browser called “Ensembl”.


Let’s return to the visual window. If you click on the gene name to the far left (highlighted in black), a descriptive page will appear.


This page describes the gene, its function, position, sequence, protein structure, expression patterns, and other information.


Scroll down the page to find the predicted protein domains and structure. Not all genes encode proteins, and not all identified protein-encoding genes have a predicted 3-D structure, but some do. Available information may vary between different genes.


Also on the main information page for the gene, we can also see the relative gene expression levels in different tissues. Remember, this data will be specific to the species you selected when you started your gene search. Usually, the default expression setting will be Red = high expression and Green = low expression.


If you wish, you can change this color scheme to Yellow= high expression and blue = low expression.


If you wish to get the genomic and flanking sequences for your region of interest, you can go to the “Sequence and Links to Tools and Databases” section and click on “Genomic Sequence” (circled in red).


When you click on this, you will have an opportunity to specify the parts of the sequence in which you are interested.  Here, you can request the sequences outside of the gene.

These include:

“Promoter/Upstream”– sequences upstream of the gene’s transcription start site (TSS);
“5′ UTR Exons–the upstream 5′ untranslated region (UTR), i.e. not translated to protein;
“3′ UTR Exons”–the downstream 3′ regions not translated  to protein;
“Downstream by”–the sequences beyond the end of the gene’s exons.

Within the gene, selecting the “CDS Exons” will give you the coding sequence exons. If you select no other boxes, this will give you only those exons that encode protein (just like cDNA–coding DNA). Selecting “Introns” will give you the noncoding gene introns between the coding exons. Be careful–if your gene has alternative splicing, exons may be used in some versions of the transcript but not in others.

You can also use formatting options to distinguish between different gene sections. Select the boxes under “Sequence Formatting Options” to specify these settings.


Once you submit your request, the sequence will appear in this format:


Got the basics yet? If you have more questions, feel free to email us (Kira specifically) to request clarification or a walkthrough of other Genome Browser functions. Good luck!

Genome Browser Tutorial Level 0

Welcome to Genome Browser Tutorial Level 0. This is a tutorial meant to describe Genome Browser in basic, general terms, with the goal of introducing you to its central functions and available information. Hopefully this will help you decide if you will be able to use this tool to find the right information about the gene, sequence, regulatory element, or protein in which you are interested. This tutorial is best for those who have never used Genome Browser before.

Continue reading “Genome Browser Tutorial Level 0”