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Join Dr Liam Crowley from the Department of Biology as he shares insights into the transformative engagement experiences within the ambitious Darwin Tree of Life research project. Discover how collaboration with nature enthusiasts led to significant benefits for the research endeavour.

At a glance:

  • The Darwin Tree of Life initiative allocated funds for public engagement, facilitating dedicated time and resources.
  • Collaborating with amateur experts expanded the species samples obtained and sequenced, otherwise inaccessible.
  • Inviting students from classrooms to the woods provided an immersive learning experience, particularly beneficial for students with special educational needs.

In the heart of the Wytham Woods, entomologist Dr Liam Crowley (Department for Biology) embarked on project that would open up scientific research to a wider base of contributors. As a post-doctoral research assistant in the the Darwin Tree of Life initiative, little did he know that this venture would reveal a lesser-known network of expertise and collaboration, paving the way for enhanced research.

Setting the Stage: Public Engagement Activities

The project's public engagement activities were intricately linked to the Wellcome-funded Darwin Tree of Life initiative. This ambitious programme aims to sequence the full genome of the estimated 70,000+ species of animals, plants, fungi and protists in Britain and Ireland. A dedicated grant paved the way for the ‘Bug Blitz’ project, which aimed to bridge the gap between scientific research and the wider community.

The project made use of a range of engagement activities. Here in Oxford there were two main streams: engaging school groups and nature enthusiasts.

Having the dedicated engagement grant meant being able to recruit a dedicated person, Katie Whale, to run the schools focussed aspects of the project, whilst one of the responsibilities listed in Liam’s job description included delivering public engagement. In the words of Liam, “I love public engagement. So I've kind of run with it.” Delving into Liam's motivations revealed a genuine passion for public engagement. "I just like talking about insects," he confessed. His personal involvement in entomological societies and groups seamlessly intertwined with his research responsibilities, creating a symbiotic relationship.

Two school children using a microscope and identification guide to looks at insectsTwo school children using a microscope and identification guide to looks at insects

Engaging Schools: "Getting them out in the woods..."

Liam enthusiastically described the school engagement component, bringing the marvels of insect diversity to primary school students. "Getting school groups into Wytham Woods for bug activities was a highlight," he shared.

The approach involved inviting groups to the woods for a day of discovery, learning about and having a go at finding and identifying insects, as well as about the science behind the project. Seven events were held, reaching 195 participants. Read more about the school engagement component.

The unexpected outcomes, such as knowledge retention and the joy of students exploring advanced taxonomy, showcased the transformative power of engagement. The evaluation, which made use of surveys, demonstrated that young people had increased their knowledge of insects as well as scientific methods and skills, such as handling and identifying insects and using microscopes.

The schools engagement was developed and coordinated by a dedicated schools liaison officer, Katie Whale, which Liam impressed, “was essential because - there's no way we would have been able to do it otherwise”, adding, “don't underestimate how difficult it is logistically. It is incredibly rewarding work and it's important work as well, but it does take an extra level of organisation.”

Empowering Students with Special Educational Needs

Liam recounted a remarkable story, "There were children who struggle in school, with special educational needs. The teachers beforehand were concerned though had contingency plans, but a couple of these children were incredible, carrying on doing it all through their lunch break, and we even had some crying because they didn't want to go home." This poignant story underscored the project's impact on students who, despite facing educational challenges, found inspiration and joy in the bug activities.

The Overlooked Heroes: Amateur Expert Community Engagement

However, the true magic unfolded when engaging with amateur expert communities. The project engaged with over 60 nature enthusiasts who were members of local and national nature groups and societies. Liam emphasised, "It's a neglected community... they've got a lot of experience, and they always seem to get forgotten." The collaboration with these unsung heroes of entomology not only enriched the research with specimens but opened a door to a wealth of knowledge and a unique form of reciprocal engagement.

Benefits for Research: A Cascade of Contributions

Members of the Dipterists Forum at Wytham WoodsMembers of the Dipterists Forum at Wytham Woods

Highlighting the value of engaging with expert amateurs, Liam elaborated, "We collected a whole load of species... some really quite special species." The collaboration with amateur experts went beyond expectations, creating a cascade effect. "We were blown away by how some of the people we worked with started spreading the word about the project and bringing in others. Some work on this particular group of species. They know everything there is to know about this species, but their mate works on a slightly different one, and they're like, 'we should get these sequenced too.' They're not going to do anything with these sequences once they're produced, but they are happy that work is being done on their pet group," Liam explained. The engagement not only brought in valuable specimens but also fostered a sense of ownership and pride among the amateur experts, creating a rich tapestry of collaboration.

Aside from having a helping hand, “really knowledgeable hands,” Liam was keen to emphasise, he shared, “the way I view it is that this work was actually helping me to do my job. Getting all these specimens and species, some of which I've never even seen before.” In one particularly exciting example “Children on a Wytham trip discovered Tetropium fuscum, a very scarce beetle (5 English records) which was collected and sent for sequencing. We are writing a scientific article about the record with the child/class as co-authors.”


Five people taking a close look at what they’ve caught in their bug netsFive people taking a close look at what they’ve caught in their bug nets

“It Worked, We Should Do More”

Whilst making up a small proportion of the numbers reached through the project’s public engagement overall, the collaboration with amateur experts went beyond expectations, creating a cascade effect. The sharing of specimens and knowledge within their network amplified the impact. Achieving the same scientific outcomes without working with amateur experts would have cost many times more, offering an economic win for the project. The benefits, especially from expert amateur engagement, outweighed the costs. "Definitely worthwhile," Liam affirmed, emphasising the unique advantages derived from engaging with different demographics.

Whilst navigating the uncertain terrain of funding for the second phase of Darwin Tree of Life, Liam has continued building on the relationships with schools developed through the programme and additionally hopes that when it funded they’ll be able to ring-fence money for public engagement, especially working with nature enthusiasts. “It worked and we should do more of it” Liam concluded.

Next steps

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This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: the interview transcript was generated with AI. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks.