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Dr Sarah Watkinson (Department of Plant Sciences) took her passion for poetry to the Curiosity Carnival as a fun and creative way of engaging the public with science. Here she tells us how it went.

Scipo

Sarah WatkinsonWhat is your research area?

Until 2009 I was a lecturer and researcher in fungi in the Department of Plant Sciences. We were particularly interested in studying the resource-supply networks that fungi make underground, at microscopic scale, and why they are so important to ecosystems (the ‘wood-wide web’, as Nature called it). One of the things we have done is to demonstrate that fungi actively move nutrients along these networks in response to the appearance of a new piece of wood, for example. It shows what a lot goes on at the very small scale that we simply don’t know about.

Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?

When I retired in 2009 I did the Continuing Education Diploma in Creative Writing. With the help of Jenny Lewis I discovered that I could write poetry, so I’ve pursued it vigorously ever since. I think so many people in science find, as I did, that they had to choose between arts and sciences at A-level, but they’ve always felt sad to wave goodbye to the language side of things. What you need to know is the craft of writing poems, and how to begin – and then you’ve got lots and lots to say if you’re a scientist.

As soon as I saw Curiosity Carnival advertised, I thought I couldn’t NOT offer my participation as a poet. I was particularly happy to be based in the Botanic Garden, where as a plant scientist I feel very much at home; for a long time I’ve wanted to do poetry there.

This was the first time I have done anything like this. It was a new departure for me. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to put myself forward as a ‘public engagement poet’ before I’d published a book of poetry [‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight’], but this gives me a certain credibility.

What was the activity that you organised?

With the help of Francesca Richards, we invented an activity called ‘Takeaway Poetry’. People came along with something that had fascinated them at the Curiosity Carnival or elsewhere, and I wrote a poem with them about it. It was a bit daring, but it was very successful.

What I didn’t expect was that it was going to be such a family event. The kids came up with marvellous ideas for poems, but quite challenging! There was a girl who’d seen a stall about eating insects; I had to perfect that one and email it to her, but her mother told me she’d put it up on her bedroom wall and was so appreciative. Another family had a lot of ferrets at home – in fact the mother had so many that it was like wearing them. I did have a notebook for email addresses so I could say to people ‘I’ll have a crack at this later and send it to you.’ Because sometimes inspiration just doesn’t strike, especially when the family is standing behind the child!

 

Eating Insects

For Rosie

 

For breakfast, mealworms on a plate,

eat up quick, or you’ll be late.

 

Apples for Amy’s lunch,

strawberries for Sue,

ham for Sam

grasshoppers for you.

 

For tea, the treat I like the most is

piles of crisp delicious locusts

 

What did you learn from the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?

I think Curiosity Carnival was really mind-expanding for everybody, and a lot of fun. I enjoyed it hugely. It was very well attended; I got the impression it was filling a gap for people who’d been wondering what goes on behind the walls of the University. It also gave me a lot of material and started me writing some children’s poetry about science, which I’m going on with.

I think I would have more people next time – ideally you would have three or four. I found it pretty exhausting to be the one person there writing poems to order. I was very relieved when a friend came along and did some too

Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?

It’s a lot of fun; it can help you sharpen up your ideas; it can be personally very stimulating for you, as well as feeling that you’re doing something for the University. 

At an event like this you can allow yourself to be much more personal that you’re normally allowed to be. I think that’s the thing that wins people over – showing that science is exciting and moving, not dry and dusty. When I was teaching undergraduates they always used to say that one of their favourite things was seeing a real live argument develop between two lecturers!

If you feel you have permission to be personal, then the audience will give you back a hundred fold what you’ve given, and you’ll feel empowered and encouraged by that validation. You’ll feel part of society, and that what you’re doing is exciting.

Do you have plans for any future public engagement activities?

Together with Jenny Lewis and the Poet’s House I run a yearly science poetry event called SciPo. I’m hoping to apply for some money to expand this in the direction of schools, to engage with keen children; to date it’s been focussed on adults through Continuing Education. This year we are also running a poetry competition with prizes and categories for adults and under-18s.

At SciPo we explore the common ground between science and poetry. There is an enormous meeting place between them, and it’s to do with wonder, and precision, and excitement, and curiosity. When you think about it, those are the things that scientists need to be able to engage with people. In fact when you do a grant application, it’s not a waste of time to refine your ideas into a poem, because it makes you think about why you are inspired to do this research, and also sometimes why it’s such a frightful strain. Poetry is about emotion; it allows you to think about your work in the first person (‘I did this’, and ‘I felt this’), not in the formal way you have to organise it for an academic paper. That’s the engaging bit – it’s what people like to hear about.

 

This case study was written by Sarah Loving.