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Martin Christlieb

Martin is the Oncology Public Engagement Manager.

In this interview, Martin talks about Public Engagement, what his job involves and gives an insight into the Public Engagement Ambassador Scheme. He also reveals how life outside of work has led to some pretty epic adventures!

Your job title is 'Public Engagement Manager', so first things first...what is Public Engagement?

Public Engagement is an interactive exchange between someone who is an expert in something and someone who is not involved in that field. Whilst this is a definition that would also fit Patient and Public Involvement, knowledge transfer and science communication, the difference is the motivation.

Public Engagement is motivated by giving people the opportunity to explore research and the impact of that research, whereas Patient and Public Involvement is motivated by the need to elicit the public's input into a piece of research.

Public Engagement differs from knowledge transfer where the motivation is to create a collaboration that might see your work used, and is also separate from science communication which tends to have a one-way broadcast feel to it, for example, a radio interview or a press article in a newspaper.

For me, the essence of Public Engagement is that your audience can stop you and ask questions or even change the direction or topic of the conversation. Public Engagement always involves the possibility of the unexpected.

So, what does your role as a Public Engagement Manager involve then?

I guess the role has three parts to it, the first is to find audiences and opportunities to engage. We have three key audiences identified: the people who fund our work through taxes and donations, the young people who might one day be our scientists, and the patients and relatives who need our work to be successful. So, I find places and opportunities for us to interact with those audiences and tell them about our work.

The second part of the role is as a storyteller. I need to be able to understand the work that's going on and package in to stories that fit the length of time we have an audience for and present that information in a format that's appropriate for the audience. So, a family at a science festival needs a game for young children to play, whereas an audience of patients might need a good humoured presentation with lots of encouragement to ask questions.

The third part of the role is to support scientists to package their science and deliver these sessions themselves. We have a Public Engagement training course each year where we spend 4 long lunches together over 4 months developing a table-top activity based on our researchers' science, which can be used at a festival. The scientists don't always believe this is possible, though we've not failed yet (see my recent blog post). We are also beginning to develop other training sessions for writing blogs, talks, and other formats.

Are there more opportunities out there for engagement than people realise? How do our staff and students find out about them?

Definitely! Keep an eye on the internal Department newsletter and between newsletters, hunt down the Public Engagement Calendar which has details of Public Engagement opportunities for the rest of the year (instructions on how to find this are in the newsletter).

There are lots of different engagement formats, for example, if you're looking for more formal teaching to boost your CV for a lectureship, then you could take part in our UNIQ course or our Adult Education Course, which will start in January. Whereas if you just wanted to get started and try some Public Engagement, then come along to the MRC Festival in June and we'll support you, so you can have a go in a low stress environment.

What's your background? How did you get to be in this role?

I was a post-doctoral researcher in the Gray Institute when the Institute moved to Oxford in 2008. I already had a good background in Oncology, and I had form in teaching and outreach. I've always taught undergraduate courses in Chemistry at both Oxford and Cambridge and have done Public Engagement with Chemistry before.

When the Department formed, they were looking for someone to run Public Engagement full time. By this point, I'd already spent 2 years with the RAF Air Cadets which gave me a lot of practical skills and confidence in leading audiences in where I wanted them to go. So, I jumped at the opportunity.

Can you tell us about the Department's Public Engagement Ambassador's scheme?

The Public Engagement Ambassador scheme is designed as an opportunity for all staff and students in the Department to get involved in Public Engagement in a leadership role. The scheme is designed to build experience and confidence so that the ambassadors can lead everything from taking part in a science festival to developing and leading a multi-activity project. One of our current ambassadors has already taken the lead on organising a lab tour for a visiting school, whilst another is helping to develop videos for our website.

Whilst we hope the scheme will increase the amount of Public Engagement that the Department does each year, its primary goal is to develop the ambassador's skills and qualities in a way that would be easy to demonstrate on a CV and would help compel an employer to invite them for interview.

If this all sounds like it might be a lot of work, we've given a lot of thought to making sure you can do this whilst keeping your science on track. The scheme is flexible and adaptive to the ebb and flow of research. For those members of the Department in support rather than science roles, this scheme is also open to you. Public Engagement is a lot of fun; don't let the researchers keep it all to themselves!

What's life like outside work?

Some of you will notice the RAF lanyard that holds my University Card. This is a reference to my work with the RAF Air Cadets, where I am the Adventure Training Officer for Thames Valley Wing. My job is to arrange climbing, hill walking, paddlesport, trail cycling for the RAF Air Cadets of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
It's a fairly outdoor existence, which has led me to some pretty epic adventures of my own including a 6,000 metre peak in the Himalayas, canoe expeditions in France and a small collection of very unacademic qualifications in Mountaineering!