Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

In the Department's first major public engagement event of the year, Ben Dean writes about the importance of continued public engagement to spread the successes of cancer research

On Sunday 4 June, a team of Oncology staff and students rolled up to Bury Knowle Park in Headington, Oxford to take part in the annual Headington Festival. The Headington Festival has been run by Headington Action since 2003, and it was fitting that the 20-year anniversary of the event should find itself so well attended. A result of free entry and glorious sunshine? Quite possibly. However, this community event has built up such good will over the years, that attendees would have joined us on the day whatever the weather.

Stalls at the Headington Festival 2023Stalls at the Headington Festival 2023

Our group comprised myself, Gonzalo Rodriguez (post-doc, Higgins Group), Giampiero Valenzano and Gulnar Abdullayeva (both DPhil Students), which meant we were able to represent the Department from the key areas of Departmental life: research, student experience and professional support. We came to the Festival armed with games, chocolate and goal to reach out to as many festival goers as possible to talk about some of the amazing work that goes on in the Department and further afield. We weren't the only University stall on site to see the festival as an opportunity to engage with an inquisitive audience: I was enthused to see that we were joined by colleagues from the Oxford Vaccine Group and the Ludwig Cancer Research team, as well as stalls from our peers at Oxford Brookes.


Members of the public engagement team speaking to attendees of the Headington Festival 2023Members of the public engagement team speaking to attendees of the Headington Festival 2023


We offered the public a series of challenges:

  • Guessing the chocolate bar MRI image - I don't think I've seen such an impressive display of chocolate knowledge from a group of people. Not only were people of all ages vying for the reward of mini chocolate bars, but it was fantastic to see so many young people understanding what MRI scans are looking to achieve. We were able to demonstrate that, by applying a magnetic field and radio waves to an object, we could look at the composition of a structure with such detail that we are able to show the different densities of materials without having to undertake invasive action. This is a key technique to enable tracking of cancer structures in our bodies to tailor accurate treatment, as well as showing how the body has responded to these treatments.
  • Inhibiting cancer DNA repair...using oven gloves - a good old demolition game where participants were invited to try and break cancer DNA models with metal balls and try and put the DNA back together using oven gloves (representing growth inhibitor molecules). No one really managed to do this effectively, which was perfect as it demonstrated how cancer DNA repair and replication can be seriously hampered if we are able to target and inhibit binding proteins with success.
  • Using UV light to select clinical trial cohorts - this sounds like a break-through clinical trial method. In actual fact, members of the public were invited to assess patients (represented by little plastic figures) by shining a UV light on them (which represented all the tests that doctors use to determine if an unseen cancer is present). Of the figures that were checked, those who had been pre-painted with a UV marker (that representing the presence of cancer) were chosen for the trial, either in a group to test the effectiveness of an existing therapeutic, or to test the effectiveness of a new therapy. They were then able to judge how well the 'trial' had gone for the patients by re-testing them to see if any cancer (UV markings) had remained. 

Gulnar explains MRI with chocolateGulnar explains MRI with chocolate

As a group, we were really impressed not only with the participation levels with our stall - we had over 200 people join us through the 4 hours we were up and running - but we received so many great questions about what else can be done to cure cancer. Cancer is such an emotive subject for so many of us, and our interactions with people really showed how significant all the efforts into cancer research are.

We look forward to getting back next year with a new set of challenges to entertain and stimulate a captive audience. Thank you once again to Gonzalo, Giampiero and Gulnar for your efforts!

If you have any ideas for challenges that you would like to bring to the Department's public engagement events, please do get in touch!