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Big Bang Fair

I really like to participate in outreach programmes.   It is a unique chance to master a short explanation of a complex scientific idea and present it to the public and a useful skill for both social and professional occasions.

On a sunny Friday in March I went to the Big Bang Fair at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre. It was a large event where many different companies presented their work. The stalls were ranging from one-to-one chats all the way to stage performances.  The objects brought to the fair were as small as live insects and as large as a jet fighter (probably a full-scale model). Our goal was to promote our scientific research to inspire tomorrow’s students and to excite adult audiences who are, in the end, our main benefactors. I was working on Friday when groups of school pupils were the main attendees of the fair. However, on the weekend families with children took over the place.

I was given a series of X-ray scans of a computer mouse ‘tumour’ and tasked to explain how radiotherapy works, combining medical aspects of cancer, the physics of X-ray imaging and the biology of radiation treatment. The idea of cancer radiation treatment may be not so complex for a scientist and it is very simple to talk to a grown-up person, but explaining radiotherapy to a child is a very different story. In the beginning, it might seem like an impossible task, but after repeating the speech over and over again, it became more and more understandable and compelling. 

The key aspect of explaining something quite so complex to a child is to keep his or her attention. After I got fully acquainted with the materials I started mastering the attention-holding technique. The goal is to spot signs of distraction and quickly create an alternative one, by asking the child a simple question about something he or she is very familiar with, such as a favourite kind of chocolate – conveniently we had a range of X-ray images of various chocolate bars.  Matching up the scans with examples of the chocolate kept their attention nicely.

It was a very long and very tiring day but at the same time full of positive energy and inspiration received from communication with people. To participate in such events on a daily basis would a demanding job, but on a rare occasion, is a real joy.