Professor Adrian Liston, FMedSci, FRSB, is Professor of Pathology at the University of Cambridge. His research team works on systems immunology and tissue immunology, with a particular focus on understanding and treating neuroinflammation. Liston also writes extensively on career development and on the implementation of positive research culture practices. Sensory science was part of a broader effort by the laboratory to incorporate innovative approaches to expand the impact of science communication.

Science is for everyone, so science communication should also be for everyone. This means reaching out beyond the regular well-trodden ground when planning a science communication event. Expand the geography, the language, the style or the community!

Sensory science was a novel public engagement event, supported by the Biochemical Society, that aimed to do just this – expand community engagement to the blind and low-vision community. The event built on past successful projects from the Rossjohn laboratory, at Monash University in Australia, where Dr Erica Tandori led an effort to make science communication accessible. Erica was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a juvenile form of macular dystrophy leading to degenerative blindness. Erica is an expert in the creative arts and scientific communication and saw the need for science communication to reach out to the blind and low-vision community and the power of multi-sensory approaches to enhance communication to all.

The sensory science program selected four teams to develop multi-sensory art to communicate their science. The selected projects were ‘neuroimmunology’, ‘coeliac disease’, ‘intracellular bacteria’ and ‘cervical cancer’. The 24 early-career researchers were paired up with four artists, from Anglia Ruskin University, and mentored in the art of scientific outreach. As with all successful engagement projects, the work started by asking what the key scientific message was that the team wanted to communicate? This simple question can be surprisingly difficult to answer, as doctoral research involves going deep into the details. Explaining their work to the artistic team member and the mentors in the program (Dr Erica Tandori, Monash University; Dr Stuart Favilla, Swinburne University of Technology; and Dr Julia Johnson, Anglia Ruskin University) helped the team take a step back, re-orientate themselves to the public perspective and identify the central concepts stripped of the jargon.

The result was more than I could have hoped for – exciting, innovative and informative! Limitations can drive creativity, and the need to make all exhibits multi-sensory brought out some innovative solutions. Resin brain moulds, using colour to exhibit injury and inflammation, also incorporated tactile surfaces and heating (using a cat’s bed!), to communicate the impact of neuroinflammation on the brain in a multi-sensory approach. An enormous cell repurposed an electric ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ train and tracks to show the shuttling of intracellular bacteria around the cell. A 3D poster on cervical cancer used hundreds of sponges to show the loss of contact-inhibition during cancer development. A tactile poster on coeliac disease repurposed different foods to bring out texture and overlaid the text on braille to broaden accessibility. These were just the tip of the iceberg! The visitors were overwhelmed with the effort the team put in and with the sheer quantity of information literally at their fingertips.

The impact of the event on visitors from the blind and low-vision community cannot be over-stated. To be included, made to feel welcome and given a chance to participate is important to us all, but to none more so than those that frequently feel neglected. The lessons learned will also have a profound impact on the communication approaches of all participants. It is not only the blind and low-vision community that are aided through multi-sensory approaches. Test yourself reading ‘blue and red’ versus ‘red and blue’, and it becomes obvious that our brains can integrate information faster when different channels of information synergize. Layering additional sources of information into a presentation can make the uptake of concepts feel more intuitive, and the information gain lasts longer. This is especially true when communicating with the neurodivergent community, where the impact can be transformative, but it is surprisingly effective at every level of communication, from teaching children to discussing your results in a professional setting. Sensory science was, for many of us, an epiphany on the value of innovative communication techniques, which will change our future practice.■

Published by Portland Press Limited under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND)