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Two DPAG-led teams of volunteers engaged hundreds of visitors at Wesley Memorial Church on Saturday 8 October 2022 as part of The Oxford Science and Ideas Festival’s Explorazone. The Myth Busters team assembled by DPAG’s Outreach and Public Engagement Working Group sought to discuss and debunk myths and misconceptions of biology. The Shaping Destiny team run by members of the Srinivas Group, IDRM, in collaboration with Prof Wes Williams at TORCH explored with the public what is human and how body forms have been historically perceived with a unique virtual reality experience.

IF Oxford is an annual science and ideas festival taking place in locations across the city. It offers a variety of events, workshops and talks to explore the latest scientific research with audiences of all ages, and creates an opportunity for thousands of face-to-face interactions between Festival visitors, researchers and innovators. The Explorazone is an interactive science fair for families, teens and adults, which includes an hour just for adults and children and the families of those who are within the autistic spectrum or who have other neurodiverse conditions. The event offering 1000 tickets on Saturday 8 October was sold out. 

Who you gonna call? Myth-busters! 

IF Oxford Myth Busters team

Left: Andia Redpath, Christophe Ravaud and Irina-Elena Lupu during set-up. Right: Irina-Elena Lupu, Andia Redpath, Sharmila Rajendran, Bethan O' Connor and Jéssica Luiz (who also volunteered with Anna Zerio) at the end of the event.

A group of DPAG staff and students led by the Outreach and Public Engagement Working Group attended the festival to provide a space where members of the public could discover how some popular bodily beliefs are wrong and why they were embraced as scientific fact in the first place. Focusing on the cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory systems, as well as the skeleton, the team shared information through hands-on activities, virtual reality (VR), and a quiz, to demonstrate the importance of science in understanding how the body works, and how knowledge develops over time. Around 200 adults and children engaged with the team’s activities.

DPhil students Jéssica Luiz and Anna Zerio explored the myth that cold weather makes you sick. They also talked about the now debunked belief that asthma was a psychological condition that could be treated with psychoanalysis and accompanied it with a related activity listening to the Sounds of Asthma - Wheezing Lung Sounds.

IDRM postdoctoral research scientists Drs Irina-Elena Lupu, Christophe Ravaud and Andia Redpath focused on the circulatory system. Andia shared ancient and modern myths about the heart, as well as facts about heart development, heart disease, and broken heart syndrome. Christophe led a quiz focussed on facts about the heart and circulatory system, and Irina debunked the myth about blue blood with an activity about the colour of blood in different animals.

Clinical Anatomist Sharmila Rajendran and DPhil student Bethan O’Connor debunked myths about the impacts of habitual smartphone usage on our skeletal system. Using a VR headset and models, they addressed the concepts of 'skull horns', 'smartphone pinky' and 'smartphone elbow'. They also engaged visitors with the question of whether our jaws evolve to fit our food lifestyle. Sharmila says: "Researchers previously thought the shrinking of the jaw over time was due to genetics, but rather it's a lifestyle disease. Our ancestors' jaws were broader in the pre-agricultural era because they chewed food properly and consumed a lot of natural foods; following the farming phase, because of processed food, we all ended up chewing less, which narrows the jaw and crowds the teeth."

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Louise Cotterell, who led the logistics of the event, gathered feedback from many of the visitors. One visitor complimented the “Fascinating stories, people and knowledge.” Another noted that “They judged perfectly my daughter’s age and pitched the information about lungs perfectly.” Other reactions included: “Really interesting and great interaction” and “Really great facts!”

This project is supported by the University of Oxford’s PER Culture Change Fund.

Shaping Destiny

IF Oxford Shaping Destiny team

Left: A young girl experiences virtual reality. Right: Emma Hodgkins sets up a sticker activity.

At the start of the year, a public engagement project led by Professor Shankar Srinivas and Dr Tomoko Watanabe in collaboration with Professor Wes Williams, Director of TORCH, was awarded a £188k Enriching Engagement project grant to raise awareness of the biology underpinning our form, and the different perceptions of form, to the local Oxford community.

This Spring, Shaping Destiny engaged with two community youth groups - Body Politic, a local hip hop dance group, and Parasol Project, a charity for disabled and differently abled young people - to co-create movement pieces based on research concepts from the Srinivas and Williams groups. The young peoples’ movements were inspired by biology and humanities research on dynamic biology, and historical understanding and perceptions of human forms. Working with VR specialist Kostas Pataridis of Andromeda Software Development and the Alexander Whitley Dance Company, the young people’s movements were digitised to create an interactive and immersive VR experience.

The project team held a stall at IF Oxford to bring science, humanities, art and technology together for festival goers, with videos of Spring’s community engagement project playing throughout the day. Using the unique VR experience, Shankar and Dr Shifaan Thowfeequ engaged visitors about how the body forms, from dynamic embryonic development processes to historical perceptions. They were assisted by Maya Watanabe-Srinivas, a pupil at Cheney School. More than 70 people, aged 4 to 70, experienced the VR. Tomoko commented: “They were mesmerised with the journey they took in the virtual Shaping Destiny world, starting out as an embryo and interacting with the Parasol and Body Politic dancers and the environment.”

In addition, Tomoko and DPAG Administrative Assistant Emma Hodgkins worked with some 130 children using sticker activities to explain how embryos form, enabling them to learn how the body develops from a single cell. Alongside this, around 50 adults engaged researchers in discussions about the state of current human embryo research. Emma, who was taking part in public engagement for the first time, said: “It was a really enjoyable and busy day. The whole IF Oxford event was really well attended from early years to year 13 and beyond. All the children engaged well and they were able to spot similarities between different species, such as fish, mice, chickens and human embryos at different stages of development. Many were able to make connections from what they had learnt at school. Even the very young children were able to engage, and many were able to get more answers correct than their parents and carers!”

The team was also assisted by project evaluator Amy Hong and Philippa Sims of the Bravatnik School of Government, with Human embryology and evaluation.

Shaping destiny videos

Project partners talk about Shaping Destiny

The Parasol Project movement piece

Body Politic movement piece

Shaping Destiny "Radio Parasol"


Read more DPAG Outreach News.