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Days by the sea – a weekend of chocolate and radiotherapy

Blog posted by: Martin Christlieb

Starting a conversation with strangers can be difficult at the best of times.  Starting a conversation on the subject of cancer and radiotherapy is even more so.  Engaging people on such subjects means catching their imagination, and fast.

Setting a puzzle is an effective way to draw someone’s attention.  A simple puzzle, accessible to all.

Our challenge for people visiting the Brighton Science Festival on 10-11 February was simple; can you match a series of chocolate bars with their CT scans?  Common objects viewed through an uncommon lens.

The approach was uncommonly successful.  Drawn to our table by a pile of chocolate, children and adults alike were soon engrossed matching CT scans with chocolate. We dropped clues and hints and the task was soon completed. 

A task completed was enough to break the ice, and the visitors stayed to hear about radiotherapy.  First we showed them a CT scan of a computer mouse.  A piece of the circuit board was designated as a tumour. The visitors were then invited to assess a series of radiotherapy plans designed to deliver a curative dose of radiation to the tumour.

(image: CT scan of a computer mouse)

The radiotherapy plans were printed on top of the computer mouse CT-images; the dose to each part of the mouse represented by a colour wash. Blue meaning a low dose; red meaning a high dose. Visitors from 7 years and up were able to see clearly how well the X-ray doses add up to treat the tumour and spare healthy tissue.  Everyone was able to effectively judge which was the best of five proposed plans, and show why one was better than the others.

Having become so involved, people were ready to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of proton beam therapy.

A few years ago we used a similar approach to interest people in MRI and a project concerning brain cancer. The unfamiliar pictures of common fruit and vegetables were too intriguing to pass up. Even people wary of the possibility that we wanted money would stop. Sharing the experience of solving a puzzle is enough to establish a rapport and people are much more willing to listen to what follows.

Public engagement is more than just explaining science, it’s about creating a connection; a link that bridges the gap between scientist and visitor; creating a human contact that generates trust and interest. Jokes are difficult; they risk miscarrying, but finding a way to share an experience and a chuckle may be vital to engaging people.

In Brighton, we met over 600 people.  They all took a lively interest in both the chocolate and the radiotherapy.  An excellent result for two days work.

(image: CT scan of Malteasers)                                                                               

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