Kirsty Ross, Public Engagement Professional (Episode 2) | Kirsty talks about doing engagement via Wikipedia, prisons and quilts, job precarity, and ADHD
I would take researchers into prisons to do the same sort of stuff that they do with kids in primary schools. It had a really transformative effect on both the learners in prison, but also on the researchers themselves. I remember during the pilot period, I went on a visit just to see what it was like, and coming out, sitting in the car afterwards and thinking ‘there, but for the grace of God, go any of us’.
Talking about research was more fun than actually doing it
For this episode of Research Adjacent I chat with Kirsty Ross, a public engagement and culture change professional with not one, but currently three jobs! Kirsty is EXPLORATHON Project Manager at University of St Andrews, Outreach Officer for the EPSRC/MRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Optical Medical Imaging (OPTIMA) at University of Strathclyde, and Knowledge Exchange Associate for the Diversity in Science and Science Inclusion (DiSSI) Erasmus+ project at the University of Strathclyde.
Like me, Kirsty happily describes herself as research-adjacent and was one of the first people to use #ResearchAdjacent on Twitter. She began her career doing research in vaccine development, but discovered that she was having more fun talking to people about research than actually doing it. She transitioned into public engagement and, as you’ll hear in this episode, has worked on lots of creative and impactful projects since.
Prisons, Quilts, Podcasts, and Wikipedia
Kirsty shares some of the projects she is most proud of including prison-based Cell Block Science, Quilts for Cancer and a community science club. I was particularly struck by the creativity of these projects and the way that really they have people, rather than research at their heart. Kirsty describes how ADHD gives her a talent for finding connections between lots of different things and she certainly puts that into practice. She describes a project called ‘Antibiotics Under Our Feet’ where primary schools were invited to send in soil samples from their playgrounds for analysis. Many people would think that the engagement could end there, but Kirsty realised that once the schools got the results they would go straight to Wikipedia to look up what the researchers had found. But the pages didn’t exist so she set a team of students onto creating them.
A personal highlight is the Quilts for Cancer project where the public were invited to take research-based images and information, and turn them into quilts. Kirsty explains what happened next…
Quilts for Cancer was inspired by the fact that during chemotherapy people get quite cold. I’m a quilter and I thought, what if we could do quilts as an engagement method? I put together a summary of the research and then we sent it out into the world on social media. I had no idea if it was going to work. So we waited, and we waited, and we got back 16 quilts! But the best thing was – and it’s one of those golden moments that you remember – someone messaged us through our Facebook page and she said that her father was going to go in for treatment and could he possibly take a quilt? So I sent her the photo album of all the completed quilts and he ended up picking mine! The next thing you know, she sent me a video of him unwrapping it and getting comfy under it. And that is why we do this job!
An ongoing project is the science club at the Community Centre in Shotts. Kirsty’s involvement began during COVID when she started arranging for researchers to be interviewed remotely by the children at the science club. You can hear the resulting podcasts here Fortissat Science Alliance podcast. And Kirsty is always looking for more researchers to take part!
What would I change? I would make every engagement professional, every impact professional in universities up and down the country, core funded, permanent members of staff. Every time a PEP walks out of a university because their contract ends you lose decades, in some cases, of relationships and trust that has been built up with that individual, knowledge of the institution, and it just walks out the door.
Despite being instrumental to such impactful projects, Kirsty and public engagement professionals like her, find themselves struggling at times. Kirsty juggles multiple part-time jobs while others are facing redundancy. Contracts are often externally funded, and attached to specific projects. She expresses frustration at short-term thinking, the constant drive for innovation, and the lack of investment in community relations and, crucially, public engagement staff. With proper support she says, we could move mountains.
Find out more
- Fortissat Science Alliance podcast – and you can sign up to take part here
- Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility in Open Knowledge Network (IDEA Network for short)
- Quilts 4 Cancer
- Cell Block Science & Beyond the Walls and Mhairi talking about the project for Falling Walls
Here are the other public engagement professionals Kirsty mentioned
- Sam Langford
- Hana Ayoob
- Sarah Cosgriff
- Jamie Gallagher
- Mhairi Stewart
- Alina Loth
- Calum McAndrew
How was it for you…?
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