I had a fantastic evening at the YorNight 2014 evening on 26th September, spending most of the evening listening to talks at the wonderful York Medical Society, slap bang in the middle of the city. The evening was organised to show the public that research is fun and exciting. It also had the supplementary effect of reminding researchers that research is fun and exciting! YorNight was one of over 300 events that were happening across Europe on the same day. Though I was located at the aforementioned location all evening, there were other nodes at King’s Manor, the Hospitium and Mansion House. There were even, apparently, events at the Cold War Bunker. What a fantastic way to showcase some of the research going on in the city using some of the city’s most attractive, historical and central locations. I, for one, had never before set foot in the York Medical Society and had great fun exploring its grand Victorian rooms, gawping at its ornate ceilings and even having a peek into its little courtyard garden.
I was asked to present a short talk on my research by the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (C2D2), which sponsors my work. The event was organised brilliantly, presenting a range of talks along with information stalls and accompanying researchers (and they all looked really enthusiastic too!) The whole thing reminded me of the PR events that I attended in the past as a bright-eyed Marketing Assistant, with lots of wine, smiling people, a flurry of leaflets and the odd freebie to take away. The event was really well attended, with the attendance probably bolstered by the woman standing in the middle of Stonegate with balloons. I doubt we’d have found the YMS otherwise, tucked away as it is along a dimly-lit alley.
I was the penultimate speaker, so spent a couple of hours absorbing health-related information at the preceding talks. As my research has hitherto been in the humanities, I have never actually seen a scientist talk to an audience. My first comment, then, would be that the psychologist, biologists and bioarchaeologist that I saw were all wonderfully engaging. There was a focus on innovative approaches to disease and disorder, particularly strongly shown in Sandra Pauletta’s talk on the use of sound design in health management. I was knee-tremblingly nervous before my appearance, due to this being my first formal talk to the public. I’ve written for a public audience and I’ve had informal conversations with many people about my research, but I’d never given a formal presentation. However, all of my fellow presenters seemed completely at their ease.
Many historians, including myself, choose to deliver their presentations from a script, usually because of the complex and nuanced nature of the information that they wish to convey. The wording and style of the presentation is often as important as the content itself, which is why a few pages of double-spaced print is comforting. Yornight was the first time I’d completely ad-libbed a talk, without the aid of a script or even bullet-points. The scientists who preceded and followed me juggled PowerPoint slides with their memories with flair and precision, each with a different type of panache. There were plentiful jokes, and the standard of design in the slides was exceptional. I was impressed. This led me to conclude that this kind of wide-ranging public engagement event is not only great for the public, but also for the scholars ourselves. We get to see a little of what goes on outside our field of research, witness other ways of thinking, and see how scholars from different disciplines approach the formal presentation or ‘paper’. Though many academics in the audience were clearly ‘session hopping’ (ie. getting up and creeping out if a presentation didn’t appeal to them), many were also staying to hear about topics outside of their usual interests.
I learned much in the course of the three or so hours that I was at Yornight. There was a talk from psychologist Gary Lewis on genetic influences on childhood behavioural patterns, which was full of thought-provoking points that prompted questions from the audience. If certain behavioural traits can be strongly associated with genetic influence, what do we do with this information? Simon Baker presented interesting research about the effect of recreational Ketamine use on bladder health. He demonstrated that Ketamine, when concentrated into urine by the kidneys, can cause irreparable damage to the bladder, necessitating the damaged bladder’s removal. Baker creates models of the bladder’s cell structure in order to replicate its natural abilities to defend itself against such damage. I really enjoyed Ryan West’s summary of his research into how we can use fruit flies to understand the visual impairments associated with Parkinson’s Disease. His talk was well-designed and humorous, even if my brain protested loudly to the flashing images in his slides! I’m excited about how his findings will transfer into research on non-human mammals and then humans.
I’m not going to continue to summarise all of the talks, but suffice to say it was an exceptional evening. I’m told that similar events may be in the pipeline for next year, and I’ll have my name on the list. Researchers are more aware than ever of what we can ‘give’ to the public through engagement events like YorNight. Of course, making research available and accessible is an important responsibility as an academic. However, I’m now more convinced than ever that the opportunity to present research to the public is equally invaluable to researchers. I’ve found that experimenting with how to make research sound good to a wide audience has made me a better academic. After all, if I’m presenting my historical research to a room of historians I can assume a degree of prior interest and engagement. In contrast, addressing a wide audience, comprising members of the public and academics from other fields, forces you to pay attention to your style and see your research from different perspectives. I’m now going to go away and practice ad-libbing, re-assess some of my assumptions, and spend as much time as possible talking to people who have no vested interest in my research. Beware.