Science in the van

Eleanor Palser on a successful public engagement project at Latitude Festival.

The 'Faraway Forest' at Latitude Festival in Suffolk was our home this July for an unusual public engagement project: instead of giving a talk, we opted to involve audience members in a real-life experiment. 'Science in a Van with James Kilner' aimed to give punters an insight into what goes on in the mysterious world of the science laboratory, in the informal environment of a music festival.

In this particular experiment, we wanted to replicate recent findings of participants being able to perceive and report their visceral signals, specifically the heart beating, and a relationship between this ability and various psychological characteristics, such as anxiety and emotion processing. We also wanted to investigate the effect if any of certain demographic characteristics, such as body mass index, age and gender on these interoceptive abilities. To this end, the large sample of participants available at a festival was perfect.

We parked up the van and invited passers-by, by means of a colourful sign and enthusiastic lab members, to come and find out ‘how well they really know their bodies’. Consent forms were signed, questionnaires filled in, and height and weight measurements taken, all before participants were invited one-by-one into the van to complete a short experiment. Throughout, participants could chat to the scientists and gain further insight both into the research and what being a scientist is like, in general.

We had roughly estimated that we needed to prepare for 200 participants across the entire three-day period. When we hit 150 participants on the first day, we realised we had seriously underestimated how interested people would be. It’s no exaggeration to say we were absolutely inundated, with festival-goers queuing for up to an hour to enter the van and take part. Even as experienced experimenters, we were certainly overwhelmed at times!

Looking out of the window of the van and seeing a sea of festival-goers, sat wherever they could around the forest, filling in our questionnaires, and animatedly chatting and discussing in small groups with my colleagues, is a memory that will stay with me for a long time. We realised the public is extremely interested in our work, and the work of scientists in general, and really relished the opportunity to pick our brains in an informal environment. One of the most common questions from younger participants was how might they go about forging a career in science, and it was a wonderful and inspiring opportunity to meet these potential scientists of the future. 

- Eleanor Palser is a Clinical Psychology & Cognitive Neuroscience PhD at UCL.

Dr James KilnerReader in the Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders at the Institute of Neurology, tells us 'the Science in the Van idea is something I am going to try and do more of this year'.

We hope to be able to report on our own sessions at Latitude Festival, with podcasts and transcripts, in the near future.

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