By Emma Hazelwood and Amy Campbell
‘What do you think is most important for our health – our genetics or the environment we live in; nature or nurture?’
This was a key question that we posed to members of the public as part of a roundtable discussion on the topic of “Inherited Health”. We hosted our roundtable as part of the recent FUTURES public engagement festival and our event was attended by approximately 25 members of the public including retired professors, patent lawyers, and civil servants.
We are both PhD students affiliated with the IEU. Emma researches how obesity increases an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer, specifically through metabolic changes. Emma’s PhD is multi-disciplinary, combining epidemiological approaches with in vitro methods to characterise the causal mechanisms underlying colorectal cancer development.
Amy is looking at how genetics and parenting contribute to the intergenerational transmission of depression and anxiety. At the outset of her PhD, she investigated the research priorities of people with lived experience of this to inform her specific research questions. Based on these discussions, Amy’s PhD is now investigating how feeling loved in childhood can exacerbate or attenuate the intergenerational transmission of mental health risk. Although our research topics differ, we both use similar genetic epidemiological approaches to unpick how the environment can impact health.
Building mutual understanding
We thought that doing the event was worthwhile for multiple reasons. Most importantly, people have a right to be involved in research that might impact them. As most research is publicly funded, it is important that the dialogue between members of the public and researchers goes both ways – with us informing them what their money is being spent on, and them, in turn, informing our research.
Additionally, the event allowed us to gain fresh insight into people’s understanding of, and opinions on, genetics, inherited health, and research. As epidemiologists, we spend most of our time surrounded by people with similar education levels and research interests to ourselves. It was refreshing to speak about our research with people who don’t spend their days thinking about genetics, collider bias and causal inference. We were prompted to think about our research from a different perspective in order to explain complex topics in an accessible way. All of this will be useful in the future as we think about generating new research questions, engaging new participants, disseminating our findings, and making our work more impactful. It was also very rewarding to see people engaging with and taking a genuine interest in our research, and we hope that people also enjoyed their conversations with us.
Finally, by starting conversations and learning more about people’s understanding of inherited health, we were able to challenge some common misconceptions about this topic. For example, some people came to the conversation familiar with the common ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, and conceptualised traits as ‘purely genetic’ or ‘purely environmental’. We were able to open up conversations about how both genetic and environmental factors are likely to be important in determining an individual’s health, either independently or in interaction with one another.
Addressing public engagement challenges
Although engaging with the public can be a valuable experience for researchers, there are also some inevitable challenges. One important difficulty in discussing health research is that this may be a sensitive topic for many, and people are bringing a lifetime of experiences and opinions to discussions. Our research topics in particular – genetics, mental health, and cancer – have the potential to be particularly sensitive. Researchers and members of the public might have different levels of emotional investment in the topics, which might make conversations difficult, or even hostile. It is important that researchers remain calm, respectful, and professional in these situations. Often, because we talk about these conditions every day, it can be easy to forget the real-world impact that they have, and so, although these discussions can be challenging, they can also be invaluable for reaffirming the reasons why we do research.
A more easily solved challenge associated with these events is the dreaded awkward silence. This can be particularly common at the start of the session, when people might be more apprehensive and unsure about what they should say or ask. A simple fix for this is preparing some easy conversation starters beforehand, such as relevant questions to engage people in the topic. At this event we also had large pieces of paper on the table with colourful pens. These not only came in useful for drawing DAGs (diagrams which demonstrate causal relationships between traits), but also, before the event started, we wrote out some key points around the theme of inherited health. This provided the attendees with more opportunity to ask about topics which were of interest to them.
Overall, the event was well-attended and people seemed to enjoy discussing different areas of research with experts over the course of the evening. The event was also a positive experience for researchers involved, with many thought-provoking and enjoyable conversations throughout. Despite the challenges and difficult moments, public engagement is an important and rewarding part of scientific research, and something that we would encourage all researchers to get involved with.
The FUTURES festival is a free festival of discovery funded by UKRI taking place across the South West of England. The festival is organised by a consortium of south west universities and aims to engage members of the public with academic research. If you would like to take part in activities in 2023 please email email@example.com.
See Emma’s research page and Twitter at @EpiHazelwood
See Amy’s research page and Twitter at @AmyCampbell1994