Guardians of the Gut: a hands-on stroll through the gut to meet your microbiome

Engaging with the public is an important and rewarding part of any scientist’s career, giving them opportunities to achieve impact by increasing awareness and understanding of their research and receiving feedback that could stimulate new ideas. When research influences health, it is also a powerful way to inform perceptions and enable people to make evidence-based life choices. Effective engagement requires a mix of approaches and an enthusiasm to inspire others, particularly children. An exceptional example of this is the diverse and influential programme of public engagement that Dr Lindsay Hall and her research group have established at the Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB). Not only do they bring to life their research on the microbial communities present in the gut and how they affect health from birth to old age, but they also provide a gold-standard for other scientists wanting to achieve the same impact for their research.

There are many ways to engage with the public that, used together, reach the widest range of stakeholder groups. Dr Hall and her group have a dedicated website (https://halllab.co.uk/) and social media pages; they contribute to radio and TV programmes, magazines, newspaper articles and blogs; produce outreach videos and animations; run workshops and present at numerous science festivals. However, the jewel in their public engagement crown is ‘Guardians of the Gut’, an innovative and fully interactive giant walk-through model of the human gut that grew from a collaboration between scientists, artists and programmers and has spawned a portfolio of complementary videos, schools’ workshops and teaching packs.

It all started in 2017 when Dr Hall established a collaboration with Dr Jenni Rant from the Science Art and Writing (SAW) Trust and volunteers from Norwich Hackspace to turn an initial design created by artist Molly Barrett into a 2D prototype model of the gut. The prototype included interactive games stations and quizzes and was trialled at the 2017 Norwich Science Festival. Using visitor feedback and the technical know-how of the Norfolk arts organisation, Tin House, the full 3D model was built and unveiled to great acclaim at the 2018 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London. Following on from this, ‘Guardians of the Gut’ was taken ‘on the road’, making appearances at the 2018 Norwich Science Festival where it was so popular that people queued for a tour, and in the science tent at the 2019 Latitude Music Festival where families from all over the country enjoyed interacting with it and chatting to the scientists who acted as tour guides to provide a more personalised experience.

At latitude festival, summer 2019.

‘Guardians of the Gut’ includes 1,500 LED lights programmed to simulate the microbiome, information on microbial colonisation and how specific bacteria are beneficial or problematic. Visitors also learn how microbes help to digest food and how they are affected by antibiotics. The walkthrough culminates with a showcase of the therapies and approaches that QIB and others are developing to promote healthy early life microbial ecosystems with the aim of maintaining health and treating disease.

Ongoing updates and improvements ensure the exhibit’s continued success. For example, a complementary microbiome-themed comic and animation explaining the ‘Guardians of the Gut’ in cartoon form allows the children to re-visit their learning experience from any suitable device.

Motivated to increase the impact of the exhibit further, Dr Hall and Dr Rant collaborated with child psychologist Dr Georgia Panagiotaki from the University of East Anglia to develop a ‘Guardians of the Gut’ school’s lesson plan as a novel, publicly available teaching resource. With feedback from test runs at local Primary Schools the lesson plans were adapted (including the addition of an interactive video of Dr Hall presenting the lesson) to allow teachers to run the activities independently and without the need for visiting scientists.

“Guardians of the Gut is the result of a fantastic collaboration between some of Norwich’s most creative minds.” Dr Jenni Rant, the SAW Trust.

Results and impact

The Guardians of the gut exhibit has reached thousands of people, changing their perceptions and increasing their knowledge and understanding.  How do we know? Well – we asked them!

“Dr Lindsay Hall actively engages with members of the public in a way that captures the imagination of both adults and children. The Guardians of the Gut exhibit was very popular with the public and made a significant contribution to the Norwich Science Festival in 2018.” Natalie Bailey, Event Producer, Norwich Science Festival, The Forum Trust.

In 2018 the Norwich Science Festival was attended by approximately 98,000 people, mainly from Norfolk, and in our snapshot survey we found that the majority of those visiting the ‘Guardians of the Gut exhibit’ professed to have learned ‘a lot’ (84%). Many expressed a significant change in their perceptions and that they had engaged with the take home messages about the human gut microbiome and its role in health. The survey also told us that we had reached people who don’t normally seek out scientific information actively; 38% of those questioned had not planned on attending but had been drawn in while passing, so we were delighted to engage with them in a meaningful way. Even more people were reached through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the UEA events page; in 2018 140,000 related engagements were recorded through Facebook alone.

“I was very pleased to see your exhibit last night at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition. A very successful communication of your work.…I enjoyed the clear story being told through the eye-catching exhibit.” Bronagh Liddicoat CEng FICE, Head of STEM Sussex.

The Royal Society Summer Exhibition is a prestigious event, attracting over 11,000 visitors, predominantly teenagers from school groups across the United Kingdom.  ‘Guardians of the Gut’ was one of only 22 competitively-selected stands and was voted the second most popular exhibit in a survey of children at the event. The event website received 240,000 views, which was fed from the associated social media postings. Feedback from visitors was overwhelmingly positive.

Royal Society feedback from visitors about  ‘Guardians of the Gut:

  • “The exhibitors were very friendly and engaging.”
  • “It was excellent because [sic] I went inside the gut!”
  • “Loved the interactive-ness of the exhibits. Loved resistance is futile and the microbiome walk in gut! Both engaged with and interested my kids…Different things aimed at different levels but all enthusiastic scientists. Brilliant!”
  • “Guardians of the gut ignited an interest in microbes and the display was accessible on many levels for pupils.”
  • “Guardians of the gut was fantastic, it was something that the students could relate to and really linked to a topic that they had covered in lesson this academic year. The visual really painted and aided students to apply knowledge to what they have just seen.”

The ‘Guardians of the Gut’ school’s lesson plan was very effective. Analysis of pre- and post-lesson quiz scores indicated that children’s understanding of the gut microbiome improved significantly and that was the case for most of the concepts explored (i.e., bacteria, human microbiome, human gut, the role of antibiotics and probiotics). For example, only 4% of 10-year-olds knew what antibiotics were before the lesson, but this increased to 76% after the lesson. Three months after the lesson the quiz was repeated and, amazingly, the children had retained the information they had learned. Children provided very positive feedback for the lesson: 82% said the activities were ‘interesting’ and even ‘exciting’ (13%). Most importantly, 50% wanted to learn more about the gut and its bacteria and were inspired to engage with further scientific learning.

Dr Hall’s team are now working with local web designer Rob Skinn, from ‘A Fine Studio’, to build a bespoke ‘Guardians of the Gut’ website hosting an online, downloadable teacher pack with videos, suggested activities and quizzes. This free educational resource will be available to all schools, and we expect significant uptake. Downloads will be monitored, and feedback will inform psychologists, education specialists and science communicators interested in promoting science teaching and learning in schools. Discussions with Public Health England are also ongoing to link the ‘Guardians of the Gut’ website to their eBUG website with the potential to develop new content collaboratively with them.

Artistic collaborations continue with the recruitment of QIB’s first artist-in-residence, Jennie Pedley, who is running workshops for research groups in the institute, in schools and at local libraries. These workshops have already informed the design of a new community exhibit on gut research for the 2019 Norwich Science Festival, which included hands-on contributions from hundreds of members of the public over the two-week exhibition.

Summary

Dr Hall and her team’s public engagement programme has significantly increased knowledge about the gut microbiome, increased dialogue and raised public awareness. Online availability of the school’s activity pack will continue to increase the scale of impact by providing greater access to resources that are proven to facilitate improved knowledge and changed opinions. The children are then taking key messages home and sharing the knowledge with family members.

“I feel passionately about engaging wider audiences about the microbiome and why these tiny gut residents are so important for our health.  I think communication of what we do as researchers is so important; to educate, inform and shape our future work in this area, and excite others!” Dr Lindsay Hall.

In 2018 Dr Hall was the recipient of the Microbiology in Society award which recognises projects that inspire or educate people, allowing them to make informed decisions about everyday issues surrounding microbiology. Dr Hall was also the recipient of a 2019 UEA public engagement achievement award, acknowledging her achievements in communicating the wonders of the microbiome. In making the award, the organisers praised the extraordinary achievements of Dr Hall and her group.

The ‘Guardians of the Gut portfolio of engagement tools has been funded by: a Wellcome Trust ‘Engagement Fellowship’; a Microbiology Society ‘Microbiology in Society’ Award 2018; the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), who provide strategic support to QIB; a QIB ‘Impact Accelerator Award’; and the Arts Council England.

Guardian of the gut funders

Related People

Related Research Areas

Research area: microbes and health

Gut Microbes & Health

Related Targets

Targeting the understanding of the microbiome

Understanding the Microbiome