IFR PhD student rewarded for helping children get the bug for microbiology

18th July 2013

As the latest batch of graduates officially receive their degrees from the University of East Anglia, a PhD student from the Institute of Food Research is receiving an award for helping ensure schoolchildren get the bug for science.

Helen and children from Old Catton Junior School 'Blast-a-biofilm'

Helen and children from Old Catton Junior School ‘Blast-a-biofilm’

Helen Brown is to receive the Newcomer Award for Engagement from UEA’s Engagement Executive for taking microbiology into the classrooms of Norfolk. These awards are presented at UEA’s Congregation service and recognise efforts in public and community engagement.

Helen’s award recognises her passion for outreach and for raising the profile of science, and in particular microbiology. She has travelled to over 20 schools across Norfolk bringing a variety of hands-on activities to the classroom, giving schoolchildren the chance to learn more about microbes. She has also hosted visits to the IFR, contributed to other events and presented public talks on her own work, which is focused on understanding how the food poisoning bacteria Campylobacter form biofilms to aid their survival and transmission.

Helen’s first outreach activities were through the Teacher Scientist Network (TSN), the innovative organisation that partners scientists on the Norwich Research Park with local school teachers. Two years ago Helen partnered with Admirals Academy, a large junior school in Thetford. As well as giving the schoolchildren a chance to meet a ‘real’ scientist, Helen helped to set up an after-school science club and ran a hugely successful Science Day.

“Helen has gone above and beyond with her commitment to this partnership. She is a real TSN ambassador and hopefully her positive experiences of engagement with schools will inspire other PhD students to give it a go in the future. The culture in science is changing and I am delighted to see Helen receive this award, rewarding and recognising career development beyond the lab.” commented TSN coordinator, Dr. Phil Smith, MBE.

Helen’s enthusiasm for her work has helped the schoolchildren really understand more about the microbial world. One activity she designed looked at where microbes were lurking. Whilst finding bacteria in the boys’ toilets wasn’t a surprise, finding the school computer room to be home to bugs opened their eyes to the fact that microbes are all around us. Helen also used other activities to explore how bacteria stick so well to surfaces and what they need to grow.

“It is a very deserved award, as Helen is great at conveying her enthusiasm for science to the schoolchildren. A lot of the work going on in science labs is much closer to the real world than many people think, and outreach and other public engagement activities like Helen’s strengthen the links between science and society” commented Dr Arnoud van Vliet, Helen’s PhD-supervisor.


Blasting a bacterial 'biofilm'

Blasting a bacterial ‘biofilm’

Helen has recently arranged a science day at Old Catton Junior School in Norwich, with colleagues from the Institute of Food Research. Here, Helen introduced the students to biofilms – the thin structures food poisoning bacteria making them so hard to remove and the subject of Helen’s own postgraduate studies.

Helen is also a Public Engagement Ambassador for the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Her outreach efforts were also recognised recently on the national scale by the Society for General Microbiology.

UEA’s Engagement Executive and Community University Engagement present Individual Awards including a prize of up to £500 and an award certificate at UEA’s annual Congregation in July. Nominations are open for students and all staff from the Norwich Research Park.