Written by Ali Floyd, Public Engagement Manager, Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research
The best things come to those who wait. The Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research was officially launched in 2017. As with all great projects, a lot of work went on behind the scenes before that. In late 2019 and early 2020, one of our long-planned public engagement projects came to fruition. Parasites: Battle for Survival is an exciting exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland which has received widespread acclaim.
We developed it in partnership with the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and of course, the Museum’s expert curators. It might not be quite what people expect. When many folks think of museums, they may think of old things. It might be history, ancient objects, perhaps black and white pictures of people from long ago. With Parasites: Battle for Survival, we’re having a stronger focus on the contemporary. While we do look at the history, we’re more interested in telling people what’s happening now. Scotland plays a world-leading role in fighting parasitic diseases, and that’s what we want to show people.
Visitors have been exploring how we find out about parasites and how we make new medicines. They’ve also discovered some fascinating objects from our labs and from places where the diseases are found. Like all the best museum pieces, they tell stories about people, often with surprising outcomes. You’ll never look at mosquito net in quite the same way again.
WCAIR researcher Irene Hallyburton has been a particularly generous contributor to the exhibition. As well as being a featured model on one of the interactives, she has donated a multi-channel pipette to the Museum’s collection. This was used in the very early days of the Drug Discovery Unit, setting up some of our first cultures.
It’s also been interesting to see how the public respond to a scientist who doesn’t necessarily fit the perception of what a scientist looks like. With purple hair, tattoos and commonwealth powerlifting medals, teachers have already asked if their pupils can meet Irene.
Susan Wyllie, PI of WCAIR’s Mode of Action group, has also been featured in the exhibition, talking about how her team helped the world by finding a fail. We’re really keen that people discover that science isn’t about being right all the time. It’s about taking risks, being tenacious and reporting honestly. If we only did things we knew would work, the world would have very few medicines!
We’ve run lots of programming too. We developed a brand-new workshop for school groups and had planned to be part of Edinburgh Science Festival 2020. Our plans included sessions on how we run our cycle of design-make-test in the Drug Discovery Unit. They also featured Heal the World, our large-scale, interactive board game where you can be a game piece.
Of course, with the Covid-19 situation we’ve had to delay those plans. We are having some great chats with our partners about extending the exhibition, though. We had seen over 30,000 people by the time the Museum closed, which we were delighted with, but there’s always scope for more. You can play games and find out more at https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/parasites-and-deadly-diseases/
Once the pandemic is over, we hope lots of you will take the chance to visit the exhibition. It’s free to visit, in Special Exhibition Gallery 2. We’ve got lots more visitors in our sights!