Exploring a hands-on approach to engaging with science

Research lives: Dr Muriel Grenon, founder and director of Cell Explorers

Cell Explorers founder and director Dr Muriel Grenon.

Cell Explorers founder and director Dr Muriel Grenon.

 

Congratulations, you recently won a Science Foundation Ireland award for outstanding contribution to Stem communication. Tell us about Cell Explorers.

Cell Explorers is an outreach programme, where volunteers who are scientists go to primary schools and festivals and do hands-on experiments with children. The volunteers come from universities and institutes of technology around Ireland, and the idea is for them to build their communication skills and share their passion for science with young people.

We tend to work with schoolchildren who are between age 10 and 12. Research shows this is the age around which they form opinions about science – including whether they like it or not, and if it is for them – so an important aspect of the programme is to provide a positive hands-on experience of engaging with science, with facilitators who might act as science role models and don’t look like the stereotypical scientist.

How did you get the idea?

I was a researcher at NUI Galway, working on how cells can detect damage in DNA, and activate ways to repair the DNA. Part of my job was to teach undergraduate students, and I did some training to become a better lecturer.

I saw how you can encourage people to learn by co-creating with them, and I got the idea to work with undergraduates to design molecular biology workshops for school students, where they could do experiments themselves and learn more about it.

And that was the start of Cell Explorers?

Yes. I got some funding from NUIG to start a staff-student collaborative project. I asked biotechnology students would they like to join the project and work with my son’s school. Ten of them volunteered and designed four workshops, including Fantastic DNA, which we are still running now.

Everyone really enjoyed it and from this Cell Explorers was started. We got successive funding from the RDS, the Wellcome Trust and Science Foundation Ireland for going into more schools and taking part in science festivals. In eight years we built a network of 13 Cell Explorers teams across 15 institutions around Ireland.

How do you assess its impact?

I have taken a scientific approach with the evaluation of Cell Explorers, gathering the evidence about it from the very beginning. This is to the point that it has become my research and I don’t do molecular genetics in the lab any more. Between 2012 and the end of 2019 we reached about 40,000 people.

Throughout that time we have been reflective, documenting and improving our practice and sharing our findings with others. In addition to our evaluation, one PhD student and one postdoctoral researcher are looking at the potential impact of our programme on how children perceive science and scientists.

What keeps you going with it?

I find it very rewarding to see the responses of the children in the classroom, of the teacher and of our young volunteer scientists. I can’t put numbers on this part, it is a feeling that you are making a connection and it is worth it. It is why I do this.

How do you take a break?

At home, I like to spend time with my family. I am French and I love to cook, especially with my children. We love cats – my husband is counting the number that are turning up in our garden! We are also a family of readers, we enjoy reading books and discussing them.

And what was the last book you read?

In English? That would be Normal People by Sally Rooney. I also recently read and enjoyed Notes to Self by Emilie Pine. Over Christmas, I read a lot of books in French, including books that my children read too, and we had fun talking about them.