Telling the story of life – life science engagement and education at EMBL

EMBL's Science Education and Public Engagement office has been engaging diverse audiences with science and research for over 20 years. Here they share some of their activities and free resources to encourage other researchers to embrace science communication, education support and public engagement.
Telling the story of life – life science engagement and education at EMBL

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“Nothing in science has any value if it is not communicated”, Dr Anne Roe, The Making of a Scientist, 1953. 

At every scale, from genomes to entire ecosystems, the knowledge we’ve gained through life sciences is foundational to how we live as humans. From our health to our interactions with the environment, molecular biology is at the heart of the story of life.

When this story is shared effectively – accurately, engagingly, meaningfully – everyone benefits.

This is the mission of the Science Education and Public Engagement office at EMBL (European Laboratory for Molecular Biology), which engages with diverse audiences to showcase the work of researchers, educate and inspire young people, and promote a dialogue between scientists and the public.

Design of a pencil inside a circle.

Science education and public engagement
has been part of EMBL’s ethos from the beginning.
The SEPE office celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2023. 
Copyright: SEPE, EMBL Heidelberg

The Science Education and Public Engagement office (SEPE) leads the science education programmes and public engagement efforts at EMBL, building on the institute’s long history of science education and public engagement. This reflects EMBL’s commitment to share and discuss the work of its scientists in order to foster global scientific literacy and ensure research remains relevant to society’s biggest challenges.

Living up to the words of Dr Roe, SEPE has developed a range of programmes for its stakeholders, from teachers and young people to interested members of the public, which aim to strengthen the link between science and society, upskill and inspire future generations of young scientists, and enable today’s researchers to reflect on, and maximise, the impact of their work.

Researchers in schools

One example of this engagement approach is the EMBL School Ambassador programme. Researchers across the 28 EMBL member nations and six laboratory sites (in Germany, Italy, Spain, France and the UK) are invited to become School Ambassadors. The ambassadors visit local schools to showcase their research interests, embed the scientific method, and inspire young people to consider a career in science.

EMBL School Ambassador and PhD student Sara Formichetti, is based in Rome, Italy. She recently visited a local school to present her research on how the human genome starts working in the embryo after fertilisation. 

Sara said, “Doing outreach should be part of the responsibilities of every scientist. If each one of us does a bit, we would start solving those issues in the current world related to misinformation and misunderstanding of science.”

Photo of School Ambassador Sara Formichetti sitting at her computer and looking at the camera.
School Ambassador Sara Formichetti believes that doing outreach should be part of every scientist’s work. Copyright EMBL.

For former EMBL Heidelberg postdoc Rafael Galupa, who talked to young people about his research into engineering gene regulation in the early fly embryo, few things are as rewarding as feeling that you’ve made a difference to a student’s life, “Outreach is one of the most important responsibilities of scientists, but how often does responsibility mean this much fun?”

The School Ambassador programme is just one way for researchers to engage with the public and support educational projects. Many EMBL scientists have also developed educational resources with SEPE, working collaboratively to create games or learning packs on topics including microscopy, genomics and ecology, which are directly embedded in the EMBL outreach and science education programmes.

Photo of four people working at a table, showing science educators and researchers come together to create and review educational resources with the SEPE team. Copyright: ELLS, EMBL Heidelberg

Science educators and researchers come together to create and review educational resources with the SEPE team. Copyright: ELLS, EMBL Heidelberg.

In terms of science education, SEPE has a well-established Europe-wide offer, with solid partnerships generated through 20 years of developing resources and teacher training. Activities include free-of-charge virtual and in-person professional development courses for science educators. Participants often comment on the benefits of linking directly with scientists, with one UK-based teacher saying, “The real-life science aspect allows me to get students to connect their learning with real-world research.”

Teach the teacher

More recently the SEPE office has launched the EMBL Teacher Ambassador programme, which enables teachers from across Europe to train their peers around current EMBL research focused on ecosystem exploration, thereby building capacity in the member states and extending the reach of the research.

Along with on-site and outreach workshops with children and young people, these teacher training courses offer an opportunity to showcase and road-test the educational resources developed by the SEPE Education Team. During each teacher training, educators are introduced to a specific teaching resource and step into the shoes of their students to test out some of the tasks themselves. This process ensures that teachers can help shape the resources to better fit the classroom. All of the SEPE resources, including games such as Nexus Island (which focuses on ecology) and Be Part of the CRISPR Conversation, a bioethics resource on genome editing, are freely available and collated in an open-access repository, TeachingBASE.

Photo of two people kneeling down and talking to each other. One is a young woman facing the camera, holding a card and talking to a youg man who has his back to the camera.

Outreach and engagement as part of the EMBL Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) programme, using the Nexus Island resource. Copyright: EMBL Heidelberg.

Science educators from across Europe engage with, and value, these classroom-ready resources for their innovative and interdisciplinary approach towards teaching. As one secondary school teacher put it, ”Whenever I want to get updated on scientific issues and have a very high quality of teaching material, I search the SEPE site.” Many also share the materials with their peers.

Exhibitions, lectures and workshops

A wider aspect of the SEPE mission is to ignite sparks of inspiration about life sciences across a range of audiences. One powerful engagement tool for this is The World of Molecular Biology exhibition at EMBL Heidelberg (Germany). The exhibition offers an interactive insight into the inner workings of life, using video, animation and games. Since opening in May 2023, it has welcomed diverse audiences, from school students to members of the public, as well as distinguished guests including the German Federal Education and Research Minister. Suitable for anyone with an interest in science aged 14 upward, the exhibition also gives an insight into advanced microscopy. A virtual tour is also available.

Photo showing a young man and a woman interacting with a display of a cell at an exhibition and smiling. There is a board with text information beside the display, and a digital screen behind them showing nerve cells.

EMBL staff, school students and members of the public all enjoy interacting with the exhibits at The World of Molecular Biology, an exhibition at EMBL Heidelberg. Copyright: EMBL Heidelberg.

Another flagship tool for public engagement is the annual EMBL Insight Lecture, which can be booked in-person or streamed live. In recent years the lecture has covered topics including the link between disease and ageing, as delivered by Professor Dame Janet Thornton, a reflection on AI, cells and microscopy by Dr Anna Kreshuk, and a journey into the evolution of the brain with Dr Detlev Arendt. Past lectures are all available to view online.

Photo of Dr Detlev Arendt standing and looking at his slides for the 2023 Insight lecture.

The 2023 Insight lecture was delivered by Dr Detlev Arendt, and took the audience on a journey into the evolution of the brain. Copyright: EMBL Heidelberg.

The annual Insight lecture offers an opportunity for young people to engage more deeply with a current research topic. Copyright: ELLS, EMBL Heidelberg.

Public-facing workshops are also held throughout the year in collaboration with partners such as the TECHNOSEUM in Mannheim, Germany. The museum recently hosted a Coding4Society workshop featuring Building Blocks, a game that uses LEGO bricks to replicate DNA coding processes in a fun, interactive way.

Photo of a young girl with her back to the camera and sitting at a table, writing on a paper.

The Building Blocks game is a fun way to engage younger children in the fundamentals of DNA coding. Copyright: SEPE, EMBL Heidelberg.

In summary, the SEPE education programmes convey complex, cutting-edge topics in life science research in an exciting and insightful way, fostering the discovery of current research trends and inspiring and upskilling young people and educators alike. In addition, engagement and outreach activities promote a dialogue between EMBL scientists and the citizens and communities that give context to their work. Taken together, this approach aims to ensure that EMBL research is communicated in a way that builds capacity, fascination, and trust in science – now, and for future generations. 

As Agnes Szmolenszky, Head of the SEPE office, puts it, “It’s really important to reach out and connect with our stakeholders, from young learners and educators to partners and members of the public. Opening up the world of molecular biology for inspiration, education and engagement is a vital part of the meaning and message of life science work at EMBL.”

Top image shows young people interacting with an exhibit at The World of Molecular Biology exhibition at EMBL Heidelberg. Copyright: EMBL Heidelberg.

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