Public engagement in the time of COVID
Dr Suzy Lishman has held regular public engagement events for over a decade, but they ground to a halt when the pandemic hit and the first lockdown was introduced.
A talk I was scheduled to give at the re-opening of the Thackray Museum in Leeds was cancelled, as was a Living Autopsy demonstration at the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London. But just as work meetings quickly moved online, so did public engagement activities.
Many of the partners I usually work with, such as museums, science centres and schools, closed during the pandemic, making collaboration difficult initially. But as most institutions did, many moved their content online and explored innovative ways of engaging with their target audiences.
One of the first online events I took part in was the Discovery Day at Home, organised by Dr Jenner’s House Museum. This was a one-day ‘festival’ with a series of speakers talking about careers in science. With the permission of The Royal College of Pathologists, the Museum shared the Living Autopsy video I recorded several years ago, which has been viewed over 900,000 times.1 This was followed by a live Q&A session on ‘Being a Pathologist’.2
I also regularly speak to state school students about my career in pathology through ‘Speakers for Schools’, and this programme also moved online. I usually talk about my career path, giving the highlights first, and then describing some of the obstacles along the way. Speaking online is easier to fit in as I don’t have to travel to the school and go through all the security that is required nowadays, but it’s definitely much more difficult to engage with the students when you’re not in the same room. There is one advantage though – at in-person talks I often find that students are reluctant to ask questions, whereas online they are happy to type them in the chat box during and after the talk.3
Another event I might have struggled to fit into the working week pre-pandemic, was Medicine in Action, an all-day event aimed at students considering a career in medicine.4
As it moved online for the first time, I only needed to attend for my talk, which I gave from my office at work. I was asked to talk about post-mortem examinations along the lines of the Living Autopsy, but as I only had 30 minutes to cover the topic I developed a new talk, ‘The pathologist’s tools of the trade’, describing and showing 10 autopsy instruments and explaining how they’re used and the sort of pathology that might be identified. Feedback was very positive, including;
“Very interesting talk, got me thinking about a career in histopathology in the future, which I did not even consider before!”
“Very interesting. Gave insight into a specialty I had not heard much about so it was really interesting to learn more.”
The Royal College of Pathologists’ Public Engagement team was also quick to develop new online events, collating activities for families to enjoy at home on a new Home Activity Hub,5 and holding online workshops for families. They also developed a series of short information videos about COVID-19 vaccination in several languages.6
The College also worked with the Social Mobility Foundation to develop an online medical ethics discussion for sixth-formers. For British Science Week the College developed discussion events about COVID-19 and vaccinations for secondary school students and medical undergraduates. One of the great successes was the introduction of a Pathology Book Club, the highlight of which so far was the involvement of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren in the discussion of the must-read book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.7
National Pathology Week 2020 went ahead as usual, online for the first time, with virtual events, Q&A sessions, new video resources and art-based activities. ‘Choose your own pathology adventure’, a new activity pack for 7–11 year olds, which includes 10 pathology-based activities using household objects was launched.8
Although online events can be excellent and have some advantages, nothing beats face-to-face, and almost every venue and organisation I work with is keen to go back to in-person events. However, things have changed since before the pandemic, with organisations having engaged new audiences and not wanting to lose them. They have also often developed their audiovisual facilities, and can now live stream or record events, which few places could do before. This means that talks can be made available online both during and after the event, increasing the size and diversity of audiences. I think that hybrid events will be the norm in future and will help communicators reach new audiences.
Organisations are starting to get back to normal and are planning future public engagement programmes. My big public engagement project for 2022 is a UK Living Autopsy tour, speaking in public venues around the country, including London, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. The tour will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of The Royal College of Pathologists and will give me a chance to catch up with some of the events I’ve missed in the last year or so.
Dr Suzy Lishman CBE FRCPath
About Suzy Lishman
Dr Suzy Lishman CBE is a consultant histopathologist in Peterborough. She has developed and delivered hundreds of public engagement events since introducing National Pathology Week in 2008, raising the profile of pathology, dispelling many of the myths about the specialty and encouraging the next generation of pathologists and healthcare scientists to join the profession.