Bioengineer on a mission

“My name is Jenna Stevens-Smith and I am a bioengineer.” When I tell people that, 90% of the time their first response is “Really?” It used to annoy me that people didn’t think I looked like I could be a scientist or engineer, but now I quite enjoy the conversation that follows and the slight change I may impart to the stereotypical images they hold.

Jenna Steven-Smith with an Imperial College bagMoving into science communication

I still think of myself as a bioengineer, having studied it at undergraduate and doctorate level, but after my PhD I chose to pursue a career in science communication and specifically public engagement.

The field of science communication has grown immensely in my five professional years in it.  I think a combination of the STEM community waking up to the importance of communicating their research to the public and the emergence of ‘pathways to impact’ in grant applications these has helped, together with the general culture change towards openness and transparency

I don’t think we are by any means perfect in our communication of science and engineering to the public yet in the UK, but we have improved. Understanding science, technology, engineering and maths opens up so many opportunities, and I agree with Richard Feynman’s ‘ode to a flower’ sentiment that a knowledge and understanding of science and engineering only enhances your view and experience of the world, it doesn’t detract from it.

Outreach work at Imperial College

Now, I am the outreach manager for the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. It is great to be back in a discipline that I spent so much time studying and it’s a field which is set for such exponential growth over the next decade or so.

I often get asked whether you need to have a scientific or engineering background to do outreach work. Although I don’t think it is essential in all cases it has definitely helped me. I find my career now is not so much a job but a really enjoyable mission. I get to find out about amazing research and then come up with creative ways of making it accessible and of interest to the public.

For example, Professor Martyn Boutelle at Imperial College London is researching brain biosensors, looking at sensing changes in chemical levels in the brain (lactate, glucose, potassium) in a patient who has traumatic brain injury. This information is available to the clinicians in real-time, so they can make an informed decision on the next clinical intervention with a knowledge of what is going on in the brain at that very moment. This research will be featured this month on the new series of Bang goes the Theory on BBC1.

Fact-finding mission to the USA

I am writing this blog at Baltimore airport. What, you may wonder, is an outreach manager for the Department of Bioengineering doing in the USA? A more in depth answer to this question can be found on the blog I am writing while I am here but in essence I am on a 5 part bioengineering fact-finding mission.

Part of this mission is finding out more about some of the latest bioengineering research in the  US. At MIT I was really impressed by the work by Professor Michael Cima where he is developing a new way of ‘sensing’ cancer. The small sensor they have developed can be implanted when a tumour biopsy is taken. It can then measure how the cancer is changing / developing after the biopsy, giving clinicians more information about the cancer. The Cima lab have created this great animation about the work if you’re interested in finding out more.

I also want to find out more about their outreach provision. A lot of the issues we encounter in outreach in the UK are also prevalent in the USA. In one meeting the US STEM outreach landscape was described as “a crowded party that everyone wants to be at.” I think the same is true of the UK, there are so many great and some not so great outreach initiatives out there now.

I have been pleased to see the growth of evaluation of outreach or to use a buzz phrase ‘measuring impact’ to help ensure quality. I think evaluation especially ‘measuring success’ is essential as outreach and public engagement becomes a more integral and professional part of STEM.

To give you a flavour of my crazy bioengineering mission, I landed in Boston on Sunday, went to New York on Wednesday, Baltimore on Thursday, San Francisco on Friday (via a very snowy Minneapolis), next I am off to Los Angeles on Wednesday and will fly back to London on Saturday 8th March. During this time I will have managed to fit in 27 meetings in 12 different institutions in 5 different US cities on both coasts of the country. Its been a tiring but phenomenal trip so far and I can’t wait for the Californian chapter of the trip.

Do what you love

For any aspiring scientists, engineers (particularly bioengineers) and outreach professionals out there my advice to you is ‘do what you love and love what you do’. I have been lucky enough to find and excel in my dream career and I wish the same for all of you. Have a great March!

Jenna Stevens-Smith  @J_DoubleS