Dr Rupy Matharu: My Public Engagement Journey
By Jordan Abankwah, on 29 September 2021
When I was asked to write this blog post about my public engagement journey, I was both honoured and reluctant. Honoured, because this is a fantastic opportunity to share my journey with you all. Reluctant, because I still feel like a rubber dingy trying to navigate a treacherous ocean in the dark (the ocean, of course, being the world of public engagement).
Since the dawn of time (slightly dramatic, but the dawn of my academic life), I have taken part in a smattering of engagement activities, from working with schools in STEM initiatives to Lates at the Science Museum. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what to call this “hobby”, I just knew I enjoyed taking part and the work I was doing was important to me and had a positive impact on society. As I gained independence in my career, I found myself drawn to projects that aimed to find solutions to some of the bigger healthcare challenges and naturally, I was eager to disseminate my findings beyond academic journals and conferences (in order to reach the people my work affected). Like many people, I considered this work “extra” to my regular workload, and while I enjoyed taking part, they were always somewhat “isolated” events, making it difficult for me to appreciate its impact and significance. Though quite fragmented, all these activities felt like beads on a string – connected in some way, I just couldn’t put my finger on how.
After finishing my PhD, I made a commitment to explore and improve this “hobby” of mine. I signed up for UCL Culture’s Train and Engage programme. As I made my way through the six modules, I gained some clarity on my experiences. I came to the realisation that all my “hobbies” fell under the umbrella of public engagement. During the programme, I learnt about the different types of engagement, how to refine my aims, the various funding sources available and much more. One of the biggest take-home messages I learnt, was that public engagement isn’t just traditional passive one directional dissemination, it’s much more than that. It’s about two-way knowledge exchange. Whilst I was alleviated to finally put my finger on what this love affair was, I was overwhelmed by the foreign language used. Terms such as “PUS model” and “grassroot activities” were used nonchalantly, and a sense of panic washed over me – I was way out of my depth. I reached out to UCL Culture, who managed to calm my panic. They helped me work through my ideas, connect me to the appropriate people and point me in the direction of upcoming opportunities. I applied for various things, some successful and others unsuccessful (which is normal, but as an early career researcher rejection is still difficult to process).
In late 2020 I embarked on a yearlong Impact Fellowship with the Institute of Healthcare Engineering (IHE). It’s probably obvious, but before starting this Fellowship, I had a very basic and surface level understanding of ‘Impact’ (though I didn’t think this at the time). Through this Fellowship I’ve come to learn the complexities of Impact. I gained an in depth understanding of all the different avenues, ranging from policy to science communication. I was taught the theory of each remit and then provided with the opportunities to gain hands-on experience. Having continuous support in this format, made me feel comfortable and confident to put myself forward for opportunities I would never usually consider. If you would have told me a year ago that I would be doing stand-up comedy, I would have laughed in your face. But aside from making jokes about the more unusual things I have encountered during my research, talking to a crowd of people about typical work antics almost humanises STEM researchers, which allows for people to take an interest in STEM, or better yet, imagine themselves in such roles. Another avenue my Fellowship gave me the encouragement to explore, was policy. I had always thought policy was reserved for the “big dogs”, the more “established researchers” (if you will). Through the Fellowship, I’ve come to realise any researcher has the capacity to change policy.
Though a lot of progress has been made in recent years to improve diversity, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. STEM is constantly evolving; however, certain groups are often hidden by stereotypes. Sadly, I can’t single handily solve this problem, but I can definitely help. As a “BAME” female in STEM, I feel it’s incredibly important to show people like me, who didn’t go to private school and had a relatively normal upbringing that STEM is for people like us. Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to take part in a STEM initiative at a secondary school – aimed to help encourage students to choose STEM subjects. I spoke to students (virtually, of course) about what I do and what I did to end up where I am now. The thing I was less prepared for was trying to hectically answer a barrage of questions (both science based and general life) from 20-30 students in about 40 minutes. Speaking to the students on a personal level, I was able to connect with them and allow them to self-identify with me (shockingly we shared the same Netflix interests, so I suppose we both self-identified and I felt young again).
My public engagement journey thus far has been an amazing eye-opening experience with intense peaks and troughs. I’ve had the chance to learn so much in a short space of time, and the opportunity to connect with some amazing researchers and people! I’ve enjoyed exploring and gaining hands on experience in the different avenues of Research Impact, Public Engagement and how to create long-lasting change. I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried things I’ve always imagined doing, but never had the courage for. I’ve been able to connect to people on a personal level, to not only engage them in STEM, but to also help design solutions that are responsive to user needs (inevitably helping my own research). I think drawing from my experiences, I am starting to target two main avenues of Impact and Public Engagement with more focus than ever before. For anyone who is sceptical and feels as though Public Engagement isn’t for them – it is for you, you just need to play around with a few streams and find what works for you and your research.
Failing fast = learning fast. Something that felt, at first, like a treacherous ocean, is now starting to feel like a calm, steady and peaceful sea. Looking to the future I hope to continue to share my knowledge with fellow researchers through the Mechanical Engineering Researchers Society, and other researchers in the faculty. I am excited to begin my new role as a Co-Chair of the Engagement Delivery Group at the IHE. I am also super excited to be part of this year’s Showoff Talent Factory and am very keen to get stuck into a bunch of shows and gigs (keep an eye on upcoming events – guaranteed laughs await). I will continue to put myself forward for things, and who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll be the next Brian Cox.