Our first public engagement event together

It is not often that the ESRs are all together in the same country, let alone the same city, so we decided to take advantage of this at the Heriot-Watt University Open Day that took place in Edinburgh, UK. we were all their for the midterm review of our network. Open Day is part of Explorathon, which occurs all across the UK, and it’s a weekend filled with events aimed at engaging with the public about science. This year’s Open Day (29th September, 2018) followed a long week of meetings and presentations, so the ESRs were excited to share their research and what we are doing all across Europe.

The venue for the event

Organizing an event that involved 16 different people, all of which live in completely different countries, was quite the task but scientists never run away from a challenge. There were various things that needed to be coordinated in order to make this event a success, not just getting all 16 ESRs in the same country!

1. Ideas for activities were of course the most important part, but luckily the ESRs had amazing ideas and those were confirmed rather quickly.

2. Posters were a necessity at this event because over 600 people came through our exhibit that day, and there are only 16 of us, so if we weren’t able to speak with someone individually the posters were able to briefly explain various aspects of our research. We came up with the idea to have a common template so that all our posters look uniform. It also saved time while making the poster itself.

Putting up the posters

3. Funding these amazing ideas is always an obstacle, but the EUROPAH network encourages public engagement so getting our fun and entertaining activities was fully supported by our advisors and the network.

Stickers and molecular kits were the essentials

4. T-Shirts were a nice addition, but getting t-shirt sizes for 16 people ended up being much more difficult than anticipated. Unfortunately, some of the guys in the group were forced to wear pink but it was a lovely, bright pink so they definitely stood out in the crowd; I didn’t hear too many complaints.

5. EUROPAH stickers were a favourite among all the ESRs, but finding the perfect resolution and EUROPAH logo presented quite the challenge. When the proposed sticker logo was submitted, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would turn out but they ended up being perfect!

6. A risk assessment was the final task, and I am sure you wonder how dangerous Lego could possibly be but anything can happen in science so creating a risk assessment for any potential safety hazards had to be created. We had to give up an activity that involved using dry ice because we didn’t have enough expertise dealing with it.

At times getting organized was more like a wild goose chase, but in the end, it all came together beautifully. Let’s check out some of the awesome things we did that day!





We had various “stations” that described the different ways we study the same chemicals, PAHs.

Our first station “The Space Between Stars” was probably one of the most popular with the kids since it involved Legos! One of our ESRs, Rijutha Jaganathan, was the mastermind behind this activity, and it definitely did not disappoint. This activity was meant to help the kids and adults (yes adults ALSO enjoy Legos) understand what the interstellar medium (ISM) is and what it’s made of. The Legos allowed the public to build layers on “dust grains” and then add “atoms” onto the surface to resemble chemical reactions occurring in the ISM. I believe a lot of chemical reactions occurred that day!

The Lego station was a big hit!
Everyone wants to play with Lego

Then we had our “Plasma Ball” activity, even I personally enjoy plasma balls so this was a huge hit as well! Martin Alliati headed this activity, and the kids were definitely “starstruck” (no pun intended) by his description of this fourth state of matter and how it occurs in space and on earth!

The coolest station we had

Dario Campisi, our favourite theoretical chemist, put together videos of chemical reactions that may occur in space. He showed simulations of how PAHs can act as catalysts in molecular hydrogen formation. His station was a hit among parents and high school students.

Dario explaining his poster

My station was about the environmental impacts of PAHs here on earth, and what happens when we are exposed to them :(. I demonstrated the interactions that occur between PAHs and DNA after metabolic oxidation or photooxidation. I used a DNA model and a molecular kit to do this. In contrast to the other stations which showed PAHs as important catalysts in space and precursors to life, I explained through the activity that PAHs become oxidized and then attach to DNA nucleotides creating a PAH-DNA adduct. This could be the first “hit” in cancer if it is in an oncogene or tumor suppressor gene. Some of the concepts I explained through this activity were mutations, how PAHs oxidate and bind DNA, and the importance of DNA in living things. Julianna became a “toxicologist for a day”, by joining me for this activity and we had some interesting questions from the kids and their parents.

Telling the kids about the not-so-good terrestrial PAHs

The last station we had was an activity that Gabi came up with to use a molecular kit for children to learn what are PAHs, where they are found, what are molecular vibrations and what are isomers. Her activity suited all age groups. The smaller kids had fun making benzene rings and then joining them to make PAHs, the older kids learnt about the names of the molecules they made and how to check if the structure had enough hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon while the high school students learnt about how PAHs isomerize.

The lord of the rings, Benzene
Evgeny helping with making a molecule

All 16 of us were present at the event and we took turns at the stations. Some of us chose to document the event by taking photos and videos and some helped to set up the stations and then pack everything up at closing time. At the end of the day, we were really happy with the response each of our activities got. All that planning, the tons of WhatsApp messages, the chaos during the preceding days, and the numerous emails ended in a success!

The blog post was written by Lindsey St Mary and Rijutha Jaganathan. Lindsey participated in Explorathon in 2017 as well and took the initiative to organise the EUROPAH’s participation in Explorathon 2018.