The Good, the Bad and the Algae: a public engagement event

This week I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Outreach Prize from the Society for General Microbiology. The prize, sponsored by Yakult, is awarded “to a microbiologist who has engaged in high-quality outreach activities during the last 2-5 years”. The award has been presented annually since 2009, and I am the first guy to ever win it, which is interesting in itself!

I was invited to give a prize talk at the SGM Autumn conference in Sussex, and unusually, the award was presented jointly, sharing with me is Helen Brown (Institute of Food Research, UK), who has done some great work in promoting microbiology to the masses. Our work has taken somewhat different routes, but with very similar outcomes.

Over the years of my PhD I have been involved with a lot of public engagement events, focusing on many different aspects of microbiology (including hand hygiene, oral microbiology and viruses) to a range of different audiences (school students, the public, families and educators), but I chose to discuss one particular activity, which has ‘grown’ over the years, and has developed its own story and (hopefully) legacy.

Here is a very brief overview of what I did. ‘The Good, the Bad and the Algae’ was first conceived for the National Science and Engineering Week in 2011. We sent out the word, and very quickly our three 1 hour sessions were fully booked. Over the space of a day, we immersed 60 people into the world of algae. Many people disregard algae as a microorganism, and given their importance in the world around us (for example oxygen production and their involvement in many common products we use), we decided they needed someone to fight their corner. The sessions began with a small introduction, after which, using an ID key developed for the activity, people where left to identify 9 ‘unknown’ species of algae. Additionally, we provided modelling clay for people to make models of their favourite algae to take home (in case they got bored in the hour long session!). However, nobody got bored, and with a friendly and productive atmosphere, most people went through all nine species, marvelling at the shape, colour and movement of the various samples provided.

Algal clay models

The event was a great success, we were very happy with it, and asked the SGM if they would like us to write it up for their magazine Microbiology Today (Redfern, 2011). After discussion with the then outreach officer at SGM, we decided to take the event to the national Big Bang Science fair in 2012, which was being held in Birmingham.

This provided many issues and made us rethink how we approached the event. We would no longer have a calm 20 participant lab with new microscopes. Instead, we would have a few tables, and potentially thousands of children turning up in any order or number. So we rethought a few things. We got hold of some very nice microscopes with LCD monitors built in, which allowed us to show the species of algae to a group of students, instead of individually. We also reduced the number of algal species to make things a little more manageable. Also we added some 3D images of algae (to draw attention) and a new activity on the scale and size of microalgae, using 2cm Plastacine models (made by the students) and a perspex box, we were able to show just how many algae could fit inside half a drop of water.

Me looking a little stupid with some 3D glasses testing our 3D algal images

Me looking a little stupid with some 3D glasses testing our 3D algal images

Over the three days of the event we engaged with over 2,200 people, with over 800 making an algal model for our water drop. Additionally, students were asked (via post it notes) what piece of information they had learned from the event, with over 50% of those responding suggesting they took something scientific from our activity. Since this, we have published the story as a case study in the Journal of Biological Education (Redfern, Burdass, & Verran, 2013).

Just like Helen, I have gained a lot from my work with public engagement, not only does it provide the usual ‘transferable skills’ etc., but it builds confidence, and more importantly, communication skills, something which is becoming more and more important in the world of science.

I am very grateful to the SGM for awarding me this prize, a very nice end to my PhD, and of course this story could never have happened without a large amount of input from many other people, notably Prof Jo Verran (MMU) and Dariel Burdass (SGM) and attendees of the British Phycological Society winter meeting in 2012 for their ideas and input.


Redfern, J. (2011). The Good, the Bad and the Algae. Microbiology Today, 38, 189.

Redfern, J., Burdass, D., & Verran, J. (2013). Transforming a school learning exercise into a public engagement event: “The Good, the Bad and The Algae”. Journal of Biological Education, 1-7. doi: 10.1080/00219266.2013.801872


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