LifeLab and me: from the research lab to the pop-up lab!

LifeLab and me: from the research lab to the pop-up lab!

Taking science out of the lab

What do you get when you cross a scientist, a lab and a shopping centre? That WOW LifeLab feeling of course! The LifeLab 2018 experience helped scientists like myself catapult our research to new dimensions by showcasing it in public places (including The Grand Arcade and The Grafton, Cambridge and Queensgate Centre, Peterborough) and enlightening the community about how research affects our lives. 

At first, the concept of setting up a lab in a shopping centre sounded like an idea conjured up by one of those stereotypical “mad scientists”, but they say for every crazy idea there’s one that leads to a breakthrough and this stands true for my LifeLab journey.

Bringing science engagement to an environment that the public are familiar with made it easier for me to reach people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, and even capture the attention of those who wouldn’t usually associate with this science malarkey! Whilst a young lady was bagging her ‘on trend’ jeans I was able to catch her attention and give her a snapshot of our ‘on trend’ MRC research – I think that’s the perfect combo!

Originally a Lancashire lass of Indian/Pakistani origin, I’ve spent over two decades working in science in Cambridge (please don’t do the maths - yes, I’m vintage!). I believe as a scientist, especially being of an ethnic minority, I feel I have a duty to inspire and make my work more accessible to the public and there is nothing more suitable than LifeLab in achieving this goal.

I asked my daughter when she was younger to describe a scientist, without bias or any threat of her scientist mummy confiscating her toys for giving the ‘wrong’ answer. Her answer, “geeky, emotionless, nuts, robotic and secretive” -OUCH! I have been involved in science public engagement ever since to correct these misunderstandings and dispel stereotypes. I visited her school and we carried out simple fruit DNA extraction experiments with the class; they were mesmerised – mission accomplished! A few of the children drew pictures for me and wrote how they now want to be scientists – pictures I still treasure today to inspire me to continue with my activities to support their scientific learning.

As part of LifeLab, I helped with presenting a display of pioneering MRC LMB (Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology) research on ‘mini-brains’ (organoids) that are grown in the lab from stem cells that can be used to investigate human brain/nervous system development and some brain disorders such as motor neurone disease and schizophrenia.

Sharing with shoppers

Despite my LifeLab T-shirt and vibrant LifeLab paraphernalia, shoppers were at first reluctant to come over. I guess having a scientist in the shopping centre is not exactly the norm so maybe there was a suspicion that I was offering discount broadband or free PPI checks instead! Once tempted with the opportunity to peek at some mini-brains and an explanation of the LifeLab endeavour, the interest ramped up significantly.

It was heart-warming to have an elderly member of the public share his personal experience of family tragedies due to schizophrenia and he was extremely appreciative that I was able to make him aware of the potentials of ‘mini-brain’ research in the future for this illness.

In Peterborough, I joined a team of MRC LMB researchers for the “See your Cells” hands-on experiment allowing the public to see a sample of their own cheek cells under a microscope. It was refreshing to see children bypass the psychedelic children’s stationary shop (let’s call it “Squiggles”) and head straight to the LifeLab events at Queensgate! Life Lab -1: “Squiggles”- 0 - BOOM!

Most memorably, a young boy came and asked me “How much is it do to the experiments?”. He was shocked to find out it was free but overjoyed that he could now do it. When he finished, I heard the young boy tell his mum “That was so much fun, this is the best day ever”. Yes, hearing this did bring tears to my eyes.

Raising the profile of scientific research

Participating in LifeLab not only raises the profile of scientific research but it highlights some of the privileged experiences I now have as a scientist in Cambridge and maybe sometimes take for granted. Through volunteering at LifeLab I was hopefully one of the many people creating priceless and influential memories, especially for the next generation. Growing up in a small town in Lancashire I wasn’t exposed to such fantastic opportunities and there is a big need for more scientists to volunteer and initiate a wider national science public engagement policy targeting less-served geographical areas.

As a scientist, having a visible presence is imperative and it helps forge and enhance vital relationships between scientists and members of the public. Being able to discuss research with the public (who are essentially ‘stakeholders’ of our research) at LifeLab events, opened my eyes to views of science that I haven’t encountered or reflected upon previously.

LifeLab and me

Scientists never have enough time but taking part in LifeLab didn’t divert my attention from my own work because I was supported by an enviably organised public engagement task force. They seemed to have never met a problem they couldn’t solve and they had a box for everything, even for a box! They were the backbones of LifeLab who made it effortless for me to participate, I literally just turned up! I’ve enhanced my own communication knowledge, skills, and experience through LifeLab: I’m even writing my first blog! Having written this I’m now considered a ‘blogger’ and according to my daughter that makes me a “well sick scientist”?! 

Thanks, LifeLab! Roll on LifeLab 2019 - Can’t wait!

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Marie Curie


Authored by:

Shahana Ahmed, Research Assistant in the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

About Shahana:

Shahana has a scientific research career spanning over 20 years. The majority of her career has been spent working at the University of Cambridge as a ‘gene hunter’ looking for genes that increase your risk of getting cancers. These endeavours have resulted in numerous high impact collaborative publications and Shahana was awarded the Breast Cancer Now charities ‘Emerging Investigator’ prize at The Royal Society for some of this work. She has been at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) for the last two years. In addition to assisting with cutting edge scientific research, Shahana has participated in numerous engagement events including Open Days, STEM in song, LifeLab, science busking and most recently the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and for these unwavering efforts of public engagement she was awarded an MRC recognition award. Shahana is a full-time working mummy to a teenage daughter (S.O.S!), so says that LifeLab 2018 was actually her retreat! Alongside her research and engagement activities Shahana is dedicated to her gym and running pursuits and has run several marathons and half marathons for charity for which she was nominated for the Dublin’s Lord Mayor’s marathon medal for overcoming odds and has featured in the Runner’s World magazine and other publications.