MerleFairhurstTo mark the launch of our call for applications for the first SAS/Senate House Library ‘Public Engagement Innovators Scheme’, we asked some staff from across the School about their experiences of public engagement and how it has influenced their research and professional practice. In this second post Dr Merle Fairhurst, research fellow in the Institute of Philosophy, answers our questions about her experiences engaging the public with research on the AHRC Rethinking the Senses project.

  • Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SAS?

As a research fellow on the AHRC Rethinking the Senses project at the Centre for the Study of the Senses (Institute of Philosophy), my central function is to use psychological and neuroimaging techniques to explore how we perceive the world through our various senses. I am particularly interested in the ways different streams of sensory information – say the sight and sound associated with someone speaking to you – are combined to create a unified experience. My work is complemented by dialogue and interaction with philosophers as we work together to investigate the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of multi-sensory perception.

  • What public engagement activities have you been involved with in the School?

The AHRC grant offers the chance and indeed promotes the sharing of our work with the general public and as such, we are always grateful for an opportunity to tell people about how our senses work together as well as highlight the philosophical relevance of empirical research. Our recent events have included talks in various venues, with two very exciting sessions as part of the annual Being Human festival. One was an evening at the Senate House Library in which I played the part of a human book, a form of living research. The other was a one-day event at the Dana Centre, Science Museum during which we focused on the interplay between taste and smell, the sometimes forgotten and hidden senses.

  • Why do you think it is important for researchers to get involved in public engagement?

The two events not only reminded us of the challenges of ensuring clear communication of both scientific and philosophical concepts, but also the keen interest in our exciting domain of research. Our project offers a unique opportunity to talk about sensory perception, something we are all keenly aware of (if more for some senses than others). It presents the philosophy behind questions like, ‘do we ever have a unified experience of seeing someone’s lips moving and hearing their speech?’ and the cognitive mechanisms that may underlie integration of the two streams of sensory information.

  • What have been the three most challenging experiences whilst undertaking public engagement activities?

We focus on at least the three following driving principles in all our events: minimising jargon to ensure we have communicated our core message; weaving a narrative that includes both the philosophical and empirical sides to our research; presenting stimulating examples of multi-sensory perception because nothing is quite as convincing as feeling it for yourself. We are fortunate to work with artists such as Patrick Hughes, chefs including Heston Blumenthal, and countless practitioners of sensory perception so we can demonstrate our research principles with real-world examples.

  • What have been the three most rewarding things that you’ve taken from public engagement?

Each and every time we present our work we are struck by the positive response from the public, with comments both about the unexpected overlap in these two domains of research, and also how much more multi-sensory (as opposed to unisensory) their perception of the world is. Specifically, our event at the Dana Centre showing how dependent flavour perception is on smell and sight was marked by exclamations. The living book event was a wonderful opportunity to talk to and answer questions from  a small group of interested individuals without using PowerPoint or focusing on a specific message; instead I was able to ‘live’ and share my passion for my subject with others.

  • Do you think that getting involved in public engagement has helped your research? If so, how?

As a young researcher whose work is publicly funded, I am well-aware that I owe a great deal to not only my mentors and supervisors, but also to the public who have allowed me to do what I love doing most. I am particularly fortunate because I derive great pleasure in sharing my work with others as I feel it is so relevant to everyone. My field offers tangible ways in which we can all enhance our lives by simply taking note that there is more to your food than just the way it tastes, that auditory experiences are enhanced by what you see and smell, that appreciation of artworks will be changed by how we approach them as well as the presence of others. My research questions, but my passion for science is also fuelled by hearing from and sharing my work with others.

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Further information about the AHRC Rethinking the Senses project can be found at: Dr Merle Fairhurst’s personal website can be viewed here. She can also be seen explaining her research in the official 2014 Being Human film.