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Packing a punch


The conference has assembled, the introductions have been given and the PowerPoint fired up. Bella Starling relates the nervous moment, standing on the precipice of the podium, that she stood up for a new way to talk about public engagement and connection.


We’re talking health, science, innovation, evidence, data, patient benefit, public trust. Big words, big concepts.

The Medical Director of a Very Important Healthcare Organisation speaks with emphasis, gravitas and lots of clever diagrams. We’re talking health, science, innovation, evidence, data, patient benefit, public trust. Big words, big concepts.

The room feels heavy under the weight of expectation and yet another PowerPoint presentation. The temperamental projector puts pressure on speakers to perform.

My turn next. A dry swallow as I step up to the imposing podium: “I don’t need the projector, thanks.”

An almost imperceptible reaction: the corner of a mouth smirks surreptitiously, a furtive ocular roll strains microscopic tendons, a guttural clearing rises above huddled heads.

My colleague winks.

A pause, then:

My voice quivers,
In rhythmic semi-quavers,
My hand shakes lightly,
I’m sweating ever so slightly,
The words come flowing,
As I recite my ​poem​.

Another pause, then:

A rumble of thunder drums the air, a round of applause rolls in my ears (the first of the day, might I add). My words oxygenate the room; we are revived, inspired (not my words). There’s even an involuntary tear in one eye (not mine).

I’m relieved, of course, that my poem packs a punch. Although maybe I shouldn’t be: it’s my job, after all, to connect academia and people. “​Public Engagement​” and “​Patient and Public Involvement​” with health research, is what I do. These non-descript phrases come with equally helpful acronyms: PE and PPI. Are you thinking sweaty gym kits and dodgy payment insurance? I am.

In reality, I’m a scientist and a lover of the written and spoken word. My team and I work daily to creatively plan, design and explain health research hand in hand with patients, communities and marginalised groups. We use writing, poetry, performance, the art of conversation. Even grime.

Except sometimes, I don’t always practice what I preach. I’ve lapsed into buzzword bingo and strategy-speak with the best of them. Reciting my poem is part of a conscious effort to resist relapse. I’ve recently been reminded that metaphors bridge the known and the unknown, the unimaginable and the imaginable; that they are “as necessary to science, as to poetry*”. Important too for our understanding of science: use a blueprint metaphor to teach the complexity of genetics and school students come away with a more deterministic view than if you use a recipe metaphor**.

Poetry and science are fertile cross-pollinators of one another.

Poetry and science are fertile cross-pollinators of one another. The magnificent Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, discovered the powerful potential of a calculating engine through ‘poetical science’. Both mould themselves with uncertainty running through their veins; they offer surgical insights into the heart of the matter (whatever that might be). Perhaps they achieve this through a shared precision; perhaps my poem acted as a pacemaker to the room because it transfused abstract concepts with detail, human relationships and the relatable world.

In any case, over lunch, the Medical Director of the Very Important Healthcare Organisation, and several others, ask me if they can share my poem with their colleagues, patients, friends, family.

“Yes, yes, yes, please do,” I answer. “But better still, write your own.”

*Jacob Bronowski, ​Science and Human Values​. 1956
**Heijkoop MEA, ​The meaning secondary school students ascribe to genomic metaphors​. 2013


Bella Starling is a specialist in public engagement, science communication and public involvement, and works at the Wellcome Trust as an Engagement Fellow. Read her poem here.

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