A picture is worth a thousand words; can art effectively communicate research?

A common dilemma faced by researchers is how to communicate their findings beyond the world of academia, to a wider audience. How can we share our research in an innovative way that’s both engaging and informative, whilst avoiding scientific language that may exclude non-specialists? With the help of King College London’s collaborative scheme for Early Career Researchers, I am attempting to find out.

The scheme

The scheme facilitates Early Career Researchers, such as myself, to collaborate with a ‘cultural-sector’ partner to explore research themes in an inventive way that goes beyond press releases and tweets. This could be an artist, sculptor, printer, or photographer. As a PhD student studying environmental associations with the gut microbiota within the Department of Twin Research, this is a daunting prospect, but I’m lucky to be collaborating with the artist MURUGIAH.

MURUGIAH, who currently lives in London, was raised in South Wales with Sri Lankan origins. Working with inspiration from surrealism and pop culture he uses strong colour and line to create bold, impactful imagery. Together, we are looking to use ideas and themes sparked by my research to create an artwork in the hope that we can engage a wider audience with concepts connecting our environment to the gut microbiota. As a result, we’ve named our project ‘Outside In’.

So what’s it all about?

‘Outside In’ is an exploration of the themes from my PhD. I am studying how a range of environmental factors may influence the composition of your gut microbiota – the community of tiny microorganisms that live inside you and may affect your health.

As you are probably aware from previous TwinsUK research, a lot of research has focused on how diet might influence which microbes live in our gut, and in what quantity. There are, however, other factors such as where you live, your early life and who you live with that might also have an effect – I’m even writing up some research that suggests there might be an association between your socioeconomic status and your gut microbiota.

I think there’s something really powerful in this idea that our interactions with the outside world shape our inside world; that we are so connected to the spaces we have and will inhabit – and how this may prejudice our health. This is what we want to explore in ‘Outside In’.

The piece

MURUGIAH will examine these themes visually by creating an illustrated mural, which we hope to display publicly before the final showcase in February 2019. What will be interesting as the project unfolds is the conflict between my fears of overstating or misrepresenting research and allowing MURUGIAH to use his artistic license to explore ideas thematically rather than literally. What will people take from the image, and what will it provoke in them? That’s where you come in.

We need you!

When the work is finished, we will invite feedback from whoever would like to comment. We want to find out if we have achieved our goal; to engage people in an innovative way with my research.

It’s okay if you don’t like it – this helps shape our ideas, and I’m really looking to challenge my pre-conceived notions about what aspects of my research non-specialists might be interested in and how they engage with it.

The work will be displayed on our website, and hopefully in public, with forums available for you comment both digitally and physically. I would love for anyone who is interested – particularly the wonderful TwinsUK volunteers, without whom so little of the research would be possible – to share their thoughts. In the meantime, I am blogging throughout the process, so please do follow us there and on Twitter (@OutsideInProj) for updates.

So, can a picture tell a thousand academic words? Watch this space to find out!

You can find out more information and follow project updates from the OutsideIn project page or email ruth.c.bowyer[at]kcl.ac.uk.

Ruth is a PhD candidate at King’s College London in the Department of Twin Research and genetic epidemiology and is a member of Dr Claire Steves’ lab. With a background in ecology, her research focuses on how environmental factors, such as where and how you live, may influence the composition of the gut microbiota.