Meet Cecil: Mechanical Engineering’s outreach tool

Today we meet Cecil who resides in the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. Cecil can be frequently found helping colleagues at public engagement events on and off campus. Donning his trademark sunglasses and UoB cap, Cecil does a lot more than just looking cool. We recently chatted with him to find out more:

Hi Cecil, thanks for taking time out to speak to us!

We hear you’re an outreach tool. Would you care to explain what that is?

My research colleagues work with me to educate the public about the research they carry out and how it impacts them and society at large. They also aim to inspire children to study STEM subjects and consider a career in engineering and the sciences. Whenever my colleagues take part in an outreach event, such as our recent Meet the Experts event at the Thinktank, they take me with them and use me as a tool to engage with people. I always make an effort with my appearance and wear something cool, which raises a laugh out of people and gets them talking to my colleagues. My colleagues also post pictures on social media of me getting up to mischief. Again this makes people laugh but hopefully it also helps raise awareness of our research team.

Cecil at Meet the Experts

Could you tell us a little bit about your team and what research they are involved with? What attracted them to mechanical engineering?

I am part of the Biomedical Engineering research group in the School of Mechanical Engineering. The group aims to understand the physical properties of natural and synthetic materials and to use this understanding to design and develop medical devices. For example several of our researchers are looking at the design of spinal implants called Total Disc Replacements. They are used to replace the intervertebral discs in patients suffering from severe back pain. Another area of expertise is the materials testing of cartilage to help understand osteoarthritis and how to treat it. We also have a PhD student using computer simulation to model the flow of blood through the heart.  So as you can see it is a very diverse field and people are often very surprised to find that mechanical engineers are working in it. I think most of our researchers became engineers because they love to solve problems and they entered biomedical engineering because they want to improve the quality of life for patients and benefit society.

Wow, that’s really interesting. On the face of it at least mechanical engineering seems like a really complicated topic to try to explain to anyone. Can you break it down for us and tell us how you and your research team fit in?

I don’t think mechanical engineering is anymore difficult to explain than any other subject really. Every subject has its jargon and acronyms that can confuse people. When talking about our subject it is important not to baffle them with all of that and use plain English. It is important not to talk down to people, but treat them as intelligent people who just haven’t studied your subject before. Everyone knows someone who has had a hip or knee replacement so it is very easy to engage people in a discussion about how implants are designed and made, and how they can be improved. We try and stick to the basics of the science behind our work and focus on demonstrating to people the impact our research has on society.

What’s your fondest memory?

My fondest memory is the day I went for a bike ride. I take the health of my bones very seriously and think it is important to exercise. It coincided with an initiative run by the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS) to Tweet Your EPS day and show people what a typical day working in the college looks like for you. My colleague Naomi (@NaomiGreen) tweeted a photo of me before I went out for my ride. Lots of people on twitter found a skeleton riding a bike funny, I can’t think why, so I got my 5 minutes of fame and hopefully highlighted that mechanical engineers can do biomedical engineering too.

Cecil riding a bike

What would you say to others thinking about doing public engagement, any advice?

Get out there and do it you will not regret it! It is great fun and very rewarding. I don’t actually do much work when we do outreach activities. I just stand around looking cool and having skeleton selfie’s taken with my new found friends, so I asked Naomi for her advice. She says to try to be yourself and remain relaxed; if you put on an act they will see right through you (in my case that is all too true!). She also says you need to plan well before the event, think what activity you are going to do, all of the resources you need, how long it will take and try to anticipate what might go wrong.

Great stuff! Thanks very much for your time, keep up the good work!

– PEWG

If you or your research team have a prop, tool or even something completely wacky that helps explain your research to the public, we’d love to find out more. We hope hearing about Cecil will inspire others to think about new ways of engaging the public with their research in fun, thought-provoking and educational ways.

Contact us at engage@contact.bham.ac.uk

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