Light of Understanding Award

The Light of Understanding is an institution-wide award to recognise individuals and groups who are carrying out amazing public engagement with research work. The name of the award was inspired by Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate and Alumnus of University of Birmingham, who was also a pioneer of research communication and storytelling.

The Light of Understanding Award not only rewards brilliant work, but aims to catalyse more activity and act as a beacon to be passed to other researchers. Therefore, winners of the Light of Understanding are rewarded with a grant of £2,000 to spend on further public engagement activity that helps spread their good practice to other researchers.

Nominations for the award in 2022 are now open. Anyone can nominate, self-nominations are strongly encouraged and nominations for groups are welcome. The deadline for nominations has been extended to Friday 9th September 2022 and completed forms should be emailed in a PDF format to

Download the 2022 nomination form here.

2019 Winners

The award was judged by an expert panel consisting of Public Engagement Committee Chairs, Prof Alice Roberts and Prof Ian Grosvenor, Prof Tim Softley, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Helen Featherstone who is a leading national public engagement expert. The panel were so impressed with the number and quality of applications to the scheme, that they decided to award a special commendation to PhD student Liam Crowley (Biosciences) for his portfolio of work promoting the work of our forestry institute, BiFOR, and in particular his work on the successful insect podcast, Entocast. Liam received £250 to spend on further PER activity.

Prof Heather Flowe, Dr Melissa Colloff and PhD student Danielle Hett

The 2019 Light of Understanding was awarded to the Applied Memory lab who’ve developed a brilliant project call ‘Are You a Good Eyewitness’. The project includes a tourable exhibition which has been used to engage with over 2,000 children at the Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum and a website featuring lots of great images and videos that really bring their research to life.

The judges were particularly impressed by their attitude towards involving researchers at different career stages including a team of 24 undergraduates. They also designed their activity so that they can use the data collected directly in their research and the experience has also affected aspects of how they plan to carry out future research. The activity involved a large number of researchers and students, but was led by Prof Heather Flowe, Dr Melissa Colloff and PhD student Danielle Hett.

2021 Winners

The panel for the 2021 award included Prof Tim Softley, Prof Nick Crowson and Dr Nichola Gale, who were extremely impressed by the variety and quality of engagement activity nominated. So much so they were unbale to determine a stand out winner so in 2021 there were two winners of the Light of Understanding award.

Professor Amaury Triaud

Our first winner was part of a team who made a remarkable discovery of a nearby exoplanetary system, composed of seven Earth-size rocky planets. This system, called TRAPPIST-1, is the first that will enable humanity to start the search or evidence of life beyond the Solar system.

Our winner guessed that the public interest would be big, so started preparing and thought it would be a good time to try new approaches to engagement.

  • With a graphic designer they produced seven digital collages, exploring themes about those seven planets.
  • They created a series of infographics as way to give information without requiring a graph.
  • The created a script targeting 11-15 year olds) which was adapted into a short graphic novel.

These successful graphic products were then used by our winner to develop a series of workshops to engage diverse audiences across the midlands including home educator families and those within remote rural areas of the UK who are often not engaging with university research.

Their graphic products have also inspired other artists and creatives including the creation of a young adult novel, a rock song, a graphical and musical piece of art, and more recently the work of two composers who are preparing an opera on the theme of TRAPPIST-1.

Dr Zoe Schnepp

In 2017 Dr Zoe Schnepp decided to create an online accessible resource to inspire school pupils in chemistry. Through activities that link the UK national curriculum (from pre-school to A-Level) the website they created, ChemBam opened up world-leading University of Birmingham research to schools across the world. Since its launch the website has received 150,000 visits including teacher and students from the US, India, Australia and Canada.

Zoe has led the team developing content for the website with a commitment to ensuring that their resources benefit the most disadvantaged pupils in the UK. To achieve this, they sourced funding and launched a spin off project ChemBOX.  Each ChemBOX contained the equipment and consumables needed to run 6 ChemBAM activities with classes of 32 and science teachers and technicians from the 10 schools involved were given a training session and the response from teachers was overwhelmingly positive.

Since the launch of Chembox the project has been expanded to additional parts of the UK and in recently our winner gained funding to complete– a 1-year study of the impact of regular research-linked science activities with 120 Y3 pupils in Tamworth.

Our winner has also developed a new project ChemBAM VI which is a series of chemistry experiments for pupils with vision impairment aiming to make chemistry accessible for all pupils and to enable teachers to include pupils with VI in chemistry lessons.

As well as the positive impact on the young people engaging with the project the University Students and staff that our winner has trained, mentored and supported have gone on to secure funding for their own outreach projects.

In 2020 The ChemBAM team were presented with the prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry Inspiration and Industry Award