van Schaik Lab

The van Schaik lab’s set up at PER team’s event at CoCoMad Festival – a popular day out for families from the local community.

Professor Willem van Schaik and his lab recently worked with us brainstorm and design public engagement activities linked to their research. Find out more in the short case study below.

The research group of Professor van Schaik combines experimental tools in molecular biology and biochemistry with the opportunities offered by the development of novel, high-throughput DNA sequencing technologies and bioinformatics to elucidate the mechanisms by which harmless commensals transition into multi-drug resistant opportunistic pathogens. The reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes (‘the resistome’) in human faeces and hospital waste water is also studied.

Sounds complicated? Willem and his team are interested in microbiomes and the role of these antimicrobial resistance. He is particularly interested in those within the gut and hospital bugs , which is now a global challenge facing humanity. Public engagement on this topic is therefore timely and relevant to all.

The PER team put a call out for researchers interested in taking in our Research at Heart of Brum event at CoCoMad Festival in Cotteridge Park in Birmingham. This festival attracts over 6,000 from the local community and is especially popular with families with children. With this in mind, Willem was keen to ensure the activities developed were going to be appropriate for this audience but also re-useable for future events which might involve slightly different demographics.

Over the course of a couple of planning and development sessions we discussed ideas for what might would work, with lots of great ideas coming from the research team. These were shaped into an application for internal public engagement funding, so that the team could purchase the resources required. Once this was drafted, the team submitted it and a successful outcome ensued – the team now had the funds to push ahead with planning for the event.

Given their work has a ‘poo’ focus, the team decided to play on this because it’s a topic which people, especially children, find funny and lightening the mood would hopefully help break down some of the barriers to conversation.

The team were keen to get a key key messages across:

  • What is a microbiome and why do they matter – hospital bugs
  • What is anti microbial resistance and
  • What can be done to prevent getting sick and making resistance worse
  • What the lab is currently working on

To do this the team developed a number of key activities:


Willem and some of his lab members who took part on the day
  • To attract people over: The group decided to use a large gimmicky attraction with a serious message. They purchased a toilet and lots of loo brushes to create a game where people would be invited to have a go at seeing how many (out of 5) loo brushes they could throw into the loo bowl from a distance. This activity proved to be immensely popular – there were veritable queues of people wanting to take part.   The team were victims of their own success in that there was a lot of running around to pick up loo brushes and set up the game for the next player – sweaty work! However the team took it in turns to rotate duties and the queue meant that other members of the team could engage those waiting with the other activities.

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Visitors take part in finding & identifying different bacteria extracted from the papier-mâché gut
  • Gut Bacteria – the team created an incredibly paper mached gut – made out of a plastic container with a cut out window so that people could see inside. This contained lots of plastic balls and also several GIANT microbes fluffy toys, representing the common types of bacteria found in the gut that make you feel ill i.e. give you diarrhoea.  The task was to insert your hand into the gut, reach and feel around for the fluffy bacteria and pull them all out to make the gut ‘healthy again’  – meanwhile you had to identify each bacteria you took out, matching it up to a list of usual suspects laminated on printed card set on the table. The research team could also explain what each of the bacteria could do and answer any questions. The team had quite a few questions from people who had recently been food poisoned or unwell and who were curious to know what might have caused it.

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Young children play hook-a-poo as researchers explain why hand-washing is important
  • Hook-a-Poo Fishing – a small game design for very young children – this was serendipitous find purchased from a shop (somewhere associated with items costing 100p) and with the addition of a small mini inflatable pool, became an opportunity for young children to join in the activities, whilst the team talked to them about the importance of washing their hands and chatted to parents accompanying children about bacteria that could make people ill, for example the dangers of undercooked chicken at BBQs etc.

In conclusion, the team’s activities proved very successful and hundreds of people took part in one or more activities. Furthermore, the activity also served as a bit of a team building day for the lab and an opportunity to developed their public engagement skills in a busy, festival style environment, working together to make their activities successful and to facilitate lots of conversation. They were certainly lots of smiles and laughter all around from those who took part in the loo brushes as well as those just enjoying the action.

If you’d like to know more contact Willem and/or our team.

Image credit: Caroline Gillett