Racing sperm at a different kind of festival
Vicky Young and her fellow PhD student Gemma Sharp from the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health can often be found toting a two-metre model of a womb around the country, most recently at the Green Man festival in August. Here Vicky tells us what they get out of their unusual science communication activity, and how children and adults alike learn from ‘sperm racing’.
I never thought that when I was accepted to do a PhD I would spend my weekends making a giant model of a uterus to race sperm through, or that I’d then be invited to music festivals to race these sperm.
But that’s what I found myself doing at this year’s Green Man Festival in Wales, where we returned to Einstein’s Garden, part of the festival full of performances, workshops, musicians, crafts and activities based around science and nature. We’ve been running the Egg and Sperm Race for 18 months now and it basically does what it says on the tin — we race sperm.
We set up a kid’s train track in our uterus model and set obstacles along it, such as green goo (to represent the acidic environment in the vagina) and cute modelling clay cells blocking the track (to mimic white blood cells in the cervix that recognise sperm as ‘invaders’). We also represent finding the correct fallopian tube by having different tracks going in different directions. The first sperm (well, toy train with sperm-shaped plastic stuck to it) to navigate all the obstacles and reach the egg wins the race.
Our main message is that the chance of a sperm fertilising an egg is slim, that untreated sexually transmitted infections can decrease your chances of conceiving even more, and that if a woman does manage to get pregnant, an untreated infection can cause an ectopic pregnancy. This all relates back to research being conducted at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health.
Music festivals are a great place to reach a new audience with these messages — people between 16 and 30 who wouldn’t typically visit traditional science communication events such as public lectures or science festivals. In the four days that we were in Einstein’s garden, we had more than 1,000 visitors to our stall from all age groups, and even provided some children with their first ever sex education lessons after requests from their parents.
Most adults today think they know almost everything there is to know about reproduction, because there is so much information available. And it’s true, society has changed drastically in the past two generations with sex no longer being a taboo subject. But I’m still often surprised at just how little some adults know when they visit our stall — it feels great to know that we’ve passed on some knowledge to people and that they think our research is important and interesting.
So would we recommend that other researchers get involved in public engagement activities? Absolutely. We get experience of writing grant applications, organising events, planning projects and practicing our communication skills. Not to mention that we get to go to music festivals for free. Our research centre also benefits from us talking to people about its research in a fun way.
And we get the glow of positive feedback, written on sperm-shaped stickers, which ranged from “Ace and learned something too” to — wait for it — “It was eggcellent.”
The MRC and the Society for Endocrinology funded the Egg and Sperm Race’s presence at the Green Man Festival.