Clare Oliver-Williams:
a Public Engagement Explorer

Blazing your trail with curiosity, courage and like-minded people

Since her PhD, Clare said yes to any opportunity to build her confidence and communication skills. Collaborating with art professionals and supported by an enthusiastic network, she blazed her trail to deliver to women who experienced pregnancy complications the call to action arising from her research findings.

Digital copy of the artwork resulting from the collaboration between Clare and the artist Shady that is going to be installed in Peterborough City Hospital. The artwork shows the many women who are affected by pregnancy complications and how this can echo throughout life. It emphasises the importance of pregnant women understanding the importance of heart healthy during and after pregnancy.

Hospital artwork © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

Hospital artwork © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

Headshot of Clare Oliver-Williams

© Clare Oliver-Williams

© Clare Oliver-Williams

“All of them!” Clare said to herself smiling and ticking every creative stream in her application to the Creative Encounters project in 2020. And when accepted for two projects? “Both!” she said.

But how did she get to almost fearlessly handling the logistics and uncertainties of multiple public engagement projects at once?

She built her confidence one “yes” at a time, beginning with “Sure, I will help you run your stall at the Cambridge Science Festival” when she was a PhD student.

Volunteering to help deliver other researchers’ public engagement projects has been key for Clare to develop confidence in interacting with the public, as well as to understand what types of activities seemed to work best and why.

She found helping at the Festival a very accessible route to public engagement and the ideal stepping stone before developing her own project.

Clare’s research path, moving from breast cancer, to investigating the association between cardiovascular diseases and pregnancy loss or complications, respectively in her PhD and current fellowship, forced Clare to look with a magnifying glass at the public she was engaging with.

Her research clearly showed that women who experience pregnancy complications, about 10% of all pregnant women, are more likely to have heart attack and stroke later in life. Clare believes that these women should have the chance to know about the risk, so that they can be empowered to make healthy lifestyle changes.

How to reach these women? Was a stall in a festival or outreach event appropriate for this message?

Faced with a new challenge, like a true explorer, Clare altered her public engagement course. She began to write for The Conversation, a news and opinion website with articles written by academics.

The strategy proved successful, as The Sun newspaper republished her article from the website further spreading Clare’s research findings to women outside the academic world.

This motivated Clare to improve her skills to write for the media. Clare submitted her application for the Media Fellowship scheme run by the British Science Association and was selected for a short internship at The Economist.

While she was writing popular science articles on topics quite far from her research expertise, such as honeybirds’ mating songs and extinction, she learnt how to structure a good story for the media.

I don’t think you can do too much communication skills training, as there are lots of different ways to communicate and lots of different audiences. The more training the better: you can fine tune your message for different people”

Clare Oliver-Williams

Explorers are always alert, and Clare is always scanning her surroundings in search of ways to deliver her message to her target women.

She stumbled upon the Creative Encounters project which gives researchers the opportunity to work with creative artists and Cambridge media students to translate research into art so as to increase its impact.

Clare envisioned that art-based engagement could offer two benefits when disseminating her research findings: a nuanced and sensitive approach to reach women for whom pregnancy complications might have been traumatic, and a positive frame to the cardiovascular disease risk scenario which highlights the prevention opportunities rather than the potentially negative health outcomes.

In the course of the projects she found that art, and especially theatre, thrive on uncertainty. She believes that they are particularly suited to communicate scientific risks exploiting the subtext characterizing these expressive forms.

Joining Creative Encounters has been a signpost to other adventures for Clare, as her projects led to other opportunities. “You don’t know where things will lead off to, and every interaction with creative professionals is different” she said.

“Preventative medicine can enhance individual well-being and quality of life, relieve pressure on the social welfare system and provide economic benefits to the National Health Service (NHS). I think it’s fantastic that Clare uses different methods to share her research more widely.”

Dr Sarah Fahle, Research Programme Manager, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge

The Behind the Curtains project (part of Creative Encounters) offers researchers the chance to see their research as a piece of theatre while working with Patrick Morris, the co-artistic director of the independent theatre company Menagerie.

As a novice theatre writer, Clare initially gave her characters challenges they could easily resolve, maintaining her scientific problem-solving approach, but killing all dramatic tension.

Embracing the theatre pace, where questions might stay unsolved for the audience to ponder, she was mesmerized to discover how transforming your research into a plot expands the perception of your own work.

She truly appreciated discovering the wider implications of her research for the women she hoped to reach through the writing process, so she applied for a follow up project.

She was selected by Menagerie to attend the Young Writers Workshop, a three-month immersive programme of seminars and opportunities to discuss with professional and novice theatre writers.

Flyer advertising the reading of Clare’s research-based play Expecting at The Junction during the Hotbed Festival in summer 2021. The flyer describes Expecting as a story about motherhood and its complications.

Flyer advertising the reading of Clare’s research-based play Expecting. © Menagerie Theatre Company

Flyer advertising the reading of Clare’s research-based play Expecting. © Menagerie Theatre Company

Clare’s research-based play Expecting was read by actors at The Junction in Cambridge during the Hotbed Festival in summer 2021 and has been accepted as part of the Social Research Association’s 2021 conference in November. In a true dialogue, ticket holders were able to ask Clare questions about her work after the public reading of the play.

“Theatre has a significant role to play in public engagement. Clare clearly had the drive to create something beyond her academic writing with which to engage people outside of academia."

"She showed enough promise and enthusiasm for us to invite her to be part of the Young Writers' Workshop.  Her eagerness to learn a new form of writing was key because there are different conventions, needs and outcomes with creative writing.”

Patrick Morris, Co-artistic director, Menagerie Theatre Company

For the Very Shorts project (part of Creative Encounters) Clare was hoping to produce a gif that she could use on social media.

She was paired with Shady Mainman Brown who was new to collaborating with a researcher.

Working with the Public Engagement team in the Clinical School, they applied for the University Public Engagement Starter Fund to create something with a greater impact on expectant mothers than their gif. They now have the funding to produce an artwork for a maternity hospital.

Gif resulting from the collaboration between Clare and the artist Shady within Creative Encounters 2020. The gif shows how complications during pregnancy can predict future heart disease, whilst also emphasising the importance of support for affected women. © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

Gif resulting from the collaboration between Clare and the artist Shady within Creative Encounters 2020. The gif shows how complications during pregnancy can predict future heart disease, whilst also emphasising the importance of support for affected women. © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

It took Clare a lot of resilience to find a host institution for the artwork. It is not easy, especially during a pandemic, to find the right contacts in hospitals to discuss the donation and installation of an artwork, and she faced many rejections.

Bravery and determination led to finding the perfect hospital for the project: Peterborough City Hospital where pregnancy complications and resulting cardiovascular diseases are a hot topic.

Digital copy of the artwork resulting from the collaboration between Clare and the artist Shady that is going to be installed in Peterborough City Hospital. The artwork shows the many women who are affected by pregnancy complications and how this can echo throughout life. It emphasises the importance of pregnant women understanding the importance of heart healthy during and after pregnancy.

Digital copy of the artwork that is going to be installed in Peterborough City Hospital. © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

Digital copy of the artwork that is going to be installed in Peterborough City Hospital. © Clare Oliver-Williams, Shady Mainman Brown

Shady and Clare’s gif had a role to play in this project too: Clare used the gif when recruiting a volunteer patient panel of women that will provide regular feedback during the development of the artwork to ensure that Clare’s message comes across correctly.

“If I hadn’t created a gif within the Very Short project I wouldn’t have met the artist, I wouldn’t have applied for the Starter Fund, I wouldn’t have got that funding and take the much bigger step to put an artwork in a hospital. I don’t think I would have considered jumping to that point if I hadn’t done that first step with Creative Encounters”

Clare Oliver-Williams

At times when people around her have been asking “I don’t get it…why do you want to do an artwork? What is this going to do?” and Clare felt a bit disheartened, she found that the Public Engagement Network could re-fuel her enthusiasm.

It was very helpful to share with others the challenges faced when you manage an art-based project or recruit and run a patient panel for the first time.

The desire to reach women across the world who experience pregnancy complications sent Clare on an engagement journey propelled by her bravery, a lot of communication training and exchanges with like-minded colleagues, some funding, and the guided and supported process of Creative Encounters.

The awareness that not all women might turn up to a theatre reading, or read The Sun, or walk up the staircase of Peterborough City Hospital keep motivating Clare to find new avenues to get her message to its destination.

We cannot wait to see which other engagement adventures will bring Clare’s research findings forward, and to which other engagement approaches she might say yes to.

Follow Claire on Twitter.

Public Engagement Project Credits

Dr Sarah Fahle, Dr Angela Wood, Shady Mainman Brown (of Shady Illustrations), Patrick Morris & Menagerie Theatre, Geoffrey Carr (the Economist); Katja Kivinen; Vicky Reid; Selen Etingu-Breslaw; Diogo Gomes; Alina Loth

Thinking about blazing your own public engagement trail?

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