Building trust in science through virtual reality

Kirsty Scott

19 August 2020

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Science and technology for development

I was brought up by my grandmother in a typical rural African setting. In my early schooling life, I was never exposed to a research working environment. Unfortunately, there are many young girls and boys even now who will go through primary to secondary school and not see or visit a research lab.

Dr Patience Kiyuka

Public and community engagement is increasingly recognised as key in building trust in science. Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Patience Kiyuka shares how we can utilise immersive technology in science communication.

The Wellcome Global Monitor Report 2018, the world’s largest study into how people around the world think and feel about science and major health challenges, estimates that globally, 72% of people have between a medium to high level of trust in scientists. Whilst this shows a positive relationship between science and the public, it highlights a proportion of the population who may distrust and are not confident in scientific outputs. At a time when scientists are researching to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, attention should be given to those who may be reluctant to access a vaccine or other health advice.

Public and community engagement can take many forms, from public lectures, open debates, and focus groups to name a few. Immersive technology involving virtual and augmented reality has been identified as the next frontier in science communication.

Dr Kiyuka, an infectious disease specialist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Centre for Geographical Medicine Research, is one scientist utilising virtual reality (VR) to engage secondary school students in science.

Promoting STEM in Kenya

Like many African countries, Kenya faces many challenges in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, in terms of enrolment, performance, and gender disparity. Much more needs to be done to encourage and promote the uptake of STEM.

To address this gap in student learning and encourage more young people to take up STEM subjects post-school, Dr Kiyuka applied for and was awarded a Community and Public Engagement grant from the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) to develop a VR video of research laboratories to engage secondary school students in science.

A 360-degree tour of research laboratories

Dr Kiyuka, together with a team of senior research scientists, developed a storyboard for a 360-degree video which would take students around different sections of the research laboratories at the KEMRI Geographical Medicine Research, Coast (GMRC). The video included short interviews with scientists explaining research concepts and how their laboratory work contributes to advancements in healthcare, such as malaria vaccinations and antimicrobial resistance.

To ensure the scientific explanations included in the tour were pitched at the correct level, Dr Kiyuka sought a participatory approach to the production of the video, inviting school children to the laboratory and taking them on the same tour. Students were then asked to report back on what they remembered, what they found interesting, and whether the research explanations were clear. For Dr Kiyuka and her team, learning how to communicate science to this audience was a challenge.

“During our script, we kept on saying, no, that’s too technical, turn down that, how else can you say this? I think what I’ve learned is that we need to break down our science. The way I speak to a scientific audience, it should be completely different from the way I speak to the general public.”

As well as featuring accessible explanations of research and laboratory technology, the virtual tour and interviews also allowed Dr Kiyuka to address stereotypes and misconceptions as to who can be a scientist. To raise the profile of women in STEM and actively encourage young girls to pursue STEM studies, she features in the video and presents some of the lab activities.

“We are trying to redefine science and who a scientist is, so we need a woman in that space. I introduced myself as ‘Dr’ so that people can see that this is who a scientist is or can be, just someone like them from their community.”

Woman in science lab

Virtual reality in Africa

On completion, the video was loaded into VR headsets and taken to three schools in coastal parts of Kenya, reaching over 70 students. Responses from students and teachers at the schools were positive, with many fascinated by the technology and the opportunity it provided for them to ‘immerse’ themselves in a research laboratory and experience science research in practice.

Following on from the success of the project, Dr Kiyuka hopes to seek further funding and collaboration to upscale the use of VR for science communication and public engagement and provide opportunities for more students in Kenya and beyond to be exposed to science research.

VR technology is relatively new in Africa and the cost of the VR headsets is prohibitive. Other constraining factors to the headsets are that they cannot hold charge and heat up when used over an extended period of time. Affordable VR headsets are required if this technology is to be fully exploited for public and community engagement, especially in African settings.

“I want to contribute to redefining the way we do science and how we assess our impact as scientists. Science has always been conducted in laboratories, in closed silos, and our output is through scientific papers to limited specific audiences. I’m always intrigued by how we can make science accessible; how can we make people in the community understand what we do? So, that’s why I’m working with communities and public engagement. I try to look at innovative ways of making people consume science, but in a way that it’s not so technical.”

Child with virtual reality headset

A time to address public trust

One core motivation for Dr Kiyuka in increasing science communication is to build public trust in science. This has become particularly important following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies pre-COVID have shown that levels of trust towards science research is low. With many rumours and misinformation circulating amongst the general public regarding the pandemic, Dr Kiyuka feels it is time to address this.

“You have to think about trust in science as a very serious issue. We should open our spaces; people should see where scientists work. We study parasites, we study viruses, we study bacteria. We’re trying to understand how disease is affecting your body or how you’re responding to that disease. When people do not understand what you do, they start filling that void with stories, myths, and rumours.”

There is ongoing support for establishing science engagement opportunities in Africa. Efforts by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a partnership between AAS and the African Union Development Agency, AUDA-NEPAD led by Lillian Mutengu, to fund young scientists through a community and public engagement funding stream is a positive step in supporting scientists across Africa to share their work with the general public.

Increasing community engagement

Dr Kiyuka remains passionate about science communication and public engagement and feels this is an important part of her career as a scientist.

In June 2020, she was awarded a Community and Public Engagement Grant from IMPRINT, a network focusing on maternal and neonatal immunisation, funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). Through this grant, she is investigating risk perceptions that contribute to maternal vaccine hesitancy in Kilifi, Kenya. Using the data generated, she hopes to address these risk perceptions using magnet theatre, a form of community theatre conducted in open space. The aim is to create a forum to spur community conversations on the benefits of maternal vaccination.

“My priority is to get the message out there and people to start thinking. For me as a scientist, I want to be remembered for the impact I have created in the community and for the way I have packaged the information to the people.”

Dr Patience Kiyuka is a 2013 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Kenya. She studied for an MSc Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.