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Adult mental health

My reflections on speaking at the Hay Festival

4 July 2018

I absolutely love finding new and innovative ways of communicating science to the general public and I have previously taken part in lots of public engagement events. But, being given the chance to speak at the Hay Festival was different to any engagement activity that I have ever taken part in before.

I relish any opportunity to highlight my research into Huntington’s disease and to raise public awareness and understanding of this rare brain condition. My Hay Festival talk was part of the Cardiff University lecture series. I represented the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences, while other topics included Donald Trump, cyber security and lightening. It was great to see so much diversity in academic research highlighted.

After I found out that I had been chosen, I met with the Engagement Team to run through some possible ideas for what might work for a Hay Festival audience. Rather than giving a traditional talk, it was very important to me to give a talk that involved the audience. So, after quite a lot of spray paint, shoe boxes (I will come to those later) and several practice talks, I was ready to go.

The blurb of my talk was posted on the Hay Festival website and ticket sales opened. My slot was on the final Thursday of the Hay Festival at 10am on the Baillie Gifford Stage. I have to confess that I had never been to the Hay Festival before, so I was really excited about the whole experience. I arrived for my talk in the morning and was greeted by some lovely Festival volunteers who helped me carry all of my props and showed me to the stage where I would be speaking. I hadn’t realised that the whole Festival was run by volunteers and the atmosphere that this promotes is absolutely brilliant. On a side note, a huge thank you to all of the volunteers, the Festival would not be possible and would not be what it is without you, you are all amazing!

After months of preparation, the time for my talk was fast approaching. By this point I was filled with nerves and excitement in equal measure. I had a quick briefing with the team, before the stewards opened the doors and the audience took their seats. I was hooked up to a radio microphone and prepared to go on to the stage.

After a brief introduction I took to the stage! As I began speaking I could see some reassuringly familiar faces among the audience and of course my Mum was on the front row! Before I knew it, I was off and explaining the history of Huntington’s disease. As I mentioned earlier, it was really important to me that my talk included audience participation and interaction. I was mindful of the fact that my talk fell in half term and I particularly wanted to get children involved in the interactive elements of my talk.

To allow the audience to understand the importance of the genetic code that causes Huntington’s disease, I invited two willing children from the audience to join me on the stage. This is where the spray paint and shoe boxes came in. I transformed my volunteers into deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic code that is important in Huntington’s disease. I hope that using this visual representation of the genetics behind the disease made the concept stick in the mind of the audience.

My research specifically focuses on whether we might be able to use computer games to ‘train the brain’ and help people living with Huntington’s disease. I gave the audience the chance to have a go at some of these games, to train their own brains. This seemed to go down well, I was especially pleased that the audience were willing to get involved, considering the early morning start!

I discussed the ethical implications associated with genetic testing. Huntington’s disease is very unique, in that it is caused by a single gene. Unfortunately, due to this, there is a fifty percent chance that you may pass the disease causing gene on to your children. The genetic test for the disease can provide certainty to whether the gene is present, but it cannot reveal how or when the symptoms will start. I finished my talk by focusing on the results of a recent drug study, which trialled a drug to treat Huntington’s disease for the first time. This drug study demonstrated positive results and the drug is now being explored further to see if it might be beneficial.

So, after forty incredible minutes I brought my talk to a close and the floor was opened to questions. I was relieved to see that there were lots of questions from the audience. The topics of the questions and associated discussions ranged from anecdotes about personal experiences, to access to drugs and discussions about clinical trials. After fielding all of these questions, my time on the stage was over. I was pleased to see several people stuck around to have further chats with me after my talk and several of the stewards kindly paid me compliments about my talk and ability to answer questions.

I have to confess that I was sad it was all over! However, I was free to go and enjoy the rest of the Hay Festival Programme. I saw Professor Lord Sir Robert Winston speak on science and the importance of encouraging all children to pursue science and I also met Dara O’Brien and Ruth Jones.

Speaking at the Hay Festival was a fabulous opportunity and I would definitely recommend it to anyone. Further thanks to the Engagement team who provided support, advice and guidance to myself and all of the other speakers. It really was a thrilling experience that I will always remember, if you have the opportunity to go along as a festival speaker or presenter, you should definitely say yes!