Poet and spoken word artist Dan Simpson has come to the end of his innovative public engagement residency at Imperial College London.
Since June 2020, Dan has been working with researchers from across the College to produce poems about their work. These aim to engage the public with Imperial’s research in new ways. Each piece was created through a highly collaborative process in which both the public and the researchers themselves were able to explore their research through a new lens.
We’re always looking for new ways to start conversations about science. Bringing the sciences and the arts together allows researchers, artists and the public to explore perspectives of research that might never have been considered Emma Slater Public Engagement Coordinator
“We get very used to our own worlds,” says Simpson. “And when you go and step into somebody else’s world, it makes new connections in your brain and opens up your thinking… Art and science do similar things, we like to look at the world and try to understand it.”
The residency was orchestrated by Emma Slater, part of Imperial’s Public Engagement team. “We’re always looking for new ways to start conversations about science. Bringing the sciences and the arts together allows researchers, artists and the public to explore perspectives and different areas of research that might never have been considered,” she says.
Tom Hodson is a PhD student in the Department of Physics at Imperial looking at ‘collective behaviour and unconventional states of matter’.
“Collective behaviours are what you often get when you take a large number of things and let them all interact with each other,” Tom explains. “They often do interesting things, arranging themselves in strange ways that don’t correspond to the normal states of matter like solid, liquid and gas.”
He worked with Simpson on a piece titled Boundaries. This was a crowdsourced poem, formed with words and phrases contributed by others. For Boundaries, the public and a group of poets submitted words related to Hodson’s research exploring the concepts of order and disorder that underpin his work. The poem plays on themes of freedom, crossing lines and the value of abstract research.
When your research is quite theoretical and abstract, it’s very easy to wonder whether anyone really cares about what you do… But doing public engagement recontextualises your work. Tom Hodson Physics PhD student
“[The experience] was affirming for me. I feel quite lucky to have had the chance to do this. When your research is quite theoretical and abstract, it’s very easy to wonder whether anyone really cares about what you do… But doing public engagement recontextualises your work,” said Tom reflecting on the experience.
Simpson and Hodson also created three further poems exploring Hodson’s research. They chose to present these in digital format with changing visual elements that reinforce the science behind the text. Produced with creative computing student Sophie Nadel, the resulting poetry experiments can be seen here.
“I’ve really liked how it’s all worked – super proud of it coming together into something really interesting,” said Hodson.
I loved explaining Buddhism as part of my cultural background. It was really interesting to link that into my scientific work. Dr Manjula Silva Materials Scientist
As part of his residency, Simpson also worked with Dr Manjula Silva, a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Her research looks at bio-based and biodegradable materials for sustainable development and applications. Their collaboration explored ongoing cycles and connections, from materials to the planet and people to Buddhism.
“I loved explaining Buddhism as part of my cultural background. It was really interesting to link that into my scientific work,” said Silva. The theme of ‘connectivity’ in their piece was reflected in its looped chain presentation.
“Every moment I spent on this project, was a pleasure. I loved the opportunity!” said Silva.
Silva’s collaboration was featured in Physics Magazine.
Psychology, nature and poetry
Simpson’s first collaboration of his residency was with Dr Ans Vercammen, a Research Fellow in the Centre for Environmental Policy investigating links between psychology and environmental change.
“I was a little apprehensive at the start, but it’s just been really, really fun… I love seeing [my work] reflected in this way,” said Vercammen.
Vercammen and Simpson created two pieces: Back to Nature – a crowdsourced poem – and The Certainty of Pressure – a piece that explores the nature of psychological and atmospheric pressure through scuba diving.
The positive impact of the project on the researchers and the great reception of the pieces by public audiences has meant that Slater is looking to do more with poetry and public engagement with research.
Lots of researchers and departments have been in touch asking how they can get involved. People have really seen the value of collaborations like this Emma Slater Public Engagement Coordinator
“It’s been fantastic seeing these collaborations develop over the last few months. The reaction from the College community has been amazing. Lots of researchers and departments have been in touch asking how they can get involved. People have really seen the value of collaborations like this,” Slater says.
“Ans, Manjula and Tom deserve huge credit for their enthusiasm and openness to these new ways of thinking and working.”
The experience has been new for Simpson too. “Science itself is a creative act. You reinterpret, question and challenge. You expect that from both artists and scientists. We are all human, trying to understand the world and communicate it; there’s an overlap,” he says.
“Science is dominating the headlines. For tragic reasons, we have become more engaged, but I hope our interest grows… Now is a great opportunity for public engagement with research.”
Staff and students at Imperial interested in getting involved are encouraged to contact Emma Slater. All the poems from the residency can be found here.