Opening a world of science to all through virtual reality

December 2, 2019

Please tell us about yourself and what your research interests are?

My name is Patience Kiyuka. I am in the last phase of my PhD studies. My PhD work revolved around understanding how the malaria parasite can establish infection despite being susceptible to attack from the immune system, specifically the complement system. My research interests are on immunology and epidemiology of infectious diseases. Other than my core research work, I am intrigued by how the general public views science. I am also actively involved in promoting women in science

Why virtual reality? What was the inspiration/motivation to focus on VR?

While I was on my collaborative study in Finland as part of my PhD studies, I met an MSc student over a science retreat meeting. And it is during our conversation that she mentioned about virtual reality, although she was using it to teach young students about science. I got intrigued by virtual reality after that chat with her. I started reading around the area, although at that point, I did think about ever using VR for research purposes.

Tell us briefly about the CPE grant that you just won?

The CPE grant I won is going to pioneer the use of virtual reality as a public engagement tool in a rural African setting. I am very excited about this project. I hope we will be able to produce proof of concept that VR can be used for science communication.

What motivated you to apply?

At first, when I saw the call from AAS, I didn’t even think that they would fund such an idea. Later I mentioned the possibility of testing the use of VR for public engagement to my mentor, Dr. Sam Kinyanjui. He instantly told me he thought that was a cool idea. It is through his support and encouragement that I was motivated to put in the application finally.

What informed the VR idea?

Having spent my early childhood living in the village, I know firsthand what it means to lack exposure. Although I was lucky to go to better schools later, I know that girls growing up in the village might never know what research is about. I want as many girls as possible to get exposure to a research environment, and VR promises to offer such a platform. Research labs are very few in Kenya, and not many girls and boys growing will ever get a chance to experience research. This essentially means that we might miss out on children who will grow up to be engineers and biologists simply because they will not know that they can make out a successful career out of STEM. I am offering to bridge that gap by allowing them to immerse themselves in a laboratory research environment. We hope that through that experience, we will get more children to consider career options in science. More importantly to get them to appreciate the role of science in the society

6. What is exceptional about the VR idea?

VR has been touted as the next frontier in science communication. It allows users to immerse themselves in a simulated virtual world or real-world experience. It can be very interactive, therefore allowing scientists to explain even abstract concepts to the lay public. It has been shown that there is better retention of concepts when VR is used as an educational tool for science subjects

7. How will you go about implementing the project?

We are proposing to use a people-centred approach to develop the VR content. We will work with secondary school pupils to develop the storyline, refine it before rolling it out to the schools. Throughout the development of the VR content, we will rely on technical input from technical experts on VR, social scientists, community engagement experts, communication experts, parents, and teachers to package the content in a way that best suits our target population.

8. What does the future hold in regards to this particular project?

I feel like the future looks bright for VR as a public engagement tool. I will endeavour to source out more funding to scale up this project.