Meet the scientist bringing science, art and writing together to help change lives
- Credit: Jenni Rant
Dr Jenni Rant is Programme Manager at the SAW Trust, a scientific educational charity at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park. Her work enables people to experience the world through the lens of creative collaborations in science, art and writing.
Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.
Tell us about the SAW Trust.
The Science, Art and Writing (SAW) Trust is a science education charity founded by Professor Anne Osbourn in 2005, who was inspired to use science as a creative stimulus for writing and poetry.
Anne visited Rockland St Mary Primary School and asked teachers if they wanted to participate in an experiment, which led to a three-day event of science, art and writing. It all started from there, with the aim of taking science out of research labs and into classrooms to explore scientific themes through practical and creative activities.
Today the SAW Trust is an international organisation. We have a partner in Boston, USA and a collaborative base in Shanghai, China which enables exchange trips with teachers from Norfolk to work with us abroad.
What does your role entail?
I joined as a volunteer in 2006 during my PhD at the John Innes Centre, but the project grew so much it became my full-time job in 2012.
As Programme Manager, I'm a jack-of-all-trades. I do fundraising, accounts and training for both academics and teachers. I create resources for schools and give presentations. I run projects in classrooms and with adult groups. I design interactive exhibitions for science festivals. I manage social media and websites – everything!
Why is collaboration between artists and scientists important?
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Science is not a static thing. You need to communicate with people from different backgrounds who can bring new ideas you wouldn't otherwise have considered.
The arts are amazing because they make you look at familiar things in a completely fresh way. It's very emotional and can therefore create profound responses to science which then leads to action. What I've learned from working with professionals from the creative arts is that they experiment as much – if not more – than scientists do.
Why did you decide to pursue science as a career?
I was really into performing arts when I was young and didn’t like sitting in classrooms, so school was a challenge for me. I didn't do great in my exams and afterwards got a job in a factory. But after two years I was made redundant, so I started volunteering with a local countryside project where I became fascinated by natural history.
I decided to study for a BTEC in countryside management at Easton College and became really interested in botany, after which I applied to do biology at UEA as a mature student. Although I didn't have any A Levels, I had my BTEC and a strong knowledge of ecology. My time at UEA introduced me to life in the lab which I really enjoyed and so I then progressed to a PhD at the John Innes Centre, investigating the fitness costs to plants when they get sick with diseases. This is how I met Anne and started volunteering with the SAW Trust.
I didn't plan it as a career. I just fell in love with it.
What do you have planned for this year’s Norwich Science Festival?
With COP26 approaching, there are plenty of resources for secondary schools, but not much for primary schools. So, in collaboration with St Peter Mancroft as part of their Gaia exhibition, I have developed a digital conference on climate change from October 19–22 with videos by experts and downloadable hands-on activities for teachers to stimulate discussion among students, plus a really cool art project! We also have our Edible East Art Trail, a self-guided walking tour around the city discussing the future of food security.
A project called Conscious Consumers for the Food and Farming Discovery Trust (FFDT) produced resources about plant-based diets, personalised nutrition and food miles for teenagers to help them separate fact from fiction on social media. Three new topics will be released including rewilding, climate change and animal welfare.
This year we also produced a summer activity adventure book called ‘Help! There’s an Alien in my Park’. This project involved every institute at Norwich Research Park and we commissioned a local illustrator and a writer from CBeebies to produce it – 5,000 copies of which were given free to primary school children and local food banks. The team from the Research Park will be giving away further copies at the science festival to children who didn’t get one through their school.
What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?
I enjoy the creative aspect of my job. I love going to classrooms, laboratories and art galleries and hanging around with artists, writers and scientists. They're so passionate about what they do and generous with their time and knowledge.
I work with people from different disciplines from all over the world. The topic is always changing and, by helping researchers tell their stories, I get to learn all the different science going on at Norwich Research Park.
Funding for our charity is the biggest hurdle, but the public is very welcome to make a donation via our website. We also have some books for sale, the proceeds of which all go into the pot.
What do you get up to when you are not working?
I love being outside – going cycling, going for walks and going to the beach. I'm also a big fan of craft beer. I live in NR3 and there are lots of nice pubs around here, so I'm often out at the weekend sampling the delights on offer!
Dr Jenni Rant is Programme Manager at the SAW Trust on Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @SAWTrust