Hooked on citizen science: Erinma Ochu
In the midst of complex and global challenges including climate change, disease and food security; there is a growing culture of collective efforts to find resolutions. The realisation that these issues require multiple perspectives is evident through citizen science initiatives, where the public contribute to research efforts.
Erinma is interested in what emerges from the practice of citizen science, at the interface of science and society. Through filmmaking and storytelling, Erinma is exploring the cultural value of citizen science to biomedical research.
Following a childhood spent collecting scientific articles in newspapers, she trained as a neuroscientist at The University of Manchester before transiting to film and TV for five years.
Regardless of her diverse career trajectory, one constant imperative has been her advocacy of initiatives that bring people together through knowledge sharing and story telling.
"Our brains are an amazing piece of technology and it goes through our whole body via the nervous system. If I touch you and you touch someone else something happens there."
“If you think about people, we’re like a kind of technology. Our brains are an amazing piece of technology and it goes through our whole body via the nervous system. If I touch you and you touch someone else something happens there. I find it interesting creating human experiences” she says.
Her emphasis on creating shared human experiences is reflected in her previous role as the creative director of Manchester Beacon during its four-year span between 2008 until 2012. Through an alliance with the universities of Manchester, Manchester: Knowledge Capital, MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), local communities and cultural organisations; a dialogue was cultivated to stimulate multi-disciplinary partnerships that explored cohesion and interaction between previously disparate groups.
Through Manchester Beacon, individuals and institutions were given the opportunity to apply for awards that provided financial and practical support in making a difference to Greater Manchester.
Virtual Migrants' Climate Change Testimonies
Additionally, Manchester Beacon recognised innovative community-university partnerships; amidst these, was Virtual Migrants' Climate Change testimonies:
This pilot, run in partnership with the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures at the University of Manchester enabled refugee communities, artists and social scientists to collaborate on climate issues including the effects of migration, refuge and asylum.
Kooj Chuhan from Virtual Migrants trained 15 members from different refugee communities in video and social media techniques and an interdisciplinary forum of cultural workers, social scientists and community members jointly developed an interview and data collection format that was presented through a mixed media event at Manchester Science Festival.
When asked what makes a successful project she says “I think it’s important it starts outside the university in a space where there can be a negotiated agenda and a win for the community and the university partner involved. It's important to have mutually beneficial goals"
“It requires a bit of a shift for the people that fund universities to think a community organisation can be a co-investigator."
The difficulty is with changing the culture, despite the efforts of socially responsible researchers who are often open to adopting unconventional approaches, the established hierarchical parameters of academic institutions rarely support post-disciplinary careers with social impact a higher priority than academic citations.
“It requires a bit of a shift for the people that fund universities to think a community organisation can be a co-investigator. There’s a challenge between research that makes a difference but also how does that fit with the social mission and I think it works better when it’s embedded. There needs to be a shared academic and community partnership to ensure all stakeholders have equitable status” Erinma says.
By making research programmes more accessible and flexible, attempts to experiment and attain sustainability will hopefully become easier to achieve. A sustainable future will only come through trial and error with the understanding that things may go wrong. It’s important to set up a project in the best possible way to get closer to this – and subsequently sustaining them.
Whilst the Cultural Value of Digging is a more traditional research project, with Farida Vis at Sheffield University, it reflects on what digging means to society, and invites the public to reflect, through storytelling, on what digging means to them in austere times. Through a public event held on march 8th, the public will be given a chance to share their stories and contribute to the project.
Amongst other aspects of digging, the project highlights the critical necessity to consider alternative ways of feeding people in a rapidly urbanizing world. Erinma explored this with researchers and NGOs in Manchester and Sheffield in Everyday Growing Futures. Produced by Squirrel Nation, a production company cum social enterprise co-founded with director, Caroline Ward, the film documents a six month pilot study enabling local residents to explore alternatives to cultivating food on allotments by growing on empty land.
When asked what inspires her dedication to connecting communities, she reflects on her experiences:
“I guess it’s about upbringing; I was brought up in the east end of London by a single mum who was from a middle class background. She’d come from Denmark – Copenhagen and my dad was Nigerian. He’d gone back to Nigeria as he was homesick and couldn't find work here. We stayed in the UK and my dad stayed in Nigeria. My mum brought us up with the help of her friends. She worked at the Danish Embassy in London and invited people to visit our little house in east london: artists, theatre directors, writers, musicians came and had dinner with us - so we had a really rich cultural upbringing. I have a sense in myself that I’ve got to give back – if you get you’ve got to give back. Creating that kind of culture is key”
Considering her varied public engagement portfolio, it seemed necessary to ask what her next steps were, “for now I am interested in the moment: creating great environments where people can thrive; when you’re interested in the other, it creates a possibility for learning or change to come out of it”.
Erinma's disposition to connecting with people has benefited the projects she has supported and in turn created and sustained significant partnerships that continue to contribute to the discussion and effort of achieving a sustainable Manchester.
She is currently working on ‘#Hookedonmusic’ with MOSI. Created by computational musicologist John Ashley Burgoyne and his team at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University, this mass experiment will see thousands of people to help scientists understand our musical memory.
The researchers hope that findings from #Hookedonmusic could aid future research into Alzheimer’s disease.
Bianca Manu is an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester reading English Literature. Originally from London, she is interested in cultural initiatives that encourage sustainable reforms. Having previously worked as a project manager for environmental arts organization Invisible Dust, she is actively looking for ways to contribute to similar initiatives in Manchester.