Ellen Dowell

Ellen Dowell is a Public Engagement Officer at the National Heart & Lung Institute, Imperial College London. She coordinated The Heart & Lung Repair Shop / The Heart & Lung Convenience Store project which was shortlisted for the NCCPE Engage Awards 2016 in the STEM category.

When Ellen Dowell headed to Central Saint Martins to study theatre design, her imagined future would have been a career amid the artistic clamour of theatres up and down the country. And, for a time, it was.

As a graduate of a college that forms part of London’s prestigious University of the Arts and with a specialism in set and costume design, Ellen launched her career and had the privilege of working with some exciting theatre companies as she developed her practice as a designer.

But increasingly, a defining event from her childhood began to influence the way she thought about what her career might hold in the future.

Personal motivation

She said: “When I was nine, my brother became ill with encephalitis, which resulted in an acquired brain injury. He now lives with epilepsy, very limited communication and obsessional behaviour but has a fulfilling life in a community care facility in Scotland. My mum set up the national charity for encephalitis – the Encephalitis Society – and so I’ve always been interested in how the brain works.”

It was that curiosity, the need to try to contextualise her brother’s disability by understanding what brain injury was and the impact it had, that brought her to the point of wanting to explore the subject further – but to do it in a creative way.

“When your brain changes, you change” says Ellen, “and exploring this idea creatively was really the start of me thinking about how science and theatre might work together.”

Science and arts collaboration

With a friend, Ellen set up a company specialising in collaboration between theatre practitioners and scientists and then returned to academia to study for a Master’s degree in science communication. It was a natural way into the creative engagement with science that makes up so much of her current work.

Asked whether science and the arts make uneasy bedfellows, she says not – “When scientists and artists begin collaborations, it is often the common ground and shared interests that they first discover. Science and art are both about exploring ideas, the difference is that usually scientists are more focussed on answering questions, whereas artists are often happy to pose questions and live with ambiguity”

Critical thinking

Ellen says: “Sometimes there is a tension between the ways that ideas are explored in science and the arts. In academia there is a culture of critiquing and defending ideas, whereas in the arts it can be more common to explore ideas imaginatively by ‘trying them on’.”

She cites an essay titled The Believing Game by Peter Elbow. Written as an appendix to a book called Writing Without Teachers, the essay puts forward the view that there are two types of critical thinking: the doubting game, in which sceptical questioning is applied; and the believing game, which requires believing in ideas in order to find their virtue.

Both approaches are valid and necessary. Crucially, according to Elbow, they also complement each other.

Pop up science shops

Ellen was the creative producer for The Heart and Lung Repair Shop and The Heart and Lung Convenience Store, by Imperial College London’s National Heart and Lung Institute. These pop up science shops transformed empty retail units into creative spaces for engaging the public with cardiovascular and respiratory research and explored public attitudes to the future of heart and lung healthcare. The projects were shortlisted as a finalist in the NCCPE’s 2016 Engage Awards.

The heart and lung pop up shops played perfectly to Ellen’s desire to fuse her artistic expertise with her interest in scientific research. As she is quick to point out, she isn’t a researcher herself and she’s at pains to make it clear that over 150 researchers and many other creative collaborators should deservedly share the credit for the project’s success.

But nevertheless, her leadership of the creative framework in which the project was delivered has helped her to develop the way she hopes to move her career forward.

She has written a guide that looks at what can be learned from turning empty retail spaces into pop up science shops and this has been made widely available to help inform future projects, not just at Imperial, but internationally.

What next?

“My career has evolved,” she says, “from working in theatre and taking artistic inspiration from science, shifting into creative research engagement. I am interested in embedding science in cultural contexts, placing engagement experiences in unexpected and surprising places – places like music festivals, shopping centres, beaches and playgrounds”.

Theatre design may no longer lie in Ellen’s future. But it seems like the curtain has gone up on what looks sure to be an impressive career in engagement with research.