DNA detective finds fun ways to demystify science

Talk about science: Professor Valerie Corfield. (Billiton)

Talk about science: Professor Valerie Corfield. (Billiton)

She is the chief medical scientist and associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch and an independent science communication consultant.

Corfield translates science-speak into digestible language using a variety of innovative and participative methods. She not only engages with the public but also assists ­science communicators by holding training workshops and providing print, electronic and DVD resources.

In 1999, while working for the South African Medical Research Council, she was asked to present lectures at the Grahamstown science festival. "I didn't want to give a talk where the audience sat listening," says Corfield. So she created a DNA Detective workshop that was so popular she runs it every year.

Her outreach work includes workshops and exhibitions. The workshops look at DNA science and its application in genetics and forensics; the science behind the HIV virus and mode of infection; the science of the TB bacterium and the use of antibiotics; genetically modified organisms; and the neurobiology of tik addiction.

Exhibitions cover topics such as the science of TB and antibiotics, and skin in health and disease. These feature characters such as Mr Coffit, who sprays people with water droplets to illustrate how TB is spread.

Bridging the gap
Corfield uses role play, comic strips, detective games and Lego blocks, among other activities. She has also created murder mystery events that look at DNA profiling and raise ethical, societal and legal issues around the topic.

In 2009 she received funding from the Wellcome Trust to explore the use of science centres as the bridge between scientists and the general public. This prompted the creation of A Handbook for South African Biomedical Science Communicators as a tool for sharing her ideas. (Find it on saastec.co.za.)

"Science centres tend to focus on the whizzes and bangs of physics rather than biological or medical science because it's more difficult to manage the equipment around biomedicines," says Corfield. "I wanted to show that a biomedical theme is possible with simple and easily resourced materials and that it can be done in a sustainable way."

Corfield also works with the DNA Project, which uses her DNA mystery events to create forensic awareness. (The DNA Project calls for the expanded use of DNA evidence in conjunction with a national DNA criminal intelligence database.)

Corfield's academic career has centred on human molecular genetics, particularly with selected inherited heart diseases. She has degrees in biology, cellular biology and biotechnology. She is currently the vice-chair of South African Women in Science and Engineering and serves on several NRF committees.

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