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‘It’s that moment that residents really understand that we are there to work together for positive change’

Dasha Spasojevic, Dr Rebekah Henry and Ruzka Taruc are part of the team running Science Days in Makassar, which are bringing researchers and residents together to make direct links between science and everyday life in informal settlements.

Seeing women leaving their lunch half-cooked on the stove, wiping their hands on their jilbab and putting gloves on, to come hold glass tubes and talk about E. coli is a real sight to see.

‘Residents regularly see our RISE community fieldworkers and researchers in their neighbourhoods, but Science Days are an opportunity for people to actively get involved in collecting samples alongside the researchers – to better understand the science and the improvements to neighbourhoods that we’re hoping to achieve’.

PhD Researcher Dasha Spasojevic has a zest for connecting with residents and understanding their stories. She and Dr Michaela Prescott lead RISE’s design and community engagement activities. Dasha, never one to shy away from getting involved in a local dance at the end of a workshop, is also passionate about connecting people with their environments.

‘Having the opportunity to help scientifically check if the well that you and your extended family rely on contains bacteria is a unique and special experience. It’s really a moment where humans and science come together for the first time in RISE’.

Science Days are born out of co-design workshops – where residents, from community leaders, to parents and children – come together to discuss life in the neighbourhood, what’s working well and what can be improved for peoples’ health and their environment. The community then decides together which soil and water locations they would like to investigate – and so Science Days begin.

Assessment Team Leader Ruzka Taruc smiles at the brilliance of bringing indoor laboratory work outside and into a tent filled with eager community members snapping on purple gloves.

‘For me it’s been surreal to sit together with community members and do step-by-step DNA extraction of water samples on site! Our lab team normally receives the samples but don’t often get to visit the sites – and it is necessary that some testing is reserved only for the labs. But Science Days get teams out of the lab, into the neighbourhoods, and interacting with the community. It’s just as valuable for the lab teams to get out and meet communities as it is for communities to meet them’.

Dr Rebekah Henry is one of the RISE research fellows in microbiology who has relished the opportunity to come into the communities and get testing tools into the hands of the people. ‘Science doesn’t have to be something where we only take samples away to sterile places – science can be done in the field, and everyone can do it!

Stepping curious women and men through the process of extracting DNA has been a thrill. ‘Having so many women involved has been such a joy to see, and we hope their involvement in the field leads to further discussions when they get home about science in general’.

RISE’s Makassar team has also been inspired to expand their own skills to make the most of the workshops. Liza (Icha) Marzaman is an architect and joined RISE as a community fieldworker; she took it upon herself to learn how to collect soil and water samples, enabling her to become an invaluable connector in the field between residents and scientific sampling activities.

While there have been many laughs and new experiences, the reality of collecting and assessing samples means revealing the places in neighbourhoods that are contaminated, and where water and sanitation upgrades are most needed.

Dasha says it’s not easy when the team needs to present results of bacteria and contamination back to residents. ‘It’s not easy to exclude unhealthy options when there are few healthy alternatives. But it’s that moment that residents really understand that we are there to work together for positive change – that really opens people up to having active discussions about what we’re all trying to achieve’.

Ruzka agrees. ‘We want people to be aware of contaminated areas in their neighbourhoods, but most don’t have alternatives to their current water source. But getting communities involved with the science gives them an understanding of why we keep coming back to do sampling. The residents have been really generous in allowing us to do this’.

Born out of collaboration between RISE’s Design & Engagement team, and the Ecology & Environment team, RISE’s Makassar laboratory team have taken the lead in running Science Days, adapting them for each community. Terima kasih to Maghfira Saifuddaolah, Liza (Icha) Marzaman and Zulkifli for taking ownership and bringing these sessions to life.