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Coccus Pocus - A Halloween story competition boosting enthusiasm for microbiology learning

Dr Georgios Efthimiou, SFHEA, Department of Biomedical and Forensic Science, University of Hull

In October 2020, the University of Hull launched a thrilling scary story competition for Halloween: Coccus Pocus! The event was organised by me for a second time, following a successful run in 2019. The competition was communicated via social media, aiming to attract entries from various universities in the UK and abroad. Having participants from different institutions adds a ‘University Challenge’ element that makes things more interesting!

The contestants were encouraged to write a short horror or sci-fi story between 500 and 2,000 words, including microbiology-related themes such as antimicrobial resistance and emerging infectious diseases. The evaluation committee ranked stories according to the intrigue of their plot, use of language, character description and scientific soundness.

The first prize (a £100 Amazon voucher) was awarded to Farhana Alam Burnett, a microbiology PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her thrilling story, Persisters, is about a domestic fungal biofilm that does much more than smelling bad! Amisha Sathi, an undergraduate from the University of Warwick received the second prize (£30) for her story Abnormal, where the protagonist fights a horde of slimy hostile creatures in a post-apocalyptic horror setting. Finally, Bethany Pearce, again an undergraduate student from the University of Warwick was awarded the third prize (£20) for her story Day 0, which tells us a tale about a patient suffering from an antibiotic-resistant superbug infection that spreads rapidly all over the hospital. You can download and read their brilliant stories here.

By participating in this competition, the students had the chance to sharpen a variety of academic skills and personal attributes. These include creative writing, literature search for finding valid scientific information for their stories, creativity, confidence, ambition and self-esteem. All Biomedical and Forensic Science students from Level 3 (Foundation Year) to Level 8 (PGR) were encouraged to enter this competition via Canvas, however most entries were from Levels 5 to 8, which shows that more experienced students feel more confident to attract the spotlight and translate their academic knowledge through non-conventional ways. All of these Levels (apart from Level 8) include taught microbiology modules that could provide the necessary information for writing a scary story, but so far it seems that students at Levels 3 and 4 lacked the necessary confidence (or interest). This might change next year!

Seven of the contestants completed feedback forms after the end of the competition. They all found the event exciting and relevant to their microbiology modules, six stated that the activity helped them improve their creative writing skills, while three participants mentioned that they would consider writing similar stories in the future at a professional level! Budding Larkins, maybe?

The names of the winners were announced in the latest issue of Microbiology Today (May 2021), the magazine of the Microbiology Society (UK), which has at least 6,000 subscribers. So now, fame is another motivation for attracting new contestants!

The competition was supported by the National Biofilms Innovation Centre as part of their #BiofilmAware campaign, and they are happy to fund us again in October 2021. We aspire that the competition will be held again and again, aiming to further boost the enthusiasm of young people about the fascinating field of microbiology.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

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