A day in the life of a Science Brainwaves volunteer!

A few weeks ago I jumped in at the deep end with my first science outreach volunteering event. I found out about the opportunity via an email sent out by Science Brainwaves – the task: a *whole day* of helping to run science themed activities for 0-6 year olds at the CBeebies Christmas Carol Event in Sheffield! It started with a briefing at 9am, so I was pretty proud that I managed to get there on the bus not just on time, but 15 minutes early. They obviously didn’t expect everyone to be as organised as I was, so it was actually around 9.30 when we were briefed and told a bit more about the event. I bumped into a few other people I recognised from Science Brainwaves then we were sent off to our different stalls to do science!

The stall I was helping to run was about energy and circuits, which is not entirely my area of expertise as a biologist! Thankfully I was paired with a guy who turned out to be not only a researcher in my own department at uni, but also a very experienced science communicator. He’d done loads of science demos before so I was glad that he was around to learn from. Talking to him over the day (when the stall wasn’t too busy!) was also immensely helpful to find out more about science demonstrating and busking.

cbeebies stall

Our experimental materials for the day – lots of spoons!


Anyway, back to the stall! We were supplied with ‘energy balls’ which have two metal strips that make a circuit if you join them with a conducting material (see this video to see how it works!). We also had lots of things to experiment with to see if they conduct – like lemons, plasticine and a variety of spoons! The morning was very busy with school groups coming to visit, and we had great fun making huge circuits with 7 or 8 kids in a circle, then adding the other objects in. I’m pretty sure at one point we had a circuit made of about 5 people, 2 teaspoons and a lemon! The highlight had to be the kid who tried to make a circuit out of 2 energy balls, then came to me to explain that they had to be the right way round so the positive went to negative otherwise it wouldn’t work. Pretty good for a 6/7 year old, and he was obviously very enthusiastic about science!

After lunch it got quite a bit quieter, and as the school groups had come and gone so the kids were a lot younger. That made the explanation bit of our task a fair bit harder, but they still loved seeing the ball light up when we made a circuit! We even managed to impress some of the parents with our demonstrations. After a long, cold, but thoroughly enjoyable day I had to hotfoot it over to the university to help out with Science Brainwaves’ ‘Looking for Aliens’ lecture (see my last blog!), which ended up being great finish to the day! When else do you get to stand in the foyer of the physics building asking passers-by “Are you looking for aliens?” – “just down in the lecture theatre at the bottom of the stairs”…Isn’t that where all universities keep their aliens!

I’m not sure if this can be counted as a typical day of volunteering – doing two events in one day was a bit keen! However, it gave me a good taste of what it’s like to be in the world of science communication, and I thoroughly enjoyed it as well! I’ll definitely be signing up for more events in the fun world of science outreach…


(This blog was also posted on the blog of MindSET Magazine)

Why are we ‘Looking for Aliens’?

The idea that there might be alien life elsewhere in the universe has captured the imaginations of generations of scientists, writers, artists and….well pretty much everyone! Science Brainwaves has a fantastic *free* lecture coming up on Friday 8th November, where Dr Simon Goodwin will describe how astronomers are looking for life on other planets, and what it might be like. So without giving away too many spoilers I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to find out what got our ancestors thinking about aliens and what we might do if we find them….

A 17th Century illustration of the heliocentric system suggested by Copernicus (by Andreas Cellarius from the Harmonia Macrocosmica ,1660) Picture from Wikipedia

A 17th Century illustration of the heliocentric system suggested by Copernicus (by Andreas Cellarius from the Harmonia Macrocosmica ,1660)
Picture from Wikipedia

It’s difficult to say (or at least difficult for me to say, with my limited resources and time!) when people first started thinking about the possibility of life on other planets. However, it’s fair to say that big astronomical discoveries have probably captured people’s imaginations throughout the ages – in the same way that the moon landing got everyone talking about little green men. One such breakthrough is the ‘Heliocentric Revolution’. Heliocentrism is the concept of the solar system with the sun at the centre instead of the earth, an idea that has been around since at least 3rd century BC. However, it was Copernicus who revived the idea in the 16th Century, which was expanded on by the works of Kepler (who calculated the orbits of the planets) and Galileo (who observed other planets by telescope). The spread of the idea that earth wasn’t the centre of the universe must have made our ancestors wonder what else could be out there. Earth was no longer special, just another planet orbiting the sun, so why shouldn’t there be other life filled planets like ours?


alien contact

Top left: The Voyager Golden Record
Bottom left: The Pioneer Plaque
Right: The Aricebo Message (decoded and coloured)
All pictures are from Wikipedia

So far we’ve obviously not had much luck in finding life, but it’d probably be prudent to think about what we’d do if we do find it – especially if it’s intelligent. Stephen Hawking has been heard to offer an opinion on the subject:

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,”

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Not the most optimistic of outlooks, but he’s got a point. Several attempts to contact alien life have been made by astronomers, but have they given away too much information? In 1973 the ‘Pioneer Plaque’ was sent out on the pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, followed in 1974 by the broadcast of the ‘Arecibo Message’ (both pictured right). A slightly more artistic message was sent out in 1977 on the ‘Voyager Golden Record’, which contained information on the sights and sounds of earth. It’s quite romantic to think that if there messages reached intelligent alien life that they might just pop in for a cuppa to say ‘hi’, but the consequences could be a lot worse if the aliens were hostile (and if you’ve got a flair for the melodramatic).

As a microbiologist I can’t help but be a little cynical about grand ideas of intelligent life. At the moment we’ll probably be lucky to find some basic single celled life – which I’ve heard doesn’t tend to be all that talkative (but which as a microbiologist I would find much more exciting anyway!). Anyway, who am I to say what we may or may not find (with all the experience of a 3rd year astrobiology module) – come and hear it from the expert at Science Brainwaves’ free Looking for Aliens Lecture!*


*did I mention it’s free? 😛

A CBeebies Christmas Carol in Sheffield.

If you are interested in children’s science outreach, then there is a great opportunity coming up. Volunteers are needed to assist at an event in Sheffield from the 8th – 10th November. Full details of the event are as follows:

“CBeebies and BBC Learning would live to invite you to an exciting, educational and engaging event running alongside A CBeebies Christmas Carol in Sheffield.

Outside The Crucible, Tudor Square will be transformed into a winter wonderland and there will be the chance to get involved in a whole host of activities ‘past’ ‘present’ and future, all created by BBC Learning to excite and inspire young audiences. The activities on offer will include everything from meeting cute reindeers to programming your own robot through to lighting up the CBeebies Christmas tree with ‘pedal power’ and plenty of learn through play-fun by shopping in the ye Olde CBeebies Christmas market.

Also joining this learning experience will be Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew who will be skating into Sheffield with co-creator Michael De Souza. They’ll be a chance to take part in ‘The Rocksteady Reggae School’ an interactive musical workshop and interactive storytelling.

No tickets are required for the event in Tudor Square. It is all free. The activities will run daily from 10.00-18.00 Friday 8th & Saturday 9th November. 10.00-17.00 Sunday 10th November.”

Volunteers are needed from 9am-6pm and ideally volunteers will be free for the whole day, but you do not have to volunteer for all 3 days, a free lunch will also be provided. Training will be given on the day, but the workshops should be easy to run as they are aimed at 0-7 year olds.

If you are interested in getting involved in this event, or would like further information, then please email ceri.saunders@bbc.co.uk.

Countdown to the British Science Festival!

Oddly, this is the first year I’ve considered going to the British Science Festival. It’s not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it before, it just never occurred to me to go! Anyway, this year with my involvement in Science Brainwaves and a budding interest in Science Communication I’ve resolved to make sure I get there. This year the festival is being hosted by Newcastle University, which is handy for me as I have a few contacts in Newcastle who will hopefully have spare beds (or floors!) I can crash on for the week.

BSF Newcastle black_0

First step, find out how to buy tickets. Surely there’s some sort of season ticket I can buy that gets me in to all the events? No there isn’t, but hang on – that’s because most of the events are FREE! Music to my student ears! I rush to find the downloadable programme and start copying down all the things I want to go to. I realise that I might have to draw myself up a timetable and a very good map, in order to hotfoot it across Newcastle and get to 5 or so events a day. At least there seem to often be several talks on a theme, so if I miss one then at least I might be able to get to another.

In fact there seem to be several themes running through this year’s festival – whether intentionally or not I don’t know. The first one that I noticed was climate change – a fairly unsurprising topic. The second seems to be industrialisation, which is not only relevant to Newcastle but is very much a part of the first theme. The third major (and certainly intentional) theme that caught my eye was “Epifection”. This is a series of events that is supposed to simulate an epidemic infection (EPIdemic inFECTION – get it?) and how public and personal choices effect the spread of a disease. Should research concentrate on a vaccine or on a cure? Should you go to the shops or hide away inside? With constant scares in the news about the next big epidemic scare I’m curious to find out, even though I’ll only arrive on Sunday evening so I’ll miss the initial talks. That’s ok though – It’ll give me an excuse to go to the survivor’s party at the end of the week and find out first-hand how people ‘survived’ (or not!).

In general it seems that the organisers of all these events have hit the nail on the head with many of the questions in science that I’ve often wondered about. One talk is a debate about whether stopping the ageing process is really solving the problem of an ageing population, another about how being educated in more than one language effects your brain (I remember being shocked that my Canadian cousins had to do half of their school day in French at about age eleven!). In the first talk that I plan to go to on Sunday night Robert Winston even addresses the question of whether people realise that pretty much every licensed pharmaceutical they’ve ever had has been tested on animals. I’ve always wondered whether animal rights activists take this into account, and if so how they deal with it? It looks like my curiosity might finally be sated – I can’t wait to get to Newcastle!

Biotech for all – taking science back to it’s roots?

This morning I came across a very interesting TED talk by Ellen Jorgensen entitled “Biohacking — you can do it, too” (http://on.ted.com/gaqM). The basic premise is to make biotech accessible to all, by setting up community labs, where anyone can learn to genetically engineer an organism, or sequence a genome. This might seem like a very risky venture from an ethical point of view, but actually she makes a good argument for the project being at least as ethically sound than your average lab. With the worldwide community of ‘biohackers’ having agreed not only to abide by all local laws and regulations, but drawing up its own code of ethics.

So what potential does this movement have as a whole? One thing it’s unlikely to lead to is bioterrorism, an idea that the media like to infer when they report on the project. The biohacker labs don’t have access to pathogens, and it’s very difficult to make a harmless microbe into a malicious one without access to at least the protein coding DNA of a pathogen. Unfortunately, the example she gives of what biohacking *has* done is rather frivolous, with a story of how a German man identified the dog that had been fouling in his street by DNA testing. However, she does give other examples of how the labs could be used, from discovering your ancestry to creating a yeast biosensor. This rings of another biotech project called iGem (igem.org), where teams of undergraduate students work over the summer to create some sort of functional biotech (sensors are a popular option) from a list of ‘biological parts’.


The Cambridge 2010 iGem team made a range of colours of bioluminescent (glowing!) E.coli as part of their project.

My view is that Jorgensen’s biohacker project might actually have some potential to do great things. Professional scientists in the present day do important work, but are often limited by bureaucracy and funding issues – making it very difficult to do science for the sake of science. Every grant proposal has to have a clear benefit for humanity, or in the private sector for the company’s wallet, which isn’t really how science works. The scientists of times gone by were often rich and curious people, who made discoveries by tinkering and questioning the world around them, and even if they did have a particular aim in mind they weren’t constricted to that by the agendas of companies and funding bodies. Biohacking seems to bring the best of both worlds, a space with safety regulations and a moral code that allows anyone to do science for whatever off-the-wall or seemingly inconsequential project that takes their fancy – taking science back to the age of freedom and curiosity.

Insights into the beginnings of microbiology

Pasteur Institute
Over the holidays I rediscovered a book I picked up in an antique shop a year or so ago called “Milestones in Microbiology”. I had assumed it was going to be a standard history book with lots of dates and names and events, but it turned out to be a collection of groundbreaking microbiology papers from the 16th century to the early 20th century – quite a special find for a microbiology student. Many of the papers included were written by familiar names such as Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, Lister, Koch, Fleming and more, and the collection was compiled and translated by Thomas Brock (a familiar name to anyone who’s been set Brock’s Biology of Microorganisms as a first year text book!).

I’ve not yet read the whole collection, but having read the first few papers I’m very much sold. The early texts on the field of microbiology are not just intriguing but fairly accessible too. The style of writing is far less technical than today’s academic papers, as well as being in full prose (in those days journals didn’t have strict word limits). My favourite example of this so far is when Leeuwenhoek describes one of his test subjects as “a good fellow” a comment that would be branded unneccessary and completely aside from the point in today’s academic world!

It’s not often you get the chance to view groundbreaking scientific advances through the eyes of the scientists you get taught about in the textbooks. Reading the paper in which Leeuwenhoek first describes bacteria (or “little animals” as he calls them) feels like something of a privelege, as well as a trip back in time, so definately worth a read for anyone with an interest in the field. A more up to date version of the book seems to be available on Amazon or for University of Sheffield students there’s a few copies in Western Bank Library – enjoy!

On another note, if you’re interested in this sort of thing I’d also definately recommend a trip to the Pasteur museum in Paris. I visited it a few years ago whilst in Paris and like the papers mentioned above it’s a fascinating insight into the work of pioneering microbiologists. It’s a fairly understated part of the modern Pasteur Institute, with the museum situated in the building of the original Pasteur Institute. The museum contains plenty of scientific curiosities, such as Pasteur’s original experimental equipment, and documents his work from his early background in chemistry and stereoisomers up to his more famous vaccine and microbiological work. Finally on a less biological theme, the museum also contains Pasteur’s living quarters and crypt, which were also part of the original institute building!



Life of a pathogen: pump some iron!

Has somebody set up a miniature  weightlifting gym for microbes? Not yet, but just like you and I bacteria need iron to stay  alive. However, unlike us they don’t get iron as a supplement in  their cereal – they  have to find it for themselves. In bacteria  iron is needed to make proteins involved in vital processes such as  respiration and DNA synthesis. With the stakes so high they need specialised ways to get iron, and more often than not they have to  scrounge it from us, their human host.

Iron scavenging molecules (called siderophores) are one way that bacteria can get iron from a host. In the human body the levels of free iron are kept very low, so the  siderophores have to be very good at finding iron then hanging on to it (high affinity). Once they’ve done this they need to get back into the bacterial cell via special transporters in the cell membrane (see figure below).

So, send out some scavengers and get loads  of iron? Not so simple! Firstly,  the whole process takes a lot of energy for the cell. In E.coli it takes 4  different proteins just to make the siderophore, plus another 4 proteins and some  ATP (the energy currency of the cell) to get it back in again. Secondly, too much iron is toxic to the cell, so it needs to make sure that it only goes to all this trouble when it really needs to – in other words it needs some gene regulation.

This is where it gets clever.  Inside the cell there’s a protein called Fur (ferric uptake regulator) that keeps an eye on how much iron is in the cell and turns the genes for iron scavenging on and off. When there’s lots  of iron in the cell the iron binds to Fur. This allows Fur to bind to the iron  uptake genes and turn them off, so the cell doesn’t waste any resources or  overload itself with iron (see figure below). When there’s not enough iron in the cell there’s no  iron spare to bind to Fur, so Fur can’t bind to the DNA. This means that the  genes are active and the proteins for iron scavenging are made.

That’s a pretty good system, but a  lot of pathogenic bacteria take it a step further. When pathogens enter the body they need to spring into action to make virulence factors – the proteins and molecules that allow them to survive in the body and do all the  nasty things that they do. It would be a massive waste of energy if they made these all the time, so they need to be able to  activate them specifically when they enter a host. Bacteria don’t have eyes or GPS so they have to sense the environment to work out where they are. Low iron levels is one signal that they are inside a host, so it makes sense to use an iron  sensing protein to regulate other virulence factor genes (figure 3). For example, E.coli uses the Fur regulator to regulate  virulence factor genes for fimbriae (fibres which can latch onto human cells),  haemolysin (a toxin that breaks open red blood cells) and Shiga-like toxin (a toxin that helps E.coli cells to get inside human cells).

So, in the arms race of human vs. pathogen it seems that bacteria have found a few sneaky solutions this time. Not only have they gotten around the body’s iron restriction mechanisms, but they also use the low iron levels as a trigger for more deadly weapons.

Science in British Sign Language – Summer Lecture

Science Brainwaves is proud to announce the details of our first summer lecture:

Science in British Sign Language

We are delighted to welcome Brainy and Brawny, aka Dr Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn, and their fantastic science show! Gary and Audrey will be producing explosions, illusions, and a little bit of science…suitable for all ages and hearing abilities! The show will be performed in British Sign Language with audio interpretation.

The lecture is on Friday August 3rd from 6pm – 8pm at the Richard Roberts Building, University of Sheffield, Western Bank. Doors will open from 5.30

This event is FREE. To reserve your tickets, go to http://www.amiando.com/sciencebrainwaves0812

If you have any questions or special requirements, please contact Holly at h.rogers@sciencebrainwaves.com. We hope to see you at the lecture!

Sir Walter Bodmer Award

Science Brainwaves are delighted to have been presented with the British Science Association’s ‘Sir Walter Bodmer Award’. The award is presented annually to recognise the achievement of volunteers within the British Science Association. A big thank you to all of our volunteers for their hard work and dedication! For more information please read the official press release from the British Science Association below:

Celebrating Volunteers’ Week 2012 with the Sir Walter Bodmer Award

Sheffield-based science group ‘Science Brainwaves’ has been presented with a national award, to recognise the outstanding contribution of their volunteers.

The British Science Association has presented the group with the 2012 Sir Walter Bodmer Award as part of national Volunteers’ Week, an annual campaign which celebrates the fantastic contribution that millions of volunteers make across the UK, which has been celebrated from 1-7 June this year.

Up and down the country, individuals and organisations hold special events to celebrate the contribution of volunteers, and inspire others to get involved in volunteering. The British Science Association works with an estimated 5700 volunteers every year. The Sir Walter Bodmer Award is given to celebrate the particularly outstanding efforts of a particular team or individual, in furthering the Association’s efforts to communicate science to the public.

This year the judging committee were very pleased to receive many nominations for the award. With so many examples of excellent volunteering it was difficult to choose just one winner.

Science Brainwaves ultimately stood out as a particularly excellent example of the commitment and dedication of our volunteers. Stemming from the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Branch in late 2009, Science Brainwaves has gone from strength to strength. It has successfully recruited new volunteers year on year, and has created some of the most innovative events in our Regional Programme. These have included highly engaging public events such as “Weird Physics”; “Better Looking, Better Loving – The Science of Beauty”; “The Botany of Gin”; flash mobs; hands on activities at music festivals; and a monthly science pub quiz.

In recognition of its success, Science Brainwaves became an independent Branch in 2011. The volunteers involved at the Branch have shown considerable enterprise and initiative, both in development of event themes and formats, and in building new partnerships and collaborations.

The Branch is noted to have added value and strength not just to the British Science Association but also to University of Sheffield; all the volunteers are students and researchers based at the University.

Also nominated this year was Tacita Nye who has led the Branch over the past year, and overseen its growth. The awarding committee would like to give a special mention to Tacita, for the huge amount of effort and dedication demonstrated over the past year, to ensure the success of the Branch.

An additional long service award was given this year, for the first time, to Dr Ian Chapman of the Tayside and Fife Branch, who has given more than 30 years of service to the branch.

To find out more about Science Brainwaves, visit http://www.sciencebrainwaves.com/ or for more information about how to get involved in volunteering, or just see what activities are on offer in your area, visit the British Science Association website www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/RegionsandBranches/index.htm