Announcing: Science Communication MSc in Sheffield Uni!

Sheffield University really has been a hub of science outreach and engagement activities, not least because that’s where we’re based…

Many of the staff holds between them a staggering and broad range of experience when it comes to inspiring and involving people with science, technology, engineering and medicine. So it’s probably great news that the Faculty of science, in partnership with Medicine and Dentistry and journalism, has finally decided to give you the opportunity to have their collective wisdom endowed upon you, by way of a Masters (MSc) in Science Communication.

The course will open its doors to its first cohort of plucky communicators this autumn, offering both a practical and academic approach to get to grips with successfully communicating science to the public, and how to navigate one’s way through the world of the media.
There will be hands-on lessons, researching and producing podcasts, working in a newsroom, organising events and exhibitions as well as the more classic theoretical modules looking at why you’d want to communicate science at all, the best way to achieve public understanding, and some of the issues and controversies that science communicators might get involved in. The best way of learning is by doing and you’ll get plenty of practical experience.

There will of course be many opportunities to develop your communication skills, written and oral, and get to grips with how to deal with TV, radio and ‘new’ media and the pitfalls you might encounter.

On top of this you’ll write a dissertation, to earn the title of “Master”, to bring together everything you’ve learnt, giving you the opportunity to reflect on the sometimes hidden literature on the subject of public engagement and science communication. Even this could be work-place based though, based on experience and evaluation of events, for example.

The course director, Allan Pacey is a researcher and head of Andrology at the University of Sheffield, and has himself been involved in commentating on science stories in the media, both radio and TV (pictured left), and has even been involved with documentary projects on Channel 4 (The Great Sperm Race), the BBC and a documentary about sperm donation (Donor: Unknown). He’s even been a panellist on a debate that ‘Brainwaves hosted! Other Sheffield Uni staff include senior media fellows.


Finally, and possibly best of all, it’s in Sheffield! Having been a student here for 7 years I couldn’t possibly put across how much I love this city! It’s vibrant but friendly, so if you’re looking for something outside London… well, we’ve got our arms wide-open and ready to welcome you! Not to mention, the city (both unis, industrial partners, museums and galleries and more) host undoubtedly one of the biggest National Science and Engineering Week programmes of events for the school and public.

This project has been in the pipeline for quite a while and the staff are super-excited that it’s taking off this year, so why don’t you join them in the joy of inspiring and informing the public with science!

If you’re interested in registering for the course then you’ll need an upper second class degree in a Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Maths, Medicine or Physics-related degree, a passion for science and communicating it then visit the website

The Science of Cocktails


What happens when you bring together a thirsty and fun-loving group of the public and a chemist with a deep interest in alcoholic beverages together? Answer: …A night many might not remember, but nevertheless, utterly intriguing and fun! The science of Cocktails event took place last Friday, all punters leaving happy!

75 people who came dressed to impress, packed in to the Common Room in University House, situated in the Students’ Union and learnt about where alcohol comes from, what gives vodka and whiskey their tastes, how to get the most out of your spirits, and how to make your own cocktail combinations… Though I thought it was all going to go downhill when the first slide of the presentation stated: ‘All alcohol is poisonous’. Quite true, we don’t condone binge drinking, but everything in moderation! The night ended, quite appropriately, on a look at what hangovers are, and how to avoid them.

Throughout the night, attendees were invited to taste, smell and mix drinks for themselves, starting the night off with a fizz in the shape of a lovely champagne and brandy-based cocktail, comparing vodkas, whiskey tasting, making a screwdriver, ending the night on a proper Irish coffee. The hangover advice being handy… I’m told…

There’s no doubt that our rather dapper host for the night, Noel Jackson, trained chemist, Head of Education and resident mixologist from the Centre for Life up in Newcastle, knew his stuff! Having come up with the Cocktail Hour after thinking of ways to engage 18-30s with science. The answer seemed to be sex, drugs and rock’n’roll! Aside from the insight in to the chemistry of alcohol production for example (did you know your cheap vodka comes from oil refinery!), there were countless insights in to the history, aetiology, sociology and geography of cocktails and various spirits! An extremely eye-opening and sometimes mind-blowing experience.

Organised by our ever-wonderful secretary Tacita Nye, and supported by the committee and our volunteers, it went fantastically, so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Tacita and Noel for making it so enjoyable, and all the hard-work that our volunteers did to make it the success it was.

“The evening was a perfect balance of science and everyone’s favourite pastime – drinking!” Tacita said in summary of the night, her favourite part was when attendees mixed up their own screwdrivers, “there really were some interesting combinations!”

One of our past committee members made the trip up from London and broadcast this via twitter: 

Science of cocktails w/ @scibrainwaves was great, but definitely feeling a bit worse for wear now!

Jon Banks, a self-confessed whiskey lover who attended the event, left us this message on our Facebook:

“Thanks Brainwaves for an awesome night of science and cocktails! I learned all about distilling, hangovers, and why you should always drink scotch with water! I even remember some of it!”

We also tested out our budding mixologists’ knowledge by doing the Big Cocktail Quiz – three lucky winners took home some wine and some guides and recipe books on cocktails, to carry on the fun when they got home.

This was our first ever adult-only night. Usually we’re out and about ranting and raving about the awesomeness of science to anyone who will listen! We’re really pleased it was so successful, in fact, watch this space for a botanics of Gin night! Whilst we had to charge entry for this event to cover the costs of alcohol and so on, we were extremely grateful to all the donations that people generously gave us so that we can continue to put on free events, for children, families and, well, everyone!

Thanks to Ron Adams for taking pictures on the night, and some of the attendees; Adam Dobson, Paul Clarkin and Beany Rosic, for sending in their pics!

VIDEO: Christmas Lecture 2010 – Weird Physics


On the 17th of Dec 2010 we held our second Christmas Lecture on the topic of “Weird Physics” – all those mind-bending things that physicists talk about when describing how our universe works, like parallel universes, black holes, cats that were dead and alive at the same time and time travel. Dr Paul Stevenson lead the lecture that covered some of physics most confusing topics, including relativity and quantum mechanics, in an accessible manner enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

After the lecture there was a festive reception with refreshments, mince pies and some exhibitions of some of the ideas covered in the lecture – as well as a quiz, with the winner walking away with a pretty nifty science kit to take home. Like last year, there was also a bookstall provided by the local children’s bookshop Rhyme and Reason, also featuring some science books for adults, too. To watch the highlights from the Christmas lecture check out this video:

We had a great time organizing it and the feedback from those who attended mirror this as well. We thank the Institute of Physics Yorkshire and North East branch, the university of Sheffield outreach department and alumni foundation for their support, and are very grateful to those individuals who made the lecture possible. We look forward to seeing you this Christmas!

Weird Physics – a quiz

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

It’s been a great year for Science Brainwaves, we’ve come a long way, and this year we’ll only be bigger and better, so watch this space on news of events coming your way in 2011.

Just before Christmas we held our annual Christmas Lecture, this year on ‘weird physics’ – the mind-bending ideas that physicists use to explain our reality, that include baffling things such as particles being in two places at once, black holes and a cat that was both dead and alive at the same time.

I’ll write more about the Christmas Lecture in my next post, but for now we thought it would be a good idea to publish the quiz that our head of volunteers, Ben Dornan, wrote as the Quiz Master. We had some prizes for kids to do, which were:

1st: Chemistry set plus a voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

2nd voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

and the runners up all got a copy of the book.

Below are the questions and answers, a bit of quizzery to pass some time. Of course if you didn’t attend the lecture the answers mightn’t be obvious, but we’ll cover information from the lecture later on, in the mean time Google is your friend!

Question 1: Before Einstein published the theories that eventually made him famous, he had another job. What was it?
Office Clerk
International Man of Mystery

Question 2: Which of these is one of the important insights of Einstein?
There is No Such Thing as Time
The Earth Orbits the Sun
Speed is Distance Divided by Time
The Speed of Light in a Vacuum is Constant

Question 3: In Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2, what does E stand for?

Question 4: Moving fast changes the way we experience time. If one twin left Earth to go on a fast trip in space, while the other stayed, who would be older when they got back?
They Would Both Be the Same
The One Who Left
(The One Who Stayed)
They Would Both Be Younger

Question 5: The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is looking for the Higgs Boson. What is this particle meant to explain?

Question 6: What was demonstrated by the double slit experiment?
(Wave-Particle Duality)
The Speed of Light
Quantum Tunnelling
The Existence of Black Holes

Question 7: In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, what is the strange and interesting property of the cat involved?
It Has Two Tails
(It Is Both Dead and Alive at the Same Time)
It Doesn’t Age
It Can Travel Faster Than Light

Question 8: Which of the following is NOT a real interpretation of quantum physics?
(The Berlin Interpretation)
The Copenhagen Interpretation
The Bohmian Interpretation
The Many-Worlds Interpretation


If you’ve got any suggestions of events you’d like to see next year, get in touch, or let us know on our forums!

May 2011 be a good one for all!

Get involved!

Well it seems you can’t always get things right where technology is involved! Yesterday evening we held out intro meeting for new recruits to come and find out all about what it is we do and what opportunities there are for everyone. Unfortunately, we had issues getting our mass email sent out so a lot of people got the email after the meeting. SO here you will find all the information you need and how to get involved.

We are going to be holding our AGM on the 2nd of November, at 5.15pm, in F2 lecture theatre of Firth Court. If you are interested in going for any of the positions that will be listed in this blog, then you’ll need to go to that, or email

So first of all, a little history. In November 2009 a group of Ph.D students came together to organise a public lecture. The idea was to reach out to the public and provide the opportunity for learning that was accessible to everyone. The topic was vaccines presented by Professor Adam Finn, over 300 people attended from all backgrounds and with ages ranging from eight to eighty. From this success the group decided to continue and so Science Brainwaves was formed.Science Brainwaves has two areas of operation: the public domain and the academic. We aim to increase communication amongst scientists and to the wider community through innovative and engaging events, the creating of which pro-vide skills development opportunities to the students of the University of Sheffield. We were snapped up early on by the South Yorkshire branch of the British Science Association, to broaden their programme of public engagement events.

Public egagement is incredibly important – it can help us communicate important new research relevent to the public and can inspire the next generation: the kids. In our remit is everything to do with science, engineering, technology and maths – even social sciences and the history and philosophy of science.

Our involvement has prepared us for life beyond our education and provided numerous career advancing opportunities, we really hope others can benefit from it as much as we have.
Half of our committee is moving on to new jobs (for example, Jenna will be starting her new job as media executive for the society of biology in the next few weeks), jobs that have been secured thanks to their involvement in Science Brainwaves. We would like new members to bring new expertise and enthusiasm, meaning we’ll continue to grow and meet our aims in the future. We are sure Science Brainwaves can become a dominant force in science communication in years to come and that the students of the University of Sheffield will benefit greatly from it’s success.

Just have a look through this blog, the rest of the website and our Facebook group – you’ll see the many other successful events we’ve put on, such as a debate about how science is covered in the media, iTRAK science-art exhibition with a robot that shows it’s “brainwaves” as it’s deciding what to look at, We’ve been science busking at the national Big Bang fair, we’ve taught kids who to extract DNA from strawberries in a cinema and a school, our summer lecture with Brook Magnanti on chance and luck, and most recently, we took along some simple experiments you can do with food to the Green Man festival. We even helped set up the first ever completely student-ran RTP/DDP module (PG cafe forum) for post-graduate students at the university to hone their presentation skills for non-specialists in a comfortable and relaxed environment (a pub!).

In the future we want to carry on doing this and more. We’ve forged strong partnerships with Museum Sheffield and the Thackray Museum in Leeds, so that we can offer varied and exciting experience and opportunities to our members. We have a number of existing and new roles that we need to fill, so whether you’re interested in writing for the website, or getting your teeth in to organising events, read on!


Currently running the website is myself, Michaela, and Paul, or expert web monkey who makes all our crazy ideas a reality. We’re hoping we can put together a “web team” that will come up with great ideas, develop them and implement them, as well as keep on top of the general maintenance of the website.

-2x web assistants – you don’t need to know html. You just need to be vaguely computer literate, enthusiastic and have some fantastic ideas! With me you’ll be helping organise podcasts, coming up with ideas and occasionally setting up blogs and other reports on the site. Theoretically you don’t even need to be based in Sheffield for this.

-A web developer – if the following makes sense to you then we want to hear from you:Experience in ASP.NET C# Web applications, with SQL database knowledge is required. CSS and Javascript are desirable but not essential. Knowledge of setting up Content Management would be useful. Technologies currently used: C#, ASP.NET, HTML, Javascript, JQuery, YUI, SQL, Source control in SVN.


And of course, we still want bloggers and reports, especially blogs based in physics, chemistry and engineering, so get in touch. If you’re a budding journalist and interested in joining our news team, please email


Organising events is usually done by small, dedicated teams, where each person takes on a specific role. Our next event that needs team members is the Christmas Lecture on Dec 17th on weird physics. You don’t have to have had any previous experience, nor be a physicist. All that is needed is enthusiasm and a thirst to learn. And, it’s something that looks absolutely fantastic on your CV.

Project Manager – oversee project, responsible for overall budget, ensure deadlines are met, responsible for applying for grants. Produce schedules, etc. Contact for Paul Stevenson, responsible for booking everything for him. Act as support for team members. Write event evaluation in consultation with the rest of the team  – Michaela

Media/marketing Liaison – produce press release, seeks opportunities to feature info about lecture in newspapers, magazines, radio, etc. Also ensures that info is included in event listings. Organise any interviews (e.g. setting up green room). Responsible for distribution of flyers in publics places (libraries, shops, etc, work with everyone on team to cover as much of Sheffield as possible). Investigate cost of local magazine ad space – contact forge press, etc. Responsible for implementing any internet marketing – posting on to local/relevant forums/facebook/twitter, etc. – Jen.

Schools/children’s university liaison – responsible for sending out information to schools (secondary schools) and Sheffield science teachers forum for attendance. Develop further material to be sent to schools with multimedia producer. Produce activity materials (if relevant, quizzes/competitions, must consider age-group attending – work with funding assistant to organise prizes). Contact Children’s University for attendance and to develop any further opportunities.

Multimedia producer – someone to produce, most importantly, posters to market the event, a podcast from the lecture and/or dvd to be sent out to schools/other interested parties. Previous experience not required, but would help. Work with media/marketing/schools liaisons to ensure deadline for mail outs and cohesive image.

Funding assistant/reception organisation – Working with project manager to make links with local businesses to organise materials for the reception (e.g., food and drink) and extra sponsorship. Set-up the reception. Work with university link to develop/organise a stall/poster/whatever to show-case Sheffield research for information/outreach purposes of physics department.

University/alumni Liaison – a link between university staff (gaining support from external/community relations office) and the alumni office to contact local alumni and provide a VIP experience for guests. Work with Project Manager and funding assistant to apply for alumni foundation funding and organise the VIP reception experience. Work with funding assistant to set up reception. – Martin

Reception assistants – 2 persons help on the night to organise and set up the reception, serve drinks/food if not provided by whatever catering we end up using.

Ushers – a group of 5 people to help attendees – two persons to be in charge of admissions (checking the guest list against people arriving), one person to show people to the upper tier of the lecture theatre, and two people on the lower tier – on person to be specifically in charge of the VIPs. After lecture responsible for herding attendees in to the reception in Mappin Hall. Don’t necessarily need to be separate people to the above roles, especially for reception assistants.

Jobs with names against them have already been taken, but if any of them tickle your fancy, drop us an email! We’ve got some meetings lined up for this one already, specifically about funding, so if you are interested, get in contact ASAP.

Museum’s/Science club Coordinator/team

Also up-and-coming is our involvement with Museums Sheffield. The weston park museum will be host to the beautiful games exhibition that will be bringing the science or sport to the public. We’ve been given the opportunity to run workshops alongside the exhibition, so if you have any ideas please get in touch. We also have links with the Thackray medical history museum in Leeds and our initial ideas are to produce a “medical marvels: head to to” series of lectures. We also want to start up a science club for schools that will hopefully be based in a museum.

Loads of poeple have already showed interest in this, so please do get involved – the more the merrier!


GEOSET is a tool for researchers to present their work in a virtual fashion to school and college kids all over the world. We’ve got a slot on the first wednesday of ever month for members, or otherwise, to go and record a presentation targetted to school/college kids. We need someone to help coordinate that with the PG Cafe forum folks so that we can get as many resources fo school kids on the web as possible. Again, if you’re interested, please get in touch.

Committee positions

So if any of that seems of interest to you, then please do get in touch – at the AGM we will be appointing the following positions:

Head of Events
Museum Coordinator
Science Club Coordinator
Website Assistants
Website Developers
University Liaison
Volunteer Coordinator
GEOSET liaison

Thank you for making it this far. If you have any questions at all about anything at all, then please do email us on We’re really looking forward to working with you. See you all soon!


on behalf of the Science Brainwave team.

DNA Extraction from Strawberries by Michaela

Another experiment we did in Einstein’s Kitchen was extracting the DNA from strawberries, and wowed kids and adults alike!

Please do not eat anything (apart from the strawberries) in this experiment and if you’re doing this with small children please be extra vigilant to make sure they don’t put anything in their mouths.

DNA. It’s the blueprint for life. DNA spells out the instructions to all living things to tell them how to become what they are, and how their cells should work. Discovered back in 1869 as a part of the cell’s nucleus, it wasn’t until the 1950s that some very clever people realised that DNA was in fact the genetic material – the thing that carried genes and was responsible for heredity – the passage of characteristics from one generation to the next – why you look like your parents!  Since then there’s been a surge in research studying how traits are passed on and how the message in genes leads to a cell working the way it does.

DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid – quite a boring name that just describes the chemical structure (shown below). It’s basically a big string of units, where each unit has a different letter, A, T, G or C that the cell reads. These strands form the infamous double helix structure.

As scientists we’re interested in extracting, or getting at, DNA for a number of reasons, for example, to read the sequence of it to compare it from organism to organism, diagnosing genetic diseases, and to use it as a tool to study processes in the cell. DNA can be used from blood and other samples found at crime scenes to identify who could have been there, and the same principle is behind paternity tests.


To get at the DNA we scientists carry out a technique not too dissimilar to what we carried out at the festival, and that you can try yourself at home!

So here’s what you’ll need:

  • ·         A cup and a squashing instrument (like a fork)
  • ·         One strawberry
  • ·         10mL of DNA extraction buffer (add 2 tsp of salt to 50mL washing up liquid and then make that up to one litre with water).
  • ·         Cheesecloth
  • ·         A funnel
  • ·         A shot glass
  • ·         A thin stick
  • ·         10mL ice cold alcohol (we used 100% ethanol, but white rum works!). Just stick it in the freezer for a couple hours to cool it.

What you need to do is actually really easy but I’ve included an explanation for each step, so don’t be put off by the length of this:

1.          DNA as mentioned before is found inside the cell’s nucleus, so the first thing you’ll need to do is break open the cells. Simply place your strawberry in the cup and start mushing!

2.          Cells are actually really tiny things, so though after a minute or two of mushing your strawberry won’t be looking much like a strawberry, chances are that a lot of the cells are still intact! So to really help break it up add 10mL of the extraction buffer (about 2 teaspoons) and carry on stirring. Cells are held together in a sack of fatty acids called the membrane. Washing up liquid is a detergent, and in the same way as it cleans off grease it will dissolve the membrane meaning that the cell bursts open to release everything.


3.          This mix will contain everything inside the cell including the DNA dissolved in the liquid, as well as a lot of big bits that you’ll want to get rid of, so the next thing to do is filter the liquid away from all the big bits. To do this simply place your cheesecloth inside the funnel and pour your mushin. Give it a bit of a stir so that the liquid passes through to be collected in the shot glass.

4.          Now the next step is almost like magic, but it’s not actually. We can make the DNA appear out of the liquid! That’s because the DNA is dissolved in the liquid but we can make it so it no longer ‘likes’ water and so will turn to a solid – this is called precipitation. Slowly add 10mL ice-cold ethanol and be careful not to disturb the mush (or spray strawberry all over your kitchen). You should see a fluffy white solid forming at the junction between mush and alcohol. This is a little tricky, but bear with me: remember in your extraction buffer you added salt – salts sticks to the negative charges on DNA and neutralises them. Now in chemistry there’s a bit of a rule where things that are the same will dissolve each other but things that aren’t the same won’t dissolve in each other. Alcohol has a charge so by making the DNA unlike the alcohol by neutralising its chargesit means that it won’t dissolve any longer – it will come out of solution as a solid.


5.         Get your stick and fish out the white stuff – that is DNA!


Every living thing uses this very same chemical, and if you extracted DNA from yourself or a worm it would look exactly the same as strawberry DNA. Strawberries are great for using in this experiment because they contain so much DNA! We have two copies of each of our chromosomes, but strawberries have 8! This has mostly come about through selective breeding by farmers to get bigger strawberries! You might be wondering why it’s just a big white lump and doesn’t at all look stringy. This is because actually DNA itself is very, very small and so you’d need see a single molecule without the help of an extremely powerful microscope that uses electrons instead of light to look at very tiny things. DNA has to be very small to fit inside the cell. In Humans there’s 6ft of DNA in every single cell, and if you were to lay every strand end to end it’d reach to sun which is over 93 million miles away. Then it’d come back again… 600 times!!! That’s a lot of DNA! There are special proteins that wind up the DNA and package it all up so it fits.

Had fun making a mess? Why not send us your comments and pictures! And of course, any questions then drop us a line or comment on the blog.

Einstein’s Kitchen – Food for Thought!

The Brecon Beacons were the beautiful setting for a music festival called Green Man which happened the weekend of the 20-23rd of August 2010, and the unlikely place to find scientists brewing up fun!

Science Brainwaves, not ones to turn down the chance to get science out to everyone they could, packed up a Transit van and drove the 186 miles to set up a stall called Einstein’s Kitchen in the area of the Green Man festival called Einstien’s Garden (…can you see the link?). Einstein’s Kitchen had a number of different experiments running at various times to get across the basic principles of biology, chemistry and physics to the sodden festival-goers (it may have rained just a wee bit…). All of these experiments were based on things easily found in the kitchen cupboard. Things included using lemons as batteries, Strawberry DNA extractions, sweetie chromatography, dry-ice ice cream, using a cabbage to detect pH, Oobleck, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar volcanos, and more!

If you were lucky enough to attend the festival and had a go at some experiments at our stall then this blog will, for now, be the place to find all the info you need to recreate the experiments in your own kitchen! If you couldn’t get to the festival, then don’t worry! Hopefully you’ll be able to get a feel for the event from our photos and reports. We’ll be sticking up all the information sheets and posters we had there so you can give it all a go yourself! You never know, we may well be taking a new and improved Einstein’s Kitchen to other places… keep your eyes peeled! In the mean time, enjoy!

If you have any comments at all then please, do email/comment/go on our forums!

Lots of science love!

The Science Brainwaves Team

Einstein’s Kitchen

Wow… what a weekend!

It may have rained solidly, but I for one really enjoyed taking science to the revellers at the Green Man festival in Wales!

It was messy, it was informative but most of all it was fun! We even spread the science love (by sticking ‘I heart science’ stickers on to just about everything and everyone)!


I’ve just set up a blog to feature all of the Einstein’s Kitchen info – how to carry out the experiments yourself, pictures and reports about the event that all the other Brainwaves team will be contributing to, so go have a look – it will be growing with info as time goes on, but we’re working on giving it it’s own entire section on the website, so keep your eyes peeled.

As it turns out, this may well be the first of many outings that Einstein’s Kitchen makes, and I for one and very excited about it!


See you next year, Green Man!