Category Archives: SciCom activities

The BSA helps students try their hand at science journalism

Last week, on the 7th of March 2017, the Manchester Branch of the British Science Association held its first science journalism workshop. This day-long event was part of our ongoing science journalism competition – an activity we hope will inspire our next generation of scientists and communicators. It was funded in part by generous grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the BSA alongside free venue hire from The University of Manchester.

Through this contest we intend to raise awareness of the pitfalls and complications associated with science journalism by offering the students firsthand experience of how academic research makes the journey from lab bench to lay-literature. Students were invited to join us among the impressive pillars and stained glass of Manchester University’s Sackville street building Entrance Hall where they were introduced to six academics working at the university.

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Students came to us from six schools across Greater Manchester and the surrounding area including: INTO Manchester, Loreto Sixth Form College, Oswestry School, Trafford College, Winstanley College and Xaverian Sixth Form College. Many of these schools had also been involved in our 2016 contest which took a slightly different form. In 2016 we matched students with academics working on their subject of interest and facilitated online and phone interviews between students and academics. As a whole we were amazed by the quality of articles produced by students entering our 2016 contest but sadly not all students found this to be a positive experience. As any researcher probably knows, pinning down academics can be a bit like herding cats, and some of our 2016 students found it very difficult to interview their assigned researcher. So, after a bit of head scratching we chose to re-design the contest for 2017 to include a workshop day where all students got the chance to meet and interview our participating academics.

Our morning and early afternoon sessions saw each researcher give a 35 minute whistle-stop tour of their own field of study with an extra five minutes for student questions. We kicked off proceedings with Dr Nick Weise, Public Engagement and Programs Manager and Researcher at the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology:

As both an active researcher and engagement manager it was Nick’s job to introduce the students to the ins and outs of how to transform complicated scientific research into something fun and accessible for readers with no academic background. Nick gave some great examples and used an activity to show how two shockingly different headlines could easily be generated from the same research.

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Nick was closely followed by Dr David Mills from the School of Chemistry. David explained how he investigates the use of lanthanide elements for the development of single molecule magnets – this type of work may lead us into a new era of tiny tech. Specially for the event David also 3D printed a molecular model of his element of choice Dysprosium which was passed around the students.

Following this we all took a well deserved break for tea and biscuits and, during this time, the students were free to wander around and chat with the event organisers and researchers. It was great to see that a fair number of students took this opportunity to talk to our volunteers about their paths into academia and their experiences of science in the media. I was asked a particularly challenging question about when research should and shouldn’t be reported in the media – which is a question both academics and journalist battle with regularly and so far doesn’t have a simple answer to. I talked about the dangers of incorrect reporting of health risks and how this is one area of research which must be reported very carefully.

After our break Ellena Badrick took over and gave a really interesting talk about her work exploring the links between diabetes and cancer. As our only biologist, her talk was very popular and I made sure to slip in a question about how she thinks health risks should be reported.

Ellena was followed by Dr Liam Marsh who spoke about his work on intelligent metal detectors for locating and disarming land mines. Liam gave a really compelling account of the humanitarian elements of this problem, which set the scene for his work beautifully.

Over lunch we chatted more with students and their teachers who all seemed to be enjoying the day. One student pointed out that he was expecting the event to be really formal but was happy that everyone was instead relaxed and happy to just chat. I hoped that this helped in some way to dispel the myth that science is all about serious stuffy academics in white lab coats quoting equations.
After lunch Dr Alex Theodosiou spoke to the group about his involvement in a large-scale project investigating the best way to dispose of radioactive graphite following decommissioning of a nuclear power plant. His work beautifully highlighted how scientists from a whole range of backgrounds can often work together on one large project.

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Our final speaker Sarah Crowther discussed how she uses samples of extraterrestrial materials, including samples from the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets to learn about the formation and history of the Solar System. She also brought along some beautiful meteorite samples which the students were encouraged to have a better look at during our interview sessions.

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Then came the hard part. For the competition the students are expected to write a short lay-article based on the research of only one of our researchers. Therefore we wanted to give students the chance to interview their chosen researcher but, since we had around forty students and only five researchers (Nick didn’t participate in this section of the day since he had not spoken specifically about his research) we also needed to make sure everyone had a chance to ask questions.

We decided that small groups were the best way forward so chose to seat each of our five researchers around a separate table with spaces for eight students. We thought it would be nice if every student had the opportunity to meet and talk to each researcher in turn, so decided to move our groups of students around to a new academic every fifteen minutes. Of course, however, by this point the students had had a long day and were pretty tired so many didn’t want to talk with everyone. I worry I came across as a bit of a buzz-kill as I tried to make sure everyone stuck to our enforced game of musical chairs around the researchers. But, even though a number of students chose to leave after they met their chosen researcher, we overheard some really interesting discussions and everyone seemed to really  enjoyed this part of the day.

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Taking into account the long sign up process for schools and speakers, creation of work packs for every student, funding applications and event organisation its been an intense few months for our volunteers and we still have judging to come. So we want to thank everyone for the time and effort that they put into organising this event. However, it has also been immensely rewarding and we’re really pleased with how everything panned out.

I can’t wait to start reading the students entries!

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This Christmas remember: Wash your hands not your turkey!

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 17.28.38.pngWith Christmas fast approaching, many of us will be stocking up ready for a festive feast – the centrepiece of which is usually a nice plump goose or turkey. But this year, alongside preparations to ensure your bird is moist and mouthwatering, it’s important to also keep in mind the dangers associated with putting your turkey under the tap!

Raw poultry provides a home for Campylobacter and Salmonella – the most common causes of food poisoning in the UK. In fact, in 2014 it was found that approximately 7 in 10 chickens sold in British supermarkets were contaminated by Campylobacter. But don’t fret, as a rule, good kitchen hygiene and thorough cooking are usually enough to avoid infection.

However, there is one important aspect of kitchen hygiene which seems to be regularly overlooked, this being the importance of not washing your bird in the sink before cooking. Placing a turkey under a kitchen tap causes an invisible storm of bacteria to spray from your meat, settling on anything within range (from clean utensils to previously sterile working surfaces). This cross contamination significantly increases the risk of infection to yourself and your family.

2187298129_ea44b55d86_zIn 2015 almost 900 people took part in a national survey carried out by researchers at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool which found that around 50% of participants always or usually washed their turkeys under the tap before cooking. This means that, despite warnings from the food standards agency, the message is still not getting across.

This year we want to add our voice to this campaign and keep our followers healthy over the festive period. So, this Christmas make sure to treat your favorite bird correctly and remember – Wash your hands not your turkey!

Wishing wish you all a happy and healthy holiday!

Post by: Sarah Fox

Can I please buy one of your kidneys?

Should we legalise the sale of human organs?

In the UK alone the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is 3 years, this costs the NHS around £24,000 per patient per year and in 2013 – 2014 1000 people died whilst on the transplant waiting list. Dialysis patients also often say they feel that they are just existing rather than living. But, if these patients could get a transplant from a living donor, their life expectancy would increase up to 23 years and their lives could really begin. With increasing cuts to the NHS budget is it possible that the cost-effectiveness of kidney transplant might persuade the government to legalise a market in human organs?  The implementation of a legal organ market would also increase the human organ supply and eliminate the consequences of the black market.

Due to a shortage in organs, the black market and transplant tourism is thriving. Annually, 15,000 – 20,000 illegal kidney transplants take place around the world, often in developing countries such as India and the Philippines. There are even slums in the Philippines dubbed “kidney-vile”, as the majority of the slum’s residents have been driven to sell a kidney. But the black market is built on systematic deception. Brokers coerce desperate workers to sell a kidney then give them much less money than they were promised. Nor do they care about the surgical quality and often leave donors with little or no aftercare. Consequently, donors often become ill and are unable to continue their usual hard labour, which perpetuates their poverty, rather than alleviating it. Recipients are also affected by black market fraud: often these kidneys are not screened properly and donors are coerced to cheat their medical records. As a result of these schemes and poor hygiene standards, recipients often contract diseases such as hepatitis B/C and HIV.

Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney.

Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney.

Iran is currently the only country with a compensated and regulated kidney donation program. In this system, there are no brokers and it is charity organizations that coordinates donors with recipients. The government pay a fixed price for organs and cover the costs of all necessary aftercare for donors. Due to this system, Iran is currently the only country with no kidney transplant waiting list. It has also successfully eliminated its black market, and has still maintained a respectable percentage of altruistic donations. Nevertheless there are flaws to the Iranian system as discussed here.

Erin & Harris proposed an ethical, highly regulated, system in which only individuals within a nation are eligible to sell or receive organs. The market would have one purchaser (e.g. the NHS in the UK) and organs would be allocated fairly, giving recipients an equal chance of receiving a transplant regardless of their economic background. This system would also remove the draw for brokers, and subsequently reduce the exploitation of vulnerable people. Medical screening would ensure only healthy individuals could sell an organ, which would to minimise risk (Gill & Sade, 2002). Such a system would also provide proper medical care for donors who would also benefit from a full psychological evaluation, to make sure they are aware of the consequences of their actions.

A study of 478 donors from the Iranian regulated system has shown their health did not deteriorate after the sale, and that 90% of them were content with selling their kidney. These results contrast markedly with the study of 305 Indian donors in an unregulated market. The health of 90% of these donors declined, people living below the poverty line rose up to 20% and 79% of donors would not recommend selling a kidney. This shows that within a regulated program, both vendors and patients are better cared for and are more satisfied with the transplant process.

The strongest argument against the sale of organ is the possible exploitation of the poor. Critics argue that legalisation could lead to a market that would exploit poorer people, as they might view organ sale as a last resort. But, is it exploitation if a person makes a reasoned decision to take an action they consider to be the best option to improve their life? One can’t assume that money would simply overrule a person’s judgment. A black market would also lead to greater exploitation than any legalised market ever would. Prohibiting an organ market is paradoxical, to restrict an individual’s autonomy and cause moral harms to liberty.

Another prominent argument against the sale of human organs is that it would lead to commodification of the human and therefore corrupt human dignity. Commodification is an unsuitable term to use for the sale of a kidney, since there are numerous other circumstances when paying money does not insinuate loss of dignity, such as surrogacy.The scarcity of organs and, death and exploitation of people will not be resolved through rhetoric of moral repugnancy and human dignity.

Under prohibition, patients are suffering and dying whilst waiting for a transplant. Both vendors and recipients are exploited by the black market, and the human rights of poor people are violated. These problems will continue to exist as long as there is a dearth of organs. So, should a market in human organs from living persons be legalised? Or is it merely a naive and impractical idea, only appropriate for a dystopian future. Either way, the possibility of legalising a regulated and ethical market should be explored.

Post by: Alyssa Vongapai


References

Erin, C. A., & Harris, J. (2003). An ethical market in human organs. Journal of Medical Ethics , 29 (3), 137–138.

Ghods, A. J. (2009). Ethical issues and living unrelated donor kidney transplantation. Iranian Journal of Kidney Diseases , 3 (4), 183–191.

Goyal, M. (2002). Economic and Health Consequences of Selling a Kidney in India. Journal of the American Medical Association , 288 (13), 1589.

Higgins, R., West, N., Fletcher, S., Stein, A., Lam, F., & Kashi, H. (2003). Kidney transplantation in patients travelling from the UK to India or Pakistan. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation , 18 (4), 851–852.

Hippen, B. E. (2005). In defense of a regulated market in kidneys from living vendors. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy , 30 (6), 593–626.

Kidney Org. (2010). Transplantation Cost Effectiveness. [Online] Available from:http://www.kidney.org.uk/archives/news-archive-2/campaigns-transplantation-trans-cost-effect/. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

MacKellar, C. (2014). Human Organ Markets and Inherent Human Dignity. The New Bioethics: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Biotechnology and the Body , 20 (1), 53–71.

Moazam, F. (2009). Conversations with Kidney Vendors in Pakistan. Hastings Center Report, (June), 29–44.

New Internationalist. (2014). Human traffic: exposing the brutal organ trade. [Online] Available
from:http://newint.org/features/2014/05/01/organ-trafficking-keynote/. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

Organ Donation. (2015). Transplant save lives. [Online] Available from:http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/newsroom/fact_sheets/transplants_save_lives.asp.
[Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

Pat Roque. (1999). Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney [Photograph]. At: https://digital.newint.com.au/issues/88/articles/1890. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

The Wall Street Journal. (2015). Cash for kidneys: The case for a Market for organs. [Online] Available from:http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304149404579322560004817176.
[Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

World Socialist Web Site. (2015). Dramatic increase in worldwide illegal organ trade. [Online]
Available from:http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/07/orga-j14.html. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

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Shedding Light on the Nucleus

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 21.12.02This year the Manchester branch of the British Science Association launched it’s first ever science journalism competition. They presented AS and A-level students across Greater Manchester with the daunting task of interviewing an academic researcher then using this material to create an article accessible to someone with no scientific background. This was by no means a simple task, especially since many of the researchers were working on basic research – the type of work which may not be sensational but which represents the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of scientific research and without which no major breakthroughs would ever be made. Despite the challenges implicit in this task all our entrants stepped up and we were astounded by the quality of work submitted.

Today we’re proud to publish one of our runner up articles written by Hayley Martin from Oswestry School

“The nucleus can be thought of like an engine of a car – driving the actions of the cell”. This is an analogy made by Professor Dean Jackson at Manchester University. With a passion for the genome and forty years of research behind him Professor Jackson has become an expert in understanding mammalian nuclei and chromosomes and how the organisation of their structures defines the cell’s behaviour. In order for these cells to function correctly the genetic code stored in the DNA of each gene has to be interpreted by a process called gene expression, where information from the gene is used in the synthesis of the gene product. These gene products often include proteins such as enzymes, hormones and antibodies, all vital to our survival. Gene expression is immensely complicated due to the number of processes involved. Professor Jackson has been studying these processes and has helped to shed light on exactly why this expression is so complicated.

Figure 1 – The nucleus of a human cell – showing the distribution of DNA (blue), the transcription factories (green) and proteins (red) involved in further modification of RNA.

Figure 1 – The nucleus of a human cell – showing the distribution of DNA (blue), the transcription factories (green) and proteins (red) involved in further modification of RNA.

Transcription is the first process that contributes to gene expression – it is the process whereby information from DNA is copied and made into a new strand of RNA which goes on to synthesize proteins. Professor Jackson has been able to tag newly formed RNA with a fluorescent antibody that can be detected using a laser scanning confocal microscope. This equipment scans a beam of a specific wavelength of light through the specimen, causing the antibodies to fluoresce. The resulting image is displayed in Figure 1. Images such as this have allowed him to locate the areas in the nucleus where this RNA is formed – he refers to these areas as “transcription factories”. He has also found that these factories are made up of many other genes and proteins which assemble into specific complexes. Such knowledge is key to defining the required level of synthesis of each gene product. It also provides the potential for co-regulation of genes in that the way that one gene in this complex is expressed will affect the expression of another gene. Recent work has concluded that genes can have as many as 20 other genetic elements, known as enhancers, that contribute to the gene’s overall expression, which is why it is so complex.

Gene therapy is an exciting modern concept: It offers the prospect of improving lives without the need for drugs with potential side effects and offers possibilities for treating diseases that previously had limited therapeutic options. So far it has been considered as an approach to replacing mutated genes with normal functioning copies, inactivating or removing damaged genes and introducing a new gene that might help the body fight off a disease. With the use of new techniques such as ‘CRISPR’ gene insertion is relatively easy. However Professor Jackson’s research has highlighted how gene therapy isn’t as simple as just inserting a gene – it has to be controlled in the right way by these complex processes in order for the cell to have control of its actions. The difficulty in controlling these actions means that gene therapy is currently a risky process and is not a common treatment. Trials are underway to develop effective gene therapy methods of treating inherited disorders including haemophilia, cystic fibrosis and viral infections such as HIV. We can hope, with advances in the understanding of nuclear structure and processes of gene expression, that safe and effective gene therapy treatments will become a reality.

Post by: Hayley Martin

Can the Onset of Psychosis Be Predicted by the Presence of Neuro-inflammation?

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 21.12.02This year the Manchester branch of the British Science Association launched it’s first ever science journalism competition. They presented AS and A-level students across Greater Manchester with the daunting task of interviewing an academic researcher then using this material to create an article accessible to someone with no scientific background. This was by no means a simple task, especially since many of the researchers were working on basic research – the type of work which may not be sensational but which represents the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of scientific research and without which no major breakthroughs would ever be made. Despite the challenges implicit in this, task all our entrants stepped up and we were astounded by the quality of work submitted.

Today we’re proud to publish one of our runner up articles written by Maaham Saleem from Withington Girls’ School:

Imagine a life where the dawn of each new day is accompanied by severe hallucinations, delusions and an inability to respond to stimuli in a way that is deemed ‘normal’. Where the problems that you face heavily impair your ability to carry out social interactions, and leave you in a debilitated state. This life is reality for patient with psychosis, a mental health problem that causes people to perceive and interpret events differently from the average human mind. Psychosis can occur in a number of different conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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During recent times, a great deal of interest has arisen within the scientific community regarding the link between this condition and inflammation in the brain. In the late 20th century, post-mortem studies in patients with schizophrenia showed the presence of inflammation. However, these results were not always consistent, possibly due to differences in the regions of the brains which were examined. However, more recent studies, using brain scans in living patients, did find a more consistent increase in microglial activation in patients with psychosis, which is an indicator of neuro-inflammation. Microglia are resident, innate immune cells in the brain which have long been connected with the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases. The activation of these cells indicates inflammation, and it was suggested that individuals that display such inflammation may have a pre-disposition to developing psychotic disorders later in life.

At the Wolfson Molecular Imaging Centre of the University of Manchester, researchers are investigating whether this link between neuro-inflammation and psychosis does indeed exist. In order to ensure that the conclusions are valid, a large amount of evidence must be generated to support it and so a study is conducted in collaboration with other centres around the country. In this study, three groups of volunteers are tested; patients who have had psychosis for many years, patients for whom the onset of psychosis is recent, and healthy volunteers to act as controls. Each of these groups consists of twenty patients, therefore a total sample size of sixty patients is used in order to increase the statistical power of the results and increase the likelihood that they are representative of the majority of patients with psychosis.

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All volunteers undergo a brain-scan called Positron Emission Tomography, or PET scan. PET scans involve the injection of a radioactive tracer into the body which emits positrons as it decays inside the tissues. This radiation can be detected by cameras. By using a specific radioactive tracer called [11C]PK11195, microglial activation can be measured in order to determine the amount of inflammation in the brain. Many of the results from studies to investigate this link between neuro-inflammation and psychosis seem to suggest that neuro-inflammation does indeed exist. Although of course more studies must be carried out in order to confirm this hypothesis, it does present an exciting new prospect of a possible treatment and establishment of preventative measures to assist patients with psychosis.

Cell Cookies

cell-cookies

Some of the fantastic creations courtecy of the Science Specacular visitors

Up until now you may have thought the main function of digestive biscuits, giant chocolate buttons and jelly beans was to act as delicious treats. You were wrong. Together, they actually make a fantastic cell model. Who knew?

The premise of the activity is fairly simple. Digestive biscuits act as the base for animal cells and square crackers are plant cells. You can then add icing sugar, which acts as the cytoplasm that the sweetie organelles are attached to. Here’s the sweets I used for organelles;

Nucleus – Giant Chocolate Button

Mitochondria – Mini Jelly Beans

Cell Membrane – Red Laces (Only if you’re using larger biscuits)

Vesicles – Sugar balls (cake decorations)

Endoplasmic Reticulum – Jelly Snake

Golgi apparatus – Jelly Squirms

Chloroplasts – Chopped up green wine gums (left over from DNA sweets)

Cell Wall – Green fizzy lace.

We realised that the activity works really well at events aimed at families because the younger children tend to be interested in the cookies, and the parents are interested in what’s inside cells. I think this could be a good as a group activity for children (or adults) of all ages as the amount of details you include can be adjusted. Also, if you were going to do this as an activity for AS level students it might be worth buying bigger biscuits to ensure you can get all the organelles on – maybe a water biscuit.

I’ve uploaded the instruction sheets I used on the here and as I haven’t had time to write about research yet (which is cell biology) this link provides some great info on cells.

Activity courtesy of Liz Granger @Bio_fluff

The Ups and Downs of sleep and circadian Biology: Chronobiology/sleep activity.

In early 2014 as part of the international ‘Pint of Science Festival’ we developed an activity to run down’t pub alongside talks on sleep and circadian biology. This simple activity, designed to teach people more about their chronotype, is pretty easy to replicate and turned out to be great fun too. Here I’ve included all necessary explanations and kit for you to give it a go yourself – so what are you waiting for.


The Experiment

We all know at least one morning person, someone who inexplicably manages to sound chipper and look presentable before their first cup of coffee. The science of chronobiology is now helping us understand how our genetics can predispose us to being morning loving larks, night owls or indecisive hummingbirds. This test aims to find how our chronotype affects our reaction times and is best performed either early in the morning or late in the evening.

Steps:

  • Each participant takes the attached questionnaire to find their chronotype (see below).
  • Everyone gets into pairs and performs the classic ruler drop reaction time test – making a note of their result (an explanation of this test can be found here)
  • Results are collected – each participant provides both their chronotype and average reaction time.
  • Experimenters collate scores and work out which chronotype showed the fastest reaction times. (see below for an example graph layout)
Reaction1

Example graph – note these are not real results

  • Discussion: Research suggests that your reaction time should depend on both the time of day and your personal chronotype – with owls outperforming larks in the evenings, larks outperforming owls in the morning and hummingbirds sitting somewhere in the middle (this can be seen graphically on the hand out sheet below). Amazingly, our results on the night actually supported this trend, but (like most scientific experiments) results are likely to be variable. – Note that this is a great chance to discuss scientific variability, experimental design and confounding factors (we had an interesting discussion about the effect of alcohol and caffeine on reaction times and how this could skew results).

Equipment list and resources:

 

  • Lots of Rulers
  • Pens
  •  Printed explanation of chronotype – Pdf
  • Printed chronotype questionnaires – Pdf1 Pdf2
  • A computer running excel and someone with a head for statistics.

Post by: Sarah Fox – for more details or advice drop us a line on BritSciAssoc@manchesterscience.co.uk.