Talking rodents at Liverpool Light Night and PubhD

Guest post by Nicola Davidson, PhD student in the Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool

I recently took part in two, quite different, public engagement events. The first was PubhD on 12th May. PubhD is a new event for Liverpool organised by Kat Ford. PubhD takes place in The Vines pub near Lime Street station and runs for about an hour and a half once a month. There are three speakers each night talking on a variety of topics. Apart from my talk on rodent control there was a talk from IIB’s Rebecca Donnelly on mathematical biology and Samuel Mercer on social and political science. Each speaker is given 10 minutes to present their PhD without any slides, followed by 20 minutes of questions. I really enjoyed talking without having to rely on PowerPoint. It made me really think about how to get my research across to a non-academic audience. The question session afterwards was really interesting. As my PhD is on trying to solve a practical problem (stopping non-target rodents from getting poisoned by rat poison), there were lots of ideas on how the problem could be solved. I think PubhD could be a good forum to get some fresh ideas and perspective for your research. The audience was small (~15) as the weather was too good to tempt many people indoors. However, this gave the event a nice intimate feel and I think encouraged more people to ask questions. I would highly recommend this event, especially for PhD students who want to practice communicating the premise of their thesis. You can contact Kat on or have a look at the twitter page @PubhD_Liverpool.

The second event I took part in (on 13th May) was Liverpool Light Night. This was a much bigger event and was directed more towards families. Light Night is a one-night arts & culture festival. The University opened several venues for this event, and I was stationed in the Guild. The event ran from 5pm to 9pm. There were around 150 people coming through the Guild in that time. I was in charge of a stand based on my research group’s work on rodent control. I had two posters: one on rodent control and the other on rodent species in the UK. I also had videos of some wild rodents, a demonstration of a rat bait station and a make your own mouse book mark for children. I made plenty of bookmarks with children, and some adults too! As well as learning about rodents from my stand, attendees could visit other stands where they could have an ice cream made from liquid nitrogen, power a solar car with a lamp and learn how to fight cancer. It was a really good opportunity to talk to people about the realities of rodent control and try to convince them that rats aren’t that bad. Overall I really enjoyed taking part in this event, especially getting the chance to inspire children with the kind of research we are doing at Liverpool.


Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival is one of the largest public science festivals in Europe. Over a two week period, it provides events, workshops, and lectures for adults and children alike. Over Easter, I worked for Edinburgh Science Festival as a Science Communicator in their flagship children’s venue based in the City Arts Centre.


The City Arts Centre, Edinburgh

The City Arts Centre is a large, 6 story art gallery located in the centre of Edinburgh. The building was taken over by the Festival to provide a space filled with workshops and activities for children of all ages, with each floor containing two or three workshops or activity spaces. Visitors could book into age appropriate workshops, or visit drop-in activity spaces. Due to my biology background, I was placed into the Carnival of the Mind, a drop-in area designed to teach children of all ages about how the brain works.

The Carnival had been assembled by a skilled team and contained a variety of activities that explored different parts of the brain. The most popular activities were a coconut shy that used prism goggles to teach how vision is processed in the occipital lobe and a life-sized, plastic clown named Brian who demonstrated how the peripheral nervous system is activated when his foot got hit by a hammer. A fortune teller tested the visitor’s frontal lobe with puzzles and games, and told the story of Phineas Gauge who lost part of his frontal lobe in an accident. A sound stall confused the temporal lobes with some auditory illusions and a sensory play area stimulated the brains of the young visitors. The highlight of the Carnival was the Big Top, where a show was run twice an hour that allowed the audience to explore the difference sections of the brain by holding and feeling a real sheep’s brain.


A sheep’s brain used during the big top show

The Carnival was an extremely popular activity, with many families returning multiple times. As it was based in the family venue, my role mainly involved communicating with children and occasionally with interested parents. However, as part of the adults program, the City Arts Centre was opened one evening for adults only. Working at the adult event was an amazingly different experience to the normal day-to-day festival, in part due to the temporary bar that was opened for the visitors!

Working at Edinburgh Science Festival was utterly exhausting but fantastic experience. I learnt many valuable lessons such as the importance of comfortable footwear and how to look after my voice. As well as providing me with excellent work experience with a large science communication company, it allowed me to practise my communication skills with people of all ages from babies to (sometimes drunk!) adults and everyone in between!

It’s all about the actors, darling! Rob Beynon

This is a guest post by Professor Rob Beynon. He can be found on Twitter @astacus.

I had the pleasure of delivering a Café Scientifique discussion in  the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in May. This is a very long running forum, and has been run by Professor Mandy McLean and her colleagues since 2004 (Prof McLean received an MBE in 2010 for her public engagement activities – who says outreach doesn’t get recognised?).

The title of my talk was ‘The cell, a factory run by actors’. The format was a 20 minute introduction (no slides, no projector –a refreshing change that would do us all good from time to time – I prepared so much better without the crutch of slides to prop me up) – I introduced myself as a protein chemist, discussed proteins I had discovered in my career, and the fun to be had in naming them (the darcin story always gets a good reception) and then explained how ‘proteins’ (the term coined by Berzelius in 1838 from the Greek πρώτειος (‘proteios’), meaning ‘of the first rank’) had been embedded in literature and arts (think Kurt Vonnegut in ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, just for starters) but I also quoted one of my favourite books, ‘For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist’ by the Nobel Prize winning biochemist, Arthur Kornberg, in which he said, paraphrasing “DNA and RNA provide the script, but proteins are the actors”.

CafeScientGlasgowI then directed the audience (between 30 and 40 people) to the first question on my short pub quiz. They were challenged to calculate how many possible proteins of 300 amino acids there could be (prefaced by a chat about polymers, building blocks and the significance of precise order). The audience did it! As Douglas Adams might have said, the answer is ‘a hugely, mindbogglingly big number’ and far exceeds the number of atoms in the Universe. We then addressed the logical outcome, that the evolution of life on this planet very quickly got locked into a tiny little corner of the hyperdimensional space of ‘all possible proteins’, and that ‘out there’ in that hyperdimensional space, there were perfect antimicrobials, cures for all diseases, proteins that could support green chemistry, proteins that were as clear and sparkled like diamonds. If only we knew how to get to them (and synthetic biology is not the answer).

The second part of my short introduction talked about complexity. We discussed the size of a yeast cell (100 cells end to end in one millimetre) and the complexity of this cell compared to an Airbus A3800 – the yeast cell has about 60 million molecules, the A380 has only 4 million parts, which led to the final part of my introduction – how do you manage this complexity, controlling the number of each protein a cell needs, and changing those numbers to respond to demand (stimuli) Is the cell a ‘just in time’ manufacturer, a ‘just in case’ manufacturer or a ‘rapid recycler’?

The following discussion (90 minutes, with a very welcome bar break in the middle) was fabulous. This was a switched on audience – we ranged from pre-biotic evolution through panspermy to insulin secretion as a ‘just in time’ process. Inevitably, the darcin story took us back to a detailed discussion about the sex life of the mouse, a change to amuse, inform and extol the value of multidisciplinary collaboration with Jane Hurst and colleagues in Leahurst as behavioural ecologists par excellence. Inevitably we addressed the issue of how we do this work and the need for protein chemists to be ‘technologically overstimulated’ -especially for the big projects like our recently published study that quantified the number, in copies per cell, of over 2,000 yeast proteins.

I loved every minute of it. The QandA session was chaired by Vanessa Collingridge, broadcaster and writer, who was terrific (@NessCollingr).

To any of my colleagues who are thinking about this, my advice is ‘go for it!’. Leave the slides behind, don’t overplay the minutiae, and enjoy two hours in the company of an interested and intelligent audience who challenge you to jump around in your favourite playground – the subject that brings you in to work every morning with a bounce!