Bringing the natural world to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

Post by Dr Ian Wilson

On 12th and 13th June 2019, the natural world took over a corner of the atrium at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Nightingale song and the tinkling trickle of a running stream played out across the atrium as a spotlight drew the eye to our little collaborative corner of creativity. I had joined colleagues from the Department of English to host an outreach event encouraging better understanding of, and empathy with, ‘Nonhuman Species’ via a mixture of attention-grabbing science and imagination-sparking creativity.

Members of the Department of English helped children explore their creative sides by encouraging them to think about a number of different species and what their lives are like. Could they explain in an acrostic poem the nature of a tree? Whilst colouring in pictures of nightingales, could they stop and consider what emotions a nightingale’s song makes them feel? Or could they find their new favourite story in our stack of nature-themed books and lose themselves in a world away from the hustle and bustle of the hospital? Our empathy and fascination with the natural world and non-human species are key to our understanding and appreciating them so we hope that these activities will have sparked some curiosity in our young visitors.

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At the same time, I paired with Creative Writing PhD student Bernadette McBride to show the public that science and creativity can belong hand-in-hand. I work in Dr Stew Plaistow’s lab group, investigating the effects of climate change on populations of Daphnia magna – so-called ‘water fleas’. Daphnia magna is a keystone species, meaning that, if it is affected by climate change, the impacts upon other species and factors within the ecosystems in which it resides will also be affected. As such, the importance of understanding temperature-induced effects on population diversity and genetic content in Daphnia cannot be understated.

 I brought with me a model of the Plaistow lab group’s experimental pond set-up at Ness Gardens, Wirral. This allowed me to better explain our work to older participants but also gave the younger children the opportunity to catch Daphnia magna from our miniature ponds and see them up close and personal on a TV screen-equipped microscope. Children were shown the different body parts of the twitchy micro-crustaceans on the screen and were given Daphnia-themed word searches and colouring sheets, whilst older visitors were told all about the group’s research at Ness Gardens.

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Bernadette, meanwhile, is writing a short story from the perspective of an individual Daphnia magna for a collection of tales concerning climate change. As such, children were given the opportunity to take what they’d learned about Daphnia magna and use their creativity and imagination to think about how Daphnia might feel and what they might notice about their environment as it changes through climate change.

 We hope that our event made children think more about the natural world, as well as making the public aware that science and the arts don’t always have to be viewed as disparate entities – sometimes one can influence the other, leading to even greater insights. This is an event we intend to run again in future in different locations across the city as the Department of English looks to broaden its audience.

 

 

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Liverpool LightNight – The Antimicrobial Avengers

Each year Liverpool hosts a one-night only art festival where local companies and organisations open their doors to the public. The evenings consist of performances, talks, workshops and more with this year’s theme: Ritual. STEAMLab – a collection of researchers and artists who are interested in sharing scientific knowledge through art – hosted the Antimicrobial Avengers.

In modern society, it has become almost a ritual to reach for the antibiotics as soon as you start to feel unwell. Antimicrobial avengers aimed to engage children and adults with the idea that antimicrobials are not a magical cure-all, before showing them how nature is inspiring research into alternative antimicrobials. For example, the structure of shark and gecko skin prevents bacteria from attaching to their surface, and Komodo dragons have antimicrobial proteins in their blood which make them resistant to many bacteria – important when you have enough bacteria in your mouth to cause sepsis with one bite! Antimicrobial surfaces are being used to develop sterile medical equipment such as catheters, and komodo blood proteins are being researched for possible applications.

Our event had 3 main stalls: a mini interactive exhibition of komodo, gecko and shark skin rendered in clay by Helen Birnbaum; a make-your-own bacteria stall; and a complete the comic strip stand, featuring ‘Shark Girl’ and ‘Komodo Dragon’ versus the evil ‘Superbugs’ in a series of comic strips (see here) designed by our Artist in Residence, Jess Irwin. Jen Adcott from the Centre for Cell Imaging provided videos of bacteria in action which were played throughout the evening.

Families began filtering in from 5pm onwards. Their knowledge ranged from the level of doctors and researcher to almost nothing at all. It was a fantastic evening of engaging children in science (or in one case designing a friendly bacteria called shiny who apparently lived in its creators eyeball) and talking to adults who had genuine interest in the subject.

It was a wonderfully successful event and fun for all involved. Talking with adults and children about a topic of such great importance is always rewarding, especially when they learn something new. Everyone had a great time and we can’t wait to do it all again!

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Mark Roughly, Jess, Raechelle and Louise for making this event possible and to the rest of the team for all the extra help on the day

Funding from the Centre for the Humanities and Social Sciences of Health, Medicine and Technology (CHSSHMT)

From the University of Liverpool: Raechelle D’Sa (Lecturer)– Louise Reynolds (Postdoc)- Nicola White (Research technician)- Jen Adcott (Technician)– Helen Davison (PhD student), Jess Irwin (MA Art in Science, Artist in Residence)

From Liverpool Jon Moores University: Mark Roughly (programme leader of MA Art in Science)

Others: Helen Birnbaum