Let’s get viral!

Viruses can be found everywhere and are the most abundant “organisms” on the planet. However, they are often (wrongly) thought of only as evil entities causing human disease, which leaves out important viruses/bacteriophages capable of, for example, helping to fight the current antibiotic crisis that is affecting people all over the globe. This is why the “Battle Station: Infection” event, as part of the “Meet the Scientists” initiative, was the perfect setting to talk about the “good” and the “bad” viruses and how they can help us in the battle against antibiotic resistance.

On Saturday 27th of January, an IIB team comprised of Evelien Adriaenssens, Wai Yee Fong, Siân Owen and Lizeth Lacharme-Lora joined me at the World Museum in the “Let’s get viral” activity, supported by a Wellcome Trust Public Engagement grant. I was aiming to inspire children to take an interest in viruses/bacteriophages and to raise awareness of their importance & lesser-known benefits, which was successfully accomplished with an extraordinary turn up of over 1500 participants!

“Let’s get viral” was designed as a virus/bacteriophage assembly workshop in which children had the opportunity to put together and decorate models of viruses while speaking to experts in the field. The virus model used was chosen depending on the age and skills of the child, but we strongly encouraged parents/guardians to engage in the activity as well. For older children and skilful (highly tolerant to frustration) adults, we had pre-cut paper models designed by Siân Owen (check them out and give it a go!), whereas polystyrene models were decorated by younger children.

The journey started days before the event, with hundreds of paper and polystyrene virus models prepared for assembly thanks to the valuable help of members of IIB’s Lab H (in exchange for treats and drinks –of course!) at the “Phage Cutting Marathon”. These models, together with posters and plush toys of real viruses (www.GiantMicrobes.com), helped us convey fundamental virology concepts in a format understandable to children.

After a very busy day, and with hands covered in glue stick, we all agreed that the experience was a total success and we encourage anyone who would like to run it again!

Blanca Perez Sepulveda


Sex & Bugs & Rock ‘n Roll 2017

What happened in June 2017? The GE, summer solstice, Lions vs New Zealand…. OK, so various big events occurred in the month of June, but the highlight for me was the creation of a pop-up city with a population of around 175,000 people. I am of course referring to Glastonbury Festival, where people congregate at Worthy Farm in Somerset to watch music, comedy, dance, circus and other arts. I formed part of team of 6 ecologists from around the UK, headed up by Lancaster University’s Emma Sayer, who took ecology to the Glastonbury. Why take ecology to Glastonbury? Aside from the music and vibrant atmosphere, we could engage with hundreds of members of the general public, over the course of just 5 days. This opportunity does not often occur. Based in the Green Futures field, we shared our pitch with campaigners, visionaries, environmentalists and artists with a passion for sustainability.


Left to right: Nick Loughlin, Ali Birkett, Emma Sayer, me (Jo Griffin) and Nigel Fisher 

This was the third year the ‘Sex & Bugs & Rock ’n Roll’ tent exhibited at Glastonbury, albeit my first. This year we had a woodland ecology theme. In the tent we had a collection of new and old ecological activities to offer, including the infamous ‘Whose Poo?’ and ‘How gross is your festival kit?’ There were mixed reactions to the latter. When given the opportunity to have a swab taken from an item of their festival kit and have it spread it on an agar plate, some punters shrivelled up their nose in distaste and replied ‘no thank you’! But the vast majority revelled in the opportunity to see the microbes that were present on their wristbands.

We also teamed up with National Trust Scotland, and for every group/individual who participated in ‘Create you Ideal Woodland’, a native tree will be planted. In the tent, you could also learn about the various woodland invertebrate species that we had on display, including earthworms, dung beetles and orange ladybirds. Did you know we have around 60 species of dung beetles in the UK that are dependent on dung? Without them we would have had to wade through ankle-deep cow dung at Worthy Farm, eugh!

While engaging with punters is extreme fun, busking on what was simultaneously the hottest June day since 1976 and the longest day of the year was tough. But fortunately we didn’t have to negotiate the churned mud bath of the previous year. In total we engaged with over 1000 members of the public during the 5 days, and many of these were high level interactions, lasting over 30 minutes in length. What a success! Never before have I been asked so much about, and had so much interest in the research I carry out for my PhD.

None of this would have been possible without Emma, who organised and designed the tent with the aid of collaborators and funding from the British Ecological Society (BES), Bangor University, University of Kent, Wytham Woods (University of Oxford), Lancaster University and Wiley. Not forgetting the rest of the volunteers: Ali Birkett, Nick Loughlin, Hannah Griffiths and Nigel Fisher, who shared their enthusiasm and love of ecology with festival-goers, and provided fantastic company (and dancing) throughout the week. Finally, the biggest thanks goes to the 1000 punters who gave up their time to talk to us.  by Jo Griffin

You can find more information about ‘Sex & Bugs & Rock ‘n Roll’ at: www.festivalbugs.org