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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A few Shots and Pints of Science from us all in IIB

Pint of Science is an international festival of science taking place over three days in bars and pubs across the world. In Liverpool, the event, coordinated by Faculty of Life Sciences public engagement officer Laura Winters, took place in three different pubs over three nights.

On Monday evening, Raphaël Lévy and Hannah Davies co-chaired “Deadly Viruses, Cheating Microbes, and Other Things Small!” in the Baltic Social featuring Siobhan O’Brien, Jen Adcott and Calum Semple with volunteer Emma Cartledge. Science is a collective enterprise that works thanks to people in different roles and that evening was a good reminder of that: Siobhan is a Tenure Track fellow in the Institute of Integrative (this means she is starting to establish herself as a group leader), Jen is a technician in the Centre for Cell imaging (i.e. she helps lots of other scientists with the microscopy needs) and Calum is a Professor of Child Health and Outbreak Medicine in the Institute for Translational Medicine.

Siobhan talked about the social life of microbes using examples from biology (e.g. black slime mould), sociology (the prisoners’ dilemma) and also from popular show the Golden Balls. She explained the mechanisms by which individuals in groups of people/microbes make decisions that affect the success/demise of the entire group. She concluded with some comments about the relevance of these considerations to the spread of bacterial infections.

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Jen spoke next. She shared her enthusiasm for her toys: the multimillion pounds suit of microscopes in the Centre for Cell Imaging. She gave an introduction to light microscopy and the wide size range of objects they are looking at, from tiny bacteria to entire fruit flies. She explained her role as a technician. Microscopy is not just “getting a nice image”; microscopy is a scientific experiment that requires good understanding of the technique and of how to analyse the images. Jen is there to help other scientists getting access to these technologies and she shared some examples of recording the movement of cells with relevance to cancer biology.pic2.jpg

After a break (including pints, looking at spider and some live aphids with a microscope, and feeling an awesome microscopy quiz prepared by Jen), we were not quite ready for Calum’s dramatic entrance in a full Ebola gear. He started by undressing (just the protective outfit) showing the extraordinary precautions necessary to prevent contamination. Even with such precautions, the epidemic took the life of a number of doctors and nurses. His talk was a moving tale weaving the gravity of his personal experience of working on the Ebola epidemics in West Africa (for which he and his team received the Queen’s Ebola Medal) with discussions of how outbreaks are described in Hollywood movies. It prompted a number of questions, including a final one about what is the best way to protect oneself and our family. In a country such as the UK where there is a functioning health system, his answer was unambiguous: keep calm and follow the instructions of the authorities. pic3

On Tuesday evening, Chris Deputy, marketing and communications officer at IIB hosted “An Evening of Abnormal Eating, Pretend Drinking and Smelling Wee” in Oh Me Oh My, just opposite the famous Liver Building. The evening saw academics from psychology discuss their work and its impact on health and medicine. Unfortunately, one of our headline speakers, Elinor Chapman of Translational Medicine, was unable to attend and so our audience will have to wait until next year before they can learn about the history of urine in health and disease.

During the evening, two members of IIB took part in a “shots of science” competition, where they described their research in three minutes to an audience who then voted for their favourite talk. Ewan Harney, Post-doc research associate in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour (DEEB) spoke about his research into “jumping genes” in fruit flies, and what these genes can tell us about our DNA. Holly Coombes, also from DEEB, then shared her research into mammalian scents and what secrets they reveal about the animal kingdom, as well as the insights they offer into how humans respond to smells

Pint of Science is an annual science festival, taking place towards the end of May every year, so make sure you look out for our Pint of Science talks next year!

Smithdown road festival weekend – Being a superhero scientist for a day, engaging with Alder Hey scientists from the Experimental Arthritis Treatment Centre for Children (EATC4Children)

Saturday 4th May – Sunday 5th May 2019

It is 8 am on a weekend when the alarm clock goes off and for a moment one might wonder “”why on Earth did I volunteer to help in a public engagement event on my day off?”. Shortly past 10 am we start to set up and any negative thought is simply out the window.

Greeted by amazing Dr Angela Midgely and her family, they are already setting up the small gazebo that will be our base for the next 6 hours. One minute in and we are already having fun. Our objective is to engage with all the wonderful pool of possible future scientists and introduce them to the wonderful Superhero Team in your Body project. Through 4 different activities suited for a wide range of ages our young participants will use games and craft to learn how cells in your immune system are superheroes that keep you safe.

It is 11 am and the community garden is already full with parents and kids ready to start engaging with the event. Together with the scientists from the Alder Hey team, we are ready to start the fun. The kids get to decorate superhero masks, create little microbes, learn about the immune cells of the body through games and even do a couple of experiments to separate cells and detect proteins (with a tailored lab coat of course!).

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Superhero Scientist team and some of the participants

At around 17h, on our way home, though tired, we could not possibly be happier. We have spent our day with so many youngsters, full of energy, creativity and inspired to learn that it has really recharged my mood. We engaged with at least 100 children and they all left our stand proudly wearing a badge with the motto “Science rocks” or “Science is Awesome”, a superhero mask and a small lab-book for their future experiments.

What can we say? There are plenty of worthwhile Public Engagement opportunities around us, sometimes it takes a bit of a push to get involved but we can tell you, it is really rewarding and worth your time.

Guest post by Eva Caamano-Gutierrez (IIB) and Rachel Floyd (SoLS)

Meet The Scientists: Engaging the next generation of researchers

‘Meet The Scientists’ celebrates the inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach that the IIB takes in conducting their research activities. The annual event showcases a selection of projects being undertaken across departments, and transforms complex subjects into interactive and engaging tasks for children. More than 1000 children and their parents from across Liverpool attended the event at World Museum on Saturday 27th April.

“As a vet, and PhD student examining Histoplasmosis at the human-animal interface, my interests in infectious disease and global health, influenced the subject of my stand. Different disease scenarios based on IIB research activities were presented to my audience. Children then decided which team of scientists, clinicians and community members were needed to stop the spread of disease (in the more engaging form of a puzzle). This activity highlighted the importance of inter-disciplinary teamwork to obtain a complete picture of infectious disease transmission dynamics, and the impacts of disease on affected communities worldwide. Children were particularly engaged when understanding their role in the global health picture, as students and as the future generation of scientists.

This was a fantastic opportunity for public engagement with an energetic and enthusiastic audience! Thank you to the organisers of this event and for the scientists who gave me permission to showcase their research.”

Tessa Cornell (Functional and Comparative Genomics)

“Despite being incredibly messy, making hundreds of pine cone bird feeders with the families was a lot of fun! At ‘Making a Home for Nature’, families could create bird feeders, bee houses and do some colouring. They could also take home various handouts, for other wildlife-friendly activities or to tick off which birds come to their feeders. I really enjoyed talking to lots of different people, ranging from young children to grandparents. I hope many have continued to enjoy the activity through watching the wildlife attracted to their gardens and the things they made.”

Emma Cartledge (Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution Group)

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“It was so much fun to interact with children with all that enthusiasm and curiosity about learning and getting involved in what we did! They have all got very creative while making their viruses by putting a smiley face and a couple of googly eyes to make them less harmful than they are. At the end of the day, they brought their creation of a happy virus home with a little more awareness on what viruses are and what they may cause into.”

Dilem Shakir (Biochemistry)

“What a day! It was raining buckets outside and this seemed to drive a sheer endless stream of visitors to our ‘Skull Detective’ stand at the Liverpool World Museum, which felt a bit like Noah’s ark at times and kept me and volunteer helpers Kelly Ross and Dan busy for hours on end, with hardly time to catch our breath. Our hope was to inspire the current and next generation among the public to understand the needs of, and ultimately help preserve, the local wildlife around us in a friendly and fun environment. So it was encouraging and satisfying to experience the great curiosity and enthusiasm of children and adults alike about some of the wonders of the animal world. Our display of tracks and remains of common mammalian wildlife in Britain was greatly enhanced by exhibits provided by the friendly staff of the World Museum, including an enormous lower jaw of a juvenile sperm whale that attracted great attention. So would we do it again? I think so!”

Michael Berenbrink (Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour)

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“It was a great experience participating in this year’s Meet the Scientist event. I enjoyed engaging with children about how bacteria can become superbugs by acquiring antimicrobial resistance genes from the environment. It was really rewarding to see how engaged both the children and their parents were to learn about the rising problem of antimicrobial resistant due to over use of antibiotics.”

Rebecca Bengtsson (Functional and Comparative Genomics)

We had a fantastic day at the museum. As always, it was great to see so many enthusiastic young people and their families enjoying science! The ball pit ‘discovery tank’ was hugely popular with young and old and really helped explain the challenges of drug discovery! It was challenging seeing so many people and explaining the concept properly, but I think everyone enjoyed it! A great team effort on a very busy Saturday!

Hannah Davies, James Torpey, Alana Maerivoet (Biochemistry)

Thanks also to Laura Winters for organising the event and undergraduate and visiting students for their help on the day.

Speed Dating Scientists

Convincing school pupils that scientists are actually ordinary people is no small feat, but scientists from the IIB, along with the social enterprise Farm Urban have been doing just that.

Farm Urban, in conjunction with the University of Liverpool and funded by Shaping Futures, have developed a 12 week STEM club called the Future Food Challenge, where pupils form their own social enterprise to try and help fix the world’s food production problems using high-tech growing technologies such as aquaponics and hydroponics. Before starting the program, the pupils were invited to an introductory day at the Department of Engineering on Wednesday 6th February, where they were built their own mini aquaponics system and were given talks and advice by local business leaders about how to set up their own business. Matt Murphy from the Engineering Department, who helped to organise the day, also gave a talk to help the pupils understand the design and engineering problems they might face.

As part of the day, pupils took part in a Scientist Speed Dating session, where groups of 6-10 pupils got to sit down with a real life scientist and ask them questions about their work, and how they’d ended up in their job. The idea was to break down some of the barriers preventing the pupils seeing themselves as capable of being scientists and show them that some of the scientists had similar life experiences to their own.

Laurence Anderson, Hannah Davies, Jens Thomas and James Torpey from the IIB all took part. At first, students and academics were eyeing each other with some trepidation, but by the end of each session, the groups always had to be forcibly moved on as everyone was getting on so well and didn’t want to stop the conversation. The scientists had to contend with a bewildering array of questions, from what their most important experiment was, to what their favourite food or colour was, and although they were sometimes stuck for answers (I’m still not sure what my favourite colour is) the day went incredibly well.

We hope that the day and the program will broaden the horizons of the pupils and show them that they too could be scientists and entrepreneurs, just like the people they met on the Future Food Challenge.

IIB’s Iain Young, who helped to develop the programme and is now at the Institute of Clinical Sciences, was shortlisted for a public engagement award for his part in creating the Future Food Challenge.

 

Inspiring the next generation of NMR scientists during British Science Week

On Friday 15th March 10 chemistry A-Level students from Range High School visited the Institute for the annual Analytics Day held in the NMR Centre for Structural Biology organised by Dr Jill Madine and Dr Marie Phelan. This visit has been an annual event for the past several years which the students look forward to in order to gain enhanced understanding of NMR to help with their A-level courses and also provide an opportunity to chat with PhD students about what is involved in University life and academic research.  The students were given lectures on the basic applications of mass spectrometry and NMR from Stephen Moss (School of Physical Sciences) and Dr Marie Phelan. This was the followed by practical workshops where the students carried out chromatography and learnt to prepare and run NMR samples along with how to interpret the data.  Prior to their visit, as part of a school practical, they have made salicylic acid – a precursor for aspirin. We obtained these samples and collected NMR spectra of their products ready for analysis on the day.  This enabled them to establish how successful their synthesis had been and compare their results across the class, with previous years’ students (and to the teacher!). The pupils response at the end of the day was that they had learnt a lot and they can now ‘do’ NMR. Watch out for future budding NMR Nobel Prize Winners inspired during British Science Week in IIB!

Pupils were assisted on the day by Michelle Tan, Adika Sen (visiting interns in the NMR Centre), Zain Ghanameh (IACD), Jeremy Chazot (IACD) and James Torpey (IIB).

Plant Power at the VGM

On Thursday 21 February 2019, during school half term the Walley group were at the Victoria Gallery and Museum (VGM).  We took with us a display of cultivated brassica crops, and their crop wild relatives to demonstrate how over many years the weedy Brassica oleracea crop wild relatives have been domesticated and bred into so many different vegetables through selection.

Visitors had a go at performing crosses between different brassica crops by transferring pollen between flowers using paint brushes and, inspired by how new vegetables can created, such as flower sprouts or ‘Kalettes’ (crossing a sprout with a kale plant), designed their ideal or fantasy brassica plants for us to display.

The methods of modern plant breeding that we are using within the BRESOV project (Breeding for Resilient, Efficient and Sustainable Organic Vegetable production) were discussed and compared to conventional plant breeding.

Visitors had the opportunity to taste many of the different vegetables derived from wild Brassica oleracea, including cauliflower, sprouts, kale, kalettes, red cabbage, pak choi, chinese cabbage and broccoli- they were very popular!