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.


Build My Future Festival

by Meriel Jones

I’ve given many talks about careers in the Life Sciences following from a degree, but this one was rather different. It was in the Baltic Triangle region of Liverpool, an area listed in March 2017 by ‘The Times’ newspaper as among the coolest, hippest places to live in Britain. The Northern Schools Trust were holding their two day Build My Future festival where 400 young people explore future career options. However, using 15 sites in the Baltic Triangle and including many personal stories about careers is distinctly different from usual.

The first day was given to keynote speakers (such as local MP Alison McGovern and local entrepreneur and chair of the Baltic Triangle CIC Liam Kelly) and introduced career pathways, including the Life Sciences.  The second day included people’s tales of their careers for explanation and inspiration, as well as more general talks, practical motivation and finished with a social event.

When I arrived at Baltic Creative on the 17th of November 2017, I walked into a coffee shop in a warehouse-style shed, and wondered where I’d be speaking. All was soon revealed through a door in the trendy chipboard wall which concealed a meeting room. While waiting, I was recognised by one of the teachers hosting the event, because, as a graduate in Genetics from the University of Liverpool, I’d taught him.  He’d followed his degree by working in biomedical research and then entering teaching.

My audience of about 30 young people had already listened to two speakers about their own careers in the Life Sciences. However, they were very attentive and several took notes. At the end I was asked thoughtful questions, including about opportunities for study abroad during a degree. I anticipate that in the future, members of today’s audience will return to share their career experiences with future young people.


College careers talks

by Meriel Jones

Over the years I’ve given many presentations at schools and colleges about what the biological sciences are like at University.  So far this year I’ve been to Xaverian College (http://www.xaverian.ac.uk/) in Manchester and King Edward VI College (https://www.kedst.ac.uk/) in Stourbridge near Birmingham.

Xaverian College is in central Manchester and has high expectations of its students.  Many continue to higher education and each January the College holds an event with speakers from many universities and subjects areas.  This begins support for the students to decide on their career paths post A-level.  I go along to talk about the biological sciences.  I feel that talking about the subject content is better left to perusal of the websites and prospectuses, and that I should rather include my personal insight from my own experience.  My focus is always on the ways that university differs from school, and what sorts of careers are open to those with biological science degrees.

King Edward VI College is on a (large) traffic island in the centre of Stourbridge near Birmingham.  The college also has great ambitions for its students.  My talk there is at a similar careers event in March that starts the path to UCAS applications and university.  This time my topic is the biomedical sciences, and I explain about the important choice between accredited degrees that are a direct pathway to roles within the NHS and non-vocational degrees that can leave additional career paths more open.  I also talk about the difference between medical and biomedical degrees and careers.

Both colleges have a large and diverse group of students who take these career events very seriously and ask perceptive questions.  Every year, it is a pleasure to see their enthusiasm.  It is also great to answer questions from their teachers, who act as hosts during the events.


Speed (dating) Science Careers

On the 19th January, 40 Year 12 students from Life Sciences UTC visited Life Sciences to take part in a Speed Science event with 5 PhD students from IIB.  This was part of their Build My Future Festival.

Small groups of students spent 5 minutes listening to a PhD student talk about their research before being given 5 minutes to ask questions on things such as the PhD student’s research, what university is like? What being a PhD student is like? Which degree programmes the PhD students had taken? before moving to the next PhD student to start the process again. Using this approach the students were able to speak to and ask lots of questions to a 5 different PhD students in a short space of time

The students were really engaged and asking lots of questions, whilst it gave the PhD students chance to practise their science communication.

Thanks to Tushar Piyush, Matthew Agwae, Hammed Badmos, Gospel Nwikue and Jonathan Temple for volunteering to help out at this event

From Genomes to Biological Systems: Understanding molecular machinery

Our lives are surrounded by man-made structures, from the simple self-assembled furniture in our homes to the massive bridges and motorways that connect cities and countries. Regardless of how complex a piece of furniture or a bridge may be, there needs to be a blueprint in order to make the pieces fit together and function as a whole.

But what about the structures that aren’t man-made, like the proteins and cells in our body? How are these complex biological structures put together, and can we learluning-liu-1-2n how to use these biological blueprints to build cells of our own? Dr. Luning Liu, a research fellow and tenured lecturer at IIB, is working with his interdisciplinary group to better understand the blueprints that describe how living organisms are put together.

Luning came to the University of Liverpool in December 2012 and has been a tenured lecturer since July 2015. The Liu lab is focused on learning how nano-scaled biological machinery are assembled, and one of their interests is in how the parts of algae cells that control photosynthesis are put together. “During photosynthesis, the specialised cell membrane converts solar light into the chemical energy that supports the life on Earth, and we’re using cyanobacteria to understand how these cells build devices that can capture and convert light energy. We can then use that information to learn how we can build our own devices that we can use to enhance the movement of energy within a cell” said Luning.

Cyanobacteria are known as ‘blue-green algae’ and are a type of bacteria that get their energy from the sun. During photosynthesis, the energy from light hits the external membranes of the cell, which break down water into oxygen molecules and generate protons (in the form of hydrogen atoms) and free electrons. The protons are then used to produce energy molecules that the cell can use to generate sugars, amino acids, and starches through the Calvin-Benson cycle. These bacteria have also developed specialised carbon fixation mechanisms, using biological structures known as carboxysomes. Carboxysomes are used to help bacteria get enough carbon so they can complete photosynthesis. g2s-ll-figure

Luning and his group are working on how the photosynthetic machinery in cyanobacteria is organised and how the cells optimise these biochemical reactions to efficiently harvest solar energy and accumulate carbon. In a recent publication from the Liu lab, his group were able to add fluorescent tags to the carboxysomes. These tagged proteins allowed them to track the location and amount of the carbon-trapping carboxysomes while the bacteria were growing. The Liu lab were able to see first-hand how carboxysome movement could be linked to the energy state of the bacterial cell and how they allow the cyanobacteria to optimise how carbon is uptaken depending on the amount of light present.

One of the big picture goals of Luning’s research isn’t just to better understand photosynthesis and carbon fixation, but to work towards design systems that are more efficient, especially in terms of food and biofuel security. “Our goal is to improve the process of photosynthesis so we can improve yields of a wide range of food crops” Luning said.

One challenge faced by the Liu lab is the role of their work in the realm of genetically modified organisms. While his group works primarily on fundamental research, he has encouraged members of his group to be ready for questions on the topic when doing public engagement work and when applying for grants about their research.“Our research has potentially a lot of promise to make a difference but we have to be solid on understanding technology and the mechanism before we can apply them in the real world” added Luning.

Luning and his group work with plant scientists, biophysicists, chemists, synthetic biologists, and microbiologists: a truly interdisciplinary approach towards a better understanding of these complex biological structures. Luning commented: “Nowadays all work in science is multidisciplinary, and you can’t use one technique to solve everything.  The advantage in our group is that there are advanced technologies that we can use to bring our ideas to life. We can ask questions about how natural structures are built in the cells and then work with plant scientists who are looking for a fundamental understanding of the system to see what approaches and techniques they use.”

Luning regularly sends students to technical workshops so they can gain more knowledge and training in the latest technologies and techniques. However he also makes sure that he and his group stick to the basic principles of the scientific method. “I focus on the question more than just the technique by itself. You can use lots of different techniques and technologies to do science, but having a clear question is the most important starting point. The biggest challenge is that there is no one who can tell you what will work, so you really have to explore lots of ideas and try a lot of things before you get something that works” said Luning.

Luning received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry before earning a joint PhD in microbiology from Shandong University (China) and Leiden University (Netherlands). After spending 2 years carrying out research on biological membranes at the Institute Curie in Paris, he started working on cyanobacteria as a researcher at Queen Mary University of London before joining IIB in 2012. Luning describes himself as driven by curiosity: “Every day is exciting; there are new technologies and papers to keep up with, working with my students on their projects, and reaching out to new collaborators. I enjoy discussing and exploring new ideas by working with colleagues in such an open-minded work environment at IIB.” g2s-group-photo

The Liu lab currently consists of seven PhD students, one post-doc and one technician. Luning works to recruit a multidisciplinary team in his lab, including researchers specialising in molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, and plant science. This diverse approach allows group members to learn from one another and enables them to approach problems with different types of perspectives. “Sometimes the biology students have a hard time with the physics, so having a diverse team with diverse sets of skills and knowledge is crucial to making these complex experiments work.” Luning commented.

Luning can regularly be found working in the lab alongside his students and post-doc while encouraging his students to enjoy this time in their research careers as much as possible. Luning replied when asked what his students thought about having their boss pipetting alongside them: “Being a PhD student is the most exciting time in a scientist’s career, because it’s a time when you get to focus on the research and not have to deal with the stressors of applying for grants and funding. I try to help them enjoy this time as much as possible and to help them out.”

Luning is also focused on achieving his own life-work balance, spending the hours from 9am to 5pm in the lab and office before heading home to spend time with his two young children. He then finishes off the evening hours with grant applications, papers, and emails. “The job can be very stressful, especially since this is a very new area, and I try to work hard to stay on top of things. It’s also tough since my kids need my time too, so I don’t go to as many big conferences now so I can spend more time with my family. It’s important to make time for family and do things apart from work”.

Big Bang NorthWest 2016

The Big Bang North West is a science fair with a variety of companies, stalls and events to excite students from primary school up to sixth form about science, technology, engineering and maths. The Big Bang North West, organised by MerseySTEM, took place last week, Tuesday 5th July, with 5000 students descending upon the fabulous new venue, the Exhibition Centre, Liverpool. This new venue meant all the exhibits were located in one hall with a central stage where various shows would take place, including someone who was screening his bronchoscopy exam! Students from various schools also had the opportunity to present their own scientific projects as part of a National Science and Engineering competition, with quite a varied selection on display.

The School of Life Sciences and the Institute of Integrative Biology were well represented at the event with members taking part in exhibits, judging and moderating.

If you were also exhibiting at the event, please add a comment at the bottom and we will update the page. Thanks!

Institute of Integrative Biology Exhibit

Beth Levick, Gabriel Pedra, Vinnie Keenan

Beth, Gabi and Vinnie ran a game based on a simple SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model in the fashion of a Microbe Premier League. Teams battled it out to try and infect the entire population based on random dice rolls in a set time limit. Students loved the game with some returning multiple times to try and beat their friends.

Amy Eacock

Amy took some peppered moths to the exhibit in moth and caterpillar form to discuss her phd work examining how these twig-mimicing caterpillars are able to detect colour and adapt their bodies. Students were really interested in holding the caterpillars although there were screams from some! Amy also had a match the caterpillar to its moth game which went down well with both adults and students.

Lewis White

Lewis brought a selection of animal skulls for students to examine before they tackled his challenging game of placing a number of animals in the correct order on a phylogenetic tree. These included, whales, dolphins, sharks, cats and pandas but it was the primary school children who fared the best!

Rebecca Jones

Becky’s activity involved students and teachers sticking parasites on to the animals they thought those parasites lived in/on. There were some pesky parasites that kept them all guessing though!

Judging and Moderating the NSEC regional heats

Becky and Beth were selected as a judge and moderator for the school projects for the NSEC regional heats.

Victoria Harman

Victoria Harman, STEM Ambassador and member of the Centre for Proteome Research has completed another year as judge in the North West heat of the Big Bang Competition Victoria has been a judge for four years, and has been acting as a head science judge for the last two.


What’s involved? Judges are allocated a judging partner and about five projects to asses in the morning being given about 20min to speak to each group/individual. The score is based on criteria such as planning, method design, analysis of results, whether the project is the students own idea, and how well it is presented.

There’s quite a lot of pressure on judges – the students have worked so hard over the last academic year on their projects and assessment in just 20 minutes is a big responsibility!

Students dedicate their spare time to produce a project – sometimes individuals, mostly teams. There are juniors, intermediates and seniors categories so there is quite an age span.  As with all competitions there is a range in the standard of projects but every single student or group puts in a lot of hard work. Victoria comments “It’s wonderful to see how proud they are of their work. Some students can be nervous to begin with but in the end they’re all so eager to tell you all about what they have achieved”.

After the morning judging session, the head judges review the scores for the science projects from the morning, and select projects for the shortlist for the nationals. A smaller team of head judges and moderators then meets the students again to review the shortlisted projects before selecting those that will be put forward for the national final. A project is nominated for the Endeavour prize which recognises exceptional hard work, determination and enthusiasm from a student or team.


Victoria says “The Endeavour prize is actually my favorite bit. Considering that science isn’t always about getting the perfect results it’s brilliant to be able to recognize a student or students who have really put their heart and soul into a project”.

If you’d be interested in engaging with the Big Bang Competition, feel free to get in touch with Victoria (vharman@liverpool.ac.uk). She’ll direct you to the right people.


Rebecca Jones

I judged the senior category which had some interesting projects ranging from ‘Can mealworms eat plastic?’ to information leaflets on the BRCA gene which could be used in the NHS and online. I also learnt about how environmental issues associated with the Great Barrier Reef can be highlighted to primary school children through an educational toolkit. I also had the privilege of judging and shortlisting for regionals the eventual winners of the Young Scientist of the Year Award from Sandbach High School. Natural Skin Remedies, championed by two girls, had produced and tested a number of different creams to treat eczema. They had carried out a lot of experimental research and presented their work brilliantly. I wish them all the best in the finals next year. Go girls!!

Beth Levick

 I acted as a moderator for the judging, helping to decide which of the teams shortlisted by the main judges would go ahead to the final in March! I met some excellent teams and individuals, with projects ranging from how the length of skis affect your speed, to creating exciting videos of scientific topics using sweets. I was delighted to meet the winner of the “Endeavour” award and discuss her ideas for a greenhouse powered by burning waste. Of the 5 teams that went on to the final I and my partner moderator (also from IIB!) put forward two very clean projects: one on the efficacy of surface cleaners in removing bacteria, and one on commercial bleach products compared to home remedies. The hard work that had gone in to producing some really quality projects was truly inspiring, and all the teams that competed should be proud of the work they put in.


Jens Thomas

Life Sciences Outreach Society

Juhi Gupta

The University of Liverpool’s Life Sciences Outreach team were back at Big Bang this year. Following last year’s successful workshops, Life Sciences undergraduate students got involved with making sweet DNA models and Breaking Berries in our strawberry DNA extraction workshop! We had a great response from kids and school teachers. And our volunteers had lots of fun too! Thank you to all of the students who helped at the event 🙂




@livuniIIB’s @MerielGJones talks careers @kedst @kedstbiology

Guest post by  Dr Meriel Jones, Director of Postgraduate Research at the Institute of Integrative Biology (IIB)

King Edward VI College in Stourbridge (near Birmingham) is a sixth form college with around 2000 students aged 16 – 18 from the West Midlands.  It teaches almost exclusively AS and A levels and encourages students with ambitions for further study.  The college holds a Higher Education Conference each March for Year 12 students who will be applying to universities in the autumn.  This starts the students thinking about what and where to study.  The conference has presentations by over 30 university academics and this year I talked about studying the biomedical sciences at university. 

Around 350 students take A-level Biology at the college so there are many with ambitions within the biological and medical sciences. My aims were to illustrate how Biology A-level can lead to many worthwhile careers apart from medicine as well as explaining the diversity of biomedical science degrees that are available.  I ended up speaking to two groups of around 50 students.  They were very attentive and some made notes.  When I put up a ‘typical’ timetable at university, there were a few exchanged expressions of surprise at the amount of contact time.  The questions afterwards showed great enthusiasm for biomedical research. The college clearly has ambitious students who plan rewarding and socially valuable lives. 



@livuniIIB PhD students visit Liverpool International College @LICLiverpool

IIB PhD students visit Liverpool International College @LICLiverpool

Liverpool International College

On Friday 4th March Institute of Integrative Biology PhD students Susama Chokesuwattanskul, Amber Leckenby, Jennifer Francis, Rudi Verspoor, Amy Eacock, Stuart McEwen, Sean Goodman and Lucy Mycock visited the Liverpool International College, to meet international students who will be joining the University in September.  They shared advice and information with ~40 students on undergraduate life, the research environment in their department and becoming a postgraduate student through a ‘speed dating’ session. This is the second event of this type, and the plan is to run it again next year.

The BIG Little Event 2016

BIG is a community for individuals who are involved in science communication. They hold a variety of conferences and workshops throughout the year, including the Little Event. The Little Event is a one day workshop for early career science communicators which I was lucky enough to attend after winning the BIG Little bursary. This included registration for the event, travel expenses, and a years membership to BIG. This year’s event was held at Think Tank, a science centre in the heart of Birmingham.

After a very early start, I arrived in Birmingham and made my way across the city to Think Tank. Upon arrival, I was shown into a room with about 40 other budding scientists and science communicators. We came from a wide range of backgrounds (from engine designers to neuroscientists) and were at a variety of different stages in our careers. Some people were still studying (like me) whilst others had been working in science communication for a couple of years. Throughout the day, we were treated to presentations and workshops by people who work in different areas in science communication. In the morning session, we had talks by James Soper (www.thejugglingscientist.com) and Ashley Kent, director of Cheltenham science festival. James Soper taught us the three key questions for effective science presentations

  • What’s the story?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • Where’s the science?

Ashley Kent then described the key factors to consider when organising large events. The afternoon sessions included talks by Brian Mackenwells (Public Engagement Officer, University of Oxford), Toni Hamill (Centre of Life), and Bridget Holligan (Science Oxford). In these talks, we learnt the importance of higher order thinking, and that engagement needs to be Hand-On, Minds-On, and Hearts-On.

Lunch time was spent exploring the centre and chatting with the other participants. As well as allowing us to exchange ideas and resources, our varied backgrounds meant we could exchange interesting facts about the exhibits. A private tour of the science garden showed us that science doesn’t have to be an indoor activity.

A careers session allowed us chat with the organisers and speakers. I spent most of my time speaking to Lauren Deere (manager of Think Tank) who was able to give me some great advice on how to get a job as a content developer in a science museum (my dream job!).

Attending the Little Event was a brilliant opportunity for me to learn the skills needed to become a successful Science Communicator. The chance to meet other early career science communicators has provided me with invaluable advice, contacts, and ideas to help me make the leap into Science Communication when I graduate. It was a wonderful day and I look forward to (hopefully) attending the Big Event in July! The thing that I am most excited about however is my BIG membership, meaning I get free entry into Science Centres across the country!

Work Experience Placement in the CCI

Dania Al-Baden, a year 12 student from Notre Dame Catholic College spent a week in the Centre for Cell Imaging:

My placement was for 1 week in December in the Centre for Cell Imaging at the University of Liverpool. I was able to work with some students who were using the microscopes for their projects and learned how microscopy helps them conduct their research which was very enlightening. Working in the lab has also taught me some key skills such as pipetting very small volumes as well as how important it is to avoid contamination in cell culture.

The staff in the CCI was amazing, friendly and helpful. I worked with Joanna, Joan, Marco and Dave who have all inspired me to carry on my studies with science. I enjoyed my time immensely in the CCI and I would love to come back as well as recommending it to other students who have an interest in this field.