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


Science fun at the Gardener’s Question Time Anniversary Garden Party

The Mammalian Behaviour and Evolution Group (MBE) from the Institute of Integrative Biology was represented by four members (Paula Stockley, Holly Coombes, Callum Duffield and Stefan Fischer) at the Gardener’s Question Time Anniversary Garden Party in Ness Botanical Garden. The event saw more than 2000 guests visiting the garden and the live broadcasting of the BBC Radio 4 show. The whole day on Saturday 16th September was reserved for this massive event and the garden staff showed an immense effort to deal with all the visitors and exhibitors.

The MBE group secured a table in one of the huge exhibition marquees next to other exhibitors such as the Wirral Wildlife Trust, RSBP, and the Wirral Barn Owl Trust.

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We showed visitors the diversity of small mammals occurring in the UK with small posters, video clips and, as the highlight, two small rodents to observe. We chose two very different species for visitors to observe: a harvest mouse and a bank vole. Harvest mice are the smallest mouse species and are listed as a Biodiversity Action Plan Species because of their scarcity and the required conservation actions to stop their population decline. Bank voles are a very common rodent species occurring throughout Europe. The harvest mouse was definitely the star of our exhibition and every visitor left with a big smile after finding the little mouse inside the well-structured enclosure. It was particularly nice to see how every person visiting our stand, old or young, woman or man, reacted to the little rodents and how everyone was immediately interested in their behaviour and ecology and asked more facts about rodents in general. We had very nice conversations about topics as diverse as the work of the MBE group, conservation and general behaviour of rodents as well as pest control measurements. I think it was an extremely productive and well received exhibition and visitors of the stand left with a smile because they saw cute rodents and learned more about small mammals in the UK. Moreover visitors will remember that the MBE group of the University of Liverpool is engaged in diverse research areas to better understand and ultimately better conserve mammals in the UK and around the world.

Find out more about the Mammalian Behaviour and Evolution Group.



The Fascination of Plants


PhD student Di Yang took part in the Fascination of Plants Day event at Liverpool’s World Museum in May. Di helped inspire visitors of all ages with the fascination of plants, helping them to make recycled pots out of newspaper and to plant sunflowers, runner beans and pak-choi. It was a great day with 856 family visitors to our section of the event.

Brainiology Event

Brainiology Event

Guest Post : Tom Butts, University of Liverpool

The School of Life Sciences held a ‘making the brain’ workshop in the Liverpool World Museum on Saturday 21st January as part of the ‘Meet the Scientists: Brainiacs’ day. Members of the public (and more to the point, their kids) came along and had a go at a number of activities all designed to get people thinking about the brain, how it works, and how it has evolved.

The first activity was to ‘build a brain’, where people had to assemble a 3D life-size anatomical model of the human brain. The second was ‘evolving the brain’ and involved arranging a number of animal photographs on a large phylogeny (of vertebrates). The final part was to try and match up the pictures of the animals’ brains to the correct animal on the phylogeny as a way to think about how brains have evolved. I had some cracking volunteers, including postdocs, PhD students, Masters’ students, and undergrad students from across the biological diaspora in Liverpool, and it was a cracking day had by all. Though knackering. I now have even vaster levels of respect for primary school teachers.

Meet the Scientists – ‘Build-A-Body’

Guest post by Chris Clarke

On Saturday 1st October Dr Chris Clarke and Dr Dada Pisconti from the Institute of Integrative Biology took part in Meet the Scientists at the World Museum Liverpool. The aim of their stand was to convey to the visitors how muscle is made and repaired. There were two activities set up:
1.      Two microscopes displaying samples (from their lab) of muscle progenitor cells fixed at the start (day 0) and end (day 3) of a differentiation experiment where individual cells at the start of the experiment fuse into multinucleated muscle fibers, replicating in vivo muscle formation and regeneration. A laptop was also set up showing a time lapse video of the same process.
2.      The Muscle Regeneration game. To show guests the process of muscle regeneration in a more hands-on way, a game was set up here children were asked to repair broken Play-doh ‘muscle fibers’ using Play-doh ‘stem cells’. The aim of the game was to split the stem cell in half, turn one half into a new part of a muscle fiber (ie. A sausage) and fix the broken fiber by ‘fusing’ this new fiber with the broken one. 2-3 sets of broken fibers had to be repaired in this way, with children facing off against siblings/friends/parents to finish in the fastest time possible.

They were also assisted on the day by undergraduate students from the University of Liverpool.

Find out more about future events here.

Marvellous Medicine at Meet the Scientists

Guest post by Rorie Hather

Meet the Scientists” is a regular programme of events that takes place at the World Museum Liverpool and organised by the University of Liverpool’s Faculty of Health and Life Science with the support of the Wellcome Trust.  On Saturday 26th November the event drew again a large turnout of visitors. The overall theme was “Marvellous Medicines”. It focused on where our medicines come from, the different methods we use to treat diseases as well as the future of modern medicine. The day involved research teams from across the University of Liverpool lending their time and resources to run eight interactive stalls aimed at ensuring a fun and informative day for the whole family, regardless of age.

Two stalls out of the eight stemmed from different research teams within the Institute of Integrative Biology.  Dr. Raphaël Lévy’s team together with colleagues from the Institute of Translational Medicine (Toni Plagge and his student Joe Robertson) had a stall on “stem cells and nanoparticles”. Dr. Madine’s amyloid group utilised Lego pieces to show how proteins interact with one another and how this impacts their research into neurodegenerative and cardiovascular amyloid diseases.


Golden? The beautiful colours of gold nanospheres and nanorods in water. The infrared absorption of some of these nanomaterials can be used to image cells in tissues.

The stem cells and nanoparticles stall attempted to translate the ongoing UK Regenerative Medicine Platform work into interactive games to help understand just how small nanoparticles are, as well as showing where stem cells are found within our body and the possible contributions they may be able to have to modern medical science.

A “pin the organ on the human” game was also run, involving visitors placing organ cutouts onto an outline of a human they drew onto a whiteboard, hopefully in the correct place. This game helped to show where exactly our organs are located, and how they each hold stem cells vital to our ongoing health and regeneration. (The freely available resources developed by Eurostemcells are available here if you wish to try this yourself.)  In total, 7 people help run the activity throughout the day: Sumaira Ashraf, Joe Robertson, Elizabeth Grimes, Joan Comenge, Rorie Hather, Angela Midgley and Raphaël Lévy

Dr. Madine’s group used a highly popular tactic among many of the younger visitors. Their game, invented by Kieran Hand and James Torpey, involved using Lego pieces to demonstrate how small molecules can dock to target proteins implicated in the diseases they research. Children were sent on a scavenger hunt around the different stalls to find the hidden complementary shape of Lego that would fit to their existing protein. On their stall, PhD student Kieran Hand said one of their aims was to raise awareness of light chain amyloidosis – a disease that is often left out of the limelight, yet impacts a similar number of people as motor neurone disease. The prizes that had been assembled to give to children who were successful in the drug discovery hunt ran out by 2 pm, showing just how busy the event was. Hammed Badmos also helped on the stall during the day.

The Meet the Scientists series continues into the new year, with the next event, “Brainiacs”, taking place on the 21st January 2017. It will explore the complexities, faults and cures that surround the human brain.

Find out more about future events here.

Meet the Scientists, How Plants See the World

Meet the Scientists, How Plants See the World

This month, a group of research students and postdocs developed an interactive workshop exploring the world of plants. This workshop was taken to two events: one with a local Brownie troop and then to a Meet the Scientists event at the World Museum in Liverpool. We came up with the activities by first identifying interesting facts about plants that we wanted to communicate, and built the activities up from there. The three key things that we highlighted were circadian rhythms, leaf adaptations, and the importance of soil pH.

Circadian rhythms are an internal mechanism that acts like a body clock, which plants use to survive. To introduce this complex concept to a young audience, we created a card pinwheel that showed the times at which different flowers open. This idea was based on the concept garden designed by Carolus Linnaeus in 1751. The pinwheel contained outlined drawings of flowers that could be coloured in by visitors whilst the demonstrator chatted to them about circadian rhythms. Our card Linnaeus clock is available to download here.


To demonstrate that plants can recognise the pH of the soil that they are in, we brought some pH indicator that had been made using red cabbages. Red cabbage indicator is purple at a neutral pH, but can change to bright yellows and pinks on the addition of household substances such at lemon juice or washing powder. Visitors were encouraged to test the pH of a selection of different items, as well as testing soil samples. Photographs of hydrangeas were on display to show how drastic an effect soil pH can have on plants.


To demonstrate leaf adaptations, we took a two pronged approach. For older children and adults, a microscope was available to look at details such as veins and stomata on leaves from a variety of plants including local deciduous trees, an ornamental conifer, and a Christmas cactus. While some of the visitors enjoyed looking at the leaf structures, it became clear that some aphid eggs found on a sycamore leaf was more interesting! For the younger visitors, materials for making leaf rubbings were provided. By making leaf rubbings, we were able to encourage the younger children to look at the leaves more closely and to examine their different shapes. We then cut their leaf rubbings out and attached them to headbands, something which helped draw more people to our table.