Pinfold Junior School day at the Millennium Wood

by Meriel Jones

Getting children out of the classroom to connect with the natural world should be a feature of primary education and is also an excellent way to introduce science.  This is why, towards the end of the summer term on July 5th, children from Pinfold Junior School in Scarisbrick near Southport found themselves in their local Millennium Wood for the day.

Along with building dens, hunting for treasure and making mini scarecrows with their teachers, they went on a bug hunt with Dr James Davies, a postdoctoral associate in the Institute of Integrative Biology.  Extracting creepy crawlies from the undergrowth and then admiring dragonflies and butterflies as they flew past kept the young hunters, and James, very busy.

In addition, Patrick Hamilton, Lois Ellison and Kelly Roper, undergraduate students from the School of Life Sciences Student Outreach Society, were on hand with activities in the local church hall that was the base for lunch. Kelly said ‘We all really enjoyed the day and it has sparked some new ideas for outreach activities we can develop further. Therefore it was a beneficial experience for us as well.’

‘I would say the main thing I took away from the day was how much fun the children had applying what we had told them about adaptations, to the creation of their own creatures which had a whole range of creative/imaginative features.’

This event is the most recent in the Institute of Integrative Biology’s relationship with Pinfold School that began in 2010 and has included a project that won the annual national Rolls-Royce Eden Award for the best implemented environmental project meeting the needs of a school in 2013.

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Lancashire Science festival

On Thursday 29th of June, Marie Phelan of the Technology Directorate (NMR Metabolomics) and member of the Biochemical Society helped out the Society at the Lancashire Science Festival held in the Halls of University of Central Lancaster, Preston. The event was attended by primary and secondary schools from Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire with the aim to engage and inspire the next generation in science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Biochemical Society ran several activities in order to inform and debate genome editing including recent advances such as CRISPR-Cas9 technology with pupils as young as 6 engaging in DNA editing methodology and ethics.

Figures: Some of the Biochemical Society volunteers speaking to local pupils at the Lancashire Science festival. Pupils learn about “Scientific Scissors”. Science Festival Exhibitors Main Hall

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.

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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

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The story behind the paper

We recently published a paper on genomic surveillance of a diarrhoeal pathogen Shigella sonnei across Latin America which represented the culmination of over five years of collaboration, as well as training and development in the region

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In collaboration with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Pan American Health Organisation and PulseNet Latin America and Caribbean (PNLAC), we whole genome sequenced over 400 Shigella sonnei collected from nine countries over two decades. Shigella are the most important bacterial cause of moderate-to-severe childhood diarrhoeal disease in low to middle income nations, and countries in Latin America still experience endemic disease and explosive outbreaks. By sharing information on common pathogen subtypes through public health networks, like PNLAC, pathogens can be traced epidemiologically to facilitate early identification and intervention in disease outbreaks. Whole genome sequencing is transforming surveillance of bacterial pathogens, as it provides the highest resolution of pathogens subtypes and can also be used to explore other genetic factors of interest, like antimicrobial resistance. However, its cost precludes routine use in some areas, which are unfortunately some of those regions where the most Shigella disease is seen.

In this study, we sequenced approximately 50 isolates from nine countries in Latin America and use whole genome phylogenetics to reveal those sublineages that were responsible for most of the disease in the region. We identified a novel global lineage of Shigella sonnei, and by correlating the geography of where isolates came from to their evolutionary relationships, we could see international transmission of some sublineages and what the distribution of different sublineages was across the continent. Visit the microreact page to play with the data yourself.

We were also able to identify key determinants of antimicrobial resistance in the pathogens and how they were distributed among the different sublineages, providing key information for managing this important disease in the region.

In addition to constructing this invaluable regional framework for ongoing surveillance, this project helped build capacity for whole genome sequencing surveillance in the region. Over the course of the collaboration, the World Health Organisation sponsored the establishment of whole genome sequencing facility at the reference laboratory for PNLAC, ANLIS in Buenos Aires, Argentina (see photo). In the paper, we show how locally-generated sequencing data from this facility can be integrated into the regional surveillance framework to determine whether outbreaks were due to locally-circulating lineages or resulted from the importation of new sublineages.

In addition to laboratory capacity building, the collaboration involved training an ANLIS researcher (Josefina Campos – see photo – who now runs the genomics facility there) in bioinformatics, and conducting training courses (in conjunction with Wellcome Trust Advanced Courses) for medical, veterinary and public health professionals in the region, including courses in Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica (see picture).

There are 29 authors on our paper and every one of them worked hard on, and cared deeply about, the outcome of the study as well as the training programs and capacity building surrounding it. Every paper has a story behind it, and this one, like so many others, is so much more than it appears.

Photo: Top ANLIS in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bottom (from right to left) ANLIS collaborator Josefina Campos and co-corresponding author Nicholas Thomson (WTSI) outside the Malbran (ANLIS) Institute; Genomics for Epidemiology and Surveillance of Bacterial Pathogens course instructors and participants held in February 2015 in San Jose, Costa Rica; co-corresponding author Kate Baker with bust of Carlos Gregorio Malbran, the ANLIS institute’s namesake.

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Harambee! Let’s all work together!

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An exciting part of the activities of the Mara Herbivore Research project is the work we do with the local communities around Talek in Kenya. For more than a decade we have been running a training course for Kenyans working in the tourist sector. Here we develop the knowledge and skills required to work as a professional tourist guide. The main focus is on making up-to-date scientific knowledge about the African ecosystems and their inhabitants accessible locally. It leads to many stimulating discussions when we are comparing research findings with local ideas about nature: sometimes science is merely confirming what has been long known locally, sometimes the two are at odds and we discuss why this may be.

We also teach on the ecology and conservation of African ecosystems at primary and secondary schools in both Kenya and the UK. Here it is encouraging to experience the connection that kids everywhere have with nature and feel their enthusiasm. We are always hoping that we may inspire some to follow a career in science or conservation later on.

As opportunities arise, we moreover give talks to raise the awareness of the general public on the urgent threats facing Africa’s savannas, particularly from encroaching human populations, intensifying livestock production, poaching and climate change. In doing so, we encourage locals to reflect on the sustainability of some current land-use practices, and we seek to convey to people elsewhere that conservation in developing countries is a global responsibility.

For more details about Dr Jakob Bro-Jorgensen‘s work, click on this link: Mara Herbivore Research project

Pint of Science – The evolution of feet, the brain and masturbation

Dr Rebecca Jones board picturefrom the School of Life Sciences recently hosted the Pint of Science event on evolution recently at the Shipping Forecast. Here’s what she had to say:

When I was asked to host a night for the recent Pint of Science event in Liverpool I jumped at the chance. I’d been to a couple already, Manchester and Exeter, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Pint of Science aims to bring science to local pubs where the public can listen to researchers describing their work. There’s normally a theme for each city, with Liverpool covering Our Body, Beautiful Mind and Atoms to Galaxies. As a lecturer in the School of Life Sciences I was hosting the ‘Evolution of feet, the brain and masturbation’ at the Shipping Forecast on the 15th May.

Alongside a team of volunteers (Georgia Drew, Amy Eacock, Chloe Heys and Jo Griffin) and a willing photographer for the evening (Lukasz Lukomski), we had our evening planned. As the public entered the venue, the basement of the Shipping Forecast, they had a chance to fill in the three quizzes set by our three fantastic speakers in the hope of winning some Pint of Science prizes. These included matching the footprint to the nationality, guessing which brain belonged to which animal and pairing animal’s with their penises.

 

After the welcome and thanking of the sponsors, eLife, we started with our first talk by Dr Kris D’Aout on the evolution of the foot.

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Kris discussed his work examining locomotion and the use of shoes in various countries, particularly India. Although it seems Kris struggles with volunteers here in the UK!

 

He even showed a video of a robot having to meander around some walking humans! Kris was met with a barrage of questions from the audience, including some asking advice on wearing slippers around the house!

 

Next up we had Dr Tom Butts who spoke on the evolution of the brain and he even managed to rope in some keen volunteers to demonstrate the formation of the spinal cord.

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Tom then received some rather tough and philosophical questions about brain development and dinosaurs which got everyone thinking!

 

We then had a break in which people replenished their drinks but also got to listen to three excellent 2 minute talks from researchers. Jennifer Mitchell, Elinor Chapman and Angela Hackett (L to R) all described their research without the use of props or slides to an enthralled audience who eventually voted Elinor the winner!

 

Our final talk, and headline act, was Dr Tom Price who spoke about the evolution of masturbation across animal groups.

 

Tom mostly spoke about sex and masturbation in birds although had some interesting theories on whether masturbation occurred in dinosaurs!! Tom said, “People seemed to enjoy my speculations on solo sexual behaviour in ducks and dinosaurs.” However, he was more surprised that “Some members of the public were surprisingly good at identifying weird animal genitals.”

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Following some entertaining questions and prize giving, the conversations moved upstairs where people were keen to find out more about feet, the brain and most importantly, masturbation.

I’d like to say thank you to the speakers and all the volunteers that helped on the night! There was a lot of organising but it made for a memorable event!

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.