Shrewsbury School visit for Life Sciences Technology Day @tsm_biology

Guest post by Dr Torin Morgan, Head of Faculty, Shrewsbury School

Shrewsbury School

RAJC and his set listening to PhD students explaining the use of mass spectrometry to identify proteins at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Proteome Research

On Friday 6th November all Lower Sixth Biologists took a day out to visit the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology. We were hosted by Professor Alan McCarthy, one of the UK’s leading microbiologists and the Head of Admissions and Recruitment for the School of Life Sciences (and also a Governor of Shrewsbury School).

Biosciences in the 21st Century are increasingly focused on understanding the information contained inside living cells in the form of DNA (the ‘genome’) and proteins (the ‘proteome’).  Pre-U Biology places great emphasis on practical applications and so this visit was a tremendously valuable opportunity to for us to see the cutting-edge technology being deployed by this world-leading research department.

In the words of some of our pupils:

“The trip to Liverpool University was an interesting and memorable experience. We had a full morning of lectures before attending tours. The lectures were pretty fascinating, even though the topics the speakers touched on were slightly above our understanding. The final lecture by Prof Rob Beynon (Head of Biochemistry at the University) really caught my attention, as I never knew proteins play such a major role in sustaining our lives. After a brief break, we were taken on tours. We saw some high-end technologies being used by both researchers and students. Quite a few of us were astonished by how expensive the equipment was (£800,000 for a next-generation DNA sequencer!). In the final tour, we met Mike – a student who was about to get his PhD in biology. Apart from explaining how he managed to crystallise proteins to study their structure, he told us what being a student at a university is like and gave us some useful advice on how to make the most out of it.”

“The lectures were on a variety of topics. Most were about the advanced techniques used to understand the processes going on inside cells; there was also one by Dr Raphael Levy on the way evidence is misused by the media (especially the Daily Mail!) to report and distort news of scientific discoveries. He reminded us to always ask for evidence! (http://askforevidence.org/index)”

“I found the tour of the x-ray crystallography laboratory especially interesting. Researchers can now generate a three dimensional image of a molecule by using x-ray crystallography. The molecule causes x-ray beams to diffract in different directions and this data can then be used to construct and image of the molecule.”

“One aspect of the day that I found particularly interesting was cell imaging. Following a colourful and inspiring lecture delivered by Dr David Mason, we acquired a new understanding of how we can view cells and observe their features. The lecture certainly lived up to its name, ‘Seeing the world in 5-dimensions’: after covering the obvious first 3 dimensions, XYZ, a splash of colour and the element of time brought the images to life.”

“The most incredible technique I saw was laser capture microdissection, in which an individual cell was shown being cut from a sample using a laser before being propelled (again by the laser) into a waiting test tube. This tiny, targeted tissue fragment could then be subjected to DNA sequencing!”

Whatever their level of interest in Biology, the pupils will find themselves thinking back to the trip over the coming days and months, and, as it keeps resonating with theory in their Pre-U course, their appreciation for what they saw will grow.

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TEDxGhent: Genes regulating ageing and the quest for immortality

This is a guest post by João Pedro de Magalhães


TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading”. In addition to the main TED event in North America, TEDx are independent TED-like events, which can be organized by anyone who agrees to follow the TED principles. TED and TEDx events address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 12-18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. TEDxGhent in Ghent, Belgium, has now been organized for five years running. It aims “To bring great ideas from all over the world to Ghent and to present local ideas to a larger audience.”

So I was excited about giving a TEDx talk, knowing it would be very different from a normal scientific talk. I was assigned a mentor, to help me prepare my talk. This was very useful because he advised against some of our hardwired scientific instincts, like resist the urge to explain and be cautious about conclusions, have more pictures than text in the slides, give the talk a more personal angle and include many anecdotes and metaphors.

The event itself last weekend was really interesting, with music, poetry, science, art and comedy. Its 700 tickets were sold out. My talk was entitled “Genes regulating ageing and the quest for immortality”, and I tried to give an overview of what we know about genes regulating aging and longevity, from genetic manipulations in worms, genetic determinants of human lifespan and genetics of long-lived species like naked mole rats and whales. Feedback after the talk was really good. Even though I have given many talks for general audiences, including in schools, I definitely learned a lot about giving talks to the general public.

The video  of my talk will be available on YouTube in due course [update Aug 2015: now available]. In the meantime, here is a beautiful sketchnote summarizing my talk.