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!

BES Roadies: Who’s poo?

by Jo Griffin

We busk a little differently to most people. Having assembled from various locations around the UK, warming up with hot drinks in a pokey central London Starbucks, we play our favourite game. When you check out the next BES Annual Meeting (you know you want to), be sure to keep your eyes peeled for it. It will change your life.

As a BES Roadie, I’ve received public engagement training, helped develop busking activities and had the opportunity to attend music festivals and science festivals across the country. The end goal being to better my science communication skills and inform people outside the world of science on diverse matters such as ecology, and the research I conduct for my PhD.

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These activities are great for engaging people and spreading the word of ecology, however, there are communities that we are still struggling to reach. As stated in the BES ‘Making Ecology for All’ report from 2013, members of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community are significantly less likely to be in a STEM profession when compared to White counterparts. In 2010/11, BAME individuals made up 16.7% of all biological science students. This is an underrepresentation when compared to both the total for all STEM subjects, 20.1%, and for all subjects, 18.4%. There are no excuses for this gap; in the 21st century I am appalled that recent figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that no British University is employing a Black academic in a senior management role. This must change.

Now back to our London ‘Poo Game’ trip. The Windsor Fellowship has collaborated with the Royal Society to provide a mentoring scheme for Year 13 Black students living or studying in Greater London, who are studying STEM subjects. This is where we, the BES Roadies, come into the picture. We were given a one hour slot during a day long workshop, to communicate ecology to the students. Jessica opened the session with a brief introduction to the BES and the importance of science communication. We then split the cohort into four groups and took one group each to demonstrate our busking activities. Karen got to play ‘Pollinator Top Trumps’, Arron had ‘Who’s Poo?’ Jessica was on the ‘Mushroom Game’ and I demonstrated the use of taxonomic keys using the ‘Festival Animals’ busk that we took to Wychwood festival back in June. The students rotated around the different activities before reconvening in the seminar room where I then gave a short talk on my research.

I am used to communicating my work to academics back in my University department and at the odd conference. Entertaining a room of A-level students however, was a pretty terrifying prospect. When I asked if anyone had heard of the term ‘symbiosis’ some students nodded their head with a vague look of recollection whilst others shook their heads. Using examples such as corals, the bobtail squid, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in plant roots and deep sea tube worms, I got the students on board with the concept. Explaining the use of fruit flies and their symbiont to study host-shifts was a little trickier, I was nervous that this was where I might lose them. To my surprise, I was bombarded with questions. From the development and maintenance of symbioses and coevolution to the nitty gritty techniques I used to achieve my work and collect data, these students were the most inquisitive and enthusiastic audience I have ever had. It was an enormous pleasure to spend time with them. If I haven’t persuaded them that parasites and mutualists are just about the coolest things to study, then at least they will have left the session with a broader understanding of the term ecology. I hope that we will continue to engage with a diverse range of communities in the BES and look forward to reuniting with the Roadies for more science communication.

If you would like to become involved with the BES Roadies, please see upcoming public engagement and training events on the BES website: http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/learning-and-resources/public-engagement/