Bringing the natural world to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

Post by Dr Ian Wilson

On 12th and 13th June 2019, the natural world took over a corner of the atrium at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Nightingale song and the tinkling trickle of a running stream played out across the atrium as a spotlight drew the eye to our little collaborative corner of creativity. I had joined colleagues from the Department of English to host an outreach event encouraging better understanding of, and empathy with, ‘Nonhuman Species’ via a mixture of attention-grabbing science and imagination-sparking creativity.

Members of the Department of English helped children explore their creative sides by encouraging them to think about a number of different species and what their lives are like. Could they explain in an acrostic poem the nature of a tree? Whilst colouring in pictures of nightingales, could they stop and consider what emotions a nightingale’s song makes them feel? Or could they find their new favourite story in our stack of nature-themed books and lose themselves in a world away from the hustle and bustle of the hospital? Our empathy and fascination with the natural world and non-human species are key to our understanding and appreciating them so we hope that these activities will have sparked some curiosity in our young visitors.

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At the same time, I paired with Creative Writing PhD student Bernadette McBride to show the public that science and creativity can belong hand-in-hand. I work in Dr Stew Plaistow’s lab group, investigating the effects of climate change on populations of Daphnia magna – so-called ‘water fleas’. Daphnia magna is a keystone species, meaning that, if it is affected by climate change, the impacts upon other species and factors within the ecosystems in which it resides will also be affected. As such, the importance of understanding temperature-induced effects on population diversity and genetic content in Daphnia cannot be understated.

 I brought with me a model of the Plaistow lab group’s experimental pond set-up at Ness Gardens, Wirral. This allowed me to better explain our work to older participants but also gave the younger children the opportunity to catch Daphnia magna from our miniature ponds and see them up close and personal on a TV screen-equipped microscope. Children were shown the different body parts of the twitchy micro-crustaceans on the screen and were given Daphnia-themed word searches and colouring sheets, whilst older visitors were told all about the group’s research at Ness Gardens.

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Bernadette, meanwhile, is writing a short story from the perspective of an individual Daphnia magna for a collection of tales concerning climate change. As such, children were given the opportunity to take what they’d learned about Daphnia magna and use their creativity and imagination to think about how Daphnia might feel and what they might notice about their environment as it changes through climate change.

 We hope that our event made children think more about the natural world, as well as making the public aware that science and the arts don’t always have to be viewed as disparate entities – sometimes one can influence the other, leading to even greater insights. This is an event we intend to run again in future in different locations across the city as the Department of English looks to broaden its audience.

 

 

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Entomophagy at Ness Gardens for British Science Week, 12th March 2016

Entomophagy at Ness Gardens for British Science Week, 12th March 2016

Guest post by Jo Griffin, PhD student in Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour at the Institute of Integrative Biology 

Amy Eacock and I enjoyed a jo and amy at nessgreat day at the Family Science Fair at Ness Botanic Gardens celebrating British Science Week. The theme was ‘feed the world’, and what is more topical at the moment than entomophagy! Entomophagy is the consumption of insects and despite being regarded rather contemptuously in the developed world; it is common in certain cultures and has been practiced since prehistoric times. Due to a growing global population there has been an increased demand for farmable land, fresh water and animal protein. Around 70% of farmable land is used to produce livestock, either directly or for the production of feed. The environmental costs surrounding intensive farming require urgent attention. There are also issues surrounding feed conversion rate, which is a measure of an animal’s efficiency in converting feed mass into animal protein. Although feed conversion rates differ between livestock species, around 6kg of plant protein are required to produce 1kg of animal protein.

A simple answer could be to remove livestock from our human diet and eat an entirely arable based diet, much like our hunter gatherer ancestors did. However, meat is culturally important in some societies and to eliminate it would simply not go down well. So, what are the alternatives? We could eat less meat, to reduce our need for land to grow high-energy cereals to feed livestock. An increasingly attractive alternative is to use insects to provide protein for our projected global population of 9 billion. We could do this by raising livestock on insect diets such as mealworms and fly larvae, or by consuming insects directly. Insects have a much higher feed conversion rate, require less water and space and produce lower quantities of toxic waste and greenhouse gases. For crickets, around 1.7kg of feed is required to produce 1kg of live animal weight. The graphs below compare the edible weight of crickets with different livestock species and highlight the advantages of consuming insects.

Other benefits to eating insects include the range of high quality nutrients they provide, which are comparable or superior to other sources of animal protein. Furthermore, insects have few animal welfare issues which make them ideal to farm.

Amy and I were equipped with live mealworms, crickets and locusts (for display and handling only) and processed insects for eating. These included sago worms, queen weaver ants, crickets, locusts, mealworms, buffalo worms, which are all considered delicacies in countries across the globe. My vote on the tastiest critter had to go to the barbeque flavoured bamboo worms followed by the garlic flavoured chapulines. So how did the crunchy critters go down? Well, overall we received a lot of interest from the general public and had whole families daring each other to eat certain critters. One man decided he liked locusts so much he came back for seconds, and even thirds. Overall, the day was a roaring success. Amy and I attempted to convince the public that insects can be quite tasty after all and should be considered as a food alternative to livestock protein.

entomophagy chart