Shrewsbury School visit

The Lower Sixth Biology visited the Institute for Integrative Biology.

With a world-class biological research facility only a couple of hours away, it would seem silly for us not to pay them a visit each year, and once again we were generously hosted by Professor Alan McCarthy – Head of Undergraduate Admissions for Liverpool’s School of Life Sciences (and Shrewsbury School Governor). In the morning we heard talks giving overviews of the key technologies we would later be seeing.

You can read the rest of their visit report here.




ENTHUSE – working with teachers

By Luciane V. Mello

One way we can contribute to young people’s enthusiasm for science is by working with their teachers, e.g. through continuing professional development schemes like STEM Insight.

Last February in partnership with the Biochemical Society we received Maria Saeed, from Blackburn College, for her Insight into University experience placement.

maria saeed

Maria Saeed

The week was a great experience and I am now putting into practice what I have learnt. For example, I am working on developing a numeracy skills pack for all learners, and I am hoping to do several practical sessions in the same format I saw at the university that worked very well… I believe the scheme has been invaluable in developing my own teaching practice and the links between the college and Liverpool University in the long-term.


I’m delighted to report that Maria Saeed was nominated for the ENTHUSE Further Education Award, an event organised by STEM Learning and the Wellcome Trust to recognise the impact that teachers and technicians have on their pupils, colleagues, schools, colleges and peers.  I would like to thank all members of staff who helped me to offer Maria a wonderful experience during her week in the Department of Biochemistry (IIB) and in the School of Life Sciences: Amal Abdulkadir, Fabia Allen, Peter Alston, Andy Bates, Rob Beynon, Elaine Connor, Caroline Dart, Claire Eyers, Pat Eyers, Karen Fitzsimons, Blair Grubb, Phil Harrison, Keith Hatton, Joscelyn Sarsby, Jerry Turnbull, Susanne Voelkel and Mark Wilkinson.

A successful team work! We are now prepared for other teacher visits so if you are interested, get in touch.

It’s all about the actors, darling! Rob Beynon

This is a guest post by Professor Rob Beynon. He can be found on Twitter @astacus.

I had the pleasure of delivering a Café Scientifique discussion in  the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in May. This is a very long running forum, and has been run by Professor Mandy McLean and her colleagues since 2004 (Prof McLean received an MBE in 2010 for her public engagement activities – who says outreach doesn’t get recognised?).

The title of my talk was ‘The cell, a factory run by actors’. The format was a 20 minute introduction (no slides, no projector –a refreshing change that would do us all good from time to time – I prepared so much better without the crutch of slides to prop me up) – I introduced myself as a protein chemist, discussed proteins I had discovered in my career, and the fun to be had in naming them (the darcin story always gets a good reception) and then explained how ‘proteins’ (the term coined by Berzelius in 1838 from the Greek πρώτειος (‘proteios’), meaning ‘of the first rank’) had been embedded in literature and arts (think Kurt Vonnegut in ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, just for starters) but I also quoted one of my favourite books, ‘For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist’ by the Nobel Prize winning biochemist, Arthur Kornberg, in which he said, paraphrasing “DNA and RNA provide the script, but proteins are the actors”.

CafeScientGlasgowI then directed the audience (between 30 and 40 people) to the first question on my short pub quiz. They were challenged to calculate how many possible proteins of 300 amino acids there could be (prefaced by a chat about polymers, building blocks and the significance of precise order). The audience did it! As Douglas Adams might have said, the answer is ‘a hugely, mindbogglingly big number’ and far exceeds the number of atoms in the Universe. We then addressed the logical outcome, that the evolution of life on this planet very quickly got locked into a tiny little corner of the hyperdimensional space of ‘all possible proteins’, and that ‘out there’ in that hyperdimensional space, there were perfect antimicrobials, cures for all diseases, proteins that could support green chemistry, proteins that were as clear and sparkled like diamonds. If only we knew how to get to them (and synthetic biology is not the answer).

The second part of my short introduction talked about complexity. We discussed the size of a yeast cell (100 cells end to end in one millimetre) and the complexity of this cell compared to an Airbus A3800 – the yeast cell has about 60 million molecules, the A380 has only 4 million parts, which led to the final part of my introduction – how do you manage this complexity, controlling the number of each protein a cell needs, and changing those numbers to respond to demand (stimuli) Is the cell a ‘just in time’ manufacturer, a ‘just in case’ manufacturer or a ‘rapid recycler’?

The following discussion (90 minutes, with a very welcome bar break in the middle) was fabulous. This was a switched on audience – we ranged from pre-biotic evolution through panspermy to insulin secretion as a ‘just in time’ process. Inevitably, the darcin story took us back to a detailed discussion about the sex life of the mouse, a change to amuse, inform and extol the value of multidisciplinary collaboration with Jane Hurst and colleagues in Leahurst as behavioural ecologists par excellence. Inevitably we addressed the issue of how we do this work and the need for protein chemists to be ‘technologically overstimulated’ -especially for the big projects like our recently published study that quantified the number, in copies per cell, of over 2,000 yeast proteins.

I loved every minute of it. The QandA session was chaired by Vanessa Collingridge, broadcaster and writer, who was terrific (@NessCollingr).

To any of my colleagues who are thinking about this, my advice is ‘go for it!’. Leave the slides behind, don’t overplay the minutiae, and enjoy two hours in the company of an interested and intelligent audience who challenge you to jump around in your favourite playground – the subject that brings you in to work every morning with a bounce!


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! (”

“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.

Proteome Research at Winstanley College

To inaugurate our outreach blog, let’s share again some good recent news. The press release below was originally published on the Institute website on 27 March 2015 (updated with hyperlinks). Note: The Royal Society Partnership Awardhelps schools to run exciting and innovative projects in partnership with a professional scientist or engineer.

Royal Society Funding Award for STEM Partnership

The partnership between Winstanley College and IIB’s Centre for Proteome Research (CPR) has received recognition with a Royal Society Partnership Award.

The grant was awarded to Winstanley College’s STEM Coordinator Dr Jen Platt-Skerry (a former IIB student) and CPR’s Prof Rob Beynon for their project entitled ‘Proteome Research at Winstanley College’.   The grant will allow students access to advanced instrumentation in CPR for their own projects. This is in addition to a recent Royal Society of Chemistry grant for gel equipment at Winstanley College.

The project is highly interdisciplinary, covering Biochemistry in particular, a subject that is not formally taught to students at this level.  It will highlight the advantage of linking Chemistry and Biology and also Physics and Mathematics. Students will be encouraged to understand a little of the physics behind a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer and they will start to understand Maths and ICT behind the search engines that are used to identify previously unknown proteins.

The Centre for Proteome Research ( is very enthusiastic about being involved in widening awareness of our research, and in raising aspirations for young scientists to become the next generation of researchers.  Twelve members of CPR have now signed up as STEM ambassadors in order to take part in this worthwhile and important activity.