Big Bang NorthWest 2016

The Big Bang North West is a science fair with a variety of companies, stalls and events to excite students from primary school up to sixth form about science, technology, engineering and maths. The Big Bang North West, organised by MerseySTEM, took place last week, Tuesday 5th July, with 5000 students descending upon the fabulous new venue, the Exhibition Centre, Liverpool. This new venue meant all the exhibits were located in one hall with a central stage where various shows would take place, including someone who was screening his bronchoscopy exam! Students from various schools also had the opportunity to present their own scientific projects as part of a National Science and Engineering competition, with quite a varied selection on display.

The School of Life Sciences and the Institute of Integrative Biology were well represented at the event with members taking part in exhibits, judging and moderating.

If you were also exhibiting at the event, please add a comment at the bottom and we will update the page. Thanks!

Institute of Integrative Biology Exhibit

Beth Levick, Gabriel Pedra, Vinnie Keenan

Beth, Gabi and Vinnie ran a game based on a simple SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model in the fashion of a Microbe Premier League. Teams battled it out to try and infect the entire population based on random dice rolls in a set time limit. Students loved the game with some returning multiple times to try and beat their friends.

Amy Eacock

Amy took some peppered moths to the exhibit in moth and caterpillar form to discuss her phd work examining how these twig-mimicing caterpillars are able to detect colour and adapt their bodies. Students were really interested in holding the caterpillars although there were screams from some! Amy also had a match the caterpillar to its moth game which went down well with both adults and students.

Lewis White

Lewis brought a selection of animal skulls for students to examine before they tackled his challenging game of placing a number of animals in the correct order on a phylogenetic tree. These included, whales, dolphins, sharks, cats and pandas but it was the primary school children who fared the best!

Rebecca Jones

Becky’s activity involved students and teachers sticking parasites on to the animals they thought those parasites lived in/on. There were some pesky parasites that kept them all guessing though!

Judging and Moderating the NSEC regional heats

Becky and Beth were selected as a judge and moderator for the school projects for the NSEC regional heats.

Victoria Harman

Victoria Harman, STEM Ambassador and member of the Centre for Proteome Research has completed another year as judge in the North West heat of the Big Bang Competition Victoria has been a judge for four years, and has been acting as a head science judge for the last two.

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What’s involved? Judges are allocated a judging partner and about five projects to asses in the morning being given about 20min to speak to each group/individual. The score is based on criteria such as planning, method design, analysis of results, whether the project is the students own idea, and how well it is presented.

There’s quite a lot of pressure on judges – the students have worked so hard over the last academic year on their projects and assessment in just 20 minutes is a big responsibility!

Students dedicate their spare time to produce a project – sometimes individuals, mostly teams. There are juniors, intermediates and seniors categories so there is quite an age span.  As with all competitions there is a range in the standard of projects but every single student or group puts in a lot of hard work. Victoria comments “It’s wonderful to see how proud they are of their work. Some students can be nervous to begin with but in the end they’re all so eager to tell you all about what they have achieved”.

After the morning judging session, the head judges review the scores for the science projects from the morning, and select projects for the shortlist for the nationals. A smaller team of head judges and moderators then meets the students again to review the shortlisted projects before selecting those that will be put forward for the national final. A project is nominated for the Endeavour prize which recognises exceptional hard work, determination and enthusiasm from a student or team.

prize

Victoria says “The Endeavour prize is actually my favorite bit. Considering that science isn’t always about getting the perfect results it’s brilliant to be able to recognize a student or students who have really put their heart and soul into a project”.

If you’d be interested in engaging with the Big Bang Competition, feel free to get in touch with Victoria (vharman@liverpool.ac.uk). She’ll direct you to the right people.

 

Rebecca Jones

I judged the senior category which had some interesting projects ranging from ‘Can mealworms eat plastic?’ to information leaflets on the BRCA gene which could be used in the NHS and online. I also learnt about how environmental issues associated with the Great Barrier Reef can be highlighted to primary school children through an educational toolkit. I also had the privilege of judging and shortlisting for regionals the eventual winners of the Young Scientist of the Year Award from Sandbach High School. Natural Skin Remedies, championed by two girls, had produced and tested a number of different creams to treat eczema. They had carried out a lot of experimental research and presented their work brilliantly. I wish them all the best in the finals next year. Go girls!!

Beth Levick

 I acted as a moderator for the judging, helping to decide which of the teams shortlisted by the main judges would go ahead to the final in March! I met some excellent teams and individuals, with projects ranging from how the length of skis affect your speed, to creating exciting videos of scientific topics using sweets. I was delighted to meet the winner of the “Endeavour” award and discuss her ideas for a greenhouse powered by burning waste. Of the 5 teams that went on to the final I and my partner moderator (also from IIB!) put forward two very clean projects: one on the efficacy of surface cleaners in removing bacteria, and one on commercial bleach products compared to home remedies. The hard work that had gone in to producing some really quality projects was truly inspiring, and all the teams that competed should be proud of the work they put in.

Aquaponics

Jens Thomas

Life Sciences Outreach Society

Juhi Gupta

The University of Liverpool’s Life Sciences Outreach team were back at Big Bang this year. Following last year’s successful workshops, Life Sciences undergraduate students got involved with making sweet DNA models and Breaking Berries in our strawberry DNA extraction workshop! We had a great response from kids and school teachers. And our volunteers had lots of fun too! Thank you to all of the students who helped at the event 🙂

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Endosymbiont talk at Loreto College, Manchester

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Department of Evolution, ecology and behaviour student Louise Reynolds recently gave a talk on endosymbionts and here is what she had to say:

 

‘On Thursday 21st April I visited Loreto College, Manchester to give a talk to around 60 Upper Sixth biology students about endosymbionts. Biology is a very popular option at the college, which has 1000 students taking the subject at A-level.

Endosymbionts, such as Wolbachia are commonly found in insects and other arthropods. They live within the cells of their host and are inherited through females. During my talk I spoke about different aspects of Wolbachia biology.

Wolbachia is able to manipulate the sex determination system of its host, for instance some strains of Wolbachia cause the male offspring of infected females to die. Wolbachia is currently being trialed as a form of biological pest control to halt diseases that are spread by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, such as Dengue Fever, Zika, and Chikungunya. I also spoke about my own research investigating the genetics of rapid evolutionary change in the blue moon butterfly. This butterfly is infected with a strain of Wolbachia that causes male offspring of infected female butterflies to die. The blue moon butterfly has evolved the ability to suppress male-killing so that infected butterflies are able to produce both male and female offspring.

After the talk I had some sandwiches and juice, and spoke to students interested in studying biology at university.’

Sniffing infected insects at PubhD Liverpool

PubhD is a new event that originated in Nottingham and has recently started up in Liverpool which aims to bring scientific research to the general public. At each event, three PhD students have 10 minutes to explain their research to a pub audience in exchange for a couple of pints. This is then normally followed by 20 (or so) minutes of friendly questions. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the first event but was then ‘head hunted’ on Twitter to speak at their second event which took place on 14th April.

I showed up to The Vines pub near Liverpool Lime Street station where I was met by Kat who runs the operation. There were three of us talking, one on biodiversity and another on infant feeding. After securing my first drink and listening to the first speaker I was up. At the events no powerpoint slides are allowed so I took along a couple of petri dishes of waxworms that were either infected or uninfected with the parasite Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, my study system.

I kicked off with a brief description of how parasites manipulate their hosts in order to increase transmission before delving into the parasites I study.

I was then able to talk about how the parasites I study utilise a number of different methods to avoid predation such as glowing in the dark, smelling and tasting really bad and even turning red. Infected individuals smell quite bad so people had to get quite close to have a sniff!

After my talk I had a lot of questions from the diverse audience of about 30 individuals and returned to my seat. However, upon returning to my table, I discovered that one of the petri dishes was now empty and it turned out my work colleagues had eaten all my uninfected waxworms!

I would recommend this event to other PhD students in IIB and beyond as I had to tailor my talk to a non-academic pub audience, as well as not being able to use slides. I really enjoyed the event and was able to discuss various aspects of my PhD further with interested individuals.

If you’re interested in giving a talk in a friendly atmosphere and challenging yourself not to use slides then check the event out on Twitter: @PubhD_Liverpool and facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1514714745501023/

 

by Rebecca Jones

Talking rodents at Liverpool Light Night and PubhD

Guest post by Nicola Davidson, PhD student in the Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool

I recently took part in two, quite different, public engagement events. The first was PubhD on 12th May. PubhD is a new event for Liverpool organised by Kat Ford. PubhD takes place in The Vines pub near Lime Street station and runs for about an hour and a half once a month. There are three speakers each night talking on a variety of topics. Apart from my talk on rodent control there was a talk from IIB’s Rebecca Donnelly on mathematical biology and Samuel Mercer on social and political science. Each speaker is given 10 minutes to present their PhD without any slides, followed by 20 minutes of questions. I really enjoyed talking without having to rely on PowerPoint. It made me really think about how to get my research across to a non-academic audience. The question session afterwards was really interesting. As my PhD is on trying to solve a practical problem (stopping non-target rodents from getting poisoned by rat poison), there were lots of ideas on how the problem could be solved. I think PubhD could be a good forum to get some fresh ideas and perspective for your research. The audience was small (~15) as the weather was too good to tempt many people indoors. However, this gave the event a nice intimate feel and I think encouraged more people to ask questions. I would highly recommend this event, especially for PhD students who want to practice communicating the premise of their thesis. You can contact Kat on pubhdliverpool@gmail.com or have a look at the twitter page @PubhD_Liverpool.

The second event I took part in (on 13th May) was Liverpool Light Night. This was a much bigger event and was directed more towards families. Light Night is a one-night arts & culture festival. The University opened several venues for this event, and I was stationed in the Guild. The event ran from 5pm to 9pm. There were around 150 people coming through the Guild in that time. I was in charge of a stand based on my research group’s work on rodent control. I had two posters: one on rodent control and the other on rodent species in the UK. I also had videos of some wild rodents, a demonstration of a rat bait station and a make your own mouse book mark for children. I made plenty of bookmarks with children, and some adults too! As well as learning about rodents from my stand, attendees could visit other stands where they could have an ice cream made from liquid nitrogen, power a solar car with a lamp and learn how to fight cancer. It was a really good opportunity to talk to people about the realities of rodent control and try to convince them that rats aren’t that bad. Overall I really enjoyed taking part in this event, especially getting the chance to inspire children with the kind of research we are doing at Liverpool.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Range High School students visit the NMR Centre

Guest post by Dr Jill Madine, Research Fellow in the Institute of Integrative Biology (IIB)

On Friday  22nd January chemistry A-Level students from Range High School visited the Institute for a workshop in the NMR Centre for Structural Biology organised by Dr Jill Madine.  The aim of the visit was to gain some practical experience to complement their A-Level chemistry curriculum.  Throughout the day the students learnt about the advantages and disadvantages of mass spec and NMR from Dr Mark Wilkinson and Dr Marie Phelan, learnt to prepare and run NMR samples and how to interpret the data.  Additionally, prior to their visit, as part of a school practical, they have made salicylic acid – a precursor for aspirin. We obtained these samples and collected NMR spectra of their products ready for analysis on the day.  This enabled them to establish how successful their synthesis had been and compare their results across the class. 

Overall a good day was had by all.  Student feedback highlighted that it was good to go outside of a classroom and see how NMR and mass spec are being applied here in the University and beyond across a range of disciplines.  A range of University of Liverpool postgraduate students and postdocs helped with the day providing practical and theoretical advice, including Dr Hannah Davies, Dr Vicky Pedder, James Torpey and Kieran Hand.

The Quest for Immortality – @livuniIIB’s @jpsenescence @WidnesScibar

Guest post by João Pedro de Magalhães, Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Integrative Biology

A SciBar is literally science in a bar (or pub).  After giving a presentation at the Liverpool SciBar in November, on Wednesday 13th January I gave a presentation at the Widnes SciBar.  It was a rainy winter night, with Liverpool FC playing Arsenal at the same time, so I must admit my surprise that the room was packed for my talk with over 40 people in attendance.  Although there were a few young people, it was mostly an older audience.  I gave my usual presentation on ageing and potential implications to society of retarding human ageing, and we had an excellent discussion.  Questions varied from basic (“What is this ATCG you keep talking about?” was my favourite) to quite knowledgeable questions like “You’ve spoken about protein-coding genes in ageing, but what about the role of non-coding RNAs in ageing?”

Overall, I had a wonderful time and, later, I also received some feedback from the organiser (Bob Roach), who told me that one person commented:

That talk was perfect in so many ways. His covering of the subject was “deep” enough for everyone to understand and yet still get over the core points of his message. He was relaxed and entertaining and left us awakened to the vast philosophical and scientific importance of the subject. I left the meeting with a feeling of contact with another front line branch of science.