Science Busking at Kirkstall festival

So after a busy few days I’ve finally got time to write up how it went.  It was an excellent day and the busiest Kirkstall festival ever, as the biggest free community event in the UK with over 25,000 people going on just the one day. This meant it was a great chance to get out and speak to the public about DNA and the research we do.

On the day we really ran with two events, The first was DNA Ladders, explaining how so much DNA Fits into our cells using a rope ladder and hook-on ‘nucleotides’ this was a great springboard to talk about epigenetics.

This was a great chance to teach people about DNA and a bit of cell biology and the kids seemed to really enjoy playing at being chromatin.

The other activity that went excellently was DNA Bracelets, Using bracelets and beads of four colours we  got people to make their own bracelets. This was great as it could be done at either as an introduction to base paring where one strand of ‘DNA’; was made and participants simply matched up the ‘base pairs’, the activity also allowed expansion into replication, where we could talk about the different enzymes that make it possible and also translation, allowing people to write words by coding for amino acids.

Originally I thought ordering 1500 beads was overkill but I’m glad I did as this was really well received and we got through loads. Again this activity was a great chance to speak to people about genetics, stuff like mutations and heredity.

Though we had plans and resources for another couple of activities,  one around singing a gene and another, a dance activity based on mitosis, we were so busy we couldn’t cover it all and we will hopefully bring these to another event in the near future.

On the day  we spoke directly to about 400 people so it was great and though tiring was excellent to speak to people outside of schools who I’d never get to talk to about my research.

As in my previous post I noticed the lack of biology specific activities that I could find on ‘Science Busking’ and having developed some of our own activities I think this first foray into it was a really great experience and one I’d love the chance to repeat again sometime.


Science Busking @ Kirkstall Festival

I have just confirmed I’ll be science busking at Kirkstall Festival  here in leeds.

Lots of the science busking I’ve seen to day is very physics based or a maths problem as which can be done with only a few props. I have managed to develop a few biology and in particular DNA Based activities.

I’ll be running them during the festival which is a one day event that attracts ~30k people so a great opportunity to widen the audience for the out reach work I do.


More news to come after the event but looks like a great opportunity.


Leeds Festival Of Science: My Outreach Project

Back in November whilst I was working down in Wales I got an email about becoming and Education Outreach Fellow for my faculty. Outreach is something I have always wanted to be involved in and since some work in the first year of my PhD with  a primary school have struggled to get into it really.

I applied for the position and to my surprise got it. This has involved working with the engagement department of the university and has had a big emphasis on delivering sessions during Leeds Festival of Science and British Science week.  During this 2-week period I worked alongside the other biology outreach fellow doing practical workshops in high schools in west Yorkshire. We ran a session on DNA Gel electrophoresis and discussed the example of the Human  Papilloma Virus, something that many of the kids were aware of from previous vaccination programmes.

The sessions were really rewarding and whilst seeing it as a taster of teaching there were definitely some moments we were thrown in at the deep end which was a steep learning curve but really enjoyable and a great experience. It was interesting to see how much emphasis is given to DNA technologies in the syllabus and how this has changed even in the last ten years since I did my GCSE’s.  Having gone to a fairly rural school this is the sort of activity that would not have occurred in my high school and form the reaction of some of the teachers students this was definitely out of the ordinary.

The materials we were using were form a dedicated scientific education company which made running the sessions really easy with colour coded tubes and pre calibrated pipettes, it really took the stress out of planning and preparing when in the schools. Over the 2 weeks we ran sessions for almost 150 students which was busy but really rewarding, we have yet to receive the majority of the feedback from students and teachers but it was really good to engage children of this age and demonstrate how science isn’t just facts and talk about what we do as scientists.

My first Paper: Electrochemical alternative to Computational Fluid dynamics

Again a very belated post But I thought I’d post a small discussion on my first Publication that made it out back in May 2014 in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society.  the paper is ‘Comparative Electrochemical Analysis of Two Flow Cell Systems’

This work came form a collaboration with mechanical engineering which really had  nothing to do with my PhD but was a few days work and looked interesting. In the article I developed a quick way of roughly estimating the performance of flow cells using a quick and accessible electrochemical technique.

The flow cells we had used were an off the shelf one provided by dropsens and one which had been developed by D.Pike (Uni of Leeds), . The latter of these had been designed using Computational flow dynamics and was predicted to be far superior, publication can be found here.

I came up with a method for assessing this performance, not only to corroborate CFD data but hopefully provide practical electrochemists a quick way of assessing flow cell performance without the need  of lengthy CFD Simulations.

The method is a bit rough and ready but for practical electrochemical like myself it is easy and accessible and shows a good correlation of the flow cell deisign and crucial flow parameters like volume taken for void exchange. I hope this provides useful for people if only in a preliminary experimental sense.

Voice of Young Science- Standing Up For Science Workshop

A while ago I became aware of the charity Sense About Science, through their work on the Libel Reform Campaign and have been following their work closely since. they work really hard to educate the public on science and the use of evidence as well as campaigning to industry and the world of politics; put simply there need to be more people like this championing the use of scientific data and drawing attention to its misuse.

As a charity Sense About Science was born in 2002 tapping into a nerve of the scientific community which felt there was a need to defend science, its communication and the right of free speech  when backed up  with scientific evidence. The charity have done some great work over the years on homoeopathy and evidence based medicine, claims surrounding evidence and a wide variety of other issues as well as ensuring that the defamation act passed in 2013. In their day to day work Sense about Science also monitor media outlets for the misrepresentation and miscommunication of science and provide an invaluable platform for scientists to refute what journalists may have said.

I was lucky enough to get a place on a media workshop as part of Voice of young science,one wing of the charity’s work. The workshop explored the relationship between primary researchers and the media with panels form both scientific and journalistic professions. The contrast between these two sessions was really fascinating and the emphasis on Q&A lead to interesting discussion between what are our obligations and opportunities as researchers and how these are different to the priorities of journalists.

One thing that stood out for  me personally was the impression of a fundamental conflict between the training we receive as scientists, where  importance is given to the nuances and technicalities of our work and the training journalists have where there is editorial desire to make broad definite statements. It certainly made me aware of how careful you must be to sell your science confidently but accurately and ensure that it is enough of a story to be picked up by the media.

It was great also to talk to other researchers form other fields and try to describe your work to people from such alien disciplines. This is something universities (well mine at least) try and train for but you always end up speaking to people in your faculty so you don’t appreciate how niche your research truly is to the outside world.

The workshop was really useful and it was great to meet some of the VOYS/SAS team afterwards for a drink, informal meetings like that are always a great way to ask real questions which people don’t want to do in front of the group !

I would definitely say you should apply to these workshops whatever your plans are. Personally I am not sure if I want to stay in science but if you’re planning on it, this workshop is  a great guide of how to get your research more attention. If you’re not sure about Postdoctoral Research its great place to get an idea of the processes and  opportunities available away form the bench working in the media or scientific communication to ensure accuracy and well reported.

I would also recommend having a  read of the campaigns Sense About Science are up to. In particular The AllTrials Campaign which is aiming for greater transparency on pharmaceutical trial data, something which is important to all of us and has been excellently argued by Goldacre in Bad Pharma.


Welsh Assembly Research Service Internship

So in my absence I’ve been busy getting political alongside my research. As part of my interest into scientific policy and how evidence feeds in to the gears of legislature I applied for a Policy Internship funded by my research council BBSRC (more info here). This was an excellent opportunity to be involved in the process of how research makes its way to politicians and finally into new legislation and regulations.

I had an interview back in October 2013, a pretty intense day with 2 panels of 8 members representing the various host organisations but a really enjoyable experience. I heard a few months alter that I got a position working for the Welsh assembly on the Environment & Sustainability committee research team.

The excellent thing about the BBSRC support is that they covered the cost of relocation for the 3 month period and have extended my stipend. This effectively put my PhD on pause for three months, a welcome break from research at the time.

I started in Sept 2015 working for three months on policy reserach. A typical week during this time consisted of Committee hearings, First Ministers questions and work in the office.

When i was in the office I was working on a mixture of research paper updates, ensuring that the most up to date data was available, new research updates and a longer policy briefing document. I also worked on individual queries form Welsh assembly members in order to give them data to inform their debates in the chamber or constituency issues.

Working for the E&S Committee was fascinating as it met weekly so every week a new issue was being discussed and I was able to sit in on the committee sessions, it was great to see how the different politicians approached such a  wide variety of issues and how much personality still played a role at this level.

In Wales the comities are a crucial element of government scrutiny, there are 11 committees which deal with the majority of legislative criticism and are the workhorse of the welsh assembly. It was great to work so closely with the committees and be in  meetings where agendas were set and decisions on stakeholder engagement were taken.

Along with getting great political experience, I found having to write for three months really good, as a scientist my writing had adapted to such a point I hadn’t realised how inaccessible it probably was. This internship gave me a great opportunity and plenty of practise at rephrasing my work for a different audience, something for which i was grateful. Whilst I was working with the E&S team everyone was really friendly and supportive too which made everything so much easier when doing such different work in a new city.

If anyone is thinking of applying for these internships I’d really recommend it. I have friends that did the internship in Westminster too who equally extol the virtues of the experience so would say go for it.  A list of the articles I contributed towards can be found below and feel free to get in touch with any queries:

Climate Change & Energy Goals – Research Note

EU Policy Update EU 2014.03 Prevention and management of the Introduction and Spread of Invasive Alien Species

The Planning (Wales) Bill – Bill Summary Paper

The Food Supply Chain – Research Note

The Dairy Sector – Research Note

Back After a lengthy Hiatus

Hi I don’t suppose anything on here has really been Read. It was mainly written for writing experience whilst i had lots of time away on an intern ship. I’ve hopefully got a bit better at this writing game after doing loads more including parliamentary output and a few Journal Pieces, I’ll write up a bit about them in coming weeks but they’ve been out a while now.

Alongside my research I’ve been getting a bit more political and really looking into evidence based policy, this lead me to do a three-month placement at the Welsh assembly on Scientific Communication for Welsh Assembly Members, ( again articles to follow. I might also put a bit about localised action for the 2015 General Election in the next couple of weeks too.

I am on track to finish my PhD in december and be Dr. Jack But until then I’m hopefully going to be filling this up a bit more. Feel free to ask any questions too.

Feels goods to be back



Invasive starfish contribute to destruction of the Great Barrier reef.

So we all knew that coral reefs are pretty endangered at the minute but in research released today another cause has been identified. Along with changing global sea temperatures & storms, Invasive species have greatly contributed in the destruction of coral reefs.

This destruction has now amounted to an astonishing 50% reduction in coral on the great barrier reef, one of the most complex and delicate marine ecosystems in existence. Whilst 48% of this destruction can be attributed to storms a continuous problem which is tricky to solve, a further 42% is blamed upon Invasive starfish species.

Crown of thorns starfish

Species such as the Crown of thorns Starfish (Ancanthaster Planci)  and the Northern Pacific Seastar (Asterias Amurensis)  HAve become new predators in the Great barrier reef and are slowly but surely eatinghteir way along the reef.

These species were traditionally confined to coastal areas, avoiding the vast expanses and great depths of the open oceans but Shipping has provided an opportunity for these species to spread their larvae wide and far and start new populations on coral reefs.

This has occurred by ships storing large volumes of sea water as ballast for long voyages to help stabilise the craft which is then jettisoned at the final destination.

The released water with larvae has hit the rich warm bed of the reef and these invasive species begin to take hold. With no natural predators they are free to go grow into large booming, plague-like populations eating as they go.

A particularly damaging effect is the lack of defences any natural prey has in this habitat. P[re-existing Starfish have evolved alongside prey such as shellfish and Bivalves which has enabled an arms race between predator and prey over the millenia.

These creatures however are ill-equipped when faced with a new predator and find themselves easily overcome. as many of these species serve to filter the water and regulate the reef ecosystem this takes out a vital component and further endangers the habitat.

In order to combat the spread of starfish-  the Australian authorities have invested $50m AUD in the hope of finding a weakness in teh life-cycle of the starfish. By their calculations if we could negate the problem they bring we could get teh reef growing at 0.89% p/a which though small would have a massive impact eventually.

This also serves as a poignant reminder of the complexity of ecosystems and why we must monitor changes in populations as, if this problem had gone unnoticed it could have affected the reef as a whole a unique habitat that supports well over 20,000 species.

Higgs Boson Einstein’s wait over ?

So this morning there are many mutterings about tomorrows Intended press release by CERN regarding research at the LHC. Similar lectures in the last 10 years headed up by Fabiola Gianotti and her team have pointed to an “excess of events” at certain mass values (~115GeV) which could indicate a fingerprint of the crucial Higgs Boson, a particle allowing mass, gravity and matter as we know it to exist.

In a range of experiments which have continued since this, regions have been identified where the Search for the Higg’s Boson can be excluded ( 149-206GeV) so we can focus down and identify the mass and nature of this elusive particle. One thing I find fascinating about this research is how it shows the narrative of science so fully.

The simple fact that the mass of this particle is illustrated using an energy is fascinating it shows the direct reliance of modern Physics on Einstein’s relativity as E=mc^2. Even though 115GeV may seem like a huge number this corresponds to a mass of  0.0000000000012863390789812 Grams a minuscule amount. When you think about the billions of euros dedicated to such a small thing- the years of research and engineering challenges encountered in putting a 27km tube under the Swiss Alps with micron-precision. It is testament to the People who have worked on it in the continued search for fundamental knowledge.

This is the biggest academic project ever undertaken- It has involved scientists the world over, and shows what can be achieved when we collaborate on such a large-scale. For the statement this project sends out I think it will be similar to the space landings- but without cold war connotations.

I have also taken the liberty of finding out the odds of CERN confirming the mass window of the Higgs boson at my bookies !  Anyway tomorrow may be an excellent day for physics we will just have to wait and see !



Genetic Racism in Eastern Europe

With Euro2012 going on and problems of racism surfacing in the former USSR it seems there has been a bit of an insurgance to both quell claims of racism and highlight it equally by various parties.  Though not in either host country of Poland or the Ukraine a story reported by Le Monde has highlighted a more pervasive “scientifc ” racism in neghbour Hungary.

Documents have come to light on a Right-wing Hungarian website of a clinic where you can get your genome identified to trace ethnic origins. Some amazing research has lead to the discoveries that 1% of the global population can directly trace their ancestry to Genghis Khan. It has also helped identify the rise and spread of early man.

this New development however is a shocking one in which people can get certified “No Jew/Romany/Other Minority status”. To what ends I would hate to know But the fact that after the destruction of WW2 many scientists made a mass exodus from the brutal phjysics which had enables nuclear munitions ( which arguably shortened the war). It lead to una great growth in life scientists a wider acceptance and appreciation of the natural world we live in.

For these efforts to once again be diverted towards rasist ideals is a horror story that goes to show no matter what happens History will repeat and People will always try to exploit science towards their own means.

This is indicative of why as scientists we have an ethical duty, everyone of us to not promote these ends and ensure the best outcome  of our work. Who knows maybe Im just an Idealist.