Out and about at Manchester Science Festival #msf13

2 Nov
Ian Russell exploding custard.  Picture taken by Jo Keogh (@Jo_Keogh)

Ian Russell exploding custard.
Picture taken by Jo Keogh (@Jo_Keogh)

Manchester Science Festival is in full swing and I’ve been filling my evenings with some really interesting and fun events. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

21st centaury coffee house: Penny University

This event was in MOSI cafe and involved having a nice sit, having a nice coffee and having a nice listen to some interesting talks. We heard about the science and history of coffee, mummification in the bronze age, ozone and smog (with the aid of oranges), research into cures for cystic fibrosis and the importance of wonder and phenomena in science communication (hence the exploding custard). It was a really interesting event, my only regret is I didn’t buy cake.

Will we ever read minds?

After the 21st century coffee house I popped upstairs in MOSI and went to the lecture from Medical Physisist Dr Heather Williams and Neuroscientist Dr Rebecca Elliott. It was a panel format with questions being asked by Dr Mark Lewney. The answer to the question in the lecture title is: unlikely. It was very interesting to hear from Rebecca and Heather about how the brain works and the different methods used to image and analyse it. A good portion of the lecture was opened up for questions from the floor and their were some great discussions. I learned that the brain can rewire after a brain injury or stroke so that different parts of the brain do tasks they are not usually responsible for. Neuroscience is definitely an exciting area of research – there is so much we still don’t know about how our own brains work.

There was another event on Tuesday I really wanted to go to but unfortunately it clashed with the two above. The Barometer Podcast live looked amazing so I’m really looking forward to it being uploaded.

Girl Geek Dinner

The lovely Heather, aka @alrightPET, speaking about her experiences in science. Photo taken by Alan O'Donohoe (@teknoteacher)

The lovely Heather, aka @alrightPET, speaking about her experiences in science.
Photo taken by Alan O’Donohoe (@teknoteacher)

On Wednesday the Girl Geek Dinner took place in Pizza Hut and it was a fab turnout. There was a really good mix of scientists, technologists and school students. A few of us scientists gave short talks followed by questions and then we all had pizza, a chat and cake. I really enjoyed listening to the other talks which included hearing about the career paths of mathematicians, physicists, web developers, archaeologists, and many more. It was a lovely atmosphere and I really nice way to spend a Wednesday evening,

Bright club

Testing for conciousness: doesn't always incvolve squeezing Tuheen's left breast.

Testing for conciousness: doesn’t always incvolve squeezing Tuheen’s left breast – his words not mine.

Bright Club was amazing! Bright club is always amazing, but this one was particularly amazing. The compare, Sam Gore was hilarious and all the researchers were very funny and, of course, informative. Music (mixed with comedy) was provided by the brilliant Eleanor Morton. Here song about being socially awkward is definitely worth a listen.

Matt explaining the more extreme media views of nuclear power

Matt explaining the more extreme media views of nuclear power

Today I’m heading over to MOSI with ScienceGrrl to chat to people – come say hi if you’re around! I’m also really excited to see the play X and Y on Sunday. Should be a really good week end – I’ll keep you posted!


Wikipedia Editing Day #msf13

29 Oct

Wikipedia-logoWhen I think of Wikipedia I think of my go to place for information. Sure, if I want in depth data on cell biology matters I’ll go to a journal, but if I want to know what years Elizabeth I reigned or who Vanilla Ice is, I go to Wikipedia.

What I don’t ever think about doing is editing Wikipedia. Why would I? Wikipedia is just a place I go to find stuff out.  But on Friday I got chatting to one of the organisers of the Manchester Girl Geeks Wikipedia editing day, which was part of the Manchester Science Festival. As we chatted I realised there were loads of pages on Wikipedia relating to aspects of my PhD that were sadly lacking. It suddenly occurred to me that if they needed changing I should do it myself, instead of waiting for someone else to come along and do it for me. So, I paid the bargainous  £3 and rocked up to Mad Lab to learn all about how to edit Wikipedia. Here’s what I learned:

  1. BE BOLD – one of the main reasons I never thought to edit Wikipedia is because I don’t feel qualified to. I’m not sure why this is – I can fact check as well as the next person and  there are areas that I am, dare I say it, an expert in (mainly pugs in clothes..but still). Despite this I was still I worried I might write something that wasn’t good enough.  It turns out, that’s not worth worrying about because if that does happen, someone will correct it, which brings  us back to the Wikipedia mantra: be bold. Add to the knowledge, if it needs refining someone will do that, leading us perfectly onto the next point…
  2. Wikipedia is a collaboration – I’m used to academia, where nearly everything you write is read, criticised, reread, re-criticised and ultimately improved. Adding info onto everyone’s favourite encyclopaedia seems very final. But it’s not. Wikipedia is a collaboration and actually incorporates the same reviewing tactics of academia but on a much wider scale. Anyone can contribute, edit and add to an article. All you need to do is share knowledge and it will be reviewed by others. You don’t own the article you have written, people will change it. It’s very egalitarian and a very good thing.
  3. Editing Wikipedia is really easy – there is mark up for Wikipedia but it’s extremely simple and makes HTML look like the enigma code. There are loads of features in the editing interface that makes things easy too.  I found the referencing tool really useful.
  4. Not many women edit Wikipedia – I think it was around 10%. This gives Wikipedia a slight gender bias in its tone. This isn’t because all the men got together and thought ‘Let’s all be dead misogynistic in a bid to insidiously undermine women by being in-perceivably macho in our writing style.’ I mean… I presume that didn’t happen, but if you’re a man and that memo did go round do let me know. What it does mean is that over the billions of contributions that make up Wikipedia, around 90% are written by men, so there could be a very slight gender bias, especially in areas relating to men or women specifically. For instance very few female scientists or technologist throughout history have decent pages. So there are two options: either 89% of the male Wikipedia editors stop editing to balance it out or women take to the keyboards and start contributing. I wonder which makes more sense….
  5. There can be beef* on Wikipedia – sometimes people on Wikipedia disagree about stuff. This can lead to editing wars. The constant changing of an article is a really bad thing and compromises the integrity of the encyclopaedia as a whole. To get round this every entry has a ‘Talk’ page, where editors can discuss issues surrounding the article and come to a mutually agreeable edit.  So that’s nice.
  6. You need to be impartial on Wikipedia – it’s not really a place for personal opinions. I guess this is pretty obvious, but I didn’t really think about referencing before. If you create a page, or edit a page, you have to make sure what you write is neutral but also try to incorporate references that are neutral. I created a page for the Manchester Science Festival (which will hopefully be added to) and I realised (i.e. someone explained to me) I couldn’t just use the MSF website for references as it’s not neutral. Instead I used press coverage of previous festivals and websites that weren’t linked to the festival in any way. The one caveat to the ‘no opinions’ rule is that you can state the opinions of others on a matter if it’s referenced to a reliable source.
  7. You need to use common sense when referencing – it’s pretty straight forward if you’re referencing an article about something academic, just use a peer reviewed paper or review. If however, you’re going to write about something that might involve referencing websites and blogs as a source, you need to use your common sense. It’s probably OK to reference the BBC or a blog from a distinguished expert in a given field, but probably not the best idea to reference the gossip column from a red top or some nutter’s personal blog who thinks there’s an overlord race of reptilians controlling us.  So, like I say – it’s just common sense.

Overall I would say the take home message is just get stuck in. Most of us rely on Wikipedia for knowledge, but how many people think about contributing? Why shouldn’t it be you that helps out and contributes? Be bold!

Also there was cake.

Best quote of the day: 'Unlike Wikipedia editing, cutting the cake cannot be undone'

Best quote of the day: ‘Unlike Wikipedia editing, cutting the cake cannot be undone’

*Arguments not meat.

Chroma: Art Meets Science

28 Oct

This weekend was the first of the Science Festival and it didn’t disappoint.  I performed in Science Showoff at MOSI on Friday night, which was an awesome night with a huge turnout. It was really fun, the Science Showoff people were ace and I thought all the other performers were amazing. If you’re ever in a town where there’s a showoff happening I would highly recommend attending or getting involved. On Saturday I went to see science meets art lecture, Chroma, which was a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon and on Sunday I attended the Manchester Girl Geek Wikipedia editing day. I learned a lot in the latter, so much so I’m going to put it in a separate post (coming soon).

Chroma, the arts meets science lecture was a brilliant show. It explored some of the themes in the late Derek Jarman’s book, which he wrote as a homage to colour. The tragic twist in this narrative is that Derek wrote the book as he was going blind due to AIDs related complications. Jenna Ashton discussed the book and talked about the evocative and emotive effects of colour as well as their intrinsic meaning to us. She took us through black into white via each colour in the spectrum.

2013_10_27_22_32_17 (1)Dr. Frank Mair explained the science of colour, from the light spectrum to the production of pigment. For each colour Jenna discussed, Frank had a very cool flash bang-esque demonstration to show how we perceive colour. This was aided by a machine that split the different wavelengths of light like a prism. The resulting different colours were captured using a webcam and fed into a computer with some specialised software that showed the light spectrum being captured. Frank explained that our eyes can detect light with certain wavelengths and when all these wavelengths reach our eyes together they appear white. WP_001652

Different molecules absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others. For instance, chlorophyll is the molecule in plants that is responsible for photosynthesis. It harnesses the energy from most light wavelengths during photosynthesis, but not green light. The wavelengths of green light are therefore reflected and leaves look green to us. The demonstrations for each colour really were something else, here’s an example (please excuse my poor camera skills):

I really liked it when Frank discussed the use of white pigment to depict light in some of his favourite paintings and would have liked to have heard more about that. The show has definitely made me want to read Derek’s book and I feel like I have a better understanding of 2013_10_27_22_34_57the science of colour and light now. This is the second time (possibly even third….I’m not sure!) this show has been run so if it is put on again next year I would definitely recommend going along. Whether art, science or both are of interest to you, I think you’ll enjoy the show. Just be prepared to jump out of your seat when the flash and bangs come into play.

For a sneak peak behind the scenes check out MelancholyScientist‘s post here.

Manchester Science Festival 2013 Launch #msf13

24 Oct

Normally I use this blog to share outreach activities but for the next 10 days I’m going to write about the amazing things going on during the Manchester Science Festival.

Photo by @McrSciFest

A rather lovely binary bracelet.
Photo by @McrSciFest

Last night was the launch of the festival and I went along to help out on a Manchester Girl Geek activity and also donned a rather snazzy badge saying ‘I’m a scientist, chat to me!’

There were a lot of people at the launch and it was a great atmosphere. The Manchester Girl Geek activity was really fun and involved writing a message, converting it to binary and then making a bracelet using beads with either two colours or ‘0’s and ‘1’s. A lot of people left the event sporting new, very stylish, bracelets.

The speeches at the event were great and I particularly enjoyed the speech from the festival partner, Siemens, who stressed the importance of encouraging young people to think about STEM careers and apprenticeships.

A few of us enjoying the event. Photo by @lisamarieke

A few of us enjoying the event.
Photo by @lisamarieke

The highlight of the evening for me was the preview of ‘The Ood Cast: The complete works of Dr. Who’. The actual event is sold out so I was really lucky to get to see it. The show was really good and all the cast were hilarious. Laura was particularly fab – she had an amazing singing voice, was really funny AND did a bongo solo. What more do you want?

I’ll be posting more about the festival over the next week, so let me know about things you’re involved with or really enjoyed in the comments below or tweet me (@bio_fluff) and I’ll give them a mention in my posts. I’m particularly excited about tomorrow, as Science ShowOff is taking place in MOSI. It’s £5 on the door (which goes to charity) and should be an ace night. I’ll be talking about the science of a hangover and you can see the full fabulous line up here. Come along, it should be a great night!

The brilliant Ood Cast Photo by @McrSciFest

The brilliant Ood Cast
Photo by @McrSciFest

Colour in a Cell

5 Jul

coloured in cellThis weekend I’m heading over to  Live from Jodrell Bank. The huge astrophysics centre is turning into a music venue for 2 days to host – amongst others – The Australian Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr and New Order. The real star of the show, however, (pun intended) is the science 😉 . If you’re going to the event be sure to swing by the science arena. They’ll be Science Grrl, The Manchester Immunology Group Worm Wagon and Manchester Girl Geeks. They’re just the ones I know about!

I’ll also be there running the Cell Cookies activities. This time I’ve designed a new hand out which is ‘Colour in a Cell’.

For the colour in sheet click here.

Click here for a sheet with more info on the structures.

I think this is suitable for anyone who likes colouring in! In terms of students maybe 11 – 13 year olds? What do you think? I’d love to get feedback and there’s a comment section below begging to typed in 🙂 .

Going for a mosey around MOSI

15 Mar

Lab coat on, pipette in hand and food colouring at the ready – last Saturday I was sporting a giant badge saying ‘I’m a scientist, talk to me!’ and ready to speak to the good people of Manchester about what it’s like to be a Cell Biologist. The event I was taking part in was run by fabulous Science Grrl in collaboration with Manchester Girl Geeks and it involved several female scientists descending on MOSI to chat to the visitors about what they do for a living. The rather awesome group included archaeologists, chemists, biologists, palaeontologists, geophysicists, material scientists, mathematicians and physicists. I think we definitely showed the scope and variety within science!

The lovely Science Grrls Image from @lisamarieke

The lovely Science Grrls
Image from @lisamarieke

Pikachu! gets the pointy end of a needle in the name of science.

Pikachu! gets the pointy end of a needle in the name of science.

I kicked off the day by helping out in a Manchester Girl Geek workshop called soft electronics. I‘d never come across this before but it turns out you can buy conductive tread that allows you to sew circuits into material. There was some ace customisation going on in the workshop including indicators sewn onto cycling gear, T-shirt designs and some ScienceGrrl/Manchester Science Festival bag personalisation. Katie Stecks (@Stecks) provided some adorable stuff toys to act as pin cushions but pointed out we shouldn’t feel too bad about sticking needles in them. She revealed photographic evidence showing several had been caught up to no good, including tax evasion and using the last of her ketchup. Shocking behaviour. I still felt bad for Pikachu though.

My trusty pipette!

My trusty pipette!

Next up I did some rounds walking through MOSI. Whilst trying not to get distracted by the exhibits and activities I got chatting to a lot of people of all ages. All the Science Grrls had brought along pieces of gear from their research and I brought my trusty micro-pipette.  Six to 60 years olds – everyone seemed quite keen to have a go pipetting my blue and yellow food colouring. I got smaller children to guess what colour blue and yellow would make if we mixed them together by pipetting. With older children and adults we compared 20μl to 5μl, which showed how accurate the micropipettes are.

After wondering into the main hall it was time to do a stint on the science soap box, telling passers by what my research is all about. I must admit I was a little nervous – I don’t mind public speaking but getting up on a soap box and just starting to talk seemed a quite daunting. With some encouragement from the other Science Grrls I got up and did my bit. I’m so glad I did – people sitting near genuinely seem interested!

With a few more laps round the museum the day was drawing to a close. By the time MOSI was about to shut I had to be nearly dragged from a conversation with two teenage girls. They were thinking of doing triple science at GCSE. They weren’t sure because they didn’t know if they were good enough at physics and they’d been moved down to set 2. I told them about my experiences at school studying triple science (generally good!) and  how I know people who were in set 3 for science at school and went on to study Biology at The University of Manchester. Hopefully the girls will make the decision that is best for them but it was a great way to end the day, especially as organisations like Science Grrl and Manchester Girl Geeks are all about building young girls confidence in their ability to do science. To be part of day where we could go out and show people that science is for everyone was a fantastic experience.

Images from Science Grrl and Manchester Girl Geek websites (see below)

Images from Science Grrl and Manchester Girl Geek websites (see below)

Check out the sites for Manchester Girl Geeks and Science Grrl and or follow them on twitter/facebook:

Science Grrl 


Twiter: @Science_Grrl

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SciGrrl

Manchester Girl Geeks


Twitter: @mcrgirlgeeks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/McrGirlGeeks

Pharmacology Activity: Drug Testing

20 Feb

Back in October I ran some workshops relating to careers in Bio-Sciences. Each activity we did related to a particular degree programme and this one was all about Pharmacology.

MP900337294As I’m sure you can appreciate I didn’t want to test any drugs that could be deemed even vaguely dangerous…imagine the risk assessments *shudder*. So, to maintain a balance between real world applications and safety we tested the effectiveness of some ‘new compounds’ that a drugs company were thinking of introducing into the market to treat heartburn. These new drug candidates were in fact Boots bog standard antacids mixed with varying amounts of Trebor XXXX mints.


After discussing stomach acid, heartburn and how antacids worked the students had to test out the drug candidates. Once the students had tested the drug candidates’ effectiveness they had to make a recommendation as to which one a pharmaceutical company should use in their new antacid drug.

If you want to do this activity you will need:

  • Antacids.
  • Chalky mints.CIMG1566
  • Something to crush the above. I used a pestle and mortar. Now anything else I try to crush in it tastes minty.
  • Around 0.5-1ml of Aspall White Wine vinegar per test – it’s a really dilute, weak acid so works very well and much more reproducible than making up dilute acid in different schools.
  • Something to put the 1ml of vinegar in (I used eppendorf tubes), preferably with a lid so it can be inverted with solution in.
  • pH indicator strips – must be pH scale not litmus paper (we used some Whatman ones my supervisor let me swipe from lab). The change in pH isn’t dramatic enough to be detected by litmus paper as the tablets are just a buffer and won’t turn the solution into an alkali. I think you could use pH indicator solution as well if the students only add a tiny drop, but using the strips is quite fun.
  • A worksheet the students can write the pH of the acid before and after the addition of drug and jot down the recommendations to the drug company on which compound to use in their antacid.
Eppendorf Tube

Eppendorf Tube

Step 1. (Prep) Crush the antacids and mints. Make three mixes: 1) Equal mix of antacid and mints 2) Just mints and 3) Just antacids. Pre-measure them (although you could get the students to do this – we were short on time) and separate them into labelled tubes. We gave each group 3 eppendorf tubes about a quarter full of containing one of each mix.

Step 2. (Prep) Pre-measure out the vinegar into whatever you’re using to hold it , we used eppendorfs*. Each group will need 3 tubes of vinegar.

Step 3. The students need to measure the pH of the ‘acid’ before. They only need to do this with one.

Step 4. Tip the drug candidates into the acid and invert several times.

Step 5. Measure the pH after addition of drug candidates and based on their findings students can write their recommendation to the Pharmaceutical company as to which compound is most effective.

The only word of caution I would give in this practical is the vinegar is pretty pongy. Also, the mints quite clearly smell like mints so if anyone has suggestions for something else to use it would be greatly appreciated!

*If you choose to use eppendorfs like us, consider piercing a hole in the top and telling the students to protect their fingers with a piece of blue roll/tissue when inverting the tube.  We didn’t do this on the first session and I’d forgotten that mixing acid with a carbonate base will produce H2O and CO2 (D’Oh! Basic Chemistry). The CO2 causes pressure build up and the eppendorf pops open (for the Biologists reading this – the same way they pop when you over boil gel samples). This was actually fine – the teacher found it funny and the students loved it, plus we talked about the reaction and pressure but it isn’t actually relevant for this practical. If you wanted to demonstrate how the gas is produced in this reaction for a chemistry practical however, this would work really well!