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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!


Mini-Beasts Microbiology Activity

20 Jan

This activity was part of the workshops I ran back in October and it was my mini-beastsfavourite practical in the session. During the workshops each activity was related to a university degree course and this one was related to Microbiology. It involves viewing protozoa, nematodes and algae under a microscope and it’s a real crowd pleaser. I had two cultures, one enriched with algae and the other enriched with protozoa.

First we discussed the different types of single-celled organisms and I explained that we had protazoa and algae (plus a few nematodes – not single-celled!), which are a lot larger than bacteria and viruses. The students were given microscopes slides labelled A and B. On the white board/powerpoint there were numbered pictures of organisms that could be seen in either of the samples.  The students had to identify which organisms from the board were in which sample.

A colleague told me about the cultures you can buy from this great company, MP900439410sciento. They’re really reasonably priced but it’s still probably more than most schools would pay for what would only be one or two experiments. This means the chances of the students having seen something similar are quite slim. They look great on most school microscopes but if you are taking this activity into a school, rather than doing it with your own microscopes, ask if you can use their best ones. In one school we used their KS3 (as opposed to KS4) and although they still looked ok, it wasn’t as amazing as when we used KS4 microscopes.

These are the cultures I used in this activity, which allowed me to have two distinct samples for the students could compare:

If you don’t need two different samples this mixed culture is visible under school microscopes and is a bit cheaper:

The algae are beautiful, colourful in all shapes and sizes. The protozoa really move around a lot, which is great to watch!

I’ve also done other Cell Biology themed workshops at university with these cultures where KS3 students used university microscopes to visualise these as examples of single-celled organisms (the protozoa do have nematodes in though) and compared them to bacteria and their own cheek cells.

Whatever you decide to do with these cultures, they are lovely to use and can really enthuse students about Biology.

Working on Workshops

30 Dec

It’s been a very long time since I posted but the ol’ PhD work has been catching up with me of late (I’m now in my fourth and final year –eek!). I do want to put out a series of posts about some workshops I ran back in October though, before the final months in lab and the writing up takes hold.

The workshop was funded by the Biochemical Society and involved several small but exciting Biology practicals coupled with short videos of people who’ve studies Bio-sciences (see this earlier post). The aim of the workshop was to enthuse students about science and help them see a link between a subject they enjoy, higher education and a possible real world career. The students competed for points and during the activities and the team at the end with the most points won.

During the introduction I wanted to challenge the view of what a scientist looks like so I got the groups to describe a typical scientist. In every workshop, with a bit of directed questioning, each group described the carton on the right. scientist stereotype and nickI explained that scientists don’t look like this. Then showed a picture of my friend @Nick_A_Johnson (with his permission of course) and that got a laugh. More importantly though I wanted to make the point some scientists do have crazy hair and glasses but equally some don’t. Some are fat, some are thin. Some are old, some are young. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are – it’s your ability to think and enjoy science that matters. I then went on to point out they would see lots of different types of people who studied science in the videos throughout the workshop and this would also help them get an idea of some of the jobs available for those who go into Biology.

There were several activities in the workshop, which I will post about individually in case you want to try them, but here I will highlight a few things I learnt while running this style of workshop:

Workshops have a different atmosphere when you’re in school.

I’m used to running workshops and sessions in the university or museum, where you’re on your own turf. Often as a result the students are a little out of their comfort zone and impressed by their surroundings. The upshot is they’re much more likely to behave. I didn’t have any huge behaviour issues in my sessions but I soon realised the students are a bit more relaxed and a lot more chatty when you’re in their territory (school) and I needed to approach things slightly differently.

Advice: If you’re in a similar position (i.e. a researcher going out into schools to run a workshops or activity) establish the rules at the start of the session. Something that worked well for me was to tell the students at the start of the session that when I raised my arm I needed them to be quiet and listen for instructions. If they couldn’t hear the instructions then we wouldn’t get through as much fun stuff. Whenever I did this, students would see and tell their team mates to be quiet. I did plan on deducting points for teams that were talking but luckily the arm up technique worked really well and it never came to that

Start the session with your strongest activity

This sound like a no brainer, but in my first session I saved my favourite activity until the end as a treat. What I realised was that the students were the most animated and enthusiastic during this activity and if I had put it at the start it would have really set a nice tone for the rest of the workshop. I changed the running order for the following workshops and it really made a difference. The students were equally enthusiastic about some of the later activities that were less hands-on because their attitude to the whole workshop was very positive.

Advice: If you’re doing a workshop with lots of activities pick your strongest activity and put it at the start of the session. Also, don’t talk for too long at the start – get them up and doing something. If the students have to sit and listen for too long they might zone out. Obviously you need an introduction and a background to the science, but you can go into further detail and engage the students in discussion throughout the workshop. I find a ten minute introduction with plenty of questions to keep the students engaged usually works well.


I do think there are some things that are incredibly difficult to evaluate from a one off workshop, particularly in relation to long lasting effects upon students’ perceptions of science and HE. There are however, really practical things you can get pointers on. For example, after my first workshop the feedback was that there were too many videos (seven in total originally) and that the last activity was their favourite. This meant I had feedback I could put into practice and improve the workshop. I reduced the number of videos in subsequent workshops and as a result the feedback about them changed to become very positive. In my experience negative feedback is almost always constructive and can be really helpful. Plus any positive feedback you might get is always lovely to read!

I also found when evaluating the students’ opinions on things like HE and science I should have used more close ended questions, where you pick an option, rather than open ended questions where you write an opinion. Using the latter meant although they were interesting, the answers were difficult to analyse.

Advice: Evaluate as much as possible and put the feedback into practice. Think carefully about the questions you’re asking beforehand and how you’ll be able to use the answers.

So I think that’s everything I can think of in terms of general things I’ve learned from running the outreach workshops. The workshops were so much fun to run and the students seem to really enjoy them. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in going into schools to get involved – most schools are really happy when researchers are willing to come out to them. If you’re interested in funding an activity both the Biochemical Society (click here) and Physiology Society (click here) offer funding for these types of events.

All of this post is based on my personal experience and different approaches work for different people. So do you have any experiences and advice you’d like to share? Comment below!


27 Feb

What can you do with a Bio-Science degree? As I’m in the third year of a four year PhD, it’s a question I OFTEN ask myself. If I’m not 100% sure of the career options in Biology, how is a 15 year old school student supposed to know? Hopefully the BioPathways videos will help students make the link between a Biology degree  (or any other degree for that matter) and a future career.

I recently filmed some short interviews with science graduates who’ve gone into different types of careers. The videos are designed to be used in a workshop I’m developing called BioPathways. The workshop will go into schools and involves short, exciting Biology practicals, which will be coupled with these videos. Hopefully it will help the school students see a link between a subject they enjoy and a career they can pursue one day. The worhop and the video have been funded by the Biochemical Society. Here they are;