Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Me, myself and I

This is kind of a long update, but it covers everything I've been promising to tell you about since Christmas. Hope it's interesting, it's certainly been fun for me.

So, last term ended up being slightly busier than I’d planned. The science communication stuff has been going really well, I’ve been writing and editing, I did a bunch of talks and co-organised an unconference called SciBarCamb. Then there was the lab work and review essay as part of the PhD course. Plus, naturally, I had to get some baking in there and the intermediate massage course. Hopefully a bit more breathing space in the last term of the year.

Screening cake based on images from my project.

Full details of last terms project will be up shortly and will also be appearing on the Wellcome Trust blog as the next in my series for them describing my rotations. It’s been a lot of fun and I really enjoyed working with the lab, they are also very responsive to bribery by cake, which was very useful for me. That’s what resulted in screening cake. A set of cakes based on images from the yeast genomic screen we’ve been doing.

An image that inspired screening cake

I started writing for the Cambridge University Science Magazine, BlueSci, last term and really enjoyed supplying regular news pieces. Their new committee took over at the start of the year and have been working to improve things further, this meant that I was able to get more involved and have been helping to edit their features articles and getting involved in organising events. I also did a few pieces for them for publication in the student newspaper Varsity. It was really exciting to get to meet all of the founders of the magazine as part of the Issue 20 celebrations, and really inspiring to hear how they are all now involved in professional science communication. We’ve also been doing a lot to promote the magazine across Cambridge, which is always very difficult when the student population is replaced so quickly. I strongly recommend that anyone reading this in Cambridge looks into getting involved with BlueSci, even if you just write a few short news stories.

The cover from the current issue of BlueSci (Issue 20)

The talks were also something I signed up for last term, the Science Roadshow is organised as part of the Science Festival to correspond with Science Week at the end of March and is a great way for the university to engage with children and the local community. I decided it’d be really good to become a part of this and so put forward a talk about cells which covered why cells need compartments and the different compartments they have (which do different things) we also looked at different cell types and how and why they differ. It was pretty challenging stuff but I was really pleased with how engaged the students were, although offering free chocolate does always help. In the end I gave to talk five times at four different schools. They were really well received and I got some great feedback, although I probably need to cram in less content next time. I was really pleased with the success of my Giant Microbes collection, which covers a variety of eukaryotic (complex cells, e.g. animals, plants and fungi, but not bacteria) cell types. The last talk was actually back home, I was really pleased to be asked to go back to my own primary school and give a talk to the older children (Year 5 & 6).

The Schools Roadshow is part of the Cambridge Science Festival held every year on science week
The Giant Cells I used in my talks. From top right: nerve cell, bread yeast, red blood cell, white blood cell, amoeba, stem cell, fat cell, brain cell, sperm cell, egg cell, algae, platelet.

Following all of that, I just got back to Cambridge a few days ago to co-host SciBarCamb, the first event for scientists of its kind here in the UK, following two previous successful SciBarCamps in Canada, one in the US and a BarCamb right here in Cambridge. We are also very excited to hear that this has inspired SciBarCamp Vienna planned for later in the year, and well worth attending if you can. This was an unconference, which is a conference where anyone can propose a session to be included in the timetable which can then be voted on by the attendees. We were really pleased with the success and the attendance of the event, which raised many interesting points, and I am extremely grateful to the rest of the team for letting me get involved in everything, it was a great experience and I learned a lot of things. I may even try and put together a BarCamb of my own once I get more into my PhD. I have already written a more detailed report elsewhere.
SciBarCamb attendees with balloon DNA outside The Eagle pub, where Watson and Crick first announced that they had found the structure of DNA.

The review essay is part of the course, on top of the lab placements. I chose to write mine as a short overview of an illness called Hirschsprung’s disease, which is an illness affecting the digestive system and which commonly occurs with other illnesses, including Down’s syndrome. It is a fascinating model for complex genetic diseases, those that result from the coincidence of many genetic alterations. As it turns out this actually connects well with my first rotation, since Hirschsprung’s seems to be the result of abnormalities in development from neural crest cells. Hirschsprung’s was also the inspiration for my name here, as RET is one of the main genes involved in causing the disease. It was really difficult to balance all of the research involved in this with the lab work but it was very interesting to get to know more about this intriguing subject.

Massage class this term was really interesting, changing from the beginners sessions last term which covered basic Swedish massage of different body parts, we got more into the different styles of massage and the theory underlying it, covering techniques such as reflexology, aromatherapy, sports and Indian head massage as well as focusing of mindfulness and self-awareness exercises. It was all very interesting, although as a scientist you do feel the need to be a little dubious of some of the things they come out with, massage is an alternative therapy afterall, albeit an enjoyable one, just don’t take it all too literally. For added fun, I’ve also been reading Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ this term, which clashed interestingly with massage theory. It was a welcome diversion from everything else that’s been going on, and I strongly recommend it to stressed students, who could do with a few hours enforced relaxation.

All of us on the Wellcome Trust Developmental Biology PhD course with our course organiser Daniel StJohnston and course co-ordiantor Clare Baker at the seminar day.

So that’s pretty much it, I wrapped up last term with the course seminar day. It is a really great part of the course, where everyone comes together to talk about their research. The second years get to talk about what they hope to achieve in their research, whilst the fourth years share what they have achieved. It was fascinating for us to hear about what else is going on in Cambridge, it brings everything to life more to hear it directly from the other students. For the rest of us? Well, we provided the food, it was brilliant, and we rather outdid all expectations providing a whole range of homemade sandwiches and salads for everyone. I was a little annoyed that I didn’t get time to make a cake for the event, but maybe in 2 years time.

For the final term this year I’m continuing my work with cell cytoskeleton and transport within cells, but this time it’s going to mainly be working in flies. I’m also getting involved with writing on developmental biology for The Node and will be attending the British Society of Developmental Biology and British Society of Cell Biology joint Spring Meeting in a few weeks time. I’m really looking forward to going to a real scientific conference and hearing about what everybody is working on. I will of course be reporting back in full on this, in several places.

Life is good.


Eva said...

If I'm remembering correctly, the girl in the flower skirt on the seminar day photo picked up a SciBarCamb flyer (and had a brief chat with me) at the Science Festival. (Which would connect a lot of different things on here, and that's just too coincidental, so I'm a bit skeptical.)

Lab Rat said...

This was actually really useful to catch up with you! Although we should still try and meet for coffee and proper catch up at some point :p I'll be free pretty much every afternoon after the Chemistry A-levels.

Also I've decided I really do want to start writing to BlueSci. Are you the best person to talk to this? Or is nepotism not the way forward and there's some official form I should fill in.