Science is for…everybody!

By Emily Georgiades

The 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, a celebration of the achievements of women across the world.  We took this opportunity to showcase the fantastic contributions women have made to the world of science (would we be where we are today if it wasn’t for Rosalind Franklin?), and to inspire the next generation of budding female scientists!

We gathered a team of scientists from the Gloyn and McCarthy research groups, based jointly at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) and the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, to pay a visit to Headington Prep School to share our knowledge and enthusiasm for genetics by delivering an action packed day of DNA-based activities for girls aged 7 to 9 years.

DNA Bracelets

The year 2 class were the first to get involved, kicking off the day talking about DNA and making DNA bracelets.


The session began with a discussion about DNA:  What is DNA? What structure does it have?  How does our DNA make us different?  We identified interesting characteristics that are genetically determined; the ability to roll your tongue, whether you have a widow’s peak, or attached ear lobes, are all features controlled by your DNA.


Dr. Nylander leading an interactive session to learn all about the importance of DNA.

To get a better understanding of the double-helix DNA molecule and how nucleotides pair together in a gene, we made bracelets representing our favourite gene – insulin!  We used four coloured beads to represent the four nucleotides: Adenosine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine (or more simply A, T, C and G).  The year 2s threaded the beads, pairing A-T and C-G, and carefully knotted the strings to create beautiful helical bracelets which they got to take home and show off to their friends and family.

DNA from strawberries

It was lab coats and goggles on for the year 3s who got stuck into some real laboratory science, extracting DNA from strawberries.  We first discussed how DNA is organised in our cells and the amazing way in which 2 metres of DNA folds itself up to fit into each of the billions of tiny cells in our bodies. Our fact of the day was that if the DNA from all of our cells was stretched out and joined end to end it would reach the moon.


Step 1 of strawberry DNA extraction, squash the strawberries!

Using our strawberry DNA extraction method (a simplified version of the method we use every day in the lab) we broke open the strawberry cells using a detergent mixture to release the DNA and then allowed it to condense into a visible string.  As a reward for completing a successful DNA extraction, the year 3 students were given their own beta-cell toy to take home.


After a successful DNA extraction (as seen by the Beta cell toys), the final task was to draw a scientist.

Folding genome – year 4

In the last session of the day we worked with the year 4 class, looking at how all the genetic material that makes up our genome, can cleverly fold up to fit into a the tiny nucleus of a cell.  There were a number of activities, ranging from origami to virtual reality to demonstrate how important and complex the folding of the genome is.


Photo credit Richard Cave

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BIG Event 2017 Report


The BIG Event is an annual conference held by the “BIG STEM Communicators Network” which focuses on public engagement and science communication. We sent two members of the WTCHG along, and they filed these reports. This one is by Lucy Trelfa, research assistant with the Channon group. 

As a research assistant, I spend most of my working days in the lab running experiments and actively ‘doing science’. When I started getting involved in science fairs in my spare time, I was exposed to another type of doing science that exposed new challenges – public engagement. When I was given the chance to attend the BIG Event 2017, I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed. The BIG Event brings 180 science communicators from across the UK and Europe and this year was held at the Centre for Life, Newcastle. The aim of the 3 day event is to share skills and experiences, develop professional links and keep in touch with the STEM engagement field, together with the promise of wonderful hosts and contributors, and thought-provoking sessions mixed in with fun, interactive demos.

Day one started with a welcome introduction led by Bridget Holligan, the Chair of BIG, and Rachel Mason, the event organiser. I was stunned at the real variety of people there – over 70 organisations were represented, but on top of this, a large proportion of the attendees were new to the event, which felt comforting to know as a first timer. Bridget aptly described the room as her ‘BIG family’, and welcomed the newbies in immediately by buddying them up with a BIG regular. This led us on to the BIG Mingle which certainly lived up to the ‘chaotic’ forewarning given by Rachel. It was probably the busiest networking experience of my life. I found myself running between designated stations in the room, having 5 minutes to introduce myself to the other people waiting there, whilst making a mental note of all the interesting people I wanted to talk to again later. All in all, first impressions of BIG were of high energy, enthusiasm and buckets of passion for STEM subjects.

Then the sessions began. Each one was led by experienced Sci-Commers and ranged from fun displays of electricity, science poetry and magic, to learning opportunities such as how to put together successful exhibits, podcasting tips and unconscious bias awareness. There was plenty of idea sharing, discussion and debate throughout the sessions, which made for some really stimulating conversation. One session that particularly struck a chord with me was ‘Impact – that’s all about hitting stuff, right?’. This outlined what impact in science communications is, how researchers’ work has impact and how we can improve our communications to be more impactful, through collaborations and evaluation. To me, that is the fundamental purpose of science communications – how can we convey science ideas to the general public in a way that will bring about a positive change to them? I left the session feeling inspired to continue working in science and to strive to make those impacts in my own communications career.

A popular highlight of the event is the Best Demo Competition. This is where BIG members compete against one another to show a STEM concept in the form of an entertaining demo, but only have 3 minutes on stage to do so. It’s light-hearted, friendly fun, yet fiercely competitive. Past winners have been decided by the difference of a single vote, so the competition was on! Demos encompassed the weight bearing mechanics of pole fitness, turning fire into ice and making lasers dance, to name a few. Watching the Best Demo competition is where I learned that science communicators are adults, yes, but grown-ups…maybe not! On top of the laughs provided by the contest, the evenings were filled with social activities, with an informal pie and pint in a nearby pub for the first evening, and a sit down dinner at the Centre for Life on the second.

To sum it up, my first experience of the BIG Event and its members was a truly memorable one. What amazing people there are in STEM! I met inspiring, passionate, like-minded people working across fascinating STEM disciplines and I now have a renewed appreciation for the humble post-it note. Many thanks to the BIG committee and the Centre for Life for being bonkers enough to put the BIG Event 2017 together. I was sincerely sad to leave my newfound professional family when the 3 days were over. Would I go again? Definitely.

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Science week at the Headington Preparatory School: DNA is stuff!

By Claire Duff, Antje Grotz & Vibe Nylander


The take home message from British Science Week 2017 at Headington Preparatory School? DNA is stuff – and it is important stuff.

A group of researchers from the Gloyn and McCarthy Teams based jointly at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (WTCHG), visited Headington Preparatory School as part of activities organised for the school’s Science Week, an event co-organised with Brian Mackenwells, the Public Engagement Officer at WTCHG. Throughout the day, researchers introduced children aged 3-11 to DNA  (why it’s cool, fun and important for our wellbeing); and talked about food and exercise (how we need the right type and amount of food, and how exercise can help us stay healthy).

Picture9Girls from year 6 (ages 10-11) were quizzed on how much energy is in carrots, Frosties and pizza (10% of your daily energy requirement in just one slice) – and how much you need to sleep (8 hours for 1 slice of pizza) or exercise (30 min for 1 slice of pizza) to use all this energy.

A very special workshop was planned for the year 3 girls (aged 7-8) in the school lab: DNA extraction from strawberries. After being equipped with lab coats and safety goggles, the exciting practical part started. Smashing the strawberries to break up the cells and release the DNA created a lot of excitement (and was fortunately not as messy as expected). Finally, the girls were really surprised and thrilled when the DNA became visible (with a little help from the DNA extraction mix) and every girl got her own small tube with extracted strawberry DNA to take it home.


Picture13The nursery and reception girls (aged 3-5) were introduced to Boris the beta cell, and his friends Doris the delta cell and Annie the alpha cell. They were really keen on making their own cell, with the help of flower shaped stickers in different colours to build different parts of the cell. All of the cells looked terrific (many cells had extraordinary features such as several nuclei) and together, the girls formed a classic human islet by holding up their self-made cells. In the end, we were even able to attract the attention of the nursery’s resident guinea pig with one of our plush Boris toys.


Picture14The next session was with year 2 (aged 6-7) who were amazed to find out that the DNA in their body could stretch to the moon and back. The children were confidently able to identify that animals were alive but rocks were not. There was more confusion over plants, and a picture of a tomato caused debate as it was declared alive “because it rolls”. However, the girls were quick learners and soon understood that all living things (including tomatoes) contain DNA, which is comprised of four nucleotides that pair in a specific way. The girls then had a great time making a bracelet version of a DNA helix, with each bead of the bracelet representing a different nucleotide.


Picture16We also had a tree of inheritance, where children could place sticky leaves on particular branches, by answering 3 simple questions which represented genetically determined traits: can you roll your tongue, does your hairline form a widow’s peak and are your earlobes attached? The tree was a great way to visually represent the different patterns of inheritance within the class, and the results showed that the least common combination was to be able to roll your tongue, have attached earlobes and no widow’s peak.

After a full day of science fun, the girls correctly stated that ‘DNA was important stuff’ and the researchers returned to their laboratories, exhausted but with a sense of satisfaction that the day had inspired young minds to question the world around them.


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Science Uncovered

Dr. Rose Wilson from the Green lab reports on the group’s experience at the ‘Science Uncovered’ event at the Natural History Museum, London

What does DNA taste like?

img_0470Recently five of us from Catherine Green’s lab group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics went to the Natural History Museum in London to run a stall at the Science Uncovered ‘lates’ night. The late night openings happen regularly but this was a special event with 100s of stalls from researchers all over the country, part of European Researchers’ Night with events across Europe. Driving there with the props we had been crafting during the previous week (I’m sure people had been confused by the balls of wool on my desk!) in the boot of the car, we were full of nervous energy, not quite sure of what to expect….

Thousands of people!

img_0469Our stall was in the ‘beyond our sight’ section, which seemed very appropriate for talking about DNA. The lab works on how cells maintain genome stability whilst undergoing DNA replication, and how DNA Repair processes fix mistakes when they occur. So we focussed on highlighting some of the remarkable features of DNA as a molecule, what kind of damage events DNA is exposed to and how these are repaired.

“If you took all the DNA from one person, how long do you think it would reach?”

“To the sun and back….”

“500 times!!”

“And it would weigh as much as a hamster!”

This was a familiar refrain from the Cath and Lihao double act at our DNA-quiri station where we helped people extract DNA from strawberries with the aid of pineapple juice and rum. Adults (there were some children early on – their parents had to help with this bit) were able to consume this if they wished. In this situation DNA tastes pretty much like a strawberry daiquiri!


Daniela and Elsie also had some fixed slides to look at down a microscope and a DNA jigsaw complete with damaged sections to show how DNA is replicated and why damaged sections particularly cause problems at this time. I was looking after two giant nuclei complete with wool DNA. We had made the nuclei with DNA damage events (beads and clips) to represent the amount of damage each cell typically gets per day, and how well our DNA Damage Response and Repair mechanisms have evolved to be able to find and repair (most) of this damage. We had a Top-Gear style board of the top damage finders – still, those at the top only found about 10% in 1 minute whereas our cells can detect damage within seconds!

All kinds of questions…

The event ran from 4-9pm and all five of us were talking to people constantly, often with a queue – I have never experienced anything like it. We were all pretty wiped out on the way home and any ideas we had of visiting the other stalls were just that. However, it was a small price to pay for such a great evening. We spoke to people from all kinds of backgrounds and everyone was interested in learning something about DNA. I have to say that went for me too, I was amazed at the figures we came up with – I had never sat down and worked it out before.


Most people were keen to link what we were talking about to other things they knew or had come across so we also had interesting discussions about food consumption, cancer risk, disease heritability, mitochondrial disorders – you name it. We also had a lot of fun, and it’s nice to step back every now and again from the minutiae of that western blot you are working on to remember that the natural world, humans, cells are amazing.

Thanks to the organisers at the Natural History Museum and the people who came – we had a great time, I hope you did too. Also thanks to Brian at the WTCHG for helping us out with DNA-quiri recipes and cutting out lots of jigsaw pieces!

Pictures by Prof. Cath Green

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Report on the BIG Event from our DPhil representative

The BIG Event is an annual conference held by the British Interactive Group which focuses on public engagement and science communication. We sent two members of our Public Engagement Committee (the researchers holding the DPhil and Postdoc positions) along, and they filed these reports. This one is by Fang Cao, DPhil student with the Neubauer group. To read the report from our post-doc representative, see our separate report.

I attended the BIG conference, which lasted from July 20th– July 22nd, in Belfast. The three days really sped by – there was so much to see and do! The conference was held at the W5 science centre. This was fitting, as the centre is largely dedicated to introduce children to the sciences, with a large portion serving as a hand on science museum. It was encouraging to learn about public engagement in a centre dedicated to public engagement, watching kids discover dinosaurs, DNA, and how hot air balloons worked.

I arrived a bit late on Wednesday, as our flight was delayed significantly. In the afternoon, we started off with an icebreaker exercise in the foyer to meet the other members at the conference. I was surprised at the number of people from Wellcome Trust centres across the UK, and met many other students. It was incredible to learn about the involvements of the other scientists. For example, one scientist was helping Indonesians achieve their required dietary iron through a transgenic fish. She was simultaneously teaching children in the UK about the fish, and how it was helping save lives.

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Icebreakers in the foyer

After the general meeting, I attended a session on our subconscious bias. The session was geared towards exploring how women are discouraged from the sciences from an early age, or funnelled towards certain career choices. For example, one exercise demonstrated that we think of women when nurses or teachers are mentioned, and men when we hear doctors. The presenters then discussed how women have a harder time being taken seriously in science academia. It was an eye opening session to the challenges that women faced in the sciences. After the session, we had dinner at a local restaurant, where I was able to meet more of the other attendees.

2 women in stem

Discussions on women in STEM

On Thursday, I started off with a presentation called “Learning from Ted”. The speaker, James Soper, discussed with us his thoughts on how TED talks worked, and how they have evolved over the years. He started off with a very funny video that mocked how TED talks have become overly glitzy and dramatic, and are no longer true to how science actually works. (e.g. a lack of framing discoveries in the context of their fields). We discussed how the guidelines for TED were very strict, and how that reflected how we should do our presentations. For example, for TEDx talks, the thesis needed to be submitted 6 months in advance, and first rehearsals needed to occur four months in advance. This showed how well prepared speakers had to be, which James thought was a major reasons why the presentations were so well done. He also emphasised that keeping presentations short was essential – e.g. TED talks were limited to 18 minutes. It was an extremely informative session that taught me a lot about how to present for an audience.

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James Soper performing juggling tricks during his talk about TED

After this session, I attended a Life on Mars workshop, where we played with Lego pieces, and tried to program them to collect soil on Mars. It was extremely fun, being able to work with other students on this hands-on experiment. However, our Lego computer seemed to malfunction, so we were unable to program instructions, and mostly showed off how it could have worked.

4 Legos

Fun with Legos!

In the afternoon, I attended a session on “How not to be Funny”. The session was hosted by Paul McCrory, who has conducted a great deal of research on how to interact with audiences. He demonstrated to us that audiences love “real” moments – things that happen unexpectedly, and were not on a script. He noted that if you reacted lightheartedly, the audience would laugh with you, whereas if you were nervous, then the audience would tense up as well. He also showed how spontaneity and impromptu performance were best, but could only be built over many, many practice sessions. There were also two other speakers at the session, who discussed their experiences working with audiences. For example, one performer found that the audience loved repeated events that they could eventually anticipate. The performer noted how she had a participant do a drum roll at certain moments, and the audience loved this as they were eventually able to anticipate the drum roll. The other performer noted that different audiences reacted to different kinds of humour, and it was important to have all types in a presentation. Kids would laugh at crude or physical humour (e.g. banging your head into a wall), whereas parents appreciated complex verbal humour (e.g. satire or irony). They noted that humour could be difficult, as either you or the audience had to be the butt of the joke, and both had their issues. They proposed that a dual-act might be best, giving you an additional person to engage with.

5 Paul

Dr. Paul McCrory discussing what makes a presentation funny


On Friday, I attended the “Demo Directions” session in the morning, in which we started with several ice-breaking group activities. Several members of the session were seasoned science performers, and helped us investigate how best to engage audiences in our show. For example, if there was a small audience, then putting the members in a circle would help engage everyone. For larger audiences, movement was still a possibility – e.g. having the audience wave their hands in sync, or snap their fingers, or clap along, were all ways to engage the people we were working with. In the afternoon, I briefly attended a session on how to work with young children. It was exciting to learn about how to engage kids of different age groups (e.g. how younger children might like more hands-on, arts & crafts activities, whereas older children may like something more intellectually challenging). The speakers had a great deal of experience engaging in kids from different backgrounds, and promoting STEM activities and clubs in schools. I was able to connect with them as I had previously run STEM after-school activities in the States.

Overall, the conference was extremely enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about public engagement. From how to be funny to an audience to how to craft activities for schoolchildren, I came away with a great toolkit for my future public engagement activities. I was surprised at just how fast the three days passed – time really does fly by when you are having fun!

6 demo demos

Having fun at the demo demonstrations

7 group

Group activities at the demo demonstrations

8 young people

Discussing how to engage young people with presentations


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