Thursday, 5 June 2014

Pint of Science Bristol 2014 summary

The pint of science festival happened a couple of weeks ago. More than 200 talks over 3 nights in 6 countries. The themes covered life sciences, neuroscience, chemistry, physics and Earth sciences. I'll admit that the most frustrating thing about being an organiser was not being able to see some of the other talks. Life Sciences was excellent (if i say so myself) but I was particularly drawn to some of the non-biology topics mainly because I know a lot less about them. One of the talks was on "morphing materials for cars and planes" which sounded a bit like transformers cool.

As I was at the life Sciences event I thought I'd do a quick overview of the three days.

Day one - Matters of the heart (cardiovascular disease). As it was the first day we required a bit more time for setting everything up and working out where to put the tables/chairs. We also had to work out where to put some props such as a microscope and a bowl of fish (more on that later). Things were made a little more stressful when I was suddenly informed that I had to do the introduction (despite being under the impression that was the job of the organiser who put each night together). I wouldn't have minded but being told 30 minutes beforehand without any preparation was a bit unfair. Luckily I had one slide and I winged the rest.
Once Professor Andrew Newbey's lab got started it was smooth sailing as they pretty much ran the event themselves. The night was kicked off with a pub quiz where writing "heart" pretty much guaranteed a point but there were some heart related science questions in there too. I learnt a valuable lesson - never take part in a quiz in an event you are organising (even if you didn't create the quiz). I embarrassingly won and had to withdraw from it as it looked like a fix but it also looked a bit dick-ish to win as well. Lesson learnt.

Professor Newbey's talk ran the whole spectrum of heart disease with general stats to how the heart works and how much it can tolerate thickening of the arteries. This was demonstrated by getting members of the audience to run through a doorway/"artery". When he thickened the artery (by halving the space in the door) we found people got through at the same time by moving quicker and being more organised. He said this was essentially how our own bodies compensate for thickening arteries. Thickening over 50% starts to create problems that the body (and the volunteers) can't compensate for. Adrian then went on to tell us about surgery/"plumbing" but also talked about genetic factors and research into how it may be possible to get the heart to regrow in the cases where heart cells have died. This is where the fish come in as it turns out the zebrafish (the fish of choice for model organisms in research) can regrow its heart when damaged. If we can understand how the fish does this then we may eventually be able to get our own hearts to do so via drugs that mimic the fish mechanisms.

The final part of the evening was a demonstration by paramedic Chris Parsons on how to do CPR properly. He couldn't stress enough how this is the main thing that keeps a person suffering a heart attack alive until drugs/surgery or heart restarts. We also got a demonstration of how anyone can use an AED defibrillator (public access machines that can be found across the UK) which tells you exactly what to do and even has a metronome built in to tell you whether the CPR is too fast or slow. A really clever piece of kit that I'm sure will save more lives as they become more common - and people become more aware of them. I'd definitely recommend seeing if there's one in your local area.

The talks went over really well and I liked how the 2 bar staff became increasingly engrossed in the presentations to the point where they even took part in the CPR demonstrations.

There was also so misplaced "helpfulness" where an audience member took down the sheets we had spent 10 minutes putting up as a projector screen. The idea was to leave it up for all 3 days! The first day had gone quite well giving us hope the rest of the festival could run smoothly too.

Day 2 - Fly fishing for the symptoms of ageing

This one was my baby. I put it together because I really wanted to have a night where model organisms could be highlighted as essential tools in understanding our own bodies and in finding treatments for human disease. There are usually two problems when model organisms are discussed - one is that people can't grasp why the animal studies have any relevance to humans and the second is the ethical issue of such research. That's why I chose Drosophila (fruit fly) and Zebrafish as they seem to be a lot further down the pecking order in terms of the ethical debate and because I had two speakers that could clearly demonstrate their relevance to human disease.
I introduced again but this time I was fully prepared - although far more nervous. The intro went OK and the speakers once again took control once they had the stage.

Dr James Hodge talked about memory and learning in flies.  How do we know flies learn? Researchers give them a maze with two choices one has a smell linked with a negative stimuli. Flies become better at avoiding the route with the smell associated with a negative stimulus. The flies learn. James then showed how this deteriorates with age. He also showed how the flies can be used to model neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and how this is allowing researchers to find genes which interact with the disease and can potentially provide new drug targets. By the end of this talk I don't think there was anyone who doubted how useful flies are in understanding how brains work, decay and how they can be used to help treat human neurological disease.

The second talk was by Dr Chrissy Hammond on how osteoarthritis shares a lot in common with the normal processes involved in embryonic skeletal development. This highlighted another important thing in research in that by understanding basic principles, such as development, we can better understand certain diseases rather than just trying to understand the disease itself. Chrissy went on to  convince us of how the zebrafish was ideal for studying skeletal development (she jokingly pointed out flies don't have bones) as they are transparent during embryonic development. Chrissy gave some examples of genes that have been discovered in fish required for skeletal development that are now known to be present in humans and that the fish is an excellent model for discovering new genes involved in human disease. It's also possible to give zebrafish "arthritis" by meddling with the genes involved in skeletal development. These arthritis models can then be used to test drugs on. An informative and fun talk.

There was supposed to be a memory and co-ordination game called "battle of the ages" but things were running over a bit. Not really a problem as a lot of time was taken up by questions from the audience and as the whole point was to get the public engaging with the scientists the loss of the games was no big deal.

Day 3 - Cancer
You may be noticing a slightly morbid theme connecting the talks but that's the problem when trying to have talks that are obviously useful in terms of Biology. At least they are all about trying to improve things!
I wasn't feeling so well on this day so took more of a backseat.
The evening set off with another pub quiz and there were some facts I was surprised by such as breast cancer being the most common form of cancer despite 50% of the population being "immune" (it is much rarer in men than women). The focus of Professor Paraskeva's talk was on being able to identify risk factors and how to use this knowledge to your advantage eg if your occupation puts you at risk you should let your GP know or cancer that runs in the family. It was also shocking to see how smoking is still killing people every year and given the info from Day 1 on heart disease - smoking really is a form of slow suicide. There were also some shocking examples of diet and cancer that are hard to ignore. Especially when looking at the rates of certain cancers in cultures with low dairy/red meat diets compared to those with high dairy/red meat intake. Luckily Chris emphasised that it's all about moderation eg the sun is good for you, sunburn isn't the same is true of red meat. He finished his talk by discussing the emerging field of personalised medicine where treatment will be based on your own personal genome as some drugs only work on people with a specific genome. Personalised medicine also works in terms of the cancer in that the genome of the cancer is determined and then the best way to kill it can be found. Lastly your genome may have "errors" that increase your risk of certain cancers. If a link between a defective gene and bowel cancer via red meat was found and you had that defective gene then you would know red meat was a really bad idea. The potential of personalised medicine isn't just limited to cancer though but could equally apply to heart, neurological and arthritic disease. It will be exciting to see whether it will transform medicine in the next couple of decades.

After a short break where I got involved in a discussion with an audience member over personalised medicine we had another talk that was focused on actual research. Dr Alexander Greenbough did a great job of drawing an analogy between a cell's recycling and our own recycling habits which I think was pitching things at exactly the right level for a non-scientific audience.

Overall I felt the festival went really well considering it was Bristol's first year at running it. There are a few things we could improve such as trying to reach as large an audience as possible but I think we did well with the time and money we had for promotion. I definitely found the whole experience a rewarding one and actually pretty enjoyable over the actual event itself. I'd definitely have a go at helping organise a future event if I had the opportunity and would encourage any other scientists to get involved if they have the chance. Scientists often complain about funding but if we aren't trying to actually engage with the general public, who ultimately fund a lot of our research via taxes and/or donations, then part of the fault lies with ourselves. If we can convince even a handful of people that what we do is not only relevant but interesting or dare I say exciting then who knows what the long term benefits for scientific research could be.

No comments:

Post a Comment