On March 21st, the NICB received some visitors that were a little younger than our usual demographic.
Dr Finbarr O’ Sullivan introducing our young visitors to some basic concepts in biology
The students, ranging from 5-8 years old, were from St Vincent’s Boys’ School, a school in the north inner city Dublin. When you have Professor Martin Clynes teaching on a voluntary basis at your school, it’s never too early to get excited about science. As part of a strategic 2020 plan, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is encouraging young people to take STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). Providing interesting, accessible experiments and lab tours to school kids presents a great opportunity to do just that.
Since starting my PhD in 2015, I have learned the value of science communication and outreach. I work in the field of cancer research and ‘nutraceuticals'. I am investigating the biological role of selenium, a trace element found in the diet, in cancer prevention and treatment. My project is funded by Alltech Ireland, a predominantly animal nutrition-based company that has expanded into research in the life sciences. As a scientist, I am regularly asked by friends and family about what the latest breakthroughs in cancer research are, or what I think they should be eating for cancer prevention. With so many claims about nutrition in the media, it’s difficult to glean fact from fiction.
Communication between scientists and the general public is clearly an issue. An analysis of the Irish public’s perceptions of science in society was that STEM subjects were too specialised for them to understand 1. Steps are being taken to address this, including educating scientists about better science communication and scientific outreach programmes. The Science Gallery have a good article on the former called ‘Eight steps to better science communication'. One of the ways in which DCU ensures its research is disseminated to a non-specialist audience is through its competition ‘Tell it Straight’. As a previous Tell it Straight finalist, I can verify its usefulness in communicating new and exciting research to a wider audience. DCU also participate in science outreach programmes (see below for examples). I think that interacting with researchers and visiting laboratories is a great way to inspire young people to pursue science. So, when Professor Clynes asked for a few helping hands to give an interactive tour of the NICB, I jumped on board.
Cells are like Lego
The students and their teachers were welcomed into the NICB and Dr Finbarr O Sullivan gave a quick introductory biology lesson.
Dr Finbarr O’ Sullivan breaking down communication barriers using Lego analogy.
He explained how cells are like Lego, the building blocks that make up all living things. Like Lego pieces, different parts are used to build different things, biological examples being skin, muscle and bone. He also showed them the differences between animal and plant cells and described each cell as a factory, each part having a different job to do.
This mini-lecture prepared them for the next part of the tour with Dr Clair Gallagher, Dr Sandra Roche and postgraduate student Orla Coleman. They showed the students around our laboratories and described what kind of work we do there.
Dr Clair Gallagher explained how we grow cells in the lab, and students were given the opportunity to use microscopes to look at real, live human cells that we grow in-house.
Dr Clair Gallagher giving the students a first-hand look at live cells under the microscope
How clean are your hands?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a particularly favoured part of the tour was using agar plates to see what kind of bacteria may be growing on your hands and comparing washed vs unwashed hands.
Orla Coleman (left and middle) and Dr Sandra Roche (right) explaining how the agar plates will grow bacteria from our hands
These plates, incubated at 37 degrees Celsius to aid any bacterial/fungal growth, were brought in to the school a week later to show the kids the importance of handwashing, likely amidst squeals of horror and delight!
Orla Coleman describing the importance of handwashing
Strawberries - DNA extractions and enzyme reactions
Next on the agenda was a live demonstration of some fun, child-friendly experiments. Postgraduate student Alan Costello and I brought our mini-scientists over to a teaching laboratory on DCU campus, access kindly provided by Professor Jens Ducrée and organised by Dr Barry Byrne, both from the Fraunhofer Project Centre.
Alan Costello and Ali Coyle (me) taking questions from eager students
I explained the concept of DNA as the blueprint necessary to build everything in the body and how all living things have DNA. Then with the aid of my little helpers and a few household items, I demonstrated how we can easily extract DNA from a strawberry.
Ali Coyle demonstrating how to extract DNA from strawberries
Meanwhile, Alan was explaining how catalysts can speed up chemical reactions, using hydrogen peroxide, baker’s yeast and washing up liquid. This child-friendly experiment is often called the elephant's toothpaste experiment.
Alan Costello explaining the background to the experiment
Needless to say, the resulting foam production from the enzymatic reaction between the yeast and the hydrogen peroxide was a big hit with the kids.
Laughter and delight at bubbling enzyme reaction demonstrated by Alan Costello
The day was a great success and the students left with smiles on their faces. The feedback from the school included the following: “Thanks so much to everyone involved in today. The boys were beaming going home! They enjoyed it so much.” Goodie bags were provided by Professor Clynes for their good behaviour…or as blatant bribery to give their accommodating teachers some peace for the rest of the day.
Professor Martin Clynes finishing the NICB tour on a sweet note
Science outreach and communication in a wider context
Science education, particularly at a primary school level, has been a hot topic over the past few years, with scientists and engineers beginning to play a role with informal outreach activities2. Some of the SFI-funded programmes reflect this, including SFI Discover Programme 2018 (just open) and the ‘Discover Primary Science and Maths’ (DPSM). They provide ‘Discover Centres’ throughout Ireland which offer workshops and outreach programmes in STEM subjects and space exploration for primary schools. As part of the Discover programme, SFI is also involved in ‘Cell EXPLORERS’ a science outreach initiative for school children based in NUI Galway. Silicon Republic provides good coverage of recent news on the topic of science communication here. Staying in line with the increased focus on outreach, the NICB is always working to improve communication with the wider community on our work, with examples of this outlined below.
Other DCU science outreach activities
As well as our recent school tour, the NICB has hosted other school tours for international students. We also aim to drive science education in younger generations by taking on several transition year students and Post-Leaving Certificate course students each year. These students don’t just spend the week shadowing postgraduate volunteers, they get stuck into mini-projects of their own to get practical lab experience.
In DCU, the NICB isn’t alone in its science outreach activities. The Biological Research Society (BRS) has teamed up with the Aisling project in Ballymun, an after-school intervention for children and young people in need of support.
The BRS volunteers, Aisling centre students and staff working together to promote interest in science
As part of the BRS committee, I was delighted to be involved in the first BRS outing to the Aisling centre in July, where we brought fun science experiments to the kids, including the ever-popular Coke and Mentos experiment!
The mayhem caused by the coke and Methos ‘explosion’ captured in an instant by Garvan Doherty of BRS.
The NICB also engages with undergraduate students at third level, either as work placements such as DCU’s third-year student INTRA placements or as final year students completing their undergraduate projects. In addition, we are also active in postgraduate training, either as a placement for research projects or for training courses. This is at both national and international levels, with international students conducting research in NICB on Marie-Curie and Erasmus programs. There is a clear willingness of the researchers here in DCU to impart knowledge, incite passion and spark curiosity in students of all ages. This gives me confidence that the upcoming generations in Ireland will be more engaged in science, better communicators and unafraid to ask big questions.
- Science Foundation Ireland – Science in Ireland Barometer, October 2015. An analysis of the Irish public’s perceptions and awareness of STEM in society.
- Education Matters – Forging the future. Science Education at a crossroad III- Science Outreach
I’d like to say a special thanks to all the volunteers who made the NICB tour possible; Dr Finbarr O Sullivan, Dr Sandra Roche, Dr Clair Gallagher, Orla Coleman and Alan Costello. Thank you to Professor Clynes and St Vincent’s Boys School for organising the visit, to Dr Neil Conlon for taking pictures throughout the tour (available on the Flickr channel thanks to Padraig Doolan), to Mairead Callan and Emer Walsh for their behind-the-scenes work coordinating the visit, to Gillian Smith for her assistance on the day and to Interim Director of NICB Dr Donal O’ Gorman for facilitating the visit.