While we were watching television or pondering what to ask for a Christmas gift, a major breakthrough was reported in November.
Brain organoids or ‘mini brains’ were grown in a laboratory and have produced brain waves similar to that of a premature baby. They are deserving of the name ‘mini brains’ for they are only 4mm across. Prof Alysson Muotri and his team at the University of California used stem cells (which are fascinating because of their ability to turn into other cell types) and added a few special ingredients (like transcription factors) in order to grow these mini brains. But it took ten months for the mini brains to mature enough to produce these brainwave signals. That is a long time. Nevertheless, this advancement could help scientists understand early brain development, which has been near impossible due to the difficulty in getting foetal samples or examining foetuses in utero.
By replicating the early brain, scientists will be able to compare the differences in development, structure and function between normal brains and misfunctioning ones. Thereby leading to the study and hopeful cure of diseases such as epilepsy, autism and other diseases which are thought to occur due to abnormal electrical signalling within the brain.
However, there are some pitfalls. Firstly, just because the electrical activity is similar to that of a premature baby, it does not mean it is the same. Therefore, any results or hypothesis we generate may be instantly invalid. Secondly, to prove that the lab-grown mini brains are the same as a premature baby’s brain will also be a task because very little is known about utero baby brains and how they are wired. There could also be missing key components. So, we do not know for certain whether these brains match premature baby brains in terms of their genetic profile
Many scientists believe that consciousness begins between 24 – 28 weeks post fertilisation due to the fact that this is when the thalamo-cortical complex is developed enough to be able to supposedly generate consciousness. Furthermore, this is also when reflex reactions to harmful stimuli start occurring. This raises an ethical quandary – are the organoids conscious? We can’t really say for sure because we can’t just measure for consciousness. Muotri’s lab is planning on seeing if the organoids mature further and function as a normal cortex by connecting them to organoids of other body parts to see if it functions correctly. He would consider halting the project if there was evidence that the organoids had become self-aware, but right now they are very primitive. “It’s a very grey zone in this stage, and I don’t think anyone has a clear view of the potential of this”.
What are your opinions on this? Do you think we should be conducting this research? The future rewards may be great, but is there a hidden cost?
If this article interested you, then be sure to read my other articles.
I am currently a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Sheffield. I organise and I’m involved in events to spread knowledge and to get people thinking, such as Ted Talks, Change Lab and I’m on the University’s Welfare Committee. I also have a passion for both scientific and fictional writing, so if you know of any opportunities or you want to read more of my pieces, don’t hesitate to contact me via email -firstname.lastname@example.org or my LinkedIn account – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/
Back in November the Huxley Summit was held in London by the British Science Association. It brought together various people in and outside of science, and the theme was the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Revolution. The topics of single use plastics, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic editing were used as a way to explore public opinion and perception, which is central to whether these novel technologies can be adopted. Katherine Mathieson (chief executive of the British Science Association) explores this issue in her review of the Huxley Summit 2018. But scientific engagement strongly affects public opinion. It is therefore worth going back and reviewing key talks of the British Science Festival that represent essential components of good science engagement. I had the pleasure of attending the festival in Hull for the first time back in September, and I did so with our branch’s tardigrade mascot Blu, who had his/her own adventures at the festival!
DIVERSIFY YOUR AUDIENCE (Inspiring women into science, Anne-Marie Imafidon, 11 Sept. 2018)
Diversifying the audience that you are trying to inspire is essential if you want to unleash new talent, skills and perspective. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably already know about the problems that girls and women face in science. While it isn’t just women that we need to encourage and support in science, Anne-Marie’s talk represents the need to diversify your audience. Recognising this need, Anne-Marie co-founded STEMettes, a social enterprise to inspire and support girls into STEM. Her festival talk was a combination of her backstory, identifying the problem, and then talking about STEMettes. She largely focused on inspiring girls into engineering, so we saw a few videos of what some girls had already achieved. For example, by using an algorithm you can programme your own lights to go from study mode to disco mode! Ultimately STEMettes is about changing perception and increasing awareness of girls in science, and boosting their confidence to do it. Diversity is essential both within science and its communication, especially since the latter can influence the former, and with it we get new talent delivering the communication that will shape public opinion.
INSPIRE PEOPLE TOWARDS SCIENCE (What shapes your relationship to science? Professor Louise Archer, 12 Sept. 2018)
Good science communication through any medium will inspire people to continue to seek it out. For example, if it is taught in schools in a way that creates inspiration, it can increase children’s aspirations in science.
In this talk, Prof. Louise Archer described the ASPIRES project she directed that looked into why children either want to go into science or don’t. The idea that some people might not see themselves as a science person means they often don’t go on to become a scientist. It was this principle in their decade-long study of children aged between 10-19 years old that they wanted to address. They identified the factors that affected children’s aspirations and coalesced them together into the concept of science capital. Science capital is basically what shapes your relationship to science. It is about what you know, who you know, how you think and what you do; all of which is affected by your social, cultural and habitus spheres. The best part of this talk was when we got to calculate our own science capital through a series of questions (such as whether we and our parents had science degrees, and hold a science job etc.). We added or subtracted points for questions, and after getting ten points you then had to stand up. After another point milestone you then had to wave your arms around. If I remember correctly, we also had to do a little dance after another milestone! This was a fun and interesting demonstration showing that most of the audience clearly had a high science capital, which would be obvious for a science festival audience! For everyone present it was clear that they had been inspired to aim high, and as a result they have returned to science. This is something that science communicators can capitalise on: Presenting topics in a particular way that grabs people’s attention so that they will want to return.
WIN HEARTS, NOT JUST MINDS (Finding truth: is science enough? Panel chaired by Andy Extance, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication is not just about facts to win people over (just think about the debate on GMO’s that has raged for decades). When it comes to controversial topics, it is quite likely that people will have an emotional investment in particular results. Thus, the question is how can we expect to win people over with facts when they have already made up their minds based on this emotional investment? We can’t, and this talk on finding truth reflects this.
The panel for this debate consisted of Dr Jane Gregory, Dr Jack Stilgoe, Dr Erinna Ochu and was chaired by Andy Extance. As it turns out, the answer to the question of whether science is enough is a lot more complicated than people think. Most of the points made here converged on this due to various factors. For instance, Jane Gregory highlighted that there are different types of knowledge; that some cultures have different priorities on knowledge (e.g. religious). This point was taking a bit further by Erinna Ochu when she said we need to consider emotional truths (aka the emotional investment) even if it doesn’t match up with the facts. (It was at this point when a lady who didn’t believe in climate change walked out of the talk!) As Jack Stilgoe explained, we need to be aware that the media is trying to sell us a particular message, but we need to identify if it is valuable for us and also their motivations behind it. The one point that came through loud and clear is that as scientists we need to respect what people know, how they know it and therefore show more understanding. It is obvious that facts are not enough. We need to work around these other issues. Through this we can win people’s hearts, and then after that use the facts to win their minds.
UNDERSTAND THE PAST TO ADAPT (Changing the face of science engagement Professor John Durant, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication has come along way. There are new mediums, obstacles and challenges, and we need to understand these to make decisions about how we communicate today. John Durant provided a whirlwind tour of the history of science communication starting with the 1980’s. Back then, science communication was one-sided; talking to the audience but not really listening to them, which can come across as patronising. This is not to say that science communication back then was bad. As he described, there were some good things, such as more science books and fellowships. These days science communication has evolved into a two-way dialogue model taking science communication into science engagement. He noted that there are two opposing trends. One is mainstreaming science engagement; the live science, science cafes and events. The other is the inclusivity problem where particular minority groups are excluded. But some cultures had successfully integrated science into them as he explained: At a Native American convention in Montana for instance, there was a science learning tent where they had asked scientists to get involved.
By exploring this past, John gave some science communication recommendations: We need to diversify our engagement into other groups, we need to make our science communication more targeted and private by creating a cultural connection. What is interesting here is that he makes points not too dissimilar to mine: diversifying and creating a cultural connection (which one could argue is part of an emotional connection).
BRINGING IT ALTOGETHER (The Huxley Debate: what do we do about ocean plastics? Panel hosted by Lord David Willetts, 13 Sept. 2018 and Presidential Address: The AI Revolution- hopes, fears and opportunities Professor Jim Al-Khalili, 13 Sept. 2018)
These two talks represent two different ends of the science communication spectrum when considering the above topics. On one side, we have science communication of single use plastics ticking off the majority of my aforementioned points. On the other side we have AI, which as Katherine Mathieson reports has two polarised viewpoints.
The topic of ocean plastics has had some very good science engagement behind it boosting the field, and the talk itself reflects this.
Firstly, the panel itself had a good gender and professional diversity to it capitalising on various skills and talent. The chair was the politician Lord David Willetts. Andy Clarke represented the business sector as the former CEO of Asda. The non-profit sector was represented by Annemarie Nederhoed of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Katy Duke CEO of The Deep came from the interface between science and engagement, and finally Professor Daniel Parsons was the academic. However, science communication has also capitalised on diversity too. It was not just David Attenborough who has spoken about single use plastics. Liz Bonnin has also talked about it on her BBC programme Drowning in Plastic, and the field itself has seen a boom in being communicated to the public.
Secondly, it is these TV shows and the likes of it that have inspired people to ensure that people return to pursue this interest. Katy Duke expressed this herself: “there hasn’t been another environmental crisis that hasn’t gotten this much people engaged”. It has appealed to everyone and moreover, it has won hearts and minds as an important global issue. What is also worth considering (and also what I think draws people back to this topic) is that people can get proactive immediately. They can make informed decisions. Such as whether they should choose tin over plastic foil considering that tin has a carbon footprint seven times higher than that of plastic as Daniel Parsons explained. Annemarie Nederhoed mentioned microfibres and its effects on marine pollution but also how we can mitigate it.
Thirdly, by adapting how we communicate this science we can change it into a dialogue, and this actually happened at the Q&A afterwards. One man spoke passionately about there having been enough feasibility studies and that we should just get on with solutions. But Andy Clarke responded that actually we need to consider the whole model; the consequences of taking action without knowing enough. The perfect example to this is the tin versus plastic choice. A few other panel members highlighted that we do need more research to fill in knowledge gaps, such as the pathway of plastics. Overall the topic of single use plastics has done very well in science communication contributing to public (and global) opinion.
Jim Al Khalili’s talk was the presidential address which was to a packed room. His AI talk was well structured as he outlined its importance, how it is defined, recent breakthroughs (such as Deep Mind) and even fears. As he explained AI is already here and doing a lot of good (e.g. healthcare), and therefore it is vital that the public understand what is happening. According to him, the field is moving so fast that no wonder the public is concerned, but he then went on to address these concerns.
This is clearly a polarised discipline and Katherine Mathieson in her Huxley review recognised this: “In the current political climate, we must acknowledge the two polarised viewpoints that surround AI and gene-editing.” When it comes to inspiring people towards this science, many already see the benefits, but it would appear that people are also drawn to it out of fear (as opposed to a need to protect our planet that single use plastics evokes within us). Understanding the past to adapt, and winning hearts and not just minds seems to be exactly the purpose of the Huxley Debate. All those different factors (emotions, allaying fears, working around ethics and politics, and learning from the past) appear to be well-embedded in her comments: “The things driving the narrative are complicated and full of nuance”; “So, what can we do in our current positions? Having these conversations now is vital…”; “By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we can help propel the world towards a positive future.” Despite the science communication that AI has had recently, it is clear that the field has yet to have the same boost in science communication and engagement that single use plastics has had over the years.
By reviewing some of the British Science Festival talks we are reminded of the essential elements that can change the public’s perception of particular science issues: Diversity capitalises on talent which increases the number of scientists who then go on to do good communication by learning from the past. Through this they inspire the public to return to them, but also establish a rapport of respect with them. In short, by bringing all these issues together effectively we can take science communication and use it for beneficial public understanding. This in turn will affect public opinion on technology, and ultimately acceptance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
About the Author
Danae Dodge finished her PhD at the University of Sheffield many years ago. Currently, she is re-directing herself into science communication. She volunteers for many science charities (which apart from the British Science Association Sheffield branch) includes Sense about Science, the Yorkshire regional branch of the Royal Society of Biology and The Scientista Foundation, USA. You can follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @DanaeDodge
Invasive species are species that are not native to an ecosystem or country. Many have been introduced to the new area by humans, either accidentally or deliberately. There are a whole range of organisms that can be invasive, from animals and plants to tiny micro-organisms. Should we worry about them? Some invasive species can cause damage to the environment, the economy and even harm human health. In the UK alone the control of invasive species costs £1.7 billion every year (1).
Which invasive species do we find in the UK, and how did they get here? According to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, over 3000 species in the UK are listed as invasive. Species have been introduced to the UK from all over the world, excluding Antarctica. They have spread to the UK through a variety of different methods including: escaping from the pet trade, accidental transport in cargo ships, planes, trains, or lorries and even some deliberate introductions to new habitats without consideration of the environmental or economic consequences.
The grey squirrels you see in the local park or garden are descended from North American or Canadian squirrels. They are causing the local extinction of the red squirrel (the UKs native squirrel species) by competing with them for food and transmitting squirrel pox – a deadly disease. They may be colourful, but ring-necked parakeets are also invasive in the UK and can cost the agricultural industry a lot of money by eating their way through ripe fruit. They also carry diseases that can infect chickens and some diseases that can infect humans in close contact.
Invasive species can also be found in aquatic environments. For example, signal crayfish originally from North America are pushing UK species of crayfish towards extinction by competing with them for shelters and spreading disease. Signal crayfish also dig deep burrows that can cause riverbank erosion and even influence flooding. Plants can be just as bad as animals when it comes to the impacts of invasions. Japanese knotweed for example can have structural impacts on both biological communities and habitats. Controlling Japanese knotweed is predicted to cost hundreds of millions of pounds every year around the world.
Scientists study a whole range of topics to help us understand more about invasive species: from studying their DNA, to mapping their range and spread in the new environment, and recording their behaviour. By doing so they assess the impacts invasive species have on the environment, and make predictions about the threats and conservation concerns invasive species can cause.
What can you do to help?
There are lots of different actions you can take if you want to help prevent the spread of invasive species. These range from contributing to citizen science by reporting when and where you detect an invasive species on a mobile application or a website (for example iRecord Ladybird or PlantTracker), to helping out at a local event to eradicate invasive species from an area. It also helps to remember to “Check, Clean and Dry” any equipment that has been in water as aquatic invasive species can be transported on unclean equipment (www.nonnativespecies.org/checkcleandry/).
Dr Bruno Vaz, from the Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, presented his research on the 3rd May 2018 at the University of Sheffield on a newly discovered gene thought to be involved in cancer and ageing.
The gene was identified in three teenage boys all of whom died of liver cancer. This is unusual as this form of cancer is normally only found in over 40s, and triggered as a result of heavy alcohol use. The patients all also exhibited signs of early ageing; muscle wastage, cataracts and joint pains. Suspecting a genetic link, Dr Vaz and his colleagues probed the genetic code of the patients. They identified a gene, SPARTAN (SPRTN) which was defective in all three boys.
Further studies revealed SPRTN is involved in repairing DNA damage. Specifically, it removes proteins that have become stuck to DNA that distort its helical-shape thereby creating a bulky obstacle for important DNA processes. Disruption of these processes means the integrity of the DNA code becomes unstable, and therefore can be easily changed and mutated. In healthy individuals, these protein lesions are rapidly dealt with and mutations are kept in check. However for Dr Vaz’s SPRTN-deficient patients, mutations can build up leading to cancers that could be up to forty years premature.
These protein-DNA deposits arise naturally in the body but they can also be triggered by external stimuli like UV light or chemotherapeutic drugs. It is the link with chemotherapy that makes the discovery of SPRTN exciting for cancer therapy. If cancer drugs owe some of their toxicity to inducing DNA-protein links, then a second drug inhibiting the SPRTN repair pathway of these lesions could significantly improve chemotherapy potency.
Furthermore, even in the absence of chemotherapy, cancer cells are more likely to house more protein-bound DNA than normal cells. This is because of their inherent nature to divide much faster than the average cell. This means that their DNA is more likely to become tangled up in proteins that facilitate the required DNA replication for this process. Targeting cells with more protein-bound DNA using a SPRTN-inhibiting drug may therefore be a way to make cancer therapies more specific, and reduce the well-known side effects of chemotherapy.
Ruby is a Molecular Biology Masters student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the effect of antibiotics and how we may be able to overcome the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance. Ruby has a particular interest in science communication and outreach, and has been volunteering with the BSA since November.
Over 120 different languages are said to be spoken in Sheffield – a fact that reflects the diverse mix of cultures and communities that makes up our city. This can make it challenging to develop a scientific culture that feels inclusive for everyone. As Estrella Luna-Diez, BSA Sheffield volunteer and president of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, explained: “It is known that children who are educated in a second language are four times less likely to pick up science modules in secondary school and therefore end up having a scientific career.” With this in mind, and inspired by watching her son grow up in a bilingual household, she developed the idea for ‘The Science of Multilingualism’. The aim was to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Sheffield whilst exploring the latest research into how speaking foreign tongues develops our brains.
The venue, appropriately, was Weston Park Museum, whose exhibits already showcase Sheffield’s rich cultural tapestry. As soon as visiting families arrived through the door, we gave them a crossword quiz designed by BSA volunteer Shauni McGregor. The answers (all foreign language words such as the Malay word for ‘statue’) had been hidden next to artefacts that described the word and the kids were very enthusiastic in finding them all. Once they had completed the quiz, they then headed upstairs to claim their prizes – only to find even more fun things to do!
We had taken over both of the museum’s upstairs Discovery Rooms and packed them with activities. Our visitors could take part in a real scientific experiment led by Dr Adnane Ez-zizi from the Out of Our Minds group at the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures. “We asked people to do a memory task twice, rehearsing a list of items in their second language the first time and the second time in their native language” he said. “The idea was to show them that working memory performance depends on language since they tend to memorise things better when rehearsing with their first language.” For this task, both native English and native non-English speakers tend to score 90-95% correct answers in their native tongue. Curiously though, when rehearsing the items in their second language, the scores drop to 60% for native English speakers but only 90% in native non-English speakers. “This is probably because most of our non-English participants use English, their second language, on a daily basis. Whereas the native English participants have fewer opportunities to practice their second language, and hence are less fluent than non-English participants in their second language” Adnane explained.
Because context-based learning can be a very effective way of learning foreign languages, we had a range of activity stands where participants could try simple science experiments conducted either in Spanish, Bulgarian, Chinese or Arabic. So when Adnane was not testing people’s memories, he was on the Arabic stand performing simple demonstrations of physics using household items such as oranges, water bottles and balloons. We were also fortunate to be joined by volunteers from the Sheffield Confucius Institute whose activities explored the development of the Chinese printing industry and the engineering principles that allow us to build large structures such as overseas bridges.
At the Spanish activity stand, Margarita Segovia Roldán, who at the time of the event was working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), had brought along some of the subjects of her own research. “We decided to use neuroscience as a topic to teach Spanish – after all, Professor Ramon y Cajal, the ‘father of neuroscience’, was the first Spanish scientist to win a Nobel Prize” she said. “Our visitors viewed brain cell samples under the microscope and learnt how to name them in Spanish. Many people were very impressed by the fact that most of the words are written very similar in English and Spanish!” There were more microscopes at the Bulgarian activity stand too, overseen by Svet Tzokov (who manages the Electron Microscopy Facility at the University of Sheffield). “At the Bulgarian stand we were observing the cells in an onion peel” he said. “The aim was to encourage children to try and look in a more scientific way at things at home, and at the same time for them to learn a little bit about the living cell and its structure. Some of the kids were really fascinated and wouldn’t go away!”
Because learning languages can be hard work, we had also laid out a spread of international delicacies hailing from the native countries of our featured languages. From Chinese spicy bean curd to Spanish chorizo and Bulgarian cheeses – everyone found something new to try!
With so much going on, it had the potential for organised chaos but it all came together thanks to Estrella’s vision and organisational mastery. “I believe the event was a complete success and met all our objectives” she said. “We taught people about the benefits of learning a second language including how your brain benefits from it. It was brilliant to see children from different countries and backgrounds engaging with scientists and having so much fun while learning!” The feedback forms confirmed this, with 100% of the respondents finding the event either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. The event may have only lasted a day, but we hope we inspired many people to have a lifelong love of languages.
With thanks to all the volunteers who helped on the day: Estrella Luna-Diez, Antonio de la Vega de Leon, Margarita Segovia Roldán, Svet Tzokov, Nadeja Tzokova, Villy Hristeva, Shauni McGregor, Rebecca Hollely, Ellen Bradley, Alex Wolfe, Caroline Wood, Xinqun Hu,Feng Ju, Lizhe Wang, Junmin Xiao, Xi Liu, Adnane Ez-zizi, Ahmed MAA Elsheikh and Ahmed MME Azab.
To view more photographs from this event, check out the photo gallery on our Facebook page here.
About the Author
Caroline Wood is a PhD student studying the interactions between parasitic weeds and their hosts at the University of Sheffield. She first became involved with BSA Sheffield when she went along to the launch meeting ‘out of curiosity’ and has been involved in a number of events since. When she isn’t busy with her PhD or the BSA she is trying to learn French – partly inspired by the clear benefits languages have for the brain! She blogs at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can also follow her on Twitter @sciencedestiny