Leah's Blog

My overdue overview…

After arriving into an unexpectedly summery Aberdeen at lunchtime on Monday we promptly found a Gothic castle-themed bar to get lunch in and for me to have my obligatory calamity. In this case it was leaving my purse in said pub (after only one drink may I add, so no excuse), and then walking the girls halfway across the city in the wrong direction, with all our luggage, in the 26°C heat.

Luckily, we were soon back on track and settled into our home for the week at the Hillhead halls of residence. Despite being some of the better student digs I’ve seen, it was still a shock to find myself back sharing space with 100 other newly arrived student scientists. Luckily, there was a social, with that most rare and wonderful thing: a free bar, to get all of us bursary students acquainted ahead of our science-filled week together.

There were a huge variety of events and talks on during the festival, aimed to give everyone, from toddlers to professionals, something to spark their interest. To get an idea of the breadth of festival this year, and keep up with what might be on next time have a look at the BSF2012 festival timetable and the BSF Newcastle 2013 website.

Below are my highlights of the week, which I intend to publish more detailed blogs about including links to related media, websites and sources of more information.

New Medicines from Nature Right up my street, but also pretty fascinating for anyone who is interested in whether there is any truth in herbal medicines, how we can trawl extreme environments for new chemotherapeutics and antibiotics, and how we can use cannabis for its positive properties, without putting people at risk. Oh, there was a dietician there too, but I think they just let her in ‘for balance’, like the BBC when they let Nick Griffin on Question Time…

Sperm Warfare Nobody will be surprised to learn that this is the talk that I took the most notes at. But only so that I can now forever tell people at parties about the multiple penises of marsupials, copulatory plugs, and chickens who fake their orgasms…

Café Controversial – Never work with children or animals? Should we ever test new drugs on children or animals? It’s always an emotive subject. I think everyone can agree that ideally we wouldn’t have to do either, but we already are, and probably a lot more than you think. I will discuss this in more detail at another time, but here’s something to consider… Most medicines which are licensed for use in humans have only ever been officially tested on adults, which means that almost everything prescribed to children is being used ‘off-label’, or outside of what they are actually licensed for. You might, understandably, find this a little worrying; after all, drugs can sometimes behave very differently in children. The problem is that nobody would put healthy children into clinical trials, so instead doctors have to use the best data available and then make a judgement call as to how exactly they should best treat a sick child.

Parasites and Me Infectious, wiggly and potentially deadly; another session I was totally spellbound by. Two brilliant researchers from the new Molecular Parasitology lab in Glasgow spoke about Malaria and the Sleeping Sickness bug, Trypanosome bruceii, giving not only an elegant overview of their current research, but also the history and complexities of trying to cure and prevent these diseases. They also use talented graphic artist, Edward Ross, to illustrate their work in a comic-book style which really helps to convey information about the diseases they work on and their research projects.

The Xchange Held in the Spiegeltent (a mirror-covered pub/velveteen marquee) this was a daily highlights show and a chance to see some of the big names I might otherwise have missed over a post-lunch beer. Notable interviewees included; Simon Watt, (of Inside Nature’s Giants) on a crusade to save grotesque endangered species, Brian Cox, wishing for the “ability to avoid all bullshit”, Helen Arney, singing an ode to our unloved sun, and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, attempting a ‘meta World record’ by solving a Rubik’s cube whilst reciting the history of previously set Rubik’s cube-related World records. If that makes no sense, then you’ll be glad to know they have a much better blog here, where you can also find the podcasts from each day.

The Ethics and Technology of Seeing Through Clothes Tim Drysdale won the opportunity to give this year’s Brunel Lecture on his research which investigates new types of wave technology which can be used to make highly advanced airport security scanners. This interactive lecture considered the balance between public perceptions and opinions and the potential usefulness of these new technologies to improve a variety of aspects of our lives.

Murder, Mystery and Microscopes “Exit Strategy” The popularity of forensic science in the media has exploded in recent years, but fictional portrayals of forensics are sometimes derided for being unrealistic or rather ‘sexed up’. In this event, Stuart Macbride, a local and extremely popular writer of grizzly crime novels, was commissioned to write a short story, which was then presented in the form of a play following the detectives and forensic experts seeking to solve a murder. Whilst the delivery was light-hearted and humorous the detail and accuracy of the science was enthralling.

Why Do Some People Become Psychopaths? Essi Viding began this impressive and well-balanced lecture by answering her question with four words: “We don’t really know”.  Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the talk, and she went on to outline her work with children who display callous unemotional behavioural traits, and how this can develop during adulthood into true psychopathy. The discussion covered a number of contributing factors including; genetics, brain physiology, behaviour, environment and psychological aspects, and reviewed the current hypotheses and high impact data in the field, as well as public perceptions and media portrayals of this complex disorder. A recent interview with Essi can be found here.

Bubbles; Beyond the Bath Helen Czerski presented ‘a day in the life of an ocean bubble’ with various interesting facts and details about the use of bubbles in everyday life thrown in. I was initially a bit worried about the physics but the frequent references to champagne managed to keep my attention. Helen also has a new BBC TV show to be aired in October in which she will be ‘doing science on an iceberg’. She herself admitted it was a little bit of a gimmick, but that there will still be some interesting demos to watch out for.

What Do Dwarf Elephants Have to do with Climate Change? Victoria Herridge, a bubbly and enthusiastic researcher working at the Natural History Museum presented this seemingly oddly titled Charles Lyell Prize Lecture. So, what have ancient tiny species of elephants got to do with the very topical issue of climate change? Well, climate change has been happening for as long as we have had an atmosphere, it has profound effects on sea levels, and therefore the amount and type of land available to animals. This can lead to species becoming isolated for long periods of time and evolving in unique ways. In general big things get smaller and small things become giant, like the miniature mammoths of Crete which were only a metre tall! These studies help us to predict the effects of modern climate change on the biogeography and biodiversity of our planet, and what we might be able to do to help conserve species, or help them, and ourselves to adapt.

Helping the Developing World to Develop Itself Through Science Many of the problems faced by the developing world do not exist for want of good scientific research; for example currently available anti-retrovirals are extremely effective at controlling the symptoms of AIDS and can stop the spread of the virus. However, cost, availability, education and levels of awareness dictate that HIV still has an unnecessary and catastrophic impact on millions of people – even where income and education is improving. To challenge the biggest issues faced by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable requires multidisciplinary co-operation and the scientists who help to find answers should be just as engaged in managing ways to implement their research in the settings where the breakthroughs are most needed. Find out more at: SciDevNet200 Years in 4 Minutes, and the Millennium Development Goals.

The Real Doomsday 2012 – Cataclysmic Events and Human Extinction A ‘rough guide to the end of the world’ from a science journalist, an evolutionary biologist and an astrophysicist, with some beautiful and apocalyptic poetry thrown in. Why are we obsessed by the end of our existence? When the end comes who will survive? And, when should we expect the asteroid? A no-nonsense, scientific review of the facts and the fiction.

An Audience with Bill Bryson If you are interested in the history of modern science, want something which is easy to understand, requires no specialist knowledge and also tells the human side of research please, please, please read ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. Really….just read it. Also, he told me that he thinks the world needs more virologists…so he has to be a genius.

Cultures Ceilidh How best to celebrate being in Scotland for the Festival? End the week with a ceilidh intermingled with educational and entertaining talks about Scottish culture – the history of ceilidh bands, unusual foot-washing marital rituals of Scottish Isle folk, and massive fire-ball swinging parties. Oh, and not forgetting stovies with oatcakes and a fully stocked bar!

More to come soon…now that I’ve caught up in the lab…

L x

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