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Cheltenham Science Festival 2015

It was the pleasure for us to return to Cheltenham for the 2015 Science Festival to witness the vast array of events, talks, exhibitions and shows, all put together with the express aim of enticing and engaging the public with fascinating science titbits. This festival is one of the largest and most popular in the UK and boasts a plethora of top name speakers.  The BSI is delighted to be a major sponsor of this festival.  Just going for a walk around the site can lead to bumping into some of the UK’s top scientists and science presenters including Brian Cox, Alice Roberts and Jim Al-Khalili (although my personal favourite encounter was with a life sized replica of a velociraptor that roamed the lunch grounds attempting to steal visitors’ food! – if you don’t believe me, have a look here.

Exhibits and participants at Cheltenham Science Festival 2015

Our attendance kicked off on the first day with an event called “Our Friendly Bacteria” with Fiona Powrie (Oxford), Lindsay Hall (Norwich) and Adam Hart (Gloucester). This fascinating event took a look at the millions of bacteria that call the human body home, examining how this complex ecosystem interacts and affects how our bodies function and what happens when things go wrong.  The packed audience were delighted with the event and many and varied questions followed showed how much this topic had engaged them.  The event also proved popular with reporters, with an accurate and insightful piece appearing in The Times the next day.

We followed this up with a highly topical talk looking how we can potentially use our own immune systems to fight cancer. With news stories from that week listing a plethora of advances in the field, we were sure of a packed house. The event saw David Morgan (Bristol), Gareth Thomas and Juliet Gray (Southampton) come together to discuss how immunotherapy works, what the new areas of research are and the potential impacts of this approach on cancer treatment. Although the event was hit by a few technical glitches, the discussions that ensued were fascinating and showed that the public’s voracious appetite for information on new medical advances.

Our third event saw Daniel Davis from Manchester discuss “The compatibility gene”, taking a look at how a tiny cluster of our 25,000 genes are disproportionately involved in defining who we are, how we fight disease, how our brains are wired and perhaps even how compatible we are with other people.  Using his book of the same name as a template, Dan took the audience on a journey of discovery, highlighting bringing to life the characters and personal stories of the people who made such a contribution to the field.

Finally, Thursday saw our last talk of the week, “Allergies: myth busting”, where Tariq El-Shanawany (Cardiff) and Tracey Brown (Sense About Science) discussed with a full audience what we know and don’t know about allergies.  This event formed the launch of our booklet on “Making Sense of Allergies” with Sense About Science, providing the public with reliable information on what allergies are, what causes them, how allergies are diagnosed as well as busting some of common myths that surround this topic.  As many journalists attend Cheltenham, this proved to be the perfect forum to highlight this project to the press and the speakers were kept busy for an hour beforehand briefing journalists on the intricacies of the project.  Their patience paid off and we were rewarded with national coverage in the papers and on TV and radio, meaning that more people were able to hear about the project and find out how they can access reliable information on allergies. You of course can still download a copy of the booklet for free. 

Speakers, discussion groups and delegates at Cheltenham Science Festival

We finished our week in Cheltenham by running an activity stand in the Discover Zone on Friday and Saturday, in partnership with the Royal Society of Biology and other learned societies.  We ran this for two daytime sessions aimed at school kids and families and also the newly introduced adults only evening session, giving ‘grown-ups’ the opportunity to come along, have a drink, talk science with researchers on the stand and of course have a go at all the activities usually reserved for kids (we had a lot of very enthusiastic, not to mention competitive, antibody designers come through the stand).  You can read more about our time in the Discover Zone in Mihil Patel’s article below.

Overall, our attendance at Cheltenham Science Festival was very productive and allowed us to engage with the public on a whole raft of immunological topics.  Our huge thanks go to all the speakers who took time out of their busy schedules to come and spread their immunological knowledge to the masses.  Thanks also go to our stand volunteers who showed much stamina and cheerfulness to keep going through what proved to be two exceptionally busy days: Theodoros Kapellos (Oxford), Mihil Patel (Cardiff), Samuel Thorburn (London) and Sarah Williams (Staffordshire).

Jennie Evans
Communications Manager, BSI

BSI volunteer Mihil Patel, a first year PHD student at Cardiff University writes about his experience of the event:

As I raced up the M5 on Saturday morning towards Cheltenham, I was somewhat embarrassed that prior to a few months ago, I hadn’t heard of the Cheltenham Science Festival. Having seen pictures, and a list of speakers, I was excited by the unlikely possibility of engaging in scientific discourse with Robert Winston, Brian Cox, Mike Mosley and the other bigwigs of popular science.

After bypassing the congregating public at the entrance, my first challenge was to find the neutrophils in a sample of blood. Using a microscope on a near daily basis, I felt up to the challenge and succeeded. As the doors opened, the eager flowed in and were finally able to quench their intellectual curiosity amongst the smorgasbord of science before them. Like cells following chemokines, the children moved up Cheltenham Town Hall reaching our stall.

I’ve always believed it’s important to fuse the teaching of science and creativity and for it to be more hands-on. It’s how we can get young scientists enthralled by what we do, because textbooks, for all they are worth, just can't do that.

After a brief enough explanation of what neutrophils do (the Pac-man metaphor worked wonderfully), I was pleased that many of them were able to identify the purple stained cells down the microscope.  Amongst the younger children, a simple antibody game was used to demonstrate specificity of antibodies. A tray (representing the body) with different bacteria labeled on to plastic discs was laid out, with only the rhinovirus having metal underneath. The children used a magnet (the antibody) to pick out all the rhinoviruses from the body. Even infants nursery aged children smiled with joy as they rid the body of the cold causing bugs, as mums and dads cheered them on. Our other table was messier as children made antibodies from play dough. A ‘Y’ was made, and different coloured squares stuck to the end to represent the Fab region. We then suggested that the fluffy, googly eyed BSI fridge sticker be the same as the colour of the Fab regions on their antibody. Through colour we were able to explain antigen antibody binding. Again the children were fully engaged and even came up with their own metaphors and analogies. I was not surprised to hear that today was the busiest day of the week. 

Towards mid-afternoon the main hall was packed to the rafters. It was so busy that the stewards had to enforce a limit on the number of people entering the town hall section at any one time. Come the afternoon each volunteer was dealing with two or three children at a time. With my voice exasperated, my throat scratchy and my fingers covered in play dough, the main hall shut at 5pm. I had time to reflect as I consumed gelato on the way back to my car. It was nice to simplify the basic immunological concepts into hands on activities. Even more so, I was pleased that the children were able to understand material that isn’t taught in school until years 9 and 10. I’ve always believed it’s important to fuse the teaching of science and creativity and for it to be more hands-on. It’s how we can get young scientists enthralled by what we do, because textbooks, for all they are worth, just can't do that.

A busy day over, it was time to throttle back down the M5, at 70 miles an hour of course, to catch the second half of the Champions League final and round off a rewarding day.