Guest post by Harriet Gliddon
PhD Student in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Materials at Imperial College London
I’m really interested in science communication and public engagement, and was keen to run an interactive outreach event that encompassed many different elements of science research. This particular event involved PhD students and Postdocs from Imperial College London and UCL. We are all members of an EPSRC Interdisciplinary Research Centre called i-sense (www.i-sense.org.uk). The aim of our research is identify, monitor and prevent outbreaks of infectious disease much earlier than ever before by combining the millions of symptoms reported online each day (e.g. via Google, Twitter and Facebook) with mobile phone-connected tests.
We targeted our workshop at Biology A-level students who had just finished their AS-Level exams and were beginning to think about applying to university. We made sure the material complemented but did not overlap with the A-level Biology syllabus. The students had learned about pandemics, antimicrobial resistance and a few different types of molecular diagnostics in the preceding year, so they had a really good grasp of some of the topics we talked about.
After introducing who we were (and emphasising that we all had very different academic backgrounds including physics, microbiology, chemical engineering and computing), we got started with the first practical of the day. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA, is one of the most commonly used diagnostic tests in use today and relies on the specificity an antibody has for a particular antigen. Although the students might learn about the technique in class, actually carrying out an ELISA in a school is rare, so this was a unique opportunity that we were able to offer. It was very nerve-wracking because there are lots of ways for it to go wrong, but luckily most of the students got fantastic results from their assays. A few who rushed through the protocol saw perhaps slightly worse results, but learnt a useful lesson in the process!
The ELISA practical enabled the students to appreciate how technically demanding and time consuming running such a test is. We then explained some of the principles behind lateral flow tests and the advantages of using them for point-of-care diagnostics. We showed how we were developing new and more sensitive lateral flow tests using nanomaterials, and showed them an app that could read out results of tests such as our ‘Bio Barcode’ test. The students really enjoyed the combination of biology and diagnostics with mobile technology and engaged really well with this activity.
We then moved on to our collaborations with companies like Google and Twitter and explained how we plan to use Big Data to track the spread of infectious diseases. This was followed by our ‘Wall of Voices’ activity, where students got to ask questions and gave their opinions on our research. This was also our opportunity to get feedback from the students on what they thought of our work. We put a number of questions to the students, asking them whether they thought the presence of a global threat, such as pandemic influenza, affects an individual’s right to privacy. We also wanted to find out how much the students knew about sharing data online and anonymity. We asked them to write their opinions on ‘thought bubbles’, which were then pinned to our Wall of Voices. Fortunately, the students were really forthcoming with their views and we got a really constructive dialogue going in this session. It definitely got us all thinking about our own, and each other’s, work in a new perspective – some of the questions posed by the students were really thought provoking!
We finished the workshop with an open Q&A session, where the students could ask about anything we’d covered, including what it’s like to take on a PhD or work as a scientist.
I’d like to say a huge thanks to Kailey Nolan, Mike Thomas, Claudio Parolo, Candice Keane and Isabel Bennett for all their help with this event. I’d also like to thank the Biochemical Society for providing the funding that made the workshop possible.