education, research, science, The Royal Society for Biology, Uncategorized, University of Sussex

Taking Science To The Public Is Addictive –DNA detectives at the 2018 Brighton Science Festival

My interest in science was fed by occasional documentaries and the hands-on activities at The Science Museum and Natural History museum. Accessible information is now available on every platform, but where do the the youth of Sussex get to join in with hands-on activities?

The Brighton Science Festival

Just under three weeks to go until the Bright Sparks weekend provides hands-on activities at the Brighton Science Festival. And we get to join in! The DNA Detectives – a group of researchers, students and faculty from the University of Sussex School of Life Sciences will be extracting DNA from strawberries and making models of viruses with 100’s of young people.

Thank you to The Royal Society for Biology for sponsorship.

Thank you to researchers, students and faculty for their time.

Thank you to Brighton Science festival for giving us the opportunity to have fun undertaking this important outreach.


education, immunology, microbiology, PEDAGOGY, science, teaching, University of Sussex

Short Burst Activities in Lectures Part 1. Herd Immunity

Short Burst Activities – Introduction.

My teaching philosophy is that the most effective teaching fosters an active participation in learning and in my roles as a University professor and as a leader of outreach activities I consider myself primarily as a learning facilitator.

A worked example makes it easier for others to understand how readily this can be achieved and so I am compiling a series of ‘how to’ guides for ‘Short Burst Activities’ within lecture theatre teaching teaching of Bio-Sciences. Some are very specific but others could be readily adapted to other topics.

I would be greatful for feedback and if you would like me to add your activities to the blog, or add a link to them please contact me.

Part 1. Herd Immunity

Learning Objectives: to illustrate the value of herd immunity (year 1 BSc)


In advance bring a method of identifying a set of students eg napkin on head.

  • Give a set (approx half the class) of napkins to some students in middle of the front row
  • Instructions are to take one and pass backwards (2 minutes)
  • If available give a toy to two students on left hand side to represent vunerable people
  • Set an infection going in one corner of the class (right hand corner in illustration)
  • Instructions are to stand up when infected and to pass the infection by shaking hands with anyone you can reach easily
  • After a couple of minutes you will see that the majority on the right hand side are infected and none on left hand side are
  • If your lecture/teaching space is not full then the immunization will be patchier and the results less clear (as in life)
  • Watch the spread of infection and pause transmission at an early stage to illustrate some herd protection then let it continue to show a poor outcome
  • Then either cluster the students together to re-run or show the diagram of the outcome with good coverage

Screenshot 2017-05-14 16.28.41.png

education, HEA, PEDAGOGY, science

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” – how to increase student’s confidence in their employability skills

My goal is to help students to develop increased confidence in their abilities to think and adapt and by doing this to enhance their employability skills.

Why do it?

The ability to apply prior knowledge to different situations is a skill that is highly valued by employers but the confidence to do this does not come naturally to some students. This will negatively impact on them in employment interviews and when faced with a new task in their first job.

An essential step to becoming an independent researcher requires a transition between simply following a fail-safe set of instructions to being able to adapt a known approach to solve a new problem. During the early days of their research career, many current scientists faced a sink-or-swim situation when they were confronted with a new problem. Although this trial-by-fire is effective at identifying those scientists most capable of making the transition independently, some talented scientists will fall by the wayside simply because they lack confidence in their abilities to adapt.

How did I do it?

I developed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” strategy as a mid-way approach between providing fail-safe instructions and allowing students to sink-or-swim on their own.

To illustrate this approach, first imagine a detailed step-by-step guide to preparing a simple dish – for example glazed carrots. When all of the equipment is listed, all ingredients provided, and every step is described in detail – and in picture form – and probably with a youtube link – no decisions are left for the potential cooks; no recollection of prior skills or adaptation of prior experience is needed to achieve success. A uniform product is produced with no direct supervision needed. If this approach was used in a cookery school, it would provide an economic way to deliver the teaching of glazed carrots but it would miss out on helping students to develop important employability skills.

By using the principles of “Recall, Adapt, Apply” to change the instruction we can dramatically increase the employability skill set that is developed. Before re-writing the recipe we need to know the prior experience of the students. Let’s assume that in a previous session the students learnt how to peel, chop and boil potatoes. Re-writing the recipe for glazed carrots we can simplify the instructions where we expect students to recall information, adapt to the new situation and then apply it. For this example we could ask them to peel the carrots (not stating the equipment required), chop the carrots (not stating which knife or board is required), boil the chopped carrots until tender (not stating the equipment, the amount of water or the timing required), then strain (not stating the equipment required). For the next stage the students in this class have no relevant prior experience, so the amount of butter needs to be stated, as does information on which pan to use to melt it, when to add the sugar how long to heat it and when to combine with the cooked carrots. The “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach delivers the same product of a dish of glazed carrots but it also develops the additional employability skills of problem solving, using your initiative and being self-motivated, organizational skills and an ability to learn and adept.

I trialed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach for a series of practicals undertaken by second year BSc Biomedical Science students at the University of Sussex during 2012-15. I added on-the-spot calculations, analysis and presentation of complex data and required hand-drawn figures illustrating the principle of the method to be drawn during the session.

It worked. An evaluation of the marks obtained for relevant questions during the end-of-year exam were compared with the average for the module and were all higher.

Now try it!

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” is a simple but also a valuable approach. But it takes more work on the part of the teacher and more work on the part of the students so you may not find it to be immediately popular. This year, I intend to measure any difference in student’s confidence with a range of employability skills and their ability to undertake the on-the-spot calculations before and after the teaching. Showing them how their ability increases and how their confidence grows (if it does) should help to sell the value of the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach to them as well as boosting their confidence in their own abilities.

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” can be applied to any STEM practical or project, please let me know your experiences if you decide to try it.

This study was presented at the Higher Education Academy (HEA) conference “Inspire to succeed: Transforming teaching and learning in STEM” 28–29 January 2016

education, science

Taking Science to the public – last minute planning Preparing public engagement for the Brighton Science Festival Bright Sparks event

T minus 2 days. Time to check that everything is in place.

Last minute list:

1. Purchase of strawberries for the DNA extraction. This was a concern with the juxtaposition of the Bright Sparks Event and Valentine’s day – but there were plenty left in the shop.

2. Packaging of the items for lab coat decoration, DNA extraction, and translating DNA.  The smart storage crates have not arrived! On to plan B, we have found some smaller recycled cardboard boxes to replace them.

3. Checking the researchers on the volunteer list. One had to drop out but another volunteered so we have enough researchers on board to run for the whole day.

4. Preparing for the run-through tomorrow. One person identified to lead each activity for the practice. We will run the events tomorrow with the other volunteers acting as the participants so that everyone knows what to expect the next day when 500 visitors arrive!

5. Despite the clipboards and planning lists in hand, we know it will not be smooth sailing on the day so have a “don’t panic –  look in here” box of sellotape, string, blue tack, scissors and wet wipes for emergency repairs. @ASLAB Professor Alison Sinclair’s profile page Sinclair Lab website

education, science

Taking Science To The Public Is Addictive – Time-line for the planning of the public engagement activity “DNA detectives” at the Brighton Science Festival 2015

T minus 12 months. Informal discussions were held about the main content of the activity – decoding the genetic information stored in DNA to generate proteins – and the costs and time commitments required.  The costs were estimated by the organizing team and one member applied for a science outreach grant from the Biochemical Society to fund the activities.

T minus 6 months. The funding was approved! Formalities were dealt with by the organizing team and the Science festival organizers were informed.

T minus 4 months.  Items required for the activities were ordered and stacked ready in the lab.

T minus 4 weeks. It’s all heating up now.

We decided to add a new activity – preparing DNA from strawberries. PhD students trialed this and showed that it was both practical and safe to do in the hectic environment of the Bright Sparks event.

A last minute addition of balloons was suggested to represent the amino acids – tests on researchers showed that yes, it increases fun element – especially the multi-colour spotted ones!

Information for the posters was reviewed, simplified, simplified then simplified again before being sent for printing.

The Brighton Science festival program was published and it looks like Brighton has a very exciting month ahead for to learn about and experience Science.

T minus 3 weeks. The organizing team collected names of Biochemistry and Biomedicine researchers from the University of Sussex who are available to run the activity on the day. A session to run-through the activates was booked and a final to-do list generated:  rota of researchers for the day; University of Sussex T-shirts for presenters; instruction lists for the day; packing session; last-minute purchasing.

So … please come and join the activity – book the date – Saturday 14th February at Hove Park School “Bright Sparks” event as part of the Brighton Science Festival.


Professor Alison Sinclair’s profile page

Sinclair Lab website

education, science

Taking Science To The Public Is Addictive

“Discussing science with the public – what would I say or do?” – is a wary but quite understandable reaction from many academics. These personal encounters are critical to spreading the messages that science is important, science is fun and that science research is still needed. The key challenge that academics face is to overcome our natural hesitancy and have a go.

My first encounter was to take some experiments into a local primary school, very hard work but fun. Two years ago I volunteered myself again, this time for a public engagement activity at the Brighton Science Festival. I formed a team of ten researchers from the University of Sussex Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Group and we led the audience in a piece of performance art, re-enacting the packaging of DNA. Afterwards everyone was eager for more, so with an expanded team we devised some experiments to take to the Brighton Science Festival “Bright Sparks” event the following year. Here we steered people through two hands-on experiments designed to allow them to experience important scientific concepts about DNA and proteins. Again the response from the team was passionate and members of the public left enthusiastic remarks on our comments boards. Now we plan to return in 2015.

The lessons that I learnt from these experiences are that public engagement is possible and it can be fun and informative for all concerned. But what are the secrets of a successful experience? I recommend the following:

  • On own or as a team.

You can engage with the public on your own – groups such as  “Skeptics In The Pub”, “Sunday Assembly”, “University of the Third Age” and “Women’s Institute” arrange talks on a range of subjects and may welcome an approach from you, but for hands-on activities it is more effective to work as a team.

  • Harness enthusiasm.

You need to start it going, but hopefully the team will sustain this.

  • Obtain funding.

Relatively small amounts will help if you want a display or hands-on activity. We started with some money associated with a research grant from the Medical Research Council, followed by funding from the University of Sussex. For 2015 we applied for and were awarded a grant from the Biochemical Society.

  • Organization.

Offer your services to an existing Science Event – they know their audience and have event management experience – you will be free to focus on your area of expertise. Plan your content several months in advance with your team. Expensive research equipment will be of little use to you – don’t even rely on having wi-fi available on the day. I suggest identifying between one and three key concepts that you want to get across and then get inventive, Blue Peter style. Test your ideas and get feedback from nearby non-scientists.

Finally, hold a final planning meeting at least a week in advance and have detailed lists of responsibilities and a time schedule finalized.

  • Be flexible.

After all this detailed planning you will need to be prepared to be flexible on the day, things will go off-schedule and you will have to adapt as you go. If possible have one team member available as a runner to deal with the unexpected glitches.

After the event discuss the feedback with your team, plan any changes for the next time you run it and book in for the following year – once you have experienced public engagement activities you will want more!


Professor Alison Sinclair’s profile page

Sinclair Lab website

cancer, education, research, science

How does a cancer virus take over a cell when it replicates?

Viruses infect all life forms and each virus uses a unique approach to hijack its host cell and turn it into a virus replication factory. The virus that fascinates me, Epstein-Barr virus, infects people and causes cancers that are often fatal. Epstein-Barr virus has a remarkable relationship with people, often infecting infants and persisting within a person for life. During much of this time the virus enters a state of latency within cells and no virus replication occurs. However, once the lytic cycle is reactivated a cascade of viral gene expression ensues, the viral genome is replicated, and then virions are assembled and released, liberating hundreds of copies of virus from each cell. A long-term enigma that puzzled me about Epstein-Barr virus replication was whether the virus exploits some of the approximately 20,000 genes within the human cell to help its replication? Or whether it relies on its own genes and simply reuses the cellular contents as building blocks to generate new virus particles. Together with colleagues at the University of Sussex and collaborators at University College London, London Research Institute and the University of Birmingham, we recently used genome-wide technologies to discover that replication of Epstein-Barr virus causes the reprogramming of 2263 human genes. This provides a strong case in favor of the involvement of human genes in Epstein-Barr virus replication. Probing the mechanism of gene reprogramming identified a route for the regulation of a sub-set of the human genes – through the direct action of a viral protein. This specifically recognizes regions of DNA sometimes located at a gene start and sometimes located hundreds of thousands of nucleotides away.  Research  page @ASLAB