Science Uncovered

Dr. Rose Wilson from the Green lab reports on the group’s experience at the ‘Science Uncovered’ event at the Natural History Museum, London

What does DNA taste like?

img_0470Recently five of us from Catherine Green’s lab group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics went to the Natural History Museum in London to run a stall at the Science Uncovered ‘lates’ night. The late night openings happen regularly but this was a special event with 100s of stalls from researchers all over the country, part of European Researchers’ Night with events across Europe. Driving there with the props we had been crafting during the previous week (I’m sure people had been confused by the balls of wool on my desk!) in the boot of the car, we were full of nervous energy, not quite sure of what to expect….

Thousands of people!

img_0469Our stall was in the ‘beyond our sight’ section, which seemed very appropriate for talking about DNA. The lab works on how cells maintain genome stability whilst undergoing DNA replication, and how DNA Repair processes fix mistakes when they occur. So we focussed on highlighting some of the remarkable features of DNA as a molecule, what kind of damage events DNA is exposed to and how these are repaired.

“If you took all the DNA from one person, how long do you think it would reach?”

“To the sun and back….”

“500 times!!”

“And it would weigh as much as a hamster!”

This was a familiar refrain from the Cath and Lihao double act at our DNA-quiri station where we helped people extract DNA from strawberries with the aid of pineapple juice and rum. Adults (there were some children early on – their parents had to help with this bit) were able to consume this if they wished. In this situation DNA tastes pretty much like a strawberry daiquiri!


Daniela and Elsie also had some fixed slides to look at down a microscope and a DNA jigsaw complete with damaged sections to show how DNA is replicated and why damaged sections particularly cause problems at this time. I was looking after two giant nuclei complete with wool DNA. We had made the nuclei with DNA damage events (beads and clips) to represent the amount of damage each cell typically gets per day, and how well our DNA Damage Response and Repair mechanisms have evolved to be able to find and repair (most) of this damage. We had a Top-Gear style board of the top damage finders – still, those at the top only found about 10% in 1 minute whereas our cells can detect damage within seconds!

All kinds of questions…

The event ran from 4-9pm and all five of us were talking to people constantly, often with a queue – I have never experienced anything like it. We were all pretty wiped out on the way home and any ideas we had of visiting the other stalls were just that. However, it was a small price to pay for such a great evening. We spoke to people from all kinds of backgrounds and everyone was interested in learning something about DNA. I have to say that went for me too, I was amazed at the figures we came up with – I had never sat down and worked it out before.


Most people were keen to link what we were talking about to other things they knew or had come across so we also had interesting discussions about food consumption, cancer risk, disease heritability, mitochondrial disorders – you name it. We also had a lot of fun, and it’s nice to step back every now and again from the minutiae of that western blot you are working on to remember that the natural world, humans, cells are amazing.

Thanks to the organisers at the Natural History Museum and the people who came – we had a great time, I hope you did too. Also thanks to Brian at the WTCHG for helping us out with DNA-quiri recipes and cutting out lots of jigsaw pieces!

Pictures by Prof. Cath Green

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Report on the BIG Event from our DPhil representative

The BIG Event is an annual conference held by the British Interactive Group which focuses on public engagement and science communication. We sent two members of our Public Engagement Committee (the researchers holding the DPhil and Postdoc positions) along, and they filed these reports. This one is by Fang Cao, DPhil student with the Neubauer group. To read the report from our post-doc representative, see our separate report.

I attended the BIG conference, which lasted from July 20th– July 22nd, in Belfast. The three days really sped by – there was so much to see and do! The conference was held at the W5 science centre. This was fitting, as the centre is largely dedicated to introduce children to the sciences, with a large portion serving as a hand on science museum. It was encouraging to learn about public engagement in a centre dedicated to public engagement, watching kids discover dinosaurs, DNA, and how hot air balloons worked.

I arrived a bit late on Wednesday, as our flight was delayed significantly. In the afternoon, we started off with an icebreaker exercise in the foyer to meet the other members at the conference. I was surprised at the number of people from Wellcome Trust centres across the UK, and met many other students. It was incredible to learn about the involvements of the other scientists. For example, one scientist was helping Indonesians achieve their required dietary iron through a transgenic fish. She was simultaneously teaching children in the UK about the fish, and how it was helping save lives.

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Icebreakers in the foyer

After the general meeting, I attended a session on our subconscious bias. The session was geared towards exploring how women are discouraged from the sciences from an early age, or funnelled towards certain career choices. For example, one exercise demonstrated that we think of women when nurses or teachers are mentioned, and men when we hear doctors. The presenters then discussed how women have a harder time being taken seriously in science academia. It was an eye opening session to the challenges that women faced in the sciences. After the session, we had dinner at a local restaurant, where I was able to meet more of the other attendees.

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Discussions on women in STEM

On Thursday, I started off with a presentation called “Learning from Ted”. The speaker, James Soper, discussed with us his thoughts on how TED talks worked, and how they have evolved over the years. He started off with a very funny video that mocked how TED talks have become overly glitzy and dramatic, and are no longer true to how science actually works. (e.g. a lack of framing discoveries in the context of their fields). We discussed how the guidelines for TED were very strict, and how that reflected how we should do our presentations. For example, for TEDx talks, the thesis needed to be submitted 6 months in advance, and first rehearsals needed to occur four months in advance. This showed how well prepared speakers had to be, which James thought was a major reasons why the presentations were so well done. He also emphasised that keeping presentations short was essential – e.g. TED talks were limited to 18 minutes. It was an extremely informative session that taught me a lot about how to present for an audience.

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James Soper performing juggling tricks during his talk about TED

After this session, I attended a Life on Mars workshop, where we played with Lego pieces, and tried to program them to collect soil on Mars. It was extremely fun, being able to work with other students on this hands-on experiment. However, our Lego computer seemed to malfunction, so we were unable to program instructions, and mostly showed off how it could have worked.

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Fun with Legos!

In the afternoon, I attended a session on “How not to be Funny”. The session was hosted by Paul McCrory, who has conducted a great deal of research on how to interact with audiences. He demonstrated to us that audiences love “real” moments – things that happen unexpectedly, and were not on a script. He noted that if you reacted lightheartedly, the audience would laugh with you, whereas if you were nervous, then the audience would tense up as well. He also showed how spontaneity and impromptu performance were best, but could only be built over many, many practice sessions. There were also two other speakers at the session, who discussed their experiences working with audiences. For example, one performer found that the audience loved repeated events that they could eventually anticipate. The performer noted how she had a participant do a drum roll at certain moments, and the audience loved this as they were eventually able to anticipate the drum roll. The other performer noted that different audiences reacted to different kinds of humour, and it was important to have all types in a presentation. Kids would laugh at crude or physical humour (e.g. banging your head into a wall), whereas parents appreciated complex verbal humour (e.g. satire or irony). They noted that humour could be difficult, as either you or the audience had to be the butt of the joke, and both had their issues. They proposed that a dual-act might be best, giving you an additional person to engage with.

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Dr. Paul McCrory discussing what makes a presentation funny


On Friday, I attended the “Demo Directions” session in the morning, in which we started with several ice-breaking group activities. Several members of the session were seasoned science performers, and helped us investigate how best to engage audiences in our show. For example, if there was a small audience, then putting the members in a circle would help engage everyone. For larger audiences, movement was still a possibility – e.g. having the audience wave their hands in sync, or snap their fingers, or clap along, were all ways to engage the people we were working with. In the afternoon, I briefly attended a session on how to work with young children. It was exciting to learn about how to engage kids of different age groups (e.g. how younger children might like more hands-on, arts & crafts activities, whereas older children may like something more intellectually challenging). The speakers had a great deal of experience engaging in kids from different backgrounds, and promoting STEM activities and clubs in schools. I was able to connect with them as I had previously run STEM after-school activities in the States.

Overall, the conference was extremely enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about public engagement. From how to be funny to an audience to how to craft activities for schoolchildren, I came away with a great toolkit for my future public engagement activities. I was surprised at just how fast the three days passed – time really does fly by when you are having fun!

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Having fun at the demo demonstrations

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Group activities at the demo demonstrations

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Discussing how to engage young people with presentations


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Teaming up human genetics with state-of-the art technologies to beat diabetes

The theme for this year’s World Health Day is ‘Beat Diabetes’, so two researchers in the Anna Gloyn group, Katia Mattis and Fernando Abaitua – jointly based at the Wellcome Trust Centre For Human Genetics and the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism – write about their research into diabetes.


This year’s World Health Day theme is ‘Beat Diabetes’. The campaign’s main goal is to raise awareness about the sustained increase of diabetes and its economic burden on society.

The International Diabetes Federation estimates that currently 415 million people worldwide have diabetes, which accounts for almost 9% of the population, and it predicts this number will double over the next 20 years. Diabetes consists of a group of metabolic diseases which develop when the body does not generate enough insulin, or is unable to use insulin. Consequently, blood glucose levels rise, which in turn can lead to damage of key organs in the body including the heart, kidneys, nerves and eyes. If diabetes is not well managed it can led to premature death. In fact, in the UK alone, poorly managed diabetes is responsible for more than 100 amputations a week and about 24,000 early deaths per year. In addition, the cost of treating diabetes and its complications amounts to greater than 10% of the NHS budget; every minute £25,000 are being spent on diabetes care.

The most prevalent form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes (T2D) which accounts for over 90% of all diabetes cases. It used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, but is worryingly increasing in adolescents and children. The precise causes for its development are not completely understood, but genetic and environmental factors play a major role in disease risk. In recent years, international consortia, led by principal investigators within our Centre, have conducted genome-wide association studies that have identified over 100 regions of the human genome, which influence an individual’s risk of developing T2D. One of the greatest challenges now is to understand how these genetic changes affect the insulin producing beta cells of the pancreas and cause their dysfunction. Since it is tricky to get hold of human pancreatic cells and even more difficult to manipulate them, novel cellular models are needed so that the impact of DNA sequence variants on beta-cell function can be investigated.

To tackle these challenges, our research teams are combining human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and genome engineering. iPSCs are a type of cell that can be derived directly from any adult cell and have the potential to replicate indefinitely (“stemness”) as well as give rise to any other cell type in the human body (pluripotency). It is possible to use molecular scissors to cut their DNA and introduce specific DNA base changes that we are interested in, using a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR. We can use these two powerful technological developments to investigate the impact of T2D-risk variants on the ability of these cells to make and secrete the hormone insulin. The hope is that a better understanding of why these critical cells stop making insulin will help us to develop new treatments for patients with T2D.

On this year’s World Health Day, and beyond, our contribution will be to stay super and beat diabetes!

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