STEM Insights teacher placements: Getting hands-on with science
We spent a week at the Babraham Institute, visiting the labs and facilities and getting to grips with the research carried out not just by Babraham Institute scientists but by companies co-located on the Babraham Research Campus.
Our first session was with Martin Turner, the Head of the Immunology research program. He and his PhD. students showed us presentations on their research. They explained key techniques such as CRISPR-Cas 9 which is a way to cut DNA and delete genes. They also explained flow cytometry, which uses fluorescent markers to be able to identify molecules within cells. I will be able teach aspects of the immune system with more confidence and I will be able to elaborate on various aspects of the curriculum based on what I learned during this session.
The basic idea of CRISPR/Cas9 was floating around in my brain because of articles in the popular science press, however, my understanding hadn’t extended beyond it being a pair of targetable DNA scissors. It turns out that it can be used to target, but not cut, sections of DNA. These sections can then have their transcription inhibited or promoted. When I have taught immunity to BTEC students I was still guilty of using very “toy” models to explain the activation of the adaptive immune system- it turns out that it is far more complex than I had ever (naively) expected.
On our second day we were hosted by Peter Rugg-Gunn, a Group Leader in the Epigenetics programme. His team work with human stem cells and are trying to understand how stem cells develop into different types of cells and how cells degenerate with age. We had the chance to talk to him about the future of his research and what he hopes to accomplish. He also uses CRISPR-Cas 9 but applies it to stem cells in order to study the effects of removing genes on developing cells.
It was great to be back in the lab after so long, and get hands on with some real research, with explanations of what was happening at each stage. This information will be really helpful back in school in a number of ways. I will be able to discuss stem cell research with more confidence, and answer questions on where the cells come from and a number of the things the research plans to study in the future. I will also be more confident with HPA students, in explaining the practicalities of research techniques.
Next we worked with Stefan Schoenfelder who is a Career Progression Fellow working in Epigenetics, who was fantastic at explaining his work without overwhelming us with complex science. He explained that his research is focussed on studying the way that the DNA folds within the nucleus to allow enhancers to meet with a gene in order to activate it.
He works closely with Kristina, who runs the Next Generation Sequencing facility. Each slide that goes through the sequencer has 8 channels and can give about 1.6 billion pieces of data on the sequences of DNA in about 2 days. This has revolutionised the field and allows scientists to work much more quickly. The result of course, is that scientists now spend a large proportion of their time analysing data, often with the help of the Bioinformatics team.
One piece of open source software created at the Babraham Institute takes raw data from the Next Generation Sequencer and mapped it against a human or mouse genome so the researchers could make links and draw conclusions. The raw data can be made up from millions and millions of individual pieces of data, so their work is essential and phenomenally huge! I was completely unaware of Bioinformatics as a career option, and I am confident that there are some students at school who would love to go into this line of work. It is opportunity to highlight the links between computer science and science lessons. I will definitely be talking about this with students when I return to school!
Overall, this week has really inspired me. I want to be a better teacher as a result of this week, and I will be able to show the students so many more careers than I was previously able to. I would love to come back again, just for fun!