Heart to heart with Babraham scientists in the Biology Zone at the Cambridge Science Festival
Babraham scientists have been sharing their passion for science with local schools and families at the Cambridge Science Festival throughout National Science & Engineering Week. The Science Festival’s Biology Zone attracted its largest audience yet, with over 5,000 visitors hungry for the exciting array of hands-on science provided by teams from Babraham, the Medical Research Council (MRC), The Sanger Institute, The Society of Biology, Papworth Hospital and MedImmune to name but a few.
“The Biology Zone is a perfect place for families to explore science together and interact with inspirational young scientists,” said Dr Claire Cockcroft who leads Babraham’s Public Engagement programme and also helps to co-ordinate the Biology Zone with colleagues at the Sanger Institute and MRC. “It was wonderful to see so many children totally absorbed in the exhibits. Whether it’s dissecting owl pellets, building an antibody, making DNA models out of sweets, learning what makes your heart tick or seeing life in a new light under the microscope for the first time, there was something for everyone. Thanks to the enthusiasm of our PhD students and researchers over the weekend, we kept some of the youngest – only 4 years old – and older visitors engrossed in a range of activities and conversations about the future challenges of bioscience research.”
The Babraham Institute, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has a strategic focus on understanding the biological mechanisms behind ageing and lifelong health. The Babraham team tackled the tricky topic of epigenetics, which helps to explain how our genes can be influenced by our environment and lifestyle.
“Our scientists also explained how failure in the way cells communicate with each other can cause conditions like irregular heartbeats and heart failure”, explained Dr Cockcroft. “Everyone knows calcium is needed for healthy teeth and bones, but most people don’t know that calcium is also vital inside our cells to regulate heart contractions. Understanding these intricate processes of cell signalling could eventually provide clues for developing new drugs to combat heart problems. Having the experts from Papworth Hospital adjacent to our exhibit provided a vital connection with the clinical world.”
Sharon Hebdon, visiting the festival from Kent with her 14 year old daughter said, "The Cambridge Science Festival was an amazing experience which surpassed all of our expectations. We were able to discuss recent scientific breakthroughs, specifically in cardiac medicine, with expert scientists and researchers from the Papworth Hospital, the Babraham Institute and the British Heart Foundation. This has stimulated us to research further into areas of interest such as calcium signalling in the heart and recent treatments for cardiac disease. A truly inspirational festival which we will definitely be returning to next year!"
Over the past century, the MRC has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. £60m is invested annually in its research establishments in Cambridge, in addition to funding for research in the University, and this year’s science festival showcased some of its research highlights.
The Medical Research Council’s Adrian Penrose, who leads the organisation of the Festival’s Biology Zone said, “Medical research changes lives. In this, our Centenary Year, we wanted to bring to the Festival the knowledge, wonder and excitement that is generated by world-class research that is improving human health across the globe. The Cambridge Science Festival is a great opportunity to come together with fellow scientific research institutes, industry and others to listen to what visitors think about research priorities in order that we can work together more effectively to improve human health in the long term.”
In addition to the Science Festival, the Babraham team were busy throughout March, organising hands-on activities and school visits for primary schools through to 6th form. This March the team gave 30 science sessions to around 2000 pupils at seven local primary schools. The Institute also celebrated its 19th annual Schools’ Science Day, opening its laboratories to 100 GCSE and A’ level students from 18 schools across Cambridgeshire. Pupils spent the day immersed in laboratory experiments alongside ‘real scientists’, getting to grips with state-of-the-art equipment and experiencing cutting-edge science at close quarters.
Dr Claire Cockcroft added, “Our programme of events throughout the year, but particularly during National Science Week, enables pupils of all ages to explore science and conduct experiments alongside inspirational role models. We hope that the personal insights they get into research will not only encourage them to consider STEM subjects at school and scientific careers, but will also provide a better appreciation of the value of research to society.“