Sunday, 12 March 2017

Walking all over cancer - My March challenge

So it's been a while since I've had time to update. I've been back in the lab since being in London, and it's been super busy. The first of my big experiments finished whilst I was away over the winter, so since my return I've been starting on new things. My next big project is looking into the levels of neurogenesis (new cells forming) in the Hippocampus of an ageing brain, and whether exercise affects those levels or not. This has entailed taking brain tissue samples, processing them, sectioning them and staining them with various different stains. I'm looking for new cells forming, looking at new neurons that have formed, and the number of cells that have survived for 28 days.

Staining my sections for neurogenesis
I was originally planning to spend 4ish months doing this work, taking my time a bit and making sure it all went nicely and smoothly. Instead I then discovered that the conference my supervisor wants me to attend is this November, meaning I have to have some data and an abstract ready by the start of May. Well that sped things up rather significantly, and I'm now having to do things in a much shorter timescale. It also doesn't help that we have undergraduate project students in the lab currently, who are also happening to be doing brain tissue sectioning and staining. At the same time as me. This makes things rather awkward and frankly annoying as there is simply not enough of all of the equipment to easily share so I'm having to constantly dance around them and work extra fast with people hovering over my shoulder watching me and waiting for me to finish with the equipment so they can walk off with it. Very frustrating!

Anyways, onto other news. This March, cancer research were asking people to do 10,000 steps every single day to raise money for them. So I decided to sign up. Now, to some people, 10,000 steps a day sounds like nothing. I know some people do far more than that every single working day. But for me, before March, I was averaging 6-8000 steps a day at most. And in London it was even worse when I was spending all day sitting at my computer desk. But I have 2 good legs, and I can use them. I can't run marathons and I'm too chicken to go up to a high place and jump off it with a parachute or climb down it with a rope. But I can walk, and walk for a long time. And I might as well do it for a good cause as well.
1st March - 11th March

I'm doing good so far. I've hit my step count every single day so far. And I intend to keep hitting it. Even if it means spending 20 minutes wondering around my little flat on some evenings to make sure I've gone over the number I need. I'm hoping that the money I raise doing this can help someone, somewhere, somehow.

If you would be willing to sponsor me, even if its just 10p, I'd be really greatful. If you follow THIS link, you'll find my page for sponsorship and my personal reasons for doing this. Thank you


Friday, 20 January 2017

Christmas Lectures: reflections

So it's my last day here at the Ri, and it feels very strange to be leaving. For the past three months I've had the privilege of being involved in the creation of the 2016 CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Presented by the very lovely and punny Saiful Islam, this year the topic was all about energy and the future of energy, topics I know very little about! But that was all part of the challenge and made it all more interesting. Having been a fan of the Lectures pretty much all of my life, this was a dream come true for my childhood self.

My role was as the Media Assistant for the lectures, which consisted of helping to write some press releases, keeping track of all of the media contacts and coverage, and generally being an extra pair of hands for anyone who had too much to do. I got to work with the Channel team on their fantastic advent calendar (including going shopping for eggs, milk, cream and 4 apples, and running around the stage pretending to be a molecule in the beautiful energy music video), help the programs group with spreading the word about the electrifying how to hack your home tour, and very occasionally get my hands dirty helping with a demo build.

One of my favourite things about having been here at the Ri is the history that is in the very walls of the building, and in the archives down in the basement. Being allowed to stand inside of the lab where the great Michael Faraday made his name, being able to hold a piece of meteorite that formed before humans even existed, and finally standing in the Lecture Theatre that I watched so many times on TV over the years.It really felt quite special to be there.

The best thing I got to be involved with was the Christmas Lecture bursary's. Each year thanks to some generous donations by certain charities, kids from Gloucestershire and the North West get the chance to come to the lectures when they otherwise would never be able to. After helping to organise and arrange their arrivals and stays here in London, I was lucky enough to be the one to meet them all and look after them on the days of the lectures. Both sets of winners were wonderful people with a real passion for science, and the sheer joy on their faces at being able to attend was just amazing to see.

I also got to help make the world record breaking lemon battery, which was a lot of fun. It really gave you a feel for the buzz and the energy that surrounded the lectures and filled the production and demo teams all the way through. The moment when we realised we had done it (especially as a few moments before we thought we were going to fail) was one of elation.

Watching the lectures live was great. Afterwards, our job was to chat with the volunteers who went up on stage so we could send press releases out to the local papers to tell them about the young TV star from their area! It was great to hear them talk about how exciting it all was and how much they had loved the lectures. One girl even told me it was her dream come true!

I've learned loads about science communications during my time at the Ri. Communicating science to the rest of the world is such an important thing to do, and getting people interested and keen on science means that we will keep pushing forwards with new and incredible scientific discoveries. It would be great to think that, somewhere in those audience, we have a future Christmas Lecturer. For the future placement people, I'd say enjoy every moment of it. Get involved with everything that you can and learn as much as you can whilst you're here. You get to be a tiny piece of science history being here, so make the most of it.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Christmas Lectures: Lecture 3

Ok, so the third and final lecture was filmed on the Thursday 15 December 2016. The final lecture was all about batteries and energy storage. On the day before, half of Saiful's lab came down to the Ri to build the world record breaking lemon battery. They spent the day slicing and positioning over 1000 lemons on the carefully pre-prepared shelves. I have to say the corridor leading to the theatre smelled lovely for two days. Which was definitely an improvement on the smell of cow which had perfused itself through the corridor and the lift for the previous day after lecture 2.
Also on the Wednesday was the Program team's Christmas dinner which I got to tag along with. It was lovely. Though we did get the somewhat worrying news part way through that the box of copper nails and the box of magnesium strips that were very much needed for the construction of the lemon battery over the next 36 hours had completely vanished. This lead to Karl having to dash off as soon as he had finished eating to join the search party. When I got back, they still hadn't found them (they never did get found).

So many lemon halves, making the room smell lovely
On the Thursday itself I got permission from Hayley to go down and watch the rehearsals, as I hadn't really seen them up until that point. It was pretty interesting to see, and a surprisingly slow process. I was in the theatre for at least half an hour and not much happened. The script was being tweaked, alongside of camera positions and props. The first demo of the lecture was Saiful doing a spot of welding (as you do), so we all had to wonder round wearing some fetching eye protector goggles.

Beautiful goggles and the camera work
I also got to briefly experience Catie's job as the auto cue worker as she had to go out of the room and handed the laptop over to me. I was pretty awful at it, but to be fair on me this was the first time I had seen the script, let alone any of the rehearsals so I had no idea what Saiful was going to do next, let alone what I was doing. I think everyone was glad when Catie came back in and took the laptop back. Sadly I got called away before they started the actual welding so I missed that bit. Once I got back, team lemon battery needed extra pairs of hands so I jumped in. This basically consisted of cutting up a lot of magnesium strips into ~1cm long bits and putting them in a pile, whilst the other half of the team inserted the copper nails into the lemons and connected up the wires to the nails. This actually takes a surprisingly long time, especially with limited supplies. Thankfully emergency deliveries occurred, meaning we had enough stuff to make the battery,

More lemons
In the afternoon I had the fun task of running around London to get the present ready for Saiful. It's a tradition at the Ri to present the Lecturer with some presents from the Ri as a congratulations for completing the Lectures. Our team was giving him one of the professional photographs framed, and it was my job to get the photo printed, get the frame and get the photo. I am not very good at judging what people would class as 'nice' frames, but managed to find one that Hayley was happy with in John Lewis. Then met the lovely people at the colour company down the road and had the photo printed out in high quality and fitted to the frame. Then I finally had lunch (at about 3pm) and headed back to the lemon battery. At this stage the magnesium strips were being inserted, so we each took a stack of shelves and began the messy job of jamming strips of thin metal into a lemon and clipping the correct wire to the correct strip in the correct order without getting lemon juice everywhere. It was pretty stressful, but also a lot of fun.
The audience was coming into the building and we were still constructing and getting coated in a sticky layer of lemony magnesium dust. We had one team of people wiring up the lemons, and a second team walking around with voltmeters checking that everything was functioning correctly.
We then hit a rather horrible snag. We finished the first shelf stack with a cheer, and got one of our lovely volt meter people to check it. And the reading made all of us stop in our tracks. We had calculated that each shelf should give us about 20-25 volts, and with 14 shelves per stack we should at minimum have been having around 200 volts per stack. Instead we were barely getting 80V. The world record attempt stated that we had to break 1000 volts to get the world record. Our calculations said it should easily have worked. So, we all started panicking a little bit (funnily enough).

Thankfully our horrors were abated when someone appeared with the correct voltmeter that we would be using for the actual attempt. The smaller, simpler voltmeters that we had been using drew quite a lot of current (relatively) to take the reading, so we got a lower reading than we should have done. However, when we used the proper reading:

Yup, that reads 1215.5 volts! We did it!
And this wasn't even with all 6 racks! We achieved the record with just 4 of them. Which in some ways is kind of awesome and in other ways really annoying because we went to a hell of a lot of effort to construct all 6 of the racks and only ended up using 4 of them. But what the hey, we still got a world record!

We finished up and got the record sorted with less than 10 minutes to spare. Then the lecture started. We had fewer people in the screening rooms that evening than the previous ones and as such the Ri staff got a whole screening room to ourselves! Of course, there was much heckling and laughter and we all generally enjoyed ourselves. Again, the lecture went well and the audience got out on time

This is very new tech  - an air battery!
We got our last interviews with the kids who volunteered that evening, and all of them again were lovely. There was then lots of cleaning up and sorting out to do before the wrap party could begin. Everyone seemed to be so relieved and a little sad that it was all over, but mostly everyone was just excited and happy that they had managed to pull it all off once again.

The Ri team after the final lecture
The wrap party was fun. The team who did most of the work got lots of thanks, presents and applause and they all seemed a bit giddy with relief. There was then the application of lights, music and a lot of alcohol. I met the official photographer for the lectures and he was a lovely guy. We stood chatting for over an hour over a glass of wine before we both had to leave to get trains and such home. I'm not particularly a person who stays out late drinking and such. Just not my thing.

The next day was a little strange. The entire theatre was already back to normal, with all the set dressing and extra lights already gone. The main entrance was full of stuff, and the whole building was pretty quiet (half of the staff were having the day off and/or were very hungover from the party)

All the stuff, including the big poster board I helped sort out
We also had the joyful job of deconstructing the lemon battery. Despite the large number of G&T jokes of the previous days, trust me when I say that no one would have wanted to eat those lemons. They were slightly mouldy and covered in magnesium dust. It was sort of fun, we had music on and such.

Clean up and dismantling of the lectures and lemon battery

And so that's it. The last week was pretty quiet. My birthday was a thing that happened. The day itself wasn't great but the evening was amazing when I got to go see my dad and have dinner with him. Made the whole day worth it. Then I headed back North to the parents house for the holidays.

We sat and watched the lectures on TV over the holidays. I tweeted throughout each of the episodes (@RetroBagel if you're interested). They looked great on the TV, and thank you to all of my family and friends who watched. It was a pretty nice surprise also when I actually appeared at the end of the last episode!
The person on the right at the front is me!
So there we go, that was my 3 seconds of fame. And the 2016 Christmas Lectures were over. I'm back in London for 3 weeks after Christmas to finish off the placement, and then its back to Nottingham at the end of January to go back to my science.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Christmas lectures: Lecture 2

Retrospective update number 2! Hopefully I can get them all finished this week, as I'm starting to forget how it all went! Not good.

Ok so, Lecture 2.

It was strange coming back into work on Monday after the fun and chaos of Saturday. Heading back up to my office to sit at my desk away from all the buzz was a bit strange, and kind of disappointing in a way. Especially when I opened up the email inbox to find some of the nasty comments we had received from unhappy visitors on Saturday evening. To be fair, I couldn't really argue with many of their points. The evening didn't go well, and we had to change things for the next time. Other people had a fantastic time, and I had a wonderful response from my Bursary winner and his guardian thanking us again for a fantastic weekend and how they were still raving about it. That always puts a smile on your face.
So on Monday the building picked up its usual buzz. Rehearsals were a little quieter than they had been on the Saturday, but that was probably a good thing for all of the team as they needed to relax a bit. Also we did have the joyous revelation of cake being left in the greenhouse (the staffroom) from Saturday. The crew had managed to polish off a whole one by themselves on Saturday night! (not that I can blame them).
Nom nom cake
Over the next couple of days, prep for lecture 2 picked up. Team lemon battery were due to come in to start the prep work in a few days, so the construction of the shelving units continued. This basically consisted of a small group of us screwing together a lot of ikea shelves whilst listening to music. It was actually kind of fun. Plus the Ri will never run out of little Allen keys of a specific size now...
We also had to drill holes in the big sheets of hardboard and screw in castor wheels onto the bottom so the shelves were portable. All whilst having to dodge round the sound checks and video transmission recordings of skype conversations with solar plane pilots. Fun and games! Plus all the lemons arrived.

Around 1008 lemons...ish
My second and final bursary group came in for the second lecture as well, and they were such a lovely bunch! Five kids and their two teachers came down from near Manchester, and I got to go meet them for their behind the scenes tour. They were all really excited and loved every second of exploring the building and seeing the secret props and sneaky peek of the rehearsals. They then all headed off to grab a bite to eat whilst the final building preparations were done, before returning and getting the special 'VIP' treatment of getting into the special screening room early for a drink and nibbles with the other important guests of the night. In all honesty? This was to make my life easier more than anything as the other early theatre entry people were all gathering in that room, so keeping them all in the one place meant no one was late or forgotten about.

That's my bursary group down at the front!
The building was once again a buzz of excitement, but this time it wasn't all about it being Christmas Lecture time. This time, all of the staff were super excited about the upcoming presence of a cow in the building! That's right, we had a cow (and a goat and a sheep, but no one seemed so excited about them)
There was even a baby cow!
We also had the fun job of getting 300 kids fitted out with heart rate monitors before the show (which was interesting, but thankfully ran smoothly). Once everyone was settled into the theatre (on time tonight), I headed down to the screening room to watch and make my notes once more. It was quite amusing as we could hear the cow occasionally mooing, as the trailer where it was being housed was right outside the screening room.

The lecture went really well, with Saiful seeming to relax more into his role as lecturer and entertainer, sneaking in pun after pun and his Smiths references. There were lots of smiles and laughs in the audience.
The lecture was on how the human body uses and creates energy from food and such. We showed how much food Saiful ate in a week, and how much waste he produced (It was chocolate!). We showed the amount of energy an animal like a cow has to eat before it produces the meat that people eat (its a lot). We showed how a professional athlete's body utilises energy in a different way to a non-athletes body. The kids even tried a rather...interesting form of food. BUGS!

Those are real insects that the audience ate
All in all it went really well. And we managed to get some good quotes from the volunteer kids for their local papers which was really lovely. Sadly the computer system for the heart rate monitors crashed once we hit 300 of them. We'd tested with around 270 and it was fine, but apparently 300 was too much. We managed to get some basic data from the big experiment, but sadly it wasn't what we wanted.

So that was lecture 2 over, and we had passed the halfway point. It was kind of surreal, and pretty knackering, but also a lot of fun. I still felt a bit distant from a lot of the action, like I was just there to watch (which I kind of was) rather than there to help. Huge kudos to the team for pulling it off again though!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Christmas lectures: Lecture 1

So things all got rather busy of late, hence the lack of update. So this is a sort of retrospective update

The week leading up to the first lecture I ended up getting a bit more hands on with the preparation work, helping move things around the building and constructing the shelving units for the lemon batteries. There was also the photographer brief to write, the volunteer press releases to write, volunteer forms to print out and stick onto clip boards and advent video's to advertise and update on storify.

The demo room with the lemon shelves

Our job for each lecture was to sit in the screening room and watch the lecture with a script and a pen in front of us. When a volunteer stepped up to help Saiful, we noted down their name and something memorable about them (e.g. lime green jumper), so we could identify them later on. After the lectures, when the volunteers headed over to the Windfall team to sign the release forms to say they were happy to be on TV, we were to ask them if they were happy for us to chat with them, ask a few questions and then send off the answers with a photo to the local press for their area to promote the lectures and give the kids their 5 minutes of fame.

Lecture 1:

The first lecture was filmed on the Saturday evening on the 10th December. I arrived at the Ri for 2pm as I had to give a tour of the building to a group of people at 3 and had a bunch of stuff to do first (Not in the least learn all the info for the tour!). It was pretty strange coming to work on the weekend, mainly because it was daylight and there were so many fewer people on the tube in comparison to normal!
Saturday was also the day I had my first bursary student coming down from Gloucestershire. We ran a competition for schools in the area to tell us why one of their students should be the one to get an all expenses paid trip with a guardian to come and see the lectures and spend the night in London. The four of us who looked at all of the entries were pretty unanimous in our decision - the kid we chose had had a really rough time of late, but had such a passion for science and he needed something good to happen in his life.
The tour went pretty well. I met Anthony and his guardian when they arrived, and it was so nice to watch him loving every moment of the trip. He's the kind of person I would have love to have known at school, so we could have shared an enthusiasm of all things science. The whole group was just lovely, and I managed to sneak them into the rehearsal just as Sir Richard Dawkins walked on stage to practice his iconic swinging cannonball demo

Once the tour was finished, the building went into full preparation mode. All of the stewards were briefed, wired up with radio's and hurried off to their positions. I ended up running around trying to sort out a visitor who had ended up hurting himself walking around and making sure he had water and a chair and such. Not the most relaxing start to the evening!
I did also get to sneak behind the scenes and get some sneak peeks and some photo's of the rehearsals before the lecture started, including watching the Tesla coil practice! It was very cool. I do love Tesla coils. We were so close to not getting them in the end, as what Saiful said in the lecture about the previous time we had a Tesla coil in the building leading to half the block being fried was true! Thankfully the guy came to our rescue, and was very lovely.
The crowds started entering the building at 4.30pm, and they all walked across the special energy generating floor, which was put in the wrong place so they all had to take a weird detour to do so. Then things started to go a little wrong. Lecture 1 was by far the most complicated of the three to sort out in terms of demo's and getting things on and off the stage, so rehearsals were overrunning massively. So the audience, who were supposed to start being seated by 6 didn't end up going in until around 7.

The rube goldberg machine on the night we filmed it

I found the lovely young scientist journalist Tavleen in the crowds and took her up to the screening room where we were to spend the evening watching the events in the theatre. At first it looked like it was going to be nearly empty, but soon the people started flooding in and we had to get more chairs brought up!
There was a real energy about the building all evening, excitement from the audience mixed in with frustration at the wait, and the stress and enjoyment from the staff as they all whizzed about doing the best they could.
Finally though the lecture started, with me, Ailie and Ant perched on the floor in the library fireplace so we could see the screen. Saiful, Tasha, Rosie and the team did a wonderful job of a very difficult lecture. Saiful kept smiling and making jokes, Matt the mathematician rallied the audience during the gaps, and the floor team worked hard to make the complex demo's work. The rube goldberg went wrong as of course those things always do, but eventually it set off the big wavy man and the lecture continued. The rookie mistake of taking the girl (called Alex) to the mens toilets to look at the 'pee power' station occurred, but that was soon sorted out.
Everything you saw in the lectures really happened - the roof was kitted out with a wind turbine, the mens loo's really had a pee power station, and the cake at the end iced by Selasi was actual cake (not baked by him, and insanely sweet).
Sadly the lecture ran on so long that our little team gave up on our job for the night and headed off before the audience had finished leaving the theatre.

I got to meet Selasi from Bake off and have cake! (Sadly not baked by him)

The buzz in the building all evening was tangible. It was a shame things went so wrong that first night, but in the end the majority of people still had a fabulous time. It felt great to hear back from my bursary winner about how much of a good time he and his guardian had had. To have played a small part in giving him that chance just felt great. And the staff seemed to have a good time, I certainly did!