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Making The World A Better Place With Science

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Making The World A Better Place With Science

A Natural Sciences student from the University of Cambridge lets us in on some of the reasons why he got involved with science

Toby McMaster, Global Health, Science & Policy Advocate - University of Cambridge

The world at the moment can seem like it’s only getting worse. This is reflected in global opinion polls by YouGov, with even China, the country ranked most optimistic, having only 41% of people believe the world is getting better. Society is increasingly divided both politically and economically with the advent of both Trump & Brexit . However by a whole host of important measure the world is in better shape now than it ever has been.


A fantastic article by Max Roser, an Oxford based economist, chronicles vast improvements in the past few decades across poverty, literacy, health, freedom & education. Whilst the everyday news can get us down, things are getting better. In the words of author and general-great-guy John Green “Bad news happens all at once, good news happens slowly”.


So what exactly has been happening slowly? Improvements in vaccination rates and general hygiene have helped to slash child mortality (the proportion of children dying before the age of 5). In my 22 year lifetime this has halved from almost one in 10 to less than 1 child in 20. Simultaneously the proportion of people in extreme poverty has fallen by around two thirds and the proportion of the world’s population without any formal education has fallen from 22% to 14%, representing a near 40% drop.


However there is of course more to be done and further progress to be made. Pursuing science at university is one of the best ways to put yourself in a position to be a part of that change. Whilst studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge I realised I was interested not only in the doing of science, but also in communicating it. I was privileged to have the opportunity to write for BlueSci, the university science magazine, and to edit the science section of Varsity, one of the university’s two print newspapers at the time.


I also had the chance to work with Polygeia, a student policy organisation focused on improving global health worldwide. I collaborated with some remarkable individuals on work ranging from Neglected Tropical Diseases to Obesity and Mental Health. Following this I was able to intern in the communications department at the World Health Organization, writing articles on HIV/AIDS in malawi, antibiotic usage in Norway and a range of other areas. This allowed me to learn from professionals who had been working in global health and development throughout these decades of incredible improvement.


Science is certainly not the only route to getting involved in the incredible progress that is taking place however having an understanding of experimentation, but it was mine. A thorough understanding of experiments and data is incredibly useful in a development environment increasingly focused on testing and quantifiable metrics. The UK’s Department For International Development (DFID) now formally focuses on Value For Money in allocating project resources.


I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that have been made available to me through studying science at university and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested.


In Defence of Plants

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In Defence of Plants

A Plants Scientist tells us why plants might be worth studying....

Joanna Wolstenholme, Science Communications - Imperial College, London

When I say I study Plant Sciences I often get a blank, or worse, bemused, look from the person I am talking to, as if to say ‘Why on earth do you want to spent hours working on something that doesn’t move, and isn’t cute and fluffy and doesn’t directly save lives?’. One high school biology teacher even told me that it was ‘a waste of a good brain to be studying plants’ and I should be going into medicine. What many people don’t understand is how vital plants are to us, and how important they will become with many more people on a warming planet - and just how utterly fascinating they can be.

Let’s start with the most obvious: plants are green. Why are they green? So they can make their own energy! Plants are completely self-sufficient – they have no need for any of this hunting and eating and digesting malarkey. And as they have no need to be chasing off all over the place after food, they are quite happy to stay put, rooted to the ground. Yet the flipside of not moving is that plants are utterly at mercy of their environment – they can’t just move away if things get a little chilly, or dangerous. However this is where some of the coolest properties of plants arise from – their need to be able to survive and flourish in the environment in which they grow, and cope with extremes of temperature, water and nutrient levels. Some plants have antifreeze compounds in their sap, lowering the temperature at which they freeze, and others are able to freeze in such a way that damaging ice crystals do not form. Plants can ‘talk’ to each other too; they produce pheromones to warn neighbouring plants that predators are coming, allowing their neighbours to produce poisons and even gums to stick the mouthparts of some predators together.

Plants also produce the oxygen we breathe – as a ‘waste’ product of creating their own energy. Pretty much the entirety of life we can see – and plenty of that which we can’t – only exists because of the oxygenating powers of plant life. Plants also suck up and store carbon dioxide, a process that is becoming more and more important, thanks to the propensity of us humans to release it in such huge quantities. Perhaps we can find plants that are more efficient carbon stores, or engineer some to be – it all takes research.

Food and fuel, and many building materials come from plants. As it seems we are going to be running increasingly short on all of these in the near future, vital and much needed work is being poured into understanding how to maximise the production of these important commodities. Most of us take food for granted, but with our climate changing our daily bread may not be quite as easy to come by in the future. Understanding how plants will respond to changing temperatures, and shifting rainfall, is incredibly important -- and could, dare I say it, not only save lives but also prevent wars.

Ok, so plants don’t move. And knowledge of plant sciences cannot necessarily directly save a life – but indirectly it may save hundreds. Food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, building materials, oxygen, carbon storage, control of the water table… all these come from plants, and a greater knowledge of the mechanisms behind how they are generated, where, and how they affect us is vital for our future survival.


Can worms get Alzheimer’s?

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Can worms get Alzheimer’s?

A PhD student tells the story behind his current scientific research at The University of Cambridge.

Josh Newman, PhD Student at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology


Way back in 1902, Auguste Deter found herself in a mental institution in Frankfurt, Germany. Not that she really understood where she was, why she was there, or what she was doing. She had lost touch with the world, her surroundings, the people she knew and loved, and famously uttered the words “Ich hab mich verloren” – I have lost myself. But what had this woman lost herself to? The answer became clearer after she was visited by a man whose name would go on to identify her malady – that man was Dr. Alois Alzheimer.


Fast forward over 100 years and, whilst we understand a huge amount more about this type of dementia, we are yet to truly understand the underlying molecular mechanisms that initiate and spread the disease around the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by two proteins that behave abnormally and clump together. Imagine our brains, made up of hundreds of thousands of millions of nerve cells; within these cells, these proteins start to stick together and form large aggregates, ultimately leading to disruption of brain signals and nerve cell death. To this day, we are uncertain as to which of these proteins is the primary culprit in this disease, nor are we sure as to why this happens in the first place, or how it causes cell death. It is information like this that is key to working out an effective treatment.


But what are the offending molecules in question? The first is amyloid beta – this forms clumps known as plaques outside of the cell. The second is called tau, and forms clumps of sticky proteins known as tangles. There appears to be some overlap and interplay between the two but on the whole, it is not clear which is the more important. The focus of my PhD at the moment is on tau – this molecule is particularly interesting as it has been implicated in a number of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as progressive supranuclear palsy, Pick’s disease, and corticobasal degeneration, yet we still do not really understand its role in such disorders.


Tau’s normal day job involves stabilising the microtubules, which are essentially the backbone and highway of the cell – but, as we age, tau starts being rebellious and adopts an incorrect structure, allowing it to become aggregation-prone. Under healthy conditions, the odd rebellious tau every now and again is not a problem – the cell is clever and has evolved its own molecular police service. These policing networks check that everybody is behaving as they should, and any molecules that break the rules are soon dealt with and reformed into good citizens once again. This process of ensuring that proteins are correctly folded and, if not, degrading misfolded conformations involves an elaborate network of molecules, many of which have overlapping functions to ensure that order is maintained within the cell. However, it appears that as we age this police service becomes less effective, allowing for more of these misfolded forms to remain and form aggregates. Like many criminals, these misbehaving tau proteins seem to be part of their own underworld gang and have the ability to recruit other tau proteins to the dark side - towards a misfolded conformation. This ability to convert other proteins to the incorrect structure is reminiscent of another set of illnesses known as prion diseases. In the UK, these are relatively well known due to a mass outbreak in the farming community in the 1980s causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy – otherwise infamously known as mad cow disease. But what do mad cow disease and Alzheimer’s have in common? It’s all to do with the way they spread around the brain. In prion disease, a protein known as PrP is able to misfold and induce correctly folded proteins to misfold as well. As with many diseases of this nature, these molecules then stick together and cause degeneration of the surrounding cells. Sound familiar? Well, these prion-like properties crop up in many neurodegenerative diseases and the importance of this on the spread of pathology is what I’m researching.


So that’s a brief introduction to the background of Alzheimer’s disease. But how do I actually study it? Well, I spend my days with a type of nematode known as Caenorhabditis elegans – for those of you (presumably the majority…) who are unfamiliar, these are microscopic, transparent worms. They’re cute, I swear, but I’m biased. One of the first questions I often get after explaining that I look at Alzheimer’s disease in worms is… “But how can you tell if a worm has Alzheimer’s? Do they start forgetting things?”. The answer to that is, unfortunately, no, memory deficits are not something I study. Instead, I look at how this spread occurs and the influence that the police service of the cells has on the spreading efficiency. As these worms are transparent, it is possible to tag the tau protein with a fluorescent marker and observe it within their cells. By doing this, tau can be tracked to see where it moves and what it associates with. Some of our worms also have hyperactive policing mechanisms – a kind of ‘police state’, if you will -  and by doing the same in these worms, we can identify whether or not this impedes the ability of these tau gangs to recruit more members. By monitoring these tau interactions, we are becoming more aware of the criminal network of recruitment and aggregation that is taking place in the brains of many people with Alzheimer’s disease. A better understanding of this process of spreading is important to identifying ways to stop the spread in the first place.


But worms don’t get these diseases naturally – they don’t express the same set of proteins that higher organisms such as you and I do. Instead, we must induce these pathologies by genetically engineering them to express human forms of these molecules – by doing this, we can give worms human diseases and try to figure out what conserved cellular mechanisms might be in place to help or hinder their progression. That’s the beauty of using a model organism with a very basic and well understood biology – it simplifies the science and hopefully points us in directions that may be evolutionarily conserved in humans. So, from a German woman with an undiagnosed case of early onset Alzheimer’s disease in the 1900s to worms in a petri dish today, we certainly have come a long way. But we still have much further to go and many more exciting discoveries to make.


Friday 12th August – Departures Day

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Friday 12th August – Departures Day

As dawn breaks over Chapel Court, the students prepare for their last lectures at CSS. Wherever did these two weeks go?

A touching farewell is given to the academic tutors with whom they spent the fortnight, experiencing how tough, yet rewarding, undergraduate study at Cambridge can be.

We then convene in Chapel Court for the first ever SciSearch graduation, where we celebrate eleven bright young minds; what they learned, what they achieved, the bonds they developed, the memories they formed. The icing on the cake was in the form of an excited cheer, as they throw their lanyards up in the air!

The evening brings the final social session on the cricket pitch, with much loved games that the students learned in the program, such as ninja and werewolves, before moving back inside for a heated round of Pictionary and musical chairs. A humble yet enjoyable way to end the summer school.

We would just like to take this opportunity to thank all of our students for their individual contributions to CSS2016 – we hope you have enjoyed it as much as us! We wish you all a safe trip home and all the very best for your future studies!


Thursday 11th August

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Today brought the last full day of lectures and supervisions for the students. With an opportunity to present work they had prepared outside of class, it is clear to see how fully everyone has engaged with the rigorous academic challenges the program has brought.

Before dinner we made the most of the dry weather to hone our tennis skills with some informal games on the Jesus College grass courts. Following this more games were organised in the college’s nature trail area – definitely a perfect way to work up our appetites for a formal dinner.

A candlelit setting for our luxury menu made for the perfect way to mark our penultimate night on the summer school. Can’t believe tomorrow is the last full day!


Wednesday 10th August

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Today saw another day of practicals in the labs at the University of Bedfordshire. The students all looked very smart again in their white coats, and took to the experiments professionally, seeming engrossed in their tasks. It was very exciting to see them all sitting by their equipment, listening attentively to Maria – like watching a group of prospective professional scientists!

The lunch break took us to the food market in the mall next to the lab; a gold-mine of different cuisines… Thai was the preferred choice for the students, who packed their plates with noodles and other Thai specialities.

After a long day of lab work, we returned to Jesus for dinner, before walking out to meet the Cambridge tour guide on Market Square. The weather treated us kindly to a calm, sunny evening: the perfect conditions for a stroll around the centre, with the streets gradually emptying. We stepped off the beaten track of walking around the colleges and the common routes, and instead weaved through the back streets, past the Old Cavendish Laboratory, the Corpus Clock, The Eagle pub and many more… And to finish off, we went to scout out the infamous jump between Caius College and the Senate house, which tempts many a night climber!


Tuesday 9th August

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Tuesday 9th August

The sun again shines brightly over Jesus College and the students are raring to go for another day of fun filled activities!

Lectures in the morning yet again left students hungry for more knowledge but also for a spot of lunch! After a scrumptious lunch in the centre of town, we all made our way with our orange SciSearch lanyards glinting in the sun to Cambridge’s Botanical Gardens. The breathtaking gardens was a beautiful setting for the students to enjoy, explore and relax after a busy ten days!

Then came a few hours of preparation for the Science debate that evening: “This house believes that women should freeze their eggs to prolong their career and have a family later in life”. After a hearty supper, it was time for our second guest lecturer Dr Luca Pellegrinet who gave a huge insight into the field of cancer research. The students were engaged and inquisitive as the topic fascinated all. Then came the debate. The atmosphere was electric as Matthias and Alona delivered their two minute opening speeches for the Agree and Disagree team respectively. Heated debate ensued with metaphors, diagrams and strong rhetoric being thrown left right and centre! But the verdict was final: there were more ‘yays’ so the Agree team won!

The students were buzzing and excitedly discussed the outcome of the debate as they practically skipped to their rooms for a well deserved sleep! It’s just another day here of brain stimulating fun at Cambridge SciSearch!


Monday 8th August

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Monday 8th August

Today marked the start of the second academic week. After a weekend of excursions to London and Oxford, the students are well-rested and raring to begin, with new topics and discussions to keep them occupied.

In line with the Olympics, afternoon supervisions are followed by a sport-style competition. Events included leap frog hurdles, ultimate Frisbee, and egg and spoon with a twist. In a closely fought tournament between Kosovo and Lichtenstein, the former managed to pull it back in the last game to win the event!

Post-dinner entertainment took the form of a cinema experience like no other, with business class reclining seats and tasty refreshments. The choice was between two of the biggest movies out today, both of which turned heads.


Sunday 7th August

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Sunday 7th August

Today brought a chance for the students to explore Cambridge’s closest rival – Oxford University! After an informative tour of the central colleges and historical landmarks, it was time to delve into the covered market to find the perfect lunch spot.

In the afternoon some of the students visited the history of science museum, which features a blackboard preserved with the work of Albert Einstein, before browsing the renowned Blackwell’s bookshop. Others took an opportunity to browse the local shops and relax in the beautiful sunshine on Christchurch meadows.

A sumptuous dinner at Balliol rounded off our day of fun. Below are some of our favourite pics of the beautiful city, although it must be said that our hearts still lie firmly with the cobbled streets of Cambridge!


Saturday 6th August

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Saturday 6th August

It’s been another full-on day on the SciSearch schedule today. The students were treated to a slightly longer lie-in before being picked up by the minibus to drive down to London. We were dropped off by the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and the group split in two to visit these. I think it’s safe to say everyone learned something, regardless of which museum they chose! Matthias whizzed round the Natural History Museum impressively making it round most exhibitions, whilst Matt got enthralled in the ‘Energy in the Future’ exhibition at the Science Museum.

The sun and warmth led us out to Hyde Park for a lunch break – we found an accommodating small hill to sit on to eat our sandwiches; although it was apparently not quite the hub for Pokemon Go hunters…

To digest lunch, we headed on a wander towards Harrods where the students treated themselves to ice cream and a browse of the incredibly ornate shopping mall. But time was ticking and it was soon time to return to the Science Museum to enjoy an IMAX experience: a 3D screening of ‘A Beautiful Planet’.

Another busy day out; the group’s energy levels are impressing us all!


Friday 5th August

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As the first academic week at CSS draws to a close, the students face their third set of lectures. It is apparent that they’re getting comfortable with the study, as they emerge from the lecture room with upbeat conversation as they walk into town eagerly for lunch.

The early afternoon brings them back to their tutors for a close supervision, where they give presentations prepared during the week. A quick break follows, then it’s back to work. This time to use computers to analyse data taken from their enzyme kinetics practical from yesterday. Lecture preparation, practical sessions, and data analysis – this is a way we learn science at Cambridge, and now our students have full insight!

Post-dinner entertainment is provided in the form of the slapstick comedy play “A Comedy of Errors” in Trinity College Gardens. A rendition of Shakespeare, the play left the students giggling and captivated. A true delight.


Thursday 4th August

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What a day! The students had their first hands on experience in the science lab today, getting to grips with basic skills before progressing on to complex enzyme kinetics experiments – they’ll be pros before we know it!

This was an invaluable opportunity to further the students’ understanding of the topics they’ve been studying in lectures and supervisions and to give them a taste of the high tech equipment used in undergraduate labs.

Making it back to college just in time for dinner, the team then organised a sports evening, including lawn tennis and a particularly competitive game of ultimate frisbee in the college grounds.

I’m sure everyone will sleep soundly tonight after such a packed day! Shakespeare festival tomorrow night – can’t wait!


Wednesday 3rd August

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Wednesday 3rd August

Another day dawns in Jesus College and the sun is out ready for the stream of fun activities to come! An early morning rowing taster session led by coaches at Jesus College Boatclub culminated in a nail-biting race along the River Cam between two novice crews.

After a brain teasing couple of hours of lectures, the courtyards were filled with students excitedly chattering about upcoming presentations as they made their way to lunch. After an idyllic break in the sun out on Jesus lawn, it was time to go for a jolly punt down the River Cam! The history of the Cambridge colleges indeed delighted all –  did you know that the design of the White House was inspired by the Gibbs building in Kings College?

After a blissful hour of punting, it was time to split off into mentor groups and have a private tour of a few central colleges. Highlights include eating scrumptious ice cream in the peaceful surroundings of Pembroke College!

The day ended with a fascinating talk by Dr Cinzia Cantacessi about how “Worms are a man’s best friend”. This intrigued all and incited much debate on her world leading research on parasites. Although slightly sleepy after what was a fantastic day- everyone was indeed in high spirits at the prospect of the trip to the labs tomorrow!


Monday 1st August – Arrivals day

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Monday 1st August – Arrivals day

Arrivals Day is coming to an end, and all the students have arrived safely and settled in to their rooms in Jesus. Some have traveled up from London or elsewhere across the UK; others have flown in from further afield - Oman, Japan and Indonesia just to name a few!

The sun was shining for the best part of the day, and the students were able to enjoy a tour of the college once they’d unpacked.

It was hugely satisfying to finally see the program kick start; we’re excited to welcome the tutors tomorrow and for the academic sessions to begin. There’s a packed timetable prepared for the students, with a wide variety of sporty, culinary, and social activities to give them all a taste of what being a student at Cambridge feels like.

After a tasty meal of ribs, risotto or fish-pie in the Jesus Upper Hall, Alex, Holly and Fiona introduced the students to SciSearch and gave them an idea of what they could expect over the next fortnight.

The evening then continued in a jovial and friendly atmosphere with games in the Social Room - a range of Social Bingo, 20 Questions, Round the World Name Game and more ice breakers.

Keep following us for more updates throughout the week, and check out our daily photos working towards the Photo Competition! Here are a few of my personal favourites below.