Communication and Engagement

Lessons from Strawberries on How to Engage

In the few years I have been a PhD student I have murdered* hundreds of strawberries in the name of science. We, scientists at the University of Birmingham Cancer Research UK Centre, use this fruit to extract DNA, precipitating the strands into ethanol so that children, and adults, can gaze at this molecule that defines us. We talk about how DNA encodes proteins, likening the cell to a busy city where proteins are the workers that all have different and essential jobs to keep that city running, and about mutations in the DNA and the consequences of these mistakes for the cell. We use analogies, like an error in your favourite brownie recipe where sugar has been replaced with salt, to explain what happens if the cell is following the wrong instructions and describe a cancer cell following instructions that make it grow out of control.

DNA from a strawberry is a great activity that allows one researcher to involve many individuals, both kids and adults, at once. Unfortunately, as I have witnessed at many science events over the last few years, every other molecular biology organisation also uses this experiment. You could visit science events, such as the Big Bang Fair, and see this demonstration on multiple stands and it is only really spectacular once.

Why do we have such problems thinking up new, original activities for these science events? I don’t know the answer, we really shouldn’t. Molecular biology is fascinating just look at the cell images from this year’s Nikon Small World photomicrography competition. It’s time for something new.

File:FluorescentCells.jpg

Cell Biology is Amazing; picture from Wikipedia

First off I am fed up of strawberries; they don’t get cancer and how much cooler would it be to be able to see your own DNA? One of my colleagues recently witnessed a different take on the strawberry experiment where DNA was extracted from saliva. This demonstration was tested at the Thinktank Science Museum in Birmingham and despite a more lengthy protocol (you need to swish a shot of water around in your mouth for 5 minutes, chewing the sides of your mouth a bit, and then lyse the cells for a while before adding ethanol for 10 minutes) it worked very well. By pipetting off the ethanol into small tubes (we used cryo-vials) we were able to give the children their own DNA, little white specks in the alcohol, to take home. The children understood that it was the instructions that are inside every cell of THEIR bodies and also stuck around doing the other activities available until their DNA was ready. The protocol also gives you a whole 5 minutes of uninterrupted explaining time while the children have the water in their mouth! Okay, so it’s a different take on the same experiment what else can we come up with?

When was the first time you looked down a microscope, what did you look at? If I remember correctly I looked down a low power, light microscope at onion skin and cheek cells placed on a slide with a drop of water, iodine stain and methylene blue. Well that’s not going to get the “wow” we need. How can we make this more interesting? So you cannot transport your confocal or electron microscope to an engagement event but you can take a bench top teaching microscope and a lot of large, high resolution (and preferably laminated) cell images. You could have images taken at different magnifications, peering into the microscopic world of the cell you are trying to describe, and have your audience arrange them in order of magnification. There are over 200 different types of cancer due to all the different cells that make up our bodies, how about guess the type of cell? You might find that you get a lot of cancer related ideas in this blog, I am after all a cancer research scientist, but hopefully they will translate into broader areas of molecular and cell biology. For instance, I understand that guess the fruit in an MRI image goes down quite well if that can, in anyway, be related to your research.

There is always the classic making a cell/virus/other out of playdough. At the British Science Festival in Aberdeen I was introduced to the most amazing material for this – air dough. We had children make neurons out of this material- in true Blue Peter style here are some I made earlier. The dough will set in an hour or so the children can take them home. Note if you do end up using this stuff the trick is to make it quite (very) thin.

We do things in the lab everyday and they become mundane, you cannot overlook the simple things like being able to “vacuum up” coloured liquid and move it elsewhere or just loading a PCR gel (obviously made with only agarose and water – safety first). The question is how can we make molecular biology engagement more… well engaging. I am on the lookout for the best of engagement for all ages, “learning best practice”, and put my thinking cap on to try and come up with some new “WOW factor” activities that won’t cost the earth. I would love to hear what you have seen, what has worked for you, and what has flopped. In return I shall attempt to put together a blog of ideas.

…next time a DNA repair game.

Footnote:

*In regard to the philosophical question “When is a strawberry dead?”, no strawberries were murdered in the lead up to this post if you regard strawberries as dead once picked. I listened to Brian Cox and Robin Ince discuss dead strawberries  in length at a live BBC Radio 4 recording of The Infinte Monkey Cage. The episode hasn’t been aired yet but I am wondering if it will make the final cut. In the mean time feel free to join the debate you can tweet me @BeckiePort and I wound love to here you views #aliveordead.

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