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July 26, 2017

Parliamentary Links day and my time at the Royal Society

I had the privilege as part of the Public Affairs team to attend the Annual Links day (27thJune 2017) event in Parliament. As a three moth Intern within the team, this chance was a wonderful opportunity to see the collaborations and discussions between the learned societies and government centred on science. This filled me with hopes for the future as I am currently a PhD student studying Cancer sciences at the University of Birmingham, funded by the BBSRC.

The topic of this year’s Links day was: UK Science and Global Opportunities. The location, the Attlee Suite Portcullis House, a wonderful building within the parliamentary complex at Westminster. After the formalities of coffee, the cohort of attendees was ushered into a very packed room with people lining the side walls and back area around the seating. This is to the credit of the hard work of Stephan Metcalfe MP and Stephan Benn of the Royal Society of Biology for bringing together such a wealth of knowledge and people.

I settled down from the initial buzz of seeing the speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP and Jo Johnson MP to listen to their commitments to science and it placed reassurances to everyone in the room. John shared that he in fact did not take any science O-levels and that his knowledge was limited, but since becoming speaker, was a great advocate of science. John also spoke of his absolute fondness for the late Tony Benn and thanked the Benn family for their dedication and hard work to the field of science. In the welcome talks, Sir John Kingman FRS, the chair designate of UKRI, made it clear that the political class is recognising that science is the future. He also stated that the ability to navigate Brexit is crucial, with the attempt to remain in the Horizon 2020 and to maintain overall European funding. Jo Johnson MP importantly revealed that the UK will continue collaboration with Joint European Torus (JET), a fusion energy centred in the UK. This was much to the delight of Institute of Physics I’m sure. Jo also eluded to the government’s pledge to reach the OECD average on R&D spending within the next decade, a statement I have repeated many times since the manifesto reveal, with the hope that one day it might actually be carried out!

At this point my feet got very tired from the prolonged standing so I decided to take a seat on the floor for the panel discussions. Within these, the multiple academics, MPs and scientists focused on the current topical issue of Brexit, one year on from the historic vote. Each person raised concerns on EU nationals, immigration, funding and programme participation. Chris Hale, from Universities UK, and the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh called to remove students from immigration numbers as a special consideration to their circumstances. Representatives from both the Embassy of Spain and Italy presented worrying and quite frankly shocking statistics. A study conducted with 2,000 Italian academics said that 82% have thought about leaving or are planning to leave the UK. Overall, the consensus was that there is a lack of knowledge on the framework of the government’s stance on immigration. It’s obvious that more clarity is needed over the coming months. Chi Onwurah MP, stated a need for a free flow of ideas and people and Dr Sarah Main, the director of CaSE insisted the community has to come together. It was incredibly warming to see such a unified voice on science and the priorities of science in Brexit. This positive and optimistic outlook on the role of science in the future should please the audience although it’s clear to notice that continued pressure and collaboration is essential.

Professor Alex Halliday, Vice president of the Royal Society was given the great honour of providing at keynote address during a very lavish dinner in the Cholmondeley Room of the House of Lords. Within the speech, Alex was able to provide the audience with three main stances the Royal Society have on Brexit. The first is to provide certainty for EEA citizens currently residing in the UK. He then followed with a new priority for the Royal Society, to remove international students from the immigration figures as they provide £25bn to the economy, as well as the diversity of ideas and people. The final point stated that the country should participate in Horizon 2020 until the end of the programme, as part of any phased exit from the EU.

During this five-course lunch, I got to sit on the table of The Council for the Mathematical sciences and I spoke about gender inequalities in STEM subjects with Sir Adrian Smith FRS, University of London’s vice-chancellor and about the surging youth support for Labour with Stephen Timms MP. Professor Chris Linton, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University discussed in detail about the new London-based campus for the university which I previously was unaware of.

Getting the chance to rub shoulders with such an esteemed group of people was a nice break from my work on the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition. This event marks the last week of my time at the institution and has been the main focus of my work in the Public Affairs team. I was tasked by Becky and Joe to invite MPs to the event that within their constituency, holds one of the institutions taking part in the 22 exhibits. In doing so I have communicated with the lead researchers of the exhibits, mailed and maintained contact with around 30 MPs, created a press release for the attending MP’s, organised the photography and created briefings on both the researchers and MPs. With the general election being called so close to the event and the change in MP’s, this became a challenging and tall order on a very tight schedule. I hold the Summer Science Exhibition close to my heart and I am very proud of the important role I have played. Overall, I have loved the fast paced environment and the office life, but most of all I am hugely grateful to the Public Affairs team for having me, what a great bunch of excitable, but professional people they are! It’s been an honour and pleasure and I hope to return in the future.


Pic 3Pic 2

Pic 4

Picture 1: Meeting Brian Cox at the Summer Science Exhibition. Picture 2: Thangam Debbonaire MP for Bristol West at the Cycling Glory stand.Picture 3: The Public Affairs team at the Royal Society Picture 4: Parliamentary LINKS day (27thJune 2017) with Jo Johnson MP, Stephan Metcalfe MP, Stephan Benn and the Rt Hon John Bercow MP

Curtis Oliver-Smith - MIBTP 2016
June 2017

November 02, 2015


Fourth year MIBTP students Laura Flavell and Nathaniel Davies work in the Tauber lab at the University of Leicester, a lab specialising in insect genetics. For their PIPS projects, they set up an outreach programme called LiveGene, a programme which aims to bring genetics education to life by bringing live fruit flies into GCSE and A-level classrooms. By performing real life experiments with Drosophila, students can learn about genetics principles by testing them first-hand rather than relying on textbooks.

The project is a collaboration with LEBC (Leicestershire Education Business Company), a company with links to schools across Leicestershire. With the help of LEBC, Nathaniel and Laura began the project by meeting with teachers to talk about how the aims of the project could be realised. The idea was to make sure the practicals on offer would target the right parts of the curriculum, that schools would already have the equipment necessary to perform the experiments, and that the teachers would have access to the necessary training to work with fruit flies.

These meetings led to the structure of LiveGene as it is today.

1“The idea of LiveGene is that a teacher interested in working with fruit flies can contact us and join one of our training sessions. Within the space of a few hours, we show the teachers how to work with fruit flies. Our sessions cover mutant identification, sexing, stock maintenance, general handling procedures, and food preparation. At first we only had one or two teachers in Leicester attending these sessions, but now we have hosted sessions for teachers from over 22 schools across the UK, helping to set up fruit-fly practicals across the country.” – Laura Flavell


In addition to providing these free training sessions, LiveGene also provides schools with free fruit flies and starter equipment.

“Once the teachers are ready to start working with flies, we send starter packs out to schools – free of charge. The packs usually contain an assortment of wild-type and mutant flies for schools to run classes with. So far we’ve helped 12 schools in the UK get stocks of fruit flies, and have even sent flies to a school in Brunei!” - Nathaniel

An important part of LiveGene is the delivery of the lessons, so Nathaniel and Laura (and other members of the Tauber lab) have visited several schools to provide training to teachers and to help out with lessons. LiveGene has been featured in local newspapers, and the number of children who have been able to work with fruit flies thanks to LiveGene is now easily in the tens of hundreds; not a bad start for what was originally a three-month placement!


October 12, 2015

Volunteering, community outreach and teaching in Tanzania with Raleigh ICS

Volunteering, community outreach and teaching in Tanzania with Raleigh ICS

As far as the limits for planning your PIPs are concerned, I would say anything is possible. I spent three months in Magaga; a small village in Tanzania, which had a total population of just 2,000 people. I found out about the programme through International Citizen Service (ICS), a government-run organisation by the department for international development (DFID) that enables young people from the UK to travel to developing countries and make a real difference in the fight against poverty. One of the key aspects of ICS is that the UK volunteers were able to work side-by-side with local volunteers, providing a unique and educational once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Raleigh International

Raleigh International is a sustainable development charity that focuses on implementing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practice in developing countries. In Tanzania alone, over 10,000 children under the age of 5 are killed every year as a result of diarrhoea; a disease that is preventable, treatable, and even trivial in our country. The repercussions of poor sanitation and unclean water in Tanzania on education are frightening; with a huge impact on children, especially girls, whose dropout rates coincide with entering puberty. In a country where achieving gender equality is of paramount importance, these setbacks to education not only affect individuals, but the progression of the entire country as a whole.

Life in Magaga

riverMy team and I were placed in a village that had no plumbing system, where residents would collect unclean water from a water pump that was shared with neighbouring villages. The alternative was a microbe-infested river that often ran dry, even in rainy season. For ten weeks, I lived in a homestay with one of the primary school teachers, who welcomed my roommate and I into her home and told us about the challenges that the village faced. There was a 60% known prevalence of HIV within the community, largely propagated through alcoholism and idleness as a result of a lack of farming work due to failing crops. Furthermore, when we arrived, the primary school, which was our main focus of development work, had incredibly poor sanitation facilities, consisting of only three latrines to be shared by the entire school of approximately 400 children.


Our role was to work alongside the community, including the church, women’s groups and primary and secondary schools, in order to encourage the treatment of water and good sanitation practise. Following some research, which involved going door-to-door in the community and completing questionnaires for the school children, we found that the majority of households did not treat water at all, and used dirty water from the pump or river for washing themselves and preparing food. Also, many people did not wash their hands at key times or know about the consequences this could have on the health of their families. We ran WASH workshops with a number of groups within the village to create awareness of techniques such as boiling water and ‘three bowls’ to wash plates and cutlery using soap and bleach, and to stress the importance of sanitation and the effect upon health and disease. I believe we made a significant impact on the practises of the village and by the time we left, many more people had taken our advice and were passing the knowledge on to others.

3Alongside our community outreach, we also worked with SEMA, a local charity based in Singida, Tanzania, to build three new sanitation blocks at the primary school. We assisted with building the blocks themselves, as well as promoting their use through painting murals on the side to encourage hand washing. The infrastructure was an invaluable addition to the village and I hope it will improve the attendance and quality of learning at the primary school in the future.

International Women’s Day

One of my main highlights was holding a WASH event for international women’s day. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that form the basis of outreach programmes like Raleigh were created in 2000 with an aim to reduce poverty by 2015. While considerable progress has been made, not all of the MDGs have been achieved and promoting gender equality and empowering women remains a struggle: to close the gap in the numbers of girls in primary, secondary and university education compared to boys. Worldwide, the disparity is 5greatest in sub-Saharan Africa, and was painfully evident in our village of Magaga, where girls were given the option of marriage or to work as house-girls from as young as 7 years old, while boys aimed for scholarships to study in Dodoma, the closest town, which was three hours away.

Therefore, in order to encourage women and girls in the village, we held an event at the primary school with music, performances and speeches from the school children and significant members of the community. We expected a modest turn out, as our only form of advertising was word of mouth and DIY leaflets created by the volunteers. However, it seemed that most of the village was in attendance and it was a huge success! There were even plans to make it an annual event after we left.

WASH lessons and teaching

For me, the most enjoyable part of the placement and what I though was most effective was teaching primary and secondary school children. While adults might be set in their ways and less pliable to change, it’s children who decide the behaviour of future generations and are instrumental in creating a positive difference. We taught general WASH lessons two or three times a week about water treatment, times of hand washing and the importance of soap, with varying levels of complexity depending on the age group. This was particularly useful to me, as it allowed me to learn how to communicate with people of different ages, once the language barrier was overcome! Also, I was able to teach my own biology lesson to students aged 16-18 about preventable disease and the spread of bacteria through dirty water. While it was a nerve-wracking experience, being my first teaching experience ever, let alone in a foreign, non-English speaking country, it was incredibly rewarding, with many of the students (and volunteers!) telling me how much they learned and that they enjoyed the lesson.

Challenges faced and skills learned

teamThe biggest challenge was the immediate culture shock and being thrown out of my comfort zone from the moment I arrived in Tanzania. After getting accustomed to that, it took time to overcome language barriers and cultural differences in order to work within a team of UK and Tz volunteers. When we first arrived, there was a general feeling of ‘how much of a difference can we really make?’ I struggled to see what personal aid I could provide towards an issue so large. However, over time, we realised that the fight against poverty is slow, but progressive. Although we didn’t see the immediate effects of our being in the village, I knew that we had contributed to positive change.

Personally, I gained so much from the experience. I realised I could be a leader within my peers as well as being able to deal with conflict and stressful situations. Although it was tough, I would recommend ICS as a PIP to anyone who wants to use this time to discover how much you are capable of, while experiencing international development at its forefront.

Priya Joshi, MIBTP 2014

September 15, 2015

Community and Education Team Internship, The Cawthron Institute, Nelson, New Zealand

This PIPS story is probably one that will be echoed time and time again with outreach and community projects, but I believe that it only emphasises the many advantages these placements provide for personal development, and illustrates how rewarding community education and science communication is. Having wanted to be a scientist since the age of 10 it is almost impossible to imagine a desk based job and, as such, is probably my worst nightmare. However over recent years I have become increasingly interested in outreach activities and the importance of communicating science to the general public; I therefore jumped at the opportunity to conduct a project with the Community and Education Team at The Cawthron Institute in Nelson, New Zealand. I arrived knowing very little about what was expected of me and, having worked in Sales, Customer Service, Administration, Telephony and Research I thought that this placement would be of little benefit to me – but I was wrong! There was indeed a plethora of amazing opportunities awaiting me and I was able to gain and refine a considerable number of skills, particularly surrounding my personal development.

RadioWhilst the dull administration tasks such as data entry, filing and letter writing seemed plentiful initially, before long I was thrown head first into event planning and execution. The first challenge – a radio interview! I was required for a 15 minute interview, where I was given the opportunity to explore what I hoped to achieve whilst on placement, the skills I would like to gain, discuss my PhD and research in the UK, as well as share my ambitions and desire to become involved in science in the community. Whilst I was thoroughly terrified it was a fantastic opportunity to improve my public speaking and increase my awareness of how I communicate to different groups of people using different media. The radio show was broadcast across Nelson-Tasman districts and required me to convey important aspects of my research, making it accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Mtoury second challenge, two large public events in one week, and only a few weeks to plan and execute it all. It was madness and truly chaotic, the pressure was on to perform, and perform to the highest standard. Showcasing The Cawthron Institute to the general public needed to be done professionally and executed without error. The challenge was to advertise, organise and execute a Careers Day for schools in the local area and an Open Day with laboratory tours for the general public. Some of my tasks included making telephone calls, answering emails, and preparing documents for the events, I was also responsible for managing bookings and coordinating laboratory tours. I designed and assembled information packs for each student attending the Careers Day as well as Feedback Questionnaires for students, teachers and the general public. Only in New Zealand do you find yourself running around town delivering letters and putting up posters in the middle of Winter, enjoying the sun, as part of your job – I found some pretty creative post boxes on my rounds too! On the Open Day I was participated in organising and guiding laboratory tours which was a brilliant opportunity to engage with some of the most enthusiastic members of the public.

Prior to MIBTP I had no previous knowledge of computer programming and intensely disliked all the programming modules in Term 1 – I never envisaged finding a use for this skill but I am proud to say I am now a complete convert and have discovered the addictive nature of computer programming. When I heard the team telling me that they spend a few weeks trying to allocate judges to student projects for The Science and Technology Fair, I found myself saying “I should be able to write a programme to do that automatically”. They immediately agreed to me conducting this ‘mini-project’, and suddenly I realised I was way out of my depth with no way of turning back. I looked at my options and R-Studio and MATLAB were not really suitable for the type of thing the team required. After identifying the most suitable language I set out to learn visual basic, for Excel spreadsheets, from scratch, I did this and designed and wrote the initial programme in a little over a week. As the team began to see the benefits of this programme the requirements for it started to increase and, as expected, so did the complexity of the code. Another three weeks were spent refining and optimising the code, creating suitable input and output spreadsheets and a ‘user interface’, then finally, just in time for the deadline, the programme was ready. We all sat with baited breath as my co-worker pressed the button for the first time – it worked perfectly! Learning to programme by struggling through the creation of a programme with real benefit was, for me, a turning point. I now look forward to incorporating programming into my PhD to improve the quality aimg7_copy.pngnd speed of my data analysis by automation.

On my penultimate day I was given the opportunity to give a ‘TOM talk’ to the staff at Cawthron about my research to date – this was yet another opportunity for my personal development, to improve my public speaking and ability to convey my research to a non-specialist audience. I had great fun writing my presentation ‘The Antibiotic Apocalypse’ and it went down really well with some great questions at the end. TOM talks are typically videoed and so I was able to watch myself present, which was incredibly useful for identifying aspects for improvement.

The Kiwi’s have a very laid back lifestyle which extends to their work lives, I joined CawthRun and spent an hour or so at lunchtime running some of the most scenic routes you can imagine. Through my work, I also had the opportunity to engage in some Maori Traditions and represented The Cawthron institute by singing their Waiata at a Powhiri – a traditional Welcome Ceremony. I was privileged to see a talented Kapa Haka and Poi performance group which was a great cultural experience.

paraAlong with this type of laidback life comes the Kiwi’s sense of humour which is fantastic and apparent in so many areas of life. A coffee shop situated among vineyards, close to where I was living is aptly named ‘The Grape Escape” and I found a café with the following public notice on the wall “Unsupervised children upstairs will be given a double shot espresso and a cockatoo”. At the weekends I took advantage of all the adventure activities available in New Zealand and went paragliding, swimming with dolphins, whale watching, visited Ngarua Caves, visited one of the sites where The Lord Of The Rings was filmed, bathed in Hanmer hot springs, and spent the evening checking out the night sky at the Mt John’s observatory to name but a few.

whaleI would like to thank all the people that supported me on this three month adventure and helped me to get through the tough times, enabling me to not only survive but make the most of this opportunity. I now look back with pride, knowing that this was truly one of the best experiences of my life. I have met some wonderful people and made some friends for life in New Zealand and will be sure to visit again, and hope to stay in touch with The Cawthron Institute and the Community Education Team. I return home, having gained a good insight into community education, acquired and improved my skill set and have obtained inspiration and ideas for outreach and science communication in the UK.

I can’t recommend this enough, keep dreaming big, push yourself to the limit, get out of your comfort zone, do something new and you may just surprise yourself with what you can achieve – Anna York

June 15, 2015

Cheltenham Science Festival:WHAT IF You let a MIBTP do a PIPS at a huge event for Warwick’s 50th?

Out of all the tasks and responsibilities I have completed for this PIPS placement, writing up my experience and doing it justice is by far going to be the most challenging. I suppose I should start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, so I have heard). At the start, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a PIPS placement, in a slightly arrogant way I assumed, as a mature student, that I had a lot of work experience and I thought that experience of research was really the most important thing for me and that there wasn't anything at all other than hard core research and lab experience that I could benefit from… oh how wrong I was.

blog3b.pngI had always enjoyed the idea of working in outreach and public engagement, bridging the gap between what scientists in imposing lab coats and hazardous looking laboratories actually do and what the general public think they do. I approached my ‘soon-to-be’ PhD project supervisor, Miriam, for some advice and she put me in touch with Charlotte, a recent PhD graduate who worked heavily in outreach and had been hired to organise Warwick’s marquee at The Cheltenham Science Festival.

I met Charlotte a few days later to go through what she wanted me to help with and to get me started on a few tasks. It started off lightly, with some paper work and finding things like tablecloths, then as it got closer the work load increased to designing materials we needed (posters, lanyard inserts etc.) more paperwork and generally assisting Charlotte in all the prep work needed for Cheltenham to happen, and then as if out of nowhere, the day to go to Cheltenham arrived…

The enormity of what Warwick were trying to do hadn't really hit me until I got to Cheltenham and then it started to get real, this mythical marquee we had been obsessing over for the last 6 weeks was suddenly stood before us in a giant flappy blaze of white tarpaulin glory, we walked in to a blank canvas and got straight to work transforming the space into the versatile classroom/showroom/café it was needed to be!

In the following few days this space had to be a diverse landscape, moulding itself to hold engaging and exciting school sessions in the morning, where academics from various departments would get show off their science and deliver some ‘wow factors’ to eager brains and the next generation of scientists. Later in the day it was home to a drop in session where members of the public come to talk to the people behind the science, cutting out the media middlemen. Finally in the afternoon the marquee played host to Warwick’s Ideas Café, an informal platform for academics to engage further with mature audiences to answer questions and encourage discussion.

It is probably well worth noting that this was the first time Warwick had been involved with the science festival, most universities had a stall or a small tent and everyday was a rough repeat throughout the week, Warwick’s mentality to the schedule can be summed up as ‘go big or go home’! Everyday we had different events on, not just one, sometimes we had three to five different sessions, each with their own set ups and equipment. Not only was this this a big event by Warwick’s standards, even Cheltenham Festivals were in awe of what we were trying to achieve and deliver.

blog5.pngDuring the week I was exposed to a huge range of platforms for engagement with the public and I got to be involved with some of the demonstrations during the drop in sessions. I was privileged enough to work along side some amazing people from all areas of the university from project organisers to Pro-Vice Chancellors and I also got to meet some of the people occupying the highest positions at the university. All in all, this was a network enthusiast’s dream! I got to hear about Frankenstein robots, see the crown jewels (replica), learn how to grow crystals, how to make a diamond, what we can use magnets for and supercool conductors.

The week was hitch-less and seamless, everything was organised to within an inch of its life and anything that popped up, unplanned, was quickly sorted as we were a strong team gaining more and more experience (in buckets) throughout the week. We were given access to the VIP lounge where were were able to catch our breath for five minutes as well as a bite to eat and all the teas and coffee you could drink. I played it cool sitting next to Lord Professor Robert Winston, renowned physicists Brian Cox and Marcus Chown, who no matter how hard I tweeted, would not visit our marquee!

blog6.pngWhen it came to Sunday, our final day at the festival, it was a mixture of emotions, myself and Charlotte had worked the entire festival from start to finish; from before doors open to well after doors close with very little sleep in-between. There was a sad, exhausted, satisfied atmosphere in the air knowing that we had done a good job and that everyone who visited our marquee or taken part in a demonstration had left happy that they had received the best treatment or service that could have.

blog7.pngSitting here now, writing this blog, there is so much I have had to skip over and miss out (what happens in Cheltenham, stays in Cheltenham), so my experience here on screen may not do justice to the phenomenal time I had in Cheltenham. If you are a current PhD student looking for PIPS inspiration then I recommend looking to work in public engagement at the University of Warwick. The team are amazing and the experience will open doors and put you in touch with people you wouldn't have any chance of meeting otherwise. If you are a prospective student who is still looking for a university to do your PhD I can not speak any more highly of the MIBTP and of the University of Warwick, the entire team were welcoming and respected me as part of the team and not just as an intern to fetch and carry.

In the haze of the aftermath, with the wrapping up and unpacking, through bleary tired eyes, one thing is certain, I have made memories to last a lifetime that I wouldn't have had if it wasn't for my internship through my PhD. Great things grow from small PIPS.

Matthew Teft - 2014 MIBTP student

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