Welcoming the research scientists of tomorrow

Trishant, Jenny and Alex, all PhD candidates in the Department of Biological Sciences, were part of a team who invited local secondary school students to Birkbeck to take part in scientific experiments and to show them the College’s suite of electron microscopes. They recount the experience here. 

On the 29 March, our normally peaceful research institute – the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck – became a bustling classroom. We – a team of research scientists from the ISMB Electron Microscopy laboratory – were hosting a group of thirty 14-15-year-olds from Regent High School in Camden to plunge them into the unfamiliar world of biomolecular research. The visitors, who are on their way to taking GCSEs, were taken on a whistle-stop tour of our high-tech research facilities, and even given the chance for some hands-on experiences! This was in no small part to show off our suite of electron microscopes, with our visitors having the rare opportunity to see our brand-new world leading electron microscope, the Titan Krios. We hoped our efforts would enable our visitors to get engaged with the exciting world of research, help them understand more about what goes on at universities, and, most importantly, stimulate their scientific curiosity.

In groups of six, the students were given a taste of all stages of the process of structural biology studies – from preparing biological samples to the final data analysis. Work that would usually take months was showcased within one afternoon to convey the importance and excitement behind the scientific method at each step. After a discussion of cells, molecules, and atoms, students were quick to appreciate the applications of light and electron microscopy. The importance of understanding the underlying principles of living things and the joy of discovery were quickly grasped by the students, who were engaged and inquisitive. They were not shy to ask questions not only about the science, but about the humans behind it – “What does a PhD student do?”, “Why did you chose to become a scientist?”, “What is a typical day in your job like?”. Some openly expressed their long-standing fascination with biology, chemistry, and physics. Others were just beginning their exploration of different disciplines and discussed the impact that scientific developments have had on their lives. Throughout the day, we and our visitors had valuable conversations centered around scientific concepts and beyond.

After much fun and awe for our visitors, our day wrapped up and we were fortunate enough to receive feedback in the form of a board of sticky notes. It was reassuring to read that the students each enjoyed their visit – something that was clear throughout the day. For many of them, this event was the first opportunity on a light microscope, looking at specimens ranging from developing chick embryos to the striped DNA from a fruit fly, or getting close to a behemoth multi-million-pound electron microscope. Both students and teachers spoke with us about the benefits of getting hands-on with equipment and elements of the scientific process, and even asked about opportunities available in higher education. From our point of view, this event was a success in many ways, allowing us to learn from each other and our visitors. We opened a small part of our world of research, and in doing so, we hope we inspired the next generation of scientists.


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