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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Combining postgraduate study with raising six children

Bioinformatics graduate Rudo Supple returned to education after spending 15 years out of the workplace while she raised her children.

After 15 years spent raising her six children, Rudo Supple felt ready for a new challenge. Having studied Economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, Rudo couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she’d made the wrong choice about what to study at A-level, and decided to look into going back to university to study science.

She initially applied to study medical statistics at Birkbeck, but while looking up information on the types of career that medical statistics graduates went onto she came across the term ‘bioinformatics’. She recalls: “I had never even heard of bioinformatics, but then I discovered that Birkbeck offered a Master’s in it and when I looked at the course content I realised that this was the right programme for me.”

Despite having no background in either biological sciences or computer science, Rudo enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics with Systems Biology after talking to the course admissions tutor.

“When I started the course my aim was just to pass. I wanted to challenge myself academically after so many years without an academic challenge but I really didn’t know whether I would be able to keep up with the subject material without having prior knowledge.

“It was incredibly daunting to come back into education after so long. Even the one area that I was vaguely familiar with from my undergraduate studies – statistics – had changed enormously, and whereas I had been used to looking things up in tables, we were now running them through computational models.”

While many part-time students at Birkbeck are combining their study with work and therefore need to study in the evenings, for Rudo, who was commuting to Birkbeck from Oxford, it made sense to follow the daytime modules from the full-time programme and study from 2pm-5pm – which meant that she could be back in Oxford for the children’s bedtimes.

Rudo’s children were initially sceptical about the idea of her going to university – something they saw as ‘for young people’ and which was only a few years away for her eldest son himself. “I think that now my kids just see study as ‘what mum does’. I’m pleased to have modelled for them the idea that your education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university as a young person – that there’s no time limit on learning.”

After receiving a merit in her first module, the doubts about whether she’d be able to complete the programme slowly began to recede for Rudo. She says: “You pass one module, then another, and after a while you realise that it’s not going too badly. But at the end of the first year, when my tutor said that I could potentially get a distinction I just laughed. I had an excellent supervisor for my project and in the end I did go on to get a distinction overall.”

Not only did Rudo begin to believe that she was capable of passing the course at Birkbeck, she began thinking about a PhD as well. She says: “Commuting to Birkbeck two afternoons a week was manageable but I knew that it would be easier for me if I could do my PhD closer to where I live. The academic standard at Birkbeck was so high that I knew that if I was good enough to do a PhD there, then I would be good enough to do one at Oxford, and so that is where I applied.”

Now in the first year of her PhD at Oxford, Rudo has no regrets about taking a chance on a brand new subject at Birkbeck. She says: “I’m so grateful to all of the tutors and my supervisors at Birkbeck. They never minded when I asked a thousand questions about everything – and actually liked it when students asked questions as it showed how engaged we were with the subject matter.

“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband, mother and friends who looked after the kids at weekends and evenings when I was studying. They all knew how important this was to me and supported me throughout.

“In my dissertation I wrote inside the cover page that you should follow your dreams. If you have support – from a good university and from your family – then nothing is too outrageous and you should follow your most fantastic dreams – there is no limit. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”

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Activists and architects of change

Ana Maria Portugal, final year PhD student at the Birkbeck Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) and its affiliated TABLET Project, writes about the Bloomsbury Festival workshop she developed with the Birkbeck Public Engagement Team to get families thinking about screen time. 

On Sunday 21 October 2018 I was, together with the rest of the TABLET Team from Birkbeck CBCD, at the Brunswick Square taking part at the Family Hub of the Bloomsbury Festival. Together with the Public Engagement Team I liaised with the Festival, applied for funding, and designed a workshop where families had to back-stitch a join the dots emoji pattern. Written on the postcards were questions that prompted several important discussion strands about screen time – such as online safety and type of content.

We created a space for the whole family to promote gentle discussions about how screens are potentially changing our life. Inspired by facts and conversations, families sewed their own emoji response on screen templates and took them away as souvenirs.

The TABLET Team has been active in science dissemination and public engagement, working with the BBC, Guardian, and the Polka Theatre. But this time, I wanted to facilitate discussions on the topic of screen time in a gentle way, inspired by the work on craftivism and gentle protest by Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective. After attending the ‘Developing Interactive Activities: Planning Workshop’ and hearing about the Bloomsbury Festival, I felt that its theme ‘Activists and Architects of Change’ fitted really well with what I wanted to do!

We had a big range of families participating (families with very young children, grandparents with older kids, groups of teenagers) and actively engaging with the activity, learning how to back-stitch and having conversations about screen time and use. Visitors could choose from four designs which had different levels of difficulty – the easiest one could be done by a four-year-old but the most difficult design was also the one that represented a more complex topic of discussion (so it required more time to craft and deliberate).

One year after I joined the Public Engagement Team’s workshop I came back again to share my experience. Looking back, I realised how putting together the workshop by myself, from developing the idea to organising its logistics, was very empowering, but also brought some specific challenges. Will I find the funding? What is the right balance between promoting scientific discussion and entertaining? How can I make sure the activity requires enough time to enable conversations while not compromising the time people have available?

So, for those interested in engaging the public with their work, here are my thoughts:

  • In general people like to chat and are very interested in understanding what academic people and scientists do. So if you are also keen in sharing your work, just go for it.
  • However, if you do have something physical that people can engage with or take home (even if it is not working exactly as it should!), that will attract more people and will make them stay longer too.
  • Be enthusiastic and kind when engaging with the public, and try not to presume how much they know or judge their views. Remember that public engagement is about a positive impact and that that will come from a two-way interaction!
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Science Week 2018: The Rosalind Franklin Lecture at the ISMB Symposium

Dr Clare Sansom reports on Birkbeck’s annual Rosalind Franklin Lecture, delivered this year as part of the biennial Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) Symposium. The lecture was delivered by Berkeley’s Professor Eva Nogales, a distinguished scholar in electron microscopy research.

Professor Eva Nogales (right) with Birkbeck’s Professor Nick Keep

Since 2016, Birkbeck has held an annual lecture named in honour of perhaps the most famous woman scientist ever to work there: Rosalind Franklin, whose extraordinary, meticulous experimental work was a necessary part of solving the structure of DNA. This lecture is part of Birkbeck’s commitment to the Athena SWAN equality initiative, and is it given by a woman scientist distinguished in one of the disciplines represented there.

The 2018 lecture differed from its predecessors in forming part of both Birkbeck’s annual Science Week and the eighth ISMB Symposium. The Institute of Structural Molecular Biology (ISMB) is a centre of excellence, founded in 2003 to promote and integrate multi-disciplinary research in molecular, cell and structural biology in Birkbeck and its much larger neighbour, UCL. It holds a varied programme of events for faculty members, research staff and students; symposia, held in ‘even years’, are intensive conferences, generally held over two days and featuring talks from international research leaders.

This symposium was held over two afternoons on Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 June, with the Rosalind Franklin lecture as the last one on the first day. In planning the symposium, its organisers chose to highlight one technique among all those available for researchers at the ISMB: electron microscopy, as used to study the atomic structures of large protein complexes and ‘molecular machines’. The Institute’s director, Gabriel Waksman, highlighted Birkbeck’s acquisition of a new and very powerful electron microscope – a Titan Krios – in his introduction as ‘something to celebrate’. According to the School of Science Facebook page, Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences is the smallest UK university department to house such a powerful microscope, and it is only through the ISMB that it is able to punch so far above its weight. And the Rosalind Franklin lecturer, Eva Nogales from the University of California in Berkeley, was only one of several distinguished proponents of this technique to present their research during the symposium.

Few women have achieved as much in electron microscopy research as Nogales. Following a short introduction by Professor Nicholas Keep, Dean of the Faculty of Science at Birkbeck, she began her Rosalind Franklin lecture with thanks. She paid tribute to two of the distinguished researchers present, Helen Saibil and Ken Holmes, describing Saibil, the Bernal Professor of Structural Biology at Birkbeck, as an ‘inspirational’ pioneering woman in electron microscopy. Holmes, who had given one of the previous talks at the symposium, worked with Rosalind Franklin as a PhD student at Birkbeck in the 1950s and went on to make ground-breaking discoveries about the structure of the muscle protein, actin.

Nogales’ main theme during her lecture was her lab’s efforts to decipher the structures of several large, multi-protein complexes that are involved in the process of gene expression. The different types of cells in our bodies – with a few odd exceptions, such as cancer cells – all contain exactly the same DNA in the chromosomes in the cell nucleus. What makes a brain cell differ from a bone cell or a heart call is how the information carried by the genes on those chromosomes is expressed in the functional molecules, mainly proteins.  Only a fraction of the genes in a genome are expressed in a given cell at any particular time. Gene expression is the term given to this incredibly complex and exquisitely sensitive process, which can be divided into two stages expressed simplistically as ‘DNA to RNA’ and ‘RNA to protein’. Work in the Nogales lab focuses on two protein complexes that are involved in the first sub-process, the transcription of the DNA sequences of genes into RNA. These bear the rather cumbersome names of polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) and transcription factor II D (TFIID).

If the DNA in each human chromosome could be stretched out it would measure tens of centimetres in length. It is packed and compressed to fit into the microscopic cell nucleus by winding around histone proteins to form circular units of structure called nucleosomes. Proteins in the ‘transcription machinery’ can only access the DNA to start gene expression if these are loosely packed. PRC2, as its full name implies, represses this process: it does so by adding methyl groups to the alkaline lysine residues of the histones, making the nucleosomes pack more tightly together. The protein complex therefore forms an ‘on-off switch’ for gene expression. Disrupting its function can lead to the uncontrolled cell growth and multiplication that is characteristic of cancer cells and it is therefore a useful target for the design of anti-cancer drugs.

Nogales explained that PRC2 is a very large protein complex and that determining its structure using electron microscopy presented a considerable challenge. The first structures, obtained before the ‘resolution revolution’ in this technique, could only show separate protein molecules as ‘blobs’: later, better structures that revealed the positions of individual atoms proved that these were ‘accurate but not very precise’. The complex is now known to exist in several distinct structural states and to be able to add methyl groups (‘active’) in two of them. The main difference between these is in the position of one helix, which is bent against the rest of the molecule in the ‘compact active’ conformation but straightens away from it in the ‘extended active’ one.  PRC2 binds to two protein co-factors in ways that mimic the binding of the flexible ‘tails’ of the histone proteins in methylated and unmethylated forms respectively.

She then showed some even more impressive structures to explain how the complex interacts with nucleosomes. One complex binds between a pair of nucleosomes, and as long as the DNA that links the two is the right length, binding the first nucleosome positions the second so that the right amino acids are brought into the right position in the PCR2 active site for methylation to occur efficiently.

The second complex discussed, TFIID, is active exactly when PRC2 is not, as its presence is necessary to begin the process through which DNA is transcribed into RNA. This begins with the step-by-step assembly of proteins close to the position on the DNA where transcription is due to start, forming a ‘preinitiation complex’. TFIID is the first component of this complex to assemble, and this ‘nucleates’ the complex by recruiting other transcription factors so RNA synthesis can begin. Nogales described distinctive structures of parts of the preinitiation complex obtained by members of her group, finishing by showing some unpublished work on its structure and dynamics that included this vital component. If this fascinating lecture has inspired the many young electron microscopists in the audience as much as Helen Saibil’s work inspired Nogales, then the future of the discipline will be in good – and often female – hands.

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