• Danny

PIPS at the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre

As part of my funding from EastBio, I am required to carry out at 12-week placement. The placement itself, or PIPS, is meant to improve employability skills and as such, EastBio recommend that it is in a field unrelated to the research you are doing in your PhD to broaden your range of transferrable skills. I finished my placement in December and would like to tell you about my experience.

I did my PIPS at the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC). As a science outreach centre, EBSOC provides workshops to schools (from primary to secondary) in a purpose-built teaching laboratory. This lab is state-of-the-art and designed for these workshops.

In my role as an intern I had several responsibilities, which included:

  • Supporting workshops

  • Supporting the team with various public engagement activities

  • Writing follow up material for the workshops

  • Engaging in social media and marketing

  • Using my data analysis skills by making infographics

  • Producing videos to promote the centre and help nervous visitors with a visitors’ guide video.

Supporting workshops

I helped set up and tidy up before and after each workshop. While I experienced several different types of workshops, including an ELISA workshop, a gene editing workshop, and a special bee workshop, by far the most frequent one was a PCR workshop. As I tutor biology on the side, I can really appreciate the value of this particular workshop. It is curriculum-linked (as are all the workshops), focussing on genetics, DNA, and PCR.

It starts off with students tasting a strip of paper. Blank and confused looks are exchanged until they are told that this is the control. They then taste the second piece of paper prepared for them. Within seconds, most of the class are pulling faces and making disgusted noises. However, others in the class can agree that it is an unpleasant taste but not all that bad. Still others are confused and can’t taste a thing. Did they get a control paper again? The compound they are tasting (or not!) is called PTC and is a bitter molecule, similar to those found in Brussels sprouts. On a larger scale, about 70% of the UK population can taste this molecule. What’s that all about? Well, the students have just determined their phenotype: Taster, Weak Taster, or Non-Taster. This phenotype is dependent on the shape and function of a particular taste receptor, which can be mutated to become non-functional.

Next, the students are tasked with determining their genotype of this taste-receptor. To do this, they take their own cheek cells, extract their own DNA, amplify this DNA using PCR, cut this DNA using restriction enzymes, and finally run is on a gel to see what their genotype is. The use of restriction enzymes is particularly clever; the wild-type version of this gene has a sequence that is GGCC. However, if you have a mutation you are a Non-Taster. This mutation is GCCC. The restriction enzyme recognises the wild-type sequence and cuts between GG and CC. However, if the sequence is GCCC it cannot cut. Therefore, when the students finally run their digested DNA on the gel, Tasters will have two bands of DNA as the enzyme has cut but Non-Tasters will have only one band. And the Weak Tasters? They will have three bands as only one allele will have the mutation, so they have a mix of GGCC and GCCC in their DNA.

I worked closely with groups of four students and helped them understand the process and teach them how to use scientific instruments such as pipettes and microfuges. I absolutely loved this workshop – it is such a clever design and I just loved seeing the students understand the concepts they have been learning in school.

Supporting the team with various public engagement activities

Given the small size of the team it was often all hands-on deck for various events. As I started during the Midlothian Science Festival, I helped out with events such as Knit A Neuron. It was great fun getting to experience different forms of public engagement to a variety of different audiences. It was also interesting to see how flexible one really has to be, depending on the audience that shows up!

Writing follow up material for the workshops

This one came about because I had actually stalled on one of my video projects and was waiting on others to come back to me to move ahead. I started writing follow-up workbooks for each workshop to help students work through what they did in the workshops. I used my knowledge as a biology tutor to include material that I know students struggle with.

Engaging in social media and marketing

I learned a lot of about social media and marketing while working at EBSOC. I helped prepare tweets and worked on the website. I also did a course offered by my Uni required to edit the website, which I found incredibly useful! I have been thinking a lot about my own personal “branding” and marketing as a researcher – because isn’t that what conferences are about?

Using my data analysis skills by making infographics

Again, this is another skill I will certainly be using in my career as a scientist – what are posters but infographics? Clear, concise, and with a strong take home message!

Producing videos to promote the centre and help nervous visitors with a visitors’ guide video

This was my main output. I filmed, directed, scripted, and edited several videos promoting EBSOC to different audiences (primary, secondary, researchers - will link to that soon). I also generated short videos for specific workshops (PCR, ELISA, Which Little Piggy?) . It was a great opportunity for me to improve my cinematography skills (that sounds so pretentious!). I also made a video for visitors that are nervous about coming to the centre - it is a walkthrough of what happens during a workshop. You can watch it here.

I absolutely loved my time working at EBSOC; the work was fun and engaging, but what really made it an incredible experience was the team. I was so supported by Jayne and Nicola; I was heard and valued. I felt competent and this massively boosted my confidence. Since I finishing my PIPS I have been back once to support one workshop and it most certainly won’t be the last!

For more info on EBSOC, click here!

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