Part of the fun of being a scientist is sharing what we've learnt. I think it's our responsibility too.
I took part in a 'book sprint' as part of the Manchester Science Festival. This was a new experience for me, so I was pretty excited to see what it is possible to create in such a short space of time. We were joined by some talented illustrators and patient copy editors and produced 20,000 words between us in two days. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to collaborate with people from such a wide variety of disciplines and also refreshing that the authors were drawn from all strata of the academic hierarchy. The event was organised to celebrate the UNESCO International year of Light and the resulting book A Flash of Light: The science of light and colour is now out.
Throughout 2015 I toured Girl Guide Units in Leicestershire with hands on STEM activities based around the imaging techniques used in neuroscience research. The Guides experimented with fluorescence, used stereo microscopes to investigate the structure of common materials and built their own simple microscopes using the tools and components used by professional optical engineers. To demonstrate image formation I brought along my pop up camera obscura and we made pinhole cameras for the girls to take home. We discussed the important role of microscopy in biomedical research by playing 'guess the image' using A1 prints of some beautiful biomedical microscopy images from the Wellcome Trust and the 'Brainbow' images kindly provided by Prof. Tamily Weissman and the Lichtman lab. Recently I've expanded the activities to include a collection of 'optical curiousities' including, a teleidoscope, a mirascope, deep sea fish glasses, fibre optics and an invisibility demonstration made for us by scientific glass blower Gayle Price. I developed these activity evenings for the Girl Guides to celebrate the 2015 UNESCO International Year of light and all the participants recieved a glow in the dark International Year of Light Celebration Badge.
Another aim of this project and the UNESCO International Year of Light was to encourage girls to consider physics and engineering as interesting and achievable careers for women. Is there really a problem with girls being put off the physical sciences? The Institute of Physics reported that 23,811 boys, compared to only 6,159 girls, took A-level physics in 2011 and 46% of UK co-ed secondary schools had no girls studying A-level physics at all. Only 5.5% of engineering professionals are women and the UK has the lowest proportion of women in the STEM workforce in Europe - so yes - clearly there is a problem! Physics and engineering are an important part of building our future - and we need everyone to contribute their skills.
Thanks to Girlguiding Leicestershire, Gillian Gates, Dr Ruth Barber, Gayle Price, Dr Gillian Butcher and Nishad Karim for their support and also to the Wellcome Trust, University of Leicester and Thorlabs for funding this project. We have occasionally expanded these activities into whole day wide games suitable for camps and I am happy to run them at festivals and community events too. If you would like to borrow microscopes, the camera obscura, build your own microscope kits or any of the optical paraphanalia feel free to get in touch. Teachers may be interested in the Royal Microscopical Society Loan Scheme which provides a simple to use set of microscopes and activities for use in school or after school clubs.
I was commissioned by the BBC to use the imaging techniques I developed during my PhD to produce high definition electon microscopy sequences of the closure of stomatal pores for the BBC 2 documentary series 'How to Grow a Planet'.
In 2012 and 2013 I designed and ran a couple of interactive science exhibits for Bristol's annual Festival of Nature. The first was 'magnetic deep sea fishing' a giant version of the children's favourite, with a scientific twist inspired by the month I spent aboard the research ship RRS James Cook collecting visual pigment samples from the creatures of the Porcupine Abyssal plane in the North Atlantic. Children could catch (pictures of!) weird and wacky deep sea creatures, ranging from angler fish to ostracods, and then try to identify them like a marine biologist. The beautiful images of deep sea creatures were kindly provided by my colleagues Dr Camilla Sharkey and Prof. Julian Partridge. Just like the traditional game, children could also accidentally catch boots and plastic bags, sadly this was also my experience on the research cruise, even hundred of miles off shore. Complete with a playmobile research ship, the activity often served as a good starting point for discussion of research at sea and marine conservation. If you would like to run magnetic deep sea fishing at your event or make your own version please do feel free to get in touch.
I also designed 'Octopus Eye Test' an interactive exhibit designed to test your perception of the polarization state of light. This is a visual ability that most of us don't know even realize we have, but that is relatively common in the animal kingdom. I created the test using a modified LCD screen that allows the production of polarization patterns by varying the angle of polarized light produced by pixels on the screen while keeping all other visual stimuli (like the intensity and wavelength) the same. We normally use this for research purposes but on this occasion, just for fun, the polarization pattern I chose was that of a Snellen eye chart and I asked people to see if they could use their polarization sense to read the letters - many of them, particularly the children, could read it pretty easily.
By looking through a piece of polarising filter or by wearing our octopus headdress with built in polaroid visor the polarization signals are instantly converted to changes in contrast and the eye test looks just like a normal one and the letters are obvious. This makes the point that many animals, particularly invertebrates are more sensitive to polarization signals than humans and they use skylight polarization cues for e.g. navigation.
Polarization sensitivity in humans is mediated through 'Haidinger's brush' a visual effect which is a result of the orientation of macula pigment molecules in the retina. Low levels of macular pigment have been linked to the eye disease AMD so in the long run it may be possible to use a more sophisticated verison of the octopus eye test as an early stage disgnostic indicator for susceptibility to AMD. If changes in the concentration or spatial ordering of macular pigment in the retina can be detected before significant sight loss has occurred, people could be referred for treatment earlier resulting in better outcomes for patients. At present the nature of the relationship between macular pigment and AMD remains unclear and is the subject of ongoing research.
I first became involved in public engagement when I demonstrated for 'Cambridge Hands-On Science' a fabulous student organization which runs Crash, Bang, Squelch at the Cambridge Science Festival and a summer roadshow taking free interactive science activities into town halls, market places, schools and the odd field, all around the country. We scrubbed cornflour off the streets of Stroud, we discussed the physics of sound with the homeless in Ross on Wye. We demonstrated angular momentum until the spinning children of Tewkesbury turned green! If you would like CHaOS to visit your town - just get in touch with them! Inspired by their good example I have since developed a few outreach projects of my own - thanks CHaOS.