Raising my head above the (lab) parapet

Last week was British Science Week and the Division took part in an exhibition in the corridors of St Thomas’ Hospital to highlight the research that we do here. Claire Thornton, Lecturer in KCL Perinatal Brain Injury Group talks about her experience.

Science Week stickers

One of the great things about being a cell biologist is that no two days are the same. At a fundamental level, there are new discoveries to be made and problems to be solved; nothing ever beats that rare moment when you know your experiment has worked unequivocally, your cells actually behaved in the way you predicted and your hypothesis really is true! As you climb the science career ladder further, the lab work becomes balanced by writing papers and grants, giving talks, teaching and supervision, all of which bring more variety (not to mention their own peculiar challenges). But one thing I rarely get a chance to do is present what we do directly to the public. I was able to change that last week, by taking part in a British Science Week exhibition at St Thomas’ Hospital. The exhibition was also a chance for healthcare scientists to showcase their various and diverse fields so we would be in good company.

The research in my lab aims to discover the molecular mechanisms behind brain injury in preterm and term babies. Currently there are no treatments available for preterm brain injury and only one, therapeutic hypothermia, for term brain injury. We believe that understanding these disease mechanisms will enable us to identify targets for which new therapies can be designed. This is obviously a very emotive area so it was with a little trepidation that we planned our exhibition.

Ana getting ready for pipetting

We set up a variety of microscopes to show people the differences in post-mortem brain tissue from babies with no brain injury compared with babies who experienced term brain injury. We also brought with us a fluorescence microscope to look inside live neurons at structures such as nuclei and mitochondria, and the changes that occur in them when a cell death mechanism is triggered. Finally, as we work with such small volumes, we challenged our visitors to have a go at using our pipettes to measure out anything from 1ml down to 1μl (a millionth of a litre)!

Veena explaining what visitors are seeing through the microscope

What a positive experience! Ana, Veena, Ginger and I had lots of interest in our work and some very searching questions about our research. Initially I was concerned that visitors might be put off by the idea of talking about injured babies, but it was exactly the opposite. We seemed to be explaining and answering questions solidly for 4 hours! The overriding opinion we heard was that it was a pity these exhibitions didn’t happen more often, and that there should be some kind of schools roadshow. The adults were as enthusiastic as the children and were very good at getting stuck in! Of the children and young adults I talked to, the majority were considering a career in science, engineering or medicine, and were very keen to interact with all of the exhibits, both on our stand and the others. There were teams from Medical Physics, Cardiovascular and Biomedical Resources showing everything from cardiac ultrasound and 3D printed hearts to wireless robots directed by arm movements and making strawberry DNA.

Me pointing out the coloured neurons

For me, not only was it a reminder about why we do this work, it was also a chance to reconnect with my fundamental awe at the elegance of brain cells and their interconnections.  How these complex cells sense their environment and communicate with each other and how trauma alters their behaviour and triggers their death is something I am happy to work on for a very long time.

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