My National Teaching Fellowship was awarded for the incorporation of science communication, outreach and public engagement with research into the undergraduate curriculum. This is a subject that I have always found fascinating and have had a personal commitment to. One of my aims in teaching students is to encourage them to consider the communication of science as an inherent part of their role in society. My award was for the development of final year projects in science communication, drawing our undergraduate students into a central and influential role in our outreach and widening participation initiatives.
In recent years, my teaching focus has moved towards postgraduate training in the biological sciences. However, I am also programme director for an MSc in Science, Communication and Society, and all of our MSc students in a number of laboratory disciplines undertake a module in science communication. This has allowed us to engage with some creative projects that encourage students to think creatively, and beyond the sciences, to explore how we might engage the public with science. A recent project involved postgraduate students, research scientists, historians and artists working together on a project entitled Chain Reaction!, the culmination of which was an art exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). This technique, a method for exponential amplification of genetic material, is a cornerstone of modern biology, applied in forensics, diagnostics, and biotechnology; and yet conceptually it is a very simple chemical process that takes place inside the closed lid of a fancy heater. It seemed to be a timely, flexible and relevant aspect of modern biology with which to engage the public who might not otherwise think too much about science.
Combining students, artists and scientists provided fruitful dialogue. Having artists in the laboratory environment, doing experiments, was a revelation; not just the care with which they undertook their experimental work, but their boundless curiosity and questions that challenged scientists’ perspectives on the process. An example: in explaining that one of the enzymes often used in PCR to copy DNA, has a high error rate, one student was asked, “what do you mean by error?” On explaining that the enzyme, a DNA polymerase, sometimes inserts the wrong component of the genetic code during the PCR process, the artists replied that surely this was what is, in part, responsible for evolution, so cannot really be considered as an error. This broader perspective on science, far removed from the isolated processes that scientists deal with on a day to day basis, was a compelling example of how different disciplines can give useful perspectives on our own subjects.
So what of the exhibition? Well, it was fascinating to see what aspects of the process different artists explored. One artist, with an existing interest in the concept of metamorphosis, became fascinated by the aforementioned error rate of the polymerase. This error rate is a pain for scientists, but inspiration for Sarah Craske, whose conceptual art explored the idea that the PCR reaction is a creative process generating new biological material. (A bioscientist would call this random mutagenesis). Sarah took DNA from daffodil flowers, ran the DNA through multiple cycles of PCR to actively encourage copying “errors”, then used this error-strewn DNA as an ink in a hacked inkjet printer. As an allegory of the story of Narcissus and Echo, in which Narcissus falls in love with his own image and turns into a flower, Sarah’s work The Echo of Narcissus presented a daffodil along with an image of the same, printed with the modified DNA “ink” and stained with a fluorescent DNA-specific stain often used in DNA labs.
Annie Halliday was fascinated by the exponential rate at which the PCR reaction is able to “double” the DNA sequence during each cycle (a typical PCR reaction is 30 cycles, giving an impressive billion-fold amplification of the original genetic signal – at least theoretically – hence its use in forensics). Annie was able to reflect this using a simple crochet technique; starting with a small circle, each subsequent concentric circle doubled the number of crochet stitches. The resulting crochets, shown here suspended from the art gallery ceiling, gave a strong visual representation of this exponential growth. As the number of circles (and cycles) increased, the resulting structure had to find space by ruffling. The structures resembled biological structures that have to do the same; coral, or benign, non-invasive tumours, for instance. As well as helping Annie with the lab work, our students co-ran a crochet workshop in the Sidney Cooper Art Gallery as umbrella event to the exhibition. I am not sure this is exactly what they imagined they would be doing when they registered for an MSc in Cancer Biology…but they saw how a simple craft technique had represented and communicated their science so brilliantly to an audience of all ages who learned about cutting edge science through handicrafts.
My favourite? Perhaps the work that didn’t just explore the science, but the environment in which it takes place and the people that do the work. In exploring rituals, a focus of his artistic practice, Stig Evans’ experience in the lab revealed the personalities, relationships and behaviours that this creative working environment builds. Why do scientists put the reaction components in the tube in the same order? Or put their tubes in the same position in the PCR machine that controls the cycles? Or wear two pairs of gloves instead of just one? Or, when PCR fails, time after time (as it often does) after months of troubleshooting, put a lucky toy on top of the machine during the reaction? Science, or superstition? Well, scientists, however rational and evidence-driven, are prone to the same frustrations and insecurities as anyone else. So I loved his church kneeling cushions, embroidered with adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine – the building blocks of DNA – that could just add a prayer to the PCR gods to the rituals that exist in laboratory culture.