Alison J. Sinclair's blog posts for 2015

Taking Science To The Public: The Addiction Continues



“Discussing science with the public - what would I say or do?” – is a wary but quite understandable reaction from many academics. These personal encounters are critical to spreading the messages that science is important, science is fun and that science research is still needed. The key challenge that academics face is to overcome our natural hesitancy and have a go. We now have a team of 15 or so researchers (known as the DNA detectives) eager to talk about DNA to the public – what it is, how information is stored and how to get it out of living organisms to have a look at. The lessons that I learnt from our experiences are that public engagement is possible and it can also be fun and informative for all concerned.

But what are the secrets of a successful experience? I recommend the following:

• Go as a team. For hands-on activities it is more effective to work as a team.

• Harness enthusiasm. You need to start it going, but hopefully the team will sustain this.

• Obtain funding. Relatively small amounts will help if you want a display or hands-on activity. We started with some money associated with a research grant from the Medical Research Council, followed by funding from the University of Sussex. For 2015 we applied for and were awarded a grant from the Biochemical Society.

• Organization. Offer your services to an existing Science Event - they know their audience and have event management experience. Try our local STEM network – you can become a stem ambassador and access advice, pre-designed activities and insurance. Plan your content several months in advance with your team. Expensive research equipment will be of little use to you - don’t even rely on having wi-fi available on the day. I suggest identifying between one and three key concepts that you want to get across and then get inventive, Blue Peter style. Test your ideas and get feedback from nearby non-scientists. Finally, hold a final planning meeting at least a week in advance and have detailed lists of responsibilities and a time schedule finalized.

• Be flexible. After all this detailed planning you will need to be prepared to be flexible on the day, things will go off-schedule and you will have to adapt as you go. If possible have one team member available as a runner to deal with the unexpected glitches. After the event discuss the feedback with your team, plan any changes for the next time you run it and book in for the following year – once you have experienced public engagement activities you will want more!

DNA detectives will be presenting at the BigBang South East Festival on 30th June 2015.


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How does a cancer virus take over a cell when it replicates? - reprogramming the expression of the human genome



How does a cancer virus take over a cell when it replicates?

- reprogramming the expression of the human genome

Viruses infect all life forms and each virus uses a unique approach to hijack its host cell and turn it into a virus replication factory. The virus that fascinates me, Epstein-Barr virus, infects people and causes cancers that are often fatal.

Epstein-Barr virus has a remarkable relationship with people, often infecting infants and persisting within a person for life. During much of this time the virus enters a state of latency within cells and no virus replication occurs. However, once the lytic cycle is reactivated a cascade of viral gene expression ensues, the viral genome is replicated, and then virions are assembled and released, liberating hundreds of copies of virus from each cell.  

A long-term enigma that puzzled me about Epstein-Barr virus replication was whether the virus exploits some of the approximately 20,000 genes within the human cell to help its replication? Or whether it relies on its own genes and simply reuses the cellular contents as building blocks to generate new virus particles.

Together with colleagues at the University of Sussex and collaborators at University College London, London Research Institute and the University of Birmingham, we recently used genome-wide technologies to discover that replication of Epstein-Barr virus causes the reprogramming of 2263 human genes. This provides a strong case in favor of the involvement of human genes in Epstein-Barr virus replication.

Probing the mechanism of gene reprogramming identified a route for the regulation of a sub-set of the human genes – through the direct action of a viral protein. This specifically recognizes regions of DNA sometimes located at a gene start and sometimes located hundreds of thousands of nucleotides away.


Research publication


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Taking Science To The Public: thank you to the Brighton Science Festival



Taking Science To The Public: thank you to the Brighton Science Festival

Wow – The Brighton Science Festival does it again! Another fantastic event for families at the Brighton Science Festival.  The weekend “Bright Sparks event” of hands on activities for families (14th and 15th February 2015) was again very popular. It was non-stop hectic fun - for the presenters and the visitors.

The visitors (age range about 4 to 18 and their families and friends) talked with our team about DNA as they decorated their lab coats, then they extracted DNA from strawberries and then decoded some information in DNA with the help of a giant jigsaw and some balloons. Thanks to Biochemical Society for funding the "DNA detectives" this year.

The presenters were outstanding – the PhD students, post-doctoral fellows and members of faculty proved that science was their first love by spending St. Valentine’s Day with the 500 or the so visitors to our “DNA detectives” room.  As ever we learned as much as we taught as we re-focused our minds on the basic principles that underlie our research.

By the end of the day, the feedback board was full of colorful notes – they liked the creativity, were amazed to extract “real DNA” and had fun!


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Taking Science to the public - last minute planning



Preparing public engagement for the Brighton Science Festival Bright Sparks event

T minus 2 days.

Time to check that everything is in place.

 Last minute list:

1. Purchase of strawberries for the DNA extraction. This was a concern with the juxtaposition of the Bright Sparks Event and Valentine’s day – but there were plenty left in the shop.

 2. Packaging of the items for lab coat decoration, DNA extraction, and translating DNA.  The smart storage crates have not arrived! On to plan B, we have found some smaller recycled cardboard boxes to replace them.

3. Checking the researchers on the volunteer list. One had to drop out but another volunteered so we have enough researchers on board to run for the whole day.

4. Preparing for the run-through tomorrow. One person identified to lead each activity for the practice. We will run the events tomorrow with the other volunteers acting as the participants so that everyone knows what to expect the next day when 500 visitors arrive!

 5. Despite the clipboards and planning lists in hand, we know it will not be smooth sailing on the day so have a “don’t panic -  look in here” box of sellotape, string, blue tack, scissors and wet wipes for emergency repairs.



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Taking Science To The Public Is Addictive - Time-line for the planning of the public engagement activity “DNA detectives” at the Brighton Science Festival.



Taking Science To The Public Is Addictive - Time-line for the planning of the public engagement activity “DNA detectives” at the Brighton Science Festival

T minus 12 months. Informal discussions were held about the main content of the activity – decoding the genetic information stored in DNA to generate proteins - and the costs and time commitments required.  The costs were estimated by the organizing team and one member applied for a science outreach grant from the Biochemical Society to fund the activities.

T minus 6 months. The funding was approved! Formalities were dealt with by the organizing team and the Science festival organizers were informed.

T minus 4 months.  Items required for the activities were ordered and stacked ready in the lab.

T minus 4 weeks. It’s all heating up now.

We decided to add a new activity – preparing DNA from strawberries. PhD students trialed this and showed that it was both practical and safe to do in the hectic environment of the Bright Sparks event.

A last minute addition of balloons was suggested to represent the amino acids – tests on researchers showed that yes, it increases fun element – especially the multi-colour spotted ones!

Information for the posters was reviewed, simplified, simplified then simplified again before being sent for printing.

The Brighton Science festival program was published and it looks like Brighton has a very exciting month ahead for to learn about and experience Science.

T minus 3 weeks. The organizing team collected names of Biochemistry and Biomedicine researchers from the University of Sussex who are available to run the activity on the day. A session to run-through the activates was booked and a final to-do list generated:  rota of researchers for the day; University of Sussex T-shirts for presenters; instruction lists for the day; packing session; last-minute purchasing.

 So … please come and join the activity - book the date - Saturday 14th February at Hove Park School “Bright Sparks” event as part of the Brighton Science Festival.


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