Science issue: The extraordinariness of the ordinary

cosmetic-bottlesNewsI spent a while recently flipping the lid of a cosmetics bottle open and shut. This was the kind of lid that you typically get on shampoo bottles, ketchup, honey and so on, where the bottle top, hinge and lid are all fabricated as a single piece of the same material.  This particular one was sealed simply by a stopper on the inside of the lid popping securely into a hole on the bottle top.

Try to find one of these lids yourself, and take a careful look at it, thinking about the properties that are needed to make it work. The lid needs to be hard enough that it can’t be scratched easily, as well as both strong and tough enough that it won’t break if you drop the bottle on the floor. It needs to be elastic enough that the stopper itself can pop in and out of its hole, making a secure seal. The hinge also needs some elasticity so that it can stretch a little to open and close, but it must not be prone to fatigue (progressive weakening and eventually breakage) when it is opened and shut many times. It needs to be possible to manufacture the whole lid in a single piece, including the hinge, because there are no joints. This is likely to have been done by injecting fluid polymer into a mould with more than one entry point for the fluid, perhaps one on the lid side and one on the bottle top side with the flows merging completely where they meet.

The combination of properties that make a specific formulation of a particular polymer suitable for this application did not arise by accident, or just ‘picking something off a shelf’; it is a careful process of optimisation, getting the right balance between all these aspects of the physical properties of the material. And that cannot be done without a proper understanding of why materials behave as they do, right down to the atomic level.

sports-gearWithout the discoveries and advances in materials that were made from the mid-twentieth century onwards, we would not have our smartphones, our electric vehicles, our high-performance sports gear. However we have to fabricate all of our modern materials from the range of elements offered to us by the Periodic Table (a relatively small number of elements, considering how much we are able to do with them). Understanding how materials fit together at the atomic scale also allows us to appreciate the skill and effort that has gone into designing and manufacturing even quite mundane items.

I came into Materials Science out of a fascination with materials at this atomic level; the way that atoms organise themselves into the structures, materials and artefacts that we see and use in the world around us. My particular specialism has been electron microscopy and diffraction, which has given me the opportunity to see materials at a scale far below the resolution of the human eye.  Materials of all kinds are extraordinarily beautiful at the microscopic level, and this atomic world is full of wonder and possibility: where might discoveries in this area lead us next?

Dr Erica Bithell
Bye Fellow

Career Path: Developmental Biology Shapes My World

dsc_0816CareerMy favourite scientific quotation: “From the egg, all” would be an apt motto for a women’s college in the 21st century but was actually immortalised by the famous Cambridge physician William Harvey almost four hundred years ago as the Latin epigraph “Ex ovo omnia”. As a developmental biologist, I share Harvey’s fascination with embryology, the process by which a fertilised egg develops into a precisely patterned organism. Fortunately for me, there have been phenomenal advances in social attitudes and scientific techniques since Harvey’s era: women are now active members of the scientific research community and astounding recent technical developments have provided us with experimental tools to investigate the genesis of life.

I became intrigued by developmental biology as an undergraduate at Cambridge, inspired by some lecturers who used frogs as a model organism to understand developmental processes. Frog eggs are large and externally fertilised, allowing scientists easy access to the vital first stages of embryogenesis, when the fertilised egg cleaves into a ball of cells, which look similar to each other but have already taken on distinct identities and will ultimately go on to form different embryonic structures.  The aim of developmental biologists is to understand the regulatory mechanisms that give rise to the multitude of cell types in an adult organism. Some key developmental genes identified in amphibian studies cause inherited human birth defects and many frog labs receive medical research funding.

Science is an international endeavour so scientists often go to different labs to gain specific research expertise. I joined frog labs in Canada and the U.S. before returning to Cambridge. The opportunity to live in different countries within an international community of scholars and to attend international meetings and field trips is a great benefit of a career in academic science.

I twice went to Puerto Rico to collect coqui frogs; these are nocturnal tree frogs that live in the rainforest and we collected at night, leaving the days free for sightseeing! Coqui are direct developing frogs, hatching as tiny froglets. I discovered that though they don’t have a free-living tadpole, coqui embryos undergo a cryptic metamorphosis in the egg.

Recently, I have applied my knowledge of developmental signalling processes to coax stem cells down a particular developmental route, making the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. Such “directed differentiation” holds great promise for regenerative medicine. However, the practical aspect is hugely laborious as stem cells require daily nurturing, including weekends and holidays!

dsc_0860Currently, I am nurturing another organism, my four-year-old son, though I still participate in the scientific process by writing scientific articles with my colleagues in the Department of Medicine. I co-ordinate the science/technology strand of our Gateway Academic Development Programme at Murray Edwards, helping freshers transition to university learning, and I’ve participated in a variety of science outreach events. As a Director of Studies and a Tutor, I interact with many students and am amazed by the resourcefulness of our STEMM students, who demonstrate that a scientific education provides a versatile skill-set for life.

Dr Liz Callery
Fellow, Director of Studies and Tutor

Science at Cambridge: ‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’

1d-rachel-attwood-photoUniversity‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’, a phrase I hear often, being female and studying engineering, entering my second year.

In Britain there’s an idea that engineering means men, usually wearing muddy boots and hi-vis jackets, maybe working on the side of the road or railway line. It’s a very skewed image of one of the fastest growing global industries! What about the structural engineers who are office based, designing anything from a simple footbridge to a monstrous timber-based skyscraper? What about the electronic and information engineers who design the software for your latest iPhone?

And more importantly, what about the women who make up a modest, but significant, 9% of the current engineering workforce?

I became interested in engineering through my Dad, who was a draughtsman for Dowty Mining. When I was young it was always ‘How does this work?’ and ‘Why?’. Later on, I took part in a bridge design challenge at secondary school, using rolled up paper tubes to make the strongest structure possible. I later attended two design and build Smallpiece Trust engineering courses (railways and structures). Having thoroughly enjoyed both and having been inspired by people working in the industry (both male and female), I set my sights on studying engineering, and where better than at Cambridge.

For the first two years the engineering course at Cambridge covers four areas; Mechanical, Structural, Electronic and Mathematical Methods. I’ve just finished an 8-week work placement (4 weeks’ industrial experience are required by the end of second year), with Graham Construction, working on site at the construction of Kenilworth Railway Station. Yes, I have been wearing hi-vis and muddy boots, but I’ve loved it! I’ve learned the basics of surveying, from using a high-tech total (measuring) station to taking measurements with a tape measure, which will set me up well for when I specialise in Civil Engineering in third year. I’ve also learned about planning, risk assessments and management plans. Imagine if the track wasn’t properly monitored and nearby excavation caused the rails to twist? It could end in a fatal crash!

On the project, I was the only female, surrounded by a team of men. This situation is all too common nationally and is why I want to encourage more girls and women to follow a career in Engineering; it’s not all how the media suggests! Don’t just take my word for it, do some research into the paths engineering can lead you. You could be working on building sites if that appeals to you, but you could also work on autopilot software or innovative new materials for example. You could even help solve the energy crisis.

Don’t let the stereotypes put you off, don’t let comments like ‘but isn’t that for boys’ get in your way. Consider engineering, or any form of STEM, for an exciting, ever-changing career, where every day brings new challenges and innovative ideas to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.

Rachel Attwood
Undergraduate student

School Winner: Science and the EU

caitlin-byrne-wirral-grammar-school-for-girls1c-caitlin-byrne-photoSchool Recently, our country has made the bold decision to become a pioneer and leave the European Union, which has left many people with the same question at the forefront of their minds: what now?

Typically, this is not a question you would consider to be linked to much else other than the fate of our economy, healthcare and obvious policy areas, but I am instead going to consider exactly how this decision has had an impact upon the world of science.

UK universities benefit significantly from EU membership, as they receive 10% of their research funding from the EU, which has been estimated to amount to around £1 billion. This could provide a barrier for scientific advances in the UK as the research carried out in Universities has contributed to the science industry in a large way; the UK’s research institutions and universities have benefited greatly from EU investment and have managed to contribute approximately 14% of the most highly cited academic papers each year.1c-caitlin-byrne-image-1-jpg

If we were to withdraw from the EU, then would the research funding also be withdrawn, and if so how would we then be able to compensate for that? The European Research Council has contributed more than £5 billion toward scientific research in the UK since 2007, which has been vital under the Conservative government as it was decided that there would be cuts to scientific research and it has been estimated that around 1/5th of all European Research Community grants have gone toward the UK. Without all of this funding, what will this then mean for the Scientific community?

An open letter regarding this issue has recently been published in the Times, which was co-signed by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, Naturejournal editor-in-chief Philip Campbell and Nobel-winning geneticist Paul Nurse. The letter talks about how it is not ‘known to the public that the EU is a boon to UK science and innovation’ and that ‘freedom of movement for talent and ambitious EU science funding programmes, which support vital, complex international collaborations, put the UK in a world-leading position.’

This suggests that without EU support, the lack of freedom of movement and funding could be a vital barrier for science in general and research in the future.

However, Scientists for Britain (a leave campaign group), has pointed out that there are many countries outside of the EU who still receive EU funding; spokesmen say that a points-based visa system would enable UK universities to continue to bring in students from USA, Australia, Canada and various other countries not in the EU.

1c-caitlin-byrne-image-3Although it appears that on the surface that the future may appear bleak for scientific advancements and research without EU funding and freedom of movement, the clear conclusion i have been able to draw is that at this stage, we are still highly uncertain of the future but all we can do now is try our best to keep calm and carry on, in true British fashion.

Caitlin Byrne
Student at Wirral Grammar School for Girls

“I am Caitlin Byrne and I have always had a fascination with science and how it works within the natural world, but more recently how it interacts within the the political framework of our country. As i am applying to study chemistry at university; eventually aiming to pursue a career in formulation chemistry, I feel that the impact politics has on science and research has never been more significant.”

School Winner: Why eat chocolate?

As a nation, Great Britain is one of the highest consumers of chocolate in the world. On average a British person consumes 11kg of chocolate each year, the equivalent of three bars a week; so why do we eat so much chocolate?

As well as its sweet taste and creamy texture, chocolate contains a compound called theobromine which is thought to be another cgeorgi-bohan-imageontributing factor to chocolate’s popularity . Theobromine is a fairly simple organic compound with the formula C7H8N4O2, it is a bitter tasting alkaloid and comes from the cocoa plant. Theobromine has some similar effects on the body as caffeine, since the two substances have an extremely similar structure. For example, theobromine can reduce tiredness and increase alertness. It is also a cough suppressant and can help reduce the symptoms of asthma.

Although the effects of theobromine on humans are mild, it can have more serious effects on some animals. Dogs for example are unable to break down theobromine in the same way that humans can, so it can therefore have a toxic effect.

The darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of theobromine. This means that a small dog could be killed by eating just 50 grams of dark chocolate. Cats can also be effected in a similar way, however they don’t have the sweet  taste receptors that dogs have so are less likely to consume chocolate. Humans have three times the resistance to theobromine than dogs, meaning that a human would have to consume over 5kg of milk chocolate at once (over 100 Cadbury Dairy Milk bars) for the effects to be fatal.

Humans are more likely to be effected by the fat, calorie and sugar content of chocolate as opposed to theobromine poisoning. Per 100 grams, dark chocolate has about 600 calories and 43g of fat, 25g of which is saturated fat. Sugar is also a contributing factor to tooth decay and obesity. However chocolate does have some benefits, as it can improve cardiovascular health. This is because chocolate, especially dark chocolate,  contains flavonoids which can help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. Although these benefits can be counteracted by the fat and calories which can cause weight gain.

Despite the health implications of chocolate, its consumption has continued to grow in previous years and remains a popular treat amongst many. However next time you indulge into your favourite bar, spare a thought for your canine companions who are missing out on the delicious treat.

Georgi Bohan
“My name is Georgia and I am currently in Year 13 studying Chemistry, Maths and French A Levels at Wirral Grammar School for Girls. Next year I am hoping to study Chemistry at University.”