School Winner: Secret Life of the Naked Mole Rat

Naked mole rats are undoubtedly ugly. With a hairless wrinkled body, small sharp claws and two large protruding teeth capable of moving independently, they appear more like a mutant from a horror film than a relation of the far cuter guinea pig. Yet this bizarre appearance masks a multitude of remarkable adaptations that allow them to survive in the small underground tunnels that form their challenging habitat.

These creatures seem to be largely insensitive to pain, even contact with acid barely affects them. They have evolved a unique ability to metabolise fructose, a mechanism only seen before in plants, in order to survive in incredibly low oxygen environments that would be fatal to humans. The naked mole rat also has a remarkably long life span for a rodent of its size: 32 years, whereas the common brown rat lives only two. Yet, it shows remarkable resistance to many of the adverse effects of ageing, including a disease which is the plague of the modern age – cancer.

Despite decades of study, involving bombarding the mole rats with gamma rays and implanting tumours, only two were ever discovered to have cancer.

So, it would appear we have a lot to learn from these peculiar subterranean rodents, and research at the University of Rochester has unearthed a possible mechanism for the naked mole rats’ cancer resistance. They produce a special type of hyaluronic acid, a sugar polymer that is present between cells in all mammals. In naked mole rats, however, the hyaluronic acid produced, called HMM-HA, has a much higher molecular mass – over five times larger than that of humans or mice – and is broken down much less rapidly. This leads to an abundance of the hyaluronic acid between cells. Researchers found that when they suppressed the gene that produces HMM-HA, or increased the concentration of enzymes that break it down, the cells could then become cancerous.

HMM-HA appears to work by increasing the contact inhibition of cells;  an anti-cancer mechanism that prevents cells from growing too close to each other, so preventing overcrowding, and the formation of tumours. This extraordinary ability seems to be a happy by-product of the naked mole rat’s unique appearance; it is believed that the larger hyaluronic acid molecules give the rodent’s skin the elasticity that is necessary for its life in small burrows underground. For this reason, hyaluronic acid is already in use in anti-wrinkle creams, and due to its properties as a cell lubricant, injections of it are a common treatment for arthritis.

This gives hope for its future as a cancer treatment, as unlike many possible cancer cures, it appears to be well tolerated by the body.

Not bad for a peculiar subterranean rodent.

Katerina Hutton
Dame Alice Owen’s School

“I’m in year 12, studying biology, chemistry, physics and maths. I’m particularly interested in the mechanisms of the human body and degenerative diseases, and plan on studying medicine at university.”

School Winner: A Spiny Solution to Cleaning Our Oceans

Optunia Microdasys (‘Bunny ears’ cactus)

There has been increased demand for new methods of separating oil and water mixtures both from environmental protection organisations in aiding oil spill clean-ups and from the oil industry in order to improve oil recovery. An increase in oil trading has been seen since the mid-1980s and the ITOPF (International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation) reported that approximately 6,000 tonnes of oil was spilt in 2016 from tankers.

Now, we know that if an oil-water mixture is left undisturbed for an amount of time, it will separate by itself and form separate oil and water layers. However in a practical application, like an oil spill, there are in fact many micron sized oil droplets present in the water that must be separated out; a task current methods of oil separation (primarily through the use of membranes that allow water, but not oil to pass through) struggle with. An example is in homogenised milk where tiny fat droplets stay suspended in the milk, proving almost impossible to separate out. Despite this, it seems that a team of Chinese scientists have indeed found a novel solution: with the help of some spiny friends.

These scientists noted that certain species of cacti called Optunia microdasys (commonly referred to as a ‘bunny ears’ cactus) perform a task known as fog harvesting, where they extract tiny, micron-sized water droplets from the surrounding dessert air. These droplets are very similar to micron-sized oil droplets in found in water after an oil spill, allowing the scientists to move this system underwater.

Arrays of smooth (e) and rough (f) synthetic spines

They employed arrays of many half-millimetre long conical needles, made from oil-loving materials such as copper, that capture the miniscule droplets of oil. The interaction between the conical shape of the needle and the surface tension of the water droplet then allow it to be carried to the base of the spine. Once many oil droplets have been collected a large droplet is formed, which the scientists could easily pump out. Their tests showed that these synthesised ‘cactus skins’ could separate up to 99% of  the oil from water and next will require scaling up and testing in field situations.

Fusion of the natural world and science like this is in no way a new idea – it is in fact called Biomimicry.

Biomimicry is a simple idea: emulating and applying nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies in novel ways to seek sustainable solutions to human challenges. It is a whole new way of seeing the natural world around us and who knows where the next solution may come from.

From dolphins to mosquitos, the natural world has already provided inspiration for not only ingenious solutions like the development of tsunami early warning systems that save lives, but in everyday items too. For example Velcro copies sticky plant burrs that get attached to animal fur, and flippers that allow divers to glide through the water mimic the webbed feet and fins of aquatic animals. Mosquitos have inspired ‘nicer’ needles and termites have told us how to build sustainable buildings. With applications in practically every area, from energy to architecture, biomimicry is a growing field and who knows? – the next great scientific breakthrough may lie in your own backyard!

Jasmine Foister
Year 12

“Hi, my name is Jasmine and I am currently in Y12 studying Biology, Chemistry and Maths. At the moment I have about 14 cacti and am quickly running out of space on my windowsill. I also enjoy art and you can often find me crafting clay llamas, crocheting kittens or throwing paint at something.”


Cactus-inspired material cleans oily water –

School Winner: Why do we find pandas so cute?

aisha-azad-quintin-kynaston17c-aisha-azad-croppedSchoolSo why do we, the human race, adore these loveable creatures? If you don’t then you’re not human, seriously if you find pandas ugly there is something wrong.

A behavioural neuroscientist called Edgar E. Coons thinks that humans find pandas so cute because of the hedonic mechanisms” their features set off in us.

They remind us of babies especially with their big eyes (the eyes are not that particularly big but the black patches around their eyes make them appear larger) round faces, snub noses and large heads (a large head and tiny body is much cuter than a tiny head and large body (like rats). Also the fact that they are extremely large and fluffy reminds us of a cuddly toy.

The way giant pandas tumble about reminds us of toddlers even though they are slightly larger than most toddlers (well, at least out of the ones I’ve met). Also it is pretty hilarious watching a panda try to walk, they look so funny waddling around. This video alone is enough evidence how funny pandas are when they walk.

Moving on to the real scientific reason as to why we find pandas cute.

It’s all to do with our brain making us feel a certain love towards pandas.

“According to Hamann, increased activity in the middle orbital cortex is usually associated with pleasure and positive emotion. Some evidence suggests the brain activity there is greater when the stimulus is ‘neotenous,’ which is to say it has juvenile characteristics — a button nose, big eyes, a large wobbly head, chubby extremities or pudgy cheeks.” – an article from the Washington Post where they asked Stephan Hamann, a psychology professor at Emory University, to explain why people find certain animals are cute.

“Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1973, was the first of many researchers to conclude that cuteness, or “baby schema,” is an evolutionary adaptation that triggers nurturing responses from adults — allowing survival of the cutest, in Darwinian terms.” – another section from the Washington Post Article in 2005.

Quintin Kynaston

I’m Aisha and I’m in Year 11. I’m currently doing my GCSEs in English, Maths, Triple Science and History. I did my French and Textles GCSE last year. I’m interested in pursuing a career in forensic science.

School Winner: Teaching the Blind to See with Sound

rayna-koshy-boston-grammar-school16c-rayna-koshy-bostonThe amount of times I’ve tripped over or hit something while walking around in the dark is unfathomable; it’s got to the point where I’ve somewhat accepted my incapability to manoeuvre around in the dark. However, I am fortunate enough to be able to eliminate this problem by simply turning on a light switch.

Yet what about the people who live in constant darkness? Would they ever truly be independent if they cannot see any of their obstacles? Perhaps if you had asked me this before, I would have agreed that blind people wouldn’t able to achieve true independence without some sort of technological advancement allowing them to see. Of course, that’s where my thought process was flawed. I had reduced the idea of spatial awareness to simply using the eyes.

Many animals e.g. bats and dolphins use echolocation or Biosonar as a way to locate and identify different objects.  They do this by emitting a call and then listening out for the echoes produced that return from the various objects around them. Dolphins use this technique to see better underwater.

Blind humans have also been known to use echolocation. By making a sound of some sort e.g. making clicking noises with their mouth etc., they are able to accurately locate where and how big an object is by interpreting the sound waves that have been reflected off of these objects.

If one side reflects much louder sound waves than the other, the sound has bounced back faster, therefore taking a shorter route. This indicates the presence of an object or obstacle on that side.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) studies on the brain were conducted on blind echolocation experts with sighted humans as control. The study demonstrated that the primary visual cortex is activated during echolocation in these blind people while there was no activation in the control subjects. This is unusual because the primary visual cortex is normally used to process visual information in sighted people.

Moreover, the parts of the brain that are associated with processing auditory information didn’t show much of a difference in activity during echolocation, in either group. This implies that the parts which process auditory information in the brain are not necessarily vital when blind people carry out echolocation.

Since the original function of the primary visual cortex is not very useful in blind people, it seems to have rearranged itself so that it can process spatial information from echolocation.

 This ability to rearrange and adapt the functions of different parts of the brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Daniel Kish is a blind echo locator who teaches other blind people to use echolocation so that they can be ‘active participants in society’; here is a link to his Ted Talk where he explains how he uses echolocation to achieve independence and how even sighted people can be trained to use it too.

Rayna Koshy
Year 12 at Boston Grammar School

My name is Rayna Koshy and I am in Year 12 studying Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths at A level. I enjoy the science subjects and an affiliate of the Royal Society of Biology. I’m very passionate about healthcare and volunteer at a local care home. In the future, I’m hoping to study medicine.

School Winner: Hormones or Instinct – Do babies need to earn parental love?

phoebe-clargo-headington-school16c-headington-phoebe-clargoThere are three types of love. In order of increasing strength, these are: ‘Eros’ (or erotic) love; ‘Philos’ (or friendship) love and ‘Agape’ (or unconditional love). Thus, ‘Agape’ is the highest form of love, which neither depends on the love being returned or any benefits being bestowed on the lover, but is utterly selfless. ‘Agape’ is the kind of love felt between parent and child. Unlike the other forms of love, ‘Agape’ is not earned or lost, it just is. For example, when two people become a couple, they do not love each other immediately, but rather have to learn to love each other. However, if they go on to have a child, they will love that baby from the second that he/she enters this world.

I was really interested in what the cause of this love is, so I decided to look into it further.

‘Agape’ is often said to be an evolutionary instinct that leads to the continuation of a species, by making the parents go to extreme lengths to protect their (often vulnerable) offspring. Whilst parental love like is this is shown in all animals, it is particularly evident in species who tend to produce less offspring (K-strategists according to the r/K selection theory), and less so in animals who produce many offspring throughout their life (r-strategists). Again, this supports the idea that parental love is an evolutionary instinct, as K-strategists (eg. humans) have to protect their children more carefully, as they do not have the ‘safety-net’ of such a vast number of offspring to ensure the continuation of their genes. Therefore, they feel a much stronger bond to their young, to ensure the offsprings’ survival by increased nurturing.

Another biological reason for parental love is that during pregnancy, levels of oxytocin dramatically increase, allowing the mother to get through the exhaustion and pain of labour, whilst also providing a feeling of intense love when she finally sets her eyes on her child. However, it is not only the mother that experiences the effects of oxytocin. It has been shown that the levels of oxytocin in the father spikes upon first sight of the child (so parental love is quite literally ‘love at first sight’). Hormones continue to affect father’s’ love for the first few months of their baby’s life, as the levels of their testosterone plummet, whilst their estrogen levels increase. Experts say that this increase allows the oxytocin to have a greater  effect on the brain, increasing their love and attentiveness even more! The pleasure hormone, dopamine, also plays a part in the ‘Agape’ between parent and child. It is not only released in both parties when there is physical contact (eg. holding, rocking or feeding), but also just from spending time with each other.

Studies have even shown that dopamine can be released in mothers just by getting them to look at a photo of their child.

Dopamine also helps babies to bond with their parents, as shown by a study into baby mice. Those that were unable to sense dopamine did not mind whether or not their mother was near them, unlike mice that could experience the positive effects of the dopamine that was released when the mother was near.

To conclude, I believe that both parental instinct and hormones play a huge part in parental love and explain why we never had to earn our parents’ love.

Phoebe Clargo
Year 12 at Headington School

School Winner: How a virus outplayed the military

15c-1-sadiyah-zamen-the-ncsSchoolEuropean colonisation of America began in 1492. But how did the Europeans exactly colonise America? What were their tactics? You may be thinking it was due to the help of the Conquistadors or the advanced weaponry. But, something much smaller, in fact microscopic helped Europe colonise America:  the Variola virus.

When the Europeans travelled to America, they transmitted a virus which was foreign to the Native Americans. Why was this virus so significant? This virus caused a disease called small pox; a lethal disease that killed thousands of Native Americans and ultimately helped the Europeans colonise America.

This image is from this website:
This image is from this website:

What is the Variola virus? The Variola virus is a pathogen which is a member of the genus Orthopoxvirus. The dumbbell shaped core contains the double stranded DNA. Surface tubules are found on the outside of the outer envelope. These surface tubules attach to the host cell’s membrane receptors allowing the virus to bind onto the host cell.

How did this dangerous virus spread to the Native Americans from the Europeans? Small pox is an extremely contagious disease. The Variola virus can be easily transmitted when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Contaminated clothing and contact with smallpox scabs can also spread the Variola virus.

We now know how the Variola virus can be transmitted. But how do these microscopic particles drastically take over the body?

To begin with, the Variola virus attaches to the host cell and the host cell takes in the virus. The DNA of the Variola virus is then released into the cell, and these will start to replicate. Subsequently, the new strands of DNA are taken in by the developing spherical viral particles; as a result these particles will mature. Most of these mature viral particles will remain inside the host cell as intracellular mature viruses. Intracellular mature viruses are released from the host cell when the cell breaks down. The intracellular mature viruses can enter new host cells inside the infected person’s body, by fusing with the cell membrane. This is how the Variola virus infected the Native Americans and caused smallpox.

Small pox has frightening array of symptoms. The initial symptoms of smallpox are headaches, high fevers and muscle aches. Shortly after, the Variola virus activity in the skin cells will cause pustules to develop across the skin.  Haemorrhagic smallpox can cause fatality because this type of smallpox causes excessive bleeding of the skin, mucous membrane and the gastrointestinal track.

To conclude, thousands of Native Americans died because they were exposed to a new virus (the Variola virus), when the Europeans travelled to America. Europe didn’t colonise America because of their clever political tactics or military strategies – it was due to a minute particle and its devastating effects on the Native American population.

Sadiyah Zaman
The NCS (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre)

My name is Sadiyah Zaman and I wrote this article because I have a passion for health care and I’m fascinated by diseases, the human anatomy and medicine.

School Winner: The healing power of what we believe

nazifa-khanom-the-ncsSchool15c-1-nazifa-khanom-the-ncsIt is said that in the English Language, many of the words and phrases we express come from the imagination of the great literature playwright Shakespeare. My favourite that I have come across so far is: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This statement made in the play Hamlet, made me wonder about a topic that is prominent in science today: the placebo effect.


“a substance given to someone who is told that it is a particular medicine, either to make that person feel as if they are getting better or to compare the effect of the particular medicine when given to others” Cambridge English dictionary

The placebo effect has caused much debate over the years due to the ethical issues it raises.

However, there have been many cases and examples that appear to support the use of this ‘fake medicine’. One historic example is related to the army doctor Henry Beecher, who had his nurses supply a saline solution injection to injured soldiers as his quantity of morphine was extremely scarce during the Second World War II.

He found that it worked for many soldiers as they did start to feel better and recover from their injuries.

However, the effectiveness of these placebo medicines is dependent on many factors. Pills that are a flat are deemed less effective than capsules but capsules are deemed less effective than injections. Also, the higher the quantity of the ‘medicine’ the greater effect it has on a patient.

Aside from reducing the use of scarce medicine, placebos have also been used as a control for clinical drug testing by giving half of the test subjects the new drug and the other half a placebo. Although this may seem to provide accurate results and comparisons, it has been argued that it would be much more beneficial for drug companies to give half the test subjects an old drug for the same purpose rather than a placebo to make comparisons on how effective the new drug is.

So why do we not encourage the use of placebos in clinical care?

Well, the major problem we have to acknowledge is that it’s pretty much the equivalent of a doctor lying to their patient which violates the trust that a patient has with them and also undermines the credibility of a doctor. Despite this, BBC news reported that in a survey, it was discovered that 97% of GPs have prescribed a placebo at least once.

So, next time you get a prescription think about whether or not it’s really medicine to make you feel better or just a little sugar pill that you believe will make you feel better.

Nazifa Khanom
The NCS (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre)

“My name is Nazifa and I am a year 12 student currently studying Biology, Chemistry, Maths and English Literature. I would like to pursue a career in pharmacy.”

School Winner: Humans and Perception

emily-hockham-qegs-horncastle14c-emily-horncastle-croppedEssentially everyone has their own reality. Everyone has their own little world with thousands of things different to the person stood next to them.  Say for example there were fifty things going on at every given moment around every person on the planet, and we observe maybe 30 of these at every given moment; any slight change to the world around us. Well those thirty things that you witness and subconsciously notice are going to be different to the thirty I witness.

Perception essentially is the way in which everyone interprets different signals in order to react. For example, you perceive danger to be occurring and your nervous system would be working in order to get you out of that situation. Although everyone’s perception is different and therefore we all make decisions based on different thought processes changing how we act in different situations- and this obviously makes us all so wonderfully different. So why are there certain things that we try and attempt to all perceive to be the same?

Colours delve into the depth of this too. Your green is different to my green, your red is different to my red and so on. To combat this, we have somehow come up with a standard colour that everyone is apparently seeing to categorise the parts of the visible light spectrum that are reflected by different surfaces.

On a basic level, we need sensory perception in order to be able to stay alive; even this differs. In the past some psychologists thought that sensory impressions for example seeing something and perceptions of seeing something were the same – although this isn’t accurate as everyone is different. A light moving through darkness might be seen as a light simply gliding along however it may be perceived as a series of lights being turned on and off in succession.

Every living organism constantly receives multiple sensory impressions, but perceives relatively few objects and events at a given time. Obviously if we perceived everything going on around us we would face almost an overload! So we are trained to perceive things that are opposite to the rest of the items going on as a safety feature, also perception is based on personality, motives, interests, expectations.

Following this conclusion why are there certain things we perceive as wrong? Some people perceive different cultural and social activities to be wrong, in a similar way they perceive red being the colour red. It sounds trivial in this way although it brings to light the idea that if we simply put away all perception thoughts that weren’t necessary, such as sensing danger, then the world would be a much easier place to live in.

Does it matter that we all see colours differently?

Does it matter that some people have different views on the world and how they want to live? Perception should be used to our advantage, not to segregate certain things. People should be metaphorically open to all the colours of the universe.

Emily Hockham
Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Horncastle

“I am currently in Year 12 studying Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths A levels. In the future I would like to train to be a surgeon.”

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.”