Housekeeping & Self References Outreach

Slides and Notes available on “Working with Genes” (presentation for kids)

Those of you who have been following my posts for a while might have read this one from Fall 2008: Scientist Meets Small Children, and doesn’t stop talking (and listening) all day!.

The slides are now available from SlideShare, and embedded below:

The only problem I’m having is that the slides are mainly pictures. I have extensive notes to guide the speaker in the notes section of the Open Office document, but they don’t seem to be saved to SlideShare. So, until I can figure something better out, here are the notes for each slide. Any comments, suggestions, modifications, etc very much welcome. I hope it helps people. Enjoy!

Notes for slides:

Slide 1 (Title Slide)

KS1 and KS2:
These are Maine Coons, a particular breed of cat.
Has anyone heard of “genes” before?
Genes store the information that makes each one of us different. Eye color, shoe size, hair color…
Sometimes, there can be a change in a gene that is “good”: that allows a cat to run faster, or a dog to smell better
Sometimes that change can cause problems: some diseases are caused by mistakes in genes
Cats have been around for 1000s of years. They were domesticated by us.
How do we get domestic animals? What does domestic mean?
We can breed animals we like the most together
New ways of doing this are around now, which I’ll talk about later
How do you know it is the right thing to do? (Irish setters – epilepsy, laborador retrievers – hip problems, “mutts” – can be healthier)
In short: remember to think for yourself, and learn before reaching a decision.

Slide 2

KS1 and KS2:
Charlie is a normal domestic cat. She is 6 years old and lives with me. Do you know what that pattern is? She’s a brown tabby with some orange spots.
This other cat looks the same, and acts the same. But there is one big difference. He wouldn’t make my neighbour sneeze!
How many of you know people who sneeze when they are around cats or dogs?
The domestic cat was selectively bred from wild cats at least 9.500 years ago, and has been around since at least ancient Egypt ( and probably longer, see recent SciAm article:
The company that breeds cats like the guy at the bottom here found a few cats that didn’t cause allergies, and bred more of them.
What traits do you like most in cats? What would you like to see?
Allerca bred out cases where the Fel d 1 glycoprotein was a version that caused allergic reactions. The process uses gene sequencing to detect rare naturally occurring genetic divergences in cats.

Slide 3

What kind of domestic animal is this?
KS1 and KS2:
Humans breed horses to look and act specific ways
What do you think are the most important things that make up a good horse?
Strong muscles?
Good eyesight?

What might you want to breed out of horses? Do they have any problems that should be fixed?

Slide 4

KS1 and KS2
Would those things you suggested in the previous slide be good all the time?
A large horse would have trouble finding food on a small island
A black horse would stand out in the desert.
Having lots of different types of horses makes sure that some of them will always survive changes in the environment

Slide 5

KS1 and KS2
What kind of animal is this?
This is a zebrafish. You can often find it in home aquaria. It’s pretty small – only a few centimetres long
Why do you think it is called a zebrafish?

Slide 6

KS1 and KS2
What animals are these?
They’re jellyfish
Under the right light, some jellyfish are fluorescent, and you can get both yellow and green colours.
You can get red fluorescence from a sea coral

Slide 7

KS1 and KS2
What is different about these zebrafish?
They are not striped, and they are different colours.
Instead, they’re called glofish.
The colours are not normally found in zebrafish.
The genes for these colours are taken from the coral and the jellyfish, and added to the zebrafish

Slide 8

KS1 and KS2
What do you think a fishberry is? Can you tell from the name? Do you know what antifreeze is? – it gets put into cars in the winter.
Some scientists tried to make tomatoes resistant to frost by putting a fish antifreeze gene into it. It never worked, but the media picked up on it anyway. “fishberries” –  tomatoes and/or strawberries with the flounder antifreeze gene – were researched, but never worked properly. A bit of an urban legend. See
What are some other ideas for plants that might help them survive bad weather, diseases, or insects?
Scientists have lots of ideas, but they don’t always work. Also, scientists are very careful and try to ensure that the combinations they make are good ones. Lots of testing!

Slide 9

KS1 and KS2
We use germs to make medicine!
The germs in the picture live in our guts, and help us out in digesting our food.
You might have drunk some if you have had a probiotic drink.
Some examples of good choices discussed in previous slide: Using “germs” to make medicine.
Insulin (Diabetes)
We can put the human gene for insulin into these guys, and they will make the medicine for us
Originally from cow, horse, pig or fish pancreases , but now 70% of insulin sold is recombinant (2002).(
With cells dividing rapidly (every 20 minutes), a bacterium containing human cDNA (encoding for insulin, for example) will shortly produce many millions of similar cells (clones) containing the same human gene. : 51 amino acids long
Adding vaccines for humans into food crops/animals (into tomatoes, e.g.)

Slide 10

KS1 and KS2
We can try to fix mistakes in our own bodies!
Target a specific area: Diseases of the eye:
Cystic fibrosis:
It is a single gene defect.
The lung is most affected.
Most heterozygote carriers have approximately 50 % CFTR function and are completely asymptomatic.
(others include Haemophilia)

Slide 11

KS1 and KS2

we change things, and have done for 1000s of years
The tool is not the issue: it used to be just selective breeding, now there are new tools
each individual change has to be thought about, to determine if it is a good idea or not

Slide 12

KS1 and KS2

pigs with less saturated fat (not happened yet, but people talking about it):
spider silk from goats’ milk (in the original study, 5x stronger than steel, by weight, and very flexible – bulletproof vests!):
and now in 2008 from alfalfa , as it would otherwise take 600 lbs of goats’ milk to make one bulletproof vest!
caffeine-free coffee plants:
no-tears onion:

Slide 13

KS1 and KS2

Just a nice picture of different-coloured bacteria on a plate.
Shinomura, Chalfie, and Tsien shared this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on green fluorescent protein, originally isolated from a jellyfish. Science is interesting and beautiful!
This is the last true slide. The one after this links to the licenses for the photos, and the ones after that are just in case we want to show them.

Slide 14 – no notes

Slide 15 – extra

This slide is too old for them, but put it at the end in case there is a specific question by a precocious kid or an adult.
A weakened strain of the common bacterium, Escherrichia coli (E. coli), an inhabitant of the human digestive tract, is the ‘factory’ used in the genetic engineering of insulin. (

Slide 16 – extra

Fluorescent mice. However, the kids might be scared of this pic, or not like it, so include it at the back and only use it if it seems appropriate.

Meetings & Conferences Outreach

Data – Knowledge – Application – Governance (BioSysBio 2009)

Joyce Tait
ESRC Genomics Network

In her view, genetic engineering is to the 21st century what evolution was to the 20th century. There is a non-linear progression from science to the marketplace. It used to be linear (wait for a product to be ready). Governance and Regulation: presumption of regulation for a novel area of life science: how do gov'ts decide on regulatory approaches? What precedents to they invoke? Will GM crops be the precedent for synbio and where will that lead? Feedback loops: regulation is what makes development expensive; venture capital won't invest without a regulatory system in place.

Upstream engagement promises: promisory agenda from socail scientists; more democratic approach; scientific research will not be adversely affected; citizens will be come more accepting of new tech. Downsides of upstream engagement: most people have better things to do; those who do engage might have an "axe to grind", or may develop concerns that they didn't have before; some research areas will be discouraged; we can't always predict what will come out of basic research happening now – this would be speculation on a very large time scale; even when that information is available we can't predict the products coming from that; most really innovative product developments require combined contributions from more than one area of fundamental science, but we won't know what we are missing; even doing this, you still won't avoid conflict later on or mistakes; can't control what happens privately, so you're only inhibiting public work; we're asking today's citizens to decide for the people in the future; under what circumstances is it legitimate to allow one societal group to foreclose options for others?

These aren't hypothetical situations – it really may block off certain areas of research. Public dialogue – rather than engagement – is an excellent thing. Helps manage expectations. She suggests standards related to public engagement in terms of willingness to listen to alternative vews and not knowlingly presenting biased information to support their views. We need to avoid domination of dialogue by ideological views that are not amenable to negotiation.

Wednesday Session 2

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else's. I'm happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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Meetings & Conferences

Panel Discussion: Ethics, Public Engagement, Biosecurity and more (BioSysBio 2009)

Panel is:
Caitlin Cockerton (Chair)
Julian Savulescu
Matthew Harvey
Piers Millet
Drew Endy

Each panelist starts by giving a 10 minute talk.

Drew Endy: An Engineer's Perspective on Synthetic Biology

He's interested in synbio because: work into sustainability, among other things. The basics of genetic engineering hasn't changed in 30+ years. However, synbio equates to a tools revolution. But, do we need to "manage" people who are trying to "hack" the genome in their garage? Could you actually file patents on what's in the biobricks registry? Yes, but expensive. Will there be a cultural synchronization or a continued disconnect in future between genetic engineering researcher and the anti-GMO sections?

Personal Comments: A drawing of Rama (I think) – great sci-fi link! Also, a slick slide presentation with very few words and lots and lots of pictures – I like it.

Matthew Harvey: Synthetic biology and public engagement

Matthew Harvey is the Senior Policy Adviser, Science Policy Centre, Royal Society, UK.

One aspect of public engagement (PE): we shouldn't force people to be engaged if they don't care. Many of the PEs for GM started out adversarial: people assumed that scientists were "automatically" for GM. Unlike GM, there aren't a series of products queueing up to be sold. However, the risk assessment part remains vital. The Woodrow Wilson Center did a tentative PE study about synbio. They found that even with a very low awareness of synbio, 2/3 of adults are willing to express an initial opinion regarding the tradoff between potential benefits and risks. People also had questions way beyond risks and benefits (who what when where how etc). Based on this, institutions have been trying to move the PE upstream, before products were available. This is pitched as social intelligence gathering, and may try to anticipate problems that don't exist yet (for good or ill).

Julian Savulescu: Two Concerns about Synthetic Biology

From the University of Oxford. Benefits are already well-covered, but he wants to raise 2 concerns: synbio poses risk of malevolent use; synbio might undermine the moral use of living things. These concerns can be understood as variants of a common concern about promoting future wrongdoing.

Wrt the first concern, Cello et al in 2002 wrote about the de novo synthesis of poliovirus. Rumpey et al in 2005 reconstructed the 1918 spanish influenza virus. For the second concern, people are worried that synbio will contribute to a feeling that life no longer has a "special status". For a more thorough look, see Cho, Magnus, Caplan and McGee (1999). But where, on the nebulous scale of "moral status" do the products of synbio belong?

A reformulation of the 2nd concern is that: synbio beings are assigned great moral status, which cause a sacrifice of the human/animal status for the sake of the synbios, which could lead to humans/animals being harmed.

Suppose we correctly assign a great moral status to sybios: human/animals could get permissibly harmed. Alternatively, we incorrectly assign this status: humans/animals get wrongly harmed.

Some arguments: scientific inquiriy is justified by the intrinsic value of the knowledge it produces, but this assumes that the value of knowledge trumps other moral values. The second is the gunmakers' defence: a scientist is not responsible for malevolent uses, but wrongs for which we are not responsible can still be relelvant to the ethical assessment of our conduct. Additionally, we can't predict the future, so any principle which requires us to do so is unworkable, but it may well be possible to identify predictors of malevolent use – we haven't even tried.

The two main concerns can be understood as variants of a moral general concern about bringing about wrongdoing. The most popular way of dissolving these concerns – scientific isolationism – fails.

Challenges for regulators: minimise the risk of malevolent use. For scientists: make better predictions about how research will be used. For philosophers: ascertain criteria for moral status, and determine how to weigh risk of future wrongdoing against benefits of pursuing research in synbio.

Personal Comment: I don't agree that an increase in moral status (if that's the way it goes) of synbios would necessarily lead to a drop in the status of humans/animals.

Piers Millet

Personal Comment: Piers generously dropped his talk so that the panel discussion could begin. That was very nice, and very timely, as there's only 15 minutes left and the discussion hadn't started yet! A real shame to miss it, especially since we tantalizingly saw his first slide, a gigantic UN symbol with the words "Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit" underneath. Made me feel like we were in a secret meeting or something. However, smart move. A tip of the hat to him.

General Discussion

Q: Are there any occasions when a political decision has been needed in terms of prioritization of types of science (including synbio) when upstream PE has been attempted? Matthew isn't aware of any such occasion. Of course, this conference and the community itself is an example of upstream discussions in general.

Q: Comment for Julian: applications in practice aren't always influenced by whether or not it was originally developed for military purposes. (Personal Comment: I believe the example provided was the laser.) Drew mentioned that of course you could spend loads of time thinking about military/non-military applications. It is also good to engage in taking action early, as things are still being figured out. One example is the creation of iGEM as a cooperative community contest, as opposed to creating something more aggressive such as a "bug wars" game. 🙂

Piers: There are at least two approaches to doing diy bio: one is people doing biology on their kitchen tables, and the other is a community model where you don't expect to have your lab in your house, but you could have a community lab in a central location that can meet regulations and where people can do things. The latter is quite interesting.

Q: is synbio the end of evolution? How does it fit? Drew: evolution is the most successful design framework for biology, but we don't know how to deploy it yet! Can't go forward with existing frameworks for things like patents – would overload the current system.

Overall Personal Comments: The twitter #biosysbio feed has been quite interesting for this section.

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else's. I'm happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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CISBAN Outreach

Scientist Meets Small Children, and doesn’t stop talking (and listening) all day!

[Update: You can get the slides for this presentation now. See my related post.]

This past Monday, one day before fantastic things happened in the voting booths of America (I had already submitted my absentee ballot), I spent a day at a local primary school. Names and locations for the school will not be mentioned, as I am unsure about rules regarding child protection, but the day was great, and I’ll tell you all about that. I had contacted the Teacher Scientist Network (information about volunteering is at the end of the post), which pairs teachers with scientists, about a year or so ago. As far as I know, prior to me, most of the scientists who had volunteered had been wet-lab-based scientists, and the partnerships were generally geared around that sort of work. I am a bioinformatician/computational biologist, which means I spend all my work time in front of a computer. Figuring out what to do with me in the TSN, and who to pair me with, took some effort. However, with the wonderful help of people like Deborah Herridge, and now Claire Willis, from the TSN, I was eventually paired with a teacher. She has a biology background, and now teacher 10-11 year olds. So, she is very aware of what sort of science she wants the kids to learn, and also understands how important it is for kids to interact with a “real” scientist. And what she organized for my visit was just great. Words like funny, wonderful, crazy, surprising, cute, interesting, intelligent, curious, shy, proud, and many others come to my mind when I think of those kids, and I’ll try to explain why.

My teacher partner has organized all this week as the school’s Science Week. And, for the first day, I was to visit and give them all a talk or two, and answer questions, about 1) what it is like being a scientist, and 2) what genes are and how they are used in research and medicine. In the case of the older kids, I also was able to talk a little about ethics, which was really good.

I saw 9 separate classes, speaking at each one, and also gave a short talk at the two assemblies (one for the juniors, and one for the infants). The ages of the children ranged from 5 to 11. In my short talk I had prepared some slides about how I had become a scientist, and the longer talk centered around the theme that me and my teacher partner had decided on: genes, and how they are used in scientific research. Yes, this meant talking about “GM”, but there are so many aspects of it that the media never really touch on, that the talk was wonderfully diverse. I spoke on historical domestication of animals, making medicine for humans, encouraging hardier crops, the similarities and differences between lab-based genetic manipulation and “traditional” selective breeding, the obligatory glowing fish and glowing mice, and the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry for this year, one of whom released a picture of a petri dish of fluorescing bacteria “drawn” with the picture of a sunset.

By the end of the day, my throat was sore from talking. People who know me would not be surprised to hear I talked a lot – that’s a standing joke. However, the kids talked (in a good way!) almost as much as I did. They always wanted to tell me about their experiences, and how they related to the slides, and were full of interesting questions. It was fabulous.

Top Questions Asked, in order of remembered frequency

1. Why do scientists wear white coats?

2. Is that seahorse real? (From a picture from the GloFish website)

3. Can scientists mix more than one gene together?

4. How many colors can you make? (with respect to fluorescent proteins)

5. What happens when you mix colors? (another fluorescent protein question)

6. Do you like America? / Do you like America more than the UK?

7. Does that one have eyes? (When looking at this picture of e.coli.)

8. They look like hot dogs! (Ok, so not a question, but hilariously accurate – of the e.coli, again.)

9. Why does one of my eyes have a bit of brown in it? (This was a child with blue eyes, except for a wedge of brown in one eye.)

10. Is the science in CSI (the TV program) like real science?

11. Are some scientists going to destroy the world with black holes? (A little off-topic, but I didn’t mind at all!)

As you can see, not all of them were strictly on-topic, but they just kept asking question after question. They also did the classic kid trick of raising their hand as if to ask a question, when their real purpose was telling you all about their vacation/pet dog/pet hamster/pet cat/Uncle who used to be a scientist but now works at Asda (yes, really!). But I didn’t mind those at all. I kept on running over time in each classroom, as they had so many things to ask me. It didn’t matter what age – pitch the talk in the right way, and they really seemed to enjoy it!

Some top tips if I were to do it again (which I really would like to do – the teacher I’m paired with and I have some ideas for next time) include:

1. My method of using no text on the vast majority of the slides really worked. It was especially useful as it meant I could stop anywhere in my slides if I was running out of time, and the littlest ones were not distracted by trying to read the words rather than listening to me.

2. Pictures of fluffy, pretty, cute, or “gross” animals were very, very popular. The number of “Awwwws” I got when showing pictures of cats was astounding. Equally, all the older ones wanted to see my pictures of the newborn mice (pretty gross with no hair!), and all ages enjoyed trying to figure out what the photo of e.coli was.

3. As soon as you ask a question, they all raise their hands to answer it. Not sure when this stops, but I know that by the time I was in high school the teachers had a hard time prying any answers out of the majority of us! 😉 However, on Monday I was at a school where the eldest was 11, and they all wanted to contribute. So, ask them questions. I found there were two types: the question where I wanted to get an answer (such as “What traits make a good horse?” or “What do you think makes these two cats different?”) and the type where I just wanted them to feel included in the talk, and just wanted a show of hands (such as “How many of you have a cat?” or “Who has heard of diabetes?”).

4. Introduce some ethics, and show how scientists think very carefully before doing research. We talked about genes a lot, and how putting new genes in bugs like e.coli can help us, e.g. the human insulin gene into e.coli to help with diabetes. I told all the older kids that it wasn’t the tool that is a problem: a tool is neither good nor evil. It’s how that tool is used, and people need to make a fresh decision, and think about the benefits and downsides each time that tool is used. I said genetic modification is like a knife: it is neither good nor bad, and that scientists try very hard to make sure that it is used for the right reasons, and in a safe way.

5. Visually-arresting analogies. Even though DNA is a double-helix and not a spiral staircase, I found it a very useful analogy, especially for the younger ones.

6. My partnered teacher had prepared some slides to show the kids prior to my arrival. They dealt with Mr. Green Genes, the GFP-glowing cat. Some of the other teachers also talked to their kids about inheriting some of your traits from your mom, and some from your dad, and used the labradoodle as a visual aid. This prepped them for my talk, which I think was really helpful.

7. Make your talk inclusive. It keeps their interest, I think. When I showed pictures of cats, I included one picture of my own cat, and told them a little about her. I often asked them questions about if they had pets, or scientists in the family, or liked the look of a picture, or knew what something was.

These are probably things that most people are well aware of, however, I thought I’d just share my experiences!

Things That Surprised Me

1. How many of them knew the word “bacteria” before I could even say it. It was, strangely enough, the top answer to my “What do you think this is?” question when I showed them the picture of e.coli.

2. How many of the kids, without prompting, came up to me after my talks and said that they really enjoyed it.

3. How many came up to me after my talks to ask more questions, or tell me about a scientist in the family.

4. How much enjoyment I got out of giving my talks, and from listening to what the kids had to say.

5. One of the kids made an immediate connection between adding “glowing genes” (GFP etc) to fish, and Jurassic Park. Ok, so it isn’t an exact analogy, but that was really great to hear. It also brought forth a discussion, led by the kids, about saving endangered animals.

And, in one direct appeal to my vanity, a little 5 or 6 year old girl told me as I was leaving her class that she thought I was pretty! Wow, what a nice way to finish a talk, and it definitely helped the ego 😉 I thanked her, and the teacher heard her and told her that her house could have a point. Then I realized that their school, just like Hogwart’s, had houses that got points! Too cool 🙂 And finally, a very great compliment from the teacher I’m paired with: “the kids are so much more enthusiastic about science and a lot of them have asked when you are comming back! Your work was perfectly pitched to the children’s needs and was explained in a way that was so easy to understand.” Thanks!

I highly recommend the Teacher Scientist Network. If you are interested in registering with the Teacher Scientist Network in my area (operated by Science Learning Centre North East), please visit and register at as a scientist. Claire Willis will then receive your application and arrange a mutually convenient time to meet up. If you’re interested, but aren’t sure where to go for your area, then have a look at that page – you can send questions to Claire from there. that website also has more information about the TSN. They don’t ask for very much time from scientists at all, from a day or two per year, to anything that the teacher and scientist agree to. In my case, the head of my Centre told all of us employees that if we wanted to volunteer for the TSN, we could do, and do it on work time. He is most generous, and definitely sees the benefit of science outreach to schools.

Thanks to the TSN, my bosses, my partnered teacher, and most especially all those kids! 🙂

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