Usually the best way to learn something is just to get stuck in and do it. Have a play, make mistakes, try new things. It’s with this in mind that I’ve always wanted to explore ways of getting school students doing real, novel, useful scientific research. Ultimately this led to the idea that became Decipher My Data.

Being operated entirely over the internet, the point of DMD was that it was easily scalable. Of course most scientists get their hands dirty and as such the dream would be to turn your school science lab into a practical research lab. In order to accomplish this you’d probably need either a lot of money or some incredibly dedicated and imaginative teachers … but preferably you’d have both!

This week, the National Science and Engineering Competition finalists have been at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham. If you were lucky enough to be able to attend, I hope you took some time away from the noisy shows and big corporate stands to chat with some of the inspirational students who’ve entered. Most of those I spoke with were given opportunities through Nuffield bursaries, others came through the CREST award scheme, maybe in clubs. Some may have had small group research projects funded through a Royal Society partnership grant … but occasionally you’d come across a student fortunate enough to come from a school where there is a complete commitment to provide opportunities like this, not to one or two students but to all.

I met some of those lucky students last week, and the inspirational, dedicated teachers who work with them at Langton Grammar School for Boys.

Langton is based in Canterbury, which is further from Bristol than I had really considered when I emailed physics teacher Becky Parker asking if I could come to see how things run there. I’d heard about the school from Alom Shaha’s tweets the night Langton opened their latest science department upgrade. The night on a sofa in London (thanks Rob) and the 5:30am start that followed it were however worth the effort to accept the invitation I had received from Dave Colthurst (right) to come and observe the collapsed timetable day he’d organised as part of an ongoing research project supported by the University of Kent.

 

The Project

Dave’s MBP2 project is looking at Myelin Basic Protein, a major protein in the myelin sheath that insulates the axons of our nerve cells. The degradation and loss of this layer is a characteristic of a number of neurodegenerative diseases including multiple sclerosis. By all accounts MBP is a rather flaky protein. Although it was first sequenced in 1971, no-one has yet to crystallise it in order to get a good grip on its structure. Part of the problem is the protein’s delicate nature – it has no tertiary structure and is readily broken down. As such, it makes an attractive target for MS research as it is believed that the destruction of MBP plays an important role in the chain of events that lets antibodies cross the blood-brain barrier causing the plaques or scleroses that give MS its name.

Dave suspects that phosphorylation of MBP (adding a phosphate group to an amino acid on the protein) might play a role in the breakdown of its structure. If we can work out where the protein is phosphorylated, we can identify drug targets for blocking this process.

The 100,000 sufferers in the UK and the symptoms they deal with every day make a compelling case to students for research in this area but it was not ‘til the end of the day that I fully understood the reason for Dave’s personal interest in this particular disease.

All students involved with the project had a collapsed day to work on it – their third and final of the year. The day began with a briefing in the hall where Dave laid out the plan of attack for the day which he had been meticulously planning in his two days a week of non-contact time. As a chemist I was utterly lost almost immediately! Whilst Dave peppered the gathered A-level students with a seemingly incomprehensible assault of acronyms and cellubabble I looked around expecting to see panic in their eyes but found only interested nods and even the hint of a chin stroke!

One of the biggest shocks of the day came when I worked out early on that the whole process was being driven by Dave. I had expected this to have been a project they were working on at the university and that they were just outsourcing some of the practical. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed as I talked to Dave it became apparent that a lot of the ideas they were working on had come directly from the students themselves.

The students of the Colthurst Group (and I can’t now honestly think of a more suitable name!) split into teams, each working on small parts of the puzzle. Some were looking at ways of getting the protein intact out of a cell – in this case getting e-coli to express it. Some were looking at getting the protein expressed by yeast which has a very similar biochemistry to human cells and was likely to phosphorylate in the same places. This way the team would be able to compare the e-coli protein with the yeast one to identify target sites.

A group contained around 10 students; one or two of them would be year 13s, the rest year 12s. The Y13s acted as team leaders: training up the younger students in that group’s necessary techniques which allowed the staff and students from the University to assume more of a hands-off supportive role. The team leaders were responsible for keeping the lab book and for reporting back at the end of the day. In order to avoid wasting time training up students on multiple techniques, they stay in the same group as long as they are involved with the project.

Previously, the group had modified the MBP gene by adding 8 histidine units at the end, they then managed to get their modified gene into some yeast to express it for them. This yeast arrived at the start of the day, hopefully with lots of MBP to harvest. In the past, the group had tried physical means to break down the cell walls and release the contents but they tried a new tactic today, using the enzyme Y-Per to open up the cells. Yeast was the zombie cell of choice because it behaves biochemically in a similar way to human cells.

One team was attempting to extract the protein by passing through a nickel column (above) that the modified protein should have a very high affinity for due to the added histidine units. They passed on to another team who were running SDS-PAGE and Western blots. Other teams were working on getting their modified gene into some e-coli and there was a bioinformatics team who were predicting possible phosphorylation sites and attempting to find a series of enzymes that would cleave the protein in such a way that there would only be one phosphorylation site on each fragment – they could then identify for sure which fragments were being phosphorylated, especially when compared to the protein produced by the yeast.

The project doesn’t stop there though. The students go out and work in a local MS clinic throughout the rest of the year to get to know the patients there and understand what they deal with. At the end of the day, I was greeted by someone who I had thought was another teacher but in fact turned out to be Dave’s wife, an MS sufferer and the inspiration for the project. She has supported it from the beginning and comes in during every collapsed day to talk with the students about the work they are doing.

Other Projects

I found the whole experience very emotional. What is going on here is so inspiring … yet it’s also absolutely shamed me that none of the students at my school are involved with anything similar. The one thing I consoled myself with was that “Biology is feasible .. but there’s no way you could get cutting-edge chemistry or physics happening in the school environment – it would just be too expensive, you wouldn’t have the right kit and it would probably be too dangerous as well”.

I was wrong.

Here’s a team of lads from the school who I ran into presenting another one of their projects at the Big Bang Fair this week (with Becky Parker hiding in the background).

They’re about to have the new particle detector they’ve designed launched into space.

Say What?! No … REALLY

They received a MEDIPIX detector through the CERN@School project. The idea was that it would be used for experiments on the ground with cosmic ray showers but they thought with some modifications a small array of these would look pretty nice strapped to a satellite collecting data too. They took the idea further and decided to pretty much reinvent the Geiger counter … except fully pimped up. Their detector is vastly more sensitive, portable and unlike traditional radiation badges which have to be developed (meaning that you could have experienced some serious doses of radiation and not know about it for some time) gives you instant feedback on the types of radiation you’re being exposed to. They saw that each particle type leaves a distinctive trace pattern on their detector and they were able to develop an image analysis algorithm to work out what types of radiation you are being exposed to. They’ve even written an app for you to monitor your exposure on your smartphone! Frustratingly they weren’t allowed to enter the physics competition as they fell between two age brackets.

There are other physics projects too and the chemists have something in the works looking at zeolites. It would seem that if you even think of applying for a job at this school, you better bring some impact factor with you!

 

How does this all happen?

Well that’s the crucial point! I’m not entirely sure you can simplify something as amazing as this down to one or two factors (and I will be exploring repeating themes and talking with some national young scientist winners in a future post) but you can be sure that the amazing teachers at Langton have a lot to answer for!

I had some time to chat with chemist Duncan Armour about what he thought it took. He noted there are at least 5 PhDs in the department and quipped that the closure of Pfizer has probably left Kent with one of the biggest surpluses of chemistry teachers in the country. From speaking to staff I did get the impression that the market there is extremely competitive and there are a lot of qualifications and industrial experience to go around.

Whilst most sensible teachers will tell you that having a PhD doesn’t make a lot of difference in the classroom, you can bet it makes a hell of a lot of difference when it comes to setting up and coordinating a large scale research effort. Dave himself has a strong research background and you can imagine how this could be a recipe for success when combined with the 2 days a week he gets to coordinate the project through a Wellcome People Award (and now a Society Award) and the exhaustive connections brought in by the staff joining from industry.

I am however absolutely convinced that it doesn’t take this kind of a department to make something wonderful like this happen. The more young scientists I talk to, the clearer an idea I get but one theme that keeps coming through is the role model element where students see the success of others higher in the school and think to themselves “I could do that“. This will be the subject of a future post.

Benefits

The benefits of giving students experiences like this should be pretty self-explanatory but the staff did mention a few specifics. Firstly was the fact that these projects could easily be drawn into the rest of the curriculum. Teacher subject knowledge in the department has greatly improved and they have much more relevant contexts in which to teach material.

The students have a much better idea of specific scientific disciplines and what scientists actually do. The numbers of students mindlessly falling into dental / medical / veterinary courses have fallen with many realising that, for example, genetics or biochemistry might be a better fit for them. Those that do go on to medicine find themselves more prepared for interviews and last year all those who applied got in. The visiting students from Kent make excellent role models and unlike in other outreach models, they develop genuine relationships with the school students they work with.

Lessons learned

I asked teachers and the university students for some words of advice to other teachers looking to set up their own similar projects. Both mentioned that whilst it all appears to run smoothly right now, that it was a lot messier at first and they had to push through that. The early stages involved a lot of teaching from the front which was very difficult with the numbers involved. There was lots of waiting around and students weren’t engaged. As more equipment was bought this meant that more students could be on task at the same time but the thing that really pushed things on was putting the responsibility onto the students and setting up the mixed Y13/12 teams where the older students could upskill the younger ones and were responsible for keeping the lab books etc. Now the focus has pulled away from Dave and the university staff. The year 13s have become a bit like PhD students, the year 12s like undergraduate project students, the university students like post docs and Dave the group leader.

The Future?

Things seem to be going from strength to strength at Langton. The day I visited, there were also staff from Wellcome who were coming to see how their money is being spent as well as a number of teachers from around the country with whom Dave is setting up franchises. The chemists are working on getting their zeolites project up and running and no doubt the physicists will be building a Martian base by the end of 2013!

One thing’s for sure, I know I’ve got to start getting things rolling in my school to play catch up which is why I’m off to pen an email to the chemistry staff at Bath titled “what could you do with 100 slaves?” (well you’ve got to start somewhere!)