Festival Highlights - Biology Zone

As part of Science Saturday at the Science festival, we sent Meera Senthilingam off to roam around the hands-on activities in the Biology Zones, right in the centre of Cambridge...
16 March 2008

Interview with 

Meera Senthilingam


Kat - Now it's time to hear some highlights from Science Saturday. We sent Meera Senthilingam off to roam around the hands-on activities in the Biology Zones, right in the centre of Cambridge. And here's what she found.

Meera - I've come along to the Pathology Department on the Downing Site and I'm here with Christine Watson who works here in Pathology. Hello Christine.

Christine - Hello.

Meera - What have you got going on in your section?

A glass of milkChristine - Well, this morning we're showing people how cells make milk. We're very interested in the mammary gland and how that goes wrong in cancer. In order to do that we need to understand normal mammary function. Today we have an exhibit on breast cells and how they make milk. We've lots of interactive exhibits for the kids to look at different animals and how much milk they might make and to look at all of the things in milk: the fats, the proteins and sugars - all of these things.

Meera - How are you displaying this, how is it interactive?

Christine - We've lots of posters and we have guess how much milk? We've a Meccano® fats machine here so the kids can put balls in the machine and study how we separate cells to determine the different functions.

Meera - So you have everyone guess how much milk these animals make but I can actually see some milk and cheese down the end there. What's that for?

Christine - We thought it would be really exciting for people to taste different sorts of milk and realise how the flavour is actually made. Some animals make a lot of fat in the milk, some have much more sugar and so we have milk to try here. We've goat's milk and cow's milk and we even have milk from a plant: soya milk which some people drink because they don't like animal milk. There's lots of things to try and taste.

Meera - What are you hoping they'll walk away with having come to this section?

Christine - I hope they'll go away with an understanding of how exciting it is to study science and also to have some idea of how the mammary gland makes milk. Lots of people don't understand how cells make milk.

Meera - How do cells make milk?

Christine - Ah, well during pregnancy very special cells called alveolar cells grow. They make protein and lipid and secrete that into the ducts in the gland. If an infant suckles at the teat they can actually withdraw that milk. These cells all die at the end of lactation when they're not needed any more.

Meera - Is it these cells that go wrong in cancer or is it a variety of cells?

Christine - It's usually these cells that go wrong. If they don't die properly then women can get cancer. In fact, dogs and other animals can get cancer too. We're really very interested in finding out how we can kill these cells if they go wrong.

Meera - So, I've wondered over to the New Museums Site and I'm here with festival patron, Carol Vorderman. Hello, Carol.

Carol - Hello.

Meera - So what have you been doing this morning?

DNACarol - Well, I was over near Plant Sciences earlier on and seeing lots of people dressed up as bees and then getting lost in a very large yellow flower. Then I was getting my DNA extracted, shaken up in a test tube along with various chemicals.

Meera - Were you able to take it home with you?

Carol - Yes, you are. You can make it into a little necklace: your own test tube. How fantastic is that? Then I went to see the lecture about the science of Dr Who. Which was, OH MAN it's real!

Meera - I've come over to the Biology Zone and it's really busy. There are hundred of people queuing outside just to come in. There's a whole variety of activities going on. Over in the distance I can see children bashing a machine of some form with quite a lot of force. I'm just going to see what that activity's about. It's the neurone section and I'm here with Isobel who's organising this particular area. Hello Isobel.

Isobel - Hello.

Meera - Why are children bashing that machine over there?

Isobel - Actually, they're trying to get their motor-coordination as better as they can so they're pressing one button to the next one for 45 seconds. We're just recording how much they do. We're using these tests in the clinic. These are used in the diagnostic for patients with Parkinson's disease or Huntington's disease.

Meera - What else have you got going on in this section?

Isobel - Actually, in this section we have building a brain in Playdoh. We try to sensitise people to what is brain science. The idea is to sensitise kids to how complex the brain can be by making them make a brain in ten steps.

An animated brain showing different lobesMeera - So the person's that's actually created the build-a-brain section is Dr Lizzie Burns from the University of Oxford. Hello Lizzie.

Lizzie - Hello.

Meera - What's that section all about?

Lizzie - The idea is to inspire and engage people with the brain which is the most fascinating organ in the body. It's really what makes us who we are. It's everything we experience is happening, all our memories. It's extraordinary to think the strange wrinkled thing is responsible for all those feelings. It's also about trying to appreciate how beautiful it is. The real thing doesn't look very beautiful, it has to be said but it is beautiful in terms of what it does. People are actually able to find out about what's inside their brain. There's loads of things in there as well: what each part does, what would happen if one of those parts wasn't working as well, what effect that would have on the person. I've actually run this sort of workshop for very young children who love it all the way up to leading neuroscientists in their field and they've loved it too. Everyone turns into an instant child, it's wonderful.

Mera - I've come over to the brain section and I'm here with Sam who's currently in the middle of making a brain. Hello Sam.

Sam - Hello.

Meera - So what have you been doing here?

Sam - I've been making a brain. There's this instruction thing and it tells you all the parts of the brain and you have to make them in a certain order and each one's a different colour.

Meera - Which stage are you at now?

Sam - I'm on the last stage.

Meera - Ok, so your brain's nearly there. Actually I can see it. It's very impressive. What have you learned new today?

Sam - I've learned which part controls which bit. The front part which I'm making now controls the personality; the top part controls the movement and touch; sides control vision; and the stem controls your breathing and the heart.


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