Bioinformatics: food detective
I began my three-month internship with The Naked Scientists in July 2017 and never believed that I'd end up talking to a Guinness World Record holder, or DNA sequencing a sausage before my time with the team was done...
As a BBSRC EastBIO student, I took some time out of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh to gain experience in public engagement and radio and podcast production. From the moment I started my internship, I was treated as a valued member of the team. In my first week I sourced news stories for the show, interviewed a researcher, edited this interview and published an article for the website. I loved being able to get started so quickly and found that being thrown in at the deep-end is really the best way to learn these specific skills.
The overall goal of my internship was to produce my own hour-long show on a topic of my choice. My background is in genetics, so naturally I have a fondness for DNA and decided to make this the theme of my show. I wanted to create something that was both informative and entertaining, and which highlighted what DNA can tell us about our past, present and future.
David Bentley, Vice President and Chief Scientist at Illumina, agreed to take part in a live interview about progress and aims of the 100,000 genomes project. Evolutionary geneticist, Eske Willerslev, described his record-breaking ancient DNA extraction processes that are reassembling near million-year old genomes. We also learned from CDC researcher Andrea McCollum how viruses such as smallpox can be traced through their genetic fingerprints. In addition to exciting guest interviews, we also, with the help of the University of Cambridge Department of Pathology, sequenced the DNA from a locally-made pork sausage to identify the animal species it contained. The show was a success and I am extremely grateful to the Naked Scientists for their support and encouragement.
My Naked Scientists experience – specifically the sausage DNA sequencing - has come in very useful in my new role as a Postdoctoral Researcher for the 4273pi Bioinformatics Education project at the University of Edinburgh. The aim of our project is to create and deliver educational workshops for Scottish secondary school pupils that promote an understanding of bioinformatics and its relevance to the curriculum and beyond (e.g. health, food safety, scientific computing and Big Data).
Recently, I designed a workshop for biology pupils using the DNA sequences we found in the pork sausage. Pupils use a publicly-available DNA database and free online search software to discover that the sausage contains plenty of pig DNA (as one would expect in a pork sausage!) but also traces of lamb, chicken, cattle and human DNA. The human DNA is initially extremely surprising, but on reflection tiny traces are expected. Human DNA is found wherever there are humans. Humans made the sausage and prepared DNA samples from that sausage.
We encourage pupils to listen to the show about sequencing the DNA in a sausage, as it includes a chat with the butcher who made the sausage and an interview with the scientist as they extract, sequence and analyse the DNA in the lab. The discovery of human DNA in the sausage and its explanation leaves pupils with a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of data and an appreciation of ethical issues: even touching a sausage leaves a complete sample of our personal DNA on it, which is now available to scientists for a few hundred pounds.
As well as providing useful data for these educational workshops, my internship with The Naked Scientists has equipped me with the science communication skills required for a career in public engagement and education. I had to create a show that explained complex scientific concepts in a way that was both understandable and engaging to a non-scientific audience. This encouraged me to think beyond my academic comfort zone and creatively construct a narrative that enhances understanding the science involved.