Annual Charter Lecture
9 October 2018
The Charter Lecture is an annual event that has been carried out by the West Midlands branch since 2009. The event coincides with Biology Week, and aims to support an open dialogue on cutting edge-science between members of the general public and researchers, with a special focus on engaging young people with an interest in the biological sciences.
There was an excellent turnout at this year’s lecture, with attendees from local secondary schools, universities, and the wider West Midlands community.
This year’s West Midlands branch Charter Lecture was entitled Genome editing: small change and the mammoth problem, delivered by Dr David Nagel, an expert on the molecular biology techniques that can be used to alter the genetic sequence of live cells.
This engaging talk covered the advances made in the early days of genome editing, the various successes and failures that have happened since that time, including recent clinical applications of the techniques, and what is needed to generate important scientific advancements in this field in the future.
Dr Nagel provided a clear and easy to follow explanation of the maths that explain how these techniques work, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of currently available genome editing methods.
After the talk, the speaker engaged in a lively discussion with the audience that covered aspects of scientific rigour and the ethics associated with genome editing. Dr Nagel said he was thoroughly impressed with the breadth of the discussion and the diversity of the questions.
This highly stimulating evening came to a conclusion with a dialogue on where this field of research may take us in future…will we someday see woolly mammoths wandering the Arctic tundra? Is this something we should even attempt to do?
Dr Jill Johnson MRSB
Apple Orchard Visit
6 October 2018
Distance and uncertain weather did not put people off from attending our visit to Fruitfields Orchard during Biology Week. As well as locals and groups from Birmingham, we had folk from Australia and Anglesey join us for what turned out to be a most informative, interesting and enjoyable event.
Extracts from some feedback are below:
“This was a lovely relaxed Saturday afternoon visit. From the slopes of the orchard we had lovely views across the autumn countryside as we learnt about growing apples for juice making. The very freshly squeezed Red Devil juice which we sampled before heading home was delicious and most of us took a bottle or two away with us, as well as apples sneaked (with permission!) into our pockets and the odd jar of honey from Greg’s hives.”
“…Greg and his family were great guides, revealing the history of their enterprise, showing us around the orchards, identifying the characteristics of the apples and allowing us to taste and sample the products.”
“It was very interesting to hear the ideas behind the planting and see the additional activities with honey & willow. The juicing and tasting gave us the chance to see how the project was focused and realise how this ecologically balanced approach was beneficial in so many ways. We also enjoyed the fruits of the enterprise and the cake and biscuits cooked by the children.”
Dr Sue Howarth FRSB
28 July 2018
Members of the North East Worcestershire Beekeepers Association and members of the Society’s West Midlands branch and guests joined approximately half a million honeybees at the Jinney Ring Craft Centre, Hanbury, Worcestershire.
A tremendous amount was learned about Apis mellifera and most of us took the opportunity to handle frames of bees. Tentative at first, everyone gained hugely in confidence and nobody was stung. Comments from the group were very positive, including:
“I had a great time and it was very educational, learning about how the bees stored honey and capped the honeycombs. I found the different techniques the beekeepers used, for example, controlling the queen’s movement so there is only honey in certain parts of the hive, to be ingenious! Watching a bee emerging from its comb was amazing too, truly a unique experience.“
“…It was what we can only describe as a wonderful experience. I still cannot quite believe how interesting and amazing I found it, and I do hope the beekeepers did not mind the barrage of questions we posed to them.”
“…I have been toying with the idea of keeping bees for a number of years and Saturday’s experience has now spurred me on, and I have already watched a number of beekeeping tutorials, and hope to be ready to purchase my first nucleus of bees in the spring.”
Dr Sue Howarth FRSB
The Giant Wombat of Worcester
7 July 2018
On a Saturday in July, the West Midlands branch committee was pleased to host a dual location bioarchaeology event. Starting in Worcester Museum and Art Gallery, Rob Hedge – known as the ‘incurable archaeologist’ and the Finds & Public Archaeologist for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service – told us about some amazing specimens, including the ‘giant wombat’ of Worcester and the Strensham mammoth.
His talk included thought-provoking ethical implications of the conditions under which some of the fossils had been collected, particularly those brought back from Australia. Following a pleasant lunch in the museum café, we took a short walk to The Hive, Europe’s only joint community and university library.
Inside this striking gold-coloured building, Rob explained the museum’s summer ‘Ice Age’ and ‘Lost Landscapes’ exhibitions, which not only featured an irresistible walk-on reproduction of the first geological map of the country, but also more fossils and artefacts, including some dug up within months of the exhibition opening by University of Worcester archaeology students.
Overall, the exhibition showcased over half a million years of prehistory, all with a Worcestershire connection, stretching until the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. The project was funded through grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England along with funding from the Council for British Archaeology West Midlands, and the West Midlands Museum Development Fund. With many thanks to Rob, who gave both talks and came with us for the walk, despite a painful knee injury.
Dr Sue Howarth FRSB
Butterfly Farm Family Event
14 April 2018
This year the West Midlands branch decided to take the families in our region to the butterfly farm situated in the lovely town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Butterflies prefer a very warm and humid, tropical environment. This was evident the moment we stepped into the enclosure, when the humidity had the whole group panting and sweating. Once we acclimatised, we noticed the beauty of the enclosure and the multitude of butterflies flying overhead.
We were privileged to have been given the tour by the farm’s own managing director Richard Lamb MRSB. Richard gave us a very insightful and energetic tour, was very enthusiastic about his butterflies and had a real knowledge in the field. Eventually we reached the mini beast metropolis, an area filled with insects, reptiles and amphibians from all over the world. The younger members and a few brave parents were given the opportunity to handle giant snail and huge millipedes.
Later, the group was stunned to see hundreds of leaf cutter ants crawling overhead, carrying leaves and foliage back to the nest, a network of ropes suspended from the ceiling providing passages for them to return to their main colony. We said our goodbyes to our tour guide and thanked him for what was a great tour of the butterfly farm.
Elisha Zadok AMRSB
26 May 2018
Beautiful Shropshire was the destination for those booked into the joint RSB West Midlands/Field Studies Council (FSC) Discovering Spiders workshop on Saturday 26th May.
Dr Charlie Bell, FSC BioLinks project officer in the West Midlands, ably coordinated the workshop hosted by FSC BioLinks Project and FSC Preston Montford. Nigel Cane-Honeysett, a founding member of the Shropshire Spider Group and the British Arachnological Society’s Vice County Recorder for Shropshire and West Midlands Regional Organiser, delivered most of the sessions with expertise throughout the day.
After a warm welcome, we enjoyed a comprehensive introduction, focusing mainly on some of the 670 different spiders found in the UK. A demonstration and discussion on field identification was followed by a session making ‘spi-pots’ so that everyone had their own to use and to take away for future use. We found that these worked really well, enabling spiders to be caught and immobilised for identification, without harming the spider.
Participants were also given the choice of an FSC guide to harvestmen of the British Isles or a guide to house and garden spiders to keep.
An enjoyable lunch was worked off by some fieldwork, involving much use of the spi-pots, vibrating electric toothbrushes to entice spiders out of hiding places, the FSC spider guide and support from Charlie and Nigel. Back indoors, microscopic examination of some of the living finds created much interest, especially seeing the magnified spiders moving on the screen. After a short interval for cake and admiration of the pond, the day finished with information about recording spiders. It was interesting to learn that none are too common to be recorded.
It was a great day overall as can be seen from some of the comments from participants below:
"We thoroughly enjoyed the whole day. We learnt a lot, appreciated the expert information and enjoyed the company of the other RSB members and guests on the course. We've enjoyed spotting and trying to identify our garden spiders since - takes some time to get through the garden chores now!"
"I would just like to let you know what a great event this was. I enjoyed every single second of the day. It was great to be with a group of spider lovers who didn’t think I was a bit weird because of my love of the eight-legged beasties. It made me feel like kid again, I remembered all the fabulous days I had bug hunting when I was a child. Even the weather was kind to us."
- FSC BioLinks is an FSC project that started in 2018 and is funded by a National Lottery grant of £1.23 million. It aims to increase the number of people with skills in biological recording and identification and so increase the quality of invertebrate species data being submitted to the national biodiversity datasets.
- How to make a spi-pot: YouTube video
- Recording spiders: British Arachnological Society
Sue Howarth CBiol FRSB
Darwin – Man, Myth or Icon?
17 February 2018
To support the annual Shrewsbury Darwin Festival, celebrating Darwin's birthday, the branch organised a lecture in the historic Abbeygate Hall, headquarters of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker, director of the Centre for Science, Knowledge and Belief in Society and principal investigator for the Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum project at Newman University, Birmingham, gave a fact-filled talk on some of the changing historical and cultural views about Darwin.
It was intriguing to hear about the many historically inaccurate ideas that have appeared in newspapers, and made their way onto mugs and t-shirts.
The audience appreciated the idea that questioning Darwinism can sometimes be seen as an assault on the entire edifice of evolutionary science; an example given was the furore caused by a 2009 cover of New Scientist proclaiming 'Darwin Was Wrong'. Many biologists like to own a copy of The Origin of Species; a useful tip from Professor Elsdon-Baker was to seek a copy of the 6th edition as this has an extra chapter with responses to criticism.
Professor Elsdon-Baker also described some ongoing research in the UK and Canada into attitudes towards evolution. The work seeks to build an understanding of the social and cultural contexts of public perceptions of the relationship between 'science' and 'religion', across all faiths and none. So far, the findings indicate that more people think that it is difficult to reconcile evolutionary science with religion than is actually so; data shows that the two are generally not counter-oppositional. More about this project can be found at www.sciencereligionspectrum.org
One hundred people booked tickets for this lecture; it was good to know so many people were interested in the topic. The raffle in the interval raised nearly £60, which will go towards prizes for this year's West Midlands School Poster competition.
Dr Sue Howarth CBiol FRSB
AGM and insulin lecture
23 November 2017
Cliff Bailey, professor of clinical sciences at Aston University in Birmingham, gave the talk ‘Insulin – Can’t Live Without It’ following our branch AGM. He has won many awards and accolades associated with his field of research and is included among the world’s top 20 diabetes experts.
It was clear that the lecture was going to be entertaining as well as educational when the audience’s post-talk buffet was alluded to several times in the context of diabetes.
Fortunately, the cakes on show were small. Cliff’s talk was wide-ranging and covered what insulin is; how it is made, how it works, what happens when it goes wrong (no-one is going to forget the story about the patient who didn’t know that he had a drawing pin in his infected foot, illustrating one of the neuropathic effects of diabetes); a brief history of diabetes and its treatment; insulin therapy now and what may happen next, ‘smart’ insulin pens and ‘flash’ glucose monitoring.
The last, already in use, is a continuous glucose monitoring system that uses an implanted sensor to measure glucose and a transmitter to send data wirelessly to a display device, which shows both graphical and numerical displays.
The audience asked good questions such as whether a person can avoid diabetes by consuming only fatty acids and protein. The answer: no!
Dr Sue Howarth CBiol FRSB
Top Biology Student Award, University of Worcester
2 November 2017
Members of the West Midlands branch committee were invited to send a representative plus a guest to the Institute of Science and the Environment, University of Worcester, Annual Prize-Giving Event. Dr Sue Howarth and Dr Alan Woollhead attended on behalf of the committee and Dr Howarth was delighted to present Tiffany Slater with two prizes: The Royal Society of Biology Top Student Award and The Royal Society of Biology Accredited Top Project Award.
Dr Sue Howarth CBiol FRSB
Brains and Brainwaves
10 October 2017
Whoever would have thought that metronomes and beer cans could be used to represent the synchronicity of brain waves? During Biology Week Professor Paul Furlong, director of Aston Brain Centre, Birmingham did just that. In a video where, much to the surprise of the audience, resting a beam with several differently timed metronomes on two gently rocking beer cans synchronised the beats of the metronomes. This was just one of the many interesting aspects of neural function illustrated in this year's charter lecture.
Professor Furlong took the audience on a journey through our brains showing the different rhythms our brains produce whether awake or asleep; these being alpha, theta and beta waves. He showed how brain waves can switch from beta to alpha simply by closing ones' eyes.
The audience was challenged with an optical illusion (that caught almost everyone out) using a chequered board and shadows to demonstrate the manner in which the brain interprets visual stimuli.
The lecture, cleverly entitled 'Brain waves and brain storms', took an unexpected turn as Professor Furlong discussed the effects of epilepsy and regions of the cerebral cortex involved with movement of the limbs and other parts of the body. He showed the audience a video of open brain surgery where the patient was conscious and the brain was stimulated at specific points across the sensory and motor regions of the cortex. This enabled the surgeon to determine regions that must remain intact during the removal of a brain tumour.
Epileptic 'brain storms' can be located noninvasively by a procedure known as MEG (magneto encephalopathy) which records magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in the brain, for example during a seizure MEG can determine the precise location of the disrupted brain tissue. Many thanks to Professor Furlong for the wonderful lecture.
Primary Strands DNA workshop
10 July 2017
This is a regular event held at Aston University on behalf of the West Midlands branch. Thirty Year 6 students from Nosuch Primary School took part in a DNA workshop where we isolated DNA from strawberries using the tried and tested method of washing up liquid, salt and alcohol.
Great fun was had by all and the school integrated the session into their teaching plan for the most recent term's topic. Then as part of the Big Sleuth, an initiative in support of the Birmingham Children's Hospital, students met Ed the X-Ray bear (A sleuth being a group of bears). We hope to run this again in Biology Week.
Dr Steve Russell
Visit to the Lapworth Museum of Geology, the University of Birmingham
29 April 2017
A group of 16 RSB members and guests, some of whom had travelled considerable distances to attend, spent a fascinating afternoon at the Lapworth Museum of Geology at the University of Birmingham. The museum's director gave us an introductory talk, with slides on the history of the museum and its recent refurbishment, then led a tour of the museum, pointing out important or novel features.
The museum shows fossil specimens displayed according to geological time, together with short videos depicting what the area would have looked like at the time. Some of the very high-quality displays are in the original cabinets but these are now more visitor friendly with portions cut out so children can see them low down. Many fossils are local to the West Midlands and are in excellent condition.
There is also a 'Tree of Life' display showing the classification system using modern zoological specimens. Rock specimens are displayed on a stunning floor-to-ceiling rock wall. The active earth section vividly portrays mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis in a modern and very visual way. The display of minerals is outstanding in the range and striking in the arrangement which is according to colour.
At the end, the director took us behind-the-scenes to the storage unit to see special items including the type specimen of the trilobite Calymene blumenbachii, also known as the 'Dudley Bug'. We could handle gold, silver and platinum nuggets and were asked to guess which was the most valuable.
The group felt indebted to the director for giving his time so generously and for his unbounded enthusiasm. The museum thoroughly deserves its selection as a finalist in the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017.
Mrs Norma Broadbridge MBE FRSB
Honeybees and Darwin
11 February 2017
We were pleased to be able to contribute again to the Darwin Festival held every year in Shrewsbury and now organised by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust.
This year our speaker was Dr Alan Woollhead, a former school teacher, head of biology and a beekeeper, who gave an insightful lecture on 'Honeybees: Past, Present and …..What Next?' at the beautiful and historic Cut Visitor Centre in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury.
Credit: Janine Taylor
After a brief overview of the evolution of the honeybee, the audience were treated to an well-illustrated account of current beekeeping practices, followed by a discussion of current and potential threats to the health of honeybees and honeybee colonies.
The problems caused by the Varroa destructor mite were explained and the likely arrival of the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, in the UK was used to suggest how beekeeping might have to change in future. During the talk, the often-overlooked fact that Charles Darwin himself kept honeybees was mentioned; Darwin was particularly intrigued by the evolution of the social behaviour that led to honeybees building hexagonal combs.
Over 50 people, from a wide age range, attended and a number of searching questions were asked at the end, including the impact that Brexit might have on honeybees and beekeeping, and how honeybees sense the percentage of water in their stored honey.
As the talk was given in two halves, the interval was used to hold a raffle. The proceeds went towards the costs of hiring the hall and providing refreshments, and the branch thanks those, including the speaker, who donated raffle prizes, many of which were linked to the theme of bees.
We hope to continue supporting the Darwin Festival again next year.
Dr Sue Howarth CBiol FRSB
12 October 2016
For the second year in a row Aston University played host to 60 year 5 students from across Birmingham during Biology Week. The children completed a number of tasks such as isolating DNA from fruit and examining tissue sections under a microscope before having a tour of the campus. They were joined by some of our second year biology students who wanted to gain some experience of working with school children and these students talked about life as a student and what it was like to study biology.
A large percentage of the students involved are part of the pupil premium program and are from some of the poorest parts of Birmingham. They overwhelmingly gave the session the thumbs up and were excited to be dressed as real scientists with their own lab coats. Also several of the schools now want to get involved with our branch events in future.
One of the teachers comments from Ladypool Primary school in Birmingham said her students were “totally inspired” by the experience. “None of them had ever been inside a university before and some were quite nervous before they arrived. The experiment was a great success and the look on their faces when they saw the DNA extraction was worth the trip itself.”
Dr Steve Russell MRSB
11 October 2016
In 1979 the WHO declared that smallpox had been consigned to the pages of history. This virulent disease killed one in three of its victims, with the last death from naturally occurring smallpox in 1977. Professor Gareth Williams, formerly Dean of Medicine at Bristol University captivated an audience of more than 250 people at this year’s charter lecture, ‘Vaccination: Blessing or Curse?’ in which he related the tortuous journey from the introduction of vaccination against smallpox to its eradication.
Professor Williams described the early life of Edward Jenner – his apprenticeship under John Hunter in London, his election to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1788 for his seminal work on the cuckoo, his work on cowpox inoculation to provide immunity to smallpox, and the establishment hurdles he had to overcome to publish and promote his work on vaccination.
Some medical experts reported that vaccination would turn your child into a cow; others said it would give them TB, syphilis, blood poisoning and madness. The anti-vaccinators also promoted conspiracy theories, claimed vaccination was satanic or against God’s will, argued it was natural population control of the poor, propagated misinformation and enlisted ‘celebrity’ endorsement. Sound familiar?
Jenner had wanted vaccination to be exploited for the good of mankind, so in 1798 he self-funded the publication of his paper; known generally as ‘The Inquiry’ – essentially a DIY guide to vaccination against smallpox. It was an instant success. Such was the influence of ‘The Inquiry’ that vaccination had reached most European frontiers by the start of the 19th century and in 1803 King Carlos IV sponsored the Royal Philanthropic Expedition which sailed around the world providing free vaccination to all Spanish colonies – a substantial contribution to the international eradication of smallpox.
The MMR vaccine has been the most recent focus of the anti-vaccinators and we have seen a resurgence of these diseases. On a positive note, Professor Williams told us that vaccination against guinea worm and polio should see their eradication within the next few years.
Dr Caroline Day FRSB
Primary Strands DNA Workshop
25 May 2016
This is a regular event held at Aston University on behalf of the West Midlands Branch. Forty year five students from Stourport Primary School took part in a DNA workshop, where we isolated DNA from peas and strawberries using the tried and tested method of washing up liquid, salt and alcohol.
Students then examined various tissue samples using microscopes, drawing and labelling what they observed. This was followed by a tour of the research labs and a question and answer session with some of the Aston University undergraduate biology and biomedical science students. Great fun was had by all and the school integrated the session into their teaching plan for last term’s topic.
The students then wrote letters of thanks to my team expressing how much they enjoyed the experience. The student quotes included Lizzie: “I loved looking at the samples because it was interesting, fascinating and fun” and Millie: “You and your students gave everyone a lab coat I felt like a real scientist in it.” We hope to run this again in Biology Week 2016.
Dr Steve Russell MRSB
Guided Walk of Ravenshill Woodland Reserve
30 April 2016
Trevor Smart gave a guided walk of Ravenshill Woodland Reserve, Worcester, a 50-acre semi-natural reserve, to a group of 20 members and guests.
The wood consists of a mixture of broad leaved and coniferous trees. Trevor and Annette Smart own 32 acres, but manage the whole reserve. Volunteer work parties help with management work. They rely on donations to help run this reserve, which is open for the public to enjoy.
Ravenshill is an ancient woodland, which describes a relatively undisturbed native woodland that has been in existence since 1600AD, when records began. We observed a number of Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs) such as bluebell, primrose and herb-paris (Paris quadrifolia).
Trevor demonstrated how you can estimate the height of a tree, which aids safe tree felling, and there was a quiz on tree identification by leaf shape for the children.
The woodland is managed for conservation of species, with clear areas for butterflies and dead wood for insects and woodpeckers. Charcoal is also produced on site.
We saw helleborines, ferns, lichens, mosses and ravens during the visit, before heavy rain thwarted our picnic plans.
Ms Debbie Dixon CBiol MRSB
Darwin Festival Lecture
13 February 2016
Professor Mike Bruford from Cardiff University delivered an informative, inspiring and engaging lecture on his research into critically endangered species. Mikes' research has focused on alpacas in South America, black rhinos in South Africa, okapi in the Congo, and peregrines, saker falcons, pandas and primates.
He spoke about conservation of the giant panda, distributed on mountains in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces of West China and a victim of human expansion. There is a captive breeding programme and captive animals are released as cubs into the wild. Pandas are also moved between small reserves to ensure survival.
In 2014, a 4th National Survey showed that there were 1900 individuals in the wild, up from 1600 from the 3rd National Survey.
Mike also spoke about genetics and conservation of the okapi (Okapia johnstoni). Its closest living relative is the giraffe, from which it diverged 11 million years ago. The okapi captive breeding program is well managed but with very limited genetic diversity.
He then explained the use of DNA identification in primate bushmeat from urban markets in Guinea-Bissau and its implications for conservation. Hunting for bushmeat consumption is a major threat to wild populations, and assessing trade at markets provides a commonly used measure of its intensity and impact.
There was time for questions from the enthused audience after the lecture.
Debbie Dixon CBiol MRSB
Biology Week poster competition
21 November 2015
Students throughout the West Midlands area had been working on posters to their tackle some important scientific questions. Schools from across the West Midlands entered the competition with topics covering food production, antibiotic resistance and biofuels.
After a long session of deliberating, Dr Steve Russell MRSB and some of Aston University's second year students, selected the following winners:
Years 7-9 (joint winners)
Gainluca Fudger, Ciaran Gould, Samuel Bradburn, Rosie Richardson, Isabelle Tompkin and Mine Aralikci from Blessed Edward Oldcorne Catholic College
Hannah Shuttleworth from Norton Canes High School
Sarah Chapman, Roxanne Francombe and Eleanor King-Turner from Warwick School
Chloe Richards, Jade Howes and Chelsey Wright from Norton Canes High School
Congratulations to the winners who received a selection of top prizes including a certificate, voucher and book.
Dr Steve Russell MRSB
4 November 2015
The West Midlands branch AGM was held at Coventry University. Afterwards RSB members and their guests enjoyed an interactive talk on forensic DNA profiling, delivered by Dr Elaine Green, Dr Andrew Reid and Dr Adele Heath of Coventry University. The committee’s annual report is available to download. If you would like to see the draft minutes from this year’s AGM, or have any queries, please contact Pamela Speed.
Pamela Speed CBiol MRSB
Primary strands lab experience day
14 October 2015
With funding from the regional grant scheme and some additional money from the local branch, Dr Steve Russell hosted a lab experience day at Aston University during Biology Week for year five students from around the West Midlands.
Over fifty students from five schools examined histology slides, drawing what they observed and labelling them. After lunch they extracted DNA from strawberries using the tried and tested washing up liquid and salt method and took part in a discussion on DNA.
According to feedback from the schools, school staff and children came back "absolutely raving" about the event –" I've had parents giving me very detailed descriptions of what their children have learnt showing how much they have enjoyed themselves," said one teacher.
This has been such a success we are running it again in May 2016 with help again from the society with most of the places already filled.
Dr Steve Russell MRSB
RSB Charter lecture
13 October 2015
Professor Cliff Bailey addressed an audience of over 300 people including scholars, students, schoolchildren and Society members in Aston's Great Hall. His talk highlighted the issue of 'Obesity and diabetes: the paradox between health and wealth'.
An international figure in the field of diabetes, Professor Bailey is known particularly for his involvement in the development of new treatments.
For this year's talk, he considered the underlying mechanisms and inter-relationships responsible for the dual epidemics of obesity and type-2 diabetes. Exploring the health-related consequences of 'diabesity' and the measures being used to combat it, he also explained that when societies become healthier and wealthier they almost always face the avoidable healthcare burden of obesity and diabetes.
Dr Steve Russell MRSB
Visit to Darwin's Garden and talk on Tierra del Fuego, Shrewsbury
14 February 2015
Over 40 Society members and their guests enthusiastically walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and saw the garden where his passion for science began. Darwin's Garden itself is set on a steep, muddy hillside and it is in the early stages of cleaning and renovation. Given the number of members present, there were two tour options to choose from, each one benefiting from a Shropshire Wildlife Trust guide.
The challenging route took members down to the River Severn on a muddy riverside towpath leading to the garden itself. The other route visited some of the most important sites in Darwin's early life, ending with a view of the garden from above. Both routes stopped to look at Mount House where Charles spent his childhood, and the history of the Doctor's Gate was revealed. The Shropshire Wildlife Trust conservationists explained the restoration project currently taking place at the site.
The afternoon brought our lecture by Dr Goronwy Wynne FRSB with over eighty people filling the room to listen to a stimulating and entertaining talk on Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America. Goronwy set Darwin's visit to Tierra del Fuego in its historical social context, a clash of different civilisations, and his fascinating review of the history set the ground for discussion on the impact modern man had on the native people of this land. The audience was also treated to views of the habitats and wildlife, collected by Goronwy during his own visit to this 'uttermost ends of the earth'.
Following the visit, I am sure there will be much interest on the progress of the restoration of Darwin's Garden.
Laura Cristina Nicolae AMRSB
Student poster competition awards
21 November 2014
Over the last few months, students throughout the West Midlands area have been working on posters addressing some important scientific questions. Topics covered included the usefulness of bees, obesity and ageing. There were over 400 entries from 35 schools and after a long session with Dr James Brown, and some of Aston University's second year students, winners were selected in several age categories.
Winners received prizes including a certificate, a voucher, BioNet subscription to the Society and a book. The students, along with their parents and teachers were then given a tour of the Life and Health Sciences laboratories at Aston University.
Congratulations to everyone who took part and particularly to our winners, pictured below.
Winner: Mollie-Anne Bilboe, Plantsbrook School
Runners-up: Ellis Clifford, Alcester Grammar School and Sophie Jones, Alcester Grammar School
Winner: Dainora Sinceviciute, Moreton School
Runners-up: Lucy Ashby, Shrewsbury High School and Jaden Glendon, Great Barr School
Winner: Arjun Venu-Gopal, Aston University Engineering Academy
Runners-up: Casey Shaw, Great Barr School and Rachel Heald, Newport Girls High School
Dr Steve Russell MSB
Presentation to student James Kelly
11 November 2014
The West Midlands Committee is delighted that teachers in schools and colleges in the West Midlands continue to enter their students and win medals in the UK Biology Competitions organised by The Society of Biology.
The photograph shows Biology Challenge Gold medal winner James Kelly receiving his book prize from our speaker Professor Jonathan Frampton. Congratulations also go to James's Head of Biology, Mrs Anne Corden, and her colleagues at Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
11 November 2014
'The truth about stem cells': not a sensationalist tabloid headline, but the title of our Charter lecture this year. Professor Jonathan Frampton (Birmingham University) masterfully debunked the myths and hype surrounding this area of biological endeavour.
The cell as a structure capable of division, differentiation to produce cells with specific functions and with finite lifespans provided the foundation of this carefully crafted presentation. He noted that while the growth of functional whole organs in the laboratory remains the domain of science fiction, the development of specialist cells for implantation is a reality. The exploitation of the pluripotency of embryonic (ESC) and adult (ASC) stem cells was skilfully described with examples of successful stem cell therapies and their particular potential in regenerative medicine.
An attraction of ESC therapy is the minimalisation of histocompatiblity issues in transplant recipients. Similar benefit is derived when ACS are harvested from a donor, cultured and manipulated to develop into the desired cell type and transplanted back into the donor. The most abundant sources of ASC are tissues which are regularly replaced such as intestinal epithelium (replaced every 2-5 days), skin and bone marrow. Indeed 'easy access' to ESC and ASC (eg from umbilical cord blood and milk teeth ligaments respectively) has generated commercial interest in storage of stem cells until needed – at a price. The ultimate insurance policy for your child? The validity of the methodology has yet to be proven.
More than 250 people, including 12 school groups, were treated to an informative and inspirational lecture.
Dr Caroline Day CBiol FSB
Biology Week Lecture: Commercialising Academic Research
15 October 2014
Dr Anna Hine FSB, Reader at Aston University and Commercial Innovator of the Year 2013, was the ideal speaker to challenge our thinking on commercialisation of scientific advances. Anna's team developed novel gene libraries for protein engineering, signing a licensing deal with the company Isogenica in 2010. After a quick romp through the basic science of codon to protein, we were introduced to some of the challenges and breakthroughs in protein engineering for protein libraries using synthetic DNA.
Overcoming degeneracy in the genetic code was a major advance. The discovery that ligase is selective in its action led to optimisation of codon mixes in the synthetic DNA, giving almost total diversity in the protein library ready for screening for desired activity. One important field is the synthesis of antibodies, and we were reminded that antibody treatment is currently the only available treatment for Ebola.
The British academic community still struggles with commercialisation, having a deep-seated preference for funding from the public purse and free open access to any advances. There is more acceptance of commercialisation in the United States, and Anna Hine linked her ease of operating in the commercial arena with her experience as a researcher at Harvard and a year taken out for commercialisation and entrepreneurial training. She explained that a commercial approach brought financial returns for the inventors, the laboratory, the host university and also assured forward research, as the scientists were released from bidding for funding from risk-averse and cash-strapped funding councils. Anna gave her recipe for commercial success as: good science, with the vision to see applications beyond the team's own work; intellectual property awareness and commercial judgement; appropriate industrial contacts; and, finally, a degree of luck.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
15 October 2014
David Urry regional coordinator at the Society, joined discussions at out productive AGM this year. It was good to see some new faces in the room, and we hope that our regional membership will continue to grow.
Like many branches, we have found the traditional committee roles increasingly difficult to fill, so we will trial a new way of working for the year ahead. There will be no traditional chair, and roles and responsibilities will be shared more diversely between our 10 committee members.
Our external communications secretary, Dee Marsh, will act as a facilitator for queries and information passing to and from the committee. Contact us if you would like further information about the 2014/15 committee's structure and way of working. We will also be happy to provide the minutes of this year's AGM on request.
We would like to thank those who are retiring from the committee for thier services to the branch. They are: Ann Vernallis, James Brown, Debbie Dixon, Richard Crombie, Alex Heuer and Dilys Beynon.
We are always open to co-opting additional committee members during the year. The following members were elected to the branch committee: Anna Hine, Dee Marsh, Lesley Payne, Pam Speed, Caroline Day, Norma Broadbridge, Steven Russell, Sue Howarth, Cristina Nicolae and Faryal Ejaz.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Carsington Water Visit
28 June 2014
Carsington Water in Derbyshire is a potable water reservoir, recreational site and nature reserve owned by Severn-Trent Water. Supplied from the River Derwent, this reservoir can supply over 200 million litres of water daily to two water treatment works. Mark Guest, senior biologist with the process optimisation team at Severn-Trent gave us a fascinating insight into the management of algae in drinking water sources, complete with many beautiful images of these diverse organisms.
Mark led us through the stages of water treatment and explained how each one can be differently impacted by the seasonal algal blooms, principally the diatoms in spring (with an ensuing zooplankton bloom), the green algae in midsummer, and finally the cyanobacteria in late summer and early autumn. Computer modelling based on data from the last 11 years is aiding the future management of these complex aspects of water abstraction.
In the afternoon we walked beside Carsington Water, which has a 50-year management plan in place and is important for both wildlife and public recreation. Youngsters pond-dipped with Mark, while the rest of us visited the dam and water take-off points with our host for the day, Deidre Marsh, senior scientific advisor with Severn-Trent and honorary secretary of our branch. Thanks to Deidre for keeping us well fed and watered through the day.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Wild Daffodil Day
22 March 2014
Professor Basil Jarvis FSB guided West Midlands and Western branch members and their guests through this fascinating and varied day at Kempley in Gloucestershire. During a day of history-meets-biology, Basil gave talks on two churches, the 12th Century St Mary's and 19th Century arts-and-crafts movement St Edward's.
Chris Bligh, environmental campaigner, introduced us to wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) at a Site of Special Scientific Interest and presented an information-packed illustrated lecture in Kempley village hall. Wild daffodils have probably been in these ancient woodland soils since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Quite different from our garden daffodils, they have a bright yellow trumpet tube that fans out at the tip, paler yellow outer petals the same length as the trumpet and with a slight twist at the base, and flat, bluish grey leaves.
The blooms, transported by rail to cities like Birmingham, provided income for local and itinerant workers during the Victorian period and into this century. The Kempley area is poor agriculturally, and this has helped the wild daffodils' survival as the bulbs, much smaller than modern hybrid varieties, dry out and die if exposed by ploughing or 'topped' by strimming and flailing.
Chris has been involved in maintaining the daffodil habitat and securing lottery funding for the Kempley Tardis project. The day was made perfect by delicious refreshments served in the village hall by Marjorie Jarvis and the ladies of Kempley Churches.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
The poison paradox
3 March 2014
Dr Barbara Hall CBiol FSB, managing director of Sureconsult Ltd, now uses her extensive experience in academia and industry to provide scientific consultancy services to the cosmetics industry. Barbara started her lively and well-illustrated talk at Aston University by reminding us of Jane Austen's words: "It is the truth, universally acknowledged, that we live in a toxic world."
Barbara asked us to consider if we live despite the toxins or are sustained by them. Quoting from Paracelsus, the father of toxicology – "the dose makes the poison", Barbara explained the difference between hazard and risk, and how it is the job of the toxicologist to understand the balance between these.
She reminded us of the misleading newspaper articles produced by journalists picking up information and interpreting it without this critical skill, illustrating this point with many examples, including that of the highly toxic liver carcinogen furfural, universally present in fresh-baked bread - you would have to eat 82,600 slices of bread to reach the risk level.
Barbara went on to explain the principles of safe handling of risk, how risk depends on the person being exposed to the toxin and when exposure occurs, and the need to be wary of 'class lumping' (e.g. not all dioxins are toxic). This lecture was not just a talk on toxicology; it was a masterly guided tour through the principles of good scientific thinking.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
The Galapagos – 150 Years On Since Darwin's Visit
15 February 2014
Norma Broadbridge MBE FSB presented her lecture on The Galapagos Islands to a packed room of over 80 Society of Biology members, their guests and members of the public. With the help of pictures taken on her visit to the islands, Norma gave us a modern-day biologist's view of the environment, its wildlife and some of the conservation issues being faced there.
Since Darwin's day, improved communications, particularly air transport, have transformed The Galapagos Islands and their unique wildlife. Domestic mammal introduction has been a particular problem. We were shown images of a domestic cat carrying one of the famous iguanas as its prey, and of the huge herds of feral goats which compete for grazing with the iconic giant tortoises.
Norma (pictured above) described some of the responses that conservationists are making to such challenges, including careful management of tourism and control measures for introduced species. She left us with an impression of an environment which, although greatly changed from Darwin's visit, is now appreciated and treated with care, and still delights and fascinates visiting naturalists.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Alfred Russell Wallace 100 Years On – Is Man Just Another Animal?
12 November 2013
Professor Steve Jones, University College London, engaged and challenged our audience of three hundred sixth form students and their teachers, members and guests in his lecture at Birmingham University.
Professor Jones began by looking at Wallace the man, contrasting Wallace's spiritualism with Darwin's atheism. He went on to deal with the special and remarkable turn taken by human evolution, compared with other primates.
The 1000 Genome Project has compared humans with chimpanzees, our nearest relatives. Our species can be viewed as 'the primate that did not evolve', showing less genetic diversity than chimpanzees, despite chimpanzees staying within Africa and human beings colonising most of the globe.
Physically, humans can be seen as diminished chimpanzees. A single mutation has reduced keratin formation in hair follicles. The human sarcomeric myosin gene has made our muscles puny. Our teeth are smaller, and we have lost the ability to live on raw food, but cooking (dating from pre-human ancestors) enables us to survive with one hour's daily eating, compared with a chimpanzee's eleven hours. Our sexual structures are diminished, and serve cultural purposes as much as reproductive.
Brain development has become supreme; a resting adult human uses 25% of their energy supply for brain maintenance, a baby 50%. Mental and spiritual (cultural) evolution have replaced traditional genetic evolution, with a need to use cultural markers instead of genetic markers to trace our development for nearly all human traits.
Professor Jones outlined the usefulness of study of human language, which evolves at a regular rate, allowing dating. This is described in Professor Jones', The Language of the Genes.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
School Poster Competition 2013
26 October 2013
The judging team was led by Dr Sue Howarth, senior lecturer science education, Institute of Education at the University of Worcester. Fellow judges included science teachers in training: Harry Bricknell, Laura Cowley, Mathew Langan, Lauren McAtamney, Geoff Purvis and James Swaffield.
Congratulations to all the winners! View some of the winning posters.
Y7-9: food safety or food webs
1st - Keara Stevens and Casey Barley, Bartley Green School, Birmingham (Food Webs). Teachers: Eleanor Adams, Chris Parry and Rebecca Stags.
2nd - Matthew Chau, Y8, Chesterton Community Sports College, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffs (Food Webs).
3rd - Leah Hopwood, Chesterton Community Sports College, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffs (Food Webs).
Y10-11: inherited diseases
1st - Anna Sweetman, Hereford Cathedral School. (Overall winner with Understanding Inherited Diseases). Teacher: Elena Segelini-Bower
2nd - Lydia Wootton, Chesterton Community Sports College, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffs (Inheritance).
1st - Ryan Hibberd, Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby (Biofuels). Teacher: Usha Dheer.
2nd - Mark Hansford, Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby (Biofuels - A Renewable Resource). Teacher: Usha Dheer
Y12-13: succession or useful microbes or diseases of the nervous system
1st - Henry Vowles, aged 16, Hereford Cathedral School. (Overall runner-up for Sewage Microbes).
Judges’ comments on the 2013 posters
- An impressive number of posters (81) were submitted to the competition
- Interesting presentation ideas included opening ‘books’ and lifting flaps revealing information
- Some posters had great content but poor presentation; other posters had eye-catching presentation but limited content; the best had both
- Some posters relied on a lot of ‘cut n’ paste’ from the internet; posters were more interesting when content was written by pupils themselves
- It would be nice to see entries from more schools and also more from Y12-13
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Dr Christopher U M Smith Memorial Lecture
16 October 2013
Dr Chris Smith FSB was a much loved and inspirational scientist who brought enthusiasm, vision and warmth to his many years of service on the West Midlands branch committee. We were delighted that his widow Jenny and his brother John were able to join over 120 Society of Biology members, friends and former colleagues at Aston University for this memorial lecture.
The event was held jointly with the British Neuroscience Society, represented by Dr Rhein Parry of Aston. Our guest speaker, Professor Eef Horgervost of Loughborough University, presented a scholarly and engaging lecture titled, 'Reducing dementia risk through lifestyle changes: when to do what?'
Left to right: Rhein Parri, Eef Horgervost, Jenny Smith, John Smith
Professor Horgervorst explained that many headline-grabbing interventions, such as oestrogen- replacement therapy and eating tofu, have positive effects in younger people, but can be harmful for over-60s.
The evidence shows that maintaining muscle mass is important; three twenty minute resistance band workouts a week and five thirty minute aerobic exercise sessions are a good guideline. Sudoku and stretch yoga might be good for other things, but for dementia prevention cycling and dancing are better.
Optimise your weight and make lifestyle changes by middle age. Look after your teeth (having fewer than ten teeth doubles the risk of dementia) and keep eating the pulses, oily fish, whole grains, nuts and fresh fruit and vegetables. Ensure a good intake of foods rich in folate and vitamin B12. Reduce your exposure to air pollution and keep well-hydrated.
The big message emerging from the research is, in Professor Horgervorst's words, 'You already know what to do! The guidelines are the same as for heart disease prevention, with an emphasis on aerobic exercise, a good balanced diet and healthy relaxation.'
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Society of Biology Top Biology Student Award, University of Worcester
20 November 2013
Laura Wells was presented with the Society of Biology prize for the best academic performance amongst biological sciences final year students at the University of Worcester. Laura completed her 1st class degree last summer and is now training to teach biology.
Laura is picture (right) being presented the prize by West Midlands committee member Dr Sue Howarth FSB.
Dr Sue Howarth FSB
15 June 2013
Our annual family day proved popular as ever. Dave Turner led us on an entertaining arboretum walk; highlights included the laburnum tunnel and a stunning display of azaleas. Dr Steve Reynolds, plant scientist and former ADAS plant disease consultant, introduced us to some tree diseases in the field. Steve is well-known for his public 'What's Up Doc?' Plant Clinics around the country, and his hugely informative, illustrated talk engaged us with tree diseases, diagnosis and treatment, and national trends in disease patterns. The detective trail passes via entomology, then mycology and bacteriology, then virology, and if there is still no answer 'it must be physiological!'
Lavish mulching is transforming the harmless saprophytic coral spot fungus into a parasite on currant bushes. Globalisation has made about 10 problematic tree diseases endemic in the UK in the last ten years, including sudden oak death caused by Phytophthora ramorum, where the pathogen is broadening its secondary host range. WD40 is a successful alternative to soap sprays for killing aphids. Steve updated us on ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea fungus), the unheeded warnings to DEFRA in 2009 to halt genetically homogeneous imports from Holland and Denmark, the ecological importance of our 80 million UK ash trees, and the recent research which suggests that genetic heterogeneity in our established native ashes will eventually ensure our stocks.
Sadly, David Binnian, the founder of Bodenham, passed away a month before our visit; his legacy of this of this lovely arboretum continues to be in the stewardship of the Binnian family and their many friends.
Pamela Speed CBiol MSB
Cannock Sewage Works
10 June 2013
Following a warm welcome from Deirdre Marsh (Severn Trent's senior adviser on Public Health and Standards and committee member) the group split up to visit Cannock Sewage Works. One half were given an insight into the microbiology of the activated sludge process with a fascinating presentation from Severn Trent Water biologist Ian Gray.
The other half donned hard hats, yellow high visibility jackets and protective gloves for a tour of the treatment works. Our excellent guide, experienced site operator Tom Ward, was really enthusiastic and knowledgeable, explaining how raw sewage was collected from the surrounding areas and treated on site before the cleaned water was discharged into the waterways.
It was an excellent day in which members learnt a great deal, particularly about the unsuitable items that customers flushed into the sewers and the impact this has on Severn Trent and the sewage treatment process. Thanks to Severn Trent for their kind hospitality.
Lesley Payne CBiol MSB
16 February 2013
The medieval town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, Charles Darwin's birth place, holds a Darwin Festival to celebrate his life and our branch was pleased to sponsor a lecture as part of the festival.
Larry Barham, professor of archaeology at the University of Liverpool, is an expert on palaeoanthropology and has been working in Zambia for nearly 20 years with a particular interest in the co-evolution of language, creativity and technology. The lecture entitled Did Tools Make Us Human? offered an archaeologist's view that technology shaped us as a species.
Photo © Dr Susana Carvalho
Larry began by posing the question 'what makes us human?' He proceeded to define technology and discussed its evolution from the earliest stone tools found 2.6 million years ago. Using fossil evidence he explained how humans increased in dexterity and demonstrated the skill of knapping to produce sharp tools. (Apparently humans are better at knapping than chimps!) These were later subjected to hafting which involved the addition of a handle to increase power and leverage. Larry showed how brain size and structure had developed, indicating that language and tool-making networks co-evolved, thus enabling social learning and innovation.
There was a great deal of interaction with an enthused and engaged audience who had the opportunity to handle a range of related fossils and who may never look at a knife and fork (or chopsticks) in the same way again!
Lesley Payne CBiol MSB
Dr Anna Hine FSB wins prestigious 'Commercial Innovator of the Year' award
26 March 2013
Dr Anna Hine FSB, senior lecturer at the University of Aston in Birmingham, won the BBSRC's award for her development of molecular technologies for protein engineering in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
Commercial Innovator of the Year recognizes the efforts of BBSRC-funded scientists to take their work beyond the lab and deliver social and economic advantages. Dr Hine and her team's research produced technologies for creating high quality gene libraries for use by businesses in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries involved in antibody, protein and peptide engineering.
Stratford Butterfly Farm
15th February 2013
On a sunny Friday in spring members and their guests visited the Butterfly Farm at Stratford-on-Avon Warwickshire. When entering the main area it was noticeably warmer than outside. There were butterflies of all sizes and colours, from all parts of the globe, flying about an area featuring a pond and much lush vegetation. We were free to wander through and interact with these exotic creatures.
Our excellent guide showed us unusual examples of the various stages in the life cycle of a butterfly, ranging from an enormous caterpillar to hundreds of pupae, explaining how they were managed in the different areas. In addition to the butterflies we saw the other insects kept at the Farm including preying mantis and a colony of leaf-cutter ants. Finally we saw their collection of arachnids: giant tarantulas and florescent scorpions!
Following a fascinating visit to the Butterfly Farm several of the group enjoyed lunch at the Academy Restaurant at Stratford College.
Professor Bruce Hood
20 November 2012
An audience of 300 sixth form students, their teachers and members were captivated by Professor Bruce Hood at our annual charter lecture.
Bruce Hood is professor of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol and director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, specialising in developmental cognitive neuroscience. In 2011 he delivered the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures Meet Your Brain, which were broadcast on the BBC to over 4 million viewers. Bruce has also written two books, Supersense (2009) about the natural origins of supernatural beliefs and The Self Illusion (2012) about the fallacy that we are coherent, integrated individuals but rather a constructed narrative largely influenced by those around us. He is well known for his ideas that humans are not rational creatures and this innate irrationality leads to religion and superstition.
Professor Hood delivered an entertaining, interactive and thought-provoking lecture entitled The Self Illusion: How our brain creates our reality. He explored the belief that we are an independent, coherent self - an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems–it is all an illusion.
There was time for questions from the delighted and enthused audience after the lecture, followed by presentation of prizes to some lucky winners by Norma Broadbridge, former chair of the British Biology Olympiad.
Lesley Payne CBiol MSB