Leading the Way… in Protein Structure


By Kevin Waldron

This week, ICaMB welcomed the Leading the Way winners into our labs for an exciting day of science. As you may remember from our previous post a couple of weeks ago, Leading the Way was ICaMB and Leading Edge’s collaborative pilot scheme to take some of ICaMB’s great science (and early career scientists) into a local school, George Stephenson High School in Killingworth. That week was a great success, inspiring all of its participants: students, teachers and ICaMB members alike.

The overall winners during the week in GSHS were the AU team, made up of Lucy Hainsworth, Libby Macpherson, Rebecca Brown, Lauren Rhodes, Abbey Wrightson, Kimberley Stoker, Sophie Anson, Connor Little, Nathan Clapperton. AU designed an outstanding poster to illustrate how the prion protein represents a biomarker of mad cow disease (or, more scientifically, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, vCJD), how the structure of this protein changes from the ‘normal’ form to the ‘abnormal’, disease-causing form, and how knowing the structure of the prion protein can enable us to design a diagnostic test.

AU’s prize was to spend a day in an ICaMB laboratory, learning about how we determine the structure of a protein, with the members of the judging panel, Dave Bolam, Paula Salgado and myself.

After a brief welcome and introduction, we kitted our guests out in fetching lab coats, supplied them with ‘Leading the Way’ lab books and got started.

Showing the kids how to plate cells on a petri dish


First, the kids tried their hands at microbiology with the Waldron lab, streaking E. coli cells onto agar plates and then picking colonies to inoculate cultures for recombinant protein production.



Practising to become a PhD student, staring at a pouring column…

Next, Dave Bolam and his team demonstrated how a His-tagged protein can be purified using affinity chromatography, and then the kids loaded each of their protein samples on SDS-PAGE gels. Remarkably, all of the students successfully purified their target protein, though it’s worth noting that this was not actually the prion protein, PrPC (Imagine the risk assessment!).


“Here, let me help you” says Dave.


It was great fun spending time with enthusiastic kids and giving them a flavour of what we do. It reminds you why you do science in the first place“, says Dave after taking part in this type of activity for the first time.

“We’re doing science now, Miss!” – shouted one of the students



The day finished with a demonstration of protein crystallisation with Paula Salgado and Will Stanley of the Structural Biology Laboratory. The students attempted to crystallise lysozyme (with mixed success), and then observed protein crystals under the microscope.

It’s always great to share our love for science with young minds and see them get really excited about carrying out the experiments we do routinely. It’s a breath of fresh air in the lab. Hopefully we’ve given them an experience to remember, as well as a better understanding of research in a biomedical institute.” commented Paula at the end of the day.


Although this was a high-paced tutorial in protein production and structure determination – a process that usually takes at least several weeks, and in some extreme cases an entire career – the students received a hands-on demonstration of some real-life research techniques. We all hope that this experience, even at such an early age, might just implant the idea of a future in science for some of these young people.

But from my own perspective, I can say that their enthusiasm has been infectious (no pun intended), and is a timely reminder of why I got into science in the first place – because at school I always found science classes more interesting than any others. I would have loved such an opportunity when I was that age.

Thanks go to Phil Aldridge, ICaMB’s Leading the Way coordinator, all of the members of the Waldron, Salgado and Bolam labs who helped out during the visit, the staff of George Stephenson High, and most of all to the members of the AU team, for making the day a success.


George Stephenson High School http://www.gshs.org.uk/home


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