Amy Tooke Archive

Who can be a scientist?

By Amy Tooke

Anyone! That’s the idea behind “citizen science” projects, where research scientists ask members of the public to help them with gathering and analysing data. Anyone who is interested in science can get involved in the latest research projects. Typically projects either involve the public collecting the data themselves and then submitting it back to the researchers, or going online to help analyse data that the researchers have already collected.

One example of the public analysing previously collected data is the Worm Watch Lab project. Run by the Medical Research Council, the project is investigating how the genetics of the nematode worm (C. elegans) affect its nervous system and behaviour. Researchers have made thousands of movies of worms with different genetic mutations, in order to study the function of those particular genes. The movies are online for members of the public to watch and report each time the worms lay eggs; so far a grand total of 74,032 videos have been analysed by 11,992 volunteers. Results have helped uncover new roles for the genes in the nervous system that were mutated. Believe it or not, many of the nematode genes are similar to human genes, which means that this information can help understand how the human brain works.

You might think that this idea of “crowd-sourced” science is relatively new in the age of social media, but some projects have been running for decades. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has been running its Big Garden Birdwatch since 1979. They ask people to count the birds in their gardens for one hour over a particular weekend in January – it’s too late to take part this year but they’ll be announcing the results soon. Last year people counted more than eight million birds over the weekend! The Big Garden Birdwatch is a wonderful example of how citizen science projects can grow and develop – it was originally started as an activity for junior members of the RSPB to do at the weekend, whilst at the same time collecting information to find out what the 10 most common species of birds were. Now, it has been running for over 35 years enabling analysis of year to year trends in bird populations. This can help to identify potential problems – then measures can be put in place to help reverse them.

What else can I get involved with?

There are all sorts of projects running at the moment. You don’t need a PhD and a lab coat to contribute to exciting science!
The Citizen Science Alliance has details of a huge range of projects over at
OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) run a number of environmental surveys, from counting bugs to pond dipping
The Big Butterfly Count runs from 14th July – 6th August and is the world’s biggest butterfly survey

Amy Tooke Archive

North East Postgraduate Conference 2016

By Amy Tooke

On 24th and 25th November the North East Postgraduate Conference was held at the Great North Museum. It is organised by and for postgraduate students, and I was excited to go, especially as it was my first conference!

On Thursday morning I went to Professor Jenny Read’s talk “3D Vision in man, mantis and machine”, about her work in the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, on the mechanisms of 3D vision and its applications, such as in drone technology. I found Professor Read’s talk really interesting and entertaining. We got given 3D glasses so we could see the concepts being demonstrated to us and heard about how praying mantises have their own mini 3D glasses put on so that their perception of moving targets can be studied.

After coffee we headed over to the student presentations on Cell and Molecular Biology, where we heard about signal transduction in yeast, characterising Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, gene editing, developing therapies for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in the heart, and using stem cells to treat a type of blindness. The talks were really engaging and it was great to hear about so many different areas of research.

On Friday I saw a talk from David Cork of Sirius Market Access “Why do science PhD graduates make good medical writers?”.  Sometimes when you’re in the university bubble you forget that there is a world of work for scientists outside of academia, so it was useful to think about what other skills can develop from a PhD.

Then I went to the student Microbiology presentations, which I’d been looking forward to as I’m a microbiologist. Students from several universities presented their work on a wide range of topics, from catalytic enzyme activities in the pathogen Staphyloccus Aureus to finding a target to use to diagnose pregnant mothers carrying Streptococcus so they don’t pass it onto their newborns.

Professor Stephen Hart from UCL GOS Institute of Child Health spoke about his research on using gene editing to develop treatments for cystic fibrosis; he explained how the team has been finding new ways to target the therapy to the lungs using nanoparticles. It was wonderful to hear about advances being made in this area of medicine and hopes for its future applications.

I went to the conference with some other MRes students, and we were really inspired hearing about the research going on around us from the student talks and looking at the posters. It’s really spurred us on to get back in the lab and start our own research projects!

Amy Tooke Archive

The monk who grew pea plants: 150 years of Gregor Mendel’s laws

By Amy Tooke

2016 might be remembered for any number of reasons, but it also marks an anniversary of a major development in genetics. One hundred and fifty years ago, Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance were published. Mendel was an Austrian monk who painstakingly grew thousands of pea plants and counted the number of peas with certain characteristics. He came up with the concept of hereditary units that he named “factors” – or what we call genes today – and realised that there can be more than one version of each factor. Now, we call these versions of genes “alleles”. For example, a certain flower could have two alleles for colour, pink and blue.

By looking at the plants Mendel concluded that one copy of each factor is inherited from each parent. He outlined his ideas in his paper Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybridisation):

* The Law of Segregation
This law says that each parent contributes one allele when fertilisation takes place. Even though each parent will have two copies of a gene from their own parents, the alleles are “segregated” in the gametes (sex cells) so that there is only one copy per gamete. This means when the two gametes meet, there are two copies of each gene in the fertilised embryo.

* The Law of Dominance
If the two alleles are the same from each parent, the plant is “homozygous”, and will definitely show that trait, but if there are two different alleles (“heterozygous”), one version will be dominant and one will be recessive. The dominant allele will be the characteristic you see. So, if a plant inherits two pink colour alleles from its parents, it will have pink flowers. If the alleles it gets are one pink and one blue, and blue is dominant, it will have blue flowers.

* The Law of Independent Assortment
Leading on from the Law of Segregation, this law means that each pair of alleles is separated independently from the other pairs of alleles in the gametes – so you could have some alleles inherited from different grandparents in the gamete.

Mendel’s work didn’t have very much impact at the time; even Mendel didn’t realise its importance. The laws were rediscovered in 1900, and when combined with the idea that genetic information is stored in chromosomes in 1915, formed the basis of modern genetics. Where would we be today without the monk who grew some pea plants?