Women in Science Festival – Cambridge 2016

September 28, 2016 1:37 pm

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Lunchtime on Wednesday the 21st of September, I boarded a coach to Robinson College, Cambridge along with several other 6th form girls from local schools. After a 4-hour journey, we arrived in time for dinner and to get settled into our rooms for the night.

The next day we experienced a series of lectures as well as a practical workshop for the Women in Science Festival. Athene Donald was the first to talk. She recounted her life in science, from studying at an all-girls grammar school to her time in Cambridge to America and finally her transition from Physics to Biology. She explained the processes of some of her works, from plants to Alzheimer’s. Athene Donald shared her feminist views whilst being very encouraging to all of us, saying that we can do anything we set our minds to. After this talk, many pupils participated in the science fair where they presented research on a topic that inspired them. Some departments at Cambridge also contributed in this causing the fair to be very fascinating.

After this break, we returned to the auditorium to hear from 4 other lecturers on their chosen subjects. Dr Laura Caller from the pathology department informed us all about her life and how she chose to go to University at the age of 30. She is now researching the BK Virus. This is found in around 9 in 10 of us in the kidneys. It has no obvious symptoms, however can increase the rejection rate if a transplant is required. She has undergone research as to how the virus functions and has now discovered it works slightly differently to many other viruses we are aware of. Whilst the BK virus isn’t too threatening, it is part of the polyomavirus family and Dr Caller hopes that with more knowledge about how this virus works, she can use this when studying more serious viruses (e.g. the merkel cell virus).

The next person to talk was Dr Rachel Oliver from the department of material science. Dr Oliver talked about the properties of light and how we can prove it is a ray but also a photon. She used many pupils to demonstrate different experiments and equipment she has used to prove this. She then talked about the uses of her findings in electronic security (e.g. for internet banking).

Dr Tamsin O’Connell from Archaeology was next to talk. She informed us all of the uses of isotopes (e.g. carbon-14) in her works and the chemistry behind archaeology to determine the time period of when something was made or someone was alive. She then talked about how diet can affect a certain factor when determining this. The main difference, she discovered, is between regular meat eaters and vegans.

Our final talk was by Professor Melinder Duer from Biological and Biomedical Sciences. She talked of her 15-year research in cells, brought on by the many injuries of her horse. She has discovered that the function of the cell is determined by its surroundings, not the actual cell. She then discussed the structure of bone and what makes it brittle with age. She found that the sodium phosphate in the bone (originally thought to be a block) is actually arranged in layers, in between which, citric acid and water can be found. The citric acid and the water make for the bone to be able to encounter a significant amount of impact without breaking. When the citric acid and water are gone, however, the layers stack up in a block and act as a salt, being easy to shatter, making the bone brittle.

After we ate lunch, we were separated into groups for our afternoon practical. I was to go to material science. Here, we did an experiment usually performed by first year undergraduates on a squash ball. We measured the bounce height at room temperature, freezing point, 65C and also cooled it down to -200C using liquid nitrogen. We plotted this data on a graph and used this to determine the glass transition point of the squash ball. After this, we returned to Robinson College to say our goodbyes and board the coach back home.

This trip was fascinating and enjoyable and I would love to go again should I be given the opportunity. I would also recommend it to anyone who has a keen interest in science, like me.

Written by Year 12 pupil Annie Rees

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