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Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2016

 25 July 2016   Public Engagement

By Honor Pollard

There aren’t many places where you can find cutting edge medical research a stone’s throw away from the latest geological technology. At the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition you can. On one side of the room, researchers will tell you how plastics will revolutionise healthcare but walk ten metres and you’ll see how scientists are monitoring seismic events in Iceland. In no time visitors can discover a kaleidoscope of science.

The exhibition is supported by a team of volunteers. Bertalan “Bertie” Gyenes (below), from the Behavioural Genomics group at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, gave up his time to get involved.

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Gyenes had a variety of jobs over the course of the week. From briefing large school groups to handing out stickers and bags, there was always something to do.

“Personally I believe it’s the job of anyone who works in science to go and engage with the public, and to help bring science to everybody else,” says Gyenes. “Science is not just sitting in the ivory tower and doing experiments in the lab all day. It’s about people. Science and society aren’t divorced from each other. Science is about society, and society should be a part of science.”

Gyenes said his favourite exhibit was the Mosquito Diaries. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine has developed a simulation that’s used to train mosquito control managers in malaria-ridden areas where mosquitoes are becoming resistant to regular insecticides. He explained that most of the exhibits had news stories associated with their work. For example, the BBC reported that fungi kill more people than some major diseases, and scientists at the exhibition could tell you about new research on how best to combat fungal infections.

His favourite job was an activity called ‘mystery shopping’ where volunteers were asked to visit the exhibits and review them. He said this gave him an excuse to ask about every detail and get as much information from the demonstrators as possible.

Gyenes said he would definitely recommend volunteering at the exhibition, or at other Royal Society events, to everyone.

The exhibition itself demonstrated the true meaning of ‘multidisciplinary’, for example some exhibits covered biophysical chemistry, with one in particular exploring the quantum physics of photosynthesis. Others delved deep into a single discipline, for example at the ‘Does antimatter matter?’ exhibit. Visitors were invited to quiz the scientists on their work, and interact with a multitude of games and DIY demonstrations, from building your own galaxy to fighting virtual infections.

Many of us are unaware of the cutting-edge facilities available to scientists. Thanks to the ‘4D Science’ exhibit visitors could learn more. The exhibit showed how it’s possible to study the internal structure of a sample in minute detail, without destroying it. The team uses a synchrotron – in this case, the Diamond Light Source in Harwell in Oxfordshire – which acts like a giant microscope. Enthusiastic demonstrators engaged with visitors by presenting them with 3D printed models of the structure of ice cream in two different states. Its crystal structure determines whether we find the taste of the ice cream satisfying or not – frozen, or ‘good’ ice cream tastes better then thawed, or ‘bad’ ice cream. The work of the Diamond Light Source goes further than ice cream however – and is used to study anything from fossils to jet engines to viruses and vaccines in exquisite detail.

Some Royal Society visitors might have avoided the Oxford Silk group’s exhibit, but those who weren’t put off by its huge anatomical spiders would have discovered that silk is not just a textile, and doesn’t come only from silk worms. Spider silk has some amazing properties and uses, from hard hats to cartilage replacements. The demonstrators were happy to answer even the most testing questions about the protein structure of the silk and evolutionary ancestry of the spider species.

Taking a step back from busy exhibits and exciting games, visitors could admire the annual ‘SciArt’ exhibit. Every year the Royal Society invites artists to showcase their work inspired by science and nature. Mesmerising animations created by Andy Lomas captured the attention of visitors. Lomas sets up animations with a number of conditions written in computer code and let the ‘cells’ grow. On the middle screen (below) this code says light is coming from above, so the cells grow upwards. His aim is not to recreate specific natural processes but for viewers to assign events to the animations in accordance with their own personal experiences or backgrounds. They might then view these as say corals, plants, organs or explosions.

Cellular Forms Triptych, by Andy Lomas

Cellular Forms Triptych, by Andy Lomas

The exhibition provides a unique environment where visitors can bounce between the sciences. Novice or not there was something to do or someone to talk to about ground-breaking work going on up and down the country. To see more from this years event see the hashtag #summerscience on twitter.

The exhibition is an opportunity to raise the profile of your research with influencers, including potential funders, government and the public. If you have ground breaking science that’s relevant to a broad-audience and can be communicated through hands-on, interactive exhibits then you should consider a proposal.

To find out more about submitting a proposal and hosting an exhibit visit the Royal Society website. Next year the exhibition will run from July 3 – 9 2017 .The deadline for submissions is the 26th September 2016.