BioDiscovery – British Science Week

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It’s British Science Week, the British Science Association’s annual ten-day celebration of all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths):

“British Science Week provides a platform to stimulate and support teachers, STEM professionals, science communicators and the general public to produce and participate in STEM events and activities”

https://www.britishscienceweek.org/about-us/

For the third year in a row Manchester Museum has partnered with colleagues from the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health to offer inspiring examples of scientific work that is currently underway. March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago, but, if you can cast your mind back, you may remember that Manchester Museum hosted a series of events (in person!!) to showcase some of the cutting edge work at the University of Manchester, for secondary and college students and teachers, just before lockdown (more here)!

Students gathered around stalls in the museum
Students and teachers at the British Science Week Biodiscovery Day event at Manchester Museum in March 2020.

With the museum remaining closed but also, building on the success of last year’s programme, we will once again be celebrating Science Week online, as our Secondary and Post-16 Science Coordinator, Ellie Chambers, explains in this post.

Science Week 2022 sees the launch of a new online BioDiscovery resource for Year 7 students and above, exploring the wide variety of biological research being undertaken in the University of Manchester and Manchester Museum. This year, there are 19 topics for young people to explore, with five contributions from Manchester Museum plus an update on the progress of our hello future transformation, as the one-year countdown to our reopening begins.

Museums are, on one hand, quite obvious places where science is done: after all, why else would they hold and care for over 4 million objects? On the other hand, precisely how the collections are used for scientific study and research, and the various practical applications of science in the everyday work of a museum are, perhaps, less obvious. So this year’s Science Week felt like a great chance to introduce young people to some of the science that goes on in the museum, and to highlight how science is applied to all sorts of different areas outside of the obvious scientific disciplines.

Last year we shared a virtual tour of our Vivarium and also produced some resources about the museum’s famous ‘Two Brothers’ mummies. Since the theme for this year’s Science Week is growth we were keen to build on these two stories and to follow up with some further content this year.

The Vivarium Team has a great deal to talk about; their conservation work has continued throughout the pandemic and while the museum has been closed. In fact, the team had so much to share that we had to produce multiple videos! For many visitors the Vivarium is a favourite spot in the museum but, even with a window that gives visitors a view behind the scenes, it is hard to capture the extent of the team’s work to support global biodiversity conservation. With the UN’s recent landmark report that (again) warns of the irreversible impacts of climate change, we felt that Science Week would be the perfect opportunity to address the future of conservation: to encourage and inspire young people who have a passion for the natural world and who will hopefully be playing a part in its protection in the future. As you enter the vivarium, there is a sign on the wall: “it all starts with you” and we hope that the resources we’ve created with the Vivarium Team can motivate and inspire young people to take up the challenge.

Girl holding a frog
Lucy and the Lemur Leaf Frog: the future of conservation

The theme of growth has also inspired the new resource we have created around the Two Brothers mummies. To help to grow a more nuanced understanding of scientific research, we focus on the ethical choices and decisions that are made by scientists when studying human remains. After sharing last year’s video about the museum’s ancient DNA investigation into the relationship between the two men, this year we dig a little deeper by asking three important questions that archaeologists would consider when approaching this study today: What is the historical context of our research question? Is destructive analysis justified for this research? What will we really learn from this research?We have also created some new content through two curator-led videos, highlighting some of the work that goes on behind the scenes at the museum.

Two ancient Egyptian figurines on a slide with text
Questioning our understanding of the ‘Two Brothers’

Entomology, the study of insects, is a field that few people are familiar with; in spite of insects featuring in the school curriculum from Key Stage 1 onwards, entomology is only something that you are likely to encounter at degree level as a module within a biology or environmental / natural sciences programme. As such a significant part of the museum’s collection, we wanted to shine a light on the important work that takes place in the Entomology Department. Hidden away behind the public galleries and located at the end of a maze of corridors, Manchester Museum is home to the third largest entomology collection in the UK. This collection is an invaluable resource for understanding changes – in time and space – in the biological diversity of our planet. In the new resource Dmitri Logunov, our Curator of Entomology, shows some of the amazing specimens in the collection and talks about the uses of entomology in understanding the impacts of climate change; offering encouragement and advice for budding young entomologists.

Man with a case containing colourful butterflies
Dmitri holding Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly- the largest species of butterfly in the world

Manchester Museum has over 75 members of staff, covering a huge range of interests and disciplines and each with their own unique talents. So, while Alexandra Alberda is our Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, in her video we decided to focus on her other specialism: health comics. Bringing together science, communication, and art, Alex takes us into the world of comics and explains how they are especially important in medicine. We learn that they can be both factual and therapeutic depending on their creator, and find out how storytelling and metaphors can help to describe illnesses. Graphic medicine is one of the many ways that science and art can be brought together, and through this video, we want to highlight that you don’t have to sacrifice your passions – it’s not always a case of “either / or” – if you choose to specialise in a certain field.

Woman sitting in a room with a microphone
Alex speaking about her research into health comics

The final resource focuses on the application of science in museum work; focusing on the ongoing infestation of biscuit beetles in the museum’s herbarium and entomology departments. Speaking to colleagues, it quickly becomes apparent that the task of protecting the collections is a huge undertaking that requires constant vigilance and, at times, has felt like a waking nightmare. For this video, we amplified these frustrations and decided to spoof the cheesy science fiction / horror films of the mid-20th century through our own production of ‘Invasion of the Biscuit Beetles’. What begins as a terrifying attack by an unknown force is resolved in the end by the heroic efforts of our conservation team; swooping in to save the day. In reality, the hard work is far from over, but we used some artistic licence for this one!

Invasion of the Biscuit Beetles

As well as the museum’s resources, there are also contributions that showcase all sorts of work that is currently underway at the University of Manchester; from plant-based covid vaccines to ‘worms in the lab’! We hope that this will become a useful resource for young people thinking about their future careers, but it’s also there for anyone to use and enjoy, whether you’re passionate about science or just curious about the research that’s going on at the museum and university.

Looking forward to Science Week 2023, we hope to move back to an in-person event with schools and colleges across Manchester coming to the museum. While we are really excited by the prospect of face to face conversations between researchers and school / college students next year, by shifting our Science Week activities online, we have definitely been able to reach a much broader range of people and are really pleased to have created an ongoing digital legacy for Biodiscovery. So please do take a look at our videos on the BioDiscovery website, which can be found at: http://www.bit.ly/biodiscovery.

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