STEM Outreach Notts

UoN's Science Outreach Society

Amazon’s Drone Army: Has S.T.E.M finally gone mad?

In the last decade, national media and those who consume it have been starkly divided on how the technology of the future will affect our lives. The advancements of Google’s driverless cars, 3D printing machines capable of potential firearm production and Amazon’s commercial drone plans have left many with a feeling that this may be a step too far. Such changes would impose themselves considerably on a more traditional way of life for us all (regardless of how implicit we would be in this process) and have left many viewing them as undesirable. Alternatively, one can picture a world in which the average consumer feels that the speed of their delivery may be of more pressing concern than the wider impacts that such changes may have on our daily lives. For many, the question remains, is this merely hysteria or a sign of the times? Has S.T.E.M. finally gone mad?

Firstly, it is not to be understated that it is the advancements in the field of Electronics that has catapulted us into an age where convenience is the new necessity. The question one will soon ponder will not be “shall I walk or drive to my destination?”, but “shall I drive or be driven by my very own 4×4 computer?” These ideas – as unthinkable as they would have been a generation ago – will soon be of real concern to those in the developed world and has created an environment in which electronics has slowly begun to impose itself on many aspects of our lives. From an engineering perspective, I myself find this incredibly exciting although ethical questions surrounding these developments will forever be at the forefront of my mind.

Before this idea is taken any further, it’s worth understanding that commercial package delivery is presently way off into the future. As a leader in the field, Amazon’s Prime Air team have stated that they “will not launch until [they] are able to demonstrate safe operations” []. As vague as this statement may appear, mass producing 45 kilogram quadcopters on the scale that Amazon are suggesting will have its time constraints. Such productions will need to minimise mechanical failure – the likelihood that the machine will break – to a level which the typical enthusiast’s favourite play thing may not reach. On top of this, many of those who are against air deliveries and are perhaps less technically minded than the typical Millennial may take particular issue with the infringement on personal space and privacy. Chris Korody, the principal and founder of and award-winning market strategist writes that “Utilizing a system that delivers actionable information rather than data is what they’re all asking to see” [] referring to the drone industry and its advancements into 2017. Clearly, the advancements of drones and many other areas of technology come with a huge requirement for a massive data retrieval from the environment so that such technology can be made safe. In short, it’s not unthinkable to assume that through this data retrieval, a day will come where privacy outside of the own home is merely a distant memory.

amazon drones

 “Amazon’s Prime Air’s current delivery drone model on an initial commercial landing pad”

With this encroachment of consumer technology on several aspects of our lives, one may wonder whether there is any necessity at all that even the sceptical among us could see the benefits from. One example of such an improvement can be seen in the introduction of driverless cars which could offer a genuine solution to minimising the 3287 average deaths due to car crashes which occur per day, globally, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel []. Similar benefits can be seen in optimising traffic control and minimising human errors which are all too present on the roads today. In regards to drones however, the benefits of their introduction to society have a certain subtlety as the advantages that they bring are primarily for convenience and CCTV applications. Although not many would approve of their own actions being constantly scrutinized, this may be indeed be a necessity in the future if the ultimate goal was to make society a safer place for all. As no concrete decision has been made about many of these issues, it is therefore understandable that there isn’t a distinctive buzzing in the great outdoors today.


Sam Biggs is an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham in his second year of a master’s degree in Electronics and a UKESF Scholar. His interests lie in Computing, Maths and Physics as well as writing his own music.

Sweet talk – fat cells controlling our ‘feel good’ response to sugar

Image result for fat cells and sugar

In certain individuals obesity is inherited, and is a consequence of mutations to a person’s DNA, which is received from their parents. The affected individual possesses an insatiable appetite, which leads to a rapid gain in fat tissue.

The rapid gain in fat tissue can be directly associated with decreased levels of a blood-circulating hormone known as leptin. Leptin is released from fat cells and acts as a stop-eating signal when it reaches a particular brain region, known as the hypothalamus. This is essentially what produces the sensation of being full i.e. reduced appetite. Therefore, leptin deficient animals live in a constant state of hunger, as their fat cells have no way of telling the brain the body has had enough intake.

Intriguingly, new research shows leptin can influence the ‘good feeling’ we get from eating natural sugars (as opposed to artificial), indicating leptin levels can adjust the preference for one sugar over another, at least in mice anyway.


Replacing leptin in people with leptin deficiencies prevents exaggerated liking of food and therefore leptin replacement therapy is a potential treatment for people who are obese as a result of leptin deficiency.


An experiment in mice was conducted to assess the ‘reward value’ of different sugars. Two identical feeders, 1 containing sucrose (natural) and the other containing sucralose (artificial) were used. The sucralose feeder was attached to a laser directed into a particular brain region of the mice.

leptin3Image taken from Domingos et al. 2011

Using a cutting edge technique, known as optogenetics, the scientists were able to stimulate the brain cells to activate in response to light transmitted down the laser when the mice drank from the sucralose feeder. The activation in the brain area by the laser is associated with a greater reward when consuming natural sugars, as opposed to artificial sugars. Therefore, if a sugar has high nutritional value, this certain brain area is activated, creating a feeling of reward.

In this experiment, mice that had received leptin replacement therapy no longer preferred the sucrose, indicating re-establishing leptin levels decreases the reward value of natural sugars. Instead the mice chose the sucralose coupled to the laser activation of the brain. This is because replacing leptin reduced the ability to activate the reward feeling, which was instead activated by the sucralose-associated laser.

To summarize, this experiment showed that circulating levels of leptin influence the level of reward we perceive when consuming natural sugars, and the magnitude of this sense of reward correlates with increased activity of cells in the associated brain region! An interesting example of how completely distinct areas of our body are communicating with each other.

Ryan Maguire is an MRes student at the University of Nottingham. A music enthusiast, lover of blueberries, and part time tea connoisseur. 

Sugar cube image: link

Cannabis…more to the pot?

What do you think of when someone says ‘cannabis’? Class B drug? Illegal? High? Maybe medicinal? Over the years, cannabis has had a great deal of bad press, it is often negatively associated with teenagers, festival goers and drug dealers. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Research by the world health organisation (WHO) showed that a whopping 147 million people use cannabis globally-mainly for recreational reasons. The part that ‘makes you high’ is caused by a substance known as THC (tetrahydrocannabidoil- for all you nerds), which has many well-known ‘positive’ effects such as: the feeling of euphoria, extreme relaxation, hallucinations as well as ‘negative’ side effects such as anxiety, panic, paranoia and decreased learning ability. People often mix cannabis with tobacco and smoke the herb, whilst it can also be ingested in food, often referred to as ‘space cakes’. Long term use of the drug has been linked to schizophrenia, isolation, addiction as well as the many health risks associated with smoking.

There are a number of important substances produced by the cannabis plant that don’t make you ‘high’, in fact these compounds have shown many positive effects as potential treatments for different diseases. The plant itself produces over 66 unique compounds, which are mainly produced in the base of the flowers and the leaves of the herb, in structures known as trichromes (hair like projections). CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the chemicals produced (which doesn’t have a psychoactive effects) and has shown great promise in treating numerous conditions. In fact, a drug known as Sativex (GW pharmaceuticals) which contains CBD, is already on the market to successfully treat childhood epilepsy and symptoms exhibited by multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. It is the first legal drug containing cannabis in the UK, however currently it is only used to treat MS symptoms such as spasticity, pain, bladder problems, sleep disturbance and tremor. Additionally, in the United States, there are approximately 24 states and at least 11 countries in Europe that enable controlled patient access to cannabis for medicinal use. There is still a long way to go and there are no immediate plans to make the drug legal in the UK, but many scientists argue that a regulated method of prescribing cannabis may be extremely beneficial to a number of people.

Image result for cannabis plant

So, it’s not all about getting ‘high’ and getting hooked- cannabis actually has a number of medical properties that are both useful and successful. Currently, research is being carried out in several scientific groups to test substances extracted from the cannabis plant as a treatment for stroke patients, MS, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and even cancer. For example, a 2015 study looking at the treatment of pain in patients with advanced cancer (metastatic cancer which has spread from site of origin to other parts of the body) showed that patients taking cannabis reported a 50-70% improvement in pain, well-being, appetite and nausea, with minimal side effects.

Likewise, a 2016 study assessed the effect of cannabis on movement and pain in Parkinson’s disease and showed the potential of the drug to improve motor function (control of movement) and to decrease pain.

More specifically, my group at the University of Nottingham led by Saoirse O’Sullivan is carrying out some new exciting work surrounding cannabis and neuroprotection in stroke. Stroke is a condition where a blockage or bleed in the brain stops the flow of blood and oxygen, which often causes brain injury. It affects millions of people worldwide and is the second biggest killer, with a prevalence that is only increasing because of our aging population. Therefore, we need new treatments, and fast! The NHS is already under extreme pressure and stroke patients often require long term care, which can be costly and hard on families.

Our group has been looking at specialist brain cells that make up what is known as the blood brain barrier; a physical barrier that separates brain tissue from the blood. During stroke this barrier can become compromised, causing nasty or unwanted stuff to move from the blood into the brain in an uncontrolled manner. This can altogether increase brain injury and increases the likelihood of a poor recovery. We are looking at the potential of some non-psychoactive (the ones that don’t make you ‘high’) substances found in cannabis, to see if they can protect this barrier and prevent its damage. These substances, if proved successful, could then be given as drugs to those who have suffered or are likely to suffer from stroke, improving patient outcomes.

Nicole Stone is a PhD student at Nottingham University. She has an extreme Yorskshire tea fetish, loves science, and is a bit of a cat lady.

Image result for cat picture science

Image sources: cannabis anatomycat

How to Make a Best Friend, Part 2.

Image result for cute dogs

Last week, I explored the theories behind the association of dogs with humans and vice versa, and briefly touched upon the amazing ability of dogs to read human faces and gestures. In this blog post, I will aim to explore the real science behind the evolution of dogs – the genetic changes that occurred and why Darwin was so perplexed by these mammals.

The geneticist Greger Larson who studies the genetic evolution of dogs at Oxford, states that up until the first domestication event, humans were not much different from any other primate – we just go about manipulating our current environments one by one. However, after that partnership, we became something else, we changed into the species we see today – billions of people, skyscrapers, climate change, and everything else that comes with it. Did dogs make us better?

With that first domestication event, something happened to turn the aggressive, timid, hunter grey wolf into a cute, adorable charming dog. Some scientists believe this only happened 10,000 years ago, whereas others believe it happened around 30,000 years ago, and some think it occurred in Europe, while others in the Middle East. Recent research suggests that all of these claims are correct, and dogs emerged from two independent wolf populations. So how do we get to the bottom of this debate? One way is to go straight for the genes and to look at the molecular evolution of dogs.

Much like the human genome project, the canine genome project is still ongoing, despite fully sequencing a high-fidelity script of a female boxer dog, Tasha. The project aims to point to genetic markers of disease in dogs, investigate questions involving the domestication of dogs, and explore similarities between dog breeds.

The domestic dog comes from a superfamily – Canidae, and is the most recently evolved of this family – which also includes that of bears, weasels, skunks and seals. Within the Canidae superfamily, there are 3 distinct groupings – 1) fox like canids, 2) wolf like canids, including dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackels, and 3) the South American canids. Darwin and other renowned scientists once believed that the great diversity seen in the form and behaviour of dogs was due to shared ancestry with a number of wolves and other canids – resulting in different breeds. However, extensive genetic analysis has now shown that dogs are purely derived from the gray wolf only, rather than any other canids. This also means that the immense diversity in the domestic dog is relatively new, and is down to the existing genetic variation in the ancestral population of gray wolves and subsequent mutations that have occurred during the brief domestication period.

So how is there such breed diversity in the domestic dog? Well, partially due to the fact that the past 2 centuries have held one of the greatest genetic experiments humans could have ever performed – humans have encouraged the creation of different breeds, with institutes like the Kennel Club strictly categorising the physical characteristics of each breed. The diversity of the skeletal size and proportion of dogs is greater than any other mammalian species in the world – however, the genetic mechanisms behind this is not yet fully understood, but it is known that the variation between dog breeds is much greater than that between humans – (27.5% for dogs, 5.4% for humans). However, a breed of dog can be defined at the molecular level, implying that separate breeds are distinct genetic units.

So the Border Collie sitting next to you is a completely distinct genetic entity than the Golden Retriever keeping your feet warm! Fascinating stuff which once again reminds us why dogs truly are excellent. In my next section of “How to Make a Best Friend”, I’ll explore more behind the remarkable behaviour of dogs.

This is part one of a series of blog posts on the evolution and domestication on dogs by Dr Matthew Yates. Matt gained his PhD in 2014 studying the role of macrophage migration in neuropathic pain and atherosclerosis. His interests lie in psychobiology, haematology and dogs. He is currently working in a clinical haematology field

How to Make a Best Friend, Part One.

Image result for cute dogsThe phrase “Man’s best friend” is a common phrase popularized by the poet Ogden Nash, and has become a familiar saying when referring to dogs. Unquestionable in their greatness, the domestic dog exhibits a close relationship with humans, showing loyalty, companionship and unconditional love.

The domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) is a direct descendent of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), but over thousands of years, dogs have evolved not only in their behaviour, but also in their appearance – developing shorter teeth, shorter muzzles, and let’s face it – enhanced cuteness levels. But why did this evolution take place, and how did dogs make the journey from feared predator to lovable pup?

This journey is not fully understood and there are many controversies surrounding the separate theories – some of which (and the reasons they are not 100% accepted) are as such:

  • When humans arrived in Europe 43,000 years ago most large predators were wiped out, why weren’t wolves?
  • Humans used wolves to hunt and they formed a working relationship, for example leaving some meat for wolves – but humans were successful hunters without wolves – and wolves eat a lot of meat.
  • Humans have a long history of eradicating wolves – almost all cultures in the last few centuries have hunted wolves to extinction.

Some scientists believe that it was wolves that first approached humans – possibly when scavenging around the garbage dumps of human settlements – bold aggressive wolves would have not been tolerated and would have been killed – but friendly wolves per se could have been tolerated and therefore selected for.

Image result for wolfsImage result for mans best friend

Selecting for the friendlier wolves caused strange things to happen within them, thus triggering domestication, and these wolf-dogs (for want of a better description) quickly became cuter, fluffier and got waggier tails. But not only this, these wolf-dogs developed the ability to read human gestures and speech.

As a culture that is now used to having domesticated dogs, the ability of dogs to be able to read human gestures is taken for granted, and the fact that this is a truly remarkable ability is lost. Dogs can read our facial expressions, certain words and the intonation of human speech. Even our own closest relatives – bonobos and other primates such as chimpanzees are not as good at reading our gestures as dogs do. In this way, dogs have evolved to become eerily similar to our own children, and this accounts for the extraordinary relationship we have today with our dogs.

Due to this ability, these friendly wolf-dogs were worth knowing to our ancestors, and people who had dogs during a hunt would likely have an advantage over those who did not. Even today, tribes in the Congo and Middle America depend on dogs to hunt. Moose hunters in the alpine regions have been observed to bring home 50% more prey when they are accompanied by dogs.

Wolf-dogs could have also served as an early warning system to their human counterparts – barking at hostile strangers from other tribes, and potentially defending their humans from predators, thus earning them a place at our fire.

I will leave you with this quote from Voltaire – “DOG – it seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: is the best friend man can have” (1764).

This is part one of a series of blog posts on the evolution and domestication on dogs by Dr Matthew Yates. Matt gained his PhD in 2014 studying the role of macrophage migration in neuropathic pain and atherosclerosis. His interests lie in psychobiology, haematology and dogs. He is currently working in a clinical haematology field.



Science meets art – Volunteering with my digestion diagram at the S.T.E.A.M Big Draw.

Way to go Morwenna! Fantastic job!

Morwenna's Nutrition

Last Saturday as part of STEM outreach Nottingham (Student society dedicated to student led public engagement and outreach projects) I volunteered at Lakeside arts as part of The Big Draw 2016. The Big Draw is a country wide event and this years theme was S.T.E.A.M – Bringing together Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths.

All of us on the STEM Outreach team created science activities to teach the visitors on the ‘science station tables’. The Artist had then created a giant wicker sculpture representing the human body. The aim was to inspire the visitors to do some art to add to the sculpture by teaching them some science and then letting them get creative!


My fellow nutrition student friend and I had set to work the weeks before thinking of an idea for a digestion/gut health table as we thought this would be a good topic! I made a digestion diagram with labels and…

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Guest Blog: A Case for Caution on Consensus

There is plethora of problems one could point out about the reporting around climate change, many of which are a lot worse than that which is the subject of this blog post. However, the media often portrays the scientific consensus surrounding climate change as evidence. For example, the Guardian newspaper features a blog entitled “Climate Consensus – the 97%”, referring to the percentage of research agreeing with the idea that global warming is human made. The subject of scientific consensus may not have been communicated as effectively in other media outlets but I will outline in this post why I believe its use in this fashion is a deeply unscientific one.

The Ptolemaic, or geocentric, model of the solar system said that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system and the other planets wandered the heavens along epicyclical orbits. It may seem laughable to us now that people believed this was the case but the theory was mathematically beautiful; epicycles are used to describe the path of stars orbiting the centre of mass of a galaxy. More importantly, Ptolemy’s model agreed with observation. That’s what made it so persuasive. In fact, during ancient times the Ptolemaic model was the scientific consensus.

I can’t help but draw parallels between this historical example and the current consensus concerning climate change. A recent study published in the Institute of Physics journal says 97% of current research agrees humans are driving global warming. As an ardent believer in the science I am easily persuaded of the existence of anthropogenic climate change when hearing statistics such as these. It is taken, almost on faith, that when so many scientists agree it must, unequivocally, be the truth. It is the nature of science and the scientific method that a theory can never truly be proven to be true, we can only offer our best guess at how a certain process works.

Copernicus overturned hundreds of years of scientific hegemony by breaking with the assumption that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system. He said it was the Sun around which the rest of the planet traveled. When combined with early telescopic observations by Gallieo Galileli it was shown to more accurately reflect the nature of the solar system. Modern climate science could be stuck in a similar state of stagnation; a deeper truth could be out there waiting to be discovered. Hence the use of “the 97%” as evidence for climate change is a deeply unscientific argument. Opinion portrayed as fact.

Having personally reviewed some of the evidence I agree climate change is still our best theory to describe the unprecedented rise in temperatures. It’s pleasing to see that, at the time of writing, 79 of 197 signatories have ratified the Paris climate agreement. Instead, this post is a case for caution on the consensus concerning climate change. “Consensus as evidence” is a manifestation of a deeper problem with communicating science in the media from climate change to GM crops and vaccinations.

Keir Birchall is a student at the University of Nottingham in his last year of MSci Physics. When not doing Physics, he enjoys practicing photography and listening to live music.

Guest Blog: The Dieting Secret No-one Wants to Hear

Weight. One of the most talked about topics of our time. With over half of the U.K. population reporting that losing weight is their biggest health ambition it might come as no surprise that the global weight loss and weight management market is forecasted to be worth $206.4b (£169.14b) by 2019. Our obsession with weight loss shows no signs of slowing with four of the top ten bestselling books on Amazon relating to weight loss. ‘A healthier way of life’ and ‘how to lose belly fat’ are some of the top Google searches. Considering these statistics, one might assume that we have this weight loss thing under control. However, health survey results from 2014 reveal that 61.7% of adults in the U.K. were overweight or obese.

What does this mean? Well, we’re spending more money than ever on resources to help us lose weight and we have admitted that losing weight is on the top of our agenda, so maybe this suggests that although we want to lose weight, the proposed quick fixes like ‘Lean in 15’ and the ‘8-week blood sugar diet’ may not be living up to their promises. I think the bigger question is why we’re so willing to spend money and large periods of time during our lives restricting or depriving ourselves instead of following the healthy eating guidelines and recommendations laid out for us by the government? Why do we find it so hard to stick to our recommended calorie intake of approximately 2,100 calories for reasonably active adult women and 2,600 calories for men in order to maintain weight, (minus two to four hundred calories depending on our desired rate of weight loss)? Yet we’re so willing to cut out whole food groups (carbohydrates anyone?) or follow completely impractical and sometimes dangerous dietary advice from people without any solid or reputable nutrition education. Is it because we’re fixated on quick fixes or is it because if the advice is too simple and we fail that we might have to admit the problem may not lie with our physiological ability to lose weight but more on psychological reasons?

Energy balance (calories in minus calories out) is a relatively simple mathematical equation with a negative energy balance (calories out > calories in) over a sustained period of time resulting in weight loss. However, if it was as straightforward as that I think we can all admit that we wouldn’t be witnessing the obesity epidemic we have today. So what do we do now? Well, some of the most successful weight loss programmes are those which incorporate the psychological aspects of behaviour change theories and tap into all levels of the socio-ecological model of health which considers the person, their relationships, their environment and also policies which influence their behaviour.  Losing weight or any other type of health behaviour change such as giving up smoking is never going to be an easy process solved by throwing money at the situation or by adopting the latest quick fix. I personally think the real secret and the first step in the process in tackling obesity is to begin with the person. Starting by addressing why they carry out that behaviour, what factors in their lives facilitate the behaviour and are they ready and willing to change – if not, why? and what will support them in achieving their goals? Food is too much of a central part of our lives to not enjoy but too important to our health to continuously abuse. Instead of jumping on the next fad diet or superfood bandwagon, stop and think about what will allow you to live as healthily and happily as you can.

Máire Concannon (BSc Human Nutrition) is currently based in Glasgow where she is completing her dietetics training. She loves to cook, spend time with friends and train with barbells when in the gym! Máire is also a volunteer with an Eating Disorders Association of Ireland.

We Need to Talk About… Science!

Recently, the intricate work by three British Professors which awarded them a Nobel Prize, was explained using bagels. This is fantastic. It is profoundly easier to recall what this article was about once I had the images of the bagel and pastries. Using imagery and props prompts memory recall to a much higher extent than words alone for me. I am an outsider to the world of physics and their research, but this culinary explanation was an invitation in. This is what outreach to the public should achieve – an encompassing welcome into the domain of science, extinguishing alienation and trepidation.

If the public’s perception of science is that it is too difficult and intimidating, we are accountable for this as scientists. We are responsible for allowing research to become available and accessible to anyone. Communicating and engaging with the public is an invigorating and positive experience for both sides and is brimming with benefits. It allows for direct interaction with researchers who can educate and abate misconceptions, implore fresh outlooks on their research sprouting new creative avenues to explore, or inspire interest in a variety of new subjects that people may not have considered before.

It is an important skill to be able to communicate something complex to a general audience, and should be practiced and encouraged by all in research and academia. You learn a great deal about what you know by explaining something to someone else. The more visual, hands-on, and unusual the interaction the more memorable and interesting it will be for your audience to observe, and for you to perform.

Achievements in science should be shared broadly and celebrated just like other disciplines such as music and literature. It is sad that the art of science is not appreciated and exhibited in the same manner but is often presented with a hushed and elitist demeanour. Science needs to be re-painted to the public through increased, engaging outreach by all.

Pint of Science is a hugely successful international festival for the public which made its debut in Nottingham in May 2016 through the UoN STEM Outreach Society and the genius capabilities of a certain Matthew Young. The event involves running broad themes such as ‘Beautiful Mind’ or ‘Planet Earth’ across 3 nights in different venues across the city where researchers discuss their work with the public in a relaxed, casual environment. Between talks, many imaginative activities and games are performed and displayed. We had almost 900 attendees representing a broad range of ages and backgrounds. The festival successful engaged the public in Nottingham and increased their confidence in talking about science. I am very excited for the next one already!

We will soon be looking for new team members to join us in preparing for #Pint17 so don’t miss your chance to be part of an amazing experience that I am positive it will be :). Keep a look out on our social media and sign up to our mailing list here.



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