PubhD Norwich: Pints and PhDs

A guest post from The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC)

On Tuesday 26 January, three scientists from The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) helped kick-off the first instalment of ‘PubhD’ at the Cellar House in Eaton, Norwich.

A varied local audience, joined two TGAC PhD students, Thomas Bradley and Maxwell Rogers, to learn about the breadth of TGAC’s research through a series of talk. Facilitated by TGAC Public Engagement and Society Officer Peter Bickerton, the session showcased topics from fascinating fish, and the orchestra of life to the wonders of microalgae, followed by some in-depth questions, answers and dialogue.

A national campaign, PubhD aims to help PhD students explain their research to a lay audience using just a whiteboard and marker pens. The idea is to get across the main focus of their research in terms that anyone can understand before members of the public get the chance to quiz them and discuss over a drink or two.

Considering the importance that PhD research has on the bulk of published science, as well as the famous discoveries that have occurred over a pint in the pub (the structure of DNA for one), where events such as this are an extremely valuable experience.

Thomas Bradley from the Swarbreck Group at TGAC gave a fascinating talk, entitled “The crafty mechanism of life”, using impressive analogies. He had the audience imagine that genes are all part of an orchestra, each one representing a different section – be it horns, violins or percussion. In our different tissues, we have the same genes, yet each section of the orchestra plays louder or more softly; and so our brains might play Mozart while our lungs are playing Beethoven. He then explained his research in terms of the orchestra’s ‘conductor’ – microRNA – using machine learning algorithms not dissimilar to those used by the internet. His analogies resonated with the crowd, where his talk was described by one audience member as “music to my ears.”

Maxwell Rogers, from the Di Palma Group at TGAC, spoke about “Why cichlid fish are awesome” which was equally well received and gave the participants a great insight into the evolution of one of the most wonderfully diverse groups of species on the planet.  He carried on with Thomas’s analogy, linking the orchestra of genes to describe how we come to a phenotype – how genes make proteins and all of the different forms that cichlid fish can take. One audience member simply said, “I want to know more,” while another commented that the talk was “really well explained and a very promising experiment, the speaker was very knowledgeable.”

Finally, Dr Peter Bickerton gave a lively talk on his PhD project entitled “Stressing algae.” Peter spoke about how green algae are a good model to better understand how animals and plants evolved, as well as some of the complex processes that arose in much more ancient life forms. He explained how algae use calcium as a signal and for a variety of other functions – even to detect light through primitive eyes. One audience member said, “It’s amazing how interesting he can make calcium and algae – not an easy job.”

The audience of thirty people left feeling both engaged and informed, describing TGAC as “worthwhile” and “very far-reaching; looking forward to all the benefits in the future.” Various people also expressed their interest in hearing more and signed-up to hear about future TGAC events.

Dr Bickerton, Public Engagement and Society Officer at TGAC, said: “The first Norwich PubhD at the Cellar House was a fantastic success, and many thanks to Victoria for conceiving and hosting the event. We managed to foster a very effective dialogue between our PhD students and the audience, inspiring the audience about the varied and important research undertaken at TGAC.  We look forward to bringing more of our postgraduate students along in the near future.”

Cellar House Landlady Victoria MacDonald, said: “A great fun and inspirational evening with huge support and some lovely feedback! It was brilliant to see the science ‘coming alive’ in a social and informal setting. Looking forward to the next one.”

TGAC is strategically funded by BBSRC and operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

PubhD Norwich‘s next event is on Tuesday 23 February 2016 and features speakers from the Institute of Food Research.

Another PubhD starting up in Portugal: PubhD UMinho

In October 2015, PubhD Lisboa started.

Later this month, another PubhD is starting up in Portugal.

It is called PubhD UMinho (i.e. Universidade do Minho) and will run monthly across two cities in the north of Portugal: Braga and Guimarães.

At each PubhD event, three researchers from any subject area explain their work to an audience in a pub in exchange for a drink or two. The talks are at a “pub level” – the idea is that you don’t have to be an academic to understand the talks.

PubhD UMinho’s first event is in Guimarães on 28 January 2016.

PubhD UMinho's first event

PubhD UMinho’s first event

More details can be found here:

Smelly Science

We had our 23rd PubhD Nottingham event last night – and it was also our two year birthday.

PubhD 2nd Birthday

We had three fantastic speakers (Helen Drew, Andy Chick and Sam Morley) talking about subjects as diverse as History, Forensic Entomology and Mathematics. Fascinating talks, very entertaining Q&As.

I wanted to share an anecdote provided by Andy.

But first, some background.

Andy is researching Forensic Entomology – “the application and study of insect and other arthropod biology to criminal matters”. Basically, using insects such as blue bottle flies, and the eggs they lay, to establish an approximate “time of death” of a person – or more accurately, the minimum length of time a body has been lying around in, say, some woodland.

Andy Chick - Forensic Entomology

Andy Chick – Forensic Entomology

Andy’s specific area of research is to investigate if smoking effects the estimates of time of death. Nicotine is known to be an insecticide. If a person was a smoker, does this need to be taken into account during the calculations?

The best human analogue for these types of experiments are pigs. Pigs are similar to humans in many ways (fat content, body mass, hair-to-skin ratio, etc), which makes them the ideal for forensic experiments. Andy’s experiments involved essentially injecting nicotine into (already deceased) pigs that were not fit for consumption. He then observed them over many days to see if the nicotine changed the behaviour of insects, their eggs and their young.

During the Q&A and I asked the obvious question: how smelly was this work?

And here comes the anecdote. Apologies to any sports scientists…

Andy and his colleague shared a lab with the sports science department. As you can imagine, there were a lot of complaints from the sports scientists. The smell. The flies. The smell. The flies. The rotten sticking pigs. The flies. The smell. It was bad.

One day Andy returned to the lab to see another massive argument was in progress between his colleague and one of the sports scientists. Andy arrived just in time to witness his colleague scream:

You know what that smell is? It’s the smell of real science!

Two new PubhDs start this month! Introducing PubhD Norwich and PubhD Birmingham

Exciting times! PubhD Norwich and PubhD Birmingham have just been added to the (growing) list.

PubhD Norwich’s first event is on 26 January 2016 at The Cellar House, which is near the University of East Anglia. PubhD Norwich is being run by Victoria MacDonald and Grahame MacDonald, who conveniently own The Cellar House!

You can find details about their first speakers at

PubhD Norwich

PubhD Norwich

And on 27 January 2016, PubhD Birmingham kicks off. Their first event is at The Victoria pub, which is near New Street Station. PubhD Birmingham is being organised by Emma Dunne and Katie Oliver.

You can find details about the topics of the first event at

Event logo