15 Dec 2015

The Naked Scientist

Riccardo Ressa from St. Mary’s College recently attended the Sutcliffe Kerr lecture by Cambridge University's Dr Chris Smith, who presents BBC radio's '5 live Science' programme and hosts the Naked Scientists Podcast. Here he reports on his experience.

Science can be very confusing. With its long words and complicated theories, at first glance it seems that it is not for everyone. That is where Dr Chris Smith comes into play - you may know him as the presenter of the weekly podcast ‘The Naked Scientists’. He excels in making science appeal to the masses through some experiments wacky enough to make anyone pay attention, yet some so simple they can be replicated with ease at home. Thanks to an event supported by the Walton Centre, as well as the University of Liverpool Institute of Infection and Global Health, Dr Smith was able to share some of his wonderfully wacky investigates.  

For example, if you tied two pieces of string to an oven shelf, wrapped the strings around your fingers, put your fingers in your ear and got someone to strike the oven shelf, the ringing noise would be much deeper than it would have been by just striking the shelf. With this simple experiment that can be done by anyone, Dr Smith was able to demonstrate that sound waves travel differently through air than through a solid.

Another simple demonstration that can be done without too much hassle at home is to create a microscope powerful enough to see the outline of tiny creatures in water. This doesn’t require expensive lab equipment or an expansive setup; all that is needed is a laser pointer (the red one on the back of those pointer pens works pretty well), and a drop of water from your nearest pond or even pot-hole in the road. By suspending a drop of water from a syringe or even a piece of string, and shining the laser through it onto a white background will reveal little shadows that zip around on their own accord.

However, not all of the experiments can be replicated at home. The ability to launch your self into the air from just a fart is something children have been discussing and laughing about for years, admittedly the thought of that also had a room full of teachers and sixth formers in stitches for minutes! This question was not just plucked out of thin air, it was a genuine question that someone wrote to The Naked Scientists show, and the researchers duly oblige; after all, there’s no such thing as a bad question. After extensive research, which included how much a fart actually weighed, it turns out that you would need to fart at 17,000 km/s in order to gain lift-off. Unfortunately, the amount of beans needed to achieve this was not calculated!

One experiment that could be replicated at home, but would require a lot of effort and a serious sweet tooth is to make your own chocolate teapot. Now, despite the saying ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’, it turns out that if you make the teapot thick enough, (around 2cm or thicker), it will withstand the heat for one pot of tea!

Not all of the Naked Scientists experiments are serious, in-fact most have a comedic aspect to them, yet all of them leave you wanting to know more, as well as inspiring you to ask more questions.

Riccardo Ressa

Year 12 Student

St. Mary’s College


9 Dec 2015

Update: Ebola convalescent plasma study in Sierra Leone

Dr Calum Semple is a Senior Lecturer & Consultant Respiratory Paediatrician at the Institute of Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool, and is a member of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections.

Around the country Ebola Medals are being received by British Volunteers, Armed Services staff and Research Teams who contributed to the Ebola Response in West Africa. Ebola is no longer in the daily news. But Ebola has not left West Africa. There is a cluster of at least three cases in Liberia, which was previously declared free of Ebola transmission on 3 September 2015. In Liberia in October a sixteen year old girl presented to health services after being unwell for several days in the Bombali district of Sierra Leone. She deteriorated rapidly and died overnight. This in an area that had been free of Ebola for 160 days. Guinea had continued to have cases at least through to 18th November.

Plasma donor

There have been only a few trials of therapeutic interventions for Ebola Virus Disease. The challenges of conducting trials in this context meant some research groups chose designs that relied upon historic controls, were not blinded or used a predefined outcome.  These decisions have been criticised in various editorials but I doubt these critics could do better.  I observed the best and worst of behaviour by researchers. There were a few good examples of co-operation between research groups, sharing protocols, outcome measures and even data. Yet the presence of one particular drug study in Sierra Leone caused a inexplicable perturbation in the usual pathway of admissions of ebola patients away from their closest Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) to the ETU running that drug study, starving two other trails of patients. Some research teams worked on a basis of training and mentoring local investigators and left a legacy of improved capacity and facilities. Others just collect data, samples and left without a care.

I am optimistic that the Ebola crisis is nearly over. The studies of Convalescent Plasma that I am involved in (Ebola_Tx in Guinea and Ebola_CP in Sierra Leone) are winding up. Our study in Guinea is closed and we hope the first results will be published soon. For that study we have been careful to disclose the result to the local authorities and policy makers in advance of publication to avoid any surprises and manage expectations. In Sierra Leone we remain open to recruit in the event of resurgence and have capacity to mobilise the plasma under trial conditions to any willing ETU. Our trial team including transfusion technicians took part in a dry run of the Rapid Deployment Isolation Facility in partnership with the UK MoD. We brought frozen saline up from Freetown to Benguela Hastings in cold chain and mocked up the administration of plasma.

In Guinea and Liberia, convalescent plasma was produced using a specially converted bus that contained the aphoresis machines and a small laboratory. In Sierra Leone we chose instead to refurbish the existing blood bank at the Connaught Hospital Freetown, install apheresis and UV transillumination and provide a plasma freezer. All this equipment was required anyway. It made no sense to bring this kit in for the study and not install it for ongoing use. The refurbishment of the blood bank was extensive. Wooden bench tops with cracked formica tops were torn out and replaced with stainless steel. Air conditioning with redundancy to allow for breakdown and serving was installed. The steps leading up the blood bank were retiled with non-slip surfaces, and a lick of paint was added. Finally we rewired the building and installed a massive lead acid battery uninterrupted power supply. 

The investment at the blood bank has already proved worthwhile. Freetown suffered a devastating flash flood in September. 1,000 houses were damaged, 3,000 people were displaced and unofficial reports claim about 40 bodies were recovered from the water. The Connaught Hospital was caught directly hit by the torrent. The operating theatres were flooded and mains and generator power was lost. The Blood Bank fridges and freezers remained under power preserving the precious blood, frozen plasma and our research samples.

We don’t expect the trial in Sierra Leone to recruit to power, but we will complete the characterisation of the donors and continue to support the Safe Blood Service Sierra Leone.

I’d like to express my gratitude to the Clinical Team at The 34th Regiment Military Hospital Freetown, The Transfusion team at the Blood Bank Freetown, the Project Managers Gerry McCann and Lewis Matthews, and Clinical Leads Dr Christine Cole and Dr Janet Scott (IGH).

Dr Calum Semple

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