6.1 Biologists visit Kew Gardens

By Mary Shotter, Biology technician

On 18 March, 6.1 Biology students visited Kew Gardens to look at how plant species are classified, why it is important and how a plant’s DNA profile can inform science based solutions in medicine, conservation and food security.

We also looked at how plants have evolved and are adapted to various habitats, including the Aloe plant, which has leaves full of gel, enabling it to store water and survive in arid environments.

In the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which has various biomes, we saw a vast array of plants from the tropics, including a colourful display of 6,200 orchids, which were part of the 2019 Orchid Festival; insect-eating pitcher plants; ferns; and a few creatures such as a sloth, giant birds and a life-sized jaguar, constructed from plant material.

Physics students attend radiation talk

By Anthony White, 6.1

On 27 March, a handful of 6.1 Physics students attended a discussion with the school’s Radiation Protection Adviser, Andy French, who was a member of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence specialising in cutting edge science and technology which aids the United Kingdom (you may recognise the name of the group from the Salisbury Novichok poisonings, as they played a crucial role in finding the origin of the nerve agent).

Andy specialises in the Radiological Protection sector, which works to minimise the damaging impacts of radiation on individuals in drastically varying circumstances. During the talk, he discussed the fascinating use cases for radiation, ranging from industrial radiography to radioactive waste disposal, emphasising to me how diverse a career one can have in this line of work.

Andy started his career in nuclear medicine, an intriguing field which improves upon simple x-rays by injecting a radioactive source into the patient. Depending on what source is chosen, it will bond to different bodily substances, gathering in certain organs or tissues, showing certain physiological issues. The technology in this field is improving constantly; we are now digitally fusing separate scan results to give us a more detailed picture, which could save lives in some situations.

Andy’s career has led him to work on military projects, an example of which are nuclear reactors on submarines, where there are significant challenges to overcome. Radiation protection is critical issue, as the amount of shielding which can be installed is limited due to size and weight restrictions (unless you want a permanently submerged submarine). In such cases, a careful compromise must be made. This is where Andy fits in, assuring the safety of individuals without compromising the functions of the submarine.

Making an error is not an option in this field of work, as even a small miscalculation could expose people to life threatening doses of radiation. Andy revealed his part in uncovering the trail of the Russian spies in the case of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and how he traced the radioactive trail of the deadly Polonium 210 isotope that was used to poison his tea in the Ritz.

In conclusion, I thank Andy for his time as it was a great opportunity to get an insight into the fascinating world of radiation and the wide variety of careers which encompass the field.

Bedales’ Biology department honours Robin Hill

dr-david-hillOne of the highlights of Parents’ Day was the presence in the Biology department of Dr David Hill, an Old Bedalian who is the son of another Old Bedalian, Robin Hill (1912-1917).

This year the Biology department display celebrated the life and work of Robin Hill, a biologist renowned for his work on chloroplasts and what is called the ‘Hill reaction’. Before moving on to Biochemistry, while still at Bedales, Robin Hill also developed an interest in plant dyes such as Woad and Madder. On display were some of his experiments with different dyes and fabrics – experiments that do not look dissimilar to a current Bedales Assessed Course project on plant dyes by Helena Alexander (Block 5).

This interest was inherited by David Hill, who is a real authority on the subject and was very happy to discuss it at length with visitors to the exhibition.

Robin Hill also invented the fisheye camera lens and was a very talented watercolour artist. The display, organised by Mary Shotter, focused on all aspects of Robin Hill’s life with many paintings and books that originated from his time at Bedales.

The department is very grateful to David and his wife Ruth, who both gave up the day to come and spend time in his old school and share anecdotes about his remarkable father.

Diversity and inclusivity in science education

diversity-inclusivity-science-educationBy Emily Seeber, Head of Sciences

The issues surrounding gender diversity in the sciences are well known. Only 1.9% of girls continue with Physics to A-level compared to 6.5% of boys, and girls have outnumbered boys 2:1 in Biology for the last decade. On the other hand, nationally, Chemistry attracts equal numbers of male and female students at A-level. However, this does not mean there is no gender imbalance in Chemistry teaching: girls tend to say they are studying Chemistry because it will help them get into a top university, or because they want to study medicine, and boys tend to respond that they just enjoy the subject. Both perspectives need challenging: why aren’t girls studying what they love, and why aren’t boys focused on their futures?

I am a firm believer in gender-neutral laboratory practice and am beginning to work on how that might look in sciences through a long-term research project. Even in a single sex school, a class of students will identify their gender in a whole spectrum of ways, and so science lessons shouldn’t be tailored to the learning preferences of one binary gender. This Wednesday I was invited to speak about issues of inclusivity in sciences education at the Inspiring Teachers conference at the Institute of Education in London, with other panellists from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Department for Education. We had a lively discussion about some of the key underlying issues that need unpicking in schools surrounding gender, race, and class.

Fortunately, Bedales does many of these things already: we call out sexist and racist language, we discuss diversity and inclusivity openly (I spoke to the Block 3 in Wellbeing last week about the different faces of the Feminist movement in Britain today) and the students are fully engaged in the dialogue, and we have moved away from setting in sciences (strongly correlated with divisiveness in all three areas). There are still big challenges ahead for equality, but I hope that by raising awareness of the issues with Heads of Science from all over the country, we have been able to plant some seeds for change.

Find more of Emily’s thoughts on gender issues in science education on her blog:

Discovering new technologies at Wired Magazine: Next Generation event

By Lara Loasby, Block 4

On Saturday 4 November, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Wired Magazine Next Generation event for the third time running.

This year did not disappoint, with lots of incredible talks and pieces of new technology to experience. The venue was the Tobacco Dock in east London – a really interesting building and yet I found it a strangely historical venue to hold a technology convention in.

We registered at 9am and went to the interactive zone to try out all the new examples of technology on display. There were three examples of virtual reality art on show, one was a five-minute movie and the other two were purely pieces of art called Rainbow and Aqua Phobia respectively.  Aqua Phobia was very quirky and in some senses creepy, seemingly set in abandoned pipeways tinted green with water gushing everywhere.

The VR movie was stunning. It was set in what appeared to be Antarctica, which was melting into the ocean due to global warming. You flew over this scene while watching two people talking about a new planet they were creating.  The chair I was sitting in to participate was moving in order to prevent me feeling any motion sickness and to deepen the experience.

The talks started at 10am, there were nineteen in total and each one lasted about 25 minutes.

The ones that stood out for me included a woman talking about her involvement in building the next Mars rover and a fantasy UI and technology designer for movies such as Prometheus, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian.

However, my favourite talk was by a technology and digital magician called Tom London, who combined tech and magic as an art form to explain the possibilities of virtual reality, drones and robots. He managed to make the Amazon Alexa perform mind-reading and he also amazed us by making a swarm of three drones perform sleight of hand.

Half way through the day, I completed a workshop entitled ‘Future Everything’, which was about how to build interactive sound art. I painted a circuit and connected it to a Raspberry Pi, and wherever you touched it on the circuit, a different sound was produced. Learning how to set this up was really interesting.

The day was incredibly informative and inspiring and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in technology.

Eye-opening lectures for Biologists and Psychologists

By Lauren MacMillan and Molly Graham, 6.1

Last Friday, the 6.1 biologists visited Portsmouth University for a biology conference. The first lecture was on Biomedical Science, ‘Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia’ by Gavin Knight; specifically focusing on how Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia forms in people. We learnt about the DNA changes which cause the disease and how the cancer process is not just one change but many in a row which leads to the cancer.

The second lecture was on epigenetics, a topic we have been studying in AS biology, delivered by Dr Tim Hebbes. He talked about the new possibilities that epigenetics provides in personal healthcare and how new discoveries in epigenetics is changing our understanding of DNA and genetic inheritance due to our environment and not just the genome.

Those studying Psychology also attended a lecture on the ‘Psychology of Beauty’ by Dr Ed Morrison where we learnt about how we perceive beauty and the changes in our environment that cause beauty as well as how beauty varies across cultures. The lecture was very eye opening and fascinating.

The rest of the biologists attended the last lecture on medicine as sport given by Dr Zoe Saynor and Dr Ant Shepherd, it was a very engaging lecture with lots of audience participation. It opened our eyes to the opportunities that are available from optimising the performance of professional athletes to helping children with chronic diseases in day to day life.

Observatory and New College of the Humanities lecture trips

Gemma Klein Photography

By Richard Sinclair, Head of Science

It has been a busy week for Bedales Science, a small group of students visited the nearby Observatory at Clanfield on Friday and despite the poor weather had an excellent evening touring the three large observatories and learning about the telescopes (a 5” Thomas Cooke refractor, a 7” Starfire refractor and the latest addition – a 24” reflecting telescope). It was a History, Engineering and Astronomy lesson rolled into one, and the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guides was exceptional. The lecture on ‘observing the night sky’ was truly fascinating and given by an enthusiast with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the skies.

On Monday, a group of 6.1 students (3i and Biologists) visited the New College of the Humanities for an evening lecture by Professor Richard Dawkins. After an introduction by A.C.Grayling, who reminded us of the importance of an understanding of Science to an educated mind, Professor Dawkins gave a wide-ranging talk, the overall theme of which was how strange and wonderful the world is when looked at from a scientific perspective. Quantum mechanics, Chemistry, lots of Animal Physiology and of course, Evolution were all brought in to a mixture of scientific fact, theory, conjecture and interesting quotations. The level of the delivery was very well judged and the lengthy Q & A session at the end was most thought-provoking. A very interesting and successful event.

Bedales Brain Day

By Lauren MacMillan, 6.1

On Tuesday, Dr Guy Sutton, Director of Medical Biology Interactive, gave several lectures on the human brain, focusing on forensic psychology and the criminal mind. He discussed mental health problems and abnormal brain structure as causes of crime, which creates ethical issues and debate around the sanity of offenders and leads to the argument of whether they should be answerable for their crimes in the first place.

One of the lectures involved the area of Criminal Profiling where there is a large difference in the way Americans and Europeans approach the topic. Europe goes for a more statistical and evidenced based approach, whereas Americans tend to use behavioural analysis of the crime scene and their experience to create a criminal profile.

A History of Mental Health and the treatments that were once used was also an essential part of the day and we learned how treatment has improved and the conditions and attitudes towards mental health are also changing. There were mentions of the Nature/Nurture debate and how epigenetics has changed how we view the argument; knowing that the environment can change our genetics and our brain structure means that both have a large impact on our behaviour.

It was a very enjoyable day that caused us, as students, to think more like degree psychologists rather than AS or A level students – and to think about the bigger picture.

GSCE Science Live – Oxford visit


By Alex Lunn, Block 4

Science Live, held just before half term, was certainly an interesting trip. The coach journey was surprisingly easy and, even though Oxford was rife with manic bicycles, no pedestrians were harmed and we got to the theatre safely.

The first talk, by Professor Steve Jones, was fascinating. It involved both bodybuilding and Siamese cats linked by the amazing world of genetics. Next, Professor Jim Al-Khalili confused us all over the possibility of time travel, explaining the different physical challenges and logical paradoxes of going forwards and backwards in time – mind blowing!

Professor Robert Winston amazed us with the peculiar habits of sea urchins and some of the ways he has furthered fertility research over the past 20 years. He also raised the ethical issues associated with ‘designer’ babies and the possibility of transhumanism.

Lunch was a stressful ordeal – it was debatable if some people would make it back in time for the afternoon lectures, especially with large ‘mighty meaty’ pizzas which had to be eaten in 25 minutes!

During the afternoon, we listened to lectures from Dr Kate Lancaster aka ‘mission for fusion’ discussing the state of nuclear fusion research across the globe and finally Dr Ben Goldacre the author of Bad Science took to the stage. We were all fully attentive for his startling screams and frightening facts and will be more discriminating about the scientific-sounding ‘facts’ we believe in, in the future.

The trip to Science Live was a memorable experience; one that I am sure everyone enjoyed. Many thanks to the science teachers – who appeared to be in pain with laughter at the geeky jokes throughout!


Swiss snow, physics and protons


By Winnie Guo and Harry Green, 6.2

Last Friday the 6.2 physicists set off to Geneva, Switzerland.

We visited the History of Science Museum on the first day which was on the frozen icy banks of Lake Geneva. Saturday was spent at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research where they operate the largest particle physics laboratory in the world and focus on research in fundamental physics.

We visited various departments in CERN and got a chance to talk to the researchers. The excellent displays and presentations were very helpful for understanding the principles behind the processes used to recreate the conditions just moments after the ‘Big Bang’ and generate and detect exotic particles including the elusive Higgs Boson. The many stages of accelerator feeding the Large Hadron Collider took protons to 99.999% of the speed of light before colliding them head-on.

The technology needed to keep the particles on track, and to make them move with the necessary precision, required super conducting magnets and electronic feedback control systems – and this interested us the most. We toured SM18 (the world’s leading magnet test facility) and discussed the implications of developing high temperature superconductors.

On the third day we also went to the UN buildings and the International Red Cross Museum before a trip to the snowy Jura Mountain where we had lots of fun. It was a brilliant trip – many thanks to the Physics Department and Vikki Alderson-Smart!