Students from five secondary schools will be presenting the results of their genuine academic research at a symposium alongside scientist and broadcaster Professor Robert Winston and neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster.
The students will come together for the second annual Authentic Biology Research Symposium to present the findings from their work and share best practice on 4 November this year.
Supported by a Wellcome Trust Society Award, Authentic Biology is a unique initiative that enables students to take part in real research, with guidance from university collaborators. With a long-term aim of integrating this into classrooms nationwide, this scheme explores a new way to teach that could have a positive impact on bridging the gap between school and university science education.
The project began as a pilot, the Myelin Basic Protein Project, which was initiated in 2008 by Dr Dave Colthurst at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys. The success of the pilot has resulted in the subsequent broadening of the scheme, with five schools taking part this year, having been selected by their local universities: University of Bristol, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton and Queen Mary, University of London.
The scheme provides a grant to each school, which allows a senior teacher and senior technician to dedicate half a day per week to their research project, as well as enabling the schools to purchase the appropriate laboratory equipment.
The pilot project continues at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys under the guidance of researchers from the School of Biosciences at the University of Kent. The students have been looking at the human protein myelin basic protein (MBP) and exploring the hypothesis that modifications to this protein can affect the central nervous system, leading to symptoms seen in conditions such as multiple sclerosis. The project has given students first-hand experience of cloning and genetic engineering as they have investigated the human gene for MBP, and - as well as presenting their research at the symposium - they aim to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal at a later date.
Dr Colthurst said: “What started out as a small pilot with 50 students has expanded and grown, showing the keen appetite that school pupils have for real science. Now in our fifth year, we will continue to evaluate our success and see what potential this has for becoming a more national scheme.
“This kind of work gives A-level students a real insight into university-level science, piquing their enthusiasm for it now and equipping them with the kind of academic tools and confidence that will be invaluable in their futures.”
Other schools taking part have also been conducting research into various human disease areas, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and inflammation. Tapton School, Sheffield, alongside the researchers from the University of Sheffield, will be presenting ‘How to mend a broken heart’, discussing their work into cardiovascular disease.
A project from Cotham School, Bristol, in association with the University of Bristol, looks at modelling human diseases linked to chronic inflammation (specifically arthritis and cancer) by mining genome-wide association studies and studying the cell behaviours of zebrafish larvae. St Paul's Way Trust School, London, has been exploring the causes of diabetes in their local Tower Hamlets population and working with Queen Mary, University of London, and a local medical practice on screening the FTO gene, which has previously been linked to obesity and diabetes.
There will also be a presentation on ‘ExSite’, a collaboration between Peter Symonds College and the University of Southampton, which has taken a slightly different approach to this project and is looking at experimental approaches in labs that can be adapted for classrooms.
Professor Russell Foster, Director of the recently established Oxford University Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute supported by the Wellcome Trust, will be speaking at the symposium on his own research into body clocks, light and sleep. He commented: “I am delighted to be presenting alongside some of these fascinating studies. The opportunity for these students to work on such high-level projects while still in school is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with collaboration and commitment to both education and science.”
Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, added: “The Authentic Biology project gives students a fantastic opportunity to be immersed in a genuine research project and to present their results in a formal scientific meeting environment. We are therefore delighted to be hosting and supporting the second Authentic Biology Research Symposium.
“The fact that this project continues to expand is a clear indication that there is a huge amount of enthusiasm for this sort of high-quality science learning programme and innovative collaborations. The Wellcome Trust remains committed to helping make this level of science education available to all young people.”