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You heard it here first

You heard it here first

by Cassim Akhoon, a medical student from King’s College London.

Cassim attended the British Science Festival in Newcastle as part of the British Science Association student bursary scheme.


With a title like ‘You heard it here first’, I expected to hear of some jaw dropping inventions, and to be provided with ‘is that even possible?’ moments. You’ll be pleased to know I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Five great scientists had no more than five minutes to persuade the audience that their research would have the greatest impact not just on us – the individuals – but also the world as a whole.

The first speaker, Chris Frost from the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, introduced the problem electronic devices face against cosmic rays; for example, an incident in 2008 when an Airbus A330 flight unexpectedly dived twice, injuring several passengers and crew members.

This poses a great threat to the increasingly electronic nature of our lives, especially as transistors are gradually becoming smaller. Therefore, improved safety and testing facilities need to be made available. Chris explained that at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory there is now a centre which possesses the capacity to mimic the effects of cosmic rays, and manufacturers can bring their devices there for testing to put them through the equivalent of ten years of cosmic ray bombardment in a matter of hours. This would provide a means to ensuring improved protection against cosmic rays.

The second speaker, Stuart Reid from the University of the West of Scotland, presented his developments towards building an instrument able to measure gravitational waves, and hence improve our ability to visualise the universe around us. However, I was personally fascinated by how this approach was applied to the field of medical research, by introducing the concept of ‘nanokicking’ which directed stem cells to develop into bone. To me, this reflects the beauty of science, progress in one field can lead to profound developments in many others.

The third presentation also focussed on the crossover between physics and healthcare, but with regards to lasers. Ceri Brenner, from the Harwell Imaging Partnership, explained that the laser she has been working with allows users to select the type of radiation they wish to produce, which can then be used to direct efficient destruction of tumour cells whilst causing minimal damage to surrounding cells. This would effectively replace current radiation therapy, if successful.

The fourth speaker, Diane Gardner from Cardiff University, introduced the fascinating concept of self-healing concrete! The idea is to incorporate natural fibres, and bacteria which can secrete limestone-like compounds, providing the concrete with the capacity to heal itself, much like that of living organisms. This would drive down the current large costs spent on maintaining concrete throughout the world, as well as reducing the burden concrete production places on the environment.

The final presentation was on ‘quantum metrology’ by Beccie Whittaker at University of Bristol. Essentially, quantum metrology provides a means of obtaining incredibly accurate measurements in virtually any setting. The reason this stood out for me, was the potential it would have in the healthcare setting: it would provide very accurate measurements of the quantity of certain molecules in the blood, or even the detection and accurate grading of tumours, it can also be used for accurate dosing of drugs!

I believe the idea of self-healing concrete will have the biggest impact on the world, but the one to have the biggest impact on individuals and which I find the most interesting, has to be quantum metrology. My only complaint of this event is that this is not the first time I’ve come across nanokicking and self-healing concrete, as I’ve read articles on both on the BBC a few months ago. Nevertheless, it was incredibly insightful to hear about these from those directly involved with the research. I left feeling impressed by the great talents of these speakers, in terms of their ability to present as well as their ideas.

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