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Association Honorary Fellow recognised in Queen's Birthday Honours list 2013

The British Science Association was delighted to learn that Dr Eric Albone, an Honorary Fellow, who has served the Association since 1986, has been recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours. Here, Dr Albone gives his personal account of the life and work that led to this recognition.

Dr Eric Albone

I am very surprised to have been made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and I am particularly indebted to the person/s unknown who nominated me.  Previously I had been somewhat dubious about such honours, but I came to realise it really is open to anyone to make a nomination, although the subsequent sifting I gather takes something like a year, and the response from friends and colleagues is quite humbling.  I feel the honour reflects as much on the hard work and dedication of colleagues as on myself.

The MBE is to me as Director of Clifton Scientific Trust “for services to education”, and particularly it seems to me for the UK-Japan Young Scientist Programme we have been running since 2001 at Bristol University, since 2010 with Cambridge University and since 2004 in Kyoto.  This summer we again have Workshops organised with Cambridge University and with Kyoto University.

In Bristol we have also run for several years now, Meet-a-Medic a very successful programme with inner-city primary school classes and volunteer medical students (members of the Galenicals, the University of Bristol Medical Student Society).  This programme is offered free-of-charge to the schools, and is greatly valued. It aims to engage pupils directly through participation in activities related to the medical students’ experience with patients (stethoscopes, mock consultations, etc) and lively two-way discussion and questioning.

At the end of an afternoon we ask the teachers to judge the value to their pupils under the headings of raising aspiration, motivating learning, stimulating questioning, providing positive role models, and supporting the curriculum.  The pupils are hugely engaged and the medical students also gain great practical experience in relating to children. As far as possible we are keen to link the work we are doing through CST with the British Science Association as possible because we both share many common objectives.

Our UK-Japan Young Scientist Workshops brings together post-16 school/college students from schools across the UK and Japan to live together for a week in a university. The students work in small UK-Japanese teams with cutting edge scientists/engineers, being given some work to do which related to their activities which challenge them to work together as a team and think for themselves. At the end of the week the teams give 15 minute presentations of what they have achieved, in front of an audience which includes several distinguished guests.  In Cambridge in 2012 we hosted 50 post-16 school students (equal numbers between the genders) from 15 schools across the UK and Japan, accompanied by teachers who did not take part in (but observed) the science going on and took part in other ways, and of course networked among themselves.  Since the massive 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, we have established a firm, continuing link with schools in Fukushima and other areas of Tohoku who were so severely afflicted. From 2011 onwards we have enjoyed the extremely generous support of Rolls Royce and Barclays, so that these students and teachers could attend free of charge, including paying for their flights.   That year we had ten projects running across the university, ranging from chemistry, and physics (in the Cavendish) to engineering, living with nuclear energy, biological anthropology and for the first time a team of students working with the Naked Scientist team on science communication, reporting on the workshop and producing a podcast which is still online.

The experience for the students working across very different cultures, and in areas of science and engineering they have never encountered before is hugely challenging, but is also great fun and there is much laughter. We know the experience has changed lives.

How did all this happen?  Initially I was (I still am) a chemist and after obtaining a doctorate in Oxford I spent three postdoctoral years in universities in the US where I became extremely interested in mammalian semiochemistry (signalling chemistry- pheromones and the like) and returned to Bristol to set up a group between the schools of Veterinary Science and Chemistry exploring chemical signals in mammals, in particular in the red fox.  Although we had considerable success, the future of this work at that time was really in the US, then out of the blue came an invitation to teach at Clifton College who were suddenly short of a member of staff.  As a “grammar school boy” this would be new territory, and what about my career in science?

It was quite a break, but I am pleased I took it and I worked at Clifton for 17 years in the end, keeping in close touch with the world of science through the British Science Association, which I have served since the Association came to Bristol in 1986 initially as Local Secretary for Chemistry, but in a variety of roles nationally and locally, including member of Council on a number of occasions, Recorder for Chemistry and Chair of a vibrant Bristol and Bath Branch.  Last year the Association very kindly made me Honorary Fellow.

As a teacher I found that students really lit up when they understood that science is about asking impertinent questions of nature and about not knowing answers.  As an example of this I introduced them to the work I had been doing in mammalian semiochemistry, and following an invitation to mount a display at the Royal Society Soiree (now many years ago) they blossomed.  Our display was on a school investigation of the catnip response in cats, which remains a mystery… the response is limited to the domestic cat and certain other felids and is genetically determined.  The investigation involved extracting and analysing by, GC with GCMS support from the university, a variety of catmint plants grown from seeds supplied by botanical gardens around the world, and also from the vine Actinidia polygama imported from Japan, which has similar effects on cats, attempting a new multistage synthesis of nepetalactone, the active principle of catmint, with which we made great progress, and observing the behavioural responses of both pet and a group of feral cats.

That was the birth of Clifton Scientific Trust, our charity, which works almost entirely with state schools and is quite separate from the college.  And this was also the birth of our current programme.  The recognition of the MBE for our continuing achievements is greatly appreciated.

Clifton Scientific Trust is registered as a charity in England and Wales 1086933.  Further information can be obtained from eric.albone@clifton-scientific.org

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