by Anouk Gouvras, Post-doctoral Research Scientist at the Natural History Museum.


Last Sunday just gone, I was standing on “the stage” of Hackney Attic at the Hackney Picture House. A microphone in front of me, an image of the schistosome blood fluke life cycle behind me. I was talking to a friendly collection of people, sitting in groups around tables with colourful paper, marker pens and of course their drinks; beers, wine glasses, orange juice (or screwdrivers, who knows). This was part of a new event organised by the British Science Association, called ProblemAttic.

Think of it as part discussion event, part citizen science, part crowdsourcing; we’re inviting scientists to share genuine challenges they’re facing in their research and ask audience members to discuss them and maybe try to solve them

When Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement, at the BSA approached me about doing this event, my first reaction was to think that it wouldn’t work for my research. Then I thought I could present something we had already solved. Luckily Ivvet ruled that out before I even suggested it. As she explained, the point was to come with a real problem and open it out to the public for ideas, discussion and suggestion. It wasn’t meant to “teach” people but to ask for their ideas and suggestions. I racked my brain and started mumbling to myself, “no that might be too hard, we can’t figure it out and they won’t know the particulars,” then I heard myself and realised I was dismissing something before even trying it based on some arrogant notion that only scientists could solve science-related problems. Complete nonsense.

So I presented a genuine challenge.

How can we gather and store water-borne parasites in tropical countries?
Schistosomiasis is a severe parasitic disease transmitted through water, found mainly in poverty stricken areas of low-income tropical countries. People become infected by swimming, washing or fishing in infested waters. It affects over 200 million people worldwide, yet there's scarce funding available for treatment, research and control. A team at the Natural History Museum are using genetic techniques to identify the parasitic worm that causes the disease. However, gathering samples is a major challenge; current methods are time consuming and laborious, and only examine infected snails, rather than directly measuring the parasite larvae in the water. Anouk Gouvras needs your help to develop a new way of sampling these microscopic parasites from water bodies. This would give her team a better way of measuring transmission rates, which could lead to better targeted disease control and even help to eventually eliminate the disease.”

After presenting my problem – assisted by a few images and a video of the parasite larvae in the water. I sat down and listened to the two other scientists presenting their challenges at the event. First was Camilla Nord, a neuroscientist working on psychiatric disease, such as depression. After giving a fascinating and funny talk on the current methods of diagnosis and the different approaches used by psychiatrists and neuroscientists she asked us for some conceptual ideas on how to combine psychological and neuroscientific methods to better diagnose and treat depression.

We then heard from Lynne Friedli, a freelance researcher working on mental health and social justice who presented us with the current terrifying shift of eligibility for unemployment benefits; from what you must do e.g. develop skills, go to job fairs, practical training etc., to what you must be e.g. upbeat, confident, positive etc. She wanted a debate and discussion about this new measure of eligibility for benefits that is based on your attitude to work.  I think she got it!

After the ‘problem presentation’ by each of the three scientists we had a bit of a breather so we could absorb all the info and refill our drinks. I was sitting at a table with Camilla and Lynne where we were already chatting away about our various topics. I noticed that discussions had started all around, the pens were out and the colourful pieces of paper on each table were being populated with ideas, suggestions, questions and doodles. And the event organisers were circulating and seeing what people were chatting about. They then lead each one of us to different tables. It was loads of fun! Everyone was friendly, interested and buzzing with ideas. I had brought with me some jars of the schistosome parasitic worms (preserved in ethanol) and some snail shells to show people. The look of fascinated disgust that my favourite little parasite stirs is always amusing. It signals engagement. I then heard suggestions from each group and let me tell you, they were good!

Every group came up with more than one idea. Some were particularly to collect the parasite larvae from the water, but other ideas were to stop this parasite from infecting people in the water, to stop transmission and eliminate the disease. I think in total I got 11 ideas. Here are a few noteworthy ones:

  1. A specially-designed bucket used by a housewife or child in nearby villages to collect water for their homes. Incorporated into each bucket is a special filter to filter out impurities and trap the parasitic larvae. I loved this idea because it involved the community in the collection, and it gave the collector an advantage to using this special bucket with an intact filter – cleaner, safer water!
  2. Using a Vax-like suction vacuum to filter through lots of water with a centrifuge incorporated to concentrate the parasitic larvae onto a collection device. This is great because it could process a lot more water and the fact that it concentrates the parasites means the collection device could be something small that we could pop into ethanol and change regularly.
  3. Aquatic roaming drone, designed to filter the parasitic larvae in the water. You got to love a solution that involves high tech! Bring on the drone.
  4. A small portable device with a Britta water filter that can be used by rice paddy workers and fishermen. Then brought home at end of day and stored. Another solution that involves the community!

What we also discussed was how to measure the amount of water processed and the amount of parasitic larvae collected to give a measure of number of schistosome parasites per quantity of water. We all discussed the idea of a filter that can store the parasite, or at least its DNA, e.g. that can be popped into a container with ethanol.  And then the use of quantitative polymerase chain reaction (Q-PCR) to measure the amount of schistosome DNA per ml or litre of water (OK, I admit that might have been me suggesting that last bit ;-) but it came to me during a discussion I was having at the event).

Now I just need a few engineers and those with industrial design skills to perhaps implement some of these great ideas. Well let’s face it, what we need is funding but that is always the case for everyone. Maybe with some of these ideas we can write a proposal using a multidisciplinary approach, to determine schistosomiasis transmission sites and rates, identify transmission hotspots and target control interventions.

The thought of that had me buzzing with energy and adrenalin all the way home. Definitely a different Sunday evening and definitely something I would love to do again.

Thanks very much to the British Science Association for organising this event and to the people who participated. It was lots of fun, motivating and very useful.