Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Emerging student led projects @LifeSciencesUTC and the challenge of Metrics

Two weeks before the end of term at the UTC and project ideas are firming up in the Innovation Labs. During this week's sessions I talked through topics ranging ranging from skin care, through poorly regulated antibiotic administration in farming to aquaculture and the adaptation of plant roots in different growth substrata (see left). I have written about our approach to projects before in this Blog, but I thought I would share some of the ways in which embryonic student ideas are developing this year.

The difficulties of making measurements in order to establish the effect of interventions was the theme of the day. In one project, Adam and Jess are exploring the influence of certain personal care additives on skin texture; a project stimulated by a placement at Unilever. The difficulty they were pondering, was obtaining an objective method for comparing the "perception" of skin smoothness with a robust physical measurement. In the absence of high end microscopy, Adam and I discussed imprinting methods (leaving an impression of the skin before and after application of a compound. We looked at medium magnification microscopic images. Then George suggested the Newton meter while I was suggesting methods of measuring differences in frictional resistance that correlate with smoothness. By the end of the day Mr. Hayhurst's Physics Lab had been plundered and Adam and Jess had worked out how to measure the force of resistance of different weights on the Newton meter and, I was explaining the applications of such devices on the nano scale for measuring protein stability at the single molecule level. This for me captures the ethos of the UTC projects. It is the entree provided by a student idea into Science in its widest sense. Developing a solution for Unilever isn't our aim, rather capturing interest and enthusiasm via the placement experience has propelled Adam and Jess (in this example) into the world of curiosity driven Science. I cant wait to come back next year to see how the project develops.

The discussion I had with Sophie relating to the use of antibiotics in the agricultural and farming communities raised some similar issues of metrics. First of all, Sophie was finding it difficult to pin down the differences between (as an example) organic and conventional supermarket minced beef. What are the criteria that enable a supermarket to label a pack of beef organic? This was a starting point to begin to look at the stages in rearing the cattle, providing them with appropriate veterinary care and finally processing the animals before the product appears on the supermarket shelf. After a largely fruitles, joint search on the Internet, we emailed academic "experts" in Food Technology at a number of organisations. To date, we haven't been particularly successful, but I am confident this will yield some useful resources. However, coming back to metrics: on the assumption that in very general terms at least, organic produce will have considerably lower levels of antibiotic "contamination" than the conventional product, how can we assay this? Is it possible to state with confidence that both products will be microbe-free, or if not, can we easily compare and differentiate the two? Perhaps more importantly from the customer's point of view, does it make any difference in terms of nutritional value and/or taste. I hope you can see that we are coming back to similar issues of customer perception and Scientific truth, as with skin-care products above. Sophie will now continue her fact finding research and will then move on to investigating and applying assay methods for measuring antibiotic levels and the microbial ecology of some commercial food samples. Again, I am looking forward to her progress!

Finally, for this Blog, I wanted to mention the aquaponics interest in the group. The enthusiasm shown by Jens and his colleagues from the University over the last year has led to the establishment of a number of "aquaponic rigs" around the UTC. I have discussed informally on a number of occasions with several students (aquaponics is the flavour of the year!) and the team from the University of Liverpool, who have been driving this, the need for the UTC students to use this project to introduce students to long term metrics. That is to collect data over (hopefully!) years, on such parameters as the chemical composition of the water, fluctuations in pH, microbial populations, the relationship between the choice of plant species and nutritional yields, the effect of different lights etc. These measurements are currently in hand, and I look forward to seeing the data logs over the coming years, alongside regular (maybe annual reports) on the data and the interpretation placed upon them. This week, we discussed the design of the aquaculture tanks and I suggested that a sound grasp of the adaptation of roots to different environments, water, moist soil, dry substrates like deserts etc., would make a nice complement to the design of their investigation. What are the adaptations seen in Nature to different rooting environments? Once again I am looking forward to seeing how the students combine core botanical knowledge with the applied challenges of a successful aquaculture rig.

Importantly, however, in respect of metrics, I want to see how the students manage these types of measurements; the commitment required and their appreciation of the value of long term, careful and consistent l measurements. After all, the evidence base for climate change is just as important as that for the interpretation of the DNA double helix. Both data sets must match all theoretical expectations and must be comprehensive...until an observation challenges the status quo! As always, I would welcome any measured responses!

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