Friday 2 May 2014

Bob the Judge

Another year another SciFest, which was hosted by The Institute yesterday morning. I was happy to volunteer to act again as a judge for the event: how else will I get to hear some nifty ideas from the iFuTeNa (Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation).  Last year there were Heinz 57 entries from schools all over the Sunny South East, this year there were 70 on the list although a tuthree of those bottled out and didn't show up.  That's an impressive amount of serious interest in science among the young.  And some of them were very young indeed: down to a couple of tiny girls in 1st year of secondary school which would make them about 12.  Still gung-ho about their project nevertheless.

Last year I was aghast at how little statistical analysis was being carried out on (intrinsically noisy) biological data.  This year, expecting the same, I was about to print off a bunch of my Big Ears' Stats for Noddy help-sheet, which outlines the fundamental issues in testing your data, any data, for statistical significance.  But when I read it through after a year of writing The Blob for a couple of smart but scientifically ignorant Ukrainians, I realised that it makes a lot of assumptions about what is obvious to all thinking people.  Those assumptions are fair enough for people working through their second degree at Ireland's premier University but less so for a couple of personable 12 year-olds in school uniform.  So I just went out there into the big room and listened to a bit of Passion for Science and asked a few interested questions to show that I was paying attention.  I think my overwhelming impression of yesterday was how agreeable it was to be in the company of these young people for a couple of hours. Smart,  articulate, and scrupulously polite to each other and to me. And lots of interesting projects, ideas and connexions.  Pity about the judging and the awarding of prizes, I reckon that talking real science to a real scientist or two was probably more valuable than any trophy - it must be lonely in the stew of disaffected youth ofa typical school where there is more interest in celebrity nonsense, the right sort of shoe, Premiership soccer, local gossip and a bit of light bullying.

This year, as last, I was co-judging with Aoife, a graduate student at The Institute and we were both independently taken with a tour de force from Second Year who, all on her own, was investigating the rise and rise of asthma in our society over the last generation.  Here was a girl who had accumulated a couple of reams and a laptopful of data, analysis, ideas and graphics. Every bit of this mountain of data was at her metaphorical fingertips as she rattled through the various hypotheses for this epidemic.  It was pretty intense and really impressive.  Another couple of girls at a different school were concerned about the 'invisible' epidemic of salt - everyone in the diet world is talking about obesity and carbohydrate intake and there is no dispute that this is a serious problem for the health of the nation. But these lasses recognised that people are dying of hypertension and renal failure and a bunch of other symptoms because they consumed way more than the recommended 6g (1/4 ounce!) maximum of NaCl a day.  Normal turnover is about 4g (we pee a lot) and the system will cope with 6g but will struggle if the intake is 8g, 12g, 20g a day. You can easily top out your recommended daily allowance from a single simple soup and sandwich lunch at a deli. I told them that, having told everyone who would listen, they should contact the local paper and write a piece for their wider community.

The strangest thing I heard all day was from three sassy, savvy and chatty kids (2F:1M) who claimed that red-heads were better able to tolerate pain than the rest of us.  That seems odd and counter-intuitive so I asked how they measured or induced pain in people with different hair colour. It turned out that each of the three had a red-headed sister and I asked the chap facetiously if he gave his sister a Chinese burn every now and then to see how quickly she'd scream (it's a boy thing).  But they said that each of these sisters was prone to headaches while they themselves never had such trouble.  That seemed to be the key revealed fact rather than the pain tolerance.  We've known for a while now that red-hair manifests because of a mutation in the MC1R (melanocortin 1 receptor) gene.  Maybe, like estrogen and its receptors, MC1R has other roles apart from controlling the deposition of pigment granules in the skin and hair.  Let's start getting some data: by asking red-heads how much panadol they consume.  I'll get my pharm tech students over the summer to tally up the purchase of pain-killers as a function of hair colour.

Another group had documented the rise and rise of BPA in our society and recorded some of the worrying possible effects from this chemical leaching into our food from the vessels containing it.  I didn't get to talk to them (Dang!) because I was too busy talking to the 8 or 9 teams that Aoife and I had been assigned and then to anyone who looked bored and/or had a catchy project title.  Great fun, I'd do it even without the free lunch.

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