The Big Bang Fair 2014

Last week, a group of PhD students including myself joined scientists from the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) to run a stand at the Big Bang Fair, a science and engineering event at the NEC in Birmingham. The event ran from Thursday to Sunday, but it was only on Saturday that myself and two other PhD students, Mabon and Claire, made our way to Norwich station (in varying states of disarray after an incident involving the misreading of bus timetables and a lot of brisk walking) to travel up for our two days on the stand.

The Big Bang Fair is a yearly event, and every year the JIC presents a different facet of its research to school-aged children, hoping to inspire them to pursue careers in science. This year the stand focused on plant disease. The BSPP has identified a significant shortage of students taking plant pathology beyond undergraduate level – with many undergraduate courses in biological sciences spending only a few hours of lectures over the whole degree on the subject of infection and disease. We hoped that our stand might encourage more young people to follow careers in plant pathology.

The plastic cups standThe “Plant Doctors” stand, which was split between JIC and BSPP, had activities aimed at a range of ages and abilities. On the BSPP side, a craft area for children to make models of plant pathogens attracted a lot of attention (not including that from the stallholders themselves); and the opportunity for visitors to briefly become “plant doctors” themselves, where they learnt about the differences between bacterial, fungal and viral infections in plants and how they correlate to human diseases. The JIC focussed mainly on its research into ash dieback disease, offering visitors the chance to play Fraxinus. An activity for younger children attempted to simulate the action of spores being spread by the wind – by knocking down plastic cups. Visitors were also asked to read about three options for controlling pests and increasing crop yield – pesticides, biocontrol or GM – and to vote for their favourite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people chose biocontrol as they were wary of the concept of GM, though I certainly overheard several extended discussions with parents over the merits and risks of GM. In fact, our stand at the Big Bang Fair in London last year was entirely focused on genetic modification. Read more here https://johninnessvc.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/science-festivals-why-bother/

We returned on Sunday evening, completely shattered and with very sore throats after constantly having to shout over the noise of thousands of people, and the occasional unidentified loud bang from the Big Bang Stage just behind us. The bangs were mainly due to an explosive show from Greg Foot, a science communicator who came to visit us at JIC a few months ago. I think I speak for everyone who went when I say that I had a great time talking to the next generation of young scientists! I would really recommend volunteering for the Big Bang fair to anyone who hasn’t yet tried it.

Capturing the interest of the visitors to the stand came with its own challenges. It was easy when the children arrived at the stand and were immediately prepared to listen and engage. We were, however, next to the stand for our Norwich neighbours, the Institute for Food Research (IFR). IFR brought a giant inflatable colon with them – which was great fun, though trying to regain their attention after they spotted that next to us was also an enjoyable, if tough, challenge.

As ever, when dealing with children, some brilliant quotes were produced, but I think my favourite actually came from a parent. When Mabon was explaining the concept of a fungal infection in humans causing athlete’s foot, one mum looked down at her children and told them, with a complete poker face, “and that’s why we don’t eat mushrooms!”

By Rachel Prior, a first year PhD student in the group of Prof Mike Bevan.

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