Monday, 19 January 2015

SHWI does science!


Sadly, our planned speaker for January’s meeting was too ill to come and speak to us. However, the hard-working SHWI committee worked their magic and found all the lovely SHWI ladies someone equally interesting and entertaining! And, whilst I was looking forward to hearing Paul Cocker speak I have to say that as a geeky scientist by background, I was very excited when I heard that Dr Nate Adams was coming to talk to us about the science of colour and that’s why I begged Jen to let me do the blog instead of her!

We kicked off the meeting with the usual WI business; introductions for our new members, dates for the diaries, all the details on the spin off groups and asking ladies to think of a charity to support for the year ahead so that we can vote on this at the next meeting. So, don’t forget to send nominations and a short blub to our email by Wednesday 11th February! We had a quick break to make sure that cakes were eaten, tea was drunk and chatting was had but then it was time to start the main event.

Mary, Vicky and Chella meet Dr Nate
I must confess that I was busy doing lots of paperwork during the break and so when I sat down and was handed a party popper I was a little confused but at the same time glad that I had a front row seat for the science! It was almost like being at the Royal Society Christmas lectures…. A teeny teeny bit anyway!

Dr Nate introduced himself and explained how a post-doctoral research scientist came to be speaking to a room full of women on a Thursday evening. I don’t want to spoil any future talks he might do but since it’s also on his webpage I don’t feel too guilty saying that he failed to get into theatre school, his degree in Chinese didn’t work out so he chose to do Chemistry instead. It’s at this point I should confess that I have a PhD in molecular microbiology but sadly my career path was not at all as interesting and did not lead me to doing CBBC with Dick and Dom!

Dr Nate showed us a little bit of his research in the form of a very complicated equation and a graph that showed the increasing population on Earth, along with UN projections of what could happen in the future. It’s a bit scary to think that by 2050 there could be 9 billion people on the planet! There was a bit of audience participation as we were asked to think about energy sources and how we could possibly provide for that many people in the future and he expertly dealt with our suggestions and came to solar power last, so that he could show us another, much simpler, equation about photosynthesis. Basically, how plants and other organisms use energy form the sun to produce oxygen and sugars. This is what Dr Nate does his day job research on. 

Dr Nate makes fire bubbles
After a short explanation about light, Dr Nate gave us what we’d all been waiting for – demonstrations! It started off quite simple with just lighting a candle but quickly progressed to some really fun stuff with fire – wahoo!! We were strongly warned not to try it at home and Dr Nate was wearing safety goggles when he set fire to his hands using the foam produced after he bubbled gas through washing up liquid. It sounded a bit like Bonfire Night from the gasps and whoops in the audience. He also showed us some lovely red coloured flickering flames from heating a lithium salt; it was a very pretty colour and explained the science behind the colour. But it didn’t just end with the visible spectrum; oh no, we had a bit of UV light in the form of a torch, glow sticks and fluorescent bubbles. And, my particular favourite, he shook a little bit of 100% ethanol up in an empty water cooler bottle and (using a wick), lit it and there was a very quick and loud whoosh and bang!

But how does that have anything to do with his research you say? Good question. Well, Dr Nate works on enzymes, or as he liked to call them ‘nanobots’. And with a little bit of help from a room full of us eating Jacobs crackers without swallowing them (and yes there were several rude comments made at this point!), Dr Nate showed us how the enzyme amylase broke down the stuff in the crackers to make small sugars such as sucrose and how if you chewed for long enough it would taste sweeeeeeet.

Things got a little dicey after this though as Dr Nate walloped our very own Grace over the hand with a big mallet! Grace was quick as a flash and saved our beautiful hands from damage the first time but was sensibly somewhat reluctant to let Dr Nate try again but this time with her hand encased in d3o armour. It’s a non-newtonian fluid, like when you mix water and cornflour and it’s pretty awesome. How this relates to his research I can’t quite recall but it was fun! To be fair to Dr Nate he did also wallop himself too! 

Grace nearly gets hit with a mallet
He didn’t stop there though as it was Laura Bainbridge’s turn to volunteer to be a nanobot in one of Dr Nate’s experiments. There are some pretty funky and sexy science acronyms out there; AFMPFQNM (pronounced: a-fum-puh-fuc-num) isn’t one of them though! So, to demonstrate this to us Laura was a nanobot, waving her glowsticks around and doing her thing, and Dr Nate was firing x-rays at her in the form of light red balls. Sadly, Laura didn’t quite have the mindset of a nanobot initially and didn’t move away from the x-rays (balls being thrown at her!) but she soon cottoned on and we all had a lot of fun watching Laura running around with glow sticks trying not to be hit by balls! 

A bit of audience participation!
But, Dr Nate doesn’t just look at one nanobot (enzyme) at a time; he looks at how they interact with each other so Laura needed a friend and Dr Nate another volunteer. Feeling like this could be the closest I got to science for a while I volunteered to be Laura’s friend and got to hold hands with Laura whilst we both got pelted with red balls. The point being that we were much slower to move out of the way when joined together than on our own.That’s what Dr.Nate’s research is all about really; seeing how all the nanobots (enzymes) work together! Phew, sorry that was a bit long. Dr Nate explained it all a lot better than me and with a lot more fun (and fire!). And, not only is it all fun and interesting but hopefully one day it could be used to make biochips which could make lots of energy for us all in the future.

I hope everyone else had as much fun as I did. I just want to say thanks to all the committee ladies once again for working so hard to find a speaker at such short notice and also send Paul Cocker a big ‘get well soon’ from SHWI. See you all for cake decorating in February!!

(Dr) Leanne Sunter
Assistant Treasurer

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