14 September 2016
Tristram Wyatt, senior research associate in the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford, gave our audience an amusing yet thought provoking talk on pheromones.
Tristram’s main areas of interest and research are how pheromones – the molecules used for chemical communication – evolve, and their effect on animal behaviour.
Tristram’s talk was comprehensive and inclusive; from his own research to how corporations “hijacked” the science behind human pheromones for their own financial benefit.
Starting by clarifying the definition of a pheromone, Tristram reminded those gathered that invisible signals had been noted between animals for centuries; for example, the practice of keeping bees originating in the 17th century. Darwin also hypothesised that successful animals are the smelliest.
Tristram continued apace, highlighting when pheromones were first identified, explaining how pheromones are used by animal species, and not just for sex! Pheromones may cause a physiological or behavioural response, which proves directly consequential to both natural and sexual evolution.
Our audience was broad, with members, guests, professionals and students alike. Held at the Discovery Centre, Winchester, the event was ideally located. Those able to attend created an insightful yet personal group whose questioning took the event beyond our schedule. Tristram was bemused by the calibre of questions posed, mainly from students.
The subject matter was broad and participants had a chance to find out about the breadth of applications that biology provides within academia or industry. Furthermore, this was a rare opportunity for local students to speak with a professional biologist in person – all while consuming caffeine and cake.
Thanks to Tristram for an informative talk, one that will undoubtedly be remembered well.
3 March 2016
Ask most sixth form biology students about the range of jobs and activities open to biologists and they are likely to come up with a very short and predictable list of possibilities, including all forms of medical science, biochemistry and possibly environmental science. So an event at which students from a range of local schools and colleges are able to meet and talk to enthusiastic and knowledgeable professionals is hugely valuable and can help a student contemplating the next stage of their education to have a much greater understanding of the breadth of this subject in the 21st century.
Thus the Wessex celebration of British Biology Olympiad medallists began with the opportunity to ‘meet the biologists’ and, as in previous years, a straw poll after the event made it clear how much everyone (volunteers and students alike!) had enjoyed this and how much enthusiasm and interest it had generated.
Following this with a highly interactive and entertaining lecture titled ‘Dying to be beautiful’ from Dr Kathryn Harkup added further to the informative nature of the evening. The number of questions asked was a sure sign of engagement from the audience.
Dr Elizabeth Evesham and Dr Marja Aberson of the RSB were invited for the second year running to present at the annual Careers Convention at Sherborne School to talk through their individual careers in biology.
Dr Evesham provided the sixth form pupils with an engaging insight into her research and educational route into biology, and Dr Aberson presented her experience of a career in the private sector.
The fair also had guest speakers representing multiple disciplines, including the arts, armed forces, finance and other sciences. The fair was a success all around and with much positive feedback from the pupils regarding the biological talks, including: “I was not really considering this, but I will now.”
This had been another great opportunity to educate students on the diversity of options available in biological sciences and to also promote the Society to such a young and interested audience.
26 November, 2015
Wessex Branch held its AGM at the Winchester Discovery Centre, Jewry St. Winchester. The Chairman gave a brief review of the year, highlighting the UK Biology Olympiad Wessex regional award ceremony, hosted for the second time in 2015 at St. Swithun’s School in Winchester, and the Science Communication Video event at Southampton University; and the Treasurer gave a report of finances. The committee was re-elected, and welcomed a new member, Noelle Joby, to their number.
Following the business meeting, the attendees were rewarded with a lecture on the support given by Public Health England to the World Health Organization mobile laboratories during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. The lecture was given by Professor Miles Carroll, Research Director at Public Health England, who co-ordinated the UK support to the mobile laboratories.
Professor Carroll illuminated the sophistication of techniques and equipment that were successfully deployed to provide diagnostic tests and epidemiological data to combat the outbreak in low income settings. He gave a vivid description of how the partnership of the willing was able to map the outbreak in real time and provide vital information to the World Health Organization on how the virus was interacting with patients and populations, and whether or not it was mutating as it did so. He described an energetic and committed UK contribution to an international effort, that forged links with medical scientists in the affected region that will continue long after the outbreak is definitively over, and contribute to preparedness for other outbreaks that may occur.
7 June 2015
This 2,750 hectare woodland and chalk downland estate was acquired in 1916 by the War Department (now the MoD / Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) for a high-security research unit.
About 1,591 ha of this is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its very high species richness; a Special Protection Area (SPA) for stone-curlews; a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for its chalk grassland and as a monitoring site for the Environmental Change Network.
Some 20 Society members were led by Sarah Atkinson from the site's conservation team. The area has many orchids and in the woodland we saw spotted, birdsnest and lady orchids, and a range of other plants including ladies slipper and white helleborines. As many as 44 species of butterfly have been recorded at Porton (78% of the British list) and there were green hairstreaks and blues in every sunny glade – part of the conservation work – but sadly the only evidence of the declining duke of burgundy was a detached wing in a funnel spider's web.
The downland offered wide views across Salisbury Plain and we were told of the efforts to regenerate the declining juniper scrub and other problems with rabbits. The site has 10% of the UK nesting population of the migratory stone-curlew that depend on rabbits to expose chalky, stony ground for nest 'scrapes' and also to keep the surrounding downland tightly grazed so that they can find insects, earthworms and beetles. However, the rabbits support a high population of foxes that also eat the chicks.
There was so much to look at and appreciate that our progress was slow. On the way back we had an excellent view of a male peregrine perched above its nest site on the top of a tall concrete tower. Apparently the tower is a "hard target" and subject to regular explosions. The birds are undeterred by this and simply fly up and away for a short time before returning to the nest.
This was a hugely enjoyable day. We would all like to convey our sincere thanks to all the people at DSTL Porton, and on the Wessex branch committee, who made it such an interesting and informative visit.
19 March 2015
Sixth form biology students from across the Winchester area gathered at St Swithun's School for a busy and varied evening to celebrate the achievements of those who had won awards in the 2015 British Biology Olympiad. Twenty professional biologists, many of whom were members of the Society, generously gave up their time to come and talk to students about their work and backgrounds.
Coffee and cake broke the ice before the event began with a 'meet the biologist' speed dating activity. This proved a hugely successful format and the noise in the hall was evidence of how much students enjoyed meeting 'real' biologists whose jobs included virus hunting, parasitology, medicine, nursing, vet medicine, science writing, molecular genetics, forestry and deep sea biology amongst others. Feedback from students after the event included the comment from one student that she 'had no idea that forestry was so scientific and that it offered such an interesting and progressive career path'.
This was followed by a hugely enjoyable lecture on 'Poisons – murder from a molecular point of view' given by science communicator, Dr Kathryn Harkup. She focused on four poisons in particular and examined the effects they have on the physiology and biochemistry of the body. The talk was perfectly pitched for thoughtful and interested student biologists and this, combined with Kathryn's engaging style, provoked a large number of questions from the students.
During the final part of the evening, Wessex awards and book prizes were presented to Olympiad award winners, after which more coffee and cake was consumed as some students continued to discuss the relative 'merits' of various poisons whilst others continued their conversations with the 'professionals' more informally.
12 November 2014
As prospective medics, we were intrigued by Dr Karl J Staples lecture on how the lungs defend themselves from infection, held at the Science Learning Centre at the University of Southampton.
Staples is senior research fellow at the university, and began his talk with an introduction to the innate defences in the lungs – such as the macrophages that eliminate pathogens by releasing reactive nitrogen and oxygen, which act like bleach. It was interesting to know that the formation of surfactant is triggered by a baby's first breath. This fluid is a combination of phospholipids which bind to pathogens and serve as markers for macrophages.
To everyone's surprise, the lungs actually also contain beneficial bacteria. Also, we learnt about researching respiratory diseases, for example the different methods of collecting data for analysis, including endobronchial biopsy and nasal lavage.
As sixth form students, this was an excellent opportunity to expand our scientific knowledge beyond our A level course. Staples explained the content in a concise manner which made it easy for us to understand. In summary: breathtaking!
6 September 2014
Our Brownsea Island field trip was so popular that we had to turn away late applicants. In fine autumn weather, many members took early ferries and spent the morning exploring the island.
We assembled after lunch and were introduced to our guides - the National Trust's property manager Angela Cott and warden John Lamming.
Half the group set off with Angela as she gave an overview of the environmental and social-economic management challenges faced by the trust. The charity has worked hard to balance the conservation needs of the island while enhancing the public's experience and now sees 120,000 visitors each year. Climate change may also threaten the island's coastal habitats in the future.
The highest point on the island offers stunning views across Poole Harbour to the Purbecks. At this point we swapped leaders and John described the wildlife and habitats on the island, specifically, the ecology of the squirrels which obligingly scrambled up and down the trees around us as he spoke. Red squirrels have a mixed diet but their favourite is Scots pine seeds or 'pine nuts' which are tediously extracted by biting the scales off pine cones. A squirrel requires 550 kJ a day, but a pine seed provides only 0.18 kJ, and the 200 squirrels on the island can demand up to 219 million seeds a year. Unfortunately the trees are ageing and are producing fewer cones, with little sign of regeneration – mainly because of uncontrolled Rhododendron.
27 March 2014
Professor Mike Tipton, of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at Portsmouth University, captivated and challenged his audience in his lecture to British Biology Olympiad 2014 medallists and 6th form biology students from across Hampshire. They had gathered along with parents, teachers, members and guests to form a small but hugely enthusiastic audience at St Swithun's School, Winchester. Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society, awarded certificates to students in celebration of their achievements.
Professor Tipton works in the Extreme Environments Laboratory, which examines the physiological and psychological responses of the human body to adverse environments. He also advises on the selection, preparation and protection of those who enter such environments.
Homeostasis is an important topic in A level biology and Professor Tipton wove some compelling examples into his clear explanations. He explained the physiology behind the advice given to the British cycling team about the best methods to cool down between warm up and events at the Beijing Olympics in order to avoid central fatigue. This resulted in the ingenious use of cheap camp chairs and plastic bags full of cold water.
This event also gave students an excellent opportunity to quiz the professional biologists on the Wessex committee over coffee and cake; discussions ranged widely and provided more opportunities to gain an understanding of the breadth of applications of biology in the workplace.
20 November 2013
Professor John Fazakerley director of the Pirbright Institute (formerly the Institute for Animal Health) since 2011 delivered a popular lecture entitled 'The New Pirbright Institute'. He is overseeing the redevelopment of the Institute's main site at Pirbright in Surrey, with development funds from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
The lecture was wide ranging, covering the science research programme of the Institute, Professor Fazakerley's own research on alphaviruses, the history of the Institute, and the state-of-the-art new facilities being built to house some of the most dangerous human and livestock disease viruses in the world.
Our 33 strong audience included research scientists and science professionals, teachers, sixth form students, retired members, and others; and the lecture had something for all. Professor Fazakerley spoke for 45 minutes and then spent another 30 minutes answering questions from all corners of the room. With the lecture held at Winchester's Holiday Inn Conference Centre, a number of members retired to the bar after the lecture, where Professor Fazakerley joined us to continue the discussions.
Many thanks to Professor Fazakerley for an excellent talk and for making a great event for our members.
14 November 2013
British Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012 Dr Matthew Doggett gave an entertaining and knowledgeable talk after our AGM. His talk was supplemented by photographs from his trips around the British Isles (as well as a few from his wife, Polly Whyte). These amazing photos encapsulated life beneath our waves!
Approximately 30 members and non-members began their tour of the British Isles on the South Coast in Poole. We were treated to numerous photographs of various fish species such as the goldsinny wrasse (Ctenolabrus rupestris), Baillon's wrasse (Symphodus bailloni) as well as more unusual species such as topknot (Zeugopterus punctatus) and conger eel (Conger conger). The tour continued to Lyme Bay where the tompot blenny (Parablennius gattorugine), snakelocks anemone shrimp (Periclimenes sagittifer) and the Leopard-spotted goby (Thorogobius ephippiatus) were the name of the game.
In Scotland and their Islands, we were treated to some amazing photographs of nudibranchs and corals as well as video footage from a lagoon where quite literally a "sea" of moon jelly fish (Aurelia aurelia) can be found. Other fantastic creatures included the mauve jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca) at Sula Sgeir, Scotland and the red scorpion fish (Scorpaena scrofa) in St Abbs, Scotland.
Our tour ended in Shetland with some fascinating video that encapsulated the gannets' amazing ability to fish. The detail and "luck" of one particular shot of these amazing animals secured Matt the title of British Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012!
Matt continues to explore life beneath the waves and together with his colleagues from Earth in Focus promotes wildlife of the British Isles and abroad through photography.
3 October 2013
Ambassadors from the Society were involved in a science careers event at South Wilts Grammar School for Girls, Salisbury. The collapsed timetable day was created for the 130 Year 10 students and aimed at getting them to think about how the sciences can be applied beyond GCSE and A level. Part of the day involved a speed dating style session in which small groups of students spent 5 minutes grilling a professional scientist before moving on to the next one. Many of the scientists involved in this activity volunteered through the Society of Biology and ranged from academics and consultants to test pilots and authors.
Other activities included a planetarium show, chemistry demonstrations involving liquid nitrogen, talks from local companies, DSTL, PHE and Harnham Water Meadows Trust. Student teams also competed in an Engineering Challenge to build towers from spaghetti. This is an annual event hosted by the school which always relies on the generous support of local volunteers in giving up their time for the girls.
14 September 2013
The New Forest is an area of outstanding natural beauty which has been of scientific interest for 40 years, and in 2005 was designated as a National Park. Gillie Hayball, a New Forest park ranger headed an engaging walk introducing its history, management and conservation.
The walk began upon the Yew capped Bolton's Bench, an ancient burial mound which offered beautiful views of Lyndhurst and the surrounding forest.
The group was lucky to also have the experience of Barry Dowsett; an appointed Forestry Commission Verderer. 'Verderer' comes from the French word 'vert' which means green. The New Forest Verderers date back to the 13th century, they regulate the rights of the commoners and set forest byelaws. One of the main rights of the commoners is the ability to turn their animals out to 'pasture'. The diversity in grazing activity has helped shape the landscape of the forest over time.
After walking across the open heathland, the group learnt about the deer population of the forest and of the management of the four main populations present: Fallow (Dama dama), Roe (Capreolus capreolus), Red (Cervus elaphus) and Sika (Cervus Nippon).
We ended with a challenge: how do you age a tree? One easy way is to 'hug for a 100' - if one person can hug a tree it will indicate 100 years of growth. An interactive map is being developed from a database of ancient and unusual trees in the UK, The Ancient Tree Hunt.
Dr Marja Aberson MSB
9 June 2013
Charmouth local expert Chris Pamplin introduced us to the Jurassic Coast, a 95 mile long World Heritage Site. The cliffs and foreshore here mainly represent two stages within the Lias (Early Jurassic), dating from approximately 190 million years ago. At this time the continents had not separated and this area was closer to the equator, roughly where North Africa is today. Moreover it was submerged by a large sea, less than 100m deep, in which alternating layers of clay and limestone were laid down. These Jurassic sediments were then overlain by younger (100 million years ago) Cretaceous deposits. Subsequent erosion removed all the more recent deposits and, at Charmouth, most of the Cretaceous as well. Life was abundant during the Jurassic but as this area was far from any significant landmass most of the fossils are marine - ammonites, nautili, belemnites, crinoids, bivalves, fish and bones of marine reptiles.
Chris had brought along many representative specimens and gave us tips on finding fossils on the foreshore. Fossil bones, mainly vertebrae, are black as are pyritised ammonites; both are to be found lying in sandy areas as the tide falls. We were shown how to recognise, and split, likely rocks. Then we were let loose with our hammers and goggles, with warnings not to get too close to the cliffs.
There was a steady stream of finds including a palm-sized ammonite split from a rock. We made our way back to the visitor centre (and fossil shop) where we thanked Chris for his entertaining and informative introduction to fossils (and for laying on good weather).
Jack Coughlan CBiol MSB
15 September 2012
Members went to sea again last September, although this time we were after bigger game than plankton. Our destination was Sandown Zoo on the Isle of Wight where one of our members, Tracy Dove, the education and conservation officer, had kindly offered to host our visit. Wessex has a dozen or so members on the Island but this was the first time in the branch's 40+ years that we have organised an event there.
Tracy outlined the zoo's history, ethos and activities that ranged from breeding programmes and international field conservation projects through to public education. We then had a guided tour of part of the animal collection. The zoo's vet discussed the welfare aspects and explained how large cats could be trained, a sort of Pavlovian conditioning, to accept routine non-invasive veterinary monitoring and treatment without resort to anaesthetics. Similarly, emphasis was placed on retaining patterns of behaviour that maintained activity and fitness. The tigers had to jump into a large pool in their enclosure and drag ashore chunks of horsemeat tied to wooden rafts. Surprisingly the tigers and jaguars did not come from the wild or from other zoos, but had been rescued from garages and backyards in the UK.
Most people are familiar with conservation projects undertaken by zoos such as Whipsnade and Marwell but are unaware of the work of 'small' zoos (fewer than 100,000 visitors annually) such as Sandown. We all came away with extremely favourable impressions, not just of Sandown Zoo itself, but also of its contributions to education and overseas conservation projects. Moreover the lunch was greatly appreciated but we were glad we didn't have to jump into the tiger pond to get it.
Jack Coughlan CBiol MSB