By David Snowdon, biology student at Imperial College London and science communicator.
While wading through packs of schoolchildren on my way to the Society of Biology and Society for Endocrinology stand at the Big Bang Fair I really didn’t know what to expect. These excitable kids had just got off a hot, stuffy coach and were fully immersed in the unique thrill of a school trip: how was I going to maintain their interest in the experiments at the stand?
By the end of my second day of volunteering however, I realised I needn’t have worried. The hands-on experiments proved to be a roaring success and by the end of the fair the team had engaged over 3,000 willing participants, spreading the message about the crucial importance of hormones in our everyday lives.
The stand was split into four main sections, taking participants through what could be described as a ‘day in the life of the hormones’. Although visitors approached the stand from every angle, perhaps the most logical place to begin was at the giant, sticker-laden clock. Here fair-goers were able to add stickers to the clock to indicate the times at which they would naturally wake up or go to sleep, contributing to a pretty considerable set of data by the end of the week. It was interesting to note how many of the participants had been told (mostly by their parents) that looking at bright screens late at night was not a good idea, but didn’t know exactly why. They were interested to learn that the hormone melatonin is responsible for feelings of sleepiness, and that the blue light emitted from screens prevents this hormone from being produced. At this point I produced some fetching orange-tinted glasses which were excitedly tried on, while I explained their role in blocking blue light from reaching the eyes – and therefore allowing shift workers to feel tired at unusual times.
The discussion of the hormones involved in sleep and wake cycles led nicely on to the next part of the stand: the DIY body clock. This activity was a particular hit with the younger participants, who enjoyed colouring in their very own paper body clocks while learning about the hormones involved not just in sleeping and waking up but also that most crucial activity, eating. While on my lunch break I spotted a few groups adorned with these personalised circadian clocks, no doubt consulting them to get an idea of the optimum time for their food intake.
Just round the corner the third part of the stand expanded on the role of hormones in the control of appetite, introducing a couple of hormones that I hadn’t really heard of: ghrelin and leptin. I was interested to find out – and subsequently teach everyone who came to the stand – that leptin deficiency was one of the first underlying genetic causes of obesity to be identified. This is because leptin is the hormone produced by fat cells to signal to the brain that the stomach is full. Therefore without this hormone, the brain never gets this ‘full up’ signal.
The final – and most messy – section of the stand expanded on the idea of malfunctioning or lost hormones to introduce insulin and its role in diabetes. Participants carried out a glucose test on a ‘blood sample’ and then added solutions representing either insulin (just water to dilute the sample) or glucagon (sugary water) to redress the imbalance in blood sugar. As they were adding the ‘insulin’ solution into the sample I could tell them that this is the step a diabetic can’t accomplish, giving them a tangible representation of the disease and making the symptoms far easier to explain. Participants were rewarded with a satisfying colour-change to let them know they’d carried it out perfectly.
One of the key components of effective science communication is giving the audience a reason to care about the science on offer. This is one of the reasons why the stand was so successful and interesting – the experiments cleverly demonstrated how hormones play a crucial role in key aspects of day-to-day life like sleeping and eating.
It was clear that most people had heard of hormones (especially those giggling children who were obviously fresh from a term of sex education lessons), but few had stopped to appreciate just how many facets of day-to-day life they are involved in.
All in all I had a great time volunteering at the stand, and it was a great feeling to see people’s curiosity ignited by the range of activities on offer.
See more photos from the Big Bang Fair in our Facebook Album.
If you’re interested in public engagement with science and would like to volunteer for the Society of Biology at an event like this – please contact us.