26 April 2010
Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, 4 Newark Street, Whitechapel, London E1 2AT, UK
As the first science education centre inside a working laboratory, the Centre of the Cell is undoubtedly unique. Situated inside the RIBA award-winning glass Blizard Building, it aims to get children (aged nine and above) excited about the work of cellular scientists and its real world applications. All the Centre's scientific content is based on Queen Mary's cutting-edge medical research - more than 80 scientists have contributed to the project.
The exhibition area is accessed via a glass walkway, below which the Blizard Institute's 400 researchers can been seen in action. It's a rare opportunity to see real scientists in their 'natural environment' for anyone whose experience of scientists is based solely on school work and talking heads on the news or TV programmes. Hanging from the ceiling around the walkway are weird and wonderful objects, intended to represent cellular constituents although, to the untrained eye, they could perhaps look more like modern art forms.
Reaching the end of the walkway, visitors are ushered inside 'The Pod', a large bulbous cavity designed in the shape of a sixteen-cell embryo that hangs above the laboratories. Inside it feels more like the inside of a space ship than an embryo, but nevertheless inspires awe about the wonders of cellular biology. A short introductory film, projected onto the walls of The Pod, takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of the rudiments of cellular biology and what scientists hope to gain from studying it. Afterwards, the central nucleus of the cell opens to reveal interactive games about cells and cell biology. Computer-simulated lab equipment, projected onto the tabletop, allows children to carry out 'virtual experiments': visitors can try their hand at culturing cells in a lab dish, grafting skin onto burns patients, diagnosing genetic conditions or researching new antibiotics. Elsewhere at the room's perimeter are more conventional on-screen interactives for teaching children about cell science - enough resources for a whole class of children to participate. A subset of these are also freely available on the Centre of the Cell website.
For me, one of the most memorable installations involved a bubbling pan of hot oil projected onto the table in front of you and a photograph of your own face on the screen in front. If I tell you that the game aims to demonstrate how skin grafts can be used to treat burns patients, you might be able to predict what happens next! The pan erupts into a ferocious ball of flames, leaving the image of your face scorched almost beyond recognition.
Your task, as you ponder this terrifying prospect, is to patch up the charred remnants of your face by dragging skin grafts and hair follicles into the appropriate position. In relation to the latter, the temptation to give yourself a comedic moustache rather than the intended goal of restoring your eyebrows is almost irresistible! It's certainly an intriguing way of highlighting the profound impact that breakthroughs in reconstructive surgery have had on victims of disfigurement, although I wonder how many nine year-old children might end up scarred for life (no pun intended) by the whole experience?
Not everything on show is based on virtual reality. Children can also look down a high-powered microscope at real tissue samples to see if they can identify cancerous ones. Another exhibit estimates the number of cells in their body by detecting their height using a light sensor above. For the morbidly curious child, there's also a selection of pickled human organs.
The game play and microscope work is divided into two 20-minute sections, flanked by two further film viewings - one introducing the field of biomedical research and the other discussing future roles for scientists and citizens, and posing difficult questions about the ethics of biomedical science. When it's time to leave, an announcement is made and the shutters on the central nucleus close.
The Centre inevitably tries to cram lots learning into a short space of time. The whole experience lasts just an hour and, given that some children may have only a basic (if any) understanding of cells, there's a slight danger they could be left more bamboozled than inspired by cellular science. But with the right follow-up lessons and opportunity to continue discussions in the classroom afterwards I think students could really benefit from the overall experience.
What impressed me most about Centre of the Cell was its emphasis on allowing children to interact with authentic, cutting-edge science. Children are too often patronised by school science and it was refreshing to see such a bold attempt to present them with the real deal. Now the Centre's doors are open to the public, the challenge will be to keep its scientific content up-to-date in line with the fast-paced nature of today's cellular science.