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Event Review: GENIE Public Engagement Lectures

22 October 2012
Appeared in BioNews 678

GENIE Public Engagement Lectures

Organised by Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence

Frank and Katherine May Lecture Theatre, Henry Wellcome Building, Lancaster Road, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

Tuesday 9 October 2012

GENIE Public Engagement Lectures organised by Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence, Tuesday 9 October 2012

Bread and beer are not usually things that one would associate with diseases like cancer, dementia or Huntington's disease. Despite bread and beer's popular existence for millennia, the yeast used in their production has not exactly been famous in the media or among the public as anything but a crucial ingredient of a popular morning foodstuff and a reason for merriment at night!

Bread and beer are not usually things that one would associate with diseases like cancer, dementia or Huntington's disease. Despite bread and beer's popular existence for millennia, the yeast used in their production has not exactly been famous in the media or among the public as anything but a crucial ingredient of a popular morning foodstuff and a reason for merriment at night!

This view was proved wrong by geneticists who gathered at the University of Leicester on 9 October 2012 for a series of lectures aimed at the non-scientist, opening up a more accessible world of genetics to the public. It seems yeast can be inspiration for genetics research too.

The event took place in the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, famous for Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys' invention of genetic fingerprinting. The Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence (GENIE) is the UK's Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics and aims to promote genetics education at a local, national and international level. Its greatest impact is in education through its involvement in science education for the public through the GENIE public engagement lectures.

In the fifth of its series of free public lectures, geneticists gave a rare insight into the latest research on what influences conditions such as cancer, infertility and neurodegenerative diseases. The speakers in this year's second set of lectures were Professor Rhona Borts and Dr Flaviano Giorgini from the University of Leicester, who both work on the model organism baker's yeast, also known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Baker's yeast is a single-celled organism that is widely studied due to the similarities it shares with human cells at the level of essential cellular processes, such as cell division, DNA repair and gene expression.

In the first of the double-bill, Professor Borts, originally from Boston, USA, discussed her group's research on baker's yeast ­ as a model for meiotic recombination, a process that segregates chromosomes during the production of gametes. The yeast can act as model to identify which genes in the human genome are involved in infertility and colon cancer.

In the second lecture, Dr Giorgini discussed his research into the molecular mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. In addition to using baker's yeast to studying these mechanisms, Dr Giorgini's research group also employs the omnipresent fruit fly and the humble mouse.

The lectures were engaging and all technical jargon was explained clearly, elucidating the nature of DNA and genes. This allowed even those with little or no scientific background to grasp difficult scientific concepts.

Aside from inspiring the next generation of scientists, the GENIE public engagement lectures were, as Dr Aneela Majid, one of the organisers of the event, said, 'a great opportunity for the public to hear from geneticists at the cutting edge of their field'.

Dr Majid said: 'Public engagement is becoming more and more important. Not only does it allow us to enrich the University's brand and identity, it also gives us, as scientists, the potential to reach out and build trust and understanding with local communities. By increasing public appreciation for higher education and research we can keep abreast of public concern and expectations'.

'Feedback from previous events has shown that there is an appetite for forums such as this to promote two-way discussion between scientists and the public', she added.

Indeed, there was a lot of discussion in the packed lecture theatre. Having attended the earlier set of lectures in March this year, I noticed that there was a lot more scientific discussion from the members of the public. Some expressed concerns on how drugs that are currently being explored may cause side effects or adverse drug interactions.

Several things have changed from the last set of lectures, which were on the genetics of lung disease and the role of the p53 gene in cancer. One difference was the drinks reception following the event. The Henry Wellcome building was abuzz with discussion on the research and also on just how delicious the food was! Over quiche, biscuits and drinks, I was able to speak to Dr Giorgini about how his research relates to similar types of neurodegenerative diseases like prion diseases.

After receiving feedback from the earlier lectures, the GENIE team decided to introduce a lot more science in the talks, which I believe produced a good balance. From a personal perspective, being an A-Level biology and chemistry student, I feel that the public engagement lectures have both complemented and developed my studies, which will come in handy not only for higher education, but also for exams next year! Furthermore, as I hope to study medicine at university, it is inspiring to see glimpses of where the future of science lies.

Extending the non-scientists' knowledge of science can only be made possible through public engagement initiatives such as these lectures. As science is a discipline often shrouded by enigma in the media, the University of Leicester deserves kudos for setting an example to other institutions that it is possible to engage the public with science and do it well too!

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