Creativity in science research



Yes this was my lunch and eating it led to a new research project that overturned a 100 year old dogma about triatomine bugs. Thinking about our research in a playful way has become easy after many years working with the arts and engagement. A question ‘hmm wonder if sandflies like cherry tomatoes’ led to another question by my friend and colleague Fernando Genta:

‘hey what about triatomine bugs?’

‘yes but everyone says that they only feed on blood’

‘i know but did anyone really look at this? let’s try them on cherry tomatoes’

Result a few years later was a publication: Everybody loves sugar; first report of sugar feeding in triatomines





Innovating crosspoints; maker communities, DIYBio and universities

I was reading the article the other day about maker communities and how they are harnessing new tech and may help reboot manufacturing industry.  As someone working at university, it prompted me to think about the relationships that I am interested in developing with makers and DIYBio communities.

What I want is to make academics relevant and embedded in the community.  One of the  projects that I was involved in was called #Patchworks,  part of the Lancaster University Catalyst programme. Catalyst brought together a team of academics from a range of disciplines including social science, computing, design, environmental and management science and includes myself in biomedical sciences. It unites  with community organisations – large and small – based in Lancaster, Manchester, Derry-Londonderry, and further afield by working with high-profile partners such as the Manchester Digital Development Agency, FutureEverything, the RSA, and Community Matters.

The Patchworks project is a fusion of 2 community groups with Lancaster Uni academics; madlab in Manchester and Signposts in Morecambe.  The project is nearing its end now.  The idea was to carry out  transformative research on the theme of citizen-led social innovation.  This actually means people with needs coming up with a question and going through a creative process to develop cheap open source products that help them in their lives; improving overall health and well being. In this case the question was ‘how can technology be used to improve the lives of homeless people?’.  You might ask what is this guy doing working on this type of project? Well I think that the most creative areas are around the edges of what we know and experience. Everyone involved in this project has had to step out of their comfort zone and inhabit what I call the ‘discomfort zone’. Where we sometimes need to admit our ignorance and make mistakes becuase of our lack of knowledge and experience.   It has been a fantastic learning process for all involved in this and I hope to write more about this in the near future.

Meantime here is a short film intro about the project.

Waiting upon digital displays

Standing waiting for an autoclave to finish its cycle the other day I was struck by how our lab lives are ruled by digital displays.  I know its obvious in a way; waiting for instruments to do their thing, finish a cycle, complete sterilization and that heart thumping moment of a read out for an experiment that suggestive of exciting results.
We wait and watch machines. We are told to wait, no please, no apologies for the time taken. I did a quick of the lab and this slide show gives a quick snap shot of the number of displays in a lab which has what some might regard as the basic amount of gear.

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Trophies of Empire -Bones of Contention?

Window shopping? Gina Czarnecki's 'Trophies' on view @ the Bluecoat Liverpool

We always hear about how we live in a ‘throw away’ society; well this also applies to our bodies; after death in western countries most of us are placed in a variously ornate chipboard coffin and then blasted to a cinder.  Things are changing, there are now a growing number of options for eco burials in woodlands etc with biodegradable coffins.  What we don’t tend to think about is the increasing amount of discarded body parts being produced as a result of various surgical procedures, childbirth produces placenta, surgical operations replacing worn out parts include hearts, kidneys  and joints.  Cosmetic surgery is on the increase; apparently a record rise in ‘man boob’ operations up by nearly a third in the UK. All that adipose tissue from hips and tummies is duly thrown away.

It’s now been a few weeks since the opening of Gina Czarnecki’s retrospective at the Bluecoat in Liverpool.  The show  comprises a number of Gina’s works focussing on biomedical topics over the past 10 years. The most recent work is a series of sculptures collectively called ‘Wasted’. There has been a fair amount of  coverage [links below] about ‘toothpalace’ sculpture made from kids donated milkteeth and the ideas behind using stem cells in biomedicine. Here I am writing about a related project that I was involved in called ‘Trophies of Empire’.

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Anarchaea? DIY biology and garage science

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Popped into the aptly named MADLAB  down a little side street in Manchester to see the latest goings ons on the DIYBio front.  This movement has been growing slowly but surely over the last few years and is composed of a loose knit community of DIY bioresearchers who want to take part in the molecular genetics revolution of the last few years but are outside the so-called ivory towers of traditional academic/commercial company circles (which also includes me, although I do try and climb down and poke around outside the ivory tower now and then). I was led to look into this field by my interest in BioArt; there seems to be some natural link up here between artists/creatives and other techie types and after reading some of the blogs and stuff out there I must say I am impressed by the creativity and knowledge that these people are bringing to their work. Madlab was awarded a Wellcome Trust grant  together with Manchester Metropolitan university to set up “Manchester DIYBio” including this DIYBio UK summit weekend (see pictures above).

On arrival I found Cathal Garvey enthusing about his work and on  his blog a sort of complex molecular biology  at home makes for compelling reading for someone like myself who is used to dealing with molecular companies  trying to sell me kits for 500-1000 pounds. Molecular biology and a lot of bioscience research these days (well I’ve been around since at least 10 years BPC  [before pc])  seems to entail buying a kit for everything; its like fast food for science labs. Pick your kit,  add some ingredients, mix, stick something in the microwave and PCR machine etc and there you have it.  The researcher may not have a clue about how they got the answer but what the hell…Yes, I know there are a lot of researchers out there who do understand what they are doing but it is only too easy to sleep walk through some of these methods.  One of my  first experimentswhen I was doing my Phd involved inventing my own piece of apparatus that I called a locust crapometer; it measured the food transit of the locust digestive tract;   and when Cathal started demonstrating how he makes his lyzozyme, starting with egg white and 40% vodka I was reminded of the days when bioscientists had to make the buffers and substrates for enzyme assays and  understood what they were doing throughout the experiment. What also impressed me was that Cathal managed to get  Irish EPA approval; namely a GM site licence to work from his home on genetically modified microbes.  There also seems to be a good awareness amongst this community about the safety aspects of what they are doing.

For me  this sort of DIY approach has a number of  other benefits; it could lead to the development of some cheap non-patented kit and biomaterials that can be of use by the scientific community as a whole; amateur professionals etc. Already we have seen the development of the openpcr project and the 600 dollar  PCR machine that can be run on your  own MAC or PC via a USB port.  I work in tropical medicine and am interested in the potential use of this approach as intermediate technologies for diagnosis of parasitic diseases at local community level.

Apart form the practical implications the creativity of some of these Anarchaeaic DIYers is outstanding…Mark Dusseiller is a transdisciplinary art/technologist who works with his self termed hacteria and dabbles in open source bioart.  This video shows his approach to making a cheap microscope which can be used by anyone at home.

In vitro culture from football culture

Artist John O’Shea has been forging ahead with his Wellcome funded apig bladder football project which has a fantastic broad canvas encompassing football terrace fanaticism through to an exploration of the processes of making his own ‘bladder’ football  in vitro via cell tissue culture and extracellular matrices! Yey hey! You may ask what the…?? As a scientist interested in the collision between art and science processes I think this project takes some beating.
I won’t give you all the background to this project which is explained by John on his own site . Currently John has just finished the first phase of the project in which he explored the origins of football and the parallels between the production of the current synthetic plastic football and the  loss of ‘ownership’ of the football fan of the modern game of football.  This part of the project culminated in a series of workshops where people could have a go at making their own footballs from pigs bladders through to a debate hosted by Andy Miah on football fanaticism through to the opening of a pig bladder football boutique in the bohemian Bold St in Liverpool as part of the aptly named Abandon Normal Devices Festival.

I popped into the shop and as you can see there was a range of pig balls on display alongside some rather slick designed tops; the whole shop put me in mind of a sort of upmarket ladies underwear boutique (I have a good imagination). Anyway I think John is now starting to learn some tissue culture as a prelude to growing an in vitro-virtual human bladder.  This will involve him working in a ‘state of the art’  science lab in liverpool university using 1000’s of pounds worth of tissue culture media. This project should also feed back into the science research of collaboration of Professor John Hunt’s group  at University of Liverpool’s Clinical Engineering Research Unit by exploring the manipulation of human cells into frameworks appropriate for bladder tissue engineering strategies for bladder cancer patients.

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Visceral Reaction?

Went to the Visceral living art exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin the other day. It was well worth the trip. We got to see some of the output from some ten years of collaborations and residencies from artists working in SymbioticA, the art-science lab in Perth at the University of Western Australia. I like the idea suggested by Marshall McLuhan that artists might be regarded as canaries in the cultural coal mine of scientific research alerting the public to the consequences of new technologies. This fits in with my feeling of  scientists working alone in the semi darkness in the bottom of a  diamond mine; when we find a whopping big diamond we jump up and down for a while and then put it in our pocket and start digging for the next one. Guess we should tell someone about this big diamond but it sometimes takes too much time and effort and we are more excited about finding the next one. Well there are an increasing number of canaries out there nowadays twittering away (why do artists twitter so much more than scientists?  NO one I work with tweets) and doing art as well. Not sure if they are aware of all the noxious fumes emanating from our mines but they sure are producing some exciting art work.

‘Living art’ is how the exhibition is described and that is what excited me; seeing a group of living art exhibits together like this left me like the veritable kid in a sweet shop (aka candy store). I didn’t know where to start; whether to join the resident cricket audience listening to a lecture on their sex lives or whisper my fears to the semi-living worry dolls. I work with bacteria, insects and cell culture and felt very much at home in the exhibition,  this sort of exhibition is primarily about producing great art, but there is also the opportunity to build a bridge across from the science lab and translate some of the  new technologies being developed and ethical dilemmas facing us. Continue reading

How human are we?

Extra Ear London, Los Angeles, Melbourne 2006 ...

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Went to a lecture at FACT Liverpool last night by Stelarc. This chap messes around with his body in the name of art. Stelarc is a Greek/Australian-based performance artist incorporated themes of cyborgization and other human-machine interfaces; it is amazing, strong stuff. He talked about the blurring of boundaries between dead and undead (us or zombies?) and at what stage you cease to become yourself for example if your body was to be made up almost entirely of prosthetics. At what point do we accept that we have become machines? Companies will now deep freeze your body perhaps to be resurrected in a few hundred years time or for a reduced price…. just the head.  He has experimented with a third arm and linked himself up to the internet and invited users to manipulate his arm via electronic links his body.

Stelarc has a neat party trick, if the conversation on the bus ever gets boring he can always roll up his sleeve and enquire ” have you seen my third ear?” Yes, stelarc is growing an ear on his arm. The next step is to wire up the arm ear with a microphone which is WiFi enabled so that people can listen in via the arm ear.  Its not ‘his’ ear but an ear to be used by others. There followed a fascinating conversation between Liz Carr an Abnormally Funny Person and Stelarc about the body, its boundaries and the the use of the third ear (This was part of the amazing DaDaFest in Liverpool).

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What’s in a name? What’s a Sandfly?

Life cycle of the parasites from the genus Lei...

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When people talk about sand flies it can be very confusing because there are several different bloodsucking insects around the world called sand flies. This is why scientists use latin names for species to avoid confusion.

My work on sand flies that spread Leishmania parasites is on the group of phlebotomine sand flies. The English name of “sand fly” is very confusing for phlebotomines since they dont all live in sand; Brazilian ones may live in the rainforest, no sand in sight and they don’t all live on the beach. In Middle East deserts it may be appropriate.  Both black flies (Simuliidae) and biting midges (Ceratopogonidae) are also known as “sand flies” in various parts of the world. The latter are the ones most likely to be biting people on beaches, particularly members of the genus Culicoides.

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Science and Culture

Being in Liverpool there is a debate to be had about what is ‘culture’. I was reading Phil Redmonds blog about his suggestion that culture could be defined as ‘arts, literature and shared lifestyle’. Then goes on to comment about scientists….me included who said ‘hey wait a minute’ we think that science has its place in culture….

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