Written by Anna Schager of the IMI
It’s just after 10 am Monday morning 21st of July, 26 A level students are collected in the undercroft of the Biosciences building at University of Birmingham, munching cookies and drinking coffee and tea. They have all sacrificed one holy week of their precious summer vacation for the sake of science. For the next 5 days they will take part in the IMI Summer School, and will hopefully get some of those mysterious microbiology questions answered! What is lurking in our houses, and how do we get rid of them? Are all microbes our enemies? How do you distinguish between different microbes? How do you purify DNA, and how can you visualize it? And most importantly, what does it really mean to be a scientist at IMI, and what do they do?
First difficult task of the day – spell your name right on the name-tag!
Expectant students awaiting to take the dive into the amazing word of microbes.
But first things first, name-tags are on and it is time to get to know each other, a sort of team-building if you will. Creativity and thinking “outside the box” are nice words, but what do they mean practically? Well, after this morning there should be little doubt! Groups of students were sent out to collect items from a list where each successfully collected item generated certain points. Fair enough! Doesn’t seem so difficult. Let’s see: A painted face, something a million years old, a captured scent, a photograph of the whole team under water… wait, what?? A duet in harmony…. do we really have to sing???
Item treasure hunt. Something from the list is obviously hiding in the ground. Perhaps something made from a worm, a footprint, something that can convert energy or perhaps even a completed sudoku?
Clusters of inventive brains in progress.
After this exhausting serious practice (winner to be announced) where creativity formally exploded and no thoughts were kept in any box, it was time for the tour of IMI…
Proud scientists proudly presented robots, all in different sizes. The smallest, no larger than a bar of soap, is actually capable of sequencing “a lot, lot, LOT of DNA bases in a VERY short time” – to quote Ashley Robinson! The biggest is able to screen literally thousands of chemical compounds for their antimicrobial effect, also in a very short time. What would we do without all those robots? There was also the opportunity to visit the newly built (and not in operation yet!) bio-safety lab – housing cat. 3 and 4 beasties such as HIV and Tuberculosis. Creepy…. Almost like the labs in the movies – all that was missing was the guys in white space suits!
After lunch there was a talk by Prof. Steve Busby
on the amazing world of bacteria, and then it was time for the students to meet the microbes! At five different stations there were demonstrations on how to ferment bacteria, and how to distinguish between Aspergillus and Penicillin. Students were taught in the skilful art of gram staining bacteria and how cryptococcus infecting macrophages can be visualised by fluorescence. It may look fairly harmless but the awful truth is that the small green dot on the screen inside the big macrophage is actually responsible for 650 000– 600 000 human deaths per year!
That’s a lot of tubes. Is there really a fermenter underneath?
Well, that was a looong day! A lot to take in. Time for some rest and prepare for a brand new day tomorrow. But not quite so, there is actually homework! Are you ever really alone? Time to see what is actually living there side by side with us, unseen to the naked eye. All students were sent home with the mission to swab surfaces of their home and cars
for bugs, only the imagination sets the limit. But also to bring with them for tomorrow, small samples of cleaning solutions, antimicrobial soaps and mouthwashes etc. they want, to determine how efficient they really are at killing bugs. OK, now you can go home! Except those of you who wants to see the really BIG robot in action one more time of course :-)