Soapbox Science in Newcastle (Hot Science in the City Center)
Human vs Superbugs: Screening for Bacteria with Thermometers
by Dr Marloes Peeters
My name is Marloes Peeters, I am a lecturer in Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University. I signed up for Soapbox Science because a friend encouraged me to do it. I had never heard of it before and decided to look at some videos online. Even though it was raining in most of them, everyone seemed to have so much fun! After putting in my application, I was a bit disappointed that there was no event in Manchester. Luckily the organizers had a slot available at Newcastle, which was the perfect opportunity since I am currently a visiting scientist at the university there.
Most of the outreach events I have done were at secondary schools and as a chemist, you normally have a few cool experiments to show. This is obviously not possible in the middle of a town center and I was quite anxious to talk to people from a small Soapbox (and afraid to fall off the tiny box). We had a workshop a few weeks before the event, which was very helpful but also completely changed the format of my talk and activities, thanks to the help of other amazing female scientists. I decided to make my own bacteria from foam and buy some furry friends online. It showed that bacteria, just liked all of us, come in different size and shapes. The sensors that I develop have a porous structure that are tailored towards their target; if you are detecting a rod shape bacteria there will be a binding site on the surface that looks like a rod, if the bacteria are circular there will be a binding site that is circular, etc. The idea of my sensor is that we can discriminate between ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ based on their unique structure. Imagine it as a lock that you can only detect with one key, that is the bacteria we are looking for!
On the day itself, nothing went as planned. Rather than a rainy day, it was incredibly warm in Newcastle. It was busy at Monument with quite a varied crowd; ranging from stag dos, to people giving free hugs and families with kids. Luckily, I had the last slot and I could see how my fellow scientists managed to draw the crowd to their Soapboxes. Especially the balloons seemed to be very popular and it was good to see a mix from all different ages. My nerves were soon over as there were already people there who listened to the last speaker. The hour passed very quickly and I had a great volunteer in Vi- we did not have a table so we were juggling around with our props. I was surprised with the genuine concern people expressed about antimicrobial resistant and drug resistant bacteria; it made me realize the public might know more about it than I initially thought. My idea was to mainly mention how we detect bacteria but since I had a ‘giant microbe’ (stuffed animal) of MRSA with me the conversation soon went into another direction. It was not until I got a funny look from the organizer that I realize the hour had passed.
I think I learned a lot from my experience with Soapbox Science, it works as a good boost for your confidence. I also got some media coverage through an online magazine (Womanthology) and suddenly people in the labs in Newcastle recognized me just because they saw it online!
A few weeks ago, I also took part in an event in Wrexham for the Women in Engineering Day and bumped into some other scientists from Soapbox Science. I would love to have Soapbox Science taking place in Manchester next year, I am hoping to motivate some of my students and colleagues to put their application in.
Last but not least: big thanks to Soapbox Science, the organizers in Newcastle and all volunteers (particularly Vi). I sure had a great afternoon, and have the tan lines to prove I took part. See you next year!
Lecturer in Chemical Biology
Manchester Metropolitan University
www.marloespeeters.nl / @peeters_marloes / @bioinspired17