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NIAB Inspiring Next Generation of Young Scientists

04 March 2008

NIAB has been helping to inspire the next generation of young scientists. In the last month, three scientists visited schools in the region in support of the national campaign for the Year of Food and Farming.

One of them, Dr Lydia Smith, has also visited a Cambridge school to promote the UK National Science and Engineering Week, working with the University of Cambridge and gave a group of 8-10-year-olds a lesson in genetics and evolution.

She hopes her visit to St Luke’s Primary School has helped to demystify her work as a novel crops scientist, and that it will encourage a new generation of scientists.

The lesson was based on fundamental genetics leading on to the concept of evolution. It highlighted the recent work of Prof Mike Majerus, of Cambridge University’s Department of Genetics, who has added a chapter to the story of the Peppered Moth. These moths developed dark pigmented types in response to pollution covering trees in our dirty industrial cities; light specked moths became greatly disadvantaged and were much more easily seen and eaten by birds when hiding on dark coloured sooty trees during the day.

But, doubt about the validity of the original experiments showing this prompted Prof Majerus to repeat the work over the past seven years using his garden in Cambridge, as well as much more robust methodology that addressed all the doubts that had accumulated over the past decade. The dark coloured moths have gradually declined during his seven year project now that air is cleaner and trees no longer stained.

The children were absolutely delighted when the talk ended with an opportunity to see cases of real moths kindly lent by Prof Majerus, which had been collected during his work and clearly showed the range of possible colours that had evolved.

Models were used to describe simple genetics, and explain how characteristics are inherited and selected by plant breeders. The models enabled the children to understand dominant and recessive characters and how these are inherited as physical features such as flower or seed colour.

Miss Rosamund Annetts, a teacher at St Luke's School said:

“The National Science and Engineering week is a real high point in the children's year. They are introduced to concepts, which sceptics have suggested was beyond their grasp at such a young age and have responded with great enthusiasm and understanding. They come back the next day asking all sorts of questions about the talks and clearly demonstrate that it gives them an insight into not just genetics but the concept that interesting and useful science is going on around them in their own city.”

The visit to St Luke’s has become a popular annual event and Dr Smith said it helped children to appreciate that scientists were real people - possibly even parents of children at the school - who work in businesses and organisations in the vicinity of the school.

For further information please contact Dr Lydia Smith