21st Century Coffee House

A little over two weeks ago Penny University held its first ever live event as part of the Manchester Science Festival.

The event was called “21st Century Coffee House” and we invited people to join us at the MOSI cafe for a 21st century coffee house experience, at a 17th century admission rate (1p)!

It was an opportunity to take part in a scientific tradition, enjoying presentations by a variety of researchers while sipping a cup of C. canephora/arabica infused H2O (coffee) – featuring science-themed latte art. (C. sinensis infused H2O (tea) was also available.)

We had a good turnout, despite the miserable weather (it was touch-and-go whether we’d have to row our car out of the car-park on the aptly named Water Street after the event). The brave individuals who filled out the cafe were treated to presentations and demonstrations by the following people:

Tom Booth (University of Sheffield) – Where’s my mummy?: Searching for mummification in the British Bronze Age: A look at how the destructive procecesses of decomposition may aid in the identification of funerary treatments that were practiced in the past.

Sarah Moller (University of York) – From Oranges to Climate Change: Find out how oranges affect air quality, why clouds are influenced by this, and why some scientists thought a giant hose pipe could be the answer to climate change.

Naomi Pollock (University of Manchester) – Cystic Fibrosis: Cure Found?: A new drug has been developed that drastically increases the life expectancy of some sufferers of cystic fibrosis (CF), so can we say that CF now stands for ‘cure found’?

Ian RussellLighting the Flame, Not Just Filling the Bucket: Ian Russell will demonstrate how his quarter-century-old science show for children evolved into a distillation of his personal ‘science communication philosophy’. He will also explode some custard.

One of our speakers came up ill at the last minute* and so I put together a slightly longer than originally planned presentation on the ‘The Hidden and Forbidden World of Coffee’. The aim was to get the night started by reminding people about the origins of what had brought us all together… coffee (and by association, coffee houses).

It must have gone over alright because during the Q&As afterwards someone asked me about coffee plants, to which I had to respond, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t actually study coffee – I study human remains!” These are very different things. We did manage to come up with an acceptable answer though: the bitter-tasting caffeine in the coffee plant is a toxic deterrent to many animals, which is of benefit to the plant (although sadly not as much since us humans discovered we love that delicious bitter toxic taste). There was an awful lot of interest in the speakers’ topics – we know now that next time we’ll have to plan more time for discussion!

If you missed the night, there is no need to fret about missing the amazing research that was discussed, as there will be interviews with all the speakers up on the website in the future.

But if you can’t wait for the interviews, there were a couple of individuals who attended the night who mentioned it in their blogpost roundups of the Science Festival. They also have pictures, which is great because I was too busy to actually snap any on the night.

Trivial Travels: MSF 2013- 21st Century Coffee House (Penny University) by James Jackman

Bio Fluff: Out and about at Manchester Science Festival #msf13 by Liz Granger

There are a lot of science communication endeavours around and Penny University is a part-time love, which I wish I could devote more time towards (we do have more interviews in progress, swearsies).

I really enjoy the other events that are going on out there that engage audiences with academic research. I attend many of them – and recently I’ve started participating in them too by giving my own talks. However, I like to think that Penny University has something a little different (which honestly, is probably the lack of alcohol – so either you’ll love the difference or you’ll hate it).

This live event was a massive learning curve and I’d like to take the time to thank everyone at the Festival who helped make it happen, as well as everyone who attended, and of course everyone who presented.

If you are interested in there being more live Penny University events, please let us know! We promise to keep learning every time we do one, so they just keep getting better (and tastier).


* Deborah Oakley – A Pharmaceutical Revolution: Transparency in medicine is vital: the All Trials Campaign and why it’s so vital. Deborah will also be interviewed for the website, so no one need fret – even if they were there!

T-minus: 27 days

Welcome back from our (slightly longer than unintended) hiatus. It has been a very busy summer with lots of academic progress, outreach events, and planning for the future. There have been open days, science festivals, and site visits galore… and some very nifty technological updates!

It is less than one month until the Manchester Science Festival. LESS THAN ONE MONTH! Penny University will be hosting a 21st Century Coffee House on Tuesday, October 29th, complete with an hour of talks on a wide variety of topics – there will also be demonstrations and hands-on activities (and coffee) (and tea). The line-up of presenters will soon be announced, so please check back in the next week or so to find out what we’ve got in store (or you can follow us on Twitter for regular updates).

While not under the name of Penny University I will also be running another event as a part of the Science Platform on Monday, October 28th. There will be researchers and students from a few universities with The Exploded Skeletons session. You can come get hands-on with the archaeology of bones. Put our exploded skeletons back together, explore the anatomy hidden inside your body, and learn what humans different – and similar – to other animals! This has been an incredibly popular event in the past and the activities are great for people of all ages, so do drop by whether it’s for a few minutes or the whole day.

While we’re at it, if that sort of thing interests you I will be participating in yet another event at the Science Festival: Science Showoff on Friday October 25th. If you’re interested in skeletons, Star Wars, and interesting facts then I highly recommend you attend (there will also be a lot of other non-skeleton, non-Star Wars, but still filled with interesting facts sets happening as well). It’s going to be a great night! There may be props…

[Edit: Oh my word, how could I have forgotten? ScienceGrrl is also going to be at the Science Festival! They will be there on November 2nd with their ScienceGrrl about MOSI event – come see if you can find us all and collect your badge!]

Now, before I wrap up I’d like to extend another call to any and all PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, and early career researchers, as usual, to have their work featured on the site. However, given that it’s October and we’ve got a new raft of students starting I would also like to extend the offer to students who have recently completed their Masters. I know of some fantastic research completed by Masters students over the last few months and it would be wonderful to share it on Penny University, so spread the word. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone on to do a PhD, started a new job, or are lolly-gagging about… get in touch.


[Bonus note: If anyone is currently researching sound, hearing loss, or any related topics (or knows anyone who is) I’d really like to hear from you for a special feature!]

Live from Jodrell Bank: Science Arena

It will become quite clear as you read on that this is not an interview.  This is one of those not-an-interview-posts I was talking about last month.  Enjoy!

This past Sunday I was lucky enough to attend one of the most incredible festivals – Live from Jodrell Bank.  Held at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, which hosts a number of radio telescopes including the ever impressive Lovell Telescope, the weekend featured an incredible line-up on the Music Stage and a fabulous array of group in the Science Arena.  It was a beautifully sunny day, the men’s Wimbledon final was on the big screen, and people of all ages were out in great numbers from the minute the gates opened.  There was ice cream, paper rockets, dancing, a model LHC, music, florescent slime in cups, sun-toasted marshmallows, food and drinks, ice-cutting diamonds, and so much more!

I was attending the festival as a part of Science Grrl, who had a tent in the Science Arena on both Saturday and Sunday.  We encouraged people to talk to us about science as well as our individual research (joining me on Sunday were Gemma – a nuclear physicist and Liz – a bioarchaeologist librarian), learn more about what we do as an organisation, support us by picking up some brilliant merchandise, and we also tested people’s knowledge of nine amazing female scientists – and taught them more about them – in our Who is She? game.

This is the first event where we’ve had this game (the brain child of Heather Williams, constructed by my capable hands) and it was an enormous success!  It involved nine photos of nine female scientists, some well-known and some who should be well-known – all who have had a major impact on their area of science (and the wider world).  We then asked people to try and match nine names and nine areas of science to the photos.  When we asked people if they wanted to have a go, the initial reactions of people ranged from, “Yeah, I’ll give it a bash!” to “Uhh, no thanks, it would just be embarrassing!” but we encouraged people to try it with the promise of hints… really good hints!  Also by saying that as a prize they could go next door to University of Manchester biology tent and make a cell-cookie, which they could then eat (they could have done this anyway, but it seemed to work).

By the end of the game people were impressed with how much they actually knew – either about the individual scientists or the areas of science – and how much they learned.  It was an absolute pleasure to help everyone (women, men, and children – playing solo or as a group) learn about the individuals featured in our game.  We also had mini-biographies on each of the women, which was handy because people had a lot of questions once they learned a little bit in the game.  By far the most ‘popular’ individual of the day was Hedy Lamarr.  I thought that given the level of interest (and surprise) people showed upon learning more about Hedy, I would post her mini-biography up here for people to read.  If you are interested in hearing more about the other women we featured, let me know and I’ll post their mini-biographies up too!

Oh and in case you are interested, Live from Jodrell Bank will be back (along with the Science Arena and Science Grrl) at the end of next month.  You should come check it out and say hi to us while you are there!


Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Kiesler): Mathematician

Born: 1913

Died: 2000

Hedy was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary.  She was an only child and studied ballet and piano from the age of ten.  Her mother was a pianist and her father was a bank director.

Hedy is most well known for her life as an actress, celebrated for her great beauty as a major contract star during MGM’s “Golden Age”.  She appeared in over thirty-one feature films!  However, she is also less well known for her talents in mathematics.

Hedy and composer George Antheil, her neighbour, invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer age to the present day.  It was based on a musical score that involved multiple player pianos playing simultaneously.  Together they submitted the idea of a ‘secret communication system’ for patent in 1941 and receive it in 1942.  This early version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam!

Hedy wanted to join the National Inventors Council but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. 

It wasn’t until 1962 that their idea was implemented, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba.  Following this, their patent was little known until 1997 when it was given an award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lead to Wi-LAN Inc. acquiring 49 per cent of the patent in 1998.  Hedy and George’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections, and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Hedy Lamarr has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6247 Hollywood Blvd.  But it has only been since her death that she has been truly celebrated for her contribution to science!  She featured as a Boeing ‘woman of science’ in 2003 (with no mention of her film career), been the subject of an Off-Broadway play ‘Frequency Hopping’, and her story – along with George’s – has been covered on the Science Channel and Discovery Channel.

[Side note: One of the things we usually do as Science Grrls is wear a badge that says, “I’m a Scientist, Talk to Me” to encourage people to come up and well… talk to us.  Following the end of the Science Arena Gemma and I stuck around to enjoy the music, but both of us at left our badges on without realising.  We had people asking us questions and talking to us in the crowd throughout the night!  I think I might start wearing a badge like that all the time.  What do you think?

[Another side note: One of the things we usually do as Science Grrls is have props with us to try and get people to guess what sort of science we do and also to allow us to demonstrate some aspect of it for them on the spot.  Gemma had a photo multiplier tube and a piece of diamond (!), which was immensely popular.  I usually bring a model magnetic skull from our lab, but was unable to this time… so I think it’s time to invest in my own.  Does anyone have a spare £250.00 to donate to Penny University? Or better yet – a spare skull kicking about?]

Caffeine on the Brain

We have had such a great response to Penny University and the interviews posted up so far.  Thanks!  We couldn’t have done it without you (honestly, it’d be a pretty lame endeavour if no one other than myself and the researchers were reading it – and the stats don’t lie: over 2050 views already).

At this point in time, now that we’re up and running (and summer is approaching), we are going to move from posting interviews weekly to biweekly.  However, if there is a call for it (perhaps say, when the new academic year roles around) then we will definitely consider switching back to weekly interview features.  Fifty-two inteviews in a year is a little daunting though!

But don’t despair!  The weeks in between our interview features Penny University will be posting all sort of other wonderful posts on a variety of research subjects.  We even have some guests posts lined up!  If there is a subject you think we should cover – or if you’d like to take part – then get in touch.

We also have one final exciting update.  Remember, Penny University LIVE?  Well, we’ve been in touch with organisers at Manchester Science Festival / other sneaky collaborators and it looks like our insane idea may be going ahead – so if you’d like to take part (or if you just want more information) then do let us know.


Research Blogging

This week (at the suggestion of a reader) I submitted a request to have Penny University registered with Research BloggingI am very happy to say that we were approved and are now officially a ‘research blog’ (or at least have the potential to be a ‘research blog’).

Research Blogging is a site where blog posts that reference peer-reviewed research are compiled for easy identification under appropriate categories and by relevant tags.  I have registered Penny University under ‘Research / Scholarship : Science Communication’, but I will be able to tag individual posts with more subject-specific tags (such as biology, archaeology, geology, etc).  It seemed like the best fit for what we do here!

Now, by the very nature of Penny University, not many of our posts will meet the guidelines.  This is because the majority of our posts are about active research projects (and many just in their early stages), which are frequently unpublished.  But every now and then (and we have one coming up) an interviewee may refer to an article during our discussion and in this instance, I will be able to submit that post to Research Blogging.  These posts will be identifiable on Penny University by the inclusion of the “Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research” icon and a full citation for the articles referenced.  The post will then be listed on the Research Blogging front page and a reference to the post will remain in their database (under the category and by the tags) so that people looking for posts on specific topics can find it in the future!

This is a very useful system, not only for identifying serious blog posts about peer-reviewed research, but it also ensures that the research we feature here on Penny University gets as wide an audience as possible.  While Penny University was founded with the purpose of bringing information about less well-known research projects to the general public, there is no reason why it shouldn’t also bring this information to the academic audience (who to be fair, probably don’t know about it either*).  It may even be a good way to help encourage networking between researchers around the world.  And that can only be a good thing!


*Unless they are your supervisor/advisor**, share your office/lab***, or witnessed a conference presentation/poster****.

**And even then they may not actually know what your research is about, if we’re being totally honest.