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!]

Breaking Ground

Hello and welcome to the first ever blog post on Penny University.  We are just breaking ground on this new project and would like to invite you to have a look around the website.  We’re still under construction, but the basic structure has already been built (well, we have a name and a logo, which I think is a pretty good starting point).  As we approach the grand opening this Autumn, we’ll be adding new information to the website, so try not to be surprised if you see a few changes every now and then.

I want to start this project off, by extending my warmest thanks to everyone over at I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here; staff, teachers, and of course the students!  I am very happy and incredibly proud to have been voted winner of the 7-11 zone in the Wellcome Trust’s In the Zone event.  Over a period of ten weeks, forty scientists participated in over 115 live-chats with more than 1600 students from a number of schools across the UK – and answered over 1700 questions on topics ranging from the tiniest cells in the human body to the largest features of the universe!  It was an incredible opportunity and definitely one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in science engagement.  I encourage you to take some time to visit their website and discover all of the amazing, insightful, and unusual curiosity-driven questions from the students I had the pleasure to interact with over the last few months.

Now, as a winner of I’m a Scientist I am lucky to be given £500 to spend on science engagement.  Past winners have done everything from produce short films about scientists and their lives (both inside and outside the labs) to writing books on specialist science subjects for schools.  I decided that with my prize money I wanted to create an online science podcast, as a way of engaging people with science, whether it is kids or adults – and regardless of whether they have absolutely no experience in science or they are conducting advanced scientific experiments in a state-of-the-art laboratories.  The aim of this project to create a show that will be accessible to anyone and everyone who listens, whether we’re mastering mathematics or studying sociology with our featured researchers.

Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be preparing for the launch of Penny University: buying the necessary equipment and software, organising the schedule of featured researchers, recording interviews for our first few episodes, and promoting our website far-and-wide across the internet.  As a special ‘nod of thanks’ to I’m a Scientist and all the students who voted for me to win, our very first episode will feature questions from the students who took part in the event.  But in order to keep Penny University up and running if you have a burning question you want answered, know of an exciting recent discovery in science, or are a scientist who would like your research featured on the show then we would love to hear from you, as we’ll be trying to use as many audience suggestions as possible in future episodes.

Thank you so much for visiting our website and for supporting us in the early days of this project.  I am already excited for the day we release the first episode of Penny University and I hope that all of you are too.  I will post here with any interesting updates in the lead up to our launch, so until next time, remember: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.  The important thing is to not stop questioning.” ― Albert Einstein