UCD Science Summer School 6 June 2017


Posted 16 June 2017

The annual UCD Science Summer School took place on 6 June 2017 and involved 159 fifth year secondary school students from 21 counties across Ireland. The UCD Science Summer School gives pupils the opportunity to participate in a series of hands-on workshops in state-of-the-art laboratories, themed around “A Day in the Life of a Scientist.” Each student chooses a morning and afternoon workshop based on a variety of science streams on offer in UCD. One could learn about Financial Maths and the world of stockbrokers in the morning but following lunch they could find themselves in a lab coat and goggles identifying pathogenic species by analysis under the microscope. Workshops were conducted by UCD lecturers and assisted by current third level students who were on hand to answer all questions asked by the budding scientists. 

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Fifth year students enjoying lab work in the UCD O’Brien Centre for Science

Physics Workshop

In the Physics workshop, graduate student Lána Salmon introduced the class to the world of galaxies. Students had the opportunity to classify galaxies using the ‘Galaxy Zoo’ website which captures images of galaxies in the universe and allows the public to classify them. Lána explained ‘Scientists have too many images of galaxies taken with world-class telescopes, so they allow the students to analyse these images for the first time’. The age of the galaxy, types of gas and dust present in a galaxy and information about how the galaxy was formed can be revealed by classifying the galaxies. As soon as the possibility of having a galaxy named after themselves was announced, the race was on! We are yet to hear back from NASA about any novel findings...however the workshop certainly succeeded in inspiring participants to understand the importance of galaxies in order to predict what is in store for our own galaxy in the millions of years ahead.

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Graduate student Lána explaining to students how to use the ‘Galaxy Zoo’ website on iPads

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Students working hard to classify some novel galaxies!

Earth Science Workshop

An introduction to petrography, the study of the description and classification of rocks by examination under the microscope, was given by Associate Professor Patrick Orr as part of the Earth Science workshop. Petrological microscopes and polarizing film were used to study slides of rock thin sections of Leinster granite commonly found in areas such as Wicklow and South Dublin. The students were employing techniques with plane polarised light and cross polarised light. A large array of characteristic interference colours were observed as well as a diagnostic of the minerals present in the rock.

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Students analysing a rock thin section of Leinster granite

Biomolecular and Biomedical Sciences Workshop

The Biomolecular and Biomedical Sciences workshop covered a range of topics from Genetics to Biochemistry to Microbiology to Pharmacology and Neuroscience. Students were given a set of tasks at each station, carrying out experiments just as they would be expected to perform at third level. 

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Focussing under the microscope as part of the Microbiology section of the Biomolecular and Biomedical Sciences workshop

‌As part of the Genetics station, students took part in a gel electrophoresis experiment. Gel electrophoresis is a method commonly used to separate mixtures of DNA, RNA, or proteins according to molecular size. An electric current is used to move the molecules across the agarose gel, which functions almost as a sieve with smaller molecules moving faster and travelling further down the gel. Students were also introduced to the work of Associate Professor Breandán Kennedy. Associate Professor Kennedy’s research uses zebrafish as an animal model to study the development of the retina within the eye. The work aims to combat progressive blindness by developing genetic and pharmacological treatments. Other topics including types of tissue cell culture and the effect of cancer therapy such as taxol on cancer cell lines were also studied during the workshop.

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A fifth year secondary student creating standard curve solutions using BSA as part of the Biochemistry section of the practical 

The Microbiology section of the workshop required the identification of a number of pathogenic species such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic pathogen of many cystic fibrosis patients. Carrying out various experimental tests such as the oxidase test (identifies bacteria that produce cytochrome c oxidase, an enzyme of the bacterial electron transport chain), students could identify the organism they had been presented with. Visual tests to demonstrate antibiotic resistance were also studied to determine the identity of organisms.

The Neuroscience station involved thermoreceptor tests, colour blindness tests and taste receptor tests. After this lab the idea of a ‘sweet tooth’ was debunked and swiftly replaced with sweet tip taste receptors of the tongue!

Chemistry Workshop

Following a pre-practical talk the main aim of the Chemistry lab was to identify metals by measuring the amount of hydrogen gas released when the metal reacts with acid. Students were supplied with magnesium or aluminium metal. Adding hydrochloric acid to the metal, the level of hydrogen gas produced from the acid metal reaction was measured and used for calculations to determine which metal they had been given. Following the set task a number of demonstrations were given by Dr Tony Keene such as the lava lamp experiment as pictured below and a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, soap, food colouring and catalyst of potassium iodide, resulting in exploding ‘elephant’s toothpaste’. One student, Polly described the workshop as ‘an eye opening experience’ into Science at UCD.

Financial Mathematics Workshop

The Financial Maths workshop led by Dr Adamaria Perrotta was a challenging workshop which saw groups of students compete in a stock market trade off. An introduction to stock exchange was given but then it was time to talk business as groups acted as traders with the winning group walking away with the most ‘money’ and an enthusiastic view of Financial Maths! The workshop also uncovered the world of interest rates and investments using brainstorming and an open question format to understand concepts. ‘’The most interesting part was Interest and Investments, I really enjoyed that’’, said Rose, a fifth year student.

Biology and Environmental Science

The Biology and Environmental Science workshop was separated into different stations in the lab, the first of which focussed on invasive species. Microscopic parasitic wasps have recently been considered as control agents for Eucalyptus Leaf Beetles. It was explained that it is not sustainable to use chemicals for control, however the parasitic wasp which attacks the eggs of the beetle has been studied as a biological control agent in UCD.

Dr Gavin Stewart chaired a discussion on making decisions for college, the CAO and future careers. Asking students to testify the basis for their love of biology and questions on the practicalities of college. This allowed students to think about the decisions they will have to make in the coming months and to ask for advice from professors and current UCD students present in the workshop.

The third station entitled ‘the miracle of the virgin birth’, led by Associate Professor Tom Wilkinson explained asexual reproduction, more commonly known as parthenogenesis. This ‘virgin birth’ phenomenon is surprisingly employed by many insects like aphids to boost numbers at extraordinary rates, making them the arch enemies of gardeners and farmers worldwide. Students studied the aphids under the microscope to view the embryos which are understood to develop during parthenogenesis from an unfertilised egg.

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Studying aphid embryos under at the microscopic level

Planning is already underway in UCD Science for the event next year at which it is hoped the workshop will receive more raving reviews such as this closing quote from a student ‘’Awesome environment. The people are nice and honestly show true interest in what they do’’.

Written by: Emma Cullen, UCD College of Science

Images: Emma Cullen, UCD College of Science