School children experiment with science and art

It is often thought that science and art are two opposite ends of the spectrum; whilst science is a strict, results-driven discipline, art is a creative, free expression of beauty – but this isn’t actually the case and there is a growing effort to recognise the similarities between art and science.

This week, scientists Emma Gowen and Ellen Poliakoff from the BEAM lab teamed up with local artist Anthony Hall and Steven Roper from the Whitworth Art Gallery to teach 150 local primary school children about the values of both science and art.

During the day the children learnt about the science of vision and the reasons why we see some art as beautiful and others as creepy.

The day started off by asking children to draw what they thought a scientist looked like versus what an artist looked like. The children then had to guess who was an artist and who was a scientist, which they didn’t always get right. Emma and Ellen then led a workshop looking at why our brains perceive somethings to be creepy and looked at the idea of realism in art.

The afternoon session kicked off with artist, Anthony Hall teaching about the ideas of beauty and how they apply to realism in paintings. It built upon what the children had learnt previously about the science of vision and how our brains perceive what it sees. The group also went around the gallery and applied what they had learnt to real life paintings.

The children then had a chance to create their own art. They produced art which was a mixture of different facial features in order to make something that blurred the lines between reality to see how creepy the pictures made them feel. They then rated the picture on a graph which compared how real the picture looked and how creepy this made them feel.

The day ended with another chance to draw what they thought an artist and what they thought a scientist looked like. As you can see, not only did the day blur the lines between reality, it also blurred the lines between science and art.

images courtesy of Anthony Hall.

Tuesday Feature Episode 17: Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng has been no stranger to the media over the last few weeks. Having recently been part of a duo that were awarded a grant worth over £1 million from Arthritis UK, Qing-Jun has since appeared on BBC Radio Manchester and on the brand new channel That’s Manchester to talk about his research. (You can watch the TV segment here: All of this interview practice should mean he can give a great Tuesday Feature interview! Read on to find out if all the practice was worth it. (Spoiler: It was!)

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I work on body clocks – 24 hour rhythms and how they change with age. I look at how these changes could contribute to age-related diseases. One tissue of particular interest to me is cartilage in the joint right at the surface of your long bones. We’ve discovered recently that even these cartilage tissues and cells contain functional clocks and these clocks seem to be important in the homeostasis of this tissue, and presumably in aging, the disruption of circadian rhythms could be an underlying risk factor for developing osteoarthritis.

DSC_0400How could your research benefit the person reading this blog?

Osteoarthritis affects about 8 million people in the UK and 27 million in the US – it’s a big big problem and there’s very little we can do to help at the moment. We can offer pain killers and at later stages joint replacement. There are approaches, like regenerative medicine, which are undergoing intense investigation which could help with treatment. But overall, we know very little about how the disease initiates and develops so we are hoping that our research into body clocks could help understand the disease and hopefully lead to some treatments which could help slow down the (progression of) symptoms and eventually cure the disease.

How did you first become interested in your area of research?

In terms of body clocks, when I was teaching in China, one of the lectures I gave was on body clocks. It was on jetlag and how we tune our own internal rhythm to the environment. When I came to England I took the first opportunity I could to embark on a field in chronobiology. Then in 2007 I went to a conference in Cold Spring Harbour on Chronobiology and that really inspired me to start a career in this particular field, because I realised that there were so many things you could do in this area. I thought, maybe I could make a contribution to the understanding of body clocks.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Yes. If you ever go to some of my lectures or talks, I always start with a story. It’s a true story that happened in Professor Ueli Schibler’s lab, he is one of the pioneers of the modern clock field. He made many important discoveries about body clocks. For example, one of the discoveries was that almost all of the cells, including the most common cell type (fibroblasts), contain autonomous clocks. He also found that temperature cycles can entrain your body clocks as well. There are many examples of that. In many ways his discoveries have inspired me to research this topic.

How has working here in Manchester helped you? 
I think that this is a great environment to do science. I came to Manchester about 12 years ago and never left. I did my post-doc here and got my MRC fellowship (based) here, and now I got my Arthritis Research UK senior research fellowship (based) here. I think the excellent support I received from the Faculty, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Matrix Research and colleagues has been incredible. I have a lot of excellent collaborators who are all very enthusiastic about their own science and are also very keen to help me in my career progression. They are happy to collaborate with me in terms of tackling big, challenging questions in the field.

What do you do outside of working here?

I like playing guitar and I play table tennis as well. I ice-skate and I like to go to the field to do field trips like hiking.

Million pound success for Manchester body clock researchers

Almost £1.3 million has been awarded from Arthritis Research UK to scientists at the University of Manchester.

Faculty scientist Dr Qing-Jun Meng and his colleague, Dr Julie Gibbs from the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, have been awarded the fellowships (worth £845,918 and £434,767 respectively) in order to study the effects the body clock has on two common types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is well known that the symptoms of arthritis fluctuate during the day and it is thought that this is linked to our internal body clocks.

Meng and GibbsDr Meng is an expert in cartilage and joint damage linked to the 24 hour body clock of the human body. He’s now looking to use the fellowship to get a better understanding of how disruptions in the natural body clock could lead to an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. He says:

“I am very pleased to receive this fantastic award, which will enable me to continue in this potentially very fruitful area of biomedical research. I believe this research will provide novel and medically relevant insights into one of the most common joint diseases that affect most elderly.”

Dr Gibbs’ research specialises in body clocks and inflammation. In particular, her research has shown that the body clock is a key regulator in inflammation. Arthritis is an inflammatory disease of the joints and so a better understanding of how the body clock helps to control inflammation may give us a greater insight into the role body clocks play in arthritis.

The duo are part of a larger team based here at The University of Manchester which collectively makes up one of the largest and most productive clock research communities in the world. Having successfully collaborated on previous projects, both researchers are looking to use their complementary research skills to tackle one of the biggest research problems in the arthritis field.

Professor Ian Roberts, Associate Dean for Research of the University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “We are delighted by the two recent prestigious fellowship awards to these two excellent young researchers. They reflect the quality of research on body clocks ongoing in both faculties and offer a real opportunity to answer important questions on body clocks and human disease.”

Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research and Programmes at Arthritis Research UK commented: “…we’re  hopeful that these two fellowships will take us closer to much-needed, more effective treatments for people with these painful, debilitating conditions.”

Faculty scientists closer to treating osteoarthritis using stem cells

Repair of rat cartilage defect by human pluripotent stem cells-derived chondrocytes, courtesy of Aixin ChengFunded by Arthritis Research UK, Professor Sue Kimber and her Faculty team have developed a protocol to grow and transform embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells (also known as chrondrocytes). This could one day be used to treat osteoarthritis. Professor Kimber said:

“This work represents an important step forward in treating cartilage damage by using embryonic stem cells to form new tissue, although it’s still in its early experimental stages.”

During the study, the team analysed the ability of embryonic stems cells to become precursor cartilage cells. They were then implanted into cartilage defects in the knee joints of rats.

After four weeks, cartilage was partially repaired. Eight weeks after that a smooth surface resembling normal cartilage was observed. Further study showed that cells from the embryonic stem cells were still present and active within the tissue.
Despite the fact that this still needs to be tested on humans, researchers see this as an extremely promising outcome. Not only did this protocol generate new, healthy-looking cartilage but there were also no signs of any side-effects. Further work will hope to demonstrate that this could be a safe and effective treatment for people with joint damage. Prof Kimber added:

“We’ve shown that the protocol we’ve developed has strong potential for developing large numbers of chondrogenic cells appropriate for clinical use. These results thus mark an important step forward in supporting further development towards clinical translation.”

Osteoarthritis affects more than eight million people in the UK, and is a major cause of disability. It occurs when cartilage at the ends of bones wears away and it causes joint pain and stiffness. Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research at Arthritis Research UK, said:

“Current treatments of osteoarthritis are restricted to relieving painful symptoms, with no effective therapies to delay or reverse cartilage degeneration. Joint replacements are successful in older patients but not young people, or athletes who’ve suffered a sports injury. Embryonic stem cells offer an alternative source of cartilage cells to adult stem cells, and we’re excited about the immense potential of Professor Kimber’s work and the impact it could have for people with osteoarthritis.”