Last week a new science festival came to town. For 3 days, 15 different pubs in London, Oxford and Cambridge invited local scientists to share their work with the punters for a Pint of Science. Each city hosted talks on the brain, the body and biotechnology and I attended two of the biotechnology evenings held in Cambridge.

pint of science

On Wednesday, Colin Davidson and Chris Lowe asked ‘Can you live without your mobile?

With the UN predicting that there will be more phones than people in the world by the end of 2014, and the majority of the growth in mobile phone use now in the developing world, both Colin and Chris are interested in exploiting the concept of mobile healthcare for the benefit of society.

Their talks reminded me of some of the research we’ve covered in Chemistry World, including this app for detecting food allergens.  Mobile phone based technologies are (obviously) more portable and often easier to use, so ideal for improving or monitoring health in traditionally poorly served hard-to-reach areas.

Apparently Android is ahead of Apple when it comes to the development of mobile technology for science – good to know; I’m in the market for a new smartphone…

The overriding conclusion of the evening was that the role smartphones play in helping to alleviate modern healthcare problems is only going to increase, so for mobile healthcare at least, the future really is bright.

On Thursday, Annabel Murphy and Alison Smith discussed generating energy and chemicals using microorganisms.

Oil-derived petrochemicals are used to make a lot of things other than fuel by the pharmaceutical and chemical industry but Annabel made a good case for using microorganisms to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Chemical production using microorganisms is already a well established technology and she mentioned how very recently yeast has been used to make the antimalarial drug, artemisinin. There are a number of advantages to this approach, as ‘nature is a much better chemist than we are.’

There was a mini-pub quiz in the interval, and I’m sorry to admit that we did very badly. Do you know which country has had a mandatory blending of biofuel with gasoline since 1976? Despite our abysmal performance, it did get us all thinking and led nicely into Alison’s talk.

Alison spoke about the potential for using algae to sustainably generate energy. Plants and algae have been photosynthesising for millions of years so it makes sense to harness this process. Cultivating algae at scale is, however, a major challenge, as is public acceptance of the idea. (On a side note, Alison provided some comments for the feature on algae biofactories in the May issue of Chemistry World  – it’s definitely worth a read.)

Both evenings were very much focussed on the background to the topics, and although this offered a really good grounding in each subjects, I was a little disappointed not to hear more about the researchers’ actual work. It left me unclear as to who the target audience was – the mildly science literate person, as I would class myself, or an interested lay person. Personally, I found the presentations quite long and would have preferred more time for discussion – this is when the audience really became engaged with the science.

Despite these small quibbles, the events were very enjoyable and I came away feeling like I had learnt something. Hearing about research direct from the researchers is more than just learning facts and figures – we’re given a view into the personalities and the lives of the real people behind the science.  It would be wrong to underestimate how worthwhile it can be for the public to hear about research first-hand.

According to their twitter account, @pintofscience, the organisers have already started planning the events for next year. Follow them there or visit their website for news of future events.

Who else had a pint of science last week?

Jennifer Newton

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