Sixth Form Biology and Psychology Symposium

After enjoying a stimulating day at the 2019 Millfield Biology and Psychology symposium, each pupil contributed their own comments about one of the Biology or Psychology lectures or workshops they attended: 

Professor Martin Attrill, from Plymouth University, challenged us to think ‘What has happened to our seas….and what can we do?’ His thought provoking lecture informed us about the damaging effects fishing has had on the world’s ocean floors and fish stocks. Evidence of the destruction caused by deep sea trawling was clearly demonstrated by images taken from satellites of vast sea beds devoid of life, as a result of nets and chains being dragged along the seafloor. This type of trawling has not only caused many species of coral to die and left our sea beds empty and lifeless but also results in large amounts of unused catch. Amazing images were shown of fish markets over time, illustrating how the size and quantity of fish has reduced significantly even over the past 30 years. He showed us photographs from an annual fishing competition in the USA where changes in the average mass of fish caught per competitor decreased from 44 lbs in 1950 to 20 lbs in 1980 to 5 lbs in 2007. Around the UK the area of protected waters, that do not allow any type of fishing, is only about the size of Hyde Park. On a more positive note the speaker spoke about various campaigns for ‘no-catch zones’ and talks with the government of creating ‘blue national parks’, which would provide hope of restoring some of Britain’s seas to their natural states and he suggested a few ways in which we can make our use of the sea more sustainable, such as the development of more mussel farms which will help clean the sea as well as produce food for us. Before the lecture I did not know the actual impact that commercial fishing has on life in our seas, but now I think I am going to try to eat more different types of fish caught by local fishermen, rather than them being exported, and eat less fish brought here from overseas.

Hayden Jeffreys, Group Commercial Director for YourGene Health, spoke about the ‘Genomics Revolution and the need for evolution of ethics’, explaining that genomics is the study of DNA in an individual. He challenged us to think about the consequences of knowing or even being able to select if our offspring might have a ‘sporting’ or ‘musical’ gene and how nurture can overcome nature so our child might find that working hard can overcome any limitation in ‘talent’ they have inherited. We were asked to think about the ethics of using IQ tests on individuals of different ages, such as at 21 or 11 or even before birth. Volunteers were asked to adopt different roles to make difficult decisions about the use of information to inform participants in a scientific survey, who expected to be treated anonymously, if tests that had been carried out that indicated they had a strong predisposition to a disease that could be resolved through treatment if they knew about it.

Professor Dame Frances Ashcroft, Professorial Fellow in Physiology at Trinity College Oxford, gave an inspiring talk entitled ‘the Spark of Life – the Story of Ion Channels’. Dame Ashcroft talked about her research group’s focus on insulin, type II diabetes & neonatal diabetes & how through her collaboration with Professor Andrew Hattersley children born with diabetes have been able to switch from insulin injections to tablet therapy. Professor Ashcroft is behind the important discovery that an ion channel in insulin-producing cells is involved in the processes that control insulin secretion. Her discovery was that a type of ion channel, which functions like a tiny pore in the cell membrane, is crucial to the processes resulting in the secretion of insulin. The discovery is very important for people suffering from a rare inherited form of diabetes, known as neonatal diabetes.This was an amazing lecture from an outstanding communicator of science, who shared with us some memorable and relevant footage of fainting goats.

The Psychologists and some Biologists attended a really enjoyable talk by Kate Watkins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at St. Anne’s College Oxford, entitled ‘Talking Brains’. The speaker was able to grab our attention. It was clear through the way she spoke and presented her talk that she had taken into consideration the age of her audience listening, meaning I both understood and was interested in everything she was talking about. When Professor Watkins talked about her research with university students it was not only entertaining and fascinating but it gave a useful insight into what it would be like studying Psychology at University.

‘Antidepressants and how they work’, was an interesting Psychology lecture given by Dr Abbie Pringle (a Psychology teacher and Head of Academic Extension Studies at Millfield School). She helped us understand factors that enable us to experience happiness and made us more aware of the real links between lack of serotonin and depression. Dr. Pringle  challenged the idea of using serotonin in antidepressant drugs. It was really useful to hear her explain alternative approaches to mental health treatments and what affects different mental health disorders.

Everyone attended the excellent Exam Skills Workshop given by Andrew Powell, a senior examiner for the University of Cambridge board and retired Head of Biology at Canford School. He gave us invaluable tips on revision and preparing for the exams in general, whilst also giving us a lively and, at times, amusing lecture. I think it is safe to say that these will come in useful as our exams approach next year.

Many of us were lucky enough to be involved in one of the workshops where Jancis Weal dissected the lower limb of a horse, while a group of her students were dissecting the lower leg of a cow. The speaker compared the structure of the foot of the horse and the cow and explained about the differences between ligaments, which link bone to bone, and tendons, linking bone to muscle. When the teacher performed the dissection she explained everything very slowly and in a very precise way and there was a screen so that everybody could see what she was doing with the horse’s foot in the front, even if you were sitting in the back of the room. When she showed us the horse’s foreleg, we could see in detail how the flexor and extensor tendons were working to bend and straighten the leg. We were also able to see how the suspensory ligament held the leg together to provide the horse with vital strength and stability. My highlight was when she opened up the fetlock (ankle) joint to see how the synovial fluid worked with a fascinating tongue-and-groove mechanism. This is a brilliant adaptation, which protects a horse from ‘twisting its ankle’, because if this happened then the results would be catastrophic.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was learning about the Biology of birds of prey in a workshop led by Sharon Cox. We had the honour of meeting Bracken, who was a tawny owl. It was incredible being up so close to him so we could observe his distinct features in detail. We were able to see how far round his head could move and how large the owl’s eyes actually were; all adaptations to make him the best hunter he could be. Sharon explained how the extra vertebrae in Bracken’s neck allowed him to turn his head 270 degrees, in compensation for being unable to move his eyes in their sockets. We then looked at some specimens which weren’t feeling so healthy! Using the bodies of some birds of prey that had died we were shown how owls in reality have very small bodies and long legs, which enables them to reach out to catch prey and helps them start their flight, and their double-jointed toe, which means that they can either catch prey or perch on a branch and alter their foot position accordingly. It was fascinating to see how small owls actually are, since most of their bodies are just made up of very fluffy feathers to keep warm. We also saw their ears and how they allowed for such accurate hearing, allowing the owls to track down prey in very low light. It was really good to be able to see them up close and learn about the things that you don’t usually observe when you look at birds.

Some of us attended Andrew Embling’s interesting workshop entitled ‘How you really see the world around you’. We were introduced to a core element of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NPL). He explained the principles of neurolinguistics and helped us understand how it affects our brains and behaviour. We also learnt more about how language, situation, memories, decisions, values and attitudes cause us to react in a certain way. It was really interesting to find out more about how the way we behave is affected by both internal and external events and to explore what determines our behaviour and controls our emotional state.

My favourite thing from the symposium was the workshop by Julie Provino on ‘How to get what you want’. To me this was the most interesting session, as the speaker mentioned small things that anyone can do to get what they want. This interested me particularly as I enjoy my sport a lot and have used some of the ideas the speaker mentioned in my sport. She used an analogy of a shopping cart as a way of getting what you want and said you should only focus on what is in your shopping cart and what you are looking for, instead of getting lost in the shopping aisles and looking at random items that you do not need. Doing this will keep you focused on your goal in life and the speaker linked this with mindful meditation. Another thing she mentioned was that the future is shaped by the present and she encouraged us to focus on what we want and what we already have, because by doing this we can shape and have an impact on our own future.