STEM ambassadoring

This week I got an e-mail with the certificate below. It’s a nice little gesture from STEM learning and STEM ambassadors UK to all who volunteer their time to educate and inspire others. Although I’ve done many more activities that could not be added because they were outside the UK, what counts is the work we do and the lives we touch. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing that audience beaming with curiosity and enthusiasm at the beginning and those faces lighting up when they learn something new or have a go at an experiment themselves and see the results. STEM ambassadors are meant to go out there and inspire people, but I think that most times we end up being inspired by our audience as well. We do this for them, and their response encourages us to keep doing more and better each time.



STEM careers day at Iki high school

Last weekend we visited Iki, a beautiful little island from the Nagasaki prefecture. It was great to see so many excited faces (a total of 68 students), eager to hear about STEM careers. There were some lectures about general trends in Japan, as well as about first-hand experience of working in lab research, engineering and corporate environments. After a short break for relocation, the students were divided into small discussion groups. It was their turn to tell us about their aspirations for the future and ask questions. They had so many questions and were very well prepared, I was impressed. Some had a very clear idea of what degree they would like to do and what university they would like to apply to. Most of the students on my table wanted to go to medical school or do a degree with an application in medicine (such as chemical biology). Apart from university life and the application process, they wanted to know about the latest technologies to detect cancer, how antibodies work, different careers related to cancer, such as clinical, research, diagnostics/detection/follow up, therapy, clinical trials, etc. They had done extracurricular reading and actually knew lots about the subject.

There was, however, a very striking difference in behaviour between boys and girls. Boys were confident, most had an idea of what they wanted to do in the future and had lots of questions. Girls, on the other hand, were very reluctant to speak and ask questions and didn’t seem as resolute regarding their future. This particular event aimed to promote STEM careers to all students, with a special emphasis on girls. Although they seemed to have enjoyed the day and made some notes, I think it is important to provide equal encouragement to both boys and girls from an early age, at home and in school.

STEM morning at Fukuoka

Today we had one more morning of fun science at the Seinan International School in Fukuoka, organized by Oita University. There were talks about what various researchers do and then we did some hands-on experiments. I showed the students how to get DNA from kiwi and an engineer got them to recreate the workings of a steam engine, using hot water and ice.

All living organisms have DNA, it’s like an instructions book for our makeup. We get it from our parents and, although all (hopefully!) human, each one of us will have slight differences in the code, which makes us unique. This has proven to have a variety of applications, from disease diagnosis to crime solving!

You can watch a demonstration of the DNA extraction protocol here (日本語 こちらです). In case you would like to have a go at home, here is the list of materials:

  • soft fruits (such as kiwi or strawberry)
  • a (ziplock freezing) bag
  • water with 10% washing up liquid
  • a bottle or a cup
  • kitchen salt and a spoon
  • cold alcohol
  • a funnel
  • coffee filter
  • a skewer or a straw

And these are the steps of the protocol:

  1. Put the fruit in the bag and mash
  2. Add the detergent to burst the cells that didn’t break up with the mechanical squeezing (this will release their contents, including the DNA)
  3. To get rid of all the solids, pass this through the coffee filter. At this point, the DNA is dissolved in the liquid, so we can’t collect it.
  4. Add salt and shake
  5. Slowly add cold alcohol (more or less the same volume as the liqued you filtered) and don’t shake this time. The alcohol and the salt will precipitate the DNA, so that now we can collect it. Basically, that means now it is all clumped together and solid, so we can fish it out.
  6. Get a straw or skewer and gently swirl it around in the middle gooey section between the top and bottom liquids (also called phases).

Have fun and please do not drink your experiment! It kind of sounds like a cocktail recipe, but there is detergent in it (and pure ethanol)!!

That last picture was actually the mess, after the experiments were done!

Chatting to our youngest intern

For the past two weeks, our lab has had a very special honorary member. Sellena, 17, has come all the way from Hong Kong to do an internship with us and learn a little bit about the everyday life in a biomedical research lab. After the experience, I’ve caught up with her for some insights:
Why did you decide to do an internship in a lab during your summer holiday?
I really enjoy the various science courses that are offered at my school and hoped I could intern at an institute somewhere to further my knowledge and love for sciences. However, opportunities are rather limited in Hong Kong (whether it be because one is too young or not considered advanced enough to intern…). Along with this, in the American college process, it’s widely considered a huge advantage if a high school student can have some experience working in the field they hope to major in. Ultimately, Ken Nakayama’s lab and work appealed to me the most.
Are there many girls interested in and studying science subjects in Hong Kong? Are boys more encouraged to take up STEM subjects, or are both boys and girls equally stimulated?
The subjects of sciences and maths are considered prestigious in Hong Kong so a lot of people (despite their gender) are encouraged to study such subjects. However, I believe that boys are generally given more, and better, opportunities when it comes to real life experience (internships, science fairs, etc.).
What did you learn during your internship?
The topic of tissue engineering has never come up in my studies before so a lot of what I learned at this internship was new! Over the course of two weeks, I learned about (and even got to try out for myself) the process of printing a biological vessel. A lot of time and effort is spent on creating and perfecting the spheroids that are later stacked on top of each other to create vascular grafts (emulating the ‘dango’) which can hopefully be used in future clinical trials. Along with this, I also learned and got the chance to use several different pieces of technology that are essential to the process, including a laser cutter and 3D printer. I also learned a bit of programing, such as Arduino, html and java script.
What was your favourite thing to learn/do and why?
My favorite thing to do was work in the physical lab, whether it be practicing how to pipette or actually creating a medium for the cells, I loved it all. This was my favourite because it was my first time working in an actual lab. Nonetheless, hours upon hours of reading textbooks and watching teacher demonstrations at school did not prepare me for what was to come. An example would be the aseptic technique that is strictly followed here (and for obvious reasons). Working here gave me a little insight into what is to be expected in the real world.
Apart from the language, did you find Japan very different from Hong Kong? What is the most curious/funniest difference?
Hong Kong is similar to Tokyo in the sense that there is a huge population living in quite a small and bustling space. However, Hong Kong is very different from Saga. I found it more peaceful and calming, an environment very suitable for the lab! The most curious difference was the fact that on public transport, people are unusually quiet. Even if a bus were packed full of people, everyone would be silently listening to music or enjoying the view. In Hong Kong, it’s the complete opposite, people talk freely on transport and sometimes the drivers of such vehicles would be blaring their own music!
It was great having her with us, she is a bright young woman and was an absolute star in the lab! Here she is, receiving a certificate from the Medical School dean:

So, what is it that I actually do in the lab?

I’ve been talking a lot about 3D bioprinting, but I haven’t actually explained what it is all about. So, let’s have a go! (you may want to grab a snack and a drink!)

Printing, in its many forms, has begun a long, long time ago (see timeline here). Inkjet printing was introduced in 1951, which is an example of 2D printing. In 1984, 3D printing was developed. Soon after, in 1988, Robert Klebe started using cells and proteins in a computer-assisted inkjet printer, which he termed cytoscribing (writing with cells). Since then, in the last two decades, technological advances have allowed 3D bioprinting to become a reality in many labs across the world and the applications are endless and very exciting. Basically, like a 3D printer that can be used to print 3D plastic objects (or other materials), 3D bioptinting builds up an object layer by layer. The main difference between 3D printing and 3D bioprinting is the material: 3D bioprinting uses live cells. This is technically more challenging, as the cells need to be kept alive and happy, but scientists and engineers are getting better and better at making sure this happens.

 Cells are very small and need to be in cell culture medium (a special expensive broth full of goodies so that they are well fed and don’t dry out and die). So, printing this stuff can be quite tricky. If it’s too liquid, cells (and the liquid) will not stay in place, if it’s not liquid, cells will dry out, as well as die from being squished out of a cartridge’s nozzle. For this reason, it is common to mix them with a jelly-like material called hydrogel. It keeps the cells moist, helps them survive through being squeezed out of a nozzle and, because it’s viscous/kind of solid, we can draw shapes and it will stay in place (sort of like decorating a cake with frosting (hydrogel) containing little chocolate sprinkles – cells). Some researchers also use scaffolds, which provide shape and structure, onto which they print the cells. Virtually any type of tissue can be printed. What are these printed bits of tissue being used for? These techniques have many applications and some are already being used for therapy (regenerative medicine) or are currently being tested in clinical trials. Another important use is research, for example drug testing or disease models.

In our lab, we don’t use hydrogels or scaffolds. We use spheroids as our building blocks, which are basically balls of cells, and a printer that is able to aspirate each one individually.


These are picked up from each well (image below, on the right) by the nozzle of the printer and skewered through a tiny needle array (middle and left images below).


Here is a close-up of the nozzle holding a spheroid by suction and depositing it through a needle, in a pre-determined position, as designed using the software:


You can watch a video of the printer in action here and below is a diagram that summarizes the main steps of printing and maturation.


After maturation, this is what a tubular tissue looks like:


All images and videos are from Cyfuse.

STEM club

Today I visited a school in Leicester that regularly hosts a STEM club. It was great to talk to students about regenerative medicine,tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting. They had so many pertinent questions and interesting ideas! In the end, we built some potentially life-saving playdo “tissue” patches.


On the press!

This was the flyer that was sent out to schools and newspapers:


We got some publicity on the Saga Newspaper:


And on the day a reporter came to the event and subsequently published this article on Monday:


In total, about 30 participants turned up, which was quite good. This was the very first time Saga University (in collaboration with JST – Japan Science and Technology Agency) has organised a science outreach event. Hopefully, this will be the first of many!