Searching for the Secret of Life: DNA Then, Now and Tomorrow
Guy's Campus, King's College London, London SE1 1UL, UK
Friday 21 October 2011
The inaugural London Science Festival, which ran from 19-26 October, promised numerous exciting and entertaining events, many of which have received excellent reviews. So I'm particularly disappointed that I chose to spend my Friday night at 'Searching for the secret of life: DNA, then, now and tomorrow'.
According to the blurb, this event was going to 'explore the fascinating way in which DNA research has transformed since the discovery of the structure of DNA'. While I'm sure the research itself is fascinating, I would hesitate before describing the event in the same way.
At the beginning of the evening we were shown a pre-recorded video from Professor Ray Gosling, who worked with Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at King's College London (KCL), representing the 'then' of DNA. He described a dinner held for 22 Nobel Prize winners whose research wouldn't have happened without this discovery; and his proclamation that 'within ten years every baby will be presented with a copy of their own genome' did seem to imply we were in for something special.
However, from there on it turned into something that made me feel like I had travelled back in time to my undergraduate days. In fairness to the speakers, they all gave good, clear presentations, which explained their research well. My issue with it was that they seemed to be just that — academic presentations best suited to a university lecture series.
The 'now' of DNA was dealt with by Dr Frances Williams from the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, KCL, who gave a background on DNA and moved on to its use in twin studies.
Then we heard about DNA use in forensic science from Dr Denise Syndercombe-Court, of the Academic Haematology Unit, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. She managed to interweave scientific information, anecdotes and case studies well, but I did feel she had the lion's share of the allotted time in which to do this.
Finally, Dr Fiona Wardle, a research scientist also at KCL, was left with the task of explaining where DNA research is headed in the future — the 'tomorrow'. Her talk focused on the use of stem cells in regenerative medicine.
I think the London Science Festival was meant to appeal to all — from laypeople to academics — but I felt this event struggled to find its footing. The introduction was very basic, and probably unnecessary for what seemed to be an audience made up mostly of students.
Following this, the description of fairly complex scientific principles (such as the inner workings of twin studies and regenerative medicine) may not have held the attention of those without some prior knowledge. At the same time, though, the speakers' attempts to keep it superficial meant some of the nitty gritty scientific details, which I was interested in hearing, were lost.
And after just over an hour's worth of PowerPoint slides we were told, much to my disappointment, there was no time for questions. We could talk to the speakers at the wine reception afterwards, but it's always interesting hearing other people's queries, and I can't help thinking people might be cautious of approaching speakers one-on-one. Not to mention that, at nearly 9 o'clock on a Friday night, after a not very controversial or thought-provoking series of lectures, it was clear some people (myself included) just wanted to get home for the weekend.