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Treading on Eggshells – Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham – Day 5/6

By Nicholas Powell, on 17 June 2012

MRI Cherry

The cherry on top!

By Isabel Christie

Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham is a daily blog from the UCL CABI team at Cheltenham Science Festival. Every day, a member of the team will be talking about their experiences of running a stand.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

The Cheltenham Science Festival is drawing to a close and fatigue is beginning to take its toll on the team. As members of the team return home and our numbers dwindle or others lose their voices, we are becoming increasingly desperate when a new group of eager five year olds appear on the horizon. Attempting to explain quantum physics to primary school children has a lasting effect on your morale! However, we remain resilient: the stall is ever popular and today was filled with many magic moments.

Our favourite family returned to scan their home laid eggs. Two days ago, they brought along three eggs of different ages to see whether the yolks grew as the eggs aged. Only, the family arrived to discover that we had cracked one egg because they were too large for the scanner bore!

We thought harder about how to scan the eggs and began carefully removing the eggs shells with the aid of cling film and penknives. Finally, victorious, we managed to scan one egg; we actually broke the second egg in the careful process mentioned previously. We encouraged our new friends that this was the nature of science and that experiments often failed in real labs!


As it was a Saturday, there were many more families today and some children from previous school trips returned for a second attempt at the much loved ‘Guess the Fruit?’ game. One mother guessed the toughest of all slides, the physalis, which was very impressive.

We also had a visit from a young girl who suffered from epilepsy and was due to have an MRI scan next month. We told her all about it and what to expect to allevieate any anxieties she might be having. We actually met many people who knew very little about MRI, many of whom thought they were harmful like x-rays, so hopefully we have been successful in communicating how valuable MRI is.

Finally, the cherry on top was some more excellent scanning! Today we scanned a sardine, walnut, lychee, cherry and even some Lego (to help calibrate the scanner)! Come back tomorrow for our final entry.

Tears and Water Protons – Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham – Day 1/6

By Thomas A Roberts, on 13 June 2012

CABI at Cheltenham

Katy Ordidge demystifies the physics of MRI

Behind the Scences at Cheltenham is a daily blog from the UCL CABI team at Cheltenham Science Festival. Every day a member of the team will be talking about their experiences of running a stand.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 |

Two hours into my first shift at Cheltenham and I’d already made one child cry. Not quite the start I’d anticipated.

My colleagues and I from the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI for short) are at the Cheltenham Science Festival to demonstrate how magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners work and why they are important.

Our “MRI: Can You Scan It?” stand is pitched in the centre of the Discover Zone inside the grand Cheltenham Town Hall. The main draw is a tabletop – in the loosest sense of the word – 1 Tesla Bruker MRI scanner which people can feed with fruit and other small objects to produce live images. Accompanying this are a couple of presentations explaining how MRI works and how it can be applied to imaging your brain.

I was in charge of talking through the latter slideshow and explaining the basics of fMRI: functional magnetic resonance imaging. You’ve probably seen fMRI images in the papers: regions of the brain ‘light up’ in response to a stimulus such as touch, smell or sight. The waterworks incident occurred when I was demonstrating one region of the brain we can probe, using the video below of a dead snake.


Claire’s Cheery Bye to Cheltenham

By Claire V J Skipper, on 13 June 2011

ClaireDear All,

I have just got back from Cheltenham and upon reflection I am very pleased to have taken the time to go.

Attending talks outside of even my branch of science let alone my area of science allowed dormant recesses of my brain to be reawakened. I particularly enjoyed being challenged ethically and morally by talks such as the ‘Vegetative State,’ nasally by ‘Insect Communications’ on insect pheromones and on my ability to think infinitely by ‘Life in the Cosmos.’

Even the less memorable talks would have been really good talks anywhere else without having to be compared to such excellent talks.

An association with UCL seemed to crop up in almost every lecture and Dr. Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry) and Prof. Mark Maslin (UCL geography) seemed to be everywhere.

It was clear through all the talks that it is not necessarily what you are trying to say that makes a talk interesting but how you say it. In the right hands the common rush (juncus effusus) could become the most fascinating plant you have ever heard of and in the wrong hands the majesty of space a snore inducing subject. The power and buzz of good communication was everywhere and has inspired me to try to improve my own communication.

Anyway back to communicate with my computer. I hope that it has been good, while I have been away.

Your Computational Chemist

Cheltenham Day 4: Ethical Issues

By Claire V J Skipper, on 11 June 2011

Dear All,

Today I was struck by the ethical and moral issues raised in the talk ‘Vegetative state’ where Adrian Owen talked about his latest research.

New research has been carried out using MRI scanners on patients who had been clinically diagnosed as being in a ‘vegetative state’. The MRI scanners can show which parts of the brain are active. A ‘vegetative state’ is defined as wakefulness without awareness. A person in a vegetative state may therefore have their eyes open but do not know about the environment around them. They are unable to follow instructions such as ‘Please raise your hand now’.

It has now been shown that some people who appear to be in this state are aware. In an MRI scanner the patient is asked to think of ‘tennis’ or ‘moving between rooms in their house’. The active parts of the brain are very different when thinking about these two things and the people in an apparently ‘vegetative state’ could switch between them when asked showing them to be aware. They then moved to asking yes and no questions with ‘tennis’ for yes and ‘moving through rooms of the house’ for no.