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Guest blog: Science in Health open day

Dean Burnett is a recently graduated Doctor of Neuroscience. He studied at and regularly works with Cardiff University and hails from the Bridgend valleys.

As well as his scientific work, Dean is also a stand-up comedian and writer who can regularly be seen on the Welsh comedy scene and beyond. He is also a science-communicator/public speaker.

His satirical science-themed blog Science Digestive is widely read by an international audience. He is also popular on Twitter.

He runs the Cardiff branch of Skeptics in the Pub and can be next seen at St David’s Hall as part of the Uncaged Monkeys tour, alongside Professor Brian Cox, Dr Ben Goldacre and others.

By Dean Burnett

On March 17, I had the privilege of being the opening speaker for the annual ‘Science in Health-Live’ day, at the University Hospital Wales, Cardiff.

This is an annual event which, in its present incarnation, involves several hundred sixth form students attending from dozens of school across the area, to take part in a day of talks, tours and exhibitions that show students the incredible diversity and complexity that is offered by the field of Science in health (and that’s just in this part of Wales).

This day has a special resonance for me, as I actually attended myself as an A-level student making the first tentative steps into the field of science. My school wasn’t there this time though, and truth be told I’m not sure it ever had anyone attend other than myself, as my poorly funded state school was not known for regularly producing enthusiastic scientists.

We didn’t even need a minibus to go; my 55-year-old biology teacher drove us in his own car. You’re probably wondering what a 15-year-old would talk about with his 40 years senior biology teacher for an hour long car journey. The answer, if you’re interested, is ‘the life cycle of the sea lettuce’. I wasn’t aware such a thing even existed. Still, it beats Chris Moyles.

As a result, it was quite surreal to be stood at the front of the room giving the opening talk when I was once part of the crowd. As a doctor of neuroscience who is also a stand-up comedian, I’m usually called upon to give amusing, ‘quirky’ talks with a scientific slant, and this is what I was doing here.

My small contribution to the day was to give a brief overview of what exactly is meant by the term ‘Science in Health’, what fields this involves (medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry etc.), modern hazards to health (obesity, developments in mental disorders, dangerous technology, Cheryl Cole etc.) and future avenues for research. The students seemed to like it, so that’s a plus.

This was actually the second year that I’d done the opening talk for the Science in Health open day. My talk was pretty much the same as the year before, with one notable exception. Last year, I ended my slideshow with the obligatory ‘enjoy your day’ slide with a picture of me next to my name. The speaker after me happened to be dean of the entire hospital complex. However, he didn’t use a presentation of his own, but neglected to turn off the projection screen when he started. As a result, his talk was delivered with a gigantic image of my massive head looking down on him, like some sort of sarcastic science-based Welsh Chairman Mao. I removed that slide this year, in case it happens again and I end up accidentally starting a cult.

The Science in Health open day is invaluable to anyone with an interest in life sciences

The Science in Health open day is an invaluable day for any student with even a slight interest in studying life sciences in further education. Although the prospect of spending a day wandering around a hospital might conjure up some stereotypical images (e.g. waiting rooms full of people with various maladies, eerily lit corridors, that strange organic/disinfectant smell that always seems to be ever-present), when it comes to the University Hospital Wales, this is far from the truth.

The site includes many research facilities, including a brand new Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning facility, a vast and ever expanding DNA database, and numerous other labs engaged in cutting edge research (I’m not sure if there is a lab dedicated to improved scalpels and surgical tools, which would literally be ‘cutting edge research’).

The talks and presentations covered all manner of subjects from fertilisation to deadly diseases (from birth to death, in a sense). I would have loved to have joined in with the whole day, but unfortunately am quite a bit older (and somewhat balder) than the students, so sneakily tagging along may have been problematic.

The whole day is put together and run by the Cardiff University ‘Public Understanding of Science and Health’ group, neatly titled as the PUSH group. They are chaired by Professor Anthony Campbell, and also run a series of public lectures.

The lectures are excellent events for anyone with even a cursory interest in Health Science, or those who simply want to attend something that’ll leave them feeling as if they’re smarter than before.

It looks as if, even in these trying financial times, Wales is punching above its weight with regards to furthering the scientific understanding of human health – and if this crop of enthusiastic students is anything to judge by, this will be the case for quite some time.

As was pointed out on the day, Wales was the birthplace of the NHS (via Aneurin Bevan) and the originator of the Chochrane collaboration, possibly the most thorough and reliable source of scientific evidence for health developments in the UK and beyond. So arguably, millions of people owe their lives to Wales.

Feel free to point that out to the next person who whines about Severn bridge toll.

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