Explaining magic, vampires…and proton beam therapy

In a series of special events for British Science Week, QE’s younger boys learned about topics ranging from centuries-old tales of vampires to a new cancer treatment centre in London that is at the cutting edge of medical technology.

The Lower School Science Department celebrated the week with a diverse range of special lessons and extra-curricular activities, including visits by external speakers.

Science communicator Dr Kathryn Harkup explained to Year 8 pupils how to use the scientific method to evaluate folk stories of vampirism, using current medical knowledge of diseases such as rabies and porphyria to understand how such stories could have arisen.

""Head of Lower School Science Sarah Westcott said: “It was a fascinating whistlestop tour, which explained how to identify and assess evidence.

“The take-home message was to question all information and to make evidence-based decisions – a principle that doesn’t just apply to Science!” Dr Westcott added.

""Dr Simon Jolly from University College London gave a presentation on one of the most exciting developments in medical Science, proton beam therapy. One of the two first-generation proton beam therapy centres in the UK is currently under construction at UCL and is due to open in 2020.

""The technology will bring greatly improved treatment possibilities for certain types of cancer, many of which are childhood cancers, explained Dr Jolly, who visited with his PhD student, Laurent Kelleter. The proton beam can target a tumour with great accuracy, avoiding the irradiation and damage of healthy tissue, which is a problem associated with radiotherapy.

Their presentation on the technique ranged in scale from descriptions of sub-structures within cells, such as the haem within haemoglobin, to the huge gantry which surrounds the patient during proton beam therapy, three storeys high and weighing hundreds of tonnes. Dr Jolly spoke about the engineering challenges involved, as well as the medical Science.

""Thanking them for their visit, Chemistry teacher Susanna Butterworth said: “We were amazed by the huge scale of the technology required in contrast to the pin-point precision with which the treatment can be delivered.”

The audience included older boys up to Year 12, together with the Lower School pupils. “The audience were highly attentive and asked many insightful questions, including how funding priorities should be decided between this and other cancer treatment avenues such as recombinant DNA techniques,” said Dr Butterworth.

""During lunchtimes in British Science Week, boys could sign up for: The Science and Mathematics of Magic and Illusion, which saw sixth-formers performing a range of card and magic tricks for the younger boys, and a molecular modelling workshop, in which Year 7 & 8 pupils explored the structure of a range of compounds from ibuprofen to caffeine, making models to compare their 3D shape and discuss their bonding.

And in their lessons, Year 7 pupils investigated the vitamin C content of fruits and vegetables to identify the best ones for preventing scurvy. “The experiment culminated in them preparing a conference-style Science poster which explained their results,” Dr Westcott said.