Tracing the evolution of scientific research

A trip to Cambridge offered a group of Year 12 boys an insight into both ends of the historical spectrum of biological research.

During a visit to the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology, the group of 30 sixth-formers saw a range of historic exhibits including finches collected by Darwin on his research expeditions on The Beagle. And at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, close to Cambridge, they were initiated into the cutting edge of modern genetic research.

The collections at the Museum of Zoology are used for academic study by researchers both from Cambridge University and other top academic institutions from around the world. It is seen as a repository of information about the history of the fauna of the world and the history of science itself.

“We saw part of Charles Darwin’s beetle collection and examples of early carboniferous tetrapod fossils found in Scotland. It gives you a different perspective on Biology when you see things like this outside the classroom,” said pupil Alex Drozd.

""At the Sanger Institute, a charitably funded genomic research centre which took a leading role in the human genome mapping project, scientists are currently focusing on understanding the role of genetics in health and disease.

The boys enjoyed a tour of the research laboratories and were given a talk on cholera epidemiology – tracing the evolution of the bacterium through its genome. “We took part in an activity which enabled us to identify faulty and healthy ‘BRAF’ genes. The faulty ones we identified can cause melanoma, that is skin cancer,” said Year 12 pupil, Vishal Popat. “It is amazing to think that therapies based on this research are already in clinical trials. It was a fascinating experience and the facilities were very impressive. I thought the new prototype DNA Sequencer was particularly cool!”