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TENC Students inspired by "science giants"

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TENC students inspired by the Sir Isaac Newton Lecture

After a long journey through busy A45 queues, windy country roads and the A1 in morning traffic we passed the last Harrier jump jet at RAF Wittering. Congested roads would have been no problem for this aircraft. We arrived promptly thanks to local knowledge of Richard our driver. Through the security gates at RAF Cranwell at precisely 10.15hrs. One member of TENC science staff, 15 excited STEM students were led by an RAF engineering student through the high security cordons to the entrance of the historic Whittle Hall.

As we entered the foyer we were greeted by an iconic symbol of British engineering at its best. There we posed for photographs under the proud gaze of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine in the photograph. Its descendants could be heard overhead as the training corps flew by, defying the laws of gravity.

We were then given freebies of pens, pencils and sporks, a reminder that complex engineering was a product of ambitious ideas, explored on the pads of scientists and mathematicians. All this long before being built by highly skilled engineers and tested by the brave pilots. I am mindful that many of these successful pilots and engineers started off as students in local comprehensive schools and colleges, like our fifteen.  

In the introduction from B. Fitton the Education Business Partnership we learned that the 2017 Sir Isaac Newton Lecture is in honour of the “local lad done good”. He was famous as a mathematician and as every budding physicist knows, the story of the apple. However he was knighted for his anti-fraud engineering in coins while he was chief engineer at the royal mint. He is famous for his £1 note in the 1970s but is also honoured by the £2 coin carrying his famous quote from the acknowledgements on his first and most famous paper “principia mathematica”. Explore its edge for yourself and see “standing on the shoulder of giants”. A reference to the fact that all of science technology engineering and mathematics learning comes from seeds planted by ancestors in our fields.

I was pleased to see that our speaker today started off with the shoulders from which his research field has stood upon. Sir Charles Darwin and Rosalind Franklin as well as Francis Crick and James Watson, in their discovery of inheritance and the biochemistry of the gene. Francis Crick was born to a shoemaker like so many of us reading this now. He was born in Weston Favell and was a pupil at Northampton Grammar School (now known as Northampton School for Boys). If you have shopped in Northampton you will have seen his double helix statue, opposite the statue of a last- the engineering icon of our region.

So where are we from, which shoulders have we stood upon? Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist working from University College London (a university some of you may aim to study in), asks this question in his recent book “A Brief History Of Everyone Who Has Ever Lived”. This is a sort of “Who Do You Think You Are?” for history or biochemistry geeks just like myself and many of our students! Dr Adam also writes for the Guardian and BBC Radio 4s Inside Science click the links and research him yourself.

So what did we learn from the inspiring “geek” [his words not mine]? Dr Adam has worked in genetic research and won his Ph.D. for his discovery of a genetic cause for CRX retinal dystrophy (a form of child blindness) and obviously enjoys the field. This enthusiasm was infectious to young and old alike. We learned that we share genes right across time and Europe not to mention the world. But the lecture focused on 4 main themes. Like so many scientific breakthroughs’ research in one narrow field leads to an explosion of uses. We learned that:

  1. Human genes a tiny drop in the ocean of life where most of the water is the DNA of bacteria. To this ends DNA mapping is reworking the early ideas of “survival of the fittest”.
  2. We learned that the Hapsburg Dynasty fell due to “rampant interbreeding”. They were more interbred than if we mated with our brother or sister! This probably led to the collapse of Europe.
  3. Many of you will have seen the publicity around the finding of Richard III in a car park in Leicester. Dr Adams techniques help to provide compelling evidence to support the archaeological find of the century.
  4. You may have seen Danny Dyer find out he was related to king Edward III well it turns out UCL mathematicians working under Dr Adams found a 99.9% probability that we are ALL related to one Particular king and therefore all kings before him!

More importantly we learned that advances in DNA research not only leads to medical breakthroughs but can be used to track and predict genetic variation. order to make this happen we need our students of today to be inspired to explore and succeed in STEM subjects tomorrow.

I was inspired  by the look in the eye of our 15 truly motivated students. It was humbling to see one of our students brave enough to ask an expert. An excellent, inquisitive question in front of hundreds peers from a diverse educational background. Difficult for even an adult scholar to do. The answer from the expert hopefully satisfied her curiosity but I think for EBP and Dr Adams it was proof enough that what they do, and what we at TENC encourage our students to do is to be inspired and explore for themselves. I hope that we are able to help many of our students to stand on the shoulders of their giants. Hopefully today has shown that giants do come from our region.

Thank you: Dr Adams, B.T Fitton & Paula Bailey @ EBP, The Royal Air Force College, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and The Institution of Engineering & Technology. Also all at TENC and Richard for giving us the opportunity today. But mostly thanks to the way that our 15 students from Rushden Academy, Huxlow Science College and The Ferrers School who acted as such amazing ambassadors for the East Northants College.

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