Conversations Over Ducks

It takes a good reason to get me out of bed before 9 am on a Saturday morning. Luckily science is a great reason, and getting a chance to share science, even better. This weekend our research centre joined other scientists from Manchester at the Body Experience at Manchester Museum. The whole museum was turned in to the human body for a family day, complete with real kidneys and pieces of brain to see and touch (I recommend before lunch, not afterwards!) and plenty ofducks games and activities explaining parts of our body. We represented the immune system, challenging visitors to identify good and bad bacteria, hit a flu target with Velcro antibodies and find the infected ducks in our pond. The duck pond was dreamt up by one of the postdocs in ourlab as a way to explain how your natural killer cells identify infected cells to target. We’ve used it at quite a few public engagement events and the bright yellow ducks never fail to draw interest. Of course some of the younger children just want to play with the ducks, but with older children, or parents of children just playing, I had some great conversations about the immune system. From the entertaining to the reminders of why research matters, here’s a few of my conversations over ducks.

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Writing Dogs and Ghost Labs

Happy International Women’s Day! In honour of the day I’d like to tell you a bit about one of my favourite female scientists, an inspiring immunologist called Polly Matzinger.


I first learned about Polly Matzinger in a sleepy afternoon immunology lecture in my second year of university. Just as my attention was beginning to drift I was pulled back to the room by an unusual phrase to hear in an immunology lecture: ‘Playboy bunny’. The lecturer was talking about Polly Matzinger. She originally studied music at university and went on to a series of odd jobs including working as a cocktail waitress and a stint as a playboy bunny. It when she was working as a waitress near the University of California in Davis that she met a young professor who, sparked by an insightful question from Matzinger, embarked on a 9 month campaign bringing her scientific papers and encouraging her to study further. She eventually did, gaining a bachelor’s degree and a PhD. Dr. Matzinger has said that she owes that man her life (1).

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Smashing up Smartphones: is there a better way?

Your immune cells are part of a powerful and complex coordinated system. You could think of it like a shiny new smartphone, all the pieces working together to respond when required. If your smartphone developed a fault and kept ringing or buzzing, refusing to turn off, what would you do?

Autoimmune diseases are caused by your immune system reacting when it shouldn’t. Cells and proteins that would normally be seen as safe are instead viewed as dangerous invaders, and attacked and destroyed. This leads to problems like type 1 diabetes, caused by your immune system attacking the cells which make insulin and keep blood sugar steady ,  multiple sclerosis, caused by attacks on nerve cells leading to muscle weakness, or rheumatoid arthritis, where misplaced inflammation causes joint pain and swelling.

So how do you fix the smartphone? Read More »