A Hundred Happy Birthdays: Music and Ageing at Green Man Festival – Jessica Foley

Did you know that the world’s longest-living animal was a clam that lived to be 507 years old? “Ming” (named after the dynasty it was born in, of course) was found off the coast of Iceland in 2006, and spawned a surge of research into the extreme lifespans found in nature. Ranging from just minutes in the adult mayfly, to animals like Ming that can live for several centuries, the diversity of lifespans across the animal kingdom is astounding. And what’s even more fascinating is that rates of ageing also differ hugely across different species. With “ageing” defined as the increasing risk of mortality over time, some animals seem to age much more slowly than others – and some don’t actually seem to age at all.

Graphs showing the mortality and fertility rates in humans, fruit flies and dessert tortoises.

My PhD work focuses on lifespan and ageing in Heliconius, a group of neotropical butterflies that can live for a prodigious six months (pretty impressive for a butterfly!). What I find most interesting about this research is its dissection of these differences in ageing across different species. All animals are made up of the same molecular building blocks, and yet some have managed to extend their lifespans and even escape ageing altogether – teaching us that lifespan is not necessarily immutable, and ageing may not be inevitable.

I’ve always been interested in public engagement (and have been known to go to a few music festivals in my time), so when I saw a call for applications for science stalls for the Welsh music festival Green Man, I knew I wanted to apply – and that I wanted to teach people about this amazing diversity in animal ageing. But I needed a hook. How could I convey these ideas in an accessible, interactive way, that would work in a setting like a music festival?

One of my favourite pieces of ambient music is a series called The Disintegration Loops, by the composer William Basinski. Interested in the deterioration of analogue media over time, Basinski created a series of loops using magnetic tape, the kind you find in old cassettes. As you listen, you can hear the audio loops gradually decay as the physical tape disintegrates. I thought we could use a similar kind of audio processing to represent the diversity in ageing displayed by different animals, with a programmed decay that matched that animal’s ageing curve.

As much as I like music, I’m more of a listener than a maker. But luckily, one of my best friends, Imperial PhD student Jamie Mathews, is a music producer with a particular talent for electronic composition. I sent him a few animals, and he worked his magic with the sound design, programming unique settings for each animal based on their ageing patterns. First, he sped up or slowed down the audio relative to the animal’s lifespan, resulting in a chipmunk-like speed for the shorter-lived fruit fly, and a slow, rolling rumble for the immortal hydra. He then applied a distortion effect to represent the decay associated with ageing, and finally a reverb effect that multiplied the sound in accordance with the animal’s fertility rate. Festival-goers would get the chance to sing a snippet of a tune of their choice into our “lifespan emulator” (an MPC sampler), and see how their “tape of life” would play and decay for each animal.

With a solid, workable idea, and a successful Green Man application, we needed to source some funding for this activity to bring it to life. Luckily, there are a few pots of money available for public engagement activities, and we were able to successfully apply for funding from the Society for Experimental Biology, the Imperial Societal Engagement Seed Fund, and my own PhD funders, the GW4 MRC BioMed DTP – generous contributions which fully covered all costs for the stall.

The weeks leading up to the festival were spent painting props, sorting out practical considerations like van hire and equipment rental, and assembling a crew. To act as facilitators on the stall over the weekend, I looped in fellow biology PhD students Benito Wainwright, Amaia Alcalde Antón (who also contributed the beautiful animal illustrations for the stall, pictured above), and Josie McPherson, as well as psychology PhD student and invaluable “man with van” Conall Monaghan.

Thanks to this brilliant crew, the stall was an overwhelming success. Over the course of the weekend, we had hundreds of people pile into our tent, try their hand at some karaoke, and listen as their voices were warped and distorted beyond recognition. We had renditions of Otis Redding, Chaka Khan – and of course, for those stuck for a song choice, about a hundred versions of “Happy Birthday” – all deteriorating into chaos, stretching and compressing to mirror the lifespan of species across the animal kingdom.

Individual singing into a microphone.

The musical activity prompted some very chin-stroking conversations with adult festival-goers about whether or not it would be a good thing if we managed to extend human lifespan. The “no” contingent won out in the end, citing fears about limited resources, concentration of power, and the need for a natural end to bring meaning to life – but the yeses were a close second, arguing for the extra time spent with loved ones, and the diversity of experiences a longer life would bring.

The kids were less concerned about the ethical ramifications of a longer lifespan, and instead deeply concerned with mashing as many buttons on the “lifespan-emulator” as their small fingers would allow. We had a whole host of wunderkind DJs chopping up beats that the festival headliners could only dream of, and this enthusiasm for the musical activity translated brilliantly into engagement with our learning outcomes. I was amazed at how quickly kids as young as five began to match what they were hearing from the sampler to differences in ageing, guessing at the longest-lived animals and dragging their friends over to explain what they’d just found out. Perhaps best of all was the wonderful creativity in our drawing prompt, where we encouraged kids to make up their own species and assign it a lifespan. Some of these would put even Ming to shame.

It’s hard to know who had a better time: us or the kids. Getting to talk about my research to so many people, on so many different levels, was an incredible experience; and it was made all the better by the festival atmosphere and the promise of post-stall music to catch. It was some of the most fun of my life, and I would absolutely do it again, even if it meant listening to a hundred more Happy Birthdays – though perhaps not quite 507.

To find out more about The Tape of Life, visit our Instagram @tapeoflifespan.

How the 3MT reminded me why my research matters

Alfie Wearn won the Bristol 3MT final last month for his presentation on predicting Alzheimer’s disease. Here he shares his experience of taking part; from almost pulling out of the competition to winning the Bristol 2017 finals in Colston Hall.

Step out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are the enemies of achievement.” – Roy T Bennett

I’m not normally a fan of inspirational quotes like these, but I make an exception for this one. I like it because I heard it just as I was about to pull out of the Three Minute Thesis ® (3MT) competition just a couple of days after applying. I told myself that because I was at such an early stage of my PhD, attempting to present a kind of “thesis” summary would be a bit fraudulent – in truth however I think I was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself in for, and was looking for a good excuse to run away back to the safety of my comfort zone. I lost that excuse pretty swiftly when I was told that plenty of people had taken part in 3MT in their first year. So I bit the bullet and continued with the process. In hindsight – a good decision!   

Training & Practice

I was enticed, in part, to participate in the 3MT competition and Research without Borders because of the various public engagement training courses that were available for all successful applicants. During one course a communications expert at the University taught a group of us 3MT hopefuls the importance of creating a story, and using relatable analogies to engage audiences in our research. I also got a chance to practice a very early draft of my talk to this group during that training course. I got some really helpful feedback which helped shape the final version of the talk.

In the days leading up to the semifinals, I practiced it every time I had a spare 3 minutes. I practiced in front of the mirror, in front of friends, I even videoed myself on my phone to see how I sounded to others, and to see if I was doing anything stupid with my hands (still not sure I’d sorted that by the final…). I probably practiced it about 50 times more than necessary, but it gave me confidence, which, I have learned, is all important in something like this.

Actually doing the talk

Eventually the semi-finals came about and I finally got to perform what I had been practicing so much for the past month. Despite all this practice, I spent the 10 minutes before my turn wondering why I had not gone over the talk ‘just one more time’ – so much so that I completely missed the previous couple of speakers. But when it came down to it, I realised that actually doing the talk wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting and thinking about it. I immediately forgot all the worries and worst-case scenarios I had constructed for myself and just spoke about what I knew, and what I had practiced. And honestly, I really enjoyed it. Of course, by the time the finals came in May, as part of the Research without Borders showcase day in Colston Hall, I had completely forgotten this lesson, and once again spent the 10 minutes beforehand wishing for that one more chance to practice…   

Thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned

I’ve learned that condensing a PhD-sized amount of work into 3 minutes is, if nothing else, a great way of making sure you know exactly what it is you’re doing. Now I realise that sounds like a stupid thing to say. But when you spend so many hours, days and weeks with your head buried in your PhD work, and have little contact with the outside world, as often happens during a PhD, it’s easy to lose touch with the bigger picture. You forget that not everyone knows a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, or the role of the hippocampus in the consolidation of memories. It helps to focus your work, and when you’re having a bad week it is sometimes helpful to be able to remind yourself as to why your work matters.

I urge everyone to have a go at the 3MT and taking part in Research without Borders. You get a snapshot of all the research at the university that you might never even have realised is happening; from ageing kidneys and forest ecosystems, to noise-reducing materials in aeroplanes and the evolution of invertebrate vision, to name but a few. Lifting your head above the water every now and again to see what is going on around you is a habit we should all get into – and what better way, than these two fantastic celebrations of research at the University of Bristol.

You can listen to Alfie talking more about his research, alongside other 3MT finalists, on this Speakezee podcast.

Alfie’s presentation will be judged at a Vitae hosted (virtual) national semi-final next month. Six finalists will then be selected to perform live at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference during the gala dinner on Monday 11 September 2017. We’ve got our fingers crossed, Alfie! 

Find out more about Alfie’s research:

Twitter: @AlfieWearn

Speakezee: https://www.speakezee.org/speaker/profile/2646/alfie-wearn

University research page: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/neural-dynamics/people/alfie-r-wearn/index.html

Tried and Tested: Organising a PhD Symposium

Rachel Harris is a postgraduate researcher in Neuroscience in the School of Clinical Sciences. She helped coordinate the Bath & Bristol Science Film Festival, and organised the Bristol Neuroscience Festival, and is an active supporter of the city’s Neuroscience-related activities. As part of our Tried & Tested campaign, she spoke to us about the benefits of organising a PhD symposium and what her experiences doing so have taught her. Check out more of her musings on her blog, and follow her on twitter at @NeuroRach.GW4neuro2015

Last year I helped organise the first GW4 Early Career Neuroscientist Day. I didn’t have any experience organising an academic event but I was keen to help bring together neuroscience PhDs and postdocs from a range of disciplines and universities.

There were many roles available, from selecting and contacting speakers to choosing a venue and drumming up sponsorship. I took up a role on the scientific committee along with a team comprising of members from the other GW4 Universities (Bath, Cardiff and Exeter). A huge number of abstracts were submitted and it was really interesting see what stood out from the pack when we were selecting talks. It’s definitely something I think about when I come to write abstracts now.

The team for this symposium were all really committed and we communicated by combination of emails, calls and face to face meetings. The programme was developed over several months and it was rewarding to hear about progress from other members of the committee and see the event come together.

On the day the committee helped prepare the venue and greet attendees and speakers. Members of the scientific committee also hosted scientific symposia which included introducing speakers, managing questions, and dealing with any technical issues!

Check out the highlights from the day on Storify.

I’d recommend getting involved in organising a symposium. It’s a great way to meet other people from within your university as well in other institutions. It didn’t take up a huge amount of my time, but I still felt like I’d helped shape a successful day.

As a result of working on this event I now manage Bristol Neuroscience social media and helped out with the Bristol Neuroscience Festival, so you never know where things will lead. I’m also looking forward to this year’s symposium as I know the effort that goes in to making it work.

GW4 Early Career Neuroscientists’ Day is looking for volunteers to help coordinate the 2016/17 event in Cardiff. Email you expression of interest to Catherine Brown (catherine.brown@bristol.ac.uk) by July 18th.