Solving our DNA jigsaw puzzle
On probably the warmest Saturday afternoon of the year
so far, I found myself tucked away in the basement of a laboratory at the
University of London’s Royal Holloway campus near Egham, all in the name of
science!
As a post-doctoral research scientist working at the
Institute of Cancer Research in Chelsea, I volunteered to help out at the Royal
Holloway’s annual Science Festival. With other members from my institute, I went
along to share our work and encourage local children and their families to
become ‘DNA Detectives’ for the day. We challenged them with 3 hands-on
activities to break their DNA code, find the clues within their genes and
unlock the secrets of cancer!
Cracking the genetic code and building our own DNA helix
Our first activity explained what DNA was and each
were challenged to find a secret code word (‘gene’) hidden within our
information posters. Once they had found this, they were then rewarded with a ‘DNA
detective’ sticker (who doesn’t love a sticker?!) and the chance to design
their own piece of genetic code to add to our DNA ladder wall hanging. Learning
that DNA holds the code to our individuality and that if we stretched it out it
would reach the moon and back over 1000 times, the children made colourful
‘bases’ of the DNA alphabet (A,T, G and C) and helped to build our giant DNA
helix.
Unravelling our DNA blueprint with the Jenga tower!
The second activity, and definitely the most popular,
was designed to find clues to what causes cancer. Here, healthy cells that make
up a tissue or organ within our body were represented by giant Jenga pieces to
build a tall tower. When the DNA of these cells is damaged, as in the case of
cancer, our DNA blueprint changes. The children placed the Jenga pieces
haphazardly and added balls of Play-doh between the pieces to represent these
changes and when the tower finally collapsed, this represented the cancer spreading. 
DNA damage that can lead to cancer was first
identified by a team of scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in
London, so it was exciting to tell the children this and teach them about some
of the causes of cancer.
Unlocking the key to personalised cancer medicine
In our final activity, we demonstrated the new
techniques that are being used to personalise our medicine during cancer
treatment. The children were told that there are many different types of cancer
and each of these can be treated with different medicines. By spinning our fancy
wheel-of-fortune they selected the specific cancer they would be treating,
represented by a coloured lock. Just like scientists in the drug development
clinic, it was then a game of trial and error to find the one key, or medicine,
that would unlock the disease, and reward them with a successful treatment, or
in this case a sweet!
Personally, I found this activity the toughest but
most rewarding to talk through with the children and their parents. Everyone
seems to have been touched at some point in their lives by cancer, but this
activity highlighted how our own research has improved cancer therapies and
those affected by the disease. 
It was amazing to see how engaged the children were,
learning about their own DNA through hands-on activities and listening to
how our research has changed the way we treat cancer patients today. We also
received a lot of questions and kind feedback from parents, who were interested
in our current work in the lab and how this was translated into the clinic.
If you ever have the chance, I would encourage scientists
at any stage in their career to volunteer at science festivals or other public
engagement events.
* The Edinburgh International Science Festival is coming up soon, 4th-19th April *
They are always very rewarding and remind us to bring things
back to basics to give the public an insight into how our research may benefit
them. I also feel that when you come back to your lab bench after something
like this it gives you focus, a determination, and an understanding of why we
do what we do. 

With thanks to Helen Craig, ICR London for sharing images.