Awakening curiosity at Cork science fest

Cork Science Festival is underway this week, and ELLIE O’BYRNE talks to one of the organisers, Ria O’Sullivan
Awakening curiosity at Cork science fest
Hair-Raising Science Fun: Schoolgirl Emma Dunphy is surprised by a Tyndall cleanroom scientist at the launch of the Cork Science Festival. Picture: Clare Keogh

IT starts with painstaking studies of Cork mothers and babies, but the work of the Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research (INFANT) in CUMH could save lives around the world.

Globally, every two minutes a mother dies from complications of her pregnancy or labour. INFANT scientists investigate new technologies to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for women and their babies.

“In some ways, INFANT is a very Cork story because so many Cork women have been involved in our studies,” says Ria O’Sullivan, the centre’s public engagement manager. “But our work has massive, global implications.”

Ground-breaking research is conducted at the centre in many areas, including nutrition for premature babies and non-invasive monitoring devices for use in labour. But it’s their work on one of the deadliest and least understood illnesses of pregnancy for which they’re best known.

Pre-eclampsia is a common but poorly understood condition affecting one in 20 pregnant women, and it’s very dangerous for the health of both the mother and the baby.

According to the Pre-eclampsia Foundation, 76,000 women and 500,000 babies die due to the condition each year, largely in developing countries where detection rates are low and death rates for women with the condition range from 10-25%.

With the help of 4,000 Irish women who volunteered as test subjects, INFANT researchers have already licensed the world’s first clinically useful screening test for pre-eclampsia.

The INFANT centre is science at the coal-face: their research has the potential to save lives and revolutionise medical practice.

Ria O'Sullivan INFANT public engagement manager
Ria O'Sullivan INFANT public engagement manager

“We’re working on ways to provide training that can be used across the globe for better healthcare,” Ria says. “At the moment, we’re also developing a stethoscope that can be used to listen to babies’ brains. That could mean you won’t need neonatologists and neurophysiologists present to read EEG reading to know what’s going on; clinicians will be able to listen and decide if the baby requires further treatment.”

Getting across the message about the important scientific work of the INFANT centre is Ria’s job, but in her role as organising committee member with Cork’s annual Science Festival, she’s also passionate about engaging the public with a broad cross-section of the sciences.

A psychologist who studied in UCC and Oxford Brookes, Ria was involved in research projects before taking up her role with INFANT. This will be her second year helping to organise Cork Science Festival.

Ria says that Cork Science Festival is all about waking up people’s inner scientist: our innate human curiosity about the world.

“We all want to know how our world works and the solutions to the challenges we face; we want to invent and create things all the time,” she says.

“Cork Science Festival is a chance for people to get to see the science in their community, and behind things that they haven’t realised how scientific they are.”

Because as excited and all as those white-coated boffins get about their breakthroughs, sometimes science still has a bit of a PR problem, Ria says.

“Science is a lot of hard work, and I think that kind of shadows it a little in people’s minds,” she says. “It’s got a bad rep. People think they’re bad at maths or bad at science, when they’re not; they just have an anxiety about it. People put themselves down and say they’re not good at things, but if they stay open to something, it’s not as hard as it seems.”

This year’s festival, which runs in conjunction with Science Week, is a nine-day cross-discipline extravaganza featuring over 100 events for both adults and children. Tackling everything from sustainability to LEGO robotics, the festival is book-ended by two large free events, one in UCC’s Western Gateway building and one in Neptune Stadium.

As well as participating at the INFANT stand at Celebrate Science in the Western Gateway building, where she will demonstrate INFANT’s new brain-monitoring stethoscope, Ria will also be running a coding workshop during the festival…in a Montessori.

“We presume that people can’t do stuff until they reach a certain age,” Ria says. “We think coding is for college and for upper secondary school. Maybe writing code is, but the skills aren’t, so I’m able to teach kids before they can read; I show them a puzzle board with keys which are the functions, and they’re able to move a robot around.

“They’re learning the rules; kids are very good at that, they understand process and can make it do what they want.

“We’re trying to prove that science is for everyone; you don’t have to work in science to enjoy science and to be curious about what’s going on in your community and in your world.”

Although we live in a world where we are surrounded by astonishing levels of scientific advancement, it’s also, Ria acknowledges, a “post-truth” world, one where the proliferation of information available on the internet means that many people seem to be opting for versions of the truth that fit their world-view, rather than based on evidence. Does this pose a challenge to science in the 21 st century?

Ria believes so: “People are going with what they feel is right rather than what there is evidence for. It’s kind of hard to battle against things like anecdotes; stories are very powerful and scientific language can sound quite cold; it’s not as emotive and it’s not as powerful as stories. That’s a challenge, but also an opportunity for scientists to step up and stand up for their discipline and communicate with the public.

“They can do that by going out and demonstrating their work and removing the “us and them” barrier that might be there between scientists and the public. We need to push people to question what they’re being told, and to go looking for evidence.”


Schoolgirl Emma Dunphy pictured at the launch of the Cork Science Festival. Picture: Clare Keogh
Schoolgirl Emma Dunphy pictured at the launch of the Cork Science Festival. Picture: Clare Keogh

THINGS TO DO AT CORK SCIENCE FESTIVAL

Level Up Human (+18s)

Friday, November 17, 7pm at AMP nightclub, Hanover St.

Join scientist and broadcaster Simon Watt at Cork’s new AMP Nightclub for a live recording of his popular science comedy podcast, Level Up Human, which explores scientific human-body hacks.

Simon will be in the company of comedian Neil Delamere.

How did the Universe Get so BIG?

Wednesday November 15 from 6pm to 10pm at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Blackrock.

A whole evening of decoding the cosmos, from a family-friendly telescope workshop complete with history to a star-gazing session with Cork Astronomy Club and a booking-required talk on the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Decoding Cancer; Science V’s Fiction

Think everything you hear about cancer is true? Think again.

The internet is full of theories on how cancer can be caused, prevented or treated. But how much of this is true, and how much is fake news?

In the latest talk in the Irish Cancer Society’s ‘Decoding Cancer’ series, Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, and Dr Derek Power, Medical Oncologist at the Mercy and Cork University Hospitals, will discuss some of the most common myths and misinformation surrounding cancer.

Register at www.cancer.ie/DecodingCancer. The event runs at 6.30pm, Room G10, Brookfield Health Sciences Complex, University College Cork.

Community Festival of Science

Sunday, November 19 at Neptune Stadium.

A free afternoon of scientific discovery in the company of some of Cork’s top scientists, engineers and researchers.

Pick up a Festival Passport on the door, complete the problem-solving activities and you could even win some scientific prizes.

Try your hand at some science activities, explore the stars; test your problem-solving skills and meet ordinary people using science in everyday life. No booking required.

The Science of Sustainability

Various dates and times, St Peter’s Event Centre, North Main Street Building a sustainable future is in the hands of the scientists and researchers of now.

Join four UCC researchers who are attempting to use the powers of science and nature to enable us to ferment our way to foreign holidays, to use giant metal stomachs to power our buses, to recycle dairy waste into plastic, and use the slime from deep-sea creatures to make our stuff.

Stones, Slabs & Seascapes

George Victor du Noyer’s Images of Ireland are on show at the Crawford Art Gallery. An artist imbued with a keen appreciation of the sciences—particularly geology, botany and zoology, George Victor Du Noyer is also remarkable for his devotion to recording the antiquarian and archaeological sites that are such a characteristic feature of the Irish landscape.

Thousands of drawings and sketches by him are preserved in the libraries and archives of institutions. However, due to the fragility of these works, they have rarely been exhibited.

In celebration of Du Noyer’s extraordinary achievements, and to commemorate the bi-centenary of his birth, the Crawford Art Gallery is hosting a major survey exhibition, featuring over 150 watercolours and drawings.

The Alchemy of Food: The Science of Flavour

On November 15, change the way you experience food using the science of your senses and explore the alchemy of Cork culinary creations with cocktails and a 5-course tasting menu at Cask and Greenes Restaurant, McCurtain Street, Cork.

Whether you love food, science, or both, this event is for you. Tickets are VERY limited and cost €75 per person.

For more information on all Cork Science Festival events: www.corksciencefestival.ie

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