Report on British Association for Advancement of Science (the BA)
Festival of Science 2002 at University of Leicester
as partial fulfilment of the Lillian Elizabeth Bowmaker Bursary

Mengjiao Li (Finalist in BSc Computing & Management)

Believe it or not, I would have missed this wonderful opportunity had my best mate not mentioned it, completely by accident, merely 24 hours before the application deadline. An enormous thanks has to go to my personal tutor who was very supportive and had his reference completed and e-mailed to the prize committee the following morning, in spite of the fact that he was extremely busy that week himself.

After achieving excellent grades in Chemistry and Biology at Senior School Graduate Level (equivalent to A-Level in Britain), I set my eyes on expanding my knowledge into technology and business studies for my degree. Nevertheless my tremendous interests in science have never diminished in any way, and a chance to gain an insight into the latest developments was just too precious to give up.

In a cosy and relaxing September afternoon, I boarded the Leicester-bound Arriva bus, and started what turned out to be one of the most unforgettable weeks ever in my life.

3:00 pm, 8 September 2002

Upon arrival at the University of Leicester’s Beaumont Hall, a warm welcome from the Conference Service quickly washed away the boredom of the journey. By sheer coincidence, Radio One’s “One Big Sunday” was held the same afternoon in Victoria Park two miles up the road. To me, the beautiful weather and exciting atmosphere formed a perfect prelude to the festival, and I was already thoroughly enjoying my experience even before the event had begun.7:30 pm, 8 September 2002

An evening reception specially held for student members of the BA was organised by the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) and provided everybody a brilliant opportunity to meet the BA staff and fellow students coming from places as south as Brighton and as north as Manchester. Welcome talks were given by the vice-president and regional representatives of the BA. Small groups were rapidly formed and by the time we were in the bar after the meal, the focus of discussion was already on issues such as which lecture to attend the following morning and who were going together to the same lecture theatre.

8:45 am, 9 September 2002

The free bus service to the university campus indicated the official start of the festival. If I were allowed to make one wish at that time, I would certainly have hoped to be able to split myself into several parts so that I could go to many lectures at the same time. The days were fully packed with activities covering subjects ranging from food science to biochemistry, and from astronomy to pure statistics. They were held non-stop from 9:30 am to late afternoon everyday and there were usually no less than ten different lectures taking place at the same time all over the campus.

Even though I had decided to give medical science and chemistry the number one priority, it was still a tough job to pick out my favourite lecture to go for each slot. It was not until the bus arrived at the university campus that I decided to go to the one titled “Towards a pain-free future” for that morning since the theme of this year was “Science and the Quality of Life” and pain has become an increasingly serious issue affecting all aspects of our lives, partly due to the ever-growing population who were victims of cancer. During the four 45-minute sessions, doctors and professors from the University of Leicester, Leicester Royal Infirmary and Leicester General Hospital guided the audience through the causes of pain, the different types of pain, the impact of pain on the society, and how they may be treated. Fascinating details and wonderful presentation attracted my attention so firmly that nothing else managed to distract me throughout the whole morning. You might not believe it, yet it is true that it was actually the first time in my life I remembered almost every single fact and knowledge point shown. Even today I can still recall without hesitation that pain can be classified into two categories: acute pain and chronic pain, and that the former one, usually caused by physical injuries, has a protective function, meanwhile the latter one, often a result of a constant stimulus such as cancer, can only be treated through effective multidisciplinary management. Just to give you a feeling of how many options there were in one single day, I have attached Tuesday’s schedule at the end of this report.12:15 pm, 9 September 2002

Both lunches and evening meals were provided in the university’s two conveniently located bars right in the centre of the campus which meant that there was no problem even if someone only had 15 minutes before dashing off to another lecture. Twelve pounds worth of vouchers everyday was sufficient to put the BA amongst the most generous organisations in the country. With a meal normally charged at between four and five pounds, there were plenty left to allocate between drinks and chocolate bars, if you prefer.2:00 pm, 9 September 2002

The three-hour space in the afternoon saw the only session relevant to my degree: How to Give Blind People Access to Computers, in which various techniques improving the accessibility of desktop computers to disabled individuals were investigated. Professor Mike Burton from the University of Glasgow gave the audience a tour of all the inventions inspired by the needs of those who were handicapped and the various ways the problem may be tackled, whereas Dr Donal Fitzpatrick from Dublin City University and Ms Marisa Taylor-Clarke of University College London introduced other dimensions to the question, including views from a mathematical aspect and a psychological aspect. The whole session was extremely useful to my future studies. It is a shame that amongst all science, engineering and technology subjects, computer science is the only one that is still under-represented in the BA.

6:00 pm, 9 September 2002

There was a review meeting every evening after dinner for festival attendees to discuss their experience, make comments and offer suggestions. Drinks were offered during the hour-long session and at least two important personnel were present in each one. I have been to two of them (out of four evenings) and it was great for expressing opinions and relaxing after a long day.

Apart from the lectures during the normal morning and afternoon slots, one award-winning lecture took place at lunch time everyday. The four topics (starting from Tuesday) covered four distinct issues in astronomy (Is the Universe Infinite?), engineering (the Science of Acoustics), biomedical science (Mapping perceptions with Science and Art) and geography (Volcanoes). They were all carefully prepared by some of the stars who have won the BA’s annual lecturing awards and were proved the most successful hit at the event considering their popularity with the audience. The demand had been seriously under-estimated and you would not stand a chance of getting a seat unless arriving there at least 30 minutes in advance. By Thursday, the BA had to take action and move to another theatre with double the capacity, yet late-comers still found themselves sitting on the stairs.Another flashing point of the week was an exclusive interview with Sir David Attenborough, held at one of Leicester’s most remarkable landmarks, De Montfort Hall, at Monday night. It was without doubt one of my best-loved evenings at the festival in which this highly respected scientist told stories about his childhood in Leicester, his ever-lasting relationship with the University of Leicester, the extraordinary facts about the Charnwood Forest, and his career development.Furthermore, Australian scientist-comedians Mr Adam Spencer and Dr Karl Kruszelnicki enthralled a completely packed hall both Tuesday and Thursday night, and raised a few eyebrows with their unique brand of scientific comedy “Sleek Geeks”. The show covered some bizarre and entertaining science tales, including some gruesome stories of post-accident surgery, the full scientific explanation of how a chicken managed to survive headless for 18 months, and the study that proved conclusively that women talk more than men! (Sorry ladies.)One thing worth noting this year was the exploration into how our exposure to all types of risks may be reduced, a concern that has become increasingly more significant following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It was held on Wednesday, 11 September, the first anniversary of the atrocity to commemorate all those who lost their lives in this tragedy.

Other activities include the trips to the National Space Centre and the walks in the university’s infamous botanic garden which were superb alternatives to lectures as they provide hands-on experience to things such as rocket simulators and plant recognition.These are my personal experiences regarding this year’s event. Personally I feel, besides all the incredibly amazing chances to acquire new wisdom, the greatest thing about the event was that it brought students from all over the country together and created the perfect occasion for me to establish new friendships which might benefit my whole life. I would highly recommend everybody who has interest in science and engineering to take part in this event. With such a huge selection of subjects, you are sure to find something that will be of interest to you. (Next year’s event will be held at Salford University between 8 September and 12 September 2003.)I would like to thank my personal tutor and the university prize committee again for letting me have this marvellous chance. I am also grateful to the BA and the University of Leicester Conference Service for organising such an awesome event.

Programme Schedule for Tuesday, 10 September (extracted from the BA Festival of Science Programme Guide)

Whole-Day Events:
9:30 – 17:00 Agriculture at the crossroads – which way now? (organised by the BA Agriculture and Food Section)
9:30 – 16:30 Fluorine: element for the new millennium (organised by the BA Chemistry Section)
9:30 – 16:30 Generating healthy bodies (organised by the BA Sociology and Social Policy Section)
9:30 – 16:00 Learning about science in society (organised by the BA and Science Year)
10:00 – 16:40 New views on old landscapes (organised by the BA Geology Section)
10:00 – 17:00 Scinematheque – the science cinema (organised by Vega Science Trust)
9:30 – 16:45 Space – the new frontier (organised by the BA Physics and Astronomy Section)
Morning Lectures:
9:30 – 12:30 Health and disease (organised by the Biochemical Society)
9:30 – 12:45 Our changing seas (organised by the Scottish Association for Marine Science, et al)
9:30 – 12:30 Psychology and the arts (organised by the BA Psychology Section)
9:30 – 13:00 The scientific challenge of tuberculosis (organised by the Department of Microbiology and Immunology supported by GlaxoSmithKline, et al)
Lunchtime Award-Winning Lecture:
12:45 – 13:45 The BA Lord Kelvin Award Lecture – Is the universe infinite?Afternoon Lectures:
14:00 – 17:30 Children’s vision and the developing brain (organised by the BA Psychology Section)
14:00 – 17:00 Get fit – stay healthy (organised by the BA Medical Science Section supported by the Medical Research Council)
14:00 – 17:00 Radioactive waste – can we manage it? (organised by UK Nirex Ltd)
14:00 – 17:30 RAI and EH awards for presenting heritage research (organised by the English Heritage and the Royal Archaeological Institute)
Late Afternoon Discussions:
17:30 – 18:30 X-change review meeting (organised by the BA)
17:30 – 18:30 Dramatic changes observed in the oceans in the last century provide evidence for a changing climate as response to global warming. A debate (organised by Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science)
18:00 – 19:00 Britain’s youth: good, bad, or just indifferent? A debate (organised by the Economic and Social Research Council)
18:00 – 19:00 The price of progress? Cashing in on the knowledge bank? A debate (organised by the BA supported by the British Technology Group)
18:30 – 19:30 The UK Biobank and other biomedical collections – a deposit for future health investment (organised by the Department of Health, et al)
Evening Activity:
19:00 – 21:00 (Comedy) Sleek Geeks

Secretary to Prizes Committee
November 2002
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