Category Archives: Public Dialogues

Rubbish Resources: Turning waste into useful products.

Firstly, a huge thank you to The Royal Society of Biology for sponsoring this event, which is part of ThRSB-logoe Royal Society of Chemistry-funded Green Reactions project.

Friday 19th June brought us the third in our ongoing series of public dialogues, this time exploring the concepts of using engineered organisms to remove pollutants from the environment and the transformation of waste biomass into useful products as part of a future bio-based economy.

Ruth Haley spoke first about her work, as part of the iGEM project, genetically engineering E. coli to take up toxic cadmium pollution from coastlines contaminated by mining work in the 1950s. As well as introducing the uses of synthetic biology and genetic modification within food production, as biomarkers (a protein that is used to show the expression of a specific gene) and in solving some worldwide issues.

Ruth talks about using engineered bacteria to sort out heavy metals pollution to a packed Basement audience.
Ruth talks about using engineered bacteria to sort out heavy metals pollution to a packed Basement audience.

Ruth was followed by Emily Johnston from the biology department’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP). Continuing the theme of pollution remediation, Emily described how contamination by toxic explosives residues, and in particular TNT and RDX, is a serious issue in places like military training ranges. She went on to talk about how she was able to solve the mystery of why a mutant plant from the CNAP laboratory was able to survive in soil contaminated with TNT where most plants died and how this knowledge could now be used to decontaminate explosives-polluted land by dropping “seed balls” of genetically engineered plants from helicopters.

The Rubbish Resources speakers and Chair (L to R: Ruth Haley, Emily Johnston, Iris Houthoff, Ian Ingram and Nicky Egan.
The Rubbish Resources speakers and Chair (L to R: Ruth Haley, Emily Johnston, Iris Houthoff, Ian Ingram and Nicky Egan.

After a short break for more beer, Ian Ingram and Nicky Egan from the Green Chemistry Centre outlined the concepts behind the bio-based economy of the future using waste carbon dioxide and waste plant material (biomass) as sources of carbon in place of fossil resources. Ian spoke about the opportunities to create new plastics from bio-derived “platform molecules”, some pleasant-smelling examples of which he bought along to sniff! Nicky talked about how one of the most abundant and reluctant bio-molecules, lignin, which gives woody plants their rigidity, can be processed using microwaves to give useful bio-based antioxidants, which can be used to prolong the life of motor oils and other products.

The panel take questions from the audience.
The panel take questions from the audience.

After the talks we held a questions and discussion session with all the speakers forming a panel to discuss the issues. A selection of questions (slightly edited to combine similar questions), and our speakers’ answers to them, are given below:

Question for Emily and Ruth:

Would you say the problem with GM is one of public relations rather than science? Even more conventional hybrid crops took a while to be accepted – isn’t there a need to communicate better and reduce sensationalism?


Agreed, there needs to be better communication between scientists and the general public as to what they are doing, the precautions they have put in place and the testing that the products have been through. We need more education about transgenic organisms and synthetic biology so that people are not frightened of the unknown. This has to include the politicians too!

It’s important to get people talking about science and improve the quality of science journalism. Too often science news stories miss the point or go after a sensationalist headline at the expense of actually informing their readers. Scientists talking to the public at this kind of event are a key part of this.


I agree completely, it’s part of human nature to question the new and that’s a good thing.  We are always right to question new technologies and look at things critically.  Mis-reporting by press is a big issue, as readers won’t have time to investigate things further, never mind paying for a subscription to the scientific journal where the research was originally published with specialised jargon.  Something that terrifies scientists is when results are misinterpreted and/or sensationalised into something they’re not.  Combating misinterpretation of science in the press is something that we can all help with though; Sense About Science is a charity which challenges poor science reporting, and we can help just by emailing them if we see something suspicious in the press or in advertising.  On the topic of GM, in 2009 they published a document “Making Sense of GM” which is really helpful.  Copies of this can be ordered for free through the link below.

Re. GM, last year, at the request of Government, the Council for Science and Technology wrote a report on the risks and benefits of GM technologies, and what might be done to raise the quality of debate, decision-making and regulation at UK and European levels.  This is also very informative and is available through this link.

Chemicals that are insoluble are more dangerous for the environment than soluble ones?


This is a really interesting question. Water solubility of a pollutant in the environment can be an issue as it increases the risk of the pollutant draining down into underwater aquifers, and getting into water supplies. On the other hand, chemicals which are not very water soluble can become bioaccumulated, as they’re more easily stored in cells.  This means that it’s easier for water insoluble chemicals to increase in amount within an organism, to a level where they’re more likely to cause harm.  In terms of explosives pollution, clean-up of Royal Demolition Explosive is a greater priority over TNT, as there has already been a case of this water-soluble chemical getting into an underwater aquifer in Massachusetts.


In the case of cadmium – the cadmium being soluble in the sea is an issue for the marine life, but it being in the soil at all (in both soluble and insoluble forms) is an issue for the species on the land.

This contamination is an issue in both forms. Sometimes only a soluble form of a pollutant would be an issue dependent on what happens when the insoluble form reacts with water (the species may be charged or change the pH etc).

Questions for Ruth:

How could the cadmium granules from your bacteria capture be extracted? Could it be reused?

The iGEM team did not get as far as to develop a way of extracting the cadmium from the bacteria. The easiest way would be to remove the bacteria from the bioreactor and then to lyse (break open) the cells releasing the cadmium into a vessel in a lab then isolate the cadmium from the cell lysate. That’s work that is still ongoing at the moment but the cadmium, once pure, could be reused in products like batteries. Cadmium is pretty toxic though so these days we’re trying to use less of it in applications where it might be dissipated into the environment.

Did you try your method in the field?

No, this would take many more years. The first step would be to get the system working and experiment with the system to see what concentrations of cadmium the bacteria would tolerate. The proof-of-concept organism that we produced would probably go through a lot of iterations before being put in the field. We’d have to start by exposing the bacteria to samples of the seawater and solid matter from the bay in the lab environment and gradually introduce more factors such as salinity, temperature, water flowrate etc to make sure the system works properly under realistic conditions before testing in the field.

Is it safe to use this engineered bacterial system?

Honestly, at the moment we can’t be completely sure for our specific system, which is why there would have to be a lot of laboratory work done on the whole setup – to make sure the bacteria stay where they’re supposed to be and we don’t end up unintentionally releasing any of the cadmium we collect – before it could be tested in the field. It is worth remembering that E. Coli is a very common bacteria though, you’ve got millions of them on and in your body right now, and although we’d have to check carefully before field use there’s no reason to think that our modification has made it harmful.

Are the bacteria reproductive? Does the “GM” get transmitted to offspring?

The DNA is taken up in a plasmid into the bacteria. This means that when the bacteria replicate their genome prior to binary fission the plasmid is also replicated (in most cases). This means that the GM DNA is carried on through the generations. Engineering the bacteria so they didn’t reproduce would mean we couldn’t make enough to make the population sizes required for their application into the systems we are developing.

It is possible, if their getting into the environment is enough of a problem to justify it, to further engineer the bacteria with a “kill switch”. This could be done by making them dependent on some factor that is provided to them in the bio-reactor but which doesn’t occur outside in nature, so the cells would die if they were accidentally released.

Questions for Ian:

How long will it take to switch from petroleum to bio-based resources? Is there industrial/commercial support for the biorefinery and biobased products?

 In some regards the change is already happening and bio-based products are already on the market. Coke recently produced partially bio-based PET “Plantbottles” where the ethylene glycol monomer, derived from biomass, is combined with petrochemical terephthalic acid. Bayer, a pretty big and serious chemicals company, is using their “Dream” process to add some carbon dioxide into the polyols they use to make polyurethane foams, and Ford have been using soybean oil derived polyols in car seats for a while now. Obviously there’s a long way to go but change is coming, and with many big industrial concerns already moving towards bio-based products there is quite a bit of momentum already.

What is the (environmental and economic) cost of biofuels? Will they compete with fossil fuels? Do biofuels have to be made from food crops? Is there enough biomass available?

 The idea behind using biofuels is that plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into biomass by photosynthesis, when this is converted into fuels and burnt, that carbon dioxide is released again so the process is potentially carbon-neutral, although the energy requirements for harvesting and processing the biomass need to be considered. As things stand the major biofuels in use are bioethanol and biodiesel and in many parts of the world these are already available at the petrol stations by themselves or as blends with conventional fuels.

Bioethanol is made by fermentation of sugars with yeast in the same way as alcoholic drinks and currently this is done on a large scale in places like Brazil from sugarcane. Conventional biodiesel is made by trans-esterification of plant or animal fats with methanol, at the moment palm and soybean oil are the most important feedstocks for this. Obviously both sugarcane and soybean oil are foodstuffs, sometimes called “first generation biomass”, and inevitably demand for these products pushes up food prices and competes for agricultural land with food production. However, there is a lot of work being done to use “second generation” biomass, which is cellulosic material from agricultural waste like wheat straw or the stalks of oil seed rape, for ethanol production. As these are the inedible by-products of growing food crops, using these might actually make food production more profitable! Similarly, there is a lot of work being done on using oils from bacteria or algae to make biodiesel instead of land based crops to reduce competition with food. In terms of scale, there are vast quantities of cellulosic waste available at almost no cost.

One of the hot topics in sustainable science is how to store any surplus renewable energy on sunny, windy days when wind, solar and other “green” sources of energy produce more than we are using. One interesting method that has been suggested is to use the excess electricity to make hydrogen from water by electrolysis and then use the hydrogen to make methanol by combining it with carbon dioxide. Since methanol is a liquid it is easier to store than hydrogen and could be burnt to generate electricity when renewables do not provide enough power. Methanol can also be used as the basis for a lot of other chemicals, including fuels for vehicles like dimethyl ether, and some people believe in the “methanol economy” being a big part of a sustainable future.


What is the biomass:CO2  ratio in the final plastics? How does recycling of biobased plastics work? What are they recycled into?

 The exact ratio of carbon dioxide to biomass that ends up in the final product depends on the type of plastic. For a polycarbonate this will be a molecular ratio of 1:1, but percentage of mass that comes directly from carbon dioxide depends on what the other monomer, the epoxide, is. However, the carbon in biomass comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere too, since that’s where the plants get their carbon by photosynthesis. So it depends how you want to look at it!

Perhaps the best example of plastics recycling is PET, which is the polyester used for drinks bottles that you probably already recycle at home. This is commonly recycled in two main ways: by breaking it down into its chemical components (monomers ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid) and then using them to make new polymer, or by melting the polymer and reshaping it into new products. Usually mechanical recycling, by melting the waste polymer and reshaping it, is used to turn PET packaging into fibres rather than drinks bottles to prevent the risk of any contamination getting into the food chain. Partially bio-based PET, like Coke’s Plant Bottles (see above) is chemically identical to ordinary PET and so can be recycled in the same way. More interestingly, there is a new fully-biobased alternative to PET, called PEF, where the oil-based terephthalic acid is replaced by a biobased furan-diacid. This can be melted and recycled in exactly the same way as PET and the normal recycling methods work perfectly well with a mixture of PET and biobased PEF. PEF is one of the most promising biobased plastics entering commercial production at the moment, and the way it can be easily recycled, even as a mixture with the PET, is one of the biggest reasons it is likely to be a success.

Questions for Nicky:

Would a bioeconomy actually be any more sustainable than what we have now? What about the pollution burning biofuels produces?

Although it’s impossible to predict all ends, sustainability is at the heart of all efforts to move towards a bioeconomy. Currently, we can think of the manufacturing economy as a line – crude oil and metals are extracted from the ground, they are processed into chemicals, fuels, and materials, and then we throw them away into landfill, or burn them. We know now that this model is highly unsustainable – if this goes on, we are going to use up all of our natural resources, pollute our land and oceans with our waste, and alter the Earth’s climate due to the release of CO2 from combustion. The good thing about a bio-based economy is that it works together with natural processes to ‘close the loop’ meaning that rather than a line, the process is circular. A biofuel will still release CO2 into the atmosphere when it is burnt. However, that CO2 will then be captured by plants that will then be processed into more biofuel… and so on, resulting in no NET difference in the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (in theory).

In practice there are a number of things we have to consider – do the resources compete with food? Do they require a lot of land? Are the materials toxic – to humans, to fish, the environment as a whole? What about the transportation costs – financial and environmental? And the big question of waste – what happens at the end of the product life? Can it be reused, repurposed, recycled? Does it biodegrade, is it safe to burn? There are a lot of these types of questions to be answered and it is not always the case that bio-based products are ‘better’ than oil-based products by default. We have to check, and the system that has been developed to investigate these type of questions is called life cycle analysis (LCA). LCA considers a product from ‘cradle-to-grave’ or, better, from ‘cradle-to-cradle’, taking into account as many of these questions as possible, in order that we can get a true picture of the environmental impact of a product, and its potential replacements.

As a society we now take for granted the lifestyle that access to fuels, medicines, and materials that the chemical industries have produced. But this lifestyle was built on unsustainable practices. As a society, it will be unacceptable to do without these things in the future – and so the only way forward is to develop new, sustainable methods of production. This is what the bioeconomy, with the checks and balances that LCA provides, is all about.

Rather than chemical methods, are there any organisms that digest lignin into useful products?

Lignin in the environment is broken down mainly by fungi, although relevant enzymes have also recently been found in a bacterial species. Using enzymes to digest lignocellulose into ethanol is already real technology, however, this uses only the cellulose. There is real potential for using lignin-modifying enzymes found in nature, modified if necessary, to process lignin into useful products. However, it’s safe to say that this is at an early stage of investigation. Some creepy-crawlies can also digest wood, such as the termite, and the gribble – their mechanism for doing so is a matter of current research, including here at York in the Centre for Novel Agricultural products.

– contributed by Ian Ingram, Ruth Haley, Emily Johnston, and Nicky Egan


Let’s Talk Drugs: greenReactions Public Dialogue @ Café Scientifique

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On Wednesday 3rd of June four early career researchers from the University of York drew the story of pharmaceuticals, from discovery, through manufacturing, resistance and the downstream economical and environmental effects. The event, within the Café Scientifique series of talks, was organised in association with the York Philosophical Society.
Kyriakos Tzafestas, final year PhD student from CNAP (Centre for Novel Agricultural Products), introduced the talks and chaired the lively discussion.

Enzyme Exploration and Drug Discovery

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Maria M. Razalan, 3rd Year PhD researcher, from CNAP as well, spoke about the challenges of finding novel pharmaceuticals and how the research in the lab can be transferred to industry: how the sustainability, cost, commercialisation can affect the research and trials that are funded and therefore the drugs that are sought after most. The discussion drew out how much funding and research resources can affect our future. The pros and cons of either natural or synthetic processing of drugs was discussed and how the extraction / synthesis methods must be taken into account.

The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance

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The following talk was focused on antibiotic resistance, with Dr. Robert Howlett, a research associate in Prof. Maggie Smith’s group at the University of York. Rob works to determine how glycosylation patterns (sugar coating) on the bacterial cell surface help them to resist a variety of antibiotics. The mechanism by which the glycosylation (addition of sugar molecules to a protein) occurs may be important for a number of processes in the bacteria, such as how it detects antibiotics, or how antibiotics bind to the bacteria. This may lead to possible dual treatments whereby one drug could attack the glycosylation system, leaving it open to attack by antibiotics.

The rise of antibiotics resistance is a major global problem and issues surrounding the concern were discussed. Many people are aware of the use of antibiotics as preventative measures; this is especially prevalent in farming to prevent animals becoming ill in the condition they are kept in. This needs to be looked at as a bigger picture of society rather than just the farmer, as the society we live in is one which wants cheap food and is driven by profit; this means that the farmers need to ensure the highest yield possible. Supplementing the animals food with antibiotics is cheaper than the loss ensued by the loss of individual animals through treating them specifically.

Doctors have been aware of the issue of antibiotic resistance for many years but poor diagnostic tools in some cases may mean that at times antibiotics are prescribed when unnecessary or in cases where they would not aid recovery. Poor diagnosis is a key part of the increase in the probability of antibiotic resistance. Research into diagnostics may aid the reduction of misdiagnosis. Members of the audience also thought about what happens to drugs once they leave the system (animal/human) and are exposed to the environment: into the soil and waterways where many bacteria are found.

Making Pharmaceuticals

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Next was Giulia Paggiola, a PhD candidate at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence. She began by showing the impact of medicines in our life with a British Museum piece made of two strips of cloth containing the average amount of drugs taken by a man and a woman in a lifetime. This piece, entitled “Cradle to Grave” by Pharmacopoeia, can be viewed at the British Museum.  Giulia’s research looks into the use of alternative “green” solvents for the production of pharmaceuticals to make their production more sustainable. A specific example being using limonene as a solvent. Limonene is an oil found in orange peel, which is a waste product from the orange juice industry. Most solvents used in the pharmaceutical industry come from fossil fuel and this seems to be the favourite choice driven by lower prices, more suppliers and cross-relations between oil companies and big pharma.
On the other hand, the introduction of green solvents for the production/processing of existing drugs comes as a huge additional cost, as the production needs optimisation and pharmaceutical effects re-evaluated. Implementing the use of green solvents would increase the demand and therefore the amount that is viable to produce thereby driving forward the green solvent industry. This would make green solvents more accessible to companies and therefore make increase their publicity, ensuring that people are aware of the level of sustainability that companies show. Before companies implement these solvents into their general practice they must see evidence that this will benefit them and that they are as efficient as the petrochemically derived solvent.

Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Copy of DSC_0908Finally, Jennifer Chapman, a doctoral student from the Environment department, gave an overview of her project, which aims at the evaluation of the socio-economic and environmental benefits/costs of pharmaceutical usage in veterinary medicine. Attention was given to the importance of how different applications of veterinary medicines can result in many different pathways for pharmaceuticals to enter and impact the environment. A case-study was introduced by polling the audience’s preference on a picture of a steak and a vulture, yes you read correctly, a steak and a vulture! The surprising link between these two comes from the use of the anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac, on cattle in India. Corpses of cattle previously treated with diclofenac were eaten by vultures. Due to metabolic differences Diclofenac has fatal effects on vultures.  A significant environmental impact was seen as two vulture species collapsed by an estimated  96.8% and 99.9% between 1992 and 2007. Impacts to human health from the increase in dogs and therefore rabies incidents were estimated to cost 34 billion USD over the period 1993-2006. Further cultural effects were not valued. For example one culture traditional used “Towers of Silence”. Here the deceased are exposed to scavengers instead of being buried. Vultures were a primary scavenger and their loss has impacted this tradition. From the diclofenac example the importance of environmental costs of pharmaceutical usage was clearly illustrated. The consideration of environmental risks joint with the socio-economic benefits is therefore very important.

The Discussion:

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The debate following the talks engaged the whole audience to put forward their opinions and thoughts about what they’d heard. A main point was for a move away from oil dependency. This underpins the core of the problem: without oil we can’t do anything. New sources  could be waste biomass or by-products  This change needs to come from consumer pressure and through the passing of policy to make the EU drive forwards its efforts as well as encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. The main issue with policy is that implementation takes too long and therefore on the changing of governmental control impacts on the policies passed.
Misconceptions in science can be communicated through the media as those reporting on stories are there to sell a story (regardless of it being truthful) and are not themselves scientists. This can direct consumer perception and demand in the wrong direction. This could be easily solved if more scientists were journalists although as in the case of David Nutt, who was asked to resign after claiming ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. The mismatch between public perception as well as the conclusion that politicians wanted. This is not how science works!

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The current issue is not new drugs being made green. The more pressing issue is the greening of our current pharmaceuticals. This is expensive, not only from the point of view of technology development, but also for the clinical trials that would have to be carried out on the “new” product (is it as active and as efficient as the oil-produced one?). This means that making greener, responsible products implies very high costs. But who should bear the cost: consumers or companies? Is it fair to make the consumers pay more? This is a difficult question to answer especially as drugs are something that many cannot live without. In this age of austerity, should we be forced to pay more for a product that is greener when what you can afford is the cheaper oil derived product? This is putting people’s lives at stake through their individual financial situation.

Companies look for the economic gain, a historical example being antibiotic. At the same time as antibiotics were discovered phage-based treatments to kill bacterial infections were being researched. Antibiotics were less specific to the individual bacteria and therefore cheaper for companies to research. Now that antibiotic resistance is becoming a serious issue, new antibiotics are being looked for although the research into phage was abandoned as the antibiotics were effective across a wider range of infections. Today phage therapies may be our only option.

– contributed by Ruth Haley

A Pint of Science Presents: Our Fragile Atmosphere

Way back in the dim and distant days of yore (well, the 18th May but it seems like a long time ago now we’re in the future space-age July) we ran another of our Green Reactions series of events in conjunction with Pint of Science. However, everybody involved then vanished to every corner of the earth to do fieldwork so despite the event having actually been carried out so long ago we’re only getting around to writing a blog post about it now.

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Science on tap at the Duke of York!

The event, titled “Our Fragile Atmosphere”, took place at the excellent Duke of York pub and was kicked off by Pete Edwards from the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry lab who was talking about his research in Utah about the role of the “fracking” industry in causing localised spikes in ozone pollution. The great thing about this talk is that the team Pete was part of were able not only to figure out what exactly was causing the mysterious ozone pollution during winter, when ozone levels (near the ground, anyway) are usually low, but also were able to influence US government policy to help sort the problem out. Inevitably, talking about fracking caused a fair bit of discussion – with a lot of it directed towards the concerns often mentioned in the media about the method: Is there a real risk of water contamination? Could it create earth-tremors? Is it the right thing to do in the UK? Pete emphasised that regulation and proper construction of the wells themselves can make a huge difference, noting that many of these issues that have cropped up in the US tend to happen in states where the drilling industry is less heavily regulated.

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Figure 1: Pete, pint of “Science” in hand, reveals the jet-set lifestyle of the atmospheric chemist.

Xiu Gao spoke next about her work on pollution monitoring in cities, particularly focusing on York, Berlin and Seoul, and how gathering the opinions of policymakers, NGOs and industrial concerns, as well as the population in general, can make pollution monitoring smarter and deliver the right information where it is needed. Xiu also discussed the role of technologies including swarm robots and smartphone apps to crowdsource pollution monitoring.  Xiu and her team’s research paints a picture of urban environmental monitoring as a complex system reaching from the monitoring methods used, to data management, regulation and international cooperation. The audience really engaged with the topic of urban air-quality monitoring and asked many questions. This proved to be a surprisingly “hot topic” in York, especially since York is a comparatively small city, with residents being really concerned about air quality and local policies to manage it.


Figure 2: Xiu kicks off a lively discussion about pollution monitoring in cities.

Karla Beltran was the last speaker and presented a beautifully illustrated overview of the Andean moorland ecosystems of her native Ecuador and their role in the wider environment. She spoke in detail about the biodiversity of the moors but also about their role in providing “ecosystem services” such as helping to regulate water availability (preventing both flooding and drought), storing carbon and improving food security in the region. Karla also discussed her research work in understanding the effects of deforestation, changing land use and climate change on these ecosystems and how these changes might have an effect in the future by disrupting the vital functions the moorlands supply. The subject of moorlands resonated well with the audience, as this is a type of environment we are very familiar with in the UK and in this part of Yorkshire especially, albeit with fewer llamas. Because of this, the audience were very knowledgeable about threats facing moorlands and this lead to a very stimulating discussion about the issue and how it is linked with climate change.


Figure 3: Karla introduces everyone to the wonderful Ecuadorian moorland ecosystem.

Thanks to everyone for being there and talking to our researchers. Hope you enjoyed listening to our stories as much as we enjoyed telling them!

– contributed by Ian Ingram.

Our upcoming public dialogues: What is your #greenReaction ?

Mostly when you hear from scientists it’s in the news or on TV and they’re talking at you. You don’t often get a chance to talk to scientists in person, find out what they do all day and have a chance to discuss and ask questions. This lack of communication can sometimes lead to distrust of science and new technologies. Just think of all the controversy around GMOs, wind farms and even vaccines! We can’t blame the public for this; if people don’t understand and don’t trust what we do it has to be because we as scientists aren’t having a proper dialogue with the public whilst our research is in its early stages.

That’s what the Green Reactions project is all about. We think the public has had enough of hearing about science in press releases and lectures (and even from Brian Cox). We think it’s time that scientists talked with the public face to face, over a beer, with a few jokes. We think there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Luckily the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology agreed with us and were willing to give us some money to make it happen! So we’re running a series of four events during May and June, one in collaboration with Pint of Science, one with Café Scientifique and two with the Festival of Ideas, all themed around different areas of our research into the environment and green technology from bio-based plastics to the moorlands of Ecuador!

What will your #greenReaction be!?

TEDYouth, Session 2, November 15, 2014, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.  Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
TEDYouth, Session 2, November 15, 2014, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED


!!!!! EVENTS !!!!!


“Our fragile atmosphere” w/ Pint of Science York

19th May 2015, 7.30-9pm @ Duke of York Pub


“Let’s talk drugs” w/ Cafe Scientifique (York Philosophical Society)

3rd June 2015, 7-9pm @ The Basement, City Screen Cinema


“Rubbish resources” w/ York Festival of Ideas

19th June 2015, 7-9pm @ The Basement, City Screen Cinema


“Think Green! (or not..)” w/ York Festival of Ideas

20th June 2015, 6-8pm @ Berrick Saul Building, University of York


– contributed by Ian Ingram

Public speaking training with “Inside Nature’s Giants” Simon Watt

We’ve invited in Simon Watt to join us for a whole afternoon in order to prepare our ‘greenReactions’ bunch for excelling at discussing their research with the public at our upcoming public dialogues events!

Simon Watt is a biologist, writer, science communicator and TV presenter.

  • He runs “Ready Steady Science”, a science communication company committed to making information interesting and takes science based performances into schools, museums, theatres and festivals.
  • He is MC/president for life of the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society” which is a comedy night with a conservation twist!
  • He is well known as a presenter on the BAFTA winning documentary series “Inside Nature’s Giants” and the Channel 4 special The Elephant: Life After Death, check it out!



Review by Tom Dugmore – Green Chemistry Technical Liaison Officer

Tom has a PhD from the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York where he now works, assisting local businesses in deriving value from food waste.

In this day and age science is a very polarising subject. On one hand, TV shows such as ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and pages like ‘I F*****g Love Science’ have helped to make science popular and scientists cool, if stereotypically geeky. On the other hand subjects such as evolution, climate change and vaccination have divided opinion with those opposed to the subjects often accusing scientists of bias, alternative agendas and generally distrusting the ‘unnatural’ world we are perceived to inhabit. Whether pro- or anti- science, the stereotypes are present on both sides. Scientists themselves often tend to make the public feel patronised on, and don’t bother listening and valuing the opinions and concerns of non-technical peers. This mutual mistrust has a very negative impact on our society and its scientific development.

The reality is that scientists, as much as the public, are an incredibly diverse bunch encompassing a range of backgrounds, cultures, interests and disciplines with the only stereotype being that we are really enthusiastic about what we do and of course really want to talk to other people about it! However, speaking about our work to a non-scientist without it sounding like a foreign language can sometimes be challenging for us, due to the highly technical environment that we’re used to work on a daily-basis. So the problem, how do we make sure we get it right and communicate our science and our aims to a non-scientific audience in an appropriate way? Step forward GreenSTEMS and Simon Watt!


The greenSTEMS group recently received a £2,000 grant to spend in addressing this issue with a group of 20 participants, and determined to do it correctly, brought in Simon Watt – both a biologist and stand-up comedian (amongst others!) – for an afternoon of training as part of their “greenReactions Project”. I was very excited to take part in this session! The afternoon consisted of talking about our research, brainstorming on what it was important to communicate and why, and several games designed to take us out of our comfort zones, put us on the spot, talk under pressure, think on the spot and improvise. These included a game of BBC’s ‘Just a Minute’ and PechaKucha with a catch – we didn’t know in advance what our images would be! Whilst the willingness to stand up and talk varied from person to person by the end everyone had relaxed enough to speak, interact, laugh and not care about being laughed at!

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For me, it’s been a great opportunity to find out more about the kind of research that goes on in other departments, see the bigger picture and, yes, meeting people to enjoy the odd cheeky pint with down the Deramore Pub. Overall it was a very enjoyable afternoon from which I think everyone came away with at least one ‘trick’ or hook to use when speaking to the public and present the ‘real’ scientist over the mythical one. We’ve spoken to each other and enjoyed hearing about each other’s work, but now we face a far tougher audience: the General Public! And I think I speak for all of us when I say ‘Bring on the spring!’


– contributed by Giulia Paggiola

greenREACTIONS project launched!

We were thrilled to commence our greenREACTIONS project this week.  The Royal Society of Chemistry-funded project will see 20 sustainability-minded researchers trained in science communication, leading to at least three public dialogue events in the new year.
This specialist training will be provided by Simon Watt in February; probably best known as a presenter on the BAFTA-winning series Inside Nature’s Giants, Simon has biologist roots, however has since started his own company “Ready Steady Science!”, which brings science (and humour) to schools, museums, theatres and festivals (

We are also very fortunate to work on this project with Environmental Sociologist Dr. Thomas Roberts (University of Surrey), who has extensive experience in evaluating the effectiveness of public engagement exercises (  Thomas will help us to understand the impact of our dialogues, perhaps also changing the way we view our research…

At our launch meeting(s), we were delighted to bring together participants from the Departments of Archaeology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Education, Environment, Management, Politics and the Stockholm Environment Institute!  Over some beautiful tea and cake, we each presented 3-minute overviews of our research, in order to identify possible themes; the plan is for three researchers to introduce their research at each event.  A number of overarching connections between the disciplines were made, highlighting the value of greenSTEMS in revealing such links and connecting early career researchers.

A huge thank you to Jennie Dodson, Ian Ingram, Giulia Paggiola and Thomas Roberts for co-ordinating this project!
Pete presenting his work on monitoring ozone pollution
Some group chat identifying possible themes

– contributed by Emily Johnston

Call for participants to greenReactions project!!

The greenSTEMS group is looking for researchers in the first 10 years of their career FROM ALL DISCIPLINES (natural and social sciences) to take part in their new public dialogue project green”Reactions” , funded by RSC Outreach Fund. 
The project will bring together researchers and the general public in two-way dialogues about research & technologies being developed at the University of York.
This is unique opportunity for young researchers to:
  • discuss their field of research with a non-scientific audience and understand the interests as well as concerns that may be perceived by the public;
  • relate their projects to wider social & environmental challenges
  • develop public speaking skills and experience for their employability
Taking part in the project is FREE, and will involve:
  1. Candidates selection in mid NOVEMBER- based on flash presentations about personal field of research in an informal greenSTEMS social;
  2. Professional public communication training (planned for Friday 6th FEBRUARY) – including: public speaking without powerpoint, using humour and props to engage the audience, addressing challenging questions;
  3. Public dialogues in SPRING 2015, with 3 early-career researchers per session presenting a general overview on a common theme followed by open discussion with the public.
The deadline for applications is Mon 10th November: Aspiring participants from all disciplines are asked to send a short bio/abstract (max 250 words) to outlining their:
–  Department of affiliation
–  Area of research and how it relates to social / environmental challenges
–  Reason for wanting to participate
–  Previous public engagement experience
By applying you are committing to attend the three phases of the project. If you do not fit within the guidelines of participants but are interested in taking part, we would still  welcome your participation in organising and running the public dialogues.
For more information contact
– contributed by Giulia Paggiola

GreenSTEMS was awarded the RSC Outreach Fund!

Despite being only two months old, the greenSTEMS team has worked on a training&outreach proposal, and has just received the fantastic news that the project was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund of £2000!!


The winning project is called Green Reactions and will run throughout the upcoming academic year. This initiative will bring together York scientists and the general public in a face-to-face two-way dialogue about awareness and perception of green technologies being developed at the University of York. The project aspires to build local public trust in scientists and sustainable technologies as well as to empower young researchers to effectively communicate their research.

It is vital that whilst developing science and technology of significant public relevance, such as green technologies, early-career scientists learn how to engage in a dialogue with the public  to build confidence and knowledge and to address questions and concerns.

With this need in mind, this project aims to give professional public communication training to 15 early-career researchers in sustainable science fields, and to organise public dialogues giving the chance for members of the public to learn about green technology developments and to openly express their opinions within an informal and welcoming environment. To achieve engaging and participatory public dialogues the project will be run in collaboration with an expert in the public perception of technology, Dr Thomas M. Roberts from the University of Surrey.

The greenSTEMS team will soon be recruiting candidates, so if you are interested in this unique opportunity contact us at !!

Working on our first event proposals

July is definitely a great time of the year for starting a University group, or at least this is proving to be true for greenSTEMS! The weather is good, the work-load is lower than usual – mostly for bosses and supervisors being on holiday! – and autumn is still far enough to allow us to put together some plans in time for the beginning of the new academic year.

Now that we gathered some clever scientific minds from all around campus, it is time  for us to roll our sleeves up and start turning great words and thoughts into something real! Last night we had our third greenSTEMS meeting and the 15 of us worked together on two event applications that were submitted today: an interactive and interdisciplinary greenSTEMS exhibit  for York Researchers’ Night (YorNight) that will be held on September 26th, and a really inspiring and original project proposal for the Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund. Keep your fingers crossed!!