Pint of Science Edinburgh 2017: Sex in this city


As I descend the stairs into the Canon’s Gait pub to attend an Edinburgh Pint of Science talk, one of a series of events aimed at communicating science to the public in a relaxed and fun environment (with the added incentive of beer), I can’t help but think about something that apparently, as a man, I think about every seven seconds: sex.

We are all different when it comes to talking about sex. For some of us it is a topic that must never leave the bedsheets, whilst others can sometimes share a little too much.  Whatever your preference, striking the right balance in a public talk, even one as informal as Pint of Science, can be fraught with difficulty. Luckily, on this very special night (as I lose my own Pint of Science virginity) I was guided through by some very experienced and engaging lovers of reproductive biology.

After a brief foreplay of ‘pin the sperm on the migrating ovum’ and a free t-shirt giveaway, the first speaker, PhD student Phoebe Kirkwood from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research, opened with a talk tantalisingly titled ‘ When I Get That Feeling, I Need Scarless Healing’. Phoebe started by appreciating Marvel’s The Wolverine character and some of the impressive natural attributes he is generously endowed with (his scarless healing capacity, just to be clear). However, just as doors were sealed shut, and to the collective horror of approximately half the audience, the talk suddenly turned to a less popular topic: the menstrual cycle. However, far from making ourselves scarce, men and women alike in the Canon’s Gait enjoyed a humorous and fascinating insight deep into the world of the endometrium, the tissue lining the inner surface of the womb that is shed each month during the menstrual cycle and miraculously heals without a scar. Phoebe explained how her research aims to identify the stem cells responsible for this process, and how this could lead to treatments for both uterus specific problems and wider problems of scarring on skin and in internal organs. Top marks for endurance must go to her boyfriend who was on the receiving end of a number of Phoebe’s jokes.

Next on the agenda was an interval during which the audience got to hear my own vocals in action with a stimulating performance of the aforementioned Marvin Gaye classic through an ultrasound machine, brought in by the ASCUS Lab of Summerhall (a performance for which I too was compensated with a free t-shirt). We were also supplied with some craft materials to create some artwork based on the talk themes, which would be judged later in the evening. I struggled to follow the instructions to make a functional origami penis – not easy under such time constraints and with the pressure of a table of laughing people.

But it would be premature of me to talk about these craft creations now as the prizes were awarded at the end; and up next was a talk by Professor Richard Sharpe from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Reproductive Health. Professor Sharpe’s talk was entitled ‘Programmed for Sex’ and tackled the existential question of the meaning of life. Apparently the answer is not as profound as one might think: to have sex and pass on our genes. Moving from the profound to the ridiculous, Professor Sharpe impregnated his talk with many amusing pictures of animals mating with statues and Jeremy Clarkson quotes – not that these were required as the knowledge he shared on the role nutrition plays in sexual development was fascinating from both a scientific and a social viewpoint. The professor finished with some evidence that our own health can influence the genetics of our progeny, perhaps for generations, a sobering thought at the end of a pint-infused evening.

As a climax to the event we had the awards ceremony for our sexual masterpieces. Amongst the winners were an impressively accurate 3D model of a uterus (scientific accuracy award), and ‘Free Willy the Sperm Whale’ (best abstract representation), with more promiscuous t-shirt distribution by our hosts. My origami penis unfortunately finished last (of course, not always a bad thing). All in all it was a very successful evening, and I was impressed with the maturity, and the measured immaturity, with which the speakers dealt with their subjects. They also showed clever use of a topic we are all interested in to communicate some quite hardcore science in an accessible way to the public. As I left the pub into the cool Edinburgh air, there was certainly only one thing on my mind, but I was perhaps thinking about it in a slightly different way.
This article was written by Isaac Shaw and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.

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