Sixth-formers discover bioelectronics at the 2021 Rosalind Franklin Conference

If you don’t know what ‘electroceuticals’ are, we’ve got almost 100 teenage scientists who do.

Each year, Newnham College welcomes sixth formers from across the UK to discover and debate some of the cutting-edge topics in science and society.

The Rosalind Franklin Women in STEM Conference is an opportunity for students to hear directly from leading scientists – and to have their questions answered. 

This year, the attendees discovered the opportunities and challenges of bioelectronics and ‘electroceuticals’.

The virtual conference included talks from three scientists working on different aspects of bioelectronics, followed by a panel talk. Current Cambridge students answered questions about what student life is really like, and our Schools Liaison Officer explained the Cambridge admissions process.

This year’s speakers were Prof Róisín Owens, of the Cambridge Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology and a Fellow of Newnham, Prof George Malliaras, the Prince Philip Professor of Technology at Cambridge, and Prof Eleni Stavrinidou, leader of the Electronic Plants group at Linköping University, Sweden.

Together they explained that bioelectronics nowadays explores the interface between biology and electronics: some of its more familiar applications include pacemakers, implantable glucose sensors or deep brain stimulation devices. The field now spans all the way from sub cellular components such as DNA or cell membranes interacting with electronic devices for sensing and diagnostics, to state of the art implantable devices for reducing tremors in Parkinson’s patients.

The era of “electroceuticals” is now upon us. However, while electronics have advanced in leaps and bounds since the 1960s, the things that make electronics suitable for a smart phone may not be the properties that make them work in living cells or in our bodies. A large part of the current work in the field of bioelectronics is tailoring electronic devices to work more sustainably and efficiently with biological components. Applications of bioelectronics research are now reaching towards other biological kingdoms with bioelectronic plants and energy harvesting devices.

The result is a fascinating time to work on bioelectronics – as the students discovered.

This was followed by a panel discussion about the realities of working in science, including former Newnham student Dr Anthie Moysidou, now a postdoctoral fellow with Prof. Owens,  and Kumar Thurimella, a 1st year PhD student at Caius College. Panel members highlighted the highly interdisciplinary nature of bioelectronics research, bringing together people from maths, engineering, medicine, natural sciences and computer science.

Some of their key advice was

  • Listen to your gut; don’t let others put you off
  • Don’t worry if you have to change direction – there isn’t one route to fulfilment
  • Follow your dream – make sure you are doing something which you really enjoy
  • You may end up far from your original subject
  • Maintain your wider interests

Following the session on Bioelectronics, participants had the chance to meet current Newnham students to ask their questions – anything from ‘what do you do about tourists?’, to which subjects should be studied at A-level to meet entry requirements. (We’re pleased to say that most tourists haven’t discovered Newnham yet.)

Making the most of the online nature of the event, the students received a variety of ‘taster’ videos before the event, exploring various aspects of bioelectronics. These were made by members of the  Bioelectronic Systems Technology group at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, and the Bioelectronics Lab at the Department of Engineering. Amongst the videos was a contribution from Dr Janire Saez, Postdoctoral Research Affiliate at Newnham.

Many thanks to all those who contributed to another excellent conference, and particularly to Prof Róisín Owens, academic convenor of the conference, and Lucy Rogers, Schools Liaison Officer, conference organiser.