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Why the world needs more science… and poetry, too

PUBLISHED: 08:00 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 09:21 05 September 2019

"Poetry gets a lot off your chest," says Earlham Institute's Dr Peter Bickerton. "It's a nice thing to do and it makes you feel good." Picture: Dr Peter Bickerton

Dr Peter Bickerton

Each month we meet the scientists, change makers, educators and technicians working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park to hear how their work is shaping the world we live in. Explore the series here.

Earlham Institute's Legget Group uses DNA sequencing technology and bioinformatics to understand where bees go and which flowers they're attracted to     Picture: Peter Shaw/Getty Images/iStockphotoEarlham Institute's Legget Group uses DNA sequencing technology and bioinformatics to understand where bees go and which flowers they're attracted to Picture: Peter Shaw/Getty Images/iStockphoto

He's the Earlham Institute's communications manager by day and a poet by night - but Dr Peter Bickerton's twin passions prove that a love of science and words needn't be mutually exclusive.

Stevie Smith spoke to the Norwich Research Park-based science communicator to learn more.

What sparked your interest in science?

"I love seeing peoples’ eyes light up as they learn new things": Dr Peter Bickerton has been known to turn up to public events dressed as pink pigeon costume - all for educational reasons, of course. Picture: Earlham Institute

At school, biology really fascinated me - mainly because of one brilliant teacher, Mrs Cavanagh. I remember reading about the genetic history of the carrot, and how it came to be orange. I thought, "that's pretty cool!"

I studied biology at the University of Manchester and I got fascinated by plant science during a field trip to Mallorca. We looked at obscure Mediterranean plants and how they adapt to their environments.

Plants are fascinating - don't let anybody tell you different! They take everything that life has to throw at them. Mammals can move around and birds can fly somewhere else; but plants stay rooted to the spot and survive just fine. Carnivorous plants adopt these incredible traps to eat insects in nitrogen-poor environments - doesn't that show how cool they are?

What does your job involve today?

I'm the science communications manager at the Earlham Institute within Norwich Research Park, which combines my love for science and writing. I didn't realise I wanted to be a public engagement person - I always thought I'd be a scientist - but during my PhD I worked at lots of public events and I loved explaining to people how plants work.

I love seeing peoples' eyes light up as they learn new things. It turns out I wasn't massively into holding a pipette, so it made sense for me to do communications rather than science.

The Earlham Institute (EI) combines expertise in biological sciences with computer science, and a lot of the work that we do applies to big problems like health, food security and climate change. We use big data to better understand and solve those problems.

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What are some of the exciting projects happening at Earlham Institute right now?

Bees are dying out. They're responsible for most of our food, but they've got no land left to survive; 97pc of the UK's wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s.

The Leggett group at EI uses DNA sequencing technology and bioinformatics to understand where bees go. Our UEA collaborators take pollen from the bee, and our scientists sequence that pollen to find out which flowers they've been to. We can see if flowers are competing with food crops and work out which flowers to plant where, for the good of biodiversity and for our food.

So it's your job to explain all of this work to the public - how are some of the ways you do that?

We run activities at events like the Royal Norfolk Show and Norwich Science Festival and host an open day for local schools and the general public. For the last open day we built a massive tree of life at the Earlham Institute to explain the work we do. The tree went up into the 'cloud' on the top floor, to represent all of our work on computers. We're running a bee trail for kids at this year's Norwich Science Festival, so they can find model bees, collect 'pollen grains' and put them through a Lego DNA sequencer to see for themselves which plants the bees have visited.

What are your hopes for the future of science in the UK?

UK science is still the best in the world, but funding cuts mean it's been declining steadily over the last decade relative to other countries. The UK is trying to match funding to the global average, that's nowhere near enough.

I think we need to double it. Science and technology is the only way we're going to solve the problem of global climate change now that we've passed the point of no return. My mission for science would be simply for more of it - open, collaborative science that's reproducible and valuable to our global community.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I'm a poet and the resident poet at Thought for Food, an incredible organisation involved in food security. I've also recently published a book called 'Millennial'. I love poetry; I think everyone should have a go. Everyone used to do it back in the old days! It's a nice thing to do and it makes you feel good.

If you get annoyed about the news, you could ring up a radio phone-in and embarrass yourself... or you can write an angry poem instead! Poetry gets a lot off your chest. You don't even have to share your poems; it can be just for you. Your own little vessel of joy.

You can follow Dr Peter Bickerton on Twitter and keep up with his updates on the latest work from Earlham Institute.

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