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002 - Behind the scenes at the Christmas Lectures

002 - Behind the scenes at the Christmas Lectures

Kat: Hello, and welcome to Genetics Unzipped - the Genetics Society podcast, with me, Dr Kat Arney. We’re going behind the scenes at the iconic Royal Institution Christmas Lectures with Professors Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght - plus the fire-obsessed demonstration expert Fran Scott - to find the answer to the question “Who am I?”

Kat: A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be able to sneak into the Royal Institution in London to spy on the rehearsals for the 2018 Christmas lectures, presented by evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Alice Roberts and molecular geneticist Aoife McLysaght, in partnership with the Genetics Society. They’ll be broadcast on TV on BBC Four at 8pm every evening from the 26th to the 28th of December, and on iPlayer after that, so perfect for settling down with a mince pie or three. But until then, enjoy this little preview.

As the presenters and crew took a break for lunch, I was able to take a moment with Alice in the famed red velvet theatre that has hosted the Christmas lectures since they first started back in 1825. Aimed at a younger audience, the lectures were certainly an unmissable part of my childhood, and have been given by scientists such as Michael Faraday, David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins.

More recently they’ve even let a few women have a go, like astrophysicist Monica Grady, plant biologist Sue Hartley, technologist Danielle George and the Genetics Society’s own vice-president for the public understanding of genetics, Professor Alison Woollard. So I had to ask Alice, just how excited is she to be standing here today?

Alice: Massively excited, I grew up watching the Christmas lectures and to have the opportunity to do them - I watch them now with my kids  and they are hugely excited to I have a 5 year old and 8 year old and there's a lot of excitement in my house about me doing the Christmas lectures this year.

Kat Where did you start thinking about this theme who am I?

Alice: This is a question that underlies all my work always has done, searching for the question of origins. The question who am I is an during human question,  I think people have always asked it, as soon as people with sentient enough to do it, as soon as we had something that felt like human consciousness people would look at themselves and go who am I, where do I come from?

And it's so important to us as individuals to understand that and I think that as we grow up we start thinking quite carefully about our own identity. But then it expands into something much bigger doesn't it and we start thinking about where we come from his humans. And every single culture around the world through time and through space has always looked into those questions.

Every single culture has an Origin Myth and of course what we've got now with science is the prospect of constructing not just an Origin Myth but a real origin story. I think that gives us a real sense of who we are and where we came from. If we look at the evolution of humans on the planet, if we look at how humanity has changed over time -  at the origin of our own species in Africa, the colonization of the globe and all the migration of mixing that just carried on happening that we see that with genetics now.

It's not just a movement out of Africa and everyone stayed put, we've carried on migrating. And that's interesting because it means the ethnic groups that we see today don't have hard edges, we are all one species, we are all Homo sapiens, the ethnic groups we see today are just a snapshot in time. They're not the same as they were 1000 years ago or 5000 years ago or 10000 years ago. So we see patterns of differences being much more fluid than we thought earlier, that has all come about through genetics.

Kat:  I'm fascinated because as a geneticist I talk to people and` as soon as you say I'm interested in genetics, they say does this explain why I'm like this, and people in my family are like that and people of different. How have you tried to pull those threads together of the differences between people across the world come at the similarities, and then going right down to the family level and the relationships to each other?

Alice:  What's interesting is that there's a huge amount of variation between people,  even people in the same family, and members of the same population, and when you are comparing one population with another you'll find there's more variation within the population than between populations. That doesn't mean there isn't variation between them but it's actually quite small compared to the amount of variation you have within a population.

Each of us is a genetically unique human being, and we know the links between some of the genetics and the effects, the phenotype - the link between phenotype and genotype is fascinating. We're exploring that particularly in the third lecture, looking at parts of the genome where there is a good link between having a particular variant of a particular gene and the output of that, the outcome of that which might be things like skin colour, hair colour or it might be whether or not you can taste broccoli and it tastes bitter to you.

There's an awful lot of our genome that we don't understand in this way and that's why genetics is so exciting at the moment. Really understanding the links between genotype and phenotype - while a lot of traits are dependent on one gene, many are spread across many many genes so it's complicated.

And there's more than genetics too. The differences between us and only explained in terms of what our DNA looks like, there's also chance involved to in human development, so it is complicated and interesting.

Kat:  I find it so fascinating!  You spent a lot of time researching these lectures, putting them together, working at what stories are you going to tell. What are you most looking forward to when all the audience is here in this theatre, what are you most looking forward to doing?

Alice: I think it's the physicality of the lectures themselves. What you get to do with the Christmas lectures is illustrate things in quite unusual ways. So normally if I was giving a lecture I would just have a set of slides to show people. Sometimes I might have video clips, and that gets exciting! But in this lecture I'm going to have fantastic demos.

I've been working with the team here at the Royal Institution to come up with ideas for really interesting and some quite spectacular demonstrations. And if I'm talking about milk and the development of lactase persistence and the ability to digest lactose into adulthood I could talk about that but it would be really quite interesting to have a cow in the room with me wouldn't it?  So I will do.

If I'm talking about the difference between the bones in the limbs of an Armadillo and the bones in a horses leg, I can do that with pictures or using skeletons but wouldn't it be more interesting to have the live animals in the lecture theatre? So there's going to be lots of animals and lots of special guests in these lectures.

Kat:  I cannot wait!  It's such an iconic thing to do and I'm so excited to see you doing it this year.

Alice: Thank you. I'm very excited about it as well and I'm so delighted to have my friend's the esteemed professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin, Aoife McLysaght, doing it with me comet that's going to be a lot of fun.

Kat: That's a hell of  double act, good luck with it!

Alice: Thank you!

Kat: You’re listening to Genetics Unzipped, the Genetics Society podcast. Please do take a minute to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts from, and it would be great if you could rate and review the show - and tell all your friends.

Kat: As Alice mentioned, her guest lecturer and side-kick is Aoife McLysaght, sponsored by the Genetics Society. As professor of molecular evolution at Trinity College Dublin, she’s helping Alice drill down into the molecular nuts and bolts of how our genes make us who we are.

Aoife:  Alice Roberts was initially asked to do the Christmas lectures and the question of the lectures is who am I? We're looking at this at different levels of depth in terms of relationships to other living things and individuality and uniqueness.

In all of these areas it's really helpful to bring in a genetics angle, and Alice knows tons, she's really knowledgeable, but she wanted somebody may be more involved in the genetics to bring in some of that detail and that's when I was asked to participate, to join in this wonderful project. I was delighted to, partly because the Christmas lectures are so famous and so much fun, and partly because it's Alice and she is brilliant.

Kat: I know, right?  Tell me a bit about the overall structure of the lecture series and where you are bringing in your expertise?

Aoife: The theme is who am I and we are basically addressing that in three depths, three levels  of resolution. The first level is the coarsest resolution which is who are you? Well you are an animal and you're related to every other animal and every other thing on this planet. And the second lecture is you're not just any old animal, you're a human. And we talk about human origins and evolution. And the third lecture is you're not just any old human, you are you and we are looking at  individuality and how each of us is a total one off.

Kat: And when you're thinking about how to explain that to an audience like the Christmas lecture audience that is so broad, so interested, how do you decide what angle you are going to take and how you're going to zoom in when it comes to the genetic side of it?

Aoife:  Well actually this has been the amazing fun of these lectures. I've never worked on lectures in this way before because I've never had a collaborative team before. So anytime I've given a lecture before, whether it is a lecture in university or even a public lecture, it's just been me sitting down and saying what do I want to say and going ahead and crafting that in some way.

But in this case we've had these other people, Alice Roberts being one - she came up with the original first version of the lectures and I'm adding genetics to it. But then also the people in Windfall, the production company, they've been doing loads as well so we talk to each other we say we're trying to do this thing, could we do it this way, and then we'll say can we be silly about this and have some fun?

We're bringing in different angles and it's been this collaboration that I have never experienced before.  And actually I'm sure these things can go one way or the other but in this case it's going really well, it's been really enjoyable and a fun process. So I do things like say Alice is talking about the similarities in anatomy especially, skeletal anatomy between different mammals that have very different lifestyles, say humans and horse and bat and Armadillo.

She's looking at the bones and then I come in and say you can look at the DNA, and the same kind of trends that you are able to see with the naked eye, with the bones you can see that they are the same bones and they're very similar so they are recognisably the same thing but they're slightly different, so they are variations on a theme. And this is exactly parallel to in the DNA sequences.

We can see the DNA sequences are broadly the same, they are recognisably very similar but there are differences as well. So this parallel between what we can do looking at the anatomical level and the genetic level is really useful. So with DNA we can go deeper into things where there aren't any bones to compare or really obvious physical traits to compare so we can start including bacteria and everything into our comparison so it's really, really powerful.

Kat: One thing that I always think must be so much fun when he put together something like this it's really digging around,  digging out facts and researching. Were there any really cool facts that you aren't covered that were surprised to you, that were like "wow that's amazing that has to go in!"

Aoife:  I'm trying to think of the things during the course of this that I discovered for the first time. The process has been going on for quite a while now so I can't remember the Beginning anymore. There's definitely a load of really cool stuff. There are a few things that I have introduced to the lectures but there are some really peculiar genetics that made even me go "wow, I can't believe it!" I don't want to give too much away because I want people to tune in and watch it on the TV but there are some really interesting examples in terms of the genetics and the evolution where you go "actually, that's quite weird and cool."

Kat:  You're starting rehearsals now,  you're in the big red lecture theatre -  how does it feel to be standing there and thinking, this is going to go out at Christmas  and I'm part of this historic tradition?

Aoife: It's really exciting. I love that the lecture theatre here at the Royal Institution is really beautiful and I love it. I've given a few lectures here before and I have always loved it. It's actually been really exciting just this morning because it's the beginning of the rehearsals, so things that we've been talking about and writing about, editing drafts and re-editing drafts and tweaking words and everything, now it's coming to life.

It's really wonderful. Alice is the one who starts everything off and she's just so professional and amazing. I felt that I was lifted by her, because she's so good, and then I was like "OK this is how we doing it, we're doing it really well today," so I try and copy Alice.

And the other fun thing has been seeing some of the demos for the first time, seeing them in the flesh. Because we've been talking about these things and imagining them, and the people here in the Royal Institution have been building them which has been kind of amazing. Ever had a situation before where I've been able to say imagine if and I describe something hanging from the ceiling or swinging from the sides and other things joining in and they say "OK, we'll build it", and that's great.

Kat: You're very lucky! And if you can sum up what people will feel or experience when they sit down and watch the lectures over Christmas, what do you want them to come away with?

Aoife: There are a few things. One is that it's going to be fun. Myself and Alice are having fun, and we hope that fun will be infectious into the audience and the room and also onto the TV. We want people to obviously learn something about human origins and our relationship to other animals, but also very much to each other.

I think there's a scientific message which is almost a moral message as well, because what we see is that we are also related to each other. We are a very young species and we are very interconnected and we're all just one enormous family. So I think that's one happy family message for Christmas.

Kat: Of course, it wouldn’t be the Christmas lectures without loads of amazing live demonstrations, courtesy of professional pyromaniac Fran Scott and the RI demo team, who have been working their socks off to come up with amazing ways to demonstrate the science that Alice and Aoife are talking about. So I just had to ask her a question that I’ve always struggled with when it comes to dreaming up biology demos.

Kat:  Alice’s lectures are thinking about what am I, where do I come from, and it all boils down to genetics, organisms, bodies, bones. How do you go about thinking of demos for that because I always struggle thinking of genetics demos because DNA is really tiny. What are some of the things that you're doing?

Fran: It has been a difficult one, partly because this isn't my area of expertise, so coming up with things that are part of the explanation but also visually impressive has been a little bit of a challenge. To be fair Alice and Aoife have led the way with ideas. There is a fair bit that is analogous, but also we've just decided to think outside the box a bit.

So let's say when we're introducing a cell, yes you could just do that with slides and pictures but that's not what we're about. So when we introduce the cell we imagine a cell on the scale of the lecture theatre. So we've got a big balloon that comes down and that's a nucleus, and we've got balloon modelled organelles that a re going to be passed around the audience.

And then we pop the balloon in the centre and DNA floats down. So it's just thinking about small things that can actually make something that could just be explained verbally but making it visual so you can picture what they're thinking about.

Kat: And have you got a couple of demos that are really your favourite, or really there's one that you just love?

Fran: There's one at the moment but I'm trying to get into the lecture, but at the moment the presenters aren't liking it so we'll see. I like it but I'm a pyrotechnician so of course I would. It's a good bit of fire...

Kat:  I was going to ask, are you going to get any fire in it? Because I know it's your thing,setting things on fire!

Fran: It's something that I need to practice tonight actually,  which is when fire was introduced it meant that we could cook our food, which meant that digestion was easier, which meant that we could get more calories more easily, basically the net calories. So I'm going to have fun with that. So we've got the hand-held pyrotechnic fire launcher I suppose it is called,  so we fire that into a tray that spells fire and each of those catch fire, that's the plan. And also we've got this beautiful mobile which we spent all of yesterday building. It's halfway there and it is a mobile, like a child's mobile, of the Tree of Life.

Kat: I saw some of this earlier in the theatre with beautiful origami animals, what has it got on it?

Oh everything, horse, human, bat, tiktaalik, puffer fish which is quite entertaining, a crab, so they all tangle down at the different sections. For me as I suppose I am a neuroscientist by training but physics really gets me going, but the centre of gravity we've had to work out for each of the individual animals and we have to put lights on it - each section has to be balanced individually.

Then we have to come up with a concertina effect to make it go up in the theatre and up and beyond where the projector comes in so from an engineering point of view and from an artistic point of view it's something that is beautiful but has taken so much physics to make it work, I think that might be my favourite at the moment.

Kat: This  is your second year doing the Christmas lectures and I have to ask, are you going to get nervous? You have to make these demos work so do you get butterflies in your stomach?

Fran: To be honest you're too tired for that. We've been working on this for months in advance but the ideas only really start to happen this week so that's a quite an intense week for us. We have to make these demos happen in time so we rehearse during the day, we get a dinner in and then we build at night so they are ready for the next day. We've got two weeks until we record the next lecture and we have got a lot to build.

We have some science technicians coming in to help us for the final week of building which is going to be such a help but there are such a lot of props, and we're making a lot of accurate props. We make a prototype and then they say "oh no we don't want the letter there we want it here", and you say "fair enough" but that means going back to the drawing board and doing it again.So it's just making sure that everything is exactly as they want it in advance.

Kat: It seems like a huge amount of effort to do a short series of lectures and some TV programmes, which admittedly are watched by loads of people. Do these lectures and demos live on? How do they carry on?

Fran: They do. So I oversee the international tour that we do. We go to Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong and we are looking to grow that as well. We also do a show at the big bang engineering fair which is sometimes based at the Christmas lectures. I've only been back 2 months from our international tour so the 2017 Christmas lectures has only just finished for me - now I have to switch my brain on to genetics and do this month's Christmas lectures.

They also get shorter, so instead of being three hours, in Singapore it's a 90 minute TV show, in Japan it's a one hour lecture, in Hong Kong it's a 1 hour lecture, so it's my job to consolidate the 3 hours that we have into something that's workable and in a different culture as well.

Kat: And finally, we've talked about your love of setting stuff on fire. What is your favourite demo ever, what do you love to do, what is your greatest hit?

Fran: It's one I didn't know about before I started doing it I suppose. My brother bought me a Raspberry Pi for Christmas a fair few years ago and I thought "I don't even know how to switch it on but it sounds cool". So I worked for quite a few months on figuring out my Raspberry Pi and I think there's something cool I could do with this.

I came up with a way where we could live code explosions from it but using the crowd, so the crowd would decide the order the explosions would go off in, I would code it on stage and then we could make those explosions happen. What I love about that is it broke down coding to people so they knew what it was about, it got in my pyrotechnics, but also it is one that I was actually invited to do on the Christmas lectures when Danielle George did them, because they were on coding. In a way that gave me my insight into the Christmas lectures which ended up with me having this job now, so it's a demo that means more than just the demo I would say.

Kat: You’re listening to Genetics Unzipped, the Genetics Society podcast. Please do take a minute to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts from, and it would be great if you could rate and review the show - it does make a difference, so thank you very much.

And finally, the Genetics Society’s partnership with the Royal Institution for the 2018 Christmas lectures is just the start of a whole year of celebrations for the society’s centenary in 2019. I caught up with centenary project manager Cristina Fonseca to find out more about what’s in store over the coming year.

Cristina: This has been a long time in the making. The committee actually assigned a centenary working group and they been thinking about the centenary celebrations for three or four years now. They decided that it would be a good idea to set up a collaboration with the Royal Institution and get someone in place, in this case me, the centenary project manager, to oversee the whole centenary.

They had a few ideas from the beginning. So when I started they had a few things that they were very keen on doing, and then they gave me quite a lot of freedom to develop and we developed together with the working group everything that we have now in terms of the whole spectrum of events we have for the centenary.

Kat: The  Royal Institution is somewhere I always associate with the Christmas lectures, and really excitingly the Genetic Society is partnering with the Royal Institution for the Christmas lectures this year. Tell me how that came about and the idea behind them? We are absolutely thrilled to be partnering with the Royal Institution for the Christmas lectures, and also to have Aoife McLysaght as the genetic Society assistant lecturer.

The idea came about because within the Royal Institution every year they set up a different theme and we discussed with the Royal Institution that they were thinking of having something around the theme that is now the theme of this year's lectures, which is who am I?  That partnership felt organic at the time because the partnership between the Genetics Society and the Royal Institution to deliver the centenary events was already in place so it felt like a natural step to take.

We're really pleased - Aoife and Alice I'm going to be excellent lecturers and we are very pleased for the focus of the lectures is a bit of genetics, it's not all about genetics but there is an emphasis on it so we are very pleased to be associated with them because it's such a huge thing with in science communication.

Kat: That's not the only thing that's just kicking off the whole year -  what other events have you got planned coming up? The Christmas lectures will be a big kick-off to 2019 but we tried our best to have events that would cover not only our membership but would be interesting to the public as well.

We will have the international Mendel day which will be celebrated here at the Royal Institution - usually it is celebrated at the Mendel museum  in the Czech Republic. We also have a centenary conference in Edinburgh in November, and those are more scientific events geared more towards our membership.

But we also have a lot of public facing events such as the Chelsea Flower Show. We are going to have a garden, we're having an exhibition in the discovery zone. We also go to take part of vet exhibition to the Einstein garden at the Green Man Festival which we are really excited about as well.

Kat: So you have all these events happening, you're taking your Chelsea Flower Show garden around the place, what about the actual birth itself? The centenary celebrations, what's happening then?

Cristina: The centenary celebration is actually on the 25th of June and it's going to be at the John Innes Centre. William Bateson, who was the founder of the Genetics Society was also a director of the John Innes Centre,  and we felt it would be appropriate to honour that connection that we have between the two institutions.

We are going to award Sir Paul Nurse with the centenary medal, he used to be president of the genetics Society, and we are also going to mark the day with two blue plaques - one for William Bateson and one for Edith Rebecca Saunders. We found out through our archives  that she was one of the main forces behind setting up the society back in 1919.

Kat: That's really exciting to discover that there was a woman involved right at the beginning, it's particularly a time I think of as the time of the Great Men of genetics, people like Bateson and Fisher and all these kind of people.

Cristina: It's fantastic. We have the letters that acknowledge that, William Bateson acknowledge that she was the main force behind the setting up of the society. Back in those days women didn't get as much acknowledgement in terms of their scientific feats as they do now, although she is considered the mother of plant genetics in the UK, and we were very thrilled to honour her now and show that there were very much women behind the starting up of genetics in the UK.

Kat: Of all the activities you have planned,  what are you most excited about? Because I have organised all of these I feel very strongly about each one of them.

Cristina: I really cannot wait for Chelsea Flower Show because it's something I never thought I would do and because it is just going through the whole process of defining what an exhibition would look like, what kind of glowers we can use to convey the messages that we want to send and how the public is going to be receiving that sort of message and the type of exhibition that we will create.

Kat: Moving away from the events and things that people can actually go and do, are you doing some activities online? Obviously this  podcast is one of them but are there other things are going to be building throughout the centenary year?

Cristina: Yes, so of course launching the new Genetics Society podcast is one of them, and we are very thrilled about having you on board. We have a few social media campaigns, in January we will have Gene-uary, so  we will have on Twitter and Facebook age in everyday.

We have a few other social media campaigns throughout the year but we also have been developing the history of genetics in 100 ideas, so that will be populated on our website. It won't have all the 100 ideas at once, we will populate it throughout the year with different things and we are very excited because we think it's going to be something that can have legacy but also be used as an educational resource and people can go and look up different things about the world of genetics and the discoveries that have been done it in the last 100 years.

Kat: And if people want to find out more about the events, where can people get more information?

Cristina: All of the events and everything that we are doing will be on our website, Our Twitter account is very good to follow what we are doing and if you have any questions or if you would like to volunteer, because we are looking for quite a lot of volunteers for all of these activities, you can contact us. The email is on our website and we will be very keen to have anyone who is interested be involved in any of these events.

Kat: If you’d like to keep up with all the news and follow along with Gene-uary - which you’ll love if you were a fan of the Naked Genetics podcast Gene of the Month - head over to Twitter and follow @gensocUK

And, of course, don’t forget to tune in to the Christmas lectures on BBC Four at 8pm from the 26th to the 28th December, and on iPlayer after that.

For more information about this podcast including show notes, transcripts, links, references and everything else head over to You can find us on Twitter @geneticsunzip or email us at with any questions and feedback. Please do take a minute to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts from, and it would be great if you could rate and review - and tell all your friends.

Genetics Unzipped is presented by me, Kat Arney, and produced by First Create the Media for the Genetics Society - one of the oldest learned societies in the world dedicated to supporting and promoting the research, teaching and application of genetics. You can find out more and apply to join at  Thanks to Hannah Varrall for production, thank you for listening, and until next time, goodbye.

003 - Hunting Huntington's, Nobel viruses and spidergoats

003 - Hunting Huntington's, Nobel viruses and spidergoats

001 - Get unzipped!

001 - Get unzipped!