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Cheltenham Science Festival 2024: A personal reflection

14th June, 2024

As a summer communications intern at LifeArc, I had an incredible opportunity to attend the Cheltenham Science Festival, an annual event held in Cheltenham, England, that brings together scientists, researchers, and the public to explore the latest developments in science through workshops and interactive exhibits. This event truly reshaped my perception of science and its potential to inspire young individuals. Growing up in Ukraine, I never had the chance to attend a similar festival, where science becomes engaging and inspiring through interactive activities and expert discussions.

One of the highlights of my experience was joining a panel session on gene therapy, a revolutionary field that has a prominent potential for treating genetic diseases. The panel featured renowned experts, including Professor Bobby Gaspar, Dr. Rajvinder Karda, Dharmisha Stezaly, and Vivienne Parry, who shared their personal experience and expertise on the future prospects of gene therapy. It was fascinating to learn about the promising potential of one-time treatments with life-long benefits, supported by a real-life example of Sebastian Stezaly, who was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) at 13 weeks old and received gene therapy shortly after. It was inspiring to see how much progress he has made so far and to learn that the continuous benefits of the treatment are yet to come. 

Being an economics student, I had very limited knowledge and understanding of gene therapy prior to attending the event. It was really helpful to think about gene therapy in an analogy proposed by Dr. Rajvinder Karda. You can think of the virus (gene therapy) as the Amazon driver, the DNA sequence as the package, and the target cell as the delivery address. So, the main goal of gene therapy would be to deliver the right parcel to the correct address. This analogy helped me grasp the basic concept of gene therapy and understand the complexity of the process. Designing a gene therapy that reaches the intended destination and successfully performs its desired function is a complex and time-consuming process that requires extensive collaboration among scientists worldwide.  

Beyond the panel discussion, I had the chance to participate in the Innovation Hubs for Gene Therapies interactive stand, where together with other volunteers, we created a fun and engaging environment for the younger generation to explore science. We had a variety of activities designed to spark their curiosity and make science accessible and interesting. Children could make bracelets with beads representing different DNA sequences, get temporary tattoos featuring DNA designs (these were so popular, we ran out of them on the very first day!), fold origami to create DNA models, and even perform genetic experiments using science kits. The activities were so popular that we always had a long queue of children waiting for their turn to engage in the activities! Seeing the excitement and curiosity on their faces as they discovered this new side of science was truly inspiring. Throughout the event, it was clear that not only the children were impressed by the engaging activities, but even their parents and teachers, often taking notes and photos to incorporate similar ideas into their school science classes, hoping to spark enthusiasm and curiosity in their students.

As I reflect on my experience at the Cheltenham Science Festival, I often think about how different my experience with science was growing up in Ukraine. Back then, I had very limited opportunities to engage with the fun and exciting side of science. In school, science was often presented as a dry and boring subject, taught only by textbooks and lectures, which could potentially discourage students from pursuing careers in this field. I remember feeling almost discouraged from exploring a path in science myself.

However, attending the festival reshaped my understanding of science, particularly in the field of gene therapy. The friendly atmosphere and the chance to engage in all the activities had a profound impact on me. Working alongside the inspiring and passionate team at the festival, I discovered a whole new side of science that I had never experienced before. It was encouraging to see science presented in such an accessible and engaging way, sparking curiosity and enthusiasm, especially in the younger generation.

This experience made me realise the importance of making science approachable and exciting for everyone, from an early age. By fostering an interest in science early on and showcasing its fascinating and fun aspects, we can inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this motivational event, and I sincerely hope that more young people will have the chance to experience science in such a fascinating and transformative way.


Author: Mariya Spatar, LifeArc Communications Strategist

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