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Science comes to life at the Centre of the Cell

by Josephine Querido | Analysis

18 September 2009

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Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton opens the Centre of the Cell

Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton opens the Centre of the Cell

How many human cells can you fit on the dot of a one penny piece? And how many cells in your body are not actually your own? You can find the answer to these and many other questions at the Centre of the Cell – a brand new science centre that officially launched in London earlier this month.

Unlike the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, which are nestled in the cosy “museum land” of South Kensington, the Centre of the Cell is off the beaten tourist track, in the unexpected location of East London – Whitechapel to be precise.

It’s in an unusual location, but then this is no ordinary science education centre. The Centre of the Cell is located slap bang within the working biomedical research labs of the Blizard Institute – part of Queen Mary University of London.  And it’s this proximity to real-life science and scientists that makes the Centre unique in the world.

Inspiring the scientists of tomorrow

The original idea of having a visitor centre for the public at the newly-built Blizard Institute came from Director Professor Mike Curtis. But the actual Centre you can see today is the vision of Cancer Research UK-funded scientist, Professor Fran Balkwill.

It’s taken over 5 years of planning, hard work, and tireless fundraising to make Fran’s dream a reality, and it’s testament to what one person’s drive and determination can do when backed by a dedicated team of people.

Fran is a cancer researcher with a passion for sharing her love of science. In fact, in 2005 she won the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for her outstanding work in communicating science. Fran runs a busy research lab, developing new treatments for ovarian cancer.

In her own words, the aim of the Centre is “simply, to inspire doctors and scientists of the future, especially in the local community.” So, when planning the Centre, Fran and her team went out to schools in East London to find out how best to engage children in science.
When they asked schoolchildren to describe a scientist, they generally said they were white, middle-aged… and mad!

Few knew that our bodies are made of cells or that by finding out what goes wrong with cells in disease, infection or injury, you can help people to get better.

The Centre aims to break down these stereotypes and to unravel the mysteries of cells – to be a place where, as its strap line says, “Science comes to life”.

Inside the Centre of the Cell

Inside the Centre of the Cell

Stepping inside the Centre…

As you enter the glass-fronted Blizard Institute, the orange pod that is the Centre rises above you, hovering like a spaceship above the labs. The pod represents a blastocyst – a group of cells at the very early stage of an embryo’s development. To get to the Centre, you walk up the stairs, along a glass corridor and over a glass bridge, from where you can peer down at scientists at work in the labs below.

The inside the pod has the futuristic air of walking into the Tardis. Images are projected onto the floor and ceiling, and there are flashing lights lining the floor. Computer touch-screens line the edge of the pod and in the middle, like in most cells, there’s a nucleus. Except this nucleus opens up to reveal a host of whizzy interactive touch-table games.

There are all sorts of activities: you can build a heart; you can make a virtual anti-cancer drug; or you can learn about genes and inherited diseases. In fact, there are over 40 different films and games which help visitors understand different aspects of cells and biomedical research – ranging from how to grow cells in a lab to organ surgery, and from the ethics and morals of genetic diagnosis to a cancer patient’s journey.

Many of the games are also available on the Centre of the Cell website, which gives the Centre a global reach. It’s already had over 10.2 million hits from 142 countries.

Shaped by schoolchildren and scientists

The project has involved over 8,000 schoolchildren, mainly from Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, who’ve helped to shape and test ideas for the Centre.  As Fran says, “Quite a few ideas have fallen by the wayside because they didn’t work with the kids.”

What gives the Centre an extra edge is that, not only can you look down and actually see scientists at work, but the content and ideas for the interactive games has also been driven by scientists. Over 80 of Fran’s colleagues have been involved in the Centre’s content in some way. They may feature in the different interactive videos about their work, or they may have provided movies or images of cells they are working on for the different games.

Some have even volunteered to be trained as explainers for the Centre – 130 have already been trained up and another 70 are due to be trained soon, so that every day, there will be at least one scientist on duty in the pod to answer visitors’ questions.

Thousands of people have been involved from all walks of life to make the project a reality – architects, engineers, IT and design specialists, science communication professionals, scientists, the university and schoolchildren. Not forgetting the funders – over 45 different organisations, trusts, companies and private individuals have helped to fund the project, including Cancer Research UK.

A futuristic science centre

A futuristic science centre

The future’s bright…

“This is just the beginning of what we want to achieve with this project,” says Fran. “To reflect the ever-dynamic nature of biomedical research, we need to keep the pod continually updated with new interactives.”

And that’s not all. There are possible plans afoot to build a lab where schoolchildren can come and try their hand at doing some scientific research.

Fran hopes that the Centre of the Cell will be a model for scientists at other biomedical research institutes to communicate what they do. “Our ambition is to have clones of the Centre of the Cell around the world and in other parts of the UK.”

At the moment, the Centre is mainly taking bookings from school groups, but they hope to expand opening times to evenings and weekends, if funds allow. Admission is completely free. So if you’re a science teacher, book your class in and go and have a look.  And if you’re not, then there may well be opportunities to see the Centre for yourself soon. You’ll be fascinated by what you find.


Josephine Querido is a Senior Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK