IRIS students break new ground in fields from astronomy to medicine

April 2016


Meet the scientists breaking ground in diabetes treatment and mapping space radiation – and they’re all still at school.


There’s a community of UK scientists breaking new ground in fields from astronomy to medicine. Some are mapping radiation in space, others working on a new way to help heal wounds, one has just worked out an early diagnosis for Alzheimer’s and another group is probing the genetic causes of diabetes.


But while they’re pioneering, dedicated and changing science all the time, not one of them has so much as a university degree. Nor an A level for that matter.


That’s because they’re all still at school.

It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to do work that you wouldn’t usually be able to until you are at degree level. It really helps with A levels as well.

Cal HewittSimon Langton Grammar School

Supported by the charity The Institute for Research in Schools – or IRIS – the young people are given the opportunity to work on real-life scientific research as part of their school work.


The idea behind the project is that conventional science lessons artificially suck out one of the most important and interesting bits of working in science: the challenge of and opportunity to discover something new. Iris is about putting that straight.


The Institute’s Chair of Trustees, Professor Steven Rose of Imperial College, London, says: ‘Undertaking real research – tackling a problem to which no-one knows the answer – shows how enormously enjoyable it is to be a research scientist.


‘The Institute for Research in Schools introduces real research to students at schools and colleges across the country and allows them to experience the huge pleasure of uncovering something new.’

Cal Hewitt and Gavin Kapuscinski at Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury spend every period five on Wednesday afternoons tracking cosmic rays in space with a detector that uses technology from CERN.


Their work is invaluable to understanding how cosmic rays may affect astronauts in space – so much so that they have been in touch with Tim Peake and are regularly asked by NASA to share their findings.


‘It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to do work that you wouldn’t usually be able to until you are at degree level or even PhD. It really helps with A levels as well,’ says Cal.


‘Even friends who are not taking physics A level have been getting involved and are becoming interested.’


The project has been running for several years and as older students pass the baton to younger, many go on to do further research in higher education.

While several of the projects have been going for some time, an event at the Science Museum last week marked the official launch of Iris, which has ambitious plans to involve students across the country in real life scientific research.


Iris helps link up university-based researchers with school students and teachers. For example, space and atmospheric physicist Dr Jonathan Eastwood from Imperial College has been supporting Cal, Gavin and their friends on the cosmic ray – or Lucid – project.


Dr Becky Parker, who has been heading up the projects at Simon Langton School and is the energy behind Iris believes this approach could revolutionise teaching.


‘It’s much more exciting when the answer isn’t at the back of the book,’ she says.


She adds that getting involved in real projects also energises teachers, many of whom have a research background themselves and a passion for their subject.


Nasrin Ahmed, 19, Safa Himat, 18, and Naeema Farrah, 17, are all working on ground-breaking research as well – although theirs is much closer to home.


They noticed that in the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets where they live there is a much higher instance of type-two diabetes than in the white population.

They have pinpointed a particular gene variation that may be more prevalent among sufferers of type-two diabetes and are looking into whether those of Bangladeshi origin are more likely to have it.


‘We wanted to get involved because this is something that affects the people we know – our friends, parents, neighbours – and we want to be able to do something,’ says Nasrin.


All three have applied to study medicine or biomedical science at university. They receive support from researchers at Queen Mary’s University who also take and analyse blood samples for them as students are not permitted to handle blood themselves.


Another poster boy of the scheme is Krtin Nithiyanandam from Sutton Grammar School, who at 15 developed a potential test for Alzheimer’s disease, which could help diagnose the condition ten years before the first symptoms appear.


He recently won the Scientific American Innovator Award at the Google Science Fair Prize for his pioneering work.


Iris is hoping to open up research projects to school students across the country – and possibly even the world. In fact Toby Freeland and Amy Lewis are already working on a research project that with the help of fellow students around the world will enable them to quickly build up a map of the earth’s oceans.


With a taste for the thrill of new discovery, many students go on to study science and engineering at university. And then come back to the new cohort of students for help.