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Science Thu, Nov 11, 04


Breaking down the language barriers in science


The competitors in UCD's Science Uncovered face a difficult challenge - to cut out the off-putting jargon and reach the layperson, writes Dick Ahlstrom

The dangers of an "evil twin", using wetlands to mop up pollutants, and developing computers that can write the news are up for discussion next week when University College Dublin stages Science Uncovered.

The event serves a range of issues, according to the organiser, Annette Forde of UCD's department of biochemistry; the single most important issue is public understanding of science.

"We are trying to reach the public and get science out to a wider audience," she says. "You have to communicate with the public and business community and let them know how their tax money is being spent on research."

It is also an important part of the university's 150th anniversary celebrations, and also links with Science Week Ireland activities.

The free event takes place on Tuesday, November 16th at 7 p.m. in the O'Reilly Hall on the Belfield campus. It will be chaired by RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy, and the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Tony Killeen, will be on hand to present awards to the five participants.

Science Uncovered follows the winning formula of UCD's other main foray into public understanding of science, the highly successful Merville Lay Seminars, this year renamed AccesScience 04.

Both involve young graduate researchers who must stand up before a lay audience and explain their work in ordinary language. No jargon is allowed and success is measured in how effectively they are understood.

While AccesScience is a competition involving just two UCD science departments - pharmacology and biochemistry - Science Uncovered is a straightforward presentation bringing in all 12 science faculties.

These 12 have been reduced to just five presentations covering biomedical sciences, mathematical sciences, biological sciences, computer science and the physical sciences.

The topics included in Science Uncovered, a one-off event that Forde hopes may become an annual one, cover a variety of scientific fields.

Niamh Tuite of the department of pharmacology opens proceedings with a talk on the search for non-animal alternatives to chemical testing. Her research involves using cultured kidney cells to measure toxicity.

Kevin Jennings of the department of mathematics will discuss "perfect difference sets", a mathematical concept linked to natural symmetry in nature. Perfect difference sets are difficult to find and to build, even with powerful computers, Jennings says.

Ciara Finnegan of the department of botany will detail her work using wetlands to clean up pollution. Wetlands are ideal because the plants and organisms growing in them trap pollutants naturally.

Nicola Stokes of the department of computer science will discuss how computers can be used to take large amounts of text and produce summaries. The system "reads" the words and writes its own précis after analysing the content.

Theresa Ahern of the department of chemistry will deliver the final presentation, on drugs that have "evil twins", complementary forms that can have a hidden toxic effect.

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