May 28, 2010

The University of Twitter, UK: A Quick Survey

Twitter icon for a fluid app by Miha  FilejMany people are still trying to work out exactly what twitter is good for [1] but with more than 100 million users worldwide making around 50 million tweets per day, the website is clearly popular with those who like to communicate via short “sound bites” of 140 characters or less.

Communication is an important part of what Universities are all about, so how many UK universities are on twitter? Knowing this could help us assess the use of the latest web technology in research where adoption has been rather limited so far, especially in Science  [2]. Rather than survey all the @UniversitiesUK, for a quick overview, let’s pick the twenty Russell Group Universities. According to their website, the Russell Group:

“represents the 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.”

So they are exactly the kind of places you would expect to be embracing and experimenting with new technology. The table below shows which of these institutions are on twitter:

@RussellGroup University @Twitter?
University of Birmingham @unibirmingham
University of Bristol @bristoluni
University of Cambridge @cambridge_uni
Cardiff University @cardiffuni
University of Edinburgh @uniofedinburgh
University of Glasgow @glasgowuni
Imperial College London @imperialcollege
King’s College London None as of May 2010*
University of Leeds @universityleeds
University of Liverpool @liverpoolfirst
London School of Economics None as of May 2010*
University of Manchester None as of May 2010*
Newcastle University None as of May 2010*
University of Nottingham @uniofnottingham
University of Oxford @uniofoxford
Queen’s University Belfast @queensubelfast
University of Sheffield @sheffielduni
University of Southampton @southamptonnews
University College London @uclnews
University of Warwick @warwickuni

There are plenty of important UK universities (@1994group, @UniAlliance@million_plus etc) excluded from this quick-and-dirty survey but it gives us an idea of what is going on. As of May 2010, 16 out of 20 Russell Group Universities are on twitter – perhaps this is another reason to love Higher Education because it is full of twittering twits?

But the last words on the United Kingdom of Twitter should go to the @number10gov Prime Minister David Cameron who has enlightening views on twitter including this quote below:

“We complain about the sound bite culture [3] but if you think about it and go back in history sound bites have always been used. Do to others as you would be done by, that is a fantastic sound bite … If you can’t convey what you’re trying to convey in a few short sentences you’ve got a problem and you have a particular problem in the media age. You have to work at communicating something complicated in a simple way or you’re not going to take people with you.”


  1. Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, & Sue Moon (2010). What is Twitter, a social network or a news media? WWW ’10: Proceedings of the 19th international conference on World Wide Web, New York, NY, USA, 591-600 DOI: 10.1145/1772690.1772751
  2. Amy Maxmen (2010). Science Networking Gets Serious Cell, 141 (3), 387-389 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.04.019
  3. David Slayden and Rita Kirk Whillock (1998). Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World. Sage Publications, Inc. ISBN:0761908722

* These Universities had no central account that I could find in May 2010 but some have departmental accounts like  @kingsbiomed, @kingsmedicine, @lsepublicevents, @lse_recruitment, @mcrmuseum and @manunicareers etc which are not counted here because they don’t represent the whole University in question. The University of Manchester has an account @UoMRSSFeed but it isn’t official and hasn’t been updated recently. Dear beloved Alma mater, sort it out!

[Creative commons licensed picture of Twitter icon for a fluid app via Miha Filej.]

March 16, 2010

DNA, Diversity and You at Cambridge Science Festival

Sequence BraceletsAs part of Cambridge Science festival last weekend, I joined a group of about 40 volunteers from The Sanger and EBI at an event “DNA, diversity and you”. This was a series of education and outreach events designed to explore how differences in your genetic code make you different from other individuals, and what makes the humans different from other living things –  with a bit of computational biology thrown in for good measure.  Here are some notes on a selection of the activities, in case you ever find yourself trying to explain biology, computer science or bioinformatics to anyone aged 4-18 and beyond. These resources are all tried, tested and fun to work with, for students and teachers alike:

  1. DNA origami create your own origami DNA molecule, and hands on way of learning abou tthe double helix structure of DNA
  2. DNA sequence bracelets (see picture right). Thread coloured beads according to sequence sections from a range of organisms including trout, chimpanzee, butterfly, a flesh-eating microbe and rotting corpse flower.
  3. Yummy gummy DNA (under 5’s) build your own DNA helix out of sweets and cocktail sticks. Then scoff it all afterwards.
  4. What’s my name in DNA? find out what your name is in DNA, and what the corresponding (hypothetical) protein is using software from deCODE.
  5. Function Finders translate DNA into a sequence of amino acids using wooden translator blocks, then find out which organism the amino acid sequence is from.
  6. Genome sizes (with seatbelts) Rank organisms (inc. human, zebrafish, mosquito, sugar cane and yeast) and find out if they are in the right order. Results are often not what you would expect.
  7. Play your genes right. A card-based guessing game which compares the number of genes in the human genome with the number of genes from a range of different organisms include the flu virus, E. coli bacteria, armadillo, rice plant and others.
  8. Genome Jigsaws for illustrating the process of finishing supposedly “finished” genomes, by putting together a square sequence jigsaw following base pairing rules to end up with a complete finished square.
  9. DNA Time Team examines of aspects ancestry and evolution. The activity encourages people to work out the sequence of a common ancestor by filling in the gaps on a simple evolutionary tree.
  10. Spot the difference with proteins. Comparing Heat Shock Protein (HSP) in human and other organisms to illustrate how different regions of the protein vary between different organisms and how this affects function.
  11. Ready, steady sort: a sorting network that demonstrates one technique that computers use to sort through large amounts of information like sequence data. This comes straight from Computer Science Unplugged by Tim Bell, Mike Fellows and Ian Witten. This activity can be done either as a smaller board game, or as a larger floor game. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you time people for an added competitive element (see video below)

There were a whole bunch of new activities at the festival this year, maybe these will appear on the your genome website in the future. Anyway, it was great fun to get involved, there is nothing quite like the challenge of explaining parallel computing to young kids, teenagers and their parents – actually much easier than you’d think if you’ve got access to great teaching materials.

Thanks to Francesca Gale and Louisa Wright for all the hard work that went into organising this fun and successful event.

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