The Thomas Hardye School

Thomas Hardye Biology A-level students go behind the scenes
at the Public Health England Laboratories at Porton Down.

Porton Visit


On Monday 11th June, 25 sixth form Biology students, many from the GENEsis genetics club took part in an historic visit to the Public Health England research laboratories at Porton Down. They were welcomed by a team of leading scientists and spent a busy day in lectures and activities that highlighted the important work carried out by the UK’s foremost disease research center.

Topics included a run through of the history of plagues and epidemics, followed by an in-depth look at Lyme disease and the lifecycle of ticks. This dove-tailed perfectly with the research work the students have been carrying out in school throughout the year. Students have been extracting and analyzing DNA from ticks kindly donated by pet owners in the local area in their search for the Borrelia spirochaete (a kind of spiral shaped bacterium) which is the causal agent in Lyme Disease. They have been using an analysis of the samples using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) in the school Biology department to amplify and thereby detect genes from Borrelia as a part of a research project. This has allowed students to investigate the local distribution of this pathogen.

The lectures also highlighted how Lyme Disease has been increasingly in the news, with a series of high profile celebrities now discussing their own experiences as sufferers of this potentially very serious disease. Lyme disease is sometimes hard to diagnose – with a range of symptoms such as headaches, flu like pains and fatigue and not all patients exhibit the “characteristic” Erythema migrans rash (which looks rather like a bulls-eye target on some people).

Students were also able to see inside many of the laboratories and were given an excellent demonstration of electron microscopy - which was a real hit with some students. For many one of the highlights of the day was the chance to visit the Ebola virus DNA analysis training laboratories where scientists from many countries receive training to enable them to safely work in the field in the event of an Ebola outbreak. It was inspiring to hear the first-hand experience of two of the scientists who had volunteered to work in Sierra Leone during the 2014 outbreak.

There was an exciting end to the day with the announcement of a positive result for Borrelia from one of the DNA samples from our study set that the PHE scientists had been analysing during the day. Our students had previously identified this DNA sample as being a possible positive result for the Lyme Disease causing organism, a finding now confirmed by the team at PHE who carried out the more advanced n ideas for “real time PCR” on several of our tick DNA samples.

Students were really positive about the impact the event had on their understanding both of the scientific work carried out at PHE, much of which relates directly to the A level Biology curriculum, and their understanding of what researchers and scientists in laboratories do on a day to day basis. This has given them really useful ideas for topics for further independent study along with excellent insights into potential university course choices and possible career paths.

Quotes from students after the event included “I could see myself working there”, “you don’t normally see how much work is going on behind the scenes for diagnosing diseases”, and “it was interesting to see the jobs that people did and the equipment they worked with.” Students found the Ebola lab especially interesting. They said that see it “made it personal, you see Ebola on the news and feel it doesn’t directly affect us, seeing the Ebola training lab and talking to scientists who went there made it seem much closer”.  

Dr Tim Brooks from PHE said “It is always refreshing for us to talk to young people, as they are bright, curious and often ask pertinent and searching questions that our usual audiences would either not think of or be afraid to voice.”

All of the students and staff from THS really enjoyed the day and would like to offer their heart felt “thanks” Dr Brookes, Dr Semper and their dedicated and enthusiastic team of scientists, who took the time to bring their work to life for us on this visit. We look forward to a repeat visit next year!





June 2018