Building a heart healthy generation

Research Updates
Deaths from heart disease are predicted to increase in coming years, due to the modern epidemics of obesity and diabetes – both strong risk factors for heart disease.

At The Heart Research Institute, we consider it an important responsibility to inform the public of these diseases, and correct the problem as early as possible.

The best place to focus is on school-age students, so that habits of good diet and exercise can be established while young. That’s why we take part in Scientists in Schools, a national program from the Australian Government and CSIRO, where researchers partner with schools to inspire, teach and entertain students.

As part of this program, Dr Philip Morgan from the Free Radical Group has recently started volunteering at Sutherland Shire Christian School. He’ll make several visits to the school this term, and work with students from all grade levels.

We talked to Phil about his experiences after his first day volunteering at the school:

What were your general impressions of the day?

My day at Sutherland Shire Christian School went really well, both the students and I enjoyed ourselves. The year 9 science students learned about heart disease in a fun way, and the year 12 biology students learned about heart disease and lupus (which I studied for my PhD).

What experiment or lesson was best received by the teenagers?                                                                    

Two highlights: First, all the classes really enjoyed the quiz part of the lessons, where we played heads or tails [a true-or-false game]. Some of the questions were serious (smoking is a risk factor for heart disease – True), whilst others were fun (Elvis Presley wrote a book on heart health – False).

Second, for each of the classes I placed a rasher of bacon in a beaker, and covered it with bleach. Over time the solution would slowly bubble, go yellow and murky, and form a froth, as the bacon slowly dissolved. The demonstration highlights the action of the blood enzyme myeloperoxidase, which produces bleach when it's released by some white blood cells. In healthy people, this is part of the immune response that the body uses to kill bacteria and other invading pathogens. We talked about how elevated myeloperoxidase levels have been implicated in worse outcomes in people with heart disease, and how it also makes things like pus and mucus turn green.

Was there anything that surprised you?            

The year 9 science students asked some really good questions. They've recently been studying genetics, and were able to apply the information they'd learned to questions about heart disease. One student asked whether it would be possible to identify a gene from an animal that doesn't develop heart disease, and transfer that property to humans. Another related his knowledge of the regenerative abilities of zebrafish, and asked if it might be possible to use genes from zebrafish to get humans to be able to re-grow parts of the body damaged by heart disease.

Do you feel it's important for all scientists to reach out to the community like this?

Yes! If we want school students to be interested in science, and to consider a career in science, we need to show them where it can take them. Giving them real-world applications, and showing them what a real scientist does, helps them to see that the things they learn in school can actually be used to do something interesting and worthwhile that might make a real difference to peoples' lives. If done well, it's also an enjoyable experience for both the scientist and the students. It's also important to show them that they can actually do the job of a scientist. I did my schooling at another high school in the area, so they know that if someone from a similar area can become a research scientist, they can too.

 If you are interested in the Scientists in Schools Program visit www.scientistsinschools.edu.au
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