Podcast: Feeling like a scientist, wastewater disease tests, and summer droughts

September podcast


In this edition: When a scientist begins to feel like one, monitoring wastewater for diseases like COVID-19, and how droughts led to hosepipe bans.

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News: Flu campaign kick-off and 3D-printing drones – We find out what we might expect from this year’s flu season as the vaccination drive gets going, and learn about new drones that could 3D-print and repair buildings, working together as a fleet.


Feeling like a scientist: the space scientist – When does a scientist first start to feel like one? We introduce a new series exploring the careers of some of our scientists, beginning with Jesús Manuel Muñoz Tejeda, who studies space propulsion technology.


Testing wastewater for disease – We meet Claire Trant, Imperial alum and co-founder of Untap, a company that automatically tests wastewater in communal buildings including factories and offices to identify the presence of diseases like COVID-19.


When droughts lead to hosepipe bans – We get the lowdown on this year’s droughts from Dr Barnaby Dobson, who explains how droughts are defined, what causes hosepipe bans, and how climate change could impact droughts of the future.

(28 September)



Gareth Mitchell:               Hello, everyone. I'm Gareth Mitchell. Today, when are you a scientist? We hear from researchers grappling with that very question. Also in the podcast, how to monitor your entire workforce for disease. Now sure, you can test people individually, but there is another way.

Claire Trant:                        Organizations are completely blind to viruses and how they're moving around their building and affecting people in that building. So you can't really take any measures until you know it's there. So we are the proactive measure to try and stop that spread before it happens.

Gareth Mitchell:               Yes, we'll hear more about that proactive measure and being proactive about water shortages. How do utilities decide that it's time to ban the hose pipes? All right, so thank you very much for listening as ever. Now, we are going to start with a little bit of news from around the college. And we're going to start with Maxine Myers. And Maxine, obviously as winter approaches, thoughts turn to influenza, especially to flu and vaccination. You've been looking into this, haven't you?

Maxine Myers:                  Yeah, I've interviewed Professor Peter Openshaw, who is the professor of Experimental Medicine at the college and he's also an honorary physician at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. And I've been speaking to him about this year's flu season and what we could possibly expect. Professor Openshaw explained that, over the last two years, because there's been measures to drive down infections of COVID, so for example, lockdown measures, much more sort of public health messages around washing hands, mask wearing, it has driven rates of flu right down. So as a result, there's really low immunity in the community, when it comes to flu. Usually, when it comes to having an indication of how flu's going to be in the UK this year, we often look to the southern hemisphere and we found that they've had some of the worst flu seasons. So Australia, for example, has had their worst flu season for the last five years. So there's a real concern over in the UK, that we are going to have quite a bad flu season and which is why Professor Openshaw is urging people to get vaccinated.

Gareth Mitchell:               Well, Maxine, you've written about this on the news pages of the Imperial website and there's a video. And what is just a little taster of what Peter had to say?

Peter Openshaw:             Flu has a really high impact both on the individual and also in terms of number of people getting admitted to hospital. Every winter, this is sort of expected crisis caused by influenza and we are expecting this crisis to be even bigger than it would normally be. Because nobody has got much background immunity this time. Flu is a nasty on this. It doesn't just affect the nose and lungs. It can cause very severe disease, particularly in people with no immunity, so we really mustn't underestimate the potential impact of influenza. We do need to get vaccines into as many people as possible.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right, so that gives you a little taste of there of Peter Openshaw. So what about the vaccination program this winter? And who will have priority?

Maxine Myers:                  This year's vaccine program has expanded, so all adults over the age of 50 can now be vaccinated on the NHS. And then, obviously, those who are pregnant, children as well, because they're very vulnerable to also be vaccinated too.

Gareth Mitchell:               Right. Maxine, thank you very much for that. Caroline Brogan is here now to talk about drones that can do 3D printing. What is all this then about drones that, who knows, maybe they'll end up building that skyscraper? Tell me more.

Caroline Brogan:               Hi, Gareth. So drones are essentially aerial robots. So they fly around and do all sorts of things. Our researchers have now found a new thing for them to do. They've created a fleet of flying 3D printers, that's 3D printing drones, for building and repairing structures while they're flying. The inspiration comes from natural builders, like wasps and bees, insects that work collaboratively to create something bigger than themselves.

Gareth Mitchell:               So I see that. And of course, you see it happening in nature, but how, in the context of drones that do 3D printing developed at Imperial College?

Caroline Brogan:               Well, they created this cement-like material for the drones to build with and also used a foam material. The fleet consists of two types of drones, build drones, which print the material as they fly, and scan drones, which essentially micromanage the build drones, to make sure they're on target. They all work from a single blueprint, so mistakes should be rare. But there's also a human supervisor, who can intervene, if needed.

Gareth Mitchell:               I was being a bit flippant in the introduction there, but how long do you think it might be before we see them building actual structures that we might live or work in, for instance?

Caroline Brogan:               Well, it's only been tested in the lab so far, so it's essentially a proof of concept study. So it is a long way off before we see them building skyscrapers. But it's exciting, because it's the first time this is being demonstrated and it could pave the way for building difficult-to-access structures, like skyscrapers or other tall buildings, or indeed accessing dangerous locations, like helping with post-disaster relief construction.

Gareth Mitchell:               And of course, it isn't just Imperial College, is it, Caroline? So who are the collaborators here?

Caroline Brogan:               So lead author, Mirko Kovac is Professor and Head of the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial. He's also Head of Empa's Materials and Technology Center of Robotics in Switzerland. And they collaborated on this piece.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right. So Caroline, thank you for that. We'll leave it right there, just as some building work seems to be starting up in the background where you are as well. Presumably, not 3D printing drone, but not yet. Well, here on this podcast, we like to think we know our audience. And as you know, we do like a good listener survey. And the data tells us that quite a few scientists tune in. If you are one of them, what was the point that you really felt, "Yeah, yeah, I'm definitely a scientist?" Was it getting that PhD thesis done? Was it your first high impact paper in a big journal? Or perhaps the day that you founded your very own lab? Congratulations. Well, our very own Andrew Youngson has been working on a mini-series called Feeling Like a Scientist. And I've just been speaking to Andrew about that series and I wondered how easy it was for the researchers to open up about their lives as scientists.

Andrew Youngson:          For some, it was really easy for them to talk about being a scientist. It was something that they just felt in their bones, whereas others really weren't that immediately sure it was something that they might not immediately apply to their self-identity. It was something that they grew to adopt and see themselves as. So it's just really fascinating. It was very different from what I thought going in.

Gareth Mitchell:               Sure. And when the brief is like go and find a scientist at Imperial, you are spoiled for choice. Let's face it. So who did you end up interviewing?

Andrew Youngson:          It's true. Literally, just walking on my way to lunch, I could probably interview 20 different people, but I was really careful to make sure that there was a wide variety of science disciplines and also people at different stages in their career. So for example, I've spoken to a medical student just in their second year, a mechanical engineer. Engineering, really interesting. Some people say "I'm an engineer, not a scientist." So we explored that. I've also spoken to a Professor of Innovation, a bee scientist, and more. I've been in a toy shop.

Gareth Mitchell:               Well, I'm dying to get into this then. So who's first?

Andrew Youngson:          So Jesús Manuel Muñoz Tejeda is studying for a PhD in Space Propulsion Technology. Here he is talking about an incredible piece of research that he and his team conducted earlier this year. This is actually how I first discovered Jesús. They were selected by the European Space Agency to test out a transformable spacecraft prototype in very low gravity conditions during a series of parabolic flights. Here he is.

Jesús Manuel Mu...:        Oh, that's honestly one of the best experience I had had in my life. So we have a contract with the European Space Agency, in order to test technology in micro gravity conditions, or in this case, in a parabolic flight, which is simply an commercial aircraft. What you do is you go into parabola. So you go up in the sky and you go a little bit down. And when you're in this parabolic motion, you experience micro gravity for approximately 20 seconds every time you go into one parabola. And thanks to this contract we got with the European Space Agency, we will test some of this technology, that are also using for my PhD and PhD research.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right. I see. Well, I must have admit, I almost got motion sickness just hearing about that. It sounds a bit fun, don't get me wrong, but a bit stomach churning.

Andrew Youngson:          Yeah, that is a very specific type of fun. It's not called the vomit comet for nothing really, but thankfully, I did actually ask the question, and Jesus and his team were well stocked up with travel medicine. So they were fine and able to focus on the experiments. I then went on to ask Jesus the central question of the miniseries, when was the first moment he truly felt like a scientist?

Jesús Manuel Mu...:        The first time I felt like a scientist, I wasn't at the laboratory. So what I was doing is just going into YouTube and I was looking for videos related to science and the universe and things that were interesting to me and I was curious about. I started realizing that this simply curiosity of feeling that you need to know more about the certain topic, the fact that I was looking for something in YouTube related to science, when unfortunately, most people use YouTube for just entertainment purpose and not educational, made me feel like I was going to be a scientist. 100%.

Andrew Youngson:          That's so good. So curiosity is maybe one of the most important aspects of what it means to be a scientist.

Jesús Manuel Mu...:        Definitely. Yeah. I really encourage people who are curious to undergo a scientific career, because this is what really drives you into a science and technology.

Andrew Youngson:          And actually, a really nice segue. The last clip that I want to share with you here today falls very nicely from that point. I asked Jesus what advice he would have for young people thinking of a life in science. Specifically, I asked him what he would tell his younger self, if he was able to create a time machine, jump in it, and go speak to his 18 year old self and hear his advice that he had.

Jesús Manuel Mu...:        If I would have to say something to my 18th years old or anybody that's in the 18th, is to make time for themselves to know themselves better. Nowadays, people tend to be very obsessed with what other people think, but nobody pays attention to knowing themselves. Developing yourself personally is something that is really grateful throughout your whole life. And you usually start at an early age, because if you know yourself, then you will know eventually what you want and what's your purpose in this world.

Gareth Mitchell:               Wise words, for sure. So Andrew, I love that by the way, where can we hear more?

Andrew Youngson:          Well, don't worry, there's absolutely loads for you to engage with. There's a series of eight interviews for the Feeling Like a Scientist series. And it's going to be released in full on Imperial Stories, our home for the college's best storytelling. However, this isn't just going to be something that you can read. It's going to be a combination of transcripts of the interviews, some of the highlights, but there's also going to be images of the interviewees. But then, also crucially for a podcast is audio. The easiest way to find it is just go to your favorite search engine, put in Imperial Stories, and you'll find the series there. Just a reminder, Feeling Like a Scientist. That's what it's called. And I really hope you enjoy it.

Gareth Mitchell:               I already am. That's Andrew Youngson. So how best can we test for diseases like COVID-19 in communities of people, like folk working or living together on the same site? Well, one solution is disease surveillance in the waste water. An Imperial spinout called Untap is doing just that. And its founders recently took part in London Demo Day, an annual event where Imperial, UCL, and King's College come together to showcase the best and the brightest startups. Our reporter, Mo Akinseye, has been hearing more from Dr Claire Trant, who is the CEO of Untap.

Dr Claire Trant:                  People didn't really worry about viral transmission until COVID-19, but actually, it's been a massive problem for decades. So flu and norovirus actually caused around 4% of productivity losses across every organization before COVID-19 hit. And we are living in an urban environment, and viral transmission is only going to increase and then, there will be more pandemics. There's a really scary stat, that there's over a 20% chance another virus like COVID-19 hits again in the next five years. Now that's actually conservative. So we are going to live a lot amongst more viruses as we grow, and viruses are carried by asymptomatic people in buildings. COVID, for an example, 50% of people are asymptomatic. So it means that organizations are completely blind to viruses and how they're moving around their building and infecting the people in that building. So you can't really take any measures until you know it's there, and until an outbreak has already potentially occurred. So we are the proactive measure to try and stop that spread before it happens.

Mo Akinseye:                    How does the technology work behind Untap?

Dr Claire Trant:                  Wastewater surveillance is done generally very manually. A person comes to the site, they take a sample, they take it to the lab, they analyze it, and it takes a few days. It costs a lot of money, because people are expensive inherently. But we are automating that, so we're making that no people have to get involved with sewage. We're bringing it directly from the lab to the site. So taking it from the laboratory setting and putting it in the office, in the care home, in the factory, in the smart city, whatever environment we can benefit will be there. So a lot of the wastewater surveillance techniques at the moment use techniques similar to actual flow testing, which we all know about now.

                                                It's not the best for positive detection capture. We are trying to get techniques that are similar to the positive protection capture of PCR. Essentially, we have four modules that are the same as the lab workflow, and we're fully automating those. And being modular means we can change our system. So if there's a novel pathogen that comes out, we can readily adapt our system to detect for that. And also, it means that we can move from viruses into bacteria very readily, as we're looking at doing that in the near future.

Mo Akinseye:                    Has it been used in a real world setting already? And if so, what have the results been?

Dr Claire Trant:                  Absolutely. So we've done four case studies already. Those have been at a care home, a factory, an office, and Somerset House. And one of the best ones to demonstrate how interesting and cool this data is that factories have an issue with viruses for a long time. They're cold and you can't work from home at a factory. You have to work for work. It's kind of the nature of the employment. In this factory we were testing out, they carried out daily lateral flow tests of the entire workforce through the pandemic. And that was because they really couldn't risk spreading and they were having shutdowns when it did spread.

                                                We then also tested at the same time an increased incredible data set. When they found COVID, we found COVID, we found COVID, they found COVID. Apart from one day, we found it and they didn't. So they went back, they saw they had visitors on site that hadn't been testing and they went away and tested the visitors and they were positive. So they sent them home, and those visitors were their auditors. So that was actually a very funny and interesting experience to be able to send the auditors home for the organization.

Mo Akinseye:                    Recently, you presented Untap to potential investors at the London Demo Day. How did that go?

Claire Trant:                        It was the biggest audience I've ever presented to. It was very, very nerve-wracking. It's actually the room I did my undergraduate exams in, which made it even scarier. But actually, when you're presenting something that you do all day every day, it's not that hard. No one knows your business as well as you do. Also, listening to my co-presenters and now my friends from Imperial speak was really incredible. The things teams from King's and UCL, some of their ideas were absolutely incredible. And I was sat next to someone during the second half, someone who wasn't presenting, and she kept saying "Genius." And that's exactly how I felt like some of their ideas were taking concepts of so day to day, but then turning on their head and making it very clever. So yeah, it was really cool to hear them speak. And then, the networking afterwards was also amazing. We spoke to, not just potential investors that were now speaking to today already. We also spoke to future customers, even potential interns and maybe some employees from the university, so it was a really great day.

Gareth Mitchell:               Claire Trant, speaking there to Mo Akinseye. Well, finally, as I speak, there still is a hose pipe ban in my area. And I suspect it will be enforced for quite some time. And that's fine by me as I don't have a hose pipe. But on a more serious note, our reporter, Kamel Saeed, has been wondering how water companies judge when to ban hose pipes and also, how much this year's drought has been to do with climate change. Kamel has been speaking to Dr Barnaby Dobson, a Research Associate at Imperial in the Civil Engineering Department's Water Systems Integration Group. First question, what is a drought?

Dr Barnaby Dobs...:         If you look in the literature, you'll see people come up with lots of different classifications for what is a drought, because it's a bit more complicated than defining a flood. A flood is quite a defined event. You can pretty much figure out when it starts and finished and usually what's caused it. Whereas droughts are more an accumulation of something not happening, which makes them very difficult to define and measure. Broadly though, people will talk about three kinds of droughts. A climate drought, which is essentially, in various sweeping terms, it hasn't rained enough over a certain period of time. A hydrologic drought, which again, in sweeping terms, is the rivers haven't been flowing enough over extended period of time. And then, a water resources drought, which is these two kinds of droughts, the hydrological and the climate droughts, are now impacting our ability to supply water. And of course, that is the thing that affects us most and the thing that is in the news.

Kamel Saeed:                     Recently, we've been hearing a lot about hose pipe bans being triggered here in the UK. What triggers a hose pipe ban?

Dr Barnaby Dobs...:         So I mentioned this concept of water resources drought, which is when maybe our reservoirs are low, maybe our ground water's low, maybe even some critical river levels are low. Essentially, what happens is, every five years, water companies do something called drought planning. It's part of something called the AMP cycle, which is a five year cycle where water companies essentially try and persuade off what that they are going to be able to provide water to their customers and in the most cost effective way. And as part of that planning process, they say things like, "when the reservoir level gets to whatever, 80% full, we are not going to be in a great water supply situation if the reservoir gets that empty. So we would like to put something in place to help improve our water supply."

                                                Now, most of the things that the water company does actually unseen. So they might be using more expensive sources. They might be hitting the environment, but the most visible one for people is a hose pipe ban. So what would happen, for example, in London, is the reservoirs on the River Thames would be dropping in level. And once they drop below a certain threshold, Thames Water now gets permission to say hose pipe ban. And in theory, that means people are using less water, which means that the reservoir levels will start dropping at a slower rate, because people aren't using that water on their gardens.

Kamel Saeed:                     On droughts, is it something that we could be expecting more of, more droughts, and in turn, more hose pipe bans in the future?

Dr Barnaby Dobs...:         Essentially, yes. And if you speak to, for example, Fredi Otto, who does climate attribution studies, that is essentially, when any kind of natural disaster or even environmental event has happened, what her group does is tries to work out, how has the underlying probability of that event occurring been changed by the climate change that we have already felt? So it can essentially let her say, "This event was twice as likely because of the climate change that has already happened, for example." And so, we know that that has happened, to some extent, in the UK to droughts. Off the top of my head, the kind of drought we had recently has probably been made more likely, due to climate change, but not that much more likely. We're talking maybe 10 or 20% more likely. There's not 10 times more likely. The drought we had in mainly July, that was the kind of drought that we would expect to occur on average, let's call it, once every 15 years.

                                                And actually, historically, the last time it was this dry was 2012, which was about 10 years ago. So conveniently, for me explaining this, this kind of 10 year drought is occurring about every 10 years. And so, it's not like we are seeing it doubling in probability. We are seeing it maybe slightly increase, but it's very difficult to say, for any given event, what's happening, due to climate change. However, looking into the future, it's more easy to explain what is the impact of climate change, because what we do is we run climate simulation models which take carbon emissions go in, and essentially, temperature and rainfall comes out. Now you can take those rainfalls and simulate them in other models, the kinds of models that our group uses, and that lets you translate those future climates into potential future water resources droughts, and thus, probability of hose pipe bans. So if we carry on business as usual, which is what we've been doing, which has some probability that hopefully is quite low, then we could be seeing in the UK doubling or quadrupling the probability of a hose pipe ban by 2050 or 2100.

Gareth Mitchell:               That's Barnaby Dobson, speaking to Kamel Saeed. Just before I go, I just want to give you that quick reminder that I so often do, to come and take our survey. We would really appreciate it and we do act on what you tell us. You can find the survey on our podcast page, just go to Be Inspired on the Imperial website. And we are under social and multimedia. And incidentally, our new look pages are also the place to go to find a podcast directory of all the other audio from around the College. It's not just us. And all those podcasts are now categorized under topic for your listening pleasure. We hope you enjoy them and we hope you've enjoyed this edition. I'm Gareth Mitchell. And on behalf of me and all of us here on the podcast team, thanks for listening and goodbye.