In my spare time, I work for the RAF Air Cadets as a volunteer instructor. It’s challenging, rewarding and fun, but it’s not often that the light blue of the RAF is seen on the Old Road Campus.
Late last year I read an article in the Air Cadet magazine about a cadet who had achieved a number of awards, including shooting and Duke of Edinburgh while being treated for cancer. Inspiration struck.
All I needed was her squadron number to contact her commanding officer. Would she and other members of the squadron like to visit the Department of Oncology and find out what we do? The RAF Air Cadets is a youth organisation with a focus on science and technology, so it would fit well with their work.
The cadet and her mum were keen, but cautious. Would this be too close to home?
The Air Cadet motto is ‘venture adventure’. One of the things we value as a group is courage and a spirit of adventure. So, it was very ‘air cadet’ when they came back and said they were nervous, but … Yes!
The date was set, and I arranged for two scientists, Ed Ottley (himself a former air cadet) and Hugo Benainous to meet the cadets and show them round.
The cadets arrived accompanied by their commander Flying Officer Samantha Cairns. Cadets are a smart bunch, and their uniforms looked great as we signed them in. It felt slightly strange for me not to be in uniform as we sat and talked about what cancer is and how it works. I’m so used to being dressed to fit their uniform.
The cadets were very switched on, absorbing some complex biology very quickly and asking sharp questions to fill in any gaps. I split the group into three to send them off to explore the labs with our scientists. Each group got a slightly different experience, and it was lovely to hear later that they had spent the journey home comparing notes.
The visit ended with an exploration of radiotherapy, as it’s something of a local speciality. It’s also an excuse to dig out our CT scans of popular chocolates and challenge them to identify them from their CT images.
As we walked them back to their bus, I asked the cadet whose achievements had sparked the visit how she had found it. She and her mum were tired, but glad they had come. They felt they knew more and the whole thing made more sense and felt less intimidating.
Conversations like this remind me why I work with young people. They are astonishing. Capable of resilience and cheerful enthusiasm that put many adults to shame. ‘Venture adventure’ is a good motto.
This is the first time that my dark-blue job and my light-blue uniform have met like this. I must try to make sure it’s not the last.
The cadets’ experience:
One of the cadets who visited was Cadet Aaron Arora. He was kind enough to send us his thoughts:
“Last week, budding scientists from the 606 (Beaconsfield) Squadron, Air Cadets got a fascinating insight into the work being done to conceive a “cure” for cancer. In total, twelve cadets visited the department of Oncology, belonging to the University of Oxford, and received an incredible understanding of the issues faced from Dr Martin Christlieb, who is the Public Engagement Manager at the department.
Along with two scientists working at the laboratories, Dr Christlieb introduced the fundamentals behind treating cancer; detailing both the issues, such as cancer cells’ differentiations from human cells, and successes that they have had, coming along way from when we first knew about the disease.
Furthermore, we had the unique opportunity to explore the work undertaken by PhD students and senior scientists inside the labs, including talking to them about the sections of oncology they have worked on, as well as why they pursued a career in Science. We also picked up on many amusing aspects, such as the names of scientific instruments- one was called the belly dancer- and some unusual facts, such as that the study of Oncology is the study of lumps!
Another perk of touring the labs was looking at some of Europe’s most expensive, and modern, microscopes, which showed amazing images of cells!
Overall, the day was an extremely enjoyable one, in which all the cadets were encouraged to think much more widely about possible opportunities in Science, and the benefits it has brought us.”
We also heard from Cadet Macken
“To start off with, I have to give our host, Dr Martin Christlieb, some of the credit. Thank you, Martin, for being so funny and informative, I learnt so much that day.
Anyway, to start off with Martin gave us a brief introduction to the university, saying which University blocks research what and where the toilets are. He led us straight to the room he reserved for us and then started to explain what cancer is. He started at oncology, the study of lumps, and slowly moved to how cancer evolves. He used the amazing PowerPoint drawing of sheep and wolves that looked kind of like this:
Can you tell which is which? He then explained how evolution will cause variation, then that drive the sheep to separate into different species. Oh, the many sheep. We had; runny sheep, hidey sheep, climby sheep, swimmy sheep, and many more. While we were eating our lunch, two of the students came in and talked to us about what they research. They explained a bit to us then took a group each to have a look at the labs and microscopes. Once we finished that, we looked at the experiments they did to see which medicines only killed of the tumor cells. It was very confusing but interesting at the same time. On the way back to the room, there was this phone booth. A very strange phone booth. I asked what it was then went inside it. I don’t know how you can make a call in there. When we got back to our room, we looked at x-rays of chocolate bars and had to guess which bar it was. That was the end of our day. Overall, it was very educational, interesting I learnt many useful facts.
Thank you everyone who made this day possible.”