A lot more than little test tubes

5th May 2000 at 01:00
A string of science successes at The King's School, Canterbury, includes a student research project that won a Royal Society prize. Dr Mo Afzal tells Hilary Wilce why it could happen anywhere.

The science department of The King's school, Canterbury, is riding high. A series of recent successes culminated in four A-level students winning the Royal Society award at the British Youth Science Fair. But Dr Mo Afzal, who teaches chemistry and is the department's director of research, says this adds up to a far more than a clutch of top-class independent school students doing well. Their success, he says, offers a model for how all schools could develop cutting-edge science among enthusiastic A-level students. "If this can happen at King's, it can happen anywhere at all, provided there is the willingness to make it."

Lara Coates, Edward Powell-Jackson, Rebecca Inglis and Hugh Kingston trained for 14 weeks in research techniques, then worked for months on a study of the role of nitric oxide, a biologically important molecule, in cancer. They collaborated with university research laboratories to get their samples analysed and their findings will almost certainly have implications for future research and drug development. The four gave up their Wednesday afternoon activity slot - turning their backs on enticing options such as chocolate-chip cooking - so they could apply themselves to the project. While, according to Lara, the students all knew it would be "a bit of a bonus" for their university applications and interviews, it was the excitement of the work itself that appealed. "If I could go back a year, I'd definitely do it again," says Edward Powell-Jackson, who notes the prize winners' changing status at school since they won their award. "I suppose other students were a bit sceptical before but since we've achieved something and been on the radio and television and all of that, they've been really impressed and interested."

The Royal Society prize is only one among many recent science successes. Rebecca has followed in the footsteps of one of last year's King's students and been awarded a scholarship to study at the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. The school is the only institution ever to be awarded the scholarship two years in a row. And the research work of the first group of sixth-formers to go through Dr Afzal's programme, which involved making synthetic steroids using nitric oxides and produced the possibility of making a promising antibiotic, is to be published in the scientific journal, Tetrahedron Letters - the first time a school-based research group has published experimental findings in such a journal. The school also publishes a bi-annual science reviews journal, N-Lighten, and is organising its second annual high-level sixth-form science conference.

While the students are undoubtedly clever (the four prize-winners are all off to either Oxbridge or London), the school's labs, in listed buildings beneath the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral, are more cramped and gloomy than those of many neighbouring state schools. The research initiatives have been funded entiely by money raised from industry and charity - pound;20,000 in the past two years. And although Dr Afzal glories in the grand-sounding title of director of research, he points out that this is on top of a full chemistry teaching timetable, as well as being responsible for cricket in a school which regularly runs nine teams. It is clearly his burning vision that has fuelled the initiatives. "We've always had a very sound reputation for science but a lot of what is happening now is quite definitely due to his personality and enormous drive," says Geoff Cocksworth, director of studies.

Dr Afzal returned to teaching from a career as a research scientist at Glaxo Wellcome, with a vision of showing young people that science is "not just something you do in little test tubes in A-level lessons". He wanted to expose them "to what real science can do", and prepare them to hit the ground running when they reached university. "Because the biomedical sciences are moving so fast that unless we have students who are switched on at undergraduate level we are going to be left stranded, especially by the American competition."

To be in a room with him is to feel the full blast of the scientific excitement that has galvanised young researchers at the school, and to be left in no doubt about how fast the scientific world is moving. Also to wonder, as he does, how science teachers, overwhelmed by the demands of school life, can ever find the time to keep abreast of what is happening in the wider scientific world.

He hopes his science research initiative will inspire, excite and motivate A-level students and encourage them to explore beyond the bounds of school science. The work now being published by his first group of students, he says, is at the level of someone in their second or third year of a PhD. "Which just goes to show there are no boundaries. The only thing these young people need is more and more knowledge," he says. He also hopes it will emphasise the central role of science in society and our lives, and encourage students into scientific careers - a hope echoed by the many prominent scientists who support the initiative. "I only wish we could develop a culture of such schemes across a wider cohort of schools; then we might just keep some of the brightest students in science instead of losing them to accountancy firms," says Dr Dave Alker, of Pfizer Central Research.

This is exactly what Dr Afzal hopes. "You can't work in isolation on this sort of thing, you have to have a team to do it. But you only need a few guys like me and you could. There is tremendous goodwill out there for this sort of thing, and there are quite a few doctorates floating around in science departments, so there must be enough people with the expertise, the hunger and the desire to make it work."

Already half-a-dozen letters a day are arriving on his desk from schools making enquiries, while in the laboratory the next cohort of King's researchers is busy training for next year's research work.

Dr Mo Afzal, Department of Science, The King's School, Canterbury CT1 2ES. Tel: 01227 595693E-mail: ma@kings-school.co.uk.

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