Beyond Lab Coats and Microscopes

Giuliabugeja-300x136Pride. That’s what Enrico felt when his name was announced at the Science Expo as the winner of the NSTF Contest for young scientists. The contest is a first step helping to build what Enrico Zammit Lonardelli calls his ‘scientific character’. It is a journey that led him to compete on an international level in Milan to represent Malta, meet and talk to incredible people, and learn about the way in which science is carried out all over the world. Feelings of honour, fulfilment, and success quickly followed. ‘Being surrounded by the best people in Europe in all possible aspects and fields of science was simply amazing.’

Taking on such challenges in the scientific world at only 17, Zammit is the younger mirror image of another 17 year old that, around 20 years earlier, started the same journey. Today lecturer Conrad Attard (Faculty of ICT, University of Malta; Vice Chair, IEEE Malta Section) is handling several activities, one of which is an exhibit with his team for the same Science Expo which started Enrico off on his scientific voyage.

20084_883971005002679_829620880923076354_nAttard sees the Expo as a great way to distribute resources, and meet kids and visitors. ‘I want students to get excited about science and for more students to engage with these subjects’. That’s why Attard always teaches them in a fun way, by creating games were students need to solve logic problems that involve science and computing to learn and achieve their goals, and that is exactly what his exhibit at the NSTF Expo does.

So why is the growth of science communication important in Malta? For Attard, it is all about helping people find out what they do well in and pushing students to reach out beyond their comfort zone and that mistakes are part of the learning experience.

Zammit understands this principle. Some of his family members suffer from asthma motivating him to research it for the NSTF Expo. ‘Slowly I managed to understand the mechanism and a few questions popped into my mind. The following process was turning those questions into a project by research, planning, and finally experimentation.’

By favouring the multidisciplinary approach students are not limited to only becoming developers, but can also tackle related problems requiring knowledge or skills from other disciplines. This is what attracted Attard to the NSTF Science Expo as it uses crafts, different skills, and logic to solve problems.

10156054_883970715002708_5798862449868254838_nAccording to Zammit, the NSTF Expo and Programmes focus on analytical skills, public speaking, problem solving techniques, planning, critical thinking, creativity, and descriptive writing. ‘They all focus on character development rather than just the activity and provide an ensemble of quality development which is simply impossible to match by reading books and studying’. And, of course, there are amazing prizes.

The Expo gave Zammit a platform for his work to be recognised by experts. ‘It has since motivated me to work harder because now I know what it feels like to win and create something useful. I want to repeat this success, hopefully at larger scales with ever bigger projects and aims.’

Maybe one day, it will be Zammit who will find himself teaching young students about science at the NSTF Expo.

The next NSTF Science Expo will be from 9–16 March for school visits, while the open weekend for everybody else will be on the 12–13 March.

For more information visit the NSTF Malta website or Facebook page.

Forgetting what you can’t remember

How does the loss of memory change a person? Can media replace memory?  Giulia Bugeja asks several researchers to find out the affect on cultural memory and she also touches on dementia

When Mike* went to the nursing home that evening to visit his grandmother Maria*, she was worried that he wouldn’t be able to find her because the caretakers had changed her room. Mike tried explaining to her that her room on the 4th floor had been refurbished a year ago, but she couldn’t remember.

Dr James Corby
Dr James Corby

‘Can life without memory be considered a meaningful existence?’ asks Dr Charles Scerri (Malta Dementia Society, and Department of Pathology, University of Malta). Dr Scerri researches dementia. He is currently examining which physical environments and what sort of psychosocial wellbeing can improve life in local dementia hospital wards. In fact, Dr Scerri reports that today there are over 44 million people suffering from some form of dementia. That is around 100 times the Maltese population. He asks, ‘what type of society can we end up with if we are wholly made up of individuals with no past and an uncertain future?’

With more people relying on new media technology to record information and experiences, Dr Scerri’s question faces a future society where media could replace memory. ‘It would be short-sighted to think that new media will have no long-term influence on the complex nexus of personal and cultural memory’, says Dr James Corby (Department of English, UoM).

Photography already acts as a surrogate for memory. But, it does not stop there; theorist Roland Barthes goes one step further saying how photography can capture details missed by the human eye. As developers of new media strive to enhance experiences, more users are adopting them. In the final quarter of 2012 alone, Apple sold 37.4 million iPhones. This smartphone, equipped with HD video, an in-built camera, calendar, and interactive 3D map helps people capture memories and avoid having to remember appointments or directions. It even comes with Siri, your own ‘personal assistant’, to use Apple’s words.

Despite these abilities, Dr Corby is sceptical. As a researcher working on the interfaces between literature, philosophy and culture, Dr Corby thinks that the rich tradition of the humanities should inform debates about cultural memory. ‘The idea that a facility to record memories leads to the diminishment of personal memory is by no means a new idea. Indeed, it is precisely the accusation that, in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes against writing.’ Writing did not steal our ability to remember and neither should new technologies.

“You can never really know if what she’s saying is true because her memories are not always real”

So what would happen if old or new media failed us? When the accounts office of the family business burned down, Mike could relate to his grandmother’s anxiety due to her lack of personal memory. All the accounting records, invoices, transaction records, and overseas payments were destroyed. The accountant was so shocked that he still will not enter his old office after 15 years.

The accountant had to keep paper records. There was too much information to remember and they couldn’t memorise it all. Although they recorded the information they still lost it in the fire.

More about Alzheimer’s in Malta
The Hon Mario Galea, Parliamentary Secretary for the Elderly and Community Care, will launch the book X'Hin hu? co-authored by Charles Scerri and Trevor Zahra. The publication focuses on dementia and is aimed for the general public.   Elders who experienced or worked n the field of dementia will share their experiences.   Juventutis Domus, 63, Triq San Girgor, ZejtunDr Scerri has collaborated with the Department of Pathology to launch the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Group (University of Malta). Their objective is to gather several multidisciplinary professionals to ‘promote and facilitate research and scientific collaboration in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia’. Together with Trevor Zahra, he recently released the publication X’ħin hu? Fatti dwar id-dimensja (What time is it? Facts about dementia).

We all risk losing both valuable information and the recollection of experiences. So what would happen if Malta became a nation of people without a memory of important events? For Dr Corby, a society which relies on new media and less on memory ‘might then lead to a complete eliding of any difference between personal memory and an increasingly undifferentiated surfeit of readily available cultural memory — a sort of technologised and globalised cultural eidetic memory’.

There’s also the possibility that media such as photographs could lead to the creation of cultural memories which never took place. ‘I imagine false memory to be the norm—it would be naïve to think that the visual representation of a culture […] is free from ideology’ says Dr Corby. Our national identity will instead be formed around uncertain events.

Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of American soldiers raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima signifies a moment of national pride for Americans. Few Americans are aware that the photograph shows the flag being raised for a second time. The first flag was too small but the second larger flag would be seen by incoming ships.

Similarly, on the 4th floor of a nursing home, an old woman recalls how the nurses refused to take down the Christmas decorations. In her room, there was only a lone poppy. ‘She often creates stories in her head’, says Mike. ‘You can never really know if what she’s saying is true because her memories are not always real.’

‘Memories are created by altering a set of connections between brain cells so that one cell stimulates the others,’ says Jonah Lehrer, Wired Magazine. By creating memories, we are literally rewiring our brains. Every time a memory is recalled, the connection between brain cells is restructured and the memory altered depending on the stimuli of the current situation. This means that whilst media may fail us, so might our memories.

Will a nation inevitably make the same mistakes because its people cannot remember past experiences or because they replace them with false ones? When asked how memory recall can be assisted, Dr Scerri acknowledges that media is a useful tool in improving memory, as ‘memory albums are extremely valuable for individuals with dementia in facilitating memory events and in reducing anxiety and confusion’. Perhaps these tools can help Mike’s grandmother.


*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people mentioned in the article.

Giulia Bugeja is part of the Department of English Master of Arts programme.

Look out for an in-depth feature on dementia in the next issue.