HomeMade’s science trip

In a leafy enclosure near Farringdon, set within the restored beauty of sixteenth-century school buildings and teeming gardens, we got the chance to see fantastic scientific progress being made.

Over 400 scientists, technicians and assistants work at the Barts Cancer Centre, part of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Thanks in large part to funding provided by Cancer Research UK, these men and women work tirelessly to decode, better understand and develop treatments for various types of cancer. We had the privilege and pleasure to tour the facility and meet some of the scientists working to reduce cancer deaths.

The research undertaken here is both ambitious and successful.  After a brief introduction from the research engagement manager, we met the formidable Professor Christopher Heeschen, whose pioneering research into cancer stem cells aims to improve long-term outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer. As many know, historically this has been a particularly tough cancer to fight. For the last four decades the 10-year survival rate has remained at only 1%. What’s more, while it is the 10th most common cause of cancer, it is in fact the 5th most common cause of cancer death. Professor Heeschen and his team’s novel approaches to research are giving hope that we could finally see an improvement in the prognoses of patients.

The research facility itself is a well-secured labyrinth. The sensitivity of the material and cost of much of the equipment mean access is highly restricted. We were led up to the third floor of the John Vane Cancer Centre and asked to don white lab-coats before entering the research labs. What immediately becomes apparent is the importance of the work happening in labs like this across the world.

In just 20 years the survival rate for cancer has almost doubled. This is entirely due to lab-coat wearing super-heroes plugging away in a relentless, repetitive search for tiny changes or insights. Our tour helped us see the value of new technology, funding and scientific curiosity.

We started with a chat about the importance of being able to find specific proteins. They help to first diagnose cancer types, and latterly act as a target for treatments to kill the cancer.

In order to take cancer tissue samples and find which proteins are present, we were given the chance to learn a little about combs, wells, pipetting and electrophoresis. Each £10 gel enables Andy, the lab manager, to decode up to 10 samples. The (un)steady hand of many a HomeMader made heavy work of this task. He was hugely polite while pointing out that our laboured progress would make a week’s research take more than a month…

We then met Tony, surrounded by all manner of scientific machinery. In honour of our visit each large piece of apparatus proudly displayed a price tag, as both a grateful nod to its funders and acknowledgment of how important the funding is. It’s certainly not cheap work. One £50,000 machine we saw analysed samples in search of particular protein and genetic markers. We had seen how much work went into 10 samples, but this beast could test up to 96 samples in a single run. All of a sudden a week’s work could be completed in less than a day. However with each 96-sample tray costing £75, a day’s research soon adds up.

Around the corner, David, a post-doctoral researcher, showed us the next step in the complex process. Incubators that housed cancer samples “in vitro”. Small flasks perfectly mimic the growth conditions inside a human body and promote cell propagation. As time passes and the cells divide, samples are continually extracted for analysis in other parts of the lab. This raw material, real human cancer cells, is essential to everyone’s research. By experimenting to see the effect of low oxygen, acidity and other environmental factors, David hopes to understand what triggers cancer cells to become mobile. When they evolve to leave the initial cancer mass, it creates metastatic cancer which is far harder to treat. By researching the triggers, he hopes to be able to slow or stop this migration response and help restrict the cancer to an initial location.

The accumulated specialist knowledge in this single laboratory alone is vast, and its output is invaluable if we’re ever to beat pancreatic cancer. We’d like to say a huge thank you to Cancer Research UK and the team at the Barts Cancer Centre for showing us round. We’ve been inspired to push ourselves harder, raise more and keep doing our bit to put an end to cancer-related deaths.

Creating Aftershock: Part 2

With research and drafting in full flow, the next step was to decide on a suitable platform. Given our short timeframe, we were looking for one with a great feature set that wouldn’t require masses of development tweaks to get it behaving as we wanted. We played around with Aesop Story Engine, a WordPress plug-in, but eventually concluded it wasn’t up to the challenge. Firestorm and Snowfall have set the bar for the kind of quality we expect from long-form content. That means inconspicuous slide transitions, seamless background audio and video fades, tidy navigation and a natural scrolling pace.

After assessing a popular German platform, Pageflow, we decided it would be powerful enough to deliver our vision (in fact, it’s the platform Firestorm was built on). There’s a hosted provision that doesn’t break the bank, but we went down the free self-hosted route to allow ourselves ample flexibility.

Throughout these technical decisions and the writing up of the story, we were conscious of aligning our editorial and design vision with that of the DEC. So, while the developers wrangled with the mechanics of the self-hosted platform, the design and copywriting team pieced together an initial run-through of Aftershock using Adobe Premiere. We created a ten minute rough-cut video to act as a simulation of the reader’s experience – video, audio, scrolling text and all. This gave the DEC something tangible to comment on and went down a treat. It was well worth the time it took to produce, since drawing all the threads of the project together required everyone’s tight-knit collaboration, and the simulation provided us with an indispensable focal point.

By this point, the design team were flying through the archived video content, stripping out redundant audio, trimming down segments and creating background loops. We were lucky to have a rich trove to plunder but in an ideal world we would have someone planning the video content specific to this task right from the start of the appeal – especially for the loops, which are a pain to produce without advance warning (trying to read text over too short a video loop gets pretty tedious).

The text itself was subjected to a close shearing: no flashy adjectives were spared in the great thinning. The words had to be refined to make room for time-consuming video segments, so superfluous embellishments got the boot and we pared the narrative down to its real essentials. We found in the end that drop-off was highest during video playback, which might lead us to conclude that users get bored and distracted when the speed of their progress is defined by the video, rather than their own reading pace. But we’ll dwell more on that in the part three, when we look at the analytics and results of Aftershock and suggest some improvements for next time.

Gin of the week: Boodles

It’s more humid than Singapore on Old Street right now. Genuinely. A rocking 78% mugginess rating and an excellent reason, not that we needed one, for a refreshing drink designed to fight such sweltering climates, fortify the body and enliven the mind. So we present this week’s gin – modelled by our visiting canine companion, Gnarly – for your pleasure: Boodles London Dry Gin.

After the recent tasting disaster of Nordés, we were on the look out for a strong contender we could rely on to win over the office. What better, then, than a gin first concocted over a century and a half ago and recently enjoying a UK renaissance? It’s been said Boodles was the favourite gin of Winston Churchill (it’s named after a London gentleman’s club which counted him among its members), so if you like your drinks to carry the seal of approval of great wartime leaders, then look no further. Ian Fleming is supposed to have been a big fan too, which raises the question: why did this winning recipe disappear off our shelves for so long? Boodles only re-emerged in the UK market in 2013, despite being produced here and having been readily available in the USA and Japan for ages. We’ll have to forgive and forget. Boodles is back at long last, and we salute its glorious return.

No need for exotic tonics with this one – a standard bottle of anything will do – and, as always, we went in without garnish. In a word, it’s great. A real old-school, no frills gin with plenty of juniper and everything else balanced masterfully. There’s no citrus in there, allowing plenty of room for a bit of lemon or lime if you fancy it. Even the gin-sceptics among us had to acknowledge Boodles’s charm. It’s a traditional thing done right. With our gin collection becoming dominated by quirky and experimental new brands that often turn out to be novelty failures, it’s reassuring to find a gin that just gets the job done with elegant simplicity.

A 9/10 for Boodles. Pop over for one when you can.

Gin of the week: Nordés

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has crossed the threshold of HomeMade in recent months that we’re rather partial to a gin and tonic. At the start of last December, we inaugurated the world’s first* “advent cal-gin-der”, in an attempt to run down our burgeoning stock of spirit (yes, it’s barely a pun, but it was for a good cause). The curious result of this well intentioned drinking project is that our supply has roughly doubled. Go figure. So here we now are with fifty bottles of mother’s ruin and many thirsty HomeMaders. It’s going to be a long slog, but we thought you might like to join us on the journey.

So, here it is, our first gin of the week: Nordés Atlantic Galician Gin. Named, according to its maritime-themed bottle, after a mythical northerly wind which blows through Galicia, thought to bring good weather and, it claims, decent gin. That’s pretty much on a par with the standard overblown marketing spiel found stuck to the back of overpriced spirits, so we were off to a strong start.

The first sniff of this rare delight led to immediate disagreement. Several noses were flatly unimpressed, and delivered withering rebukes of “mouthwash” and “aftershave” – they won’t be invited back. But some of us took to the unusually sweet fragrance of Nordés, and after a second, full-lunged sniff, a pairing with Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic was prescribed by our resident prescriber of tonics.

Our tasting tradition, elaborated over the past few weeks, is now to go in ungarnishedly – it feels fairer that way, and we’re all for a controlled experiment. This evening, however, everyone agreed that Nordés could have done with a little citrus to cut through its oily texture. “It tastes like sweets,” blurted out someone at the back of the room, and it’s hard to deny it. There’s a bizarre bubblegum taste in Nordés that gets in the way of its being obviously gin. It led to a few furrowed eyebrows and, eventually, a general shrug of resignation. It’s not horrible, but we don’t think it’s going to win Galicia any awards. Unless there’s an award for the only gin made in Galicia, in which case it could do quite well.

So it’s a round 5/10 for Nordés. Give it a try if it’s free and at hand, but for £37 a bottle this Iberian offering fails to pull its weight.



Creating Aftershock: Part 1

A couple of months ago, our contact at the DEC was looking for a way to mark a year since the Nepal earthquake. We’d talked a few times before about creating a Snowfall- or Firestorm-style piece of long form content to help tell the DEC’s story. We had even gone so far as to develop a prototype, so when this new project arrived we were excited to take it up. Our objective was to give supporters of the DEC deeper insight into the workings of an emergency aid mission. We wanted to recount the tragic story of the disaster and its aftermath, while providing a candid account of the successes of the relief effort and the challenges it faced.

Where to begin? We’d been involved in the Nepal appeal in 2015, supplying branded imagery and infographics for social media along with the DEC’s PayPal payments engine, as we had on earlier campaigns. So we already had a clear picture of the way the disaster unfolded – but we would need a lot more information to produce a compelling story for public consumption.

The first job was to gather as much content as we could. We scoured reports written by the DEC and independent researchers, caught up on member agencies’ work in Nepal, interviewed emergency aid workers who had met the crisis head on and those who were leading reconstruction projects, and trawled government and news sources for further insight into the recovery over the last 12 months. During frequent trips to Nepal, the DEC staff had collected a handful local people’s stories, and these proved invaluable when we began to shape the narrative.

Our story needed to bring to life the often challenging reality of disaster recovery. We had a wealth of technical information, but not many of us have the patience or inclination to read through several pages of dense statistics. Reports can be helpful for trustees or useful to researchers, but donors yearn for something more obviously human. These kinds of turgid documents abound in the charity sector: well intentioned tomes that aim to show accountability for donors’ money, but which fail completely to tell the human stories behind the pie charts and numbers.

We knew this was a story about people. In an ideal world, we would gather testimonials from the very start of an emergency response and follow them up at regular intervals afterwards. On this occasion, we didn’t have the advantage of a long run-up into the project, so we had to work with what was available. But the broader the range of stories we can gather, the less constrained becomes the writing. We’re subjected to a lot of bland, formulaic charity-speak when NGOs attempt to show the difference their donors help to make. With a long form piece of content like Aftershock, we hoped to speak to donors like adults. This meant baring all in a fashion untypical for a charity organisation, but which the DEC understood to be a valuable way to strengthen the relationship with their supporters.

Next week: design and development.