Cheltenham Literature Festival 2013

An afternoon tea with Oxford University 

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 8th 2013, Dr Jenny Taylor from the Nuffield Department of Medicine and Professor Russell Foster from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience engaged a captive audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The talks, which focussed on genetics and sleep patterns, were held in the fully-booked Exchange Tent, in Cheltenham’s Montpellier Gardens.

Cheltenham Literature Festival - scones

Dr Taylor, a researcher and clinician focusing on translational genetics, fittingly began her lecture by introducing genes as “typos” in a book.

“The book of our genetic lives comes in two volumes; volume one is from your Mother and volume two from your Father, each volume has 23 chapters, which we call chromosomes,” Dr Taylor said. “When these two volumes come together they make up the structure of our DNA, a complex molecule that carries our genetic code.”

She went on to explain that errors in our DNA are like spelling mistakes in a book, and that these typos can either cause or contribute to many diseases.

Cheltenham Literature Festival - Dr Taylor

After her introduction to genetics Dr Taylor discussed the types of diseases that are affected by genetic mutations, including inherited diseases such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, acquired diseases including some cancers, and complex diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Discussing genomic research in more detail and the current push to better understand the link between our genetic code and disease, Dr Taylor also touched on how new genome sequencing technology is making it possible for researchers to learn about genetics on a global scale.

Invited to discuss the topic further, the eager crowd peppered Dr Taylor with questions about genetic diagnosis, ethical issues, and the role genetics will play in the future of medicine.

“I found the lecture really interesting,” one audience member said. “I thought I’d find it a bit scary knowing about my genetic makeup, but now I think it makes sense to try and find out more about it. It’s not all doom and gloom: it’s more about diagnosing and preventing disease.”

Followed by a short break where audience members mingled with researchers over tea and scones, Professor Foster addressed another full house with his lecture titled Sleepless in Cheltenham.

Capturing the literary audience’s attention with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which describes sleep as the “honey-heavy dew of slumber”, Professor Foster demonstrated how the invention of the light bulb has changed our perception of sleep from idealistic and romantic to negative and unnecessary, with Thomas Edison himself stating, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time.”

Cheltenham Literature Festival - Dr Foster

Professor Foster continued by delving into the complexity of the sleep-wake cycle, circadian rhythms and the correlation between sleep disruption and poor health, including Foster’s own research into the relationship between psychiatric illnesses and sleeping disorders.

This successful event marks the beginning of NDM’s exciting new relationship with Cheltenham Festivals, with plans for the Department’s involvement in the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival already underway.

For more information, or to get involved in upcoming events please contact the NDM Public Engagement team.