Daniëlle wins Vuurvliegen

Daniëlle wins Vuurvliegen

Beeld: C3

If you can explain something to nine-year-olds, you can explain it to anyone, is the rationale behind the science battle Vuurvliegen (Fireflies). Daniëlle van den Broek (TU Eindhoven) became Firefly of 2022 by captivating 150 students about ice-binding proteins.

Every year, Centrum jongerenCommunicatie Chemie (C3) organises the Fireflies competition, an initiative of C3 and the KNCV. Scientists are challenged to explain their research to young children, who then decide via voting who does it best. It is a win-win situation: the scientists learn to present their research very clearly and the pupils get introduced to the work of chemists.

The three nominees were Daniëlle van den Broek (TU Eindhoven), Leanne de Jager and Roel Bienenmann (both Utrecht University). De Jager is developing a technique that combines light and electron microscopy, allowing her to look at cell components at high resolution while they are still inside the cell. This will allow better treatments for certain diseases to be developed in the future. Bienenman is researching substances that can be used to make other substances. For example, how you could use lignin instead of oil to make medicines.

‘I tasted the ice cream from the famous ice cream parlour in the neighbourhood where the children live to see whether it is really that tasty’

Van den Broek won with her explanation of how ice-binding proteins work, and how she can use this knowledge to make new ice-binders suitable for preserving donor organs without freezer damage. ‘The biggest challenge of the battle was to bring out the essence from my complex research, and package it in such a way that it connects well with the children’s background knowledge,’ Van den Broek tells via email. To do this properly, she familiarised herself with how children perceive the world and looked for a fun way to link her research to it.

Daniëlle van den Broek

Daniëlle van den Broek

Fortunately, there is an application for her research that is very appealing to children: ‘Improving the quality of ice cream is one of the applications of ice binding proteins,’ Van den Broek says. ‘That’s why I tasted the ice cream from the famous ice cream parlour in the neighbourhood where the children live to see whether it is really that tasty. I also appealed to the children’s imagination by incorporating the film Frozen, in which Princess Anna’s heart gets frozen and thaws again, into my story. Indeed, if we could freeze and thaw donor hearts without freezing damage, we could save many lives. I then showed that we can use ice-binding proteins to solve that issue: they are in fact a kind of stickers that stick to the ice, effectively inhibiting the growth of harmful ice crystals.’

After the presentation, children were allowed to ask questions. Van den Broek: ‘The most interesting question I received was: “Can’t hearts be preserved on salt?” A high salt concentration does indeed lower the freezing point by a few degrees, but unfortunately that is not a good solution for preserving organs at temperatures well below zero. This example does show however that the children are really thinking about how systems work in nature, and can also come up with creative solutions!’

Van den Broek’s presentation will be made into a teaching package so that more children experience how interesting scientific research can be. For more information about the competition, please visit C3’s website.