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Encouraging Young Scientists: It's Olympics Gold at GSK!

The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London are almost here. Fully involved from the business end of the spectrum by providing facilities and equipment to enable operation of a World Anti-Doping Agency accredited laboratory as official laboratory service provider, GlaxoSmithKline chose to leverage this monumental international sporting event to open the minds of young people with its Scientists in Sport program.


GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with its global headquarters near London, saw an opportunity. With the overwhelming buzz created by the Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled for their city in 2012, it was a perfect entry to educate and energize students about the science behind the sport.

"Science is the very heart of everything we do at GSK and we're passionate about using our scientific expertise to support the integrity of the Games and health of the athletes," explains Kerry O'Callaghan, head of global brand communications who is leading the team supporting GSK's involvement in the Games. "Through this competition we hope to show how important science is to sport and so inspire the next generation of scientists."

The Program

Scientists in Sport is part of GSK's schools outreach program, inspired by London 2012. The program includes a series of free events at universities across the United Kingdom, which aim to encourage 11-14 year old students to take their science studies further and consider careers in science. GSK has worked closely with King's College London (KCL) to develop this program, which was rolled out across four other universities in 2010 – Exeter, Loughborough, Liverpool John Moores and Bedford – and has since attracted a few more. In addition to events, Scientists in Sport offers a robust array of free resources to explain the science behind the sport.

The GSK Scientists in Sport website states:

We aim to inspire students to take their science studies further and consider a career in sport science:

• Students will experience a day at a university and learn about cutting edge sports science and the science of anti-doping.

• Teachers can access valuable teaching resources, visit research laboratories, and gain inspiration and ideas for the classroom.

• Students can share their experiences online with photos and video, and by submitting articles for our Scientists in Sport magazines.

• And there are prizes to be won! All students that get published in our magazine will win a Scientists in Sport backpack – and a selection of our favorite articles will win a pocket camcorder.

"Seeing the enthusiasm of all the students who have taken part in the Scientists in Sport program first hand has been inspiring," says Lisa Pinder, GSK program manager leading Scientists in Sport. "The program has enabled us to give students the opportunity to meet scientists and Olympic and Paralympic athletes and understand the impact that science has on sport. By the end of 2012, every secondary school in the U.K., and a quarter of 11-14 year old students, will have actively engaged with the program. We know we have genuinely inspired the next generation of scientists through our program and this makes my job very rewarding."

Scientists in Sport Events

The inaugural event took place in July of 2010. "Blood, Sweat and Urine Samples" was held at King's College London, and nearly 150 students and their teachers heard about drug testing, muscles and physiotherapy. They were able to carry out drug tests themselves, and engaged in an anti-doping debate with a group of experts. The "Blood, Sweat and Urine Samples" event was held two more times in 2011.

"One important aspect of Scientists in Sport events is the involvement of a guest athlete – a former or present Olympic or Paralympic athlete who is committed to ensuring the Games are clean and wants to impress that upon young athletes," Pinder states.

Events held to date and their guest athletes include:

Eye Trackers and Beetroot Juice
Gold medal-winning Olympian Jason Gardener

The Limits to Human Performance
Great British Olympic 400 meter runner Andrew Steele

Spotting Sporting Talent
Mary Nevill, bronze medal winning captain of the Great Britain women's hockey team and Matt Sollars, expected London 2012 competitor in C2 flat water canoeing sprint

Extra-ordinary Bodies, Strength and Swiss Balls
Graham Edmunds, British Paralympian gold medal winner

Exercise, Nutrition and Keeping Sport Clean
Ex-Olympic high jumper Geoff Parsons and Graham Edmunds, two-time relay gold winner in the Paralympic Games

Student Impact

GSK is convinced that these activities are making a difference. The students involved second that.

"Everybody flinched when we were told about the appalling physical effects of doping," reports Tharisana, a "Blood, Sweat and Urine Samples" student attendee from Newstead Wood School. "I had no idea that steroids, if taken to excess, could cause so much damage to the human body – anything from diabetes to cancer and heart disease. However, it was the third presentation that really grabbed my attention. This focused on the methods used to test for drug use. The scientists rely mainly on urine samples, but blood can also be used."

If the knowledge shared and the chance to meet athletes weren't enough, Scientists in Sport events also include tours of the host university campus. Jake, a student at Edward Peake Middle School, reports on his experience attending "Extraordinary Bodies, Strength and Swiss Balls" at the University of Bedfordshire.

"We were then divided up into four groups and we had a campus tour of the university, where we went into the enormous three-story library and the vast common room," he shares. "As well as that, we saw what a typical flat would look like in the university, and it was very well equipped with a microwave, a toaster, a bed and even a TV and a sofa! We also had the opportunity to go into a heat chamber, which is an insulated room that can recreate any climate in the world; when we went in the temperature was similar to that experienced at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India."

Ben, a student at Edward Peake Middle School, also was grateful for the campus tour.

"A substantial and enjoyable part of the Scientists in Sport event at the University of Bedfordshire was a campus tour: it showed the everyday buildings, locations and events of the university and the lifestyle of the average first seminar student. The tour, conducted by two students studying at the university, included a visit to the high-tech library and an example of some student accommodations. It took 30 minutes, and was an enjoyable part of an emphatically enjoyable day. Although quiet enunciation was required due to ongoing examinations, there were opportunities to ask questions – and, most importantly, have them answered from the perspective of a university student."

There was also much emotion expressed in student essays following event attendance. For Philippa of Newstead Wood School, the ethical issues surrounding doping made a great impact.

"I am not an athlete, but I think it's your natural abilities that should propel you in a sport, and the playing field should remain level," expresses Philippa. "Marion Jones admitted to taking drugs in the run-up to the 2000 Olympics after a drug test proved positive in October 2007. She probably just wanted to win. Jones was poised to go into the record books, and winning as many medals as possible would cement her place in sports history. But she is now cemented in sports history for all the wrong reasons."

She continues, "A football coach is credited with coining the phrase ‘Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' Is this actually true, though? Or is this the catalyst of the problem? Have we become so obsessed with winning that we forgot another little phrase most of us learned when we were small, cute and innocent: ‘Cheats never prosper!' Church goers will tell you in a heartbeat: ‘What's done in the dark, will always come to light.' More importantly, does the reward you gain by cheating outweigh all that you stand to lose if you get caught? In other words, is this whole debacle really worth it?"

It's More than Events

The Scientists in Sport initiative reaches far deeper than the average 150 students who can attend each of the scheduled events. The Scientists in Sport website includes activity and project ideas with materials for both teachers and students. One activity, for example, is to make a colorimeter to analyze the concentration of a solution, often used to test for the amount of a banned substance in anti-doping tests. Another is to design a project to compare the effectiveness of drinking water vs. drinking a sports drink to replace fluids lost during exercise.

The career profiles section of the Scientists in Sport website displays fun and descriptive profiles on the different types of scientists involved in sport. From a professor of exercise science to a sports engineer at the International Tennis Federation to a football physiotherapist for the Bristol City Football Club, each professional talks about their science job and what it took to get there.

The final set of resources is aimed at GSK employees, providing encouragement and the means to become GSK ambassadors in their local schools by working with students in local schools to conduct sample tests and leading the class in anti-doping debates.

"The debates, both at our Scientist in Sports university events and those led by GSK ambassadors at local schools, focus on the ethics and challenges around drugs in sport," Pinder explains. "The aim is to stimulate discussion about the nature of doping and to encourage students to consider their position with regard to doping. It is not always black and white.

"The debate materials outline two anti-doping offense scenarios," Pinder continues. "In one, an athlete appears to have deliberately taken performance enhancing drugs. In the other, an athlete appears to have accidentally taken performance enhancing drugs. Pupils discuss, in groups, one scenario and decide on what they think might be an appropriate punishment for the athlete. The whole class then compares views on both scenarios. This is a very important part of the Scientists in Sport program and one which has generated much enthusiasm from students."

GSK works in tandem with Get Set, the official education program for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which supports 3-19 year olds and their exploration of the Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence, as well as the Paralympic values of courage, determination, inspiration and equality. The Get Set website also provides free resources, including downloadable images, exclusive films, activities, interactive games and project ideas.

GSK Testing

Scientists in Sport grew tangentially to GSK's involvement as the official laboratory service provider for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an agreement signed in 2009.

"GSK formed a ground-breaking partnership with King's College London to provide facilities and equipment to enable KCL to independently operate a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited laboratory during the London 2012 Games," O'Callaghan reports. "Experienced analysts from the Drug Control Centre at King's, led by Professor David Cowan, will be assisted by up to one hundred Ph.D. students from across the country, who have been trained to help with sample preparation at the lab. Around 40 experienced analysts from other WADA accredited labs from around the world will also be drafted in to help deliver the program."

GSK expects over 6,250 samples to be tested at the laboratory facility at its research and development site in Harlow. This site was the most suitable and appropriate, in terms of its proximity to the Olympic Park and the size and nature of the laboratory space available (modern open-plan space). The laboratory will be open around the clock, seven days a week. An athlete's urine sample will be screened for more than 60 prohibited substances in just one test, GSK reports. Some 400 samples will be tested each a day, and in most cases, the laboratory will have 24 hours to turnaround negative results.

"GSK and King's College London have worked closely with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the International Olympic Committee to ensure appropriate facilities and equipment is in place for efficient testing and that top of the line security for the laboratory is in place," O'Callaghan concludes.

SLAS and Students

While not hosting an Olympics in its headquarters city anytime soon, SLAS takes seriously its role in encouraging the scientists of tomorrow. From supporting FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to working with member companies on internships to bringing 40+ students to its annual conference and exhibition through the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards program, SLAS creates opportunities for students of many ages to explore and understand the field of laboratory science and technology.

May 25, 2012