Science Educator Dr Mandy Hartley is Founder of The Little Story Telling Company, which sets out to inspire children with a love of science and literacy through stories and workshops. Here the mum-of-two explains how her children have inspired her DNA Detective books
My name is Dr Mandy Hartley, I have a PhD in genetics and worked with DNA for over 15 years. I used DNA to conserve stocks of fish in the North Sea and as a Clinical Scientist diagnosing patients with inherited diseases. I worked for a Relationship testing company and helped set up the Forensic Laboratories which are now used by the Norfolk Constabulary. I also worked on some high-profile criminal cases.
I am now a Science Educator and work with schools and groups of young people teaching them about science through stories and running DNA based workshops. I am also an author and have written a series of “DNA Detective” books for children aged 6-14 years. They are the first books where the characters become forensic scientists and use DNA to solve a crime. The idea behind them was to help teachers combine literacy, history and science in schools and inspire children with a love of science and reading.
I have always loved science, even in Primary School. I knew I wanted to be a scientist and to use science to help people. I studied Pathobiology at University; it was during my final year project that I discovered DNA. The department I was working in, was studying mosquitoes.
They were trying to find out whether there was something in their DNA that made them resistant to pesticides. It amazes me that back then when we were sequencing DNA, it took a week to find out the code for 400bp of DNA. Now it takes 45 minutes, to sequence the whole genome. In humans that 3.5 billion bp and it’s getting faster all the time!
I remember, very distinctly, holding up a tube of clear liquid with dissolved mosquito DNA inside it. You can’t see it, until you add the alcohol and then, as if by magic, it appears. It looks like white cotton. I was so impressed. This incredible molecule contains all the instructions needed to make a living thing. It blew my mind! I knew, if I studied DNA, I could work on any living thing. All living things have DNA – humans, plants, bacteria even viruses! I work anywhere in the world. If I got bored working with animals, I could use DNA to help humans. I could work in medicine, forensics, even in archaeology. That’s what I have done, I’ve had an amazing career working with DNA. Now I get to share that with children and hopefully inspire the next generation of scientists and geneticists. My work has come full circle!
Before I set up “The Little Story Telling Company” 10 years ago, I was the Laboratory and Quality Manager for a Relationship testing company. I loved my work, but when our children came along it was very difficult to juggle everything. I wanted to be there for them and setting up my own business allowed me to do this. The other important reason was to get children excited and inspired by science. Even if one child who attended my workshops would pursue a career in science my job would be done!
I absolutely loved being my own boss and being able to put so much creativity into the workshops, as well as my science knowledge. Having my own children meant I knew what engaged them, what made them laugh and how to teach them things in a way they would understand. Most of all I knew I had to make my workshops memorable and fun.
I remember the first workshop I did, there were six children and two of those were my children! It was incredible, however, how fast the message got round. Soon, my workshops were booked out! I now have 15 stories and six workshops in my collection and regularly perform them in schools all over Norfolk and Suffolk, to home education groups, Brownies, Scouts, even the WI! I have also performed at the Norwich and Cheltenham Science Festivals and the Barnes Literary Festival.
I am currently creating an exciting new workshop based on my latest book, “The DNA Detectives – The Riddle of the Viking Treasure” which introduces pupils to the world of Forensic Ecology. It is a fantastic way to teach primary school children about plants, pollination, chlorophyll, and habitats. I think children will be fascinated at the often-invisible clues the environment leaves behind, creating a unique pattern which can help solve crimes. If they can solve the clues in the workshop, they will be able to find out where the Viking treasure has been buried by the thief and hopefully make an arrest!
I am very excited for the future of my company, as my new book will be published, and next year I plan to launch my “Little DNA Company”. I have found a company in the USA who can provide me with some kit, so I can offer some exciting and novel DNA based workshops, including forensics, clinical science, exploring electricity (making an electrophoresis tank and using it to solve a crime), biotechnology, evolution, inheritance, and ecology. Teaching Primary and Secondary science through these workshops is a fantastic way to give pupils experience of science with real life applications they can relate to. I can’t wait to bring these workshops to schools!
I still can’t believe I am an author of children’s books. I am so lucky. I have a wonderful publisher and illustrator, who are incredible in helping me to create the books and to bring the characters to life.
It was my friend who suggested I should have a go at writing a book. I thought “why not”? When I thought about it, I realised that I had several stories in my head that were bursting to get out. So far, I have written three books in my “DNA Detectives” series – “To Catch a Thief”, “The Smuggler’s Daughter” and “The Stone Age Mystery”. My fourth book is coming out soon and is called “The Riddle of the Viking Treasure”. I was thrilled that the first book I wrote won the ASE Book Award in 2018! I still have another three books in my head ready to write!
The books are based on Annabelle and Harry (our children!) and our dog Milly. They go on many adventures where they have to solve crimes using DNA. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. I like to end chapters on a cliff hanger. Many of my readers have told me, “They just have to keep reading” when they open the book, which I am thrilled to hear. They like to use their detective skills to solve the mystery and find out who carried out the crime.
The idea behind the books is that they can be used to help with teaching science, literacy, and history. Teachers tell me they have been brilliant at encouraging reluctant readers especially in Secondary Schools. They also love how the science in the stories fits with their science and/or history topics. They have also used the text to help with their literacy lessons. The books are part of the Accelerated Reader program used in schools. I love the concept that children are learning about science, but not even realising they are learning!
My aim has always been for children to be inspired and fall in love with science. I can share this message with them at my workshops which are based in Norfolk and Suffolk. Imagine, though, if I could share this message with children all around the world! This is what my books have done, which is wonderful. They are being read by children not only in the UK, but also in Spain, Germany, Iceland, Australia, America, China, Canada and many more, they are even in the library. I still can’t believe this has happened; it makes me smile every day.
Educating the scientists of the future is one of the main reasons I set up my “Little Story Telling Company”, and what drives me every day. It is so important. My favourite thing when I run my workshops, is when I see that moment when a child’s eyes light up in wonder with what they have seen, whether it’s seeing DNA for the first time, an exciting experiment or they have just understood a scientific concept they have been struggling with. That’s the moment which could switch them onto a future career in science. To be part of that journey is very special, it means so much to me.
I have been so lucky – I have worked with some incredible people, teams, and different groups over the years. Initially, it was teams in Clinical Science, at Guys, St Thomas’s, Exeter, and Cambridge and in different laboratories in Aberdeen and Reading. With my PhD I even got to work with a team at London Zoo and met people from all around the world at a Conference in Brazil!
Through setting up “The Little Story Telling Company”, I have been lucky to work with many fantastic teachers and pupils in schools in Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as working alongside incredible groups such as Wellcome Connecting Science in Cambridge, the Earlham Institute, JIC, Norwich Science Festival, RNAA, Norfolk and Suffolk Show and many more. I have also met colleagues who do similar public engagement work. It is always good to share experiences with friends!
I am very lucky I have the best publisher in the world, Linden Harris who is incredibly supportive. I have met some wonderful people through my journey as an author. People I never thought I would get chance to talk to let alone that they would talk to me!
My dream is to have a teaching laboratory in my garden! I am getting there with the launch of my new “Little DNA Company”. The plans are coming together, so watch this space!
Visit The Little Story Telling Company and The DNA Detectives Podcast — Insight & Perspective. Follow on Facebook and Twitter or email TLSTC@outlook.com. Dr Mandy Hartley will be appearing at the Norwich Science Festival in February with her Forensic Ecology workshops.
Featured images of Dr Mandy Hartley – supplied