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Thanks for the Memories, Wellcome-funded public engagement project led by Prof. Paul Klenerman and composer Dr Zakiya Leeming, hosted an innovative evening of music and science at the Royal Northern College of Music in early May.

Failsworth Group  students performing on stage

Over several months this Spring, Year 9 students from across four Manchester schools – Co-op Academy Manchester, Co-op Academy North Manchester, Co-op Academy Walkden, and Co-op Academy Failsworth schools – were mentored by Dr Zakiya Leeming to develop their own compositions of both individual and group pieces of music inspired by the science of immune memory and the history of viruses and vaccines. In the week leading up to the concert, they worked with Dr Leeming and RNCM musicians to bring these pieces to life: culminating in a concert showcasing 27 new musical explorations.

These new pieces really demonstrated the creativity and enthusiasm with which students approached the project, displaying a hugely diverse range of interpretations of the project themes: from pieces exploring the shapeshifting nature of viruses and the experience of illness, to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s struggle to promote the benefits of inoculation in the 18th century and how scientific research develops. Students recorded videos to introduce each individual piece, and joined the RNCM musicians – with impressive confidence and teamwork – on stage for the performance of group pieces.

The families and friends of the Co-op composers, as well as members of the school communities, were invited to celebrate the achievement of this Manchester cohort of the project. Dr Leeming reflected that: ‘The young composers on this project had mostly never composed before – though you certainly wouldn’t know it from the concert! Not only did they gain new musical composition skills, they also discovered the arts can be a vehicle through which to engage with scientific knowledge and a space for important conversations about the role of science in our society. If synthesising new knowledge and skills across two disciplines to produce such creative responses in a short time wasn’t challenging enough, to then perform their original works together with RNCM musicians in front of an audience was truly a remarkable achievement! It was an honour to mentor them through this process.’ Prof. Klenerman echoed this admiration of the student’s achievement: “It was an inspiring event – and I was amazed by the students’ immunologically-inspired compositions and performances on the night”.

Sam Mortimer, Director of Science at the Co-op Academies Trust who has collaborated closely with the T4TM team throughout the project, reflected that: ‘When I was approached by the project, I was excited by the unusual fusion of arts and science disciplines and how this might help both to resonate more deeply with young people… rarely if ever have I seen students perform at such a professional level, and they were all a real credit to the Co-op Academies Trust, their schools and the project. I am particularly proud that the students involved come from a broad range of backgrounds and interests, with many from more financially-challenged backgrounds and others who did not previously play a musical instrument; yet all of them rose to, met and exceeded the challenge before them.’ Project co-lead Prof. Klenerman echoed this admiration of the student’s achievement: “It was an inspiring event – and I was amazed by the students’ immunologically-inspired compositions and performances on the night”.

The performance day also involved a visit to the laboratories of the Lydia Beckett Institute at the University of Manchester. Led by Dr Jo Pennock and her fantastic team of immunologists and student ambassadors, students learnt about the pioneering work of Lydia Beckett, the cutting-edge research carried out by the Institute today, and got stuck in with hands-on activities (a pipette challenge being a particular favourite).

Young students wearing lab coats pipette a pink liquid from a beaker into a plastic tray

The Thanks for the Memories team are now turning their attention to the upcoming performance of the Oxford cohort of the project, made up of year 9 students from Greyfriars school. Join us at the Tingewick Hall (JR hospital site) at 5pm on Wednesday 5th June for a free concert open to all (with no ticket required) to hear their musical responses to immune memory!