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Deep in the heart of south Oxfordshire’s rolling countryside, just off the busy A34, a massive doughnut shaped structure lies glinting in the sunshine.

It is hard to believe that this futuristic silver building the largest science facility to be developed in the UK for 30 years has an innovative link with one of the country’s most traditional women’s organisations, better known for its jam making skills, and the odd nude calendar!

I refer, of course, to the Women’s Institute. The Oxfordshire Federation of this revered organisation is currently starting work on the Designs for Life project, which aims to create a groundbreaking and visually stunning art science textile display.

When complete, it will take pride of place in the entrance hall of the Diamond Light Source a new 250m synchrotron facility described as a series of super microscopes’ housed in the striking new building which covers the size of five football pitches, located at Chilton, near Didcot.

When the facility opens next year it will become home to cutting edge research stations capable of exploring the life, physical and environmental sciences.

The high intensity of the synchrotron’s powerful x ray beams enables more information to be gathered and analysed by scientists than existing laboratory techniques, by probing deeper within the selected material.

“The world’s first synchrotron was opened near Warrington in Cheshire back in the 1980s, but it’s coming to the end of its life,” explained Isabelle Boscaro Clarke, head of communications for Diamond.

“It took a long time to push this project through Government, so we are delighted that this facility is being built here in Oxfordshire. It is good news for scientists and the economy.”

Many of the everyday commodities we take for granted, such as chocolate and cosmetics, and from revolutionary drugs for AIDS and breast cancer to surgical tools, have been developed using synchrotron light. This uniquely bright and intense light can reveal, treat and transform a vast range of materials.

One of Diamond’s detector scientists, Victoria Wright, added: “Previously, the synchrotron near Warrington, and others across the world, have made major breakthroughs in many important fields of scientific research.

“They have been instrumental in drugs research and have been able to, for instance, date archaeological samples more accurately, with the added advantage of not actually destroying them in the process.”

Designs for Life is funded by The Wellcome Trust the world’s largest biomedical research charity, funding research into human and animal health. The project is being co ordinated by The Oxford Trust in collaboration with Diamond, Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, and the Women’s Institute.

So how on earth did the WI end up becoming involved in this cutting edge collaboration?

“We have very close links with the WI,” explained Claire Dimond of the Oxford Trust, who is the project’s co ordinator.

“When we approached the Oxfordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes science co ordinator, Pat Clark,
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about getting involved, one of the ladies she mentioned it to was Anne Griffiths a member of her own WI at Filkins and Broughton Poggs, near Burford. She is a leading textile artist and teacher.”

Thankfully, Anne was extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities of the project, destined to be one of the largest art/science installations created in the country in 2006.

“There are 4,500 members of Oxfordshire WI and, ideally, it would be nice if they all contributed a stitch or two to the project,” she said.

“I want to get everyone involved, from WI ladies in their nineties who haven’t stitched since they were at school, to those who are talented embroiderers and quilters.

Artists from the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College and super stitcher Anne have helped interpret the fascinating designs inspired by the Diamond scientists.

The designs are based on structural images from research into diseases such as breast cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and Malaria, any or all of which Diamond could investigate when the groundbreaking research stations come on line next year.

“There is a perception that science is too difficult for people to understand,” says Anne. “The same is true for stitching no one thinks they can possibly sew. One of my personal goals is to get every scientist, plus as many WI members as possible, to take up the stitching challenge. Just like science, stitching is for everyone.”

With Anne at the helm, these designs are gradually coming alive, using a range of quilting, stitching, textile art and embroidery techniques. There will be a total of 30 panels measuring 50x50cm, some of which will tour the county before coming to rest at Diamond’s base.

The tour will begin at Science Oxford the new cultural centre for science run by The Oxford Trust in Oxford and go on to places such as the Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital, Said Business School and a variety of county museums.

“The ladies, who have been split into eight groups throughout the county, have been very keen on the idea. I only want them to do whatever they feel comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be perfect it’s the community effort that counts.”

To ensure consistency of colours, fabrics and threads, a Dyeing Day’ was held recently in Oxford.

Anne added: “It was a great success, with all eight group leaders becoming involved in decision making, dyeing, cutting fabric and winding thread. Each participant took home a bag of dyed fabric and threads to use on their first panel.”

Project co ordinator Claire is thrilled at how Designs for Life is shaping up.

“I think it’s unbelievable the way everybody has pulled together. Every time I visit a WI to talk about the project, more and more ladies want to take part. What’s intriguing is that they really want to learn about the science, as well as finding out about the stitching,” she explained.

“When I’ve been talking to the WI, I’ve also been very impressed at just how interested the members are in Diamond,” scientist Victoria added.
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