Tuesday Feature Episode 40: Andrew Almond

This week we are featuring Dr Andrew Almond who was recently nominated for the BBSRC innovator of the year award. Find out why by reading this Tuesday Feature.


 

Please explain your research to the general public in about ten sentences or less.

Our research is focussed on understanding the biological function of sugars. Sugars are a major calorific component of food but can also be fibrous structural materials that hold cells together. In plants the major structural material is cellulose, which binds cells and gives physical strength. In humans more complex proteoglycans, which are present between every cell throughout the body, are the basis of a similarly-functioning glue-like material. This glue, or extracellular matrix, can have many forms and functions, such as rigid bone, shock absorbing cartilage, elastic heart valves and the complex structure of the brain. Proteoglycans are rich in large sugar polymers, which absorb water and salts, allowing our bodies to maintain their physical condition and hydration.

We have pioneered research aimed at resolving the microscopic configuration of the sugar polymers from proteoglycans, in order to understand their function and to aid development of synthetic biocompatible materials. This has involved detailed computational modelling and state-of-the-art experimental techniques to test the computer models. Due to the complexity of the sugars polymers and their close interaction with water, we have had to employ very fast computers and novel algorithms to study them; we pioneered the application of ultra-parallel graphics processing units (GPUs) to this problem (initially invented to meet the very intensive processing required for realistic action in video games).

How does your research benefit the general public?

Our basic scientific research is aiding development of novel biocompatible materials that can be used in transplants, prostheses and medical devices. The new discoveries that we are making could also pave the way for new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Another aspect of our research is the technology that we develop. One piece of technology, directed toward accurately measuring the microscopic shape of drugs, was spun out of The University of Manchester into the start up company C4XDiscovery.

C4XDiscovery is focused on optimising the design and development of medicines and partnering with the pharmaceutical sector to generate better, safer products. C4XDiscovery was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2014, valuing the Company at £31m. The Company is located in central Manchester and has over 20 highly-qualified employees. It is applying its technology to discover new drugs to treat addiction, diabetes and chronic inflammation and taking them through to clinical trials in partnership with the pharmaceutical sector. The Company is a significant new addition to the UK bio-economy, particularly within the North of England, and will ultimately benefit patients.

How did you first become interested in your research?

Although my undergraduate degree was in physics I had the ‘mis’-fortune of living with medical students. This led to many interesting discussions and an appreciation that biology is perhaps more poorly understood than other sciences at a reductive level. Furthermore, while mathematics and physics has already had a major impact on biology, for example, x-ray crystallography of DNA and proteins, it appears clear that they will have an increasingly important role to play. Multidisciplinary science is in my opinion the only way that we will really get to grips with biology, which appears to be vastly more complex than atoms and galaxies.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

When I was younger, probably like most people, I was mainly inspired by TV presenters. I was fascinated by nature and astronomy and used to watch and marvel at documentaries by David Attenborough and Patrick Moore. As I got older, and had access to science books and magazines, I became interested in the work of Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Since the nineties, when I was a PhD student at the old Victoria University, the growth and improvement in research and teaching facilities in Manchester has been huge, including many new state-of-the-art buildings. Furthermore, the University has one of the, if not the, most supportive and reasonable technology transfer offices in the UK. These environmental factors have been a tangible aid to spinning out a company and performing the world-class research that underpinned it.

What do you do outside of work?

Long distance running and equity trading, when I get a chance!

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 39: Charlotte Alcock

After a fortnight break, the Tuesday Feature returns with UK/EU Recruitment & Marketing Officer Charlotte Alcock. Find out about her interesting role here:


Please explain your role here in the Faculty.

I am a Recruitment and Marketing Officer (UK/EU) for the Faculty of Life Sciences. My main aim is to inspire people to apply for Life Sciences courses here at Manchester. To achieve this there are lots of different activities I get involved in including: writing for the website and prospectus, managing our social media and video content, arranging open days and giving talks about our courses. The part of the job I enjoy the most is planning exciting activities for school pupils who want to come in and visit our facilities at the University and get involved in some hands on science.

How does your role benefit the public?

I hope that through all the activities my team is involved in we are inspiring the very brightest and best students to come to Manchester and that these students will go on to become scientists that will have a big impact on areas that affect the public. Over the time that I have worked here I have seen our graduates go on to careers as varied as developing vaccines, conserving shark populations, developing crops which are resistant to disease and working as clinical scientists in the NHS.

How did you first become interested in marketing?

I don’t have a background in marketing; my degree is actually in Biological Sciences right here at The University of Manchester (longer ago than I care to remember!). When I saw this job advertised I saw it as a great opportunity to come back to work at a place that I loved, use my biology knowledge, and inspire more people to come and take advantage of all the brilliant opportunities that are available here. I am lucky to be marketing something that I really believe in as opposed to, for example, the latest style of handbag!

What did you want to be when you were younger?

When I was much younger I really wanted to be a writer.

However, I chose to study Biological Sciences at university as my brother was diagnosed with autism when I was 16. I was really interested in the idea that there were genetic factors underlying his condition and I wanted to understand that better. I think at the time I thought I would become a high flying scientist and make an exciting discovery in this field. But a few years in the lab at university made me realise that although I absolutely loved learning about biology I just wasn’t suited to the work of a research scientist!

So although I’m not living out my childhood dream, I do still get to do lots of writing in my job and I get to write about my favourite subject!

 How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a great place to work. The Faculty of Life Sciences in particular is a really close knit community. I have always found all my colleagues here to be really helpful and willing to give up their time to support my activities with schools. Working here has given me the opportunity to work alongside inspiring scientists and keep up my interest and involvement in science.

What do you do outside of work?

I have two small children – so although I did used to love and do a lot of yoga, cycling, running and baking – I seem to spend an awful lot of my time these days at the park pretending to be a dinosaur!

Tuesday Feature Episode 38: Edward McKenzie

This week we interview experimental officer Eddie McKenzie – find out more about his interesting job.


 

Please explain your role with the faculty and the university.

As Senior Experimental Officer /Facility Manager of the Protein Expression Research Facility, I lead a small team that collaborates with groups across the whole university. We essentially supply a ‘gene to protein structure’ pipeline providing all the in house resources required for cloning and high quality recombinant protein production. In some cases we go all the way from a gene accession code to purified protein product using a variety of prokaryotic and eukaryotic expression platforms. Working closely with the University business development team we also carry out contract work for external companies and in recent years this has proven to be a very successful route to generate additional revenue. The facility also provides regular training, workshops and regular drop-in troubleshooting sessions. With over 200 projects per year we see a lot of common protein production problems and it gives great satisfaction when we can provide a quick fix to an issue or re-direct in a different route based on our experience. In some cases we just help out with kick-starting a project and then the group moves on independently but in many others we’re fortunate to be involved at various stages in the project over many years.

What benefits does an experimental officer offer to the general public?

Every Year MIB opens its door to A level students for a day of talks and live demonstrations. My team has a stall where students can try their hands at techniques such as chromatography and PCR. Recently I was invited to give a talk at Leeds Grammar School careers day and gave them a flavour of how my science career has developed. We also run mini 2 day practical courses for A level students and this is a great way to give them a taste of work in a lab and hopefully inspire the next generation.

How did you first become interested in science?

Visits to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow growing up opened my eyes at early age to science and I developed a curiosity especially for biology and medicine. I enjoyed re-visiting the museum since with my own family.

Did you have any science heroes growing up?

As a young PhD student, in my role as treasurer of the Oxford Biochemical Society, I was lucky enough to meet with the pharmacologist and Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Vane.  I was fascinated by his research into prostaglandins and aspirin mode of action but also by how he spent his Nobel prize money and the house he built on a Caribbean island!

Who inspired you to study/work in science?

At secondary school I had an inspirational chemistry teacher (and former MP) called John McFall. John helped bring science alive for me by making the lessons exciting and teaching me to  question everything.

How has working in Manchester helped you? Think about it

Before coming to Manchester in 2003, I worked previously in the Biotechnology/Pharmaceutical drug discovery sector for 8 years. I gained so much experience from those days but missed out on the ability to publish (where most research was automatically patented by default) and also teaching.

At Manchester I have re-developed my teaching role, as tutor and advisor to the undergraduate Biotechnology course, and this gives me tremendous satisfaction tracking  student’s growth and development over the years.

What do you do outside of work?

Living in the Peak district means that I have stunning surroundings. My main interests are hill walking with my wife and dogs and also mountain biking. This summer I’m looking forward to travelling further afield with my recently purchased tear drop caravan. With teenage kids, my main role outside work however is being an unpaid taxi driver and as a roadie to my son’s band!

Tuesday Feature Episode 37: Kunal Chopra

This week we’re interviewing an International PhD student who is doing some fascinating research into wound healing.


Please explain your research for the public in ten sentences or less.

I’m looking at the role of biomolecules known as reactive oxidative species. These have previously been shown to play a role in wound healing and we are studying how these species behave in the Zebrafish. Specifically we’re looking at how reactive oxidative species help with wound healing in the zebrafish.

The good thing about using zebrafish is that they are 60% genetically identical to humans and so we can use them as a very useful model of studying wound healing for humans. The other thing that I am studying is the involvement of hormones in wound healing because previous research has shown that certain hormones are actually beneficial in the wound healing process.

How will this benefit the general public?

It might be useful to mention here that I am funded by the healing foundation. The foundation is looking to fund research that will have general benefits to the public. To specifically answer the question, wound healing can be quite a problem in diseases like diabetes where it is delayed and wounds can be left open for long periods of time which can lead to other health complications. What we are doing here in the lab will essentially help us understand how we can help counter those problems in patients.

How did you first become interested in wound healing?

I have been very open-minded about what I have wanted to research but recently I really became interested in wound healing at the genetic level. There are a number of genes involved in wound healing during the developmental process and I became interested in these. Any given organism during its development has these sets of genes that helps it grow into a mature adult. The thing about wound healing is that many of the same genes and mechanisms get switched back on and it was my initial interest in developmental genes that got me more involved in wound healing.

Did you have any science heroes or people that inspired you?

No I don’t idolise anyone but there is one person that I really like and his name is Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel published a very beautiful book called ‘Art forms of nature’, which has some wonderful illustrations of different life forms. When I saw the symmetry in animals like jellyfish or butterflies, it inspired me to study developmental science to see how life grows this way.

How has studying here in Manchester helped you?

Oh it’s great! It felt very unreal in the beginning when I was offered the position to study here because this is a city that I had visited so many times and I never thought that I would get the chance to study here. The environment is great, the student support is fantastic and I have been lucky to get the healing foundation scholarship – so all in all it has been a very good experience.

What do you do outside of studying here?

I do a lot of travel photography. Whenever I get the chance, I try to escape to mainland Europe and try to photograph different cities. When I was young I used to read a lot of books but I think that the interest in them has faded now.


 

Tuesday Feature Episode 36: Amy Chambers

Please explain your research for the general public in around ten sentences or less.

I work in the fields of science communication and screen studies and I’m interested in the relationship between movies and the public understanding of science. I conduct research into science fiction movies made between 1967-1977 and their incorporation of real-world science and imagined future science. My work also analyses how major scientific concepts and advancements have influenced onscreen representations of science. As part of my current project – The Playing God Project – I am looking more specifically at how leaders and members of religious institutions have interpreted and understood science in movies. I also work on the representation of women in STEM and the inclusion of women scientists in the processes of entertainment media production.

How does this research benefit the general public?

My research contributes to larger discussions about how public understanding of science is shaped and communicated through distinctly non-scientific sources such as movies, TV, and video games. There has been a lot of research into this area that confirms that the entertainment media we consume influences our understanding of science from what medical science is capable of to what dinosaurs look like. My research into women in STEM on screen is about gaining an understanding of how a more diverse representation of scientists on screen can directly influence the number of girls and women pursuing real-world STEM careers, and also advising industry professionals. The public greatly benefits from the work being done by science communication scholars who are committed to improving science content through a better understanding of how science is integrated into the production, dissemination, and reception of entertainment media.

 How did you first become interested in your research area?

I did my PhD in Film Studies and contemporary US history and studied the use of moving images (movies) as primary sources for historians. I focussed my research on science fiction movies released in the 1960s and 1970s and considered them as texts that reflected and interacted with their specific historical context. Part of my thesis analysed science and technology in this era both on and off-screen, and when the opportunity arose to work on a project looking at the intersection of science and movies – I knew this was an area of research I really wanted to develop.

Did you have any science heroes growing up?

I had a fictional science hero. When I was younger I wanted to be a forensic scientist having avidly watched the wonderful BBC series Silent Witness. I wanted to be Dr Sam Ryan (Amanda Burton). Unfortunately I discovered this would not be my future career after fainting in a year 8 biology class during a heart dissection demonstration (sorry, Mr Lewis). How disappointing.

 How has working in Manchester helped you?

I’m in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). Unlike other HSTM units in the UK, CHSTM is uniquely positioned within a science faculty. I work alongside a fascinating range of scientists, historians, and students who have helped me to understand the relationship between science and society from different perspectives that I would not have gained in a more traditional humanities setting. I have also had the opportunity to get involved in public science events like the FLS community open day where I have presented a stand on dinosaurs in children’s TV and movies, the British Science Fiction Festival being held in Manchester this year, and the Playing God Film Series that kicks off on 17th March at the Anthony Burgess Foundation with a great programme of six movies and speakers discussing science, religion, and cinema.

 Finally, what do you do outside of work?

I love to sing and the city has given me some great opportunities for that too! I sing with the amazing choir at St Ann’s Church in the centre of the city, and last summer I sang as part of a community choir for the Manchester International Festival production of The Skriker with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange Theatre. I also have two lovely cats that keep me company (and distract me) when I work from home, one of which is called Rosalind Franklin.

Tuesday Feature Episode 35: Holly Shiels

This week we’re featuring Dr Holly Shiels – a senior lecturer in cardiac physiology. Without any further introduction, let’s get right into it.


 

Please explain your research for the general public in around 10 sentences or less

Survival of nearly all vertebrate animals depends on maintained cardiac function. Environmental changes, such as temperature and oxygen fluctuations, can dramatically affect the ability of the heart to maintain normal function. To this end, we explore strategies of cardiac adaptation that permit maintenance of heart function in ectotherms living in fluctuating environments. We try to understand this across levels of biological organisation and in a range of species including tuna, trout, turtle, caiman, zebrafish, catfish, varanid lizard, rat and hamster and even human!

What benefit does your research give to the people reading this blog?

Recently we have been working on the effect of oil spill pollutants on the hearts of fish.  This is important for understanding the implications of environmental disasters on aquatic species. Fish have a number of uses for humans – from food, sport and hobbies to thriving ecosystems which help sustain the environment here on Earth.

How did you first become interested in your research area?

During my PhD I had my first chance to work on large pelagic fish like tuna and swordfish.  These animals move through thermoclines and hypoxic zones in the ocean and their heart beats throughout.  I found this fascinating and am still trying to understand how they do it today!

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you to do science?

Growing up in Canada there was a TV program called ‘The Nature of Things’  it was hosted by an Environmental Science Professor at the University of British Columbia called David Suzuki.  I liked it because it presented nature and the impact humans were having on it.  This was a novel approach for nature documentaries in the 70s and it made me think that I had a responsibility to understand mechanisms of environmental adaption.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a large institution with excellent facilities that attract world class scientists in nearly every discipline.  This is a great benefit as it means the questions I can ask in my research are nearly endless; there will always be the equipment and know-how to address interesting questions.

What do you do outside of work?

I enjoy time with my family and friends.

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 34: Henry Mcghie

Episode 34 of the Tuesday Feature takes a look at a different part of the University life: The Manchester Museum. Today we interview Henry Mcghie who is the Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum.


 

Please explain your role with the museum and the University.

I’m the Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Museum, which means I head up the team of Curators and Curatorial Assistants. The Museum is the largest university museum in the UK, with a collection of over 4.8 million objects and specimens. I’m responsible for the direction of the team, building relationships that make use of the collection for wider use, and working to ensure that the Museum contributes effectively to the University’s overall goals. My team lead the development of most of the Museum’s exhibitions: over the last few years I’ve worked on two large gallery redevelopments and many temporary exhibitions. I also help with the preparation of funding bids for developing the Museum, and am involved in a number of funded projects exploring various aspects of museums and environmental sustainability.

What benefits do museums offer to the general public?

That’s a big question. Museums are storehouses, catalysts, research tools, sources of inspiration. They can offer something to everyone. The Museum has about 450,000 visitors a year who visit the exhibitions we develop and who take part in events. Our collections are heavily used by experts round the world, who ask to examine objects and specimens, or to sample them for scientific analysis. Museums can help connect people with the world around them. They help people connect with the ‘big here’ and the ‘long now’. I think they are really important reference points, helping us understand how we know what we know, and helping people critically evaluate the information they’re presented by mass media and politicians.

How did you first become interested in your museums and engagement?

I became involved with museums when I was an undergraduate at Aberdeen University (over 20 years ago now). They had a university museum, and I got involved with sorting out the bird and egg collections at Inverness Museum. My overriding interest is bird ecology and conservation, and I used to work as a field ecologist. I realised that collections were a rich resource for understanding changes in distribution and ecology, and also that they had enormous potential for educating and inspiring the public. I was completely fascinated by the old collections and historical records, and wrote quite a bit based on them. That’s what helped me most to find a job.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you to study/work in science?

I was always a great admirer of Thomas Huxley and, of course, Charles Darwin. Ian Newton, formerly of the ITE/CEH was also a great inspiration.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

I’ve been at the Museum for quite a while now, and have had a number of different roles. I started in a temporary job, then worked my way up. I’ve loved the opportunities that came along as the Museum underwent radical change and growth. I’ve built up my knowledge of my pet subject, had enormous opportunities to share really interesting things with the public, set up a team to develop exhibitions and support student teaching, the list goes on and on. I’ve been very satisfied with lots of the projects I’ve worked on, which you can see make a big difference to people and to nature.

What do you do outside of work?

Bird-watching, allotment, gardening, walking, gym, writing

Tuesday Feature episode 33: Thomas Nuhse

This week we speak to Lecturer Thomas Nuhse about his unique role here in the Faculty of Life Sciences.


 

Please explain your role here in the Faculty.     

I’m just a regular lecturer at the Faculty of Life Sciences and about two years ago I moved to something called a teaching and scholarship contract. My main role is to teach and the scholarship means that I’m expected to stay on top of new ideas around teaching and learning. I have to stay on top of the current understanding of how people learn, and how our teaching can support that learning in the best way possible. The expectation is that I do professional development, to learn about the best ways to teach and to share these practices with colleagues.

What type of teaching do you focus on?

I’m teaching across a whole wide range of units and types of teaching. These include things like lectures: I do first year biochemistry, second year plant physiology and third year biotic interactions. I also teach in a range of practicals and I will soon be teaching medical groups.

Why is your role and scholarship an important part of the Faculty?

This type of contract is a relatively new idea and I think there have been a number of different drivers that got the Faculty to support the post. Traditionally, academics would all have a joint research and teaching position but this role is a bit of a specialisation. It has been recognised that even though universities have historically been built on the unity of research and teaching, there is now merit in more specialised jobs. People like me, who learn how learning and teaching works, are able to support their colleagues who are more research heavy. We can take on a slightly heavier load of teaching to allow other colleagues to focus on research.

We can also drive the quality of teaching forward. We have a little bit more time to really try out innovative ways of teaching. In a way, this should benefit the students because we can try new things, we can invest time in building new types of courses and in new ways of teaching. In the end, everyone wins.

Why did you first decide to specialise?

It’s a bit of a personal story because I started at the University of Manchester as a research fellow. I started here in 2007 with a fellowship. My first two years, I spent almost all of my time doing research. The project that I was on was a fairly ambitious and risky project and I found that after a couple of years that things hadn’t worked out as well as I would have liked.  This was partly through bad luck and partly because I didn’t make the right strategic decisions. At the same time, I found that the teaching part of my job was something that I enjoyed much more and where I felt I was being much more productive.

When the opportunity opened up and this type of contract was introduced, I felt I could make a better contribution to the Faculty. I applied to switch contracts and two years  ago I was awarded with this new type of contract.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

When I was younger, I was much more into chemistry and so Marie Curie was a hero of mine. Through incredible hard work and determination, she was able to achieve a lot of great things.

 How has working in Manchester helped you?

I think what I’ve really enjoyed is that this is a large Faculty that has a very broad range of research interests. It’s quite exciting to be exposed to top quality research from so many different areas. It allows me to be interested in and learn more about areas that I never really thought about: whether that’s neuroscience, ecology or anything else!

Of course we have great students! We attract some of the brightest students in the country. It is really enjoyable to work with them because they have good ideas and make me think about things I had never thought about. Working with students is something that I enjoy much more than I expected to. Before I arrived here, I worked for ten years in pure research institutes which didn’t have any exposure to undergraduates and it was a bit of a surprise just how much fun it can be to teach students.

What do you outside of work?

When I have the time and it’s not raining, I like to go for walks in the peak district and I like to cycle. Once a week during the semester, I also sing with the University chorus.


 

 

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 33: Natalie Gardiner

Episode 33 of the Tuesday Feature highlights Natalie: someone who is doing fantastic research and making a real difference for gender equality here in FLS.


 

Please explain your research to the general public in about ten sentences or less.

I work on diabetic neuropathy a disorder that can affect the nervous system in diabetes. It is associated with a die-back of the nerve endings that supply skin, muscles and internal organs. This can lead to a whole host of symptoms – from unpleasant gastrointestinal and bladder problems to increased skin sensitivity and pain, often even the pressure of clothes or bed sheets can cause discomfort.  A loss of sensation can coincide with the die-back of the nerves, and this increases the chance of tissue damage and ulceration – which sadly often necessitates amputation of toes, feet or lower limbs.  In my lab we are characterising key changes that occur in gene, protein and metabolite levels in the peripheral nervous system in diabetes. We are interested in finding out what causes the nerve problems and are looking for ways to promote regeneration of damaged nerves and protect nerve function.

A Minute lecture on diabetic neuropathy by Olly Freeman, see recent paper in Diabetes

How does this research benefit the general public?

The World Health Organisation estimated that almost 1 in 10 adults worldwide have diabetes, and the incidence of diabetes is ever-increasing. Approximately half of all patients with diabetes will develop some form of diabetic neuropathy, from mild to more chronic. This can have a huge impact on health, happiness and quality of life. There is currently no treatment. Basic research is therefore needed to better understand diabetic neuropathy and ultimately develop an effective treatment that prevents or limits the progression of the disorder.

What are your other roles here in the Faculty?

I am currently the coordinator for the Women in Life Sciences (WiLS) group here in the faculty and also a member of the Equality and Diversity Leadership team and ATHENA SWAN self-assessment team. I first started going to the WiLS meetings when they were organised by Kathryn Else.  At this time, I had just returned to work after my first maternity leave and started my RCUK fellowship, so I had a lot to learn – how to manage a lab, how to get lab work done in time for nursery pick-up time, and how to cope with very little sleep! I found the WiLS meeting really helpful – learning new management skills and strategies, making new contacts and friends and forging new research collaborations.  Since taking over as coordinator I have organised several bespoke training programmes and workshops based on demand identified through suggestions and surveys (such as a 6-month Coaching and Leadership Program) and talks from internal/external speakers (such as Prof. Dame Athene Donald). I would particularly like to get more students and postdocs involved. Last year I worked with a number of very talented and enthusiastic undergraduates to arrange talks and create a great WiLS photoproject around the time of International Women’s Day. I am always looking for more ideas for workshop/meeting/International Women’s Day events– so if anyone has any suggestions please do email me.

How important is it for Women to be represented in life sciences?

Very! Life sciences does have a better gender balance than some other STEM areas, if you look at the profile of FLS from our ATHENA SWAN Silver renewal application you will see that women are generally well-represented (61% of our undergraduates, 50% of postgraduates and 51% of research staff are female). The proportions do decrease in academic positions and with seniority (32% of all academic staff in FLS are female; 17% of the professors are female),  but there are signs that this gap is narrowing (for example, an increase in the proportion of female senior lecturers/readers over the last 5 year from 18% to 37%) hopefully this will continue.

Do you have any science heroes? who inspired you to do science?

Not sure I particularly have a hero – I was always interested in life sciences and was strongly encouraged by my teachers to study Biology at University. I caught the research bug during my final year project and decided to do a PhD.  I greatly enjoyed the Royal Institutional Christmas lectures given by Nancy Rothwell, and this helped convince me to pursue a career in neuroscience.  After some time doing postdoc positions in London, I moved to Manchester and Nancy became my mentor during my RCUK fellowship!  I try to mention the work of Rita Levi-Montalcini in undergraduate lectures – a key woman in neuroscience! During World War II, her academic career was halted by Mussolini’s ‘Manifesto of Race’ so she responded by setting up a research lab in a bedroom in her parents’ house to study nerve development. She moved to a lab in the US in 1946 and six years later isolated Nerve Growth Factor – a factor which promotes nerve development, survival and regeneration. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her role in this discovery.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester has a great research environment and people are willing to collaborate, so I have got to do work that I would not have been able to do elsewhere. The support facilities, and most importantly the people who run these facilities, are fantastic – a great source of advice.

Finally, what do you do outside of work?

I have two young sons which means that home life is loud and busy.  We try and burn off energy at the weekends going walking, kicking/throwing/hitting balls around and recently by digging – as we have just taken on the challenge of an overgrown allotment.


 

 

 

Tuesday Feature episode 32: Liz Toon

Please explain your research for the general public.

I do a whole bunch of different kinds of research, with most of it focused around issues of women’s health and relationships between patients and doctors. One of the projects that I’ve been working on for a while is a history of breast cancer treatment and experience in 20th century Britain. What I want to know is how has treatment changed in Britain over the course of the last century, but also how has the experience of being treated for breast cancer changed.

In relation to my research, I am working on a newer project on women’s cancer screening and prevention.  Basically the project is about how interventions like cervical smears and the mammograms became expected parts of women’s healthcare. I am looking at how interventions become a way for women to think about the status of their health in their everyday lives; part of this looks at how these types of treatments were built into the National Health Service.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Breast cancer services in the UK are often used as a proxy for the state of Britain’s commitment to women’s healthcare and I want to know how this came to be. The project will also explain why certain practices are organised the way that they are, for example, you get cervical cancer screenings from your GP whereas you get breast cancer screenings through specialised centres and so my research hopes to answer how this happened. I think we all need to know why our healthcare system is set up this way.

The project also allows me to understand how everyday people receive health care; it gives me the ability to understand what it is like for patients who have to go through the current health care system in comparison to patients from earlier in the 20thcentury and how these changes in practices affect the patient.

How did you first get interested in the history of science and medicine?

Well it’s sort of a long path. I started out, like many people in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, really interested in science as a kid. I used to like to read old medical books and old science books. I actually went to University in the US and I wanted to become a research biologist. I loved working in the lab but I was not so good at other elements of research and at the same time I found that what I really cared about was the history of science and medicine. Doing History is great for the curious, because it’s basically reading other people’s mail!

I worked for a while as a technical writer and then I went onto graduate school in history and sociology of science. At that point I decided I actually wanted to look at how it is that everyday people learn about science and medicine.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

I was a big reader as a kid and I loved reading biographies of scientists and I especially loved reading biographies of women scientists; Marie Curie of course, but lots of others too. Like a lot of people of my age group and that are American, the thing that really did it for me was Carl Sagan and Cosmos. I realised later that this was partly because he didn’t really just tell you the scientific information, but he gave you a really good picture of how that information came to be. He made it clear that you have to understand the history to really understand the present and the future and I think he was terrific at that!

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

It’s helped me a lot to work here in Manchester, especially at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, because CHSTM is internationally known with a really strong sense of cross-discipline collaborations. I have great colleagues and there are a lot of elective and joint projects that we have going on and it’s really good in that sense because as a historian a lot of the work that you do is individual. When you sit in the archives you’re looking at papers on your own but being able to do historical projects whilst working with other people is really special. Manchester has been great!

Manchester has also been really great because there’s a lot of interest all over the University in the human elements of medicine. I have colleagues in Humanities, in Medicine and Human Sciences, and here in Life Sciences, that are not historians, who all want to think about the more human experience side of biomedicine. In fact, we’ve started a new group that’s called the Medical Humanities laboratory and that is bringing together those people from all over the University to look at the relationships between art, history and science.

What do you do outside of work?

Anyone who follows my Twitter Feed will know that I am a very avid knitter and crafter. I probably tweet as much about knitting as I do about history!

Anyone who has come to a CHSTM seminar will have probably seen me knitting during the seminar itself because it really does help me concentrate better. It allows me to get my nervous energy out by knitting a sock whilst I try to think of a question to ask. I also read a lot of mystery novels and, of course, I do a lot of things like travelling and visiting museums.

Tuesday Feature episode 31: Franciska De Vries

In episode 31 of the Tuesday Feature we question Franciska about all things soil.


 

Please can you briefly explain your research in simple terms?

I look at how plants and soils interact. Plants pump carbon into the soil and there are lots of microbes and other organisms in the soils which use this carbon to perform important processes, they release nutrients for plants to use and I study how that works. Mainly I look at how feedbacks and processes respond to climate change and land-use change.

How does this research benefit the general public?

It’s important to know how ecosystems will respond to climate change and other future changes such as land-use change. Ecosystems provide valuable functions and deliver important services such as food production and carbon sequestration for climate mitigation.  We look at how soils will be able to continue under climate change which underpins society and human life. We need to eat and food comes from the soil in one way or another!

How did you first become interested in soils?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands I had a really good lecturer who gave particularly interesting lectures on soil biodiversity,  I guess it was from there that I discovered how interesting soil science really is. I just really wanted to learn more!

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

I went to study environmental studies for my undergraduate degree because I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be a scientist on a green peace ship so it actually turned out all differently. I didn’t really have a big hero – I just wanted to save the world.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Massively – it’s just a really inspiring environment and there are a lot of very good people that are really supportive in anything you want to do. I have had a lot of support; particularly for my grant applications and it really is a great place to work.

What do you do outside of work?

I do a lot of sports: I like to mountain bike, run and climb. Sport is kind of in the background now because I have a one year old that takes up all my time.

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 30: Adam Hugill

This week we are speaking to the employability intern Adam about his role here in the Faculty. You can follow their twitter account @employabilityLS


 

Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

My role in the Faculty involves making sure that all of our students graduate with the skills they need to go into their first job.  The majority of my work is running events where I have to coordinate closely with the University careers service and outside organisations. The events vary from our big meet the professionals event through to the regular CV surgery workshops, which take place every week.

How does this benefit the students?

We aim to make our students aware of the different career paths that are available to them, this is especially true for events like ‘meet the professionals’. This event gives students the chance to meet our alumni and to find out more about the career paths that the alumni have taken.

How did you first become interested in Life Sciences and your role here in the Faculty?

From a really young age I was really into scuba diving, being under the sea, I couldn’t help but be absolutely fascinated by everything that was going on and all the life you could see. My love of life sciences grew from there and I was always the annoying kid at school that would ask questions of the teacher. Through my zoology degree here, in Manchester, my confidence and my knowledge of life sciences really grew.

I became interested in the employability role because during my degree I did a placement year in New Zealand. Although I really enjoyed my year and the research that I did, I found that research really wasn’t for me. Despite deciding not to continue with research, I really enjoyed working within the University environment, so I started looking for roles that weren’t specifically research based and I stumbled upon my current position. I felt that this job looked like something that I could do and something that I would really enjoy doing.

Did you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I wouldn’t say that I have any particular heroes, but I think a lot of zoologists grew up watching a lot of David Attenborough. Shows like Blue Planet and the Discovery Channel really got my interest in life sciences going from a young age.

How has studying and working in Manchester helped you?

My course was especially good at preparing me for coming into the workplace, my placement year gave me some work experience that made sure I had   skills that I needed to go into a job. I worked for a year  in London and when I came back to Manchester, it seemed like a much friendlier atmosphere and the student life in Fallowfield really helped me get the most out of my degree.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m a big cricketer and play a lot of the time. Through the winter I play a lot of 5 a side football and other sports but the problem is that I generally think I’m like Cristiano Ronaldo and go on to injure myself!

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 29: Alexander Ryan

From science on the screen, to science in the labs – this week’s Tuesday Feature looks at Alexander Ryan. He’s a new post doctoral researcher in the Faculty, so read about his research into his congenital hyperinsulinism.


Please explain your research for the general public in ten sentences or less.

At the moment I’m looking at congenital hyperinsulism which is when the pancreas secretes too much insulin. It affects roughly 1:50000 new-borns and its potentially really awful because the high levels of insulin leads to low levels of glucose which can have major problems with development, especially in the brain. My research is looking at trying to stop the insulin secretion and to prevent the hypoglycaemia (the low levels of glucose) and therefore help the children.

How can this benefit the person reading this blog?

Obviously with it affecting 1:50000 children, it’s not particularly common but it is devastating to those families which are affected. Also, understanding more about how blood glucose levels are controlled may lead to new treatments for diabetes which is a much more common condition affecting blood glucose levels. There are some medications that can be used for treating congenital hyperinsulinism but they don’t always work, and have quite a few side effects.  Quite often the children need a pancreatectomy (removal of the pancreas) to stop hypoglycaemia, and this is a very drastic measure.  Hopefully my research should allow a new rage of medications to be developed which would help enormously.

How did you first become interested in this?

I did my PhD in Manchester where I looked at diabetes and I focused on skeletal muscle and fat. Then I moved to San Diego to do my postdoc and I looked at the effects the muscle and the fat have on the pancreas. I became interested in how the beta cells function as a whole and this is a natural progression from that. I look at the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too much insulin and so the whole combination of being able to fully understand the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too little or too much insulin is really interesting to me.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Growing up, not so much. The main thing that wanted me to get into research science was my undergraduate degree. During this I did a project with Alan Dickson and everything he taught me was really really interesting. I got reading papers and I got excited by the idea that no one had done my work and that I was finding out new things. One of the people who I read was Randall Kaufman and I actually got the chance to meet him when I was in San Diego at a conference. It’s an embarrassing story but I completely ‘fanboy’d’ out. I basically told him I loved his lectures, his papers and so he’s closest thing to an actual hero. Other than that it’s people who I work with on a day to day basis. They do my sort of work but better than me!

How has studying and working here in Manchester helped you?

The University is fantastic. The reason I chose my undergraduate degree is that The University is one of the best in Europe, if not the World. When I was actually looking at the research the Faculty does, it seemed so fantastic and that’s what prompted me to do my PhD there. When I was coming back to England, I knew I would be coming back to the north so when I was trying to find universities to apply for, Manchester just stuck out as the best one. This was especially true for the research. The lab I’m working in now is one of the few labs in the country, if not the world, that is actually looking at congenital hyperinsulism in this manner and so it’s really unique to Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

I play bass and guitar quite a lot. I do a lot of musical stuff and I also play football. I took up surfing in San Diego, but that’s kind of useless here. Other than that, it’s just boring things like cooking, reading and travelling.

Tuesday Feature Episode 28: David Kirby

Last week we featured the creator of the new Life Science Broadcast series and this week we feature a man who looks at the way science is portrayed in popular media. Read all about David Kirby and his work that looks at science on the screen.


Explain your research for the general public in about ten sentences of less.

As a science communication scholar, what I’m interested in are the ways that entertainment media serve as vehicles for science communication. By entertainment media I mean movies, television, graphic novels – things that we would think of as popular culture. I’m interested in the ways in which they disseminate messages about science and I’m interested in how those messages influence or impact real world science, technology and medicine.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Entertainment media like movies and television can have a significant impact on the ways in which the public think about science or technology. By examining the depictions of science in movies or on television and understanding how they are produced, how they are disseminated and how they are received by audiences, we can try and make these depictions better. We can try to ensure that those depictions match up with real world science – to make those depictions authentic, whether it is the depiction of science, scientists or the relationship between science and society.

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How did you first become interested in your research area?

I’m trained as a scientist with a PhD in evolutionary genetics. I taught in a biology department for a while and during that time I became interested in the ways that media were depicting science. I had always had an interest in movies and that led me to undertake a retraining postdoc at Cornell University to study the relationships between science and media. Given my interest in film, I started looking at those relationships in particular. In terms of the research that I have done, I thought about the ways in which scientists have become involved in the making of entertainment products like movies and television. I thought it’d be a good idea to see the types of influences scientists might have on these media.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Yeah, in terms of scientists who inspired me to take this path, I would point to Carl Sagan. This is especially because I’m an American who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s. Cosmos was a major television show in the US at that time and it’s considered one of the seminal, popular depictions of science in media. Not only was Carl Sagan an inspiring figure in terms of being a prominent and articulate scientist, but the ways in which he made science understandable and made science something other people wanted to study, was important to me. So when I made the shift to look at science and media I kind of took Sagan as a model.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

Working in Manchester has helped me because it brought me to the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which is one of the top centres for studying science and society in the world. Being here amongst my colleagues and being someone who made that transition from bench science into studying science’s relationship to society, it was actually really useful to me being here. Being in CHSTM allowed me to see how some of the top scholars in the world have studied this particular topic. I think I can rightfully say that had I not received the job here 11 years ago, my book Lab Coats in Hollywood would not have been as successful as it was. I owe the book’s success to being here in Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I have a lovely wife, Laura, and two cats and we enjoy doing a lot of travelling. In terms of activities for enjoyment, I play a sport called softball. It’s an American sport that is surprisingly popular here in Britain, especially in Manchester. We have a thriving league with over 30 teams, so we’re talking over 350 people playing the sport. I think its popularity in the UK surprises many people. For me it is a kind of life-line back to my roots in America.

Tuesday Feature Episode 27: Edward Bains

Edd joined the Faculty in September this year and his new broadcast will be out soon – so what better way to introduce him than a Tuesday Feature. Enjoy!


Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

I’m a digital media intern with the Faculty of Life Sciences. It’s my job to create the Life Science Broadcast – a series of regular short films about the exciting research that goes on in FLS. I do everything from coming up with the initial ideas and contacting academics, to recording interviews and cutaway footage. I then edit it all together and then finally market the finished product to the public. I also assist with the running of the Faculty’s social media channels, in particular our Instagram and the new Snapchat account.

How does your role benefit the general public?

By publicising the research done in the Faculty, I help facilitate a  better understanding of science to the general public. It’s vital in this day and age that scientists engage with the public and aren’t just hidden away in their labs. Science is of such huge benefit to society and people should be made aware of this, otherwise it’s easy for people to think of scientists as living in ivory towers cooking up Frankenstein’s Monster. My job also helps raise the profile of the Faculty and the University as a whole, which is important for ensuring that it continues to attract research funding and draws in students.

How did you first become interested in the life sciences?

I guess I first got into the life sciences and biology when I was about 12 years old when I adopted an orangutan with the WWF. Since then I’ve been passionate about animals and the environment and conserving our natural world. This motivated me to do a degree in biology at Manchester. My degree gave me a great insight into some fascinating topics within the life sciences such as microbiology, stem cell research and climate chance. I also went on an amazing field course to Costa Rice in my second year. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do after university but I saw this internship being advertised and it sounded really appealing to me.

Do you have any heroes? Who inspired you?

*Don’t say David Attenborough, Don’t say David Attenborough*

I guess within the life sciences (and not David Attenborough) it would be Charles Darwin. He wasn’t just a brilliant biologist but was also a really great human being. Outside of the life sciences, I guess some of my heroes would be Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop. Oh and Mulan. Was she real? Saving China was pretty heroic

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Since starting my internship, I’ve learnt loads of new skills and got loads of great experience in all aspects of photography and film making and using professional editing software. I’ve also learnt a lot about marketing, running social media campaigns and the digital media environment in general. Thinking more broadly, I’ve been developing my capacity for teamwork and being creative and proactive at work. I hope this internship will be a great first step towards a career in media.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work, I love to keep active, going to a gym or running most evenings. I’m currently watching the Apprentice and Homeland and I’ve just started a really good new show on Netflix called Narcos. I’m really interested in politics and music and I love going to gigs and festivals. Other than that, I enjoy things like cooking, reading and going out with my friends. And I’m about to start yoga!

Tuesday Feature Episode 26: Max Drakeley

Max is a recent graduate from The Faculty of Life Sciences and is now working as part of the Biological Sciences Review (BSR). Read below about how he first got interested in science and how the BSR is helping to teach the next generation of scientists.


What is your role here in the Faculty?

So my role is editorial assistant with the Biological Sciences Review, which is an A-level magazine that tries to take cutting edge scientific research and make it understandable to A-level students who have just come out of GCSE. Because BSR is aimed at A-level students, it’s a great way of getting really good research down into the general public.  I basically try to coordinate the publishing team, the editing team and the authors who are sending us their articles. I try to make things run very smoothly. I do a little bit of proof-reading myself too.

How does BSR help the general public?

The way the BSR helps the public is by making science understandable for A-level students. I used to read it when I was at school and it really helped me to decide to do a neuroscience degree at university. It’s great at getting kids involved in science and developing an understanding that you wouldn’t get in the class room.

How did you first become interested in Science?

Well I did cognitive neuroscience as an undergraduate and that was based on the fact that I read an Oliver Sacks book (The man who mistook his wife for a hat) which really got me into the psychology and the neuroscience side of things. I guess I knew I wanted to do neuroscience at university after that.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Other than Oliver Sacks? A standard cliché science hero is David Attenborough. I always used to love his documentaries when I was growing up. It really made me want to go into the media side of things back when I was younger. Blue Planet certainly blew my mind – it was the thing that got me into scuba diving and made me really want to go do deep sea diving. So yeah, David Attenborough would be my science hero.

How has working/studying here in Manchester helped you?

I did a science communication final year project which really helped me build my writing and editing skills because you have to do a lot of writing in your final year. I wrote a BSR article and this really helped me hone my skills and taught me how to really get a decent article ready for publication. That helped me get the job I am currently doing and it allows me to understand what the authors are going through when they’re trying to write things. A lot of the feedback the editors give back to the authors is really useful.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I’m a major ice-hockey player. I’ve always played ice-hockey throughout my time at university. At the moment I’m playing for Blackburn Hawks which takes up both my days at the weekend. I also train during the week. Other than that, I like music, chilling out with friends and that sort of thing.

Tuesday Feature Episode 25: Lara Clauss

For many, this is the first week of lectures and it can be quite hard to imagine what it’s like to do another 3/4 years of study! Fear not, this Tuesday Feature is with a recent graduate and is full of some good advice. Check it out.



What did you study here at the University of Manchester?

In my first year, I studied Biomedical Sciences with Spanish. Although I enjoyed the combination of science with a modern language, I wanted to focus more strongly on a specific area of science, so I switched to Pharmacology and Physiology in my second year. It’s the only degree in the Faculty of Life Sciences that you can’t combine with a language, but humanities aren’t completely out of the picture: My final year project in the history of science really helped me gain a wider perspective on the role of science in society.

What are your plans for after University?

A few months ago I would have said travelling, but I was lucky enough to receive a place to do my Masters degree in Neuroscience. I’m excited because it’s in France, so there will be good food and plenty of opportunities to improve my French while I’m here. If all goes well I’m hoping to do a PhD afterwards, and I believe the additional degree will help me determine what I would like to spend four years of my life researching.

lara tfHow did you first become interested Life Sciences?

My first interests were in the application of scientific knowledge to a clinical environment, so I considered becoming either a doctor or a scientist. I did an internship in a virology laboratory which I really enjoyed, and Manchester showed me that working in a laboratory can be fun as well as challenging. My interest has just kept growing!

How has studying in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is brilliant because it is recognised internationally and as such it attracts brilliant researchers from around the world as well as great fellow students. I always had something to do with great people around me, and benefited from some amazing teaching and support. Also, I’m confident that Manchester will be a great asset to my CV when I start searching for jobs, because it’s one of the top universities worldwide (and definitely lives up to that reputation)!

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I got involved in halls of residence and many societies, which included managing FOLSS for two years. I also worked for the university as a Student Ambassador. The activities really helped broaden my skills set, and although not academic I think they helped show my eagerness to get involved in university life, which might have helped in getting a place for my Masters. I’m hoping to get more involved in sports now, let’s see how it goes!

Tuesday Feature Episode 24: James Mcinerney

From inflammation last week to evolution today, the Tuesday Feature is featuring some really interesting research. This week we talk to Professor James Mcinerney who specialises in micro-evolution. He recently joined the Faculty and can’t wait to get stuck in.


Explain your research the layman in ten sentences or less.

I’m an evolutionary biologist and my interest is in trying to understand the process that led to the patterns that we see today. The patterns we see like some bacteria are anti-bacterial resistant, that plants have chlorophyll that harvest light – these are the patterns we see. I’m trying to understand the evolutionary history of the organism or how they got to be the way they are today.

Very specifically I’m looking at things that merge. I’m interested in things that form hybrids; I’m interested in genes that jump from one species to another, which is really topical at the moment and something that I’ve worked on for the past ten years. I’m also interested in the origin of the eukaryotic cell – the cell of complex life. For me, how they got to be, how they arose on the planet is a very interesting question.

What is the importance of your research to the person reading this blog?

In evolutionary biology we’re interested in analysing the evolution of pathogens. These are disease causing bacteria and disease causing viruses. So when we see outbreaks, like the recent Ebola outbreak, we want to know where that outbreak started. The way in which we do that is by analysing the evolutionary history of the strains we isolate from the patient. These evolutionary biology methods have a direct benefit to humanity by allowing us to: trace and track epidemics and various outbreaks of disease, and to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance on the planet.

How did you first become interested in evolutionary histories?

My first studies were on deep evolutionary histories, that is to say trying to understand the first organisms on the planet, what they look like and so on. In order to do that, we had to develop methods and it seemed to us that this was the most interesting aspect at the time. We weren’t going to get access to the kinds of data we have right now. Today, if an outbreak of a disease occurs, we can get the full genomic sequence of the bacteria involved in that outbreak. We didn’t sort of have that kind of data 20 years ago, but we do now. The methods we developed 20 years ago we can now apply in a very real way to these problems today. The way I got into this was almost by accident – we were developing these methods for something entirely different and today those methods are useful for analysing epidemics.

Do you have any sciences heroes? Who inspired you?

I do indeed have a science hero. He’s a British scientist called Sir Paul Nurse. Paul Nurse got a Nobel Prize about 14 or 15 years ago and it’s not really his science that makes him a science hero to me. He struggled to get into university; he came from a very very modest background. He talks about this quite often. He finally got into university through sheer willpower and this meant that 20 years later he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. I think that’s a really great thing and I think that Sir Paul Nurse is a superb individual.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

So I’ve just moved to Manchester; since June of this year. One of the main motivations of me moving to Manchester was that it has one of the great centres of Evolutionary Biology in the country and perhaps even in Europe and the world. Some tremendous people who are working here and some tremendous people who I want to work with. New methods are coming out, new technologies, science on the grand scale. This is one of the great universities of the world and so I moved here in order to be part of that and hopefully in the next ten years we can work hard on trying to uncover new evolutionary patterns, new evolutionary processes and Manchester is a great place to be for that.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I find that what I really want to do is read a book and relax – to play some bad guitar. My work involves a lot of travel. For example this summer I was in the USA twice, I was in Europe and the Far East so when I’m on my time off I actually just want to sit around, read a book, relax, have a beer and just chill out.

Tuesday Feature Episode 23: Mike Daniels

This week we feature Mike Daniels, a PhD student who is looking at inflammation! Without further ado, here is his ‘Tuesday Feature’


Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I work on the Immune system and inflammation, which is basically a process where our body releases its troops – the immune cells, in order to fight infection caused by damage of bacterial infection. What I work on specifically is one particular component of this army and that’s called the inflammasome. What’s particularly interesting is that this guy, the inflammasome, actually causes more harm than good. What we’re trying to find out is exactly how this occurs and whether we can produce drugs which will inhibit this inflammasome and hopefully use this to treat inflammatory disease.

mike daniels

How could this benefit the person reading this blog?

The concept of this over active immune system is actually one that I’ve found really interesting. If we’ve got an immune system that is causing us harm, then how has that evolved? This is one of the questions that I would really love to answer. Regardless of that question, this over active immune system process, is involved in a huge number of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, malaria, diabetes, cardio vascular disease – all of these disease have a huge involvement with an over active immune system.

If we can understand how this is happening and potentially find ways we can inhibit this response without causing damage to our own immune system, then hopefully we’ll be able to use drugs to treat these diseases.

How did you first get interested in inflammation?

I’ve always been interested in science and one thing that interested me was how drugs were used to treat and cure diseases, so I did pharmacology as an undergraduate. Whilst doing that I got interested in neuroscience and pain. One particular thing about pain is that you think of it as a neural process, but there’s a huge inflammatory component. As I realised this, I discovered that there’s a huge inflammatory component to almost anything you can think of and so on knowing that, I realised what better thing to do than inflammation itself.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m not really sure I was inspired by one particular scientist. I always liked the idea of the polymath. So a polymath is someone who is learned in basically everything. I did a school project once on Benjamin Franklin. He was not just a scientist, but he was an inventor, an author, a philosopher and he founded the most powerful country in the world. One really cool thing about Benjamin Franklin that I always liked was that he was one of those really cool types of scientist that just used to test stuff on himself. This is something that I’ve always thought was in days gone by, but in actual fact I had a meeting with someone recently who wanted to know whether or not something was involved in pain. Instead of doing any tests on animals or cells, he just bought it on the internet and injected it in himself to see if it caused any pain. As far as I know, he’s still alive and interestingly it didn’t cause pain. This is something I’ve always inspired to be, a scientist like that – a really cool scientist.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The Faculty of Life science here at Manchester provided the perfect foundations for me to build a successful PhD. In terms of facilities I have the ability to go to any state of the art facility where I’ll have expert advice on experimental planning, the design and the execution of the experiment and even data analysis. The staff are really supportive and help you build your experiments, but at the same time, they’ll let you go and do your own thing. Also the whole ethos behind the faculty allows a kind of environment where it’s enjoyable to come into work and at the same time we can all still be focused enough to produce successful research. So yeah, thumbs up for FLS.

What do you do outside of work? 

Outside of science, I like to get involved in a lot of sport.  I play football, tennis, badminton, squash – anything I can really get my hands on, although all fairly badly. At the weekends, I like to get myself up a mountain somewhere and do a bit of climbing.

 

Tuesday Feature episode 22: Nick Ogden

This week we’re getting creative by interviewing Faculty photographer and designer Nick Ogden. Find out how he got into photography and why it’s crucial for the Faculty of Life Sciences.


Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

My role here in the faculty is as the photographer and designer. I am based here in the photographic unit and we’re responsible for the visual output for most of the Faculty research work. It includes photos, papers and thesis but also producing scientific posters. I am also responsible for designing a lot of the faculty’s literature such as fliers, brochures and leaflets.

How does your role benefit the general public?

My role benefits the general public in helping to bring the science within the faculty to them in a visual aspect – both in imagery and photography but also in design. So we produce brochures and leaflets and literature which helps to promote the science that actually takes place here. It makes what we do here understandable and interpretable by the general public.

Nick Ogden - Photographer Genius

How did you first become interested in photography?

I first got interested in both photography and design when doing GCSEs in high school. I had an art teacher who was very very supportive and encouraged me to go down a creative route. We had dark rooms where we used to do ‘wet’ photography. I always had an interest in and spent a long time developing photos that I had taken on black and white film.

When I finished my a-levels, these experiences led me to getting a job here at the University as a dark room technician. Day in and day out I was just developing films. As the wet photography and more traditional photography ended and we became digital, the photography changed and we moved down a much more creative route which allowed me to do a degree in graphic design. This helped me move into that side of the photographics.

Do you have any heroes? Who inspired you?

I haven’t got any particular heroes in photography, but the two people who really inspired me were related to me. I never met one of them and only met the other when I was very young. One of them was my grandfather and the other was my godfather and they were both very keen photographers. One was a wedding photographer and my grandad also did it as part of his job. This is going back into the traditional photography era. These people always gave me a kind of spark and desire to follow in their footsteps a little bit. I’m guessing that’s where the interest came from – it’s passed down. I really just fell in love with it once I got started with it.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The University has been very supportive in my role. I started here after leaving college with A-levels and I wanted to go work rather than go to University. I wanted to get out into the ‘real world’ and the University had a very supportive trainee scheme. They gave me day release which allowed me to go to Manchester Met to study for a degree in graphic design and after 3 years of that – I completed it back in 2005. It has benefited the University and the Faculty in that I have been able to bring the skills that I’ve learnt and put them, I hope, to good use in the Faculty.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work, I have a keen interest in sport – more watching than participating. Up until recently I was a photographer down at an ice hockey club based in Manchester – I photographed the action on game nights which went on the websites and programmes. I recently became a new dad so a lot of my time is now taken up looking after my little girl. It has a had a major impact on my social life, but it’s all for the better and other than that, I’m out taking pictures and doing some gardening.

Tuesday Feature Episode 21: Olly Freeman

Episode 21 of the Tuesday Feature is with Olly Freeman who is beginning on his Post-PhD research here at the University of Manchester. Without further adieu, find out what he’s up to and how he got to this point!


Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I look at energy generation in the brain and the nervous system. Now, the brain is really electrically active and this needs lots and lots of energy to keep it going. There are these cells called glia, which wrap around the neurons, the nerve cells in the brain, and these were classically thought to be like insulation on a wire to insulate the signal. That is the case, but actually what we think now is that they may play a more direct role in energy generation – generate some energy themselves and pass that to the nerve cell. So, this is the research I’m looking into at the moment.

olly freeman

How might your research benefit the person reading this blog?

I look at fundamental mechanisms, fundamental cellular mechanisms at the basic level but what we hope is that these will be able to be translated through to the clinic. There are many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which have all seen deficits in energy production in how these nerve cells communicate because they lack the right energy. So what I hope, and it’s paramount to say that this is a long way in the future, that the basic research that we’re doing at the moment could in some future time help patients.

How did you first become interested in Energy Generation?

It’s stemmed from my PhD research really. So, my PhD was looking at a condition called diabetic neuropathy which is a very common condition but it’s not very well known. It’s where patients with diabetes commonly get pain right down in the hands and feet and what we don’t really understand is why you’ve got a whole blood sugar all over the body but painful symptoms right down in the distal areas. So what we found, or what we think we found, is that actually it could be the energy generation could be different at one end of the nerve to the other. So the nerve at the bottom has a problem making its energy while the one at the top is fine. So what I’m now trying to do is look at the fundamental mechanisms behind how energy is maintained in different parts of the nervous system. The role of the glia in energy generation of the nerve seems to be a really important feature.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

So I guess towards the top of the list has to be a guy called Eric Kandel. He won the Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for his pioneering work on learning and memory. What I like about Kandel so much is that actually he wanted to study these big phenomena – learning and memory, but what he wasn’t afraid to do was take it down to a really basic level. And what he did was take a sea slug, aplysia, which is a ridiculous little animal. But he used this against most of his colleagues who were telling him ‘no – you’ve got to study this in the brain of mammals’. He used this little sea slug to study actual cellular mechanisms of learning and memory and he managed to outline this cellular process, which has now been shown in higher organisms in mammals and humans to actually be a fundamental mechanism of learning and memory. I think he’s a fantastic example of just going with your gut and studying what you want to study and it can go really great.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

One of the best things about Manchester is that there is a real can do attitude about Manchester. If you want to do something, you can find people who are willing to support you doing that and just give it a go. It may be a ridiculous idea but people around will support you in chasing that and trying to do what you want to do. There is fantastic expertise in loads of different areas, which will support you to do that.

What do you do outside of work?

One of my great passions is football. I love playing football, I love watching football. Also love to travel which being a scientist is fantastic, you get to go away a lot with work and that really helps to wind down.

Tuesday Feature Episode 20: Kory Stout

After a summer hiatus, the Tuesday Feature is back. After 19 episodes, I thought it was about time the readers got to know me a little better so that’s why I decided to take up the proverbial driver’s seat to talk about my role here in the faculty. Thank you to Nick Ogden for the interview.


What is your role here in the Faculty?

My title for my job is digital communications assistant. This essentially means that I have two major roles here in the faculty. The first role is to do web updates. So the faculty has over a 100 different web pages and these need updating with relevant information. Academic members will send me and my team – it’s a two man team, I work with a wonderful colleague called Helen, and we then update the web pages with the relevant information.

Kory Stout The second major role in the faculty is the social media presence. I do things like this on the blog and on Facebook, as well as sharing news about the Faculty. I also produce content with the Communication and Marketing Leadership Team (CMLT) – things like the Minute Lectures and the Tuesday Feature.

How does your role benefit the general public?

I firmly believe science is for everyone. It shouldn’t be too technical and it shouldn’t be too hard for people to understand. My job role therefore helps the general public to understand science, helps them see how it’s relevant to their daily lives and it helps them see how science can be for them and not just for people in lab coats working in the lab.

How did you first become interest in science?

I did my undergraduate degree here in Manchester.  I did it as part of CHSTM which is the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine and is part of the Faculty of Life Sciences. My degree was in Biology with Science and Society and it lasted three years. We looked at things like how science Is used today in the 21st Century, how it came to be that way and we looked at the history and ethical implications of science.  This helped give me a really good education in science and gave me a passion for communicating science to the general public.

After University I looked for a job in science communication, but I found it quite hard to find one with little professional experience in the field. I took up an MGIP (Manchester Graduate Internship Programme) in the Faculty of Life Sciences to do their social media. About 7 or 8 months later I got offered a job here for the Digital Communications Assistant.

Originally I’ve always been interested in science ever since I was a young child. I was fascinated by nature around me, about how science is used to treat disease and how it’s used to better people’s lives. I’ve always enjoyed science and have always wanted to educate people and to teach them about science.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

At the time, I really didn’t have any science heroes, but looking back I can see people who have been influential in my life. I had science teachers who were really fun and engaging and there were science personalities on TV, like David Attenborough, who really infused a passion in me to learn more about science. I guess those people who had a passion for science and wanted it to be shared, really inspired me to do the same.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

As I said previously, as a recent graduate I found it quite hard to find a job in science communication without relevant experience. The University here has given me great experience in working in the science communication field; without that, it’d have been much harder to find a job that I was passionate about and really wanted to do. The University helped me first with the MGIP which allowed me to learn relevant techniques and practices that I can use in the work place and well as giving me a full time job after that. I’m really grateful for that. I really love working here in Manchester and the faculty is a really great place to be.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m a really keen sports person. I really love playing and watching football, with the new season kicked off, I’m really excited about that. I also I do a Fact a Day, which is basically an email list. I send out a fact via email and via Facebook to people who are interested in learning stuff. That’s really fun and keeps me learning.

Tuesday Feature Episode 19: Dr. Mark Elvin

Dr. Mark Elvin works in the Robotics Lab here in the faculty (yes, it is as cool as it sounds!). In this week’s Tuesday Feature he talks about how his research could help 3rd world countries, his science heroes, and his new found love for swimming!

DSC_0533Can you explain your research for the layman in 10 sentences or less?

I have two main roles in the Faculty of Life Sciences. I run the Robotics Laboratory in the COEBP (Centre of Excellence in Biopharmaceuticals) on projects that include the development of new medicines with increased stability and greater shelf life, a factor that eliminates the need for cold storage and aid delivery of life-saving medicines across the world. In addition, I also work on basic research in Professor Alan Dickson’s lab.  My primary area of basic research is understanding how mammalian cell cultures that are used to produce new medicines can be grown more easily and to higher numbers (meaning more product can be harvested from each process with cost-savings for industry and patient).  I do this by profiling the efficiency of use of nutrients (metabolites) in the liquid medium used to grow cells using sensitive analytical technologies (e.g. Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectroscopy). Basically what that means is we look at various mammalian cells growing in different types of cell culture media and work out what the cells are utilising in the media and how we can use different types of media more efficiently to produce an increased amount of medicines.

How can your research benefit the general public?

I suppose by knowing more about the biotechnology industry and its manufacturing processes from the very beginning – from developing cell culture media for specific mammalian cells right through to developing the various cell lines – basically then to producing the recombinant proteins or antibodies that people will routinely get from their GP and Doctors. So, the need to eliminate cold storage is quite important, as I said previously, especially for the 3rd world where these facilities are not available. So if we can help create newly formulated drugs by exploring new formulation technologies through robotics then that will benefit everybody worldwide.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?DSC_0534

I’ve been working for Professor Alan Dickson in the biotechnology sector for about 18 months now. However, I have worked as a post-doc in the faculty since 2002 both in the labs of Dr Christian Heintzen (working on fungal circadian biology) and Dr Gino Poulin (RNAi screening in C. elegans).  Alan has very close ties with industry, good collaborations with many industrial companies and I’ve always been interested in mammalian cell culture from an early stage, reading the literature on the first cell line (the HeLa cell line) and all the ethical debates that have gone on since that, so that’s probably when I first got interested in it.

Did you have any science heroes growing up?

Yes, with studying general biology at both GCSC and A-level the earliest ones are generally the classical ones that you read about in science books. So for me, firstly is Alexander Fleming and his accidental discovery of penicillin, and secondly is Edward Jenner and his pioneering work in the development for the worlds first vaccine for Small Pox. Then going to University and studying molecular biology and learning about techniques such as PCR (the inventor of PCR being Kary Mullis, the Australian Surfer guy). However the reason I got interested in science and becoming a scientist/biologist was because of the seminal work of Sir Alec Jeffrey’s, the British geneticist and pioneer of DNA fingerprinting and DNA profiling. I would say he is probably the stand out person for me in wanting to have an academic career in science in a university-based environment.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

It’s helped me develop a great deal – not only as a person, but also academically as well. The vision for Manchester to become not only one of the best universities in the country, but also in Europe means they recruit the best people and being a part of that helps drive you on as a person and become the best you can possibly be. I think working in Manchester has helped me develop fully into the scientist that I am today.

What do you do outside work?

Outside of work I am a family man. I’ve been married for just over 10 years and we have 2 boys, aged 5 and 3. So, most of my time is spent at home with them. But also, I like reading and playing golf when I can get onto the course. I used to play football at the weekends but I have recently started swimming again before work at the Manchester Aquatics Centre, so my main passion now is swimming

Tuesday Feature Episode 18: Ciara Stafford

Episode 18 of our Tuesday Feature is with Ciara Stafford, a PhD student who looks at how Monkeys and humans coexist! Ciara gets the chance to spend a lot of time out in the Ecuadorian Amazon researching this. We had a quick chat with her about her research, how it can help us here in the UK, and what it’s like doing a PhD in Manchester!

Can you explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less?DSC_0048

I work in the Amazon rain forest. I’m particularly interested in what happens when animals share the same habitat with indigenous communities that are still dependent on the forest for a living. So are the animals benefited by the people being there? Are they exploited by the people being there? Do people value them, care about them? Do people know that these animals are actually living around them?  So I’m particularly interested in primates because it’s been shown that throughout a lot of the Amazon that they’ve been over-exploited and they’ve been having a bit of a tough time recently. The idea is that if we can understand some of these relationships between people and wildlife, we can make much better conservation decisions; it’s been shown that conservation works a lot better if you work with people rather than against them.

How can your research benefit the person reading this blog?

I think it’s really easy to think that the stuff that goes on in the rainforest with monkeys has no relevance to say wildlife issues in the UK, but if you actually look at what the core problems are between people and wildlife here, a lot of them are exactly the same. Even though it might sound I’m doing research in the middle of nowhere, the issues that I’m tackling are a lot of the same of the conservation issues we have here.

How did you first get interested in primates and conservation?

I don’t know – I kind of wanted to be a zoologist as long as I can remember. When I was little I had this obsession with those little Early Learning Centre animals and there are pictures of me on camping trips – next to my sleeping bags there are these little rows of marine mammals and I would refuse to go anywhere without. I liked animals – I was never particularly interested in primates (which sounds pretty bad) but all that I knew was that when I work outside, I’m really happy and when I work with animals I’m really interested in them. I think that if you have a PhD that’s going to have field work – regardless if that’s in the middle of the rainforest or whether that’s in a reserve that’s 20 minutes from Norwich, it’s going to be adventure! You won’t know what’s going to happen next and that’s really exciting.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Science heroes – there’s a guy down at the UEA (University of East Anglia) in Norfolk, Carlos Perez; he’s basically a legend of neo-tropical primates (primates that live in Brazil and Ecuador and other places that I go to). The guy has put in some serious hours traipsing around the rainforest and has put out some really cool papers. I don’t think you really do that unless you love what you do – so yeah, he’s a bit of a science hero.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is generally just a great place to do a PhD. You get a lot of support from the staff and we also have a lot of brilliant links with a University out in Ecuador which we collaborate with. They run the research stations and it’s the whole reason that I’m able to go there.

What do you outside of work?

It’s going to sound really sad because I’m like animals – animals, animals, animals all the time, but I draw. Mainly birds and things like that. I also spend a lot of time down in Norwich, which is where my boyfriend is, and he’s a RSPB warden and I’m a bit obsessed with Fens so every weekend that I’m there, I go down to the Nature reserve to have a look at what we can find.

Ciara also recently did a Minute Lecture with us – check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHmBOuPwyQc

Tuesday Feature Episode 17: Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng has been no stranger to the media over the last few weeks. Having recently been part of a duo that were awarded a grant worth over £1 million from Arthritis UK, Qing-Jun has since appeared on BBC Radio Manchester and on the brand new channel That’s Manchester to talk about his research. (You can watch the TV segment here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mu-x2I6VcL4) All of this interview practice should mean he can give a great Tuesday Feature interview! Read on to find out if all the practice was worth it. (Spoiler: It was!)

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I work on body clocks – 24 hour rhythms and how they change with age. I look at how these changes could contribute to age-related diseases. One tissue of particular interest to me is cartilage in the joint right at the surface of your long bones. We’ve discovered recently that even these cartilage tissues and cells contain functional clocks and these clocks seem to be important in the homeostasis of this tissue, and presumably in aging, the disruption of circadian rhythms could be an underlying risk factor for developing osteoarthritis.

DSC_0400How could your research benefit the person reading this blog?

Osteoarthritis affects about 8 million people in the UK and 27 million in the US – it’s a big big problem and there’s very little we can do to help at the moment. We can offer pain killers and at later stages joint replacement. There are approaches, like regenerative medicine, which are undergoing intense investigation which could help with treatment. But overall, we know very little about how the disease initiates and develops so we are hoping that our research into body clocks could help understand the disease and hopefully lead to some treatments which could help slow down the (progression of) symptoms and eventually cure the disease.

How did you first become interested in your area of research?

In terms of body clocks, when I was teaching in China, one of the lectures I gave was on body clocks. It was on jetlag and how we tune our own internal rhythm to the environment. When I came to England I took the first opportunity I could to embark on a field in chronobiology. Then in 2007 I went to a conference in Cold Spring Harbour on Chronobiology and that really inspired me to start a career in this particular field, because I realised that there were so many things you could do in this area. I thought, maybe I could make a contribution to the understanding of body clocks.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Yes. If you ever go to some of my lectures or talks, I always start with a story. It’s a true story that happened in Professor Ueli Schibler’s lab, he is one of the pioneers of the modern clock field. He made many important discoveries about body clocks. For example, one of the discoveries was that almost all of the cells, including the most common cell type (fibroblasts), contain autonomous clocks. He also found that temperature cycles can entrain your body clocks as well. There are many examples of that. In many ways his discoveries have inspired me to research this topic.

How has working here in Manchester helped you? 
I think that this is a great environment to do science. I came to Manchester about 12 years ago and never left. I did my post-doc here and got my MRC fellowship (based) here, and now I got my Arthritis Research UK senior research fellowship (based) here. I think the excellent support I received from the Faculty, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Matrix Research and colleagues has been incredible. I have a lot of excellent collaborators who are all very enthusiastic about their own science and are also very keen to help me in my career progression. They are happy to collaborate with me in terms of tackling big, challenging questions in the field.

What do you do outside of working here?

I like playing guitar and I play table tennis as well. I ice-skate and I like to go to the field to do field trips like hiking.

Tuesday Feature Episode 16: Andrew Loudon

For episode 16 of our Tuesday Feature, we are joined by Faculty Scientist Professor Andrew Loudon. Professor Loudon is one of the world’s leading experts in body clocks and circadian rhythms. He is the Beyer Professor of Animal Biology here in Manchester. It is for his work on clocks that he was recently awarded a fellowship to the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences. Who better then to star in this week’s Tuesday Feature!


Explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I’ve been interested all my life in biological clocks – timing systems in biology. I got into this by studying seasonal breeding animals in their natural environments. Their behaviour is very strongly driven by clock based processes. My initial interest came from studying hormone cycles and the mechanisms that control the activation and suppression of reproduction in wild animals. Then, around about 20 years ago, I came particularly interested in some of the genetic mechanisms that were being unravelled for the circadian clock. So I’ve maintained an interest in annual cycles and seasonal breeding but more recently in circadian mechanisms with a very strong interest in genetics.

Andrew loudonHow could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Well in the context of circadian biology, there’s an awakening interest in the way in which this field can contribute to medicine at multiple levels. One of the most obvious applications is so called chrono-therapy. This is where you try to deliver drugs or therapeutic treatments to patients at the optimum time of day. That’s a non-trivial business. There are a number of drugs for instance that have to be delivered at a particular time of day. Probably most people know about statins and some people take low-dose aspirin – those sorts of drugs are really not effective at the wrong time of day.

This is the tip of the iceberg and there are a large number of other pharmacologies that would be much better if they were adapted so that they were highly potent, one time of day drug. We would then not have to expose the body to a continuous high dose of this drug throughout 24 hours when we really have to only expose the target tissues for a matter of 2-3 hours.

I think there’s likely to be a very large amount of interest in this area. There’s evidence now that pharmaceutical companies are finally waking up to this and it has been led very much by university based scientists around the world.

How did you first get interest in body clocks?

As I said earlier, it relates to my original studies of the reproductive biology of wild animals. My PhD actually was in territorial and sexual behaviour. That’s what introduced me first to hormones. I was studying wild animals. Rather like Springwatch, I was out there at 4 o’clock in the morning with my binoculars for several years. My animal was a small species of deer (the Roe deer) and I spent several happy years tracking deer in the wild doing endocrinology and taking tissues samples from them. My background is really in behavioural sciences and then I moved very quickly in my 20’s to endocrinology, the study of hormones, and then as I’ve indicated, I moved into areas such as genetics.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Of course I’ve been around a while so I’ve got quite a few. I’ve been fortunate to work with and interact with terrific people. I guess one of the early mentors was a wonderful man called Roger Short who was a reproductive biologist. He had a huge impact in the UK on developing the field of reproductive sciences and endocrinology. He then moved to Australia. He’s still alive and I keep in touch with him, he’s well in to his 90’s now. Then another colleague in the United States who I worked with when I was over there, Michael Menaker, who is kind of the grandfather of all biological clock researchers around the world. All of the key people seem to have interacted with him; he was an absolutely wonderful man – a terrific insight into biology generally. I guess other colleagues like Joe Takahashi, who is really quite a friend, has been extremely helpful to everyone in the field and has taken a major lead in pioneering new genetic approach to how biological clocks and timing processes operate generally.  It’s quite a long list, but there’s three there for a start! Without these people in science, life would be so much duller.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester has got the major asset that it is very large and yet it is possible to interact at multiple levels in different disciplines without the enclaves and territorial/departmental structures that you find in some of the older Universities.  The thing that attracted me to Manchester and the reason I came here, to be quite blunt, was the animal facilities which are unique. They are very well run and the head of the animal facility has been extremely accommodating to myself and all of the other circadian workers in allowing us to kind of take over the facilities and put lots of equipment in there to allow us to monitor the behaviour of the animals. That really was very important to me because I’m very focused on studying the behaviour of animals and seeing how they operate in real time. I don’t just study cells and tissues so obviously that’s important.

More recently, the growing alliance between the Life Sciences and medicine has been extremely important and is very much the future of all of us. I’ve been working very closely for the last 10 years or more with a good friend and colleague called Professor David Ray in the medical faculty and we have a lot of very exciting science going on together.  Manchester is a great place to be – it offers a great opportunity to undertake science across multiple levels with lots of different colleagues and disciplines.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m a keen woodworker and furniture maker. I turn wood. I also fly fish and I’m a life-long, passionate motor cyclist. I have several motorbikes including one very large one and I haven’t fallen off it recently! All of those hobbies have one common feature which is that they require an enormous amount of concentration. If you let your concentration drop in any of those activities the result is chaos. Especially, if you’re motorcycling particular! It’s kind of relaxing to have to concentrate on something different. Those are the kind of things that I do when I’m not working.


Thank you again Andrew for a thoroughly enjoyable Tuesday Feature. Good luck for your induction to the Academy on July 1st and we hope it all goes well! 

Tuesday Feature Episode 15: Raj Sidhu

Episode 15 features our very first undergraduate student. Raj is about to graduate from the Faculty of Life Sciences after a 4 year course, but just before she goes, we thought it’d be good to have a quick chat to find out what studying here has meant to her.


RAJ TFWhat is your role in the Faculty?

I’m a student in the faculty of life sciences and I study biology with science and society. I also did a placement year in a pharmaceutical marketing agency. That really helped me to broaden my skills and reinforced everything I did in University.

What kind of research interests you?

The kind of research that interests me is looking at how science impacts on society and how it is portrayed. For instance, my final year project looks at the corporate responses to climate change and how companies are responding to the increasing scientific consensus that climate change is happening.

What are your plans for after graduation?

So after gradation I’m doing an internship in China. I received a scholarship from the British Council to work in an international health clinic over there. The scholarship I’m on is Generation UK. I will be working by myself which will be a challenge but something I’m really looking forward to. I don’t speak any Chinese but I’m hoping that this internship will help me learn a new culture and give me a better appreciate of global issues. It will also help by allowing me to continue my interest in science communication.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I got into science because my mother suffered from MS. That interested me as a young girl. It interested me into looking at how the body works and how the world works. From them on, I’ve just had a real interest in Science.

How has studying in Manchester helped you?

Studying in Manchester has helped because there are just so many opportunities here. Everyone in the faculty has really helped me. I really love the city as well. In terms of studying, the faculty has really helped me reach where I am today. It offers such flexible courses. So I actually started out in first year studying biomedical sciences before I switched to a course that interested me more (Biology with Science and Society) and this has benefited me massively.

What do you like to do outside of studying?

Outside of work I like to eat out in restaurants. Manchester is great for places to eat – especially if you’re a foodie like me! I also enjoy reading books and all about science in action.


Thanks again for doing this Raj! We wish you the best of luck for your upcoming exam results and hope you can make a real difference in China this summer! 

Tuesday Feature Episode 14: Hema Radhakrishnan

Our eyes are one of the most interesting and crucial body parts in the entire human body. In this week’s episode, Faculty of Life Sciences Lecturer Hema Radhakrishnan tells us all about her research into the human eye and how one day we may not need to wear reading glasses.


Explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

My research focuses on accommodation of the eye. The eye functions very much like the auto-focus on a camera. If you are looking at something in the distance – your eyes will perfectly focus on that object and you will see clearly. As soonHema at her desk as you start to look at things closer to you, your eyes will focus almost instantly (accommodate) so you can read those things close up. As we get older, this ability to focus declines. When you see a young child you’ll often see them hold the book close to their eyes whilst they read. As you age, you start to move objects further away from you in order to focus – this becomes an impossible feat when you get to about 45 or 50 because your arms are not long enough to hold the book far enough away from you.  This is why people will start to wear reading glasses because the accommodation changes, declining as we get older.  It is the ‘mechanism and repairing’ of a decline in accommodation that I research.

How does your research benefit the person reading this blog?

First off, the loss of accommodation happens to everyone – it’s a natural aging phenomenon by the age of 45 – 50. By this age we would have lost enough function in order to have a significant impact on how we focus and read things at a near. Understanding this mechanism better is the first step towards developing better treatment methodologies which could be in terms of spectacle lenses or contact lenses. What we do is study the optical reflexes in the eyes which are called ocular aberrations, to understand how these change when we change focus, particularly when we get older and this information is likely to be very useful in designing optical corrections for people who are starting to lose the ability to accommodate.

How did you first get interested in accommodation of the eye?

I did my undergraduate degree in optometry in India. We had an extremely good library which was very well stocked with not just optometry books but also the most recent optometry journals. I was always really keen on reading these and trying to understand what was happening in the eye and accommodation was something that fascinated me right from the start. I read some papers that interested me and I thought that I would like to go and do some further research on that. That’s where it all started really.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m going to take that as two separate questions. At present I consider every woman who is managing a young family and doing well in her research to be a science hero. Being a scientist is not really a 9-5 job, I’ve never seen a scientist work 37 or 40 hours a week and achieve the results that they get.  It requires total dedication to the work that you’re doing and people often work 50+ hours a week to be able to do their research properly. Doing that while you have a young family is an extremely difficult task as I’m now understanding. I really do take my hat off to any person who can do both of those things together.

In terms of inspiration, my biggest inspiration has been from Professor Neil Charman who used to work at the University of Manchester for a number of years and is now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester. His work has always inspired me – he was one of the pioneers who studies accommodation and optics in the human eye. His papers were some of the papers that I read as an undergraduate student and they inspired me do research later on in the future. He was one of my PhD examiners and subsequently one of the key influences on me wanting to move to Manchester. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to work with him and publish papers with him since I’ve been in Manchester. It’s a joy to work with him, not only is he so accomplished (he has won every major award that anyone who does optics or the human eye could win) he’s also very humble and down to Earth.  Someone like that is definitely an inspiration to people who want to do optometry.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Hema in the LabWorking in Manchester has been great. I’ve always enjoyed working here; I’ve got some very nice colleagues who are very helpful and really easy to work with. Also, Manchester has the culture of appreciating results and doesn’t always look at the number of hours you spend at your desk. It’s your contribution that matters – both to the University and to the Faculty of Life Sciences. That is extremely helpful. I’ve got two young children and being able to manage a family and work would be really difficult if I was expected to be at my desk all the time. Here in Manchester I’m able to do my research whilst teaching and doing administration and management roles which is what really counts. Being able to work flexibly means I will often come in early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon which is perfectly accepted because it is more about the contribution you give to the University. Also, the University of Manchester and Faculty of Life Sciences take social responsibility extremely seriously and it is one of the top things on their agenda which benefits the society which is great and I really appreciate that.

What do you do outside of work?

I love painting – I used to do a lot of painting outside of work when I did have the free time. Currently I don’t get much free time because I have a 4 year old daughter and a 1 year old son. I’m usually going to play dates,  swimming lessons and dance lessons – that’s what I usually spend my free time on!


Thank you once again Hema for a fascinating insight into the human eye. I was unaware of the certainty that everyone would require reading glasses, so I hope for my sake that your research into accommodation goes extremely well! 

Tuesday Feature Episode 13: Mais Absi

Last week we looked at stroke and the brain so we thought it was only right to now check out the heart. This episode centres around Mais Absi, a British Heart Foundation Fellow here in the Faculty of Life Sciences. 


Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

The focus of my research is vascular pharmacology. As you may know, blood vessel function and tone are regulated by the endothelium, which is the innermost part of the blood vessel, and smooth muscle cells which are the middle part of the blood vessel. Both endothelial and smooth muscle cells contribute to the contraction and dilatation of the blood Mais TF 2vessel and consequently blood flow. We also know that vascular disease is one of the main causes of death in the world – especially in Westernised countries. This actually raises the need to find urgent and effective treatment. One of the main features of vascular disease is endothelial and/or smooth muscle dysfunction which leads to a reduction in the endothelium-dependent vasodilatation or increase in smooth muscle constriction. There are other factors that contribute to the dysfunction of endothelial and smooth muscle cells such as changes in the expression and/or function of membrane ion channels as well as impaired intracellular calcium signaling pathways. My research therefore focuses on trying to understand the mechanisms of endothelial and smooth cells dysfunction, how they communicate with one another and, more importantly, how this is affected by various diseases with emphasis on cardiovascular disease.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Before I answer this, I believe that science is like a jigsaw puzzle and every scientific research is like a piece of this puzzle. The effort of every scientist, no matter how small, will contribute to building the whole picture together. So I won’t claim and I don’t think any scientist should, that I will find the cure for any particular disease. But I hope that the results of my research will contribute to the building of this whole picture.

For example, my current project on pulmonary hypertension is looking at smooth muscle cell dysfunction, with an emphasis on potassium channels. These are proteins in the cell membrane. I’m looking at how the modulation of these proteins might improve the function of the pulmonary arteries. So hopefully this will contribute to the improvement of symptoms and prognosis of pulmonary hypertension in patients.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?

I’ve always had strong interest in science since at very early age and my parents encouraged my interests. I had my BSc in pharmaceutical sciences from Aleppo University in Syria. During my undergraduate study, I found both pharmacology and human physiology quite amazing. They were my favourite subjects. I also found that working in the lab and experimenting fascinating. Basically, then taking the decision to a master’s degree and then a PhD was quite easy so I obtained my MSc and PhD from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I chose cardiovascular sciences in particular because there a number of family members of mine who suffered from cardiovascular diseases.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Not really. Since my early childhood and throughout school and University, I worked extremely hard – maintaining top student position. My parents believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my career in science. I am also a mother of two. Raising children alongside pursuing my career in science is not only really challenging it is also very motivational. Frankly, I’m proud of what I’ve become so far because I’ve been through a lot of hard work and obstacles, especially coming from a University that, unlike Manchester, doesn’t have the funding to support excellence in scientific research. I do agree that there are no heroes in science because science is inspirational in itself.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a very big, cosmopolitan city which has great equality and diversity at heart. I’ve lived here for more than a decade and have found working at the University of Manchester excellent for both study and work.  There are also very good research facilities here.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside my work I could spend hours with my husband and children cooking, especially for my family and friends. I also like walking with my children and I like mushroom hunting in the mountains, especially in the Alps.


A big thank you for the a great interview Mais! We hope that one day you get to put a piece of the puzzle in the jigsaw in cardiac health! This was episode 13 of the Feature, if you want to look back at some of the best bits, watch the video below:

Tuesday Feature Episode 12: David Brough

On the back of Gloria’s glowing recommendation, we decided to track down David Brough who is a research fellow within the Faculty. In this episode you’ll get to find out about David’s research into inflammation and how Manchester has helped him as a young researcher.


Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

David Brough holding the Love Life Sciences board.So I work on a process called inflammation which is our body’s response to danger. Unfortunately, sometimes during disease this inflammatory response makes the disease worse. I try to understand these processes to see if we can identify new ways to treat disease.

How does this research benefit the person reading the blog?

So my research is really basic and is at a fundamental level, but hopefully discoveries that I make will, in the future, translate to human benefit. The research I do, for the people reading this blog, will hopefully, in 10, 15, 20 years’ time will have informed some of the treatments or practices to treat inflammatory disease. Inflammatory disease encompasses very common, mainstream disease: Cardiovascular disease, inflammatory skin diseases such as ‎Psoriasis or brain diseases such as stroke or Alzheimer’s disease.

How did you first get interested in inflammation?

I was always very interested in science and biology and I was always interested in basic mechanisms in biology which could contribute to disease. It was during my PhD that I became interested in inflammation. Inflammation is a great area to work in – particularly the processes I work on because there’s so much biology we don’t understand and it is directly relevant to people of all ages because it’s a major contributor to disease processes. It’s easy to understand and justify the reasons for studying these inflammatory processes.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I was always very interested in stories of scientific discovery such as the discovery of DNA and Penicillin. My scientific heroes have always been scientists who have made great breakthroughs. However, there hasn’t really been any one particular person who I inspired to be.

How has working in Manchester helped you?
As a young researcher, Manchester has been a supportive environment and I have great colleagues in my department. They are people who have complimentary research interests and I have been able to work effectively and collaborate well. There have been a lot of opportunities to develop my career.

What do you do outside of work?

When I’m not working here, I have two children who keep me very busy. I do various sports – I’m involved in martial arts and I am a jujitsu instructor, which I do several times a week.


Thank you David for sharing a bit more about your research and your role in the Faculty! Come back next week for another exciting look at some of the people who are involved with the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Tuesday Feature Episode 11: Gloria Lopez-Castejon

 Welcome back to the Tuesday Feature. Last week we looked at one of our Alumni who did some interesting work on her placement year. This week we look at one of our research staff: Gloria Lopez-Castejon. Gloria, who originates from Spain, works on inflammation and has been in Manchester for 7 years! Without further adieu, let’s get on with it.

Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

Gloria 01I work in inflammation. Inflammation happens when the body finds any dangers – like bacterial infections. Or for example in damage – so if you cut your fingers, you’ll have an inflammatory response – it’ll go red, it will hurt. This means a lot of immune cells go to that place to try to repair and resolve that problem. My main research aim is to try to understand better how: the process of cells moving to the site, how they behave and how inflammation works to repair damage. Inflammation is good, however it can go wrong. Some diseases, like arthritis, gout and cancer can have an inflammatory component where these cells remain in the area indefinitely – damaging the area. My aim is to stop this happening in order to reduce the inflammatory response and we will hopefully develop new drugs and treatments.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

If we better understand the processes of repair, then we will be able to treat inflammatory disease. I think it’s good for the public to understand what we do in the University. I think people here inflammatory disease a lot of the time and will hear from the doctor that they have a cold or a flu. They will need an inflammatory response in this situation in order to get better. Sometimes in the news, people will hear about inflammation and get confused about whether it’s good or not.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?

I did a biochemistry degree and during that I became interested in research. At the time, I became interested in Genetics (I’m not sure why!). After finishing that, I started a PhD in fish immunology, which sounds a bit strange but it is a comparative immunology. I went into that field and then I started reading more and learning more before deciding I wanted to do something more human.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

If I had to choose one – it’s a very difficult question. Whilst I was at University, I became quite interested who developed things like malaria vaccines. I also became interested in how Dolly was cloned and all that stuff. It really caught my attention.

Day to day, my PhD supervisor was a very good scientist and a very good person and I think these are the types of people we need more people of in science.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

I’ve been working in Manchester for 7 years now. I pretty much developed my post PhD career here. I found the people here really useful. I found that the faculty has a lot of people who are experts in different areas. Its great not only for research, but there are a number of people who can just go up to and talk to. I think if I had not been here, I would not have progressed as much in my career. My post-doc supervisor was really supportive and he pushed and helped me to apply for fellowships and develop my career.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I try to enjoy myself a little bit. I like to do crafts – a lot of knitting for example. I also do a lot of dancing. I do Flamenco – I’m Spanish so it’s quite topical! I teach flamenco here in Manchester and that’s a way I try to keep in touch with my home country and at the same time, I get to exercise and share my knowledge of dance with other people!
Thank you very much for the fascinating insight into your research and life! We hope you keep up the good work both inside and outside of the lab!


Tuesday Feature episode 10: Kat Machin

From the ‘sunny’ gardens of Fallowfield last week (since then, the Manchester weather has returned back to its rainy norm) to the Seychelles this week, our Faculty is far flung and international. This week we feature another one of our graduates!

What was/is your role in the Faculty?

I was an undergraduate student, studying Zoology with Industrial Experience.  The course was fantastic, covered a wide picture three katrange of topics and offered loads of travel opportunities through field courses in places like South Africa, Belize (now Costa Rica) and Ecuador.  The Industrial Experience year allowed me to gain hands-on conservation work with the Island Conservation Society, an NGO in Seychelles.  In my second year, I co-founded the Zoology Society, which continues to be run by a committee of students, and in my final year I was a student ambassador.

What are you up to now?

After graduating in July, I travelled to Canada with a fellow zoology graduate and we volunteered at an eco-lodge, where we led guided nature hikes for tourists and helped out with the general maintenance of the lodge.  Then, after a couple of months at the lodge, we travelled around Alberta and British Columbia, stopping off at friends’ houses, who I’d met when they came to Manchester as exchange students.

Once back on home soil, I started the tedious process of applying for jobs, mostly in the conservation sector.  After a few months, I got offered a job as a Tern Warden with the RSPB and will be starting with them in a couple of weeks.  I’ll be working in Anglesey and my job will involve monitoring the populations of Artic and Common Tern, as well as one of Britain’s rarest breeding seabirds – the Roseate Tern.  I’m really excited to get started and put everything I learnt at Manchester to good use!

Why did you first get interested in your area of research?

I’ve been interested in animals for as long as I can remember but I suppose I really got hooked when I was a teenager and picture one katDavid Attenborough’s Planet Earth series was released.  I became obsessed with learning about how animals were adapted to their environments, was captivated by animal behaviour and probably most importantly, became really concerned with the conservation of the species that fascinated me.

When it came to choosing unis and courses, Manchester topped my list mainly because of the option to take a placement in your third year.  As a placement student in Seychelles, I was involved with the sea turtle and sea bird monitoring programmes and loved it. I was also involved in the Giant Aldabra Tortoise breeding programme and had the pleasure of sharing my house with tiny giant tortoise hatchlings, which were under my care.  Furthermore, I got the chance to design, implement and analyse my own research project, which looked into the forest rehabilitation of Desroches Island. My placement allowed me to get a real taste for conservation research and confirmed for me that that was the type of career I wanted to pursue.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

It’s a bit of a cliché, and I suppose he’s more a science communicator than a scientist per-say but David Attenborough has definitely been my major source of inspiration. Growing up in Telford, there wasn’t a lot of nature around really, so the television was my window to the natural world.  I doubt I would have been inspired to pursue a career in conservation without having watched all those nature programmes.picture two kat

I was also very lucky to have a geography teacher, who after spending a decade travelling, really inspired me to get out and see the world.  She got me really interested in ecosystems, and I continue to be fascinated by ecology today.

How has studying in Manchester helped you?

Enormously.  Not only did the course provide me with the theoretical knowledge essential for a career in conservation, but I also gained practical field experience and developed a range of skills from analytical thinking to public speaking.  I decided to do a science media project in my final year, giving me an insight into science communication, and this project diversified my skills even further.  The placement year provided me with a year of hands-on conservation experience, without which I doubt I would have gotten the job with RSPB.

What do you do outside of work?

I like to be outside.  I like to feel connected with nature and, for me, there’s no better way to do this than to simply immerse yourself in it. So, I walk a lot and hike as often as possible. Travel is a big passion.  I got my first taste of travelling as a

student at Manchester.  I went to South Africa on the Animal Behaviour field course in my first year, travelled to Belize for the Marine and Terrestrial Ecology field course in my second year and nabbed 10 months in Seychelles for my placement, it was incredible! Both travel and hiking tie in quite nicely with my other hobby – wildlife photography.picture four kat

Thanks for the interview and stunning photographs Kat,  and good luck with the new job!

I hope you can see the exciting opportunities our undergraduate students have and it might just inspire you to come to the Faculty! 

 

Tuesday Feature episode 9: David Grantham

It’s starting to feel a lot like spring here in Manchester and episode 9 of the Tuesday Feature was the perfect excuse to go enjoy the sun! In this week’s episode we interview David Grantham who is the overseer of the Firs Experimental Garden in Fallowfield. The interview, which was shot in the beautiful gardens, will show you why the Firs Experimental Garden really is Manchester’s “hidden gem”.

In ten sentences or less, what is your role in the Faculty?

My role here in the faculty is to oversee the research, teaching and outreach that is undertaken at the botanical grounds. A lot of scientific papers come from plant experiments that are planted here. The grounds have been here a long time in the faculty but there a bit of a hidden gem because not everyone knows we have these facilities here. I want to try to promote the grounds so that people can get the most use out of them – they can grow their plants here and enter the Smith Quad competition. We also invite a number of schools to come and look around the facilities to hopefully inspire them to take up plant sciences. Daivd next to tree

How does this role benefit the person reading the blog?

I think it’s crucial what we do here. I’ve always worked in the horticulture industry and I can see how important plants are. They always seem to be the area that is funded least and it is often laughed at by other people. The more we discover about science, the more we realise the fact that we rely on plants. We are a type 0 civilisation where we rely on plants and animals to survive. I think to pull money from plant science is silly and it is only now that humanity is starting to see the true value of the environment we live in.

How did you first get interested in horticulture?

David with HoseI think it was from school. We had trips out to places with outreach facilities – similar to the botanical gardens. From there I did a YTS (youth training scheme) in studying city and guilds horticulture which I really liked. I then went into working with sports turf, interior landscaping and various other areas of horticulture that has benefited my knowledge for this role.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

No one in particular.

Obviously there’s a lot of great scientists like Einstein who had great minds and high IQ’s. I tend to try and not glorify the past too much because I think that stuff that is going on now – even within FLS – is quite amazing. I think we might see a few more heroes in the future which might be alive today. Some of the research done here and the papers that have been published are really important.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

I think it has been great. I’ve always worked within some aspect of horticulture and I have always been curious about why we do certain practices. To come and actually see the science and to work with the research has really answered a few questions for me and helped my curiosity. Also the teamwork that’s involved in the faculty –it’s a great place to work. I’ve met some really good people from working here.

What do you do outside of work?

When I’m not gardening at home, I play in a band. I have done since I’m 18. I really like music. I also play football within the University. On Wednesday’s I play 5 a-side football with members of the University – it’s always important to stay fit and football is the one that doesn’t feel like a lot of work because it’s fun! I’m also interested in astrophysics alongside life science.

And that wraps up another episode of the Tuesday Feature! Our thanks go to David who gave us a beautiful afternoon out in the sun! On Wednesday 6th  May, David is hosting a technicians seminar titled ‘Not Green Fingered? An introduction to Horticulture’ at 1pm in A.V. Hill. He’d love to have you there! 

Tuesday Feature episode 8: Benjamin Stutchbury

Benjamin Stutchbury is a PhD student in the Faculty. As you’ll see below, it took him a while to find the topic he wanted to study,Ben Stutchbury but now that he has he seems to excelling.

With ambitions of being involved in science communication, Ben has already been involved in some exciting events. In fact, the day after this article goes live he will be performing in the national final of the FameLab competition. You can see his North West Final performance in one of the videos below.

We’re confident that you’ll be hearing Ben’s name in the future, so we thought we’d get in on the ground floor and interview him for this week’s Tuesday Feature.

Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I research how a cell in your body is able to understand the environment that it’s in.

Particularly how it’s able to understand the mechanical properties of the environment; so how soft it is, or how rigid it is. For example, brain is very soft and bone is very rigid. Cells in these areas of your body need to respond to, and change how they react to, changes in these different environments.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

It’s difficult to say, really. It’s a very, very young area of research. It was only in the last ten years that this idea of cells responding to forces rather than chemicals has really emerged as a field. So at the moment it’s more that we’re trying to understand how they’re actually doing it and what’s actually going on.

Eventually, where it will benefit people is cancer. Which is kind of what every researcher says.

It’s about how cells sense and respond to changes in the mechanical properties of their environment and cancer is a stiffer environment than normal tissue. That’s why you can feel a cancer lump underneath your skin.

Cancer cells are stiffer than normal tissue. They respond differently to this stiffer environment, and that’s one of the reasons they divide faster and move faster. Which is why cancer is so good at killing.

Can we ask you how you first got interested in your research area?

Yeah, it kind of happened by accident to be honest.

I always thought I was interested in immunology, the study of the immune system. Then I went and did an immunology placement in a lab for three months and absolutely hated it.

I went into my final year of undergrad knowing that I wanted to carry on doing science, but with no idea of what I wanted to do. And then I kind of stumbled upon this area of, I guess they call it, mechanobiology; the cells and mechanical forces.

It was quite interesting and different to anything I’d seen before because it’s such a young area. I did a placement in a lab as a kind of try out before doing a PhD and really enjoyed it so decided to stick with it as a PhD topic.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Not really, to be honest.

This might be a new one, but I was actually more inspired by a disease than anything else. I have type 1 diabetes and I was diagnosed when I was eleven. When I was twelve I decided that my life dream was going to be to cure diabetes.

I kind of went down the path of doing science, and was interested in it enough to want to carry on looking into curing diabetes. Then I did a module in second year about metabolism and metabolic diseases and found them really dull. So then I decided that diabetes was really boring.

But actually, my desire to sort of carry on researching other things kind of stuck.

And then I chose immunology, and hated immunology. Everyone was getting a bit worried that I hated all biology but still wanted to do it. And then I found my area to focus on.

But I don’t think I have an individual who kind of fuelled my desire to do science, it was more my own personal circumstances.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?

I do a lot of sport. If I hadn’t done science, if I hadn’t got a PhD offer, my fall back was to train as an outdoor instructor. Mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking, and that kind of thing. I do a lot of rock climbing and mountaineering.

Oh, and squash. I play a lot of squash, kind of three or four times a week. If it involves an activity, I’ll generally be happy to do it.

How has working at the Faculty benefited your research?

Stutchbury, BenMassively, I think.

The main reason for that is the size of the Faculty and the huge variety of different areas of science that are being carried out within this one Faculty.

As I said I kind of came into this not knowing what area I wanted to go into. The PhD I’m doing allowed the opportunity to go into and try out a couple of different labs before choosing one to settle in.

There aren’t many universities in the UK that offer that kind of PhD. It’s becoming more popular now, but it’s still not that common. So the fact that Manchester allowed you to do a PhD where you could sample labs before choosing one means you can find out if you enjoy the topic, if you  like doing the techniques that you have to do, if you like the people you’re working with, and if you get on with the supervisor.

That’s quite a unique thing for Manchester, I think. It was a big influence on me choosing here for my PhD placement.

And so we come to the end of another Tuesday Feature. Our thank yous go to Ben and we wish him a great deal of luck in the FameLab final. 

Ben’s is a great story, and it’s fascinating to see how a love for science drove him on even when he struggled to find the exact topic that suited him. That’s pretty inspirational! If you want to hear more from him, please head over to his blog.

Anyway, enough mushiness for now. Thank you, Ben – and thank you all for reading. Please come back next week!

Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe and Ben Stutchbury, Images courtesy of Nick Ogden and Ben Stutchbury

Tuesday Feature episode 7: Dr Emma Gowen

After only seven episodes we’ve already seen an exciting array of research being carried about by Faculty members. From air Emma overseeing movement experimentpollution to immunology to Alzheimer’s, it’s fascinating to see the things were affecting.

This week, we speak to movement researcher Dr Emma Gowen. Taking a trip to her lab, it was interesting to see the experiments her team carries out. With tin cans full of beans and door handles stuck to the wall testing people’s motor skills, it was refreshing to see that great work can still be done without expensive equipment. Emma is co-director of the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab and also recently set up the exciting Autism@Manchester project. You should check them both out. She’s also faced some challenging personal circumstances, which make her achievements all the more impressive. More about that in the interview below:

Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study how we make and control, or how our brains make and control, movements and actions in response to objects or people that we might see in the environment. This is actually quite important for survival. If you think about crossing the road, you’ve got to make the appropriate movements with your head to look at the cars moving. Then you’ve got to coordinate your body to get you across that road. Another example is in a social situation – if you’re interacting socially you might find that it’s useful to imitate somebody to try and increase the social rapport and liking of that person for you. But on the other hand, if you imitate them too much, that could annoy them. So you have to get the balance right. So this seems quite simple to most of us – how we move our bodies and control our actions. But the complexity of these actions and how we produce them really comes across when people have certain conditions. If you think about if you have a stroke, or people with Parkinson’s disease or autistic people, it really becomes more obvious how complex it is for our brains to control our movements.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

In the last few years my research has turned more towards real world problems. I can give you one example. Most people when they hear about autism will know about the social interaction problems that autistic people have, but fewer people, including those in the research community, are looking at the motor problems that autistic people face as well. These can come across as problems with balance, difficulties with hand-eye coordination, and general clumsiness.

Even though these movement problems are very important, there are very few therapies at the moment. So at the moment I am trying to develop a motor therapy for autistic children. This involves combining my work on motor control in imitation with the Xbox Kinect. This is a new area for me – it’s involving a games company, a software company, occupational therapists, parents, and teachers. So quite an exciting project – very early days, but what we’d hope is that, if we can find some evidence that this motor therapy can help the motor skills of children with autism, they could then use this to help improve their motor coordination.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?

Emma running eye movement test

I started off with eye movements. That was during my PhD. Then when I did my post-doc at Birmingham I broadened out into more general motor control, so eye-hand coordination for instance. It was also at Birmingham that I started my research on autism. I think autism is a really quite challenging but rewarding area to work on. Autistic people have many different aspects that affect them so they’ll have sensory perception problems, they’ll have the motor problems, they’ll have the social cognition problem. So you as the researcher really need to have a broad understanding of all these different disciplines. The other element is that my research really involves working with people. So rather than being in a wet lab, I actually invite people into a lab and we ask them to do a few simple things such as imitating some videos of movements. I enjoy working with people and I also enjoy understanding the autistic perspective of the world as well. It can be a quite refreshing view of the world and I sometimes think more people should actually try and understand what the world feels and looks like for an autistic person.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m going to slightly side-step that and say more about the volunteers and the general public. Over the years there have been many volunteers who have contributed to research. Healthy volunteers, but also those who’ve got disabilities or various conditions. Without their help we would know far less about the brain than we do now. It’s often that they come and help and they know that it won’t immediately benefit them, but it’s for the next generation. So that maybe we can develop more understanding of the brain which could lead to improvements in medical conditions.

Could you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?

I tend to like being outdoors. I like walking and wildlife watching, so I often go walking in the Peak District or the local area with a pair of binoculars. Also, I quite like gardening as well. But that can play havoc with holidays during the gardening season, when I can’t go on holiday because I’ve got all my veg growing!

How has working here in Manchester benefited your career?

We’ve definitely got some very nice facilities here and I’ve got a very nice lab. It has air conditioning, which is fantastic when you’re doing experiments with people! Also, I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the Disability Support Office here has been very good. They’ve helped me access particular support that I need. For example, my MS tends to affect me in terms of fatigue – I can get cognitively and physically fatigued. I have to be really careful about how much I do in one day. The Disability Support Office helped me to identify a government service that allows me to get taxis to and from work a few days a week, which really helps. Before, it was always train and walking. That really impacted my fatigue levels.

So how has MS impacted your career in general?

I suppose having the MS and trying to be an academic at the same time can be quite challenging. As you’re probably aware, academics tend to work quite hard. Before MS I used to work weekends and evenings as well – and now I have to really make sure that this is confined to the week so that I don’t have a relapse and increase my symptoms.

In some ways in can be like having small children I suppose, except the MS won’t go away or grow up at the end of it. But a more positive aspect of having MS, I think, is that it’s given me balance and perspective. I think all of us could benefit from sometimes standing back for a while from a problem, such as a science problem that you’re trying to work out. Stand back from it and have a think and just have a bit more of a balanced lifestyle and you can often work through those questions and work out which ones are the most important – which ones you need to be spending your time on.

Well, what a nice inspiring thought to end this Tuesday Feature on. We definitely agree with Emma and it’s great to hear she’s overcome her own struggles to forge a great career. Thanks for chatting to us, Emma.  We’ll be with Ben Stutchbury next week. Ben’s a PhD student who has a pretty inspiring story to tell himself. See you next week.  Interview by Fran Slater. Photos and videos courtesy of Matthew Spencer

Tuesday Feature episode 6: Professor Amanda Bamford

Are we really already on Episode 6 of the Tuesday Feature? That’s gone so quickly – please let us know what you think of the series so far in the comments below.
Bamford Amanda

Today we talk to the Faculty’s Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda now focuses on teaching rather than research, so we thought we’d delve into her past to find out how she got to where she is today.

We know you’re focused on teaching nowadays, but could you tell us a little bit about what you used to research?

Well, I used to work on air pollution.

I did my PhD on the effects of air pollution on crops and crop production; plants like barley and crops like that.

Every time you drive your car, you produce nitrogen dioxide. I was looking at the effects of nitrogen dioxide on plants.

Could you tell us how did you first get interested in your research area?

I got to the end of my first degree and I thought to myself ‘I’m really enjoying this. I’m not ready to finish.’ I was just getting the hang of it.

I really, really enjoyed my first degree – probably a bit too much!

So I got to my final year and I kind of thought – ah, I think I need to settle down here and really get something going.

I’ve always been really interested in social responsibility and I used to go on marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). I belonged to the Student Union’s Eco Action. We used to go out looking at plants and fungi.

By my third year I thought, I’m enjoying this life, I’m enjoying the people I’m working with, and I feel as if I’m starting to get to grips with the topic. I wanted to carry on.

Air pollution was something I was interested in because it was the days of acid rain. The 1980s – The Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. There were lots of campaigns around acid rain. I don’t know if anyone remembers that there used to be these big posters, and every time it rained the poster changed colour because it was made of litmus paper. So it would be saying ‘it’s raining and it’s acid rain coming.’

The huge poster at the side of the road used to change colour – and that’s what got me into air pollution.

Amanda being interviewed for the Tuesday FeatureWho inspired you? Do you have any science heroes?

No, I don’t. Not really.

When I grew up in Essex, rough Essex right next to the Thames, nobody went to university. You had to look hard to find nature, put it that way. But we did find nature.

There was a local quarry called Gray’s Quarry or Gray’s Pit or something like that. It was an old chalk quarry and if you looked carefully you could see orchids growing in there. At one time there were six different species of orchids; bee orchids, man orchids. And then I found out that they were going to build a shopping centre on it.

My friends and I had a big campaign to try and save the quarry. We failed, but it really inspired me to carry on and try and make a difference. And that’s one of the reasons why I went to university. Which was very unusual from where I lived.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your role as Associate Dean for Social Responsibility?

I see my role, leading on from what we’ve just been talking about, as really empowering people to exercise their own social responsibility.

But if everybody in this huge university of ours did only a little bit, got out there and made a difference in any which way; volunteering, going and talking to schools, helping in Platts Field, imagine it.

If everyone only did one hour a year or a day a year, we would have a huge impact.

I see that as the crucial part of my role – supporting and encouraging and making it a part of the ethos of everybody that’s at the University.

Have you always been interested in social responsibility? And how did you first get involved?

The only time I realised that social responsibility is a part of me is when I applied for this role. I had to write out a reason why I wanted to do it. I talked about Gray’s chalk quarry.

When I went to university I did Applied Biology, not just Biology. I didn’t do Zoology or Plant Sciences. I wanted to do something more applied.

So I went to do Applied Biology, and there weren’t many places that did Applied Biology then. The degree I went to do included three placements. So each year there were six months at university and six months working somewhere.

I worked for Kew Gardens and Kew Seed Bank, so that was conservation. Social responsibility. I worked for Shell looking at herbicides for controlling weeds and improving crop production. More social responsibility.

But it wasn’t my reason for doing them – I was just interested in them. It wasn’t as if I was an eco-warrior going around. It was just that those were the sort of topics that interested me.

Then my final placement was a place called Silwood Park, which was a university field station. There, I worked on root disease of potatoes. I really enjoyed that one the most and that’s why I stayed on. I wanted to do more. So from that, I stayed on and did my PhD in air pollution. And from air pollution I did my post-doc in climate change. The effect of climate change on rice production.

I’m sure everybody knows that rice feeds most of the world’s population. It’s a very, very important crop. And at those times in the late 80s global climate change was just coming into the fore. I went to America to do my second post-doc working on rice and climate change.

So even though it wasn’t a deliberate, conscious decision to have that social responsibility as part of my agenda, looking back it was obviously a thread going through my life.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science and social responsibility?

What else do I get up to?

Well, I used to do fencing! Until last year when I ruptured my Achilles tendon. So I’ve been told I can’t go back to do fencing.

But I’m a bit geeky – I like going birdwatching. Whenever we go on holiday or wherever I go I always visit the nearest botanical gardens. I like walking.

But I don’t really like exercising – you won’t ever get me jogging or running or doing anything like that!

Can you tell us a bit about how working here in Manchester has helped your career?

Coming to Manchester has really helped me because it has given me the opportunities that I needed.

I have three children. When I came here it was originally a full time post, but I said I can’t do full time. I had two young children at that time. And they said, well, ‘how many hours do you want?’

So I came back 40%, and then as the children got older I went to 50%, 60%. And it’s only since 2011 that I’ve been full time.

They gave me the flexibility, as a mother, to keep my career going.

And they gave me other opportunities. They sent me on leadership programmes. Manchester has really been good to me and I’m very loyal to Manchester. It’s been a fantastic place to work.

Well that seems as good a place as any to leave it!

Thank you, Amanda – that was another fascinating installment of the Tuesday Feature. Great to hear how someone’s determination led them to a role that seems to fit perfectly with everything they’ve done before. And who knew we all had an eco-warrior in our midst!

Next week we talk to Dr Emma Gowen about her intriguing studies of autism and how her personal circumstances have shaped her career. Come back for that, you won’t want to miss it!

Tuesday Feature episode 5: Roberta Oliviera

We’ve spent a lot of time talking to researchers in the Tuesday Feature so far. It’s been fascinating. But, so far there’s been little Roberta in the labmention of those people in the background who make the research possible.

So today we chat with Roberta Oliviera, a Research Technician in the Manchester Immunology Group. She tells us a bit about her role, her inspirations, and how she got to where she is today.

Hi Roberta. Could you tell us a little bit about being a research technician? What does your day-to-day involve?

My role in the University is to provide support for other academics and students with their research.

Technicians sometimes run their own projects and report the results to the supervisor and at other times they can support to researchers running specific experiments or techniques. We also help with students and their projects.

I suppose we run the upkeep of the lab, the organisation, and the smaller functions like that.

What about the researchers you work with and the research you do? What is being studied?

Well, I work for Professor Richard Grencis in the Immunology Group in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Professor Grencis is looking at the immune responses against the whipworm. He looks at the balance of the immune response in an individual and what dictates whether that individual is susceptible or resistant to infection.

When you look at parasitic infections and their responses, you learn a lot about the immune system. We can always apply those lessons to other things such as cancer, auto immune diseases, and allergies.

Roberta at workHow did you first get interested in science? Or in particular, this research area?

I did my undergraduate degree in pharmacy back in Brazil.

Working in the care industry in a developing country can be daunting so I wanted to do some work in the background and learn more about tropical diseases.

I did a bit of work with malaria and Chagas disease and then I moved onto pulmonary hypertension in cancer, and then I started working on parasites again with Professor Grencis.

 

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Every woman in science is a bit of a hero  – especially the ones trying to raise a family alongside building their career. That’s a challenge I’m facing myself.

If I had to give a name I’d have to go with Marie Curie, obviously. She had a very strong work ethic and she was very generous with her work colleagues.

So I’d say Marie Curie.

Could you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?

I like reading. I like British and American authors and use it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about the Anglophone culture since I didn’t grow up in the UK.

But, because I have a baby son, I have to admit that currently my activities involve play dates and play groups.

How does being here in Manchester help with the work you’re involved in?

Working in Manchester is amazing. I think mainly the people – they’re very happy, friendly, and helpful.

I think The University of Manchester is ideally what you’d expect academia to be – everyone is very creative and very helpful. It’s a democratic environment to work in.

I think working at the Manchester Immunology Group is very nice because we have cutting edge research going on and amazing scientists in our group. Since I started working here, I have felt at home and made lots of friends, so what else I could ask for?

 

And what more we could we ask for from an interviewee? Thanks, Roberta. A fascinating insight from a slightly different perspective – invaluable information that’s made us want to talk to more ‘tekkies’ in the future.

But it’s another slightly different perspective next week as we chat to Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda has put research aside to focus on her new role and her teaching, so we’ll be finding out what helped her make that decision.

We hope you’ll join us!

 

Interview by Fran Slater and Kory Stout, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden

Tuesday Feature episode 4: Professor Dan Davis

Professor Dan Davis has had a startling career so far. In the last year or so his first book, The Compatibility Gene, has received Dan with his bookrave reviews and was even chosen as one of the Guardian’s books of the year by legendary author Bill Bryson. We’re reading it at the minute, and we urge you to pick up a copy.

Naturally, we’re honoured to be interviewing Dan for this week’s Tuesday Feature. Always the interesting speaker, we hope you enjoy finding out a little bit more about his work, his inspirations, and his life. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less? 

My research is about imaging what happens when immune cells bump into other cells and they try to decide whether these other cells are diseased or healthy.

We use very high-powered microscopes to watch that process in great detail. In fact, we use super resolution microscopes, a kind of microscope that won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year. They look, in unprecedented detail, at precisely what happens when the immune cell is deciding whether another cell is healthy or diseased.

By watching that process, there are two things that we can learn. We can watch which molecules are really important in that recognition process and we can understand how that recognition works. As well as that, as well as watching in great detail how the process works, we can also use these microscopes in a very explorative way, as they are inherently an explorative tool.

Just by looking at what happens, we actually discover some quite unexpected phenomena about how immune cells behave.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

I guess there are many ways in which this research could help the general public.

Let me give you a very specific example. One of the things that we’ve discovered is that when an immune cell is going to kill a cancer cell it secretes these packets of molecules up from inside of the immune cell and then they come out of the immune cell and those molecules enter into the cancer cell and kill it. One of the long-standing problems in understanding that process in detail is how those molecules get through what is called a meshwork of actins.

Underneath the surface of the immune cell there’s a meshwork of proteins that you can think of as a bit like the inside of a tennis racquet. That sort of scaffolding is important to give the cell its shape and allow it to move.  But then, if it’s like the inside of a tennis racquet, how are those big packets of molecules able to squeeze through the squares of the racquet.

We showed that, in effect, the squares get a bit bigger to allow that killing process to happen.

Now we’ve also discovered that drugs can manipulate that process to allow it to happen more efficiently. This might be important because seeing how those drugs work, in allowing cancer cells to be dealt with more efficiently, could give new ideas for how to make new kinds of drugs in the future.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?Dan in the lab

You know, I’ve always been interested in science. Since the age of four I’ve been told I always wanted to be a scientist.

Initially, I wanted to study physics because it’s about laws that govern how the whole universe works, and what could be more fundamental than that. And then later in my career, after my PhD in physics, I thought that the contributions I could make to the area of physics I was in would probably be a bit esoteric. I thought I could probably make a bigger contribution if I went to study how life works instead.

So I went to the US to Harvard University and did a post-doc in Immunology, to apply what I did know to thinking about how the immune system works.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

‘Science heroes’ is a difficult concept.

I wrote this book called The Compatibility Gene and part of that was about me looking at the sixty-year long journey we’ve had to understand how the immune system works.

One of the things I got from that was that when you look at people who have discovered truly amazing, wonderful things in science, when you look into their lives in great detail – they have made huge sacrifices. They didn’t necessarily have the life that I would want for myself.

So there are role models, people have done wonderful amazing things. But I’m proud of what I’m doing and where I’m going and I think heroes in science are quite a difficult concept.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?

I have two kids aged 10 and 12 so a lot of my time is filled with playing football in the garden and stuff.

Also, I like to draw.Dan next to one of his own drawings

And I think my main passion at the moment is in writing, the way I can contribute to society and culture in general through writing. My first book is out with Penguin, and I’m working on writing more.

How has working here benefited your research?

I used to be the head of Immunology at Imperial College, London, South Kensington and I moved to Manchester about two years ago now. It has been great for me to see the difference between the two institutes and actually, I love them both. They both have pros and cons and there are some differences.

Crucially, one of the things that I’m doing now in Manchester is acting as Director of Research for a centre that’s in collaboration with the pharmaceutical companies GSK and AstraZeneca. That is very interesting to me, as effectively that interaction just nudges some parts of my research programme to be in areas that are more directly applicable to things that are of interest to that industry.

We might be looking at fundamental processes in immune cells, looking in great detail at how the surface of an immune cell looks, and they just slightly nudge our lab to then apply those ideas and technologies to look at things that might be of more direct importance to medicine.

 

Thanks, Dan. That’s another fascinating insight into a Faculty member, and it’s great to hear how the work our staff carries out could have impacts across society. 

Thanks again for reading – and please let us know if you’re enjoying the series. There’s a bit of a different angle to next week’s Tuesday Feature as we chat with Research Technician Roberta Oliveira. Hope to see you then!

 

Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden

Tuesday Feature episode 3: Dr Jack Rivers-Auty

In week one we caught up with long-standing Faculty professor, Matthew Cobb. Next, we went Stateside to have a chat with alumni Matt Paul. And now, in week three of the Tuesday Feature, it’s time to catch up with a relative newcomer.

Dr Jack Rivers-Auty has been with us for five months, but as you’ll see below he’s already getting into some fascinating research.Dr Jack Rivers-Auty

Jack studies Alzheimer’s Disease, which made him a perfect candidate for this week’s chat, right in the middle of Brain Awareness Week. We hope you enjoy it!

Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less? 

Alzheimer’s is a disease in which there’s a build-up of an unwanted protein that seems to be toxic to the cells and sets off a chain reaction in the brain that kills neurons. It seems to kill the neurons in the area of the brain associated with memory first and then goes on to kill things in the outer cortex. There seems to be many processes involved and one of the processes is inflammation.

When you roll your ankle it swells up and you tend to put ice on it to mend. This is because you want to reduce the amount of immune cells in there because they produce toxic compounds. We’re investigating whether the diet will affect the inflammatory response in Alzheimer’s disease in a similar way. What we think might happen, and this is just a hypothesis, is that people who are deficient in zinc will be shown to have an exaggerated inflammatory response which causes swelling and tissue damage in the Alzheimer’s brain. So we’re really testing whether having a healthy diet will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Fingers crossed, and it’s always a long way away because I’m doing pre-clinical research and takes a long time to confirm that the research works in a clinical setting, but it could lead to dietary interventions into Alzheimer’s patients and slow the progression of the disease.

It’s really interesting actually, because older people have worse absorption of micronutrients so having a good diet is even more important as you get older. So the older an Alzheimer’s patient is, the more likely they are to be zinc deficient. The more likely they are to have a hyper-inflammatory response to their condition causing accelerated Alzheimer’s disease.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your area of research?

I guess it goes back to a long time ago. My general area of research is neuroinflammation and I really stumbled into it, which I think most scientists will tell you; they stumble into their research fields.

I did a degree in neuroscience and then I did an honours, which is kind of like a masters, in botany. Then I was looking for a PhD topic and there were several being advertised around the University of Otago, where I’m from in New Zealand. One of them was on the effects of cannabinoids, marijuana like substances, on stroke. This combined my degree and my honours.

Marijuana is anti-inflammatory, so we were seeing if marijuana-like substances could suppress the inflammation following stroke and prevent the swelling, just like the ice when you roll your ankle. What we found was that it did supress the inflammation, but then actually made things slightly worse.

So that was really what it was. I was interested in the combination of botany and neuroscience and that got me into the neuroinflammatory field. But I always want to be a scientist of some kind.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?Jack at his desk

I have lots of science heroes. This is such a suck-up, but Nancy Rothwell is highly climbing up my science heroes list.

But other than that – oh, there are so many I want to talk about.

Ernest Rutherford – he’s a New Zealand physicist, so that’s why I like him. And he came here to Manchester to do his amazing research. He’s such a hero of mine.

In New Zealand we have this term for doing something on a budget and it’s called ‘number eight wire.’ Fencing wire is number eight wire – you can fix anything with it. It’s the cheap way of doing things. Ernest Rutherford is famous for being the ‘number eight wire scientist’. He was the guy who could just do anything on a budget, and he ended up with Nobel worthy science.

Another guy is Richard Feynman. He’s a physicist as well – damn physicists! But he is fantastic for being incredibly critical of science. He has beautiful commentary on how science shouldn’t get carried away and how there should be proper controls and how we should be really self-critical and self-reflecting. To really produce something meaningful you need to be rigorous and self-controlled, which is what he advocates.

But there’s so many, I could talk for hours.

Can you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?

I’d love to say cricket, especially at the moment with the English flying home from the World Cup and New Zealand top of the pool. And I have loads of other interests. I play rugby, I golf, I play cricket, and I surf. I like hiking and I like a lot of activities.

But the other thing, and this is one of the great things about my job, is that I go home and I’ll read a science book. I love science at all times. I’ve got science experiments sitting on top of my fridge right now.

One of my extra-curricular activities is science, which is completely geeky. But that’s one of the great things. I get to do what I love for a job as well as well as going home and doing it. And I write blogs about it. And I read about the latest science and the latest science books that are coming out.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The first thing I noticed about coming to Manchester is the amount of opportunities that there are. We get emails on a daily basis about millions of things that you can do. You can go see Nobel laureates doing talks, which you could never see where I’m from in New Zealand.

You can do outreach programmes like this through blogs and the Minute Lecture series. I’m also going to schools. So there’s such an amazing encouragement to develop your skills and your outreach here at the University.

The other thing I noticed was that it’s such a team environment. It’s unbelievable. The whole building all gets together and every Friday we talk about the research we’re doing and we get positive feedback. I’ve really just found that amazing – how much of a hive of activity it is and how interested everyone is in other people’s research.

There’s a real team environment. It was an awesome environment to land in when I got here five months ago.

 

And that’s wraps it for this week. Jack has got us feeling extremely positive about the Faculty with that last answer, so we’re off to find our next interviewee!

Our thanks go to Jack – it’s great to see somebody so enthusiastic about what they do. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!

 

Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Matthew Spencer, Images courtesy of Nicholas Odgen

Tuesday Feature episode 2: Matt Paul

So, last week we opened the Tuesday Feature and it went down brilliantly! It’s already the second most viewed post we’ve ever had on the blog. Thank you all for reading and we’re really glad you enjoyed it.

Matt in New YorkThis week we cross the pond to New York to catch up with Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul. Matt studied BSc Genetics with Industrial Experience here at the Faculty, graduating in 2012, and he tells us below just how inspiring he found some our staff.

He is now a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Biology, New York University, in the labs of Dr. Andreas Hochwagen and Dr. Sevinc Ercan. It’s been an exciting journey for Matt, and you can find out more about it below.

Hi Matt. Thanks for talking to us. Can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study the three-dimensional organization of the genome. DNA is not just randomly packaged into the nucleus, like a bowl of spaghetti. Regions of the DNA tend to be found in specific places, next to other regions. Where a loci is positioned can have an impact on various processes including transcription and DNA repair.

I use yeast and worms to study how genome organization regulates cell division to produce sex cells (meiosis) and the balancing of expression of X-chromosome genes between sexes (dosage compensation).

How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

The study of chromosome structure and how it alters genome function is very basic and can have a wide varietyMatt in the lab of impacts.

The most direct example for the translation of my work to the real world would be in meiosis. During this cell division you produce the sex cells. The three-dimensional structure of the genome is important in ensuring that there is correct segregation of chromosomes into these cells. Errors could result in infertility, miscarriage, or disorders such as downs syndrome.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?

Growing up was a very exciting time to be a budding biologist. Genomes were being sequenced and the promise that these projects brought was exciting. Though this was a huge step, there now seems to be even more questions about how the genome works.

The study of chromatin was definitely one of the hot topics in biology when I arrived at University of Manchester. Specifically, what I found fascinating was how so called ‘junk DNA’ actually coded for important information.

I got a chance at Manchester to investigate this topic by looking at non-coding RNAs with Dr. Matthew Ronshaugen in my final year. Many of these help organize genome structure, so it was a small leap from my work there to what I do now.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

There been a steady stream of inspiring people without whom I wouldn’t have got so deep into science.

I have been fortunate to have many good science teachers, lecturers, and mentors along the way. Now, just being around my colleagues, the many hard-working biologists who are so passionate about their work, provides a lot of inspiration.

One person who I haven’t had contact with directly but admire is Craig Venter. Though I don’t necessarily agree with some of the moral aspects of his work, his insight and force of will played key roles in the genomic revolution. Furthermore, his current work in synthetic biology continues to be really exciting.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?

Matt with crazy eyesLiving in New York certainly allows you to explore many interests. It’s a big city with a big cultural output, so I like to try and do as many new things as possible.

My favorite activity is going to gigs, and as good as it is here, I do occasionally miss the Manchester music scene.

Beyond this, I am also captain of NYU squash team so that keeps me busy and healthy.

And that wraps up the second Thursday Feature from the Faculty of Life Sciences’ blog. If anyone’s wishing they were in New York, or fit enough to be the captain of a squash team, have a look outside. At least it’s sunny today.

Our thanks go to Matt Paul – it’s great to see an ex-student thriving! It’s Brain Awareness Week next week, so we’ll be here with Dr. Jack Rivers-Auty. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!

 

Interview by Fran Slater, Images courtesy of Matt Paul

Tuesday Feature episode one: Prof Matthew Cobb.

Welcome to the first Faculty of Life Sciences’ Tuesday Feature. We’ll be here each week with somebody connected to the Faculty,Professor Matthew Cobb be it a researcher, an alumni, a postgrad, or an undergrad, finding out more about their interests, what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are today.

As a Professor of Zoology with a very interesting and unique research subject, who has also written books on hugely differing subjects, we thought Prof Matthew Cobb would be the perfect person to start with.

Hello, Professor Cobb. Thanks for joining us. We’ll start with an easy one – can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study the sense of smell because I want to know how we’re able to detect different smells. A human being has about 4 million different smell cells divided into about 400 different types, so it’s very difficult to study humans and understand how the process works. So I study the maggot.

A maggot is very simple, it has only 21 smell cells, but the way the maggots brain and nose are wired up are essentially the same as ours. Because these are very special, very tiny maggots that we understand the genetics of, I can make a maggot with just one smell cell. I can record from that cell and see exactly how the maggot responds to different odours and how the whole organism moves when stimulated.

The idea is to try and grasp a very complicated process, which we understand very poorly, using a simple model system.

How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Well, I don’t think there’s any applied aspect to what I’m doing. It’s possible that the kind of research I’m engaged in may help us understand anosmia, which is the loss of the sense of smell. If you can’t smell, you can’t taste and people who smoke or have a cold know that stuff just doesn’t taste as nice.

This is a major issue, especially with an increasing aging population. As you get older the smell cells in your nose fail to regenerate and gradually you lose your sense of smell; things don’t taste as nice and your jeau de vivre in general declines. So it’s possible that the research I’m doing, in the end, may contribute to this general problem. But that’s not the focus of my research; it’s more a pious hope.

It’s obviously quite a specific subject, can we ask how you first got interested in this research area?

There are two aspects to what I do. The first is the subject I study; the sense of smell. The second is the organism which I use to study it; the tiny maggot and the fly that produces it. I became interested in studying the genetics of the fly, and the genetics of behaviour using the fly, while reading a very small piece in New Scientist as an undergraduate. It described a study that had just been done in America in which they had made a fly that was stupid; a mutant fly that couldn’t learn. I was a young student studying psychology at the time, very interested in behaviour, and I thought right, that’s what I want to study. And so for the last forty odd years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

I got interested in the sense of smell when studying sexual chemical signals between flies as a way of understanding their mating behaviour. Then we decided, in the late 1980s, to move into olfaction – the sense of smell in general. The person I was working with said I should try and use maggots instead of flies. I told him that was stupid and I didn’t want to do it. That maggots were boring and didn’t do anything. What I was in fact describing was the reason for studying them. They are very, very simple. They only move in two dimensions. They’re not interested in sex. They’re only interested in feeding, which means their sense of smell is a very important drive of their behaviour.

The person I was working with basically told me to experiment and see if it would work. I put my maggots on a little dish of jelly. I put them in the middle. I put the smell on one side and the maggots all moved towards the smell. The difference in that very strong response, compared to the very difficult responses I was getting when studying sexual behaviour in flies, instantly convinced me that this was what I wanted to study.

Do you have science heroes? Who inspired you?

I think I was probably inspired most by one of my lecturers at The University of Sheffield, Professor Kevin Connolly. He was, on the one hand, one of the UK pioneers of the behaviour of this tiny fruit fly, but he was also somebody who was more interested in child development and a lot of other aspects of behaviour. Firstly, he provided me with the opportunity to study this fly – if I’d been virtually anywhere else in the UK I wouldn’t have been able to do that at the time. Secondly, he also inspired me with his lectures. In particular a very intriguing one that I still recall in which he showed that if rats were deprived as pups, which means simply not being held by their parents, they later showed their own strange parenting behaviours. They displayed a non-genetic transference of behaviour and their offspring became deprived as well. That intrigued me at the time and has continued to do so.

Could you tell us a little about your interests outside your research area?

I’ve written two books about the history of science, one about the 17th century and our discovery of eggs and sperm and another about the history of the genetic code which will be published soon. I’ve also written two books about the history of the Second World War, one about the French Resistance in general and one about the liberation of Paris. They’re aspects of history that interest me outside of science.

And that’s it from the first of our Tuesday features. We’re off to learn more about maggots and buy a book about the French Resistance. Many thanks go to Matthew Cobb, and we hope you’ll join us next week when we’ll be chatting to Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul about his research in New York! Thanks for reading. 

Interview by Fran Slater, video by Theo Jolliffe, Image courtesy of Nicholas Ogden