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.

Famous Women Life Scientists

Women have shaped the history of life sciences. To celebrate UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we take a look at some of the famous and influential women life scientists from throughout history.


Rachel Carson: An American marine biologist, her iconic 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’ brought attention to the dangers of synthetic pesticides accumulating in the natural ecosystem, and kick-started the global environmental movement.


jane_goodall_gmJane Goodall: Perhaps the most famous primatologist ever, this British OBE spent many years of her life in Tanzania studying man’s close relatives, and is considered the world’s number one expert on chimpanzees


marie_curie_c1920Rosalind Franklin: It is often assumed that Watson and Crick were responsible for discovering the molecular structure of DNA, but in actual fact, much of their work was based on earlier research done by this English X-ray crystallographer, who successfully identified the double helix nature of DNA molecules.


nobel_prize_2009-press_conference_physiology_or_medicine-11Elizabeth Blackburn: This Australian-American Nobel Prize winner made incredible advances in our knowledge of the telomere – the structure that protects the ends of chromosomes, and co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres.


barbara_mcclintock_281902-199229Barbara McClintock – This American geneticist made incredible advances in the field of genetics by studying maize crops, uncovering various processes such as genetic recombination, transposition, and gene regulation.


dorothy_hodgkin_nobelDorothy Hodgkin – An American biochemist, she developed the technique of protein crystallography, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, being only the third woman in history to have received this (the previous two being Marie Curie, and her daughter Irène).


mary_anning_paintingMary Anning – An English fossil collector; despite having no formal education in science, she discovered a huge variety of Jurassic fossils along the coast of Lyme Regis, including never-before-identified species such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, and became one of the foremost figures in palaeontology at the time.













LGBT History Month

This February it’s LGBT History Month: a month-long celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, the history of gay rights and the struggle for equality.

LGBT History Month aims to increase the visibility of LGBT people both past and present, promote awareness of issues affecting the LGBT community and generally improve the welfare of LGBT people, who continue to face discrimination and inequality here in the UK, as well as internationally. It is held in February to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 abolition of Section 28, a rule that forbade the promotion of homosexuality in the UK education system.

To mark LGBT History Month, we here at FLS take a look at some of the famous figures in the history of science who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender:

Alan Turing, aged 16

For example, Alan Turing, one of Manchester’s most famous alumni and a world-renowned computer scientist and mathematician, was a gay man. Famed for his work on cracking the Enigma code while working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing was prosecuted for committing homosexual acts in 1952, which were then a crime in the UK. Despite his heroic contribution to the Allied war effort, he was found guilty and sentenced to chemical castration, which back then was regarded as a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality. This was a punishment that was sadly given to thousands of others like him at the time. Turing died of an apparent suicide two years after his conviction. Homosexual acts were not made legal in the UK until 1967. Turing was given a posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013, and his life was recently dramatised on the big screen in ‘The Imitation Game’. A building and an institution at The University of Manchester are both named in his honour.

Possible self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1513

Looking further back, perhaps one of the most famous figures in the history of science (not to mention the arts, mathematics, architecture, literature etc.), Leonardo da Vinci, is thought by many historians to have been homosexual. The Italian polymath made incredible advances in fields such as anatomy and palaeontology, and invented early versions of modern day technologies such as the helicopter and the parachute. He also produced many of the most famous artworks of the Renaissance, such as the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. Court records of the time show that da Vinci and several others were charged with the crime of sodomy involving a male prostitute. However, the charges were ultimately dismissed, perhaps due to pressure from the accused parties’ powerful relatives.

Looking to recent history, many prominent scientists and mathematicians have identified as LGBT. These include Nate Silver, the American statistician who correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states during the 2012 US Presidential Election, who identifies as gay. Lynn Conway, a celebrated American engineer and computer scientist, came out as a trans woman in 1999, having undergone gender reassignment during the late 1960s. At the time of her reassignment, it had resulted in her being fired from her job at IBM. Today she is perhaps the most prominent transgender activist from the scientific community.

Lynn conway
Lynn Conway


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 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

Book prize launched to honour world renowned historian of science and medicine

The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) has set up a prize to honour Professor John Pickstone, the world-Professor John Pickstonerenowned historian of science from the University of Manchester who passed away earlier this year.

The announcement of the BSHS John Pickstone Prize coincided with a memorial held at the University earlier this month. The event celebrated Professor Pickstone’s contribution to the history of science, technology, and medicine.

Professor Pickstone worked at the Faculty’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He was one of the nation’s most important historians in his field and a tireless champion of Manchester’s heritage. The BSHS said that his research and teaching exemplified their ethos.

The prize will be awarded every two years to the best scholarly history of science book in the English language. The winning book should mark a major advance in the understanding and interpretation of the scientific past.

A shortlist for the first Pickstone Prize will be released at the BSHS’s EGM, which takes place in July. The winner will be announced in December 2014.