Behind-the-scenes at Cancer Research UK

We can send a man to the moon, so why can’t we beat cancer?

Just a few years ago, we at last reached the point where half of all people diagnosed with cancer could expect to survive it. Within 20 years, scientists hope that figure will rise even further to 3 in 4 people.

Reaching these milestones does not happen easily. It is the culmination of years of research by thousands of scientists around the world, working in fields as diverse as genetics, pharmacology and biochemistry – as well as medicine.

Much of this research takes place here in Manchester. In fact, cancer is one of The University of Manchester’s five main ‘research beacons’ – priority research areas in which we are world leaders – the others being industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, energy and addressing global inequalities.

Beyond the main university campus, we also have the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, situated over the road from the Christie Hospital in Withington, south Manchester. Their brand new £28.5 million building opened its doors last year, and is jointly funded by The University of Manchester, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity, and funds and conducts research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Its work is almost entirely funded by donations from the public.

The Christie Hospital is one of Europe’s leading centres for cancer treatment and research, treating over 40,000 patients a year, and around 400 early phase clinical trials are taking place here at any one time. This makes The Christie an ideal next-door-neighbour for the new Cancer Research UK Institute.

Research in places like Manchester has vastly improved our knowledge of cancer and how we can treat it over the past decades. The discovery of epigenetics has shone a new light on the different ways this disease can arise, while genome sequencing has given us new and highly effective methods of diagnosis, allowing us to accurately tailor treatments to each individual’s needs.

There’s still such a long way to go however.

Cancer is not one disease nor one hundred diseases but many thousands, each unique and requiring a different response. Such a diverse assortment of diseases is only possible because the body itself is so diverse.

37 trillion cells, and 10,000,000 components per cell make the body 125 billion times more complicated than the Saturn Rockets that allowed humans to go to the Moon. It is only when we consider this staggering complexity that we can begin to appreciate the immense challenge we face in trying to treat the numerous different types of cancer.

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© NASA

 

 

PhD Student wins Science Communication Competition

PhD researcher Ben Stutchbury has won an international science communication competition. The competition was hosted by Chemistry World, the magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The aim was to make chemistry a more accessible topic to the public.

The applicants first had to write an 800 word essay summarising a commissioned report by the RSC. The report found that chemistry, unlike other scientific disciplines, failed to be relatable to the lay audience.

Ben says:

“The RSC Public Attitudes to Chemistry Research Report highlighted a number of issues in the way chemistry is perceived by the public. For example, when asked where a chemist was likely to work, most people said “in a pharmacy”! One thing that struck me was how negatively the term ‘Chemistry’ is viewed by the public in comparison term ‘Science’. As chemistry is a huge part of science, I was surprised by how differently they are perceived. I think that the public opinion to the terms ‘Biology’ and ‘Physics’ would be more positive than that of ‘Chemistry’.”

The report had found that the public’s perception of science was that it was fun, interesting and engaging, which was in stark contrast to the view of chemistry as an isolated field, which was seen to be inaccessible, serious and intimidating. Ben therefore concluded that establishing why science was tangible and chemistry was not, would help to make chemistry more accessible.

Ben argued that this is likely due to chemistry’s lack of presence in the mainstream media. There is no David Attenborough or Brian Cox acting as a ‘public champion’ for chemistry. However, he also concluded that the problem may run deeper, stemming from how chemistry is taught in schools.

His essay, which will now be published in the next issue of Chemistry World, was highly received and Ben was shortlisted for the final, in the famous Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institute. Each of the 5 finalists had to produce a 10 minute talk to a mixed audience of 200 people that would explain a chemistry concept in an engaging way. For this Ben chose the chemistry behind the mucus in our bodies.

After some deliberation amongst the judges, Ben was presented with the award. The award comes with a week’s work experience with AkzoNobel – a world leader in the chemistry field.

Ben, whose PhD comes to an end in 6 months, says:

“It is really fantastic to have won the award, but the most exciting thing was just reaching the final. The opportunity to present in the historic Faraday Lecture Theatre is something I will never forget. The other finalists all gave brilliant presentations and it really showed that the communication of exciting chemistry has a bright future!”

Zika virus vaccine to be developed in Manchester

A University of Manchester team is to develop a new vaccine against the Zika virus as part of a new initiative to counter the disease which has spread rapidly across the Americas in the last few months.

The team will create and test a vaccine based on a safe derivative of a pre-existing smallpox vaccine – the only disease to have been successfully globally eradicated.

Dr Tom Blanchard, Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester and Fellow of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at North Manchester General Hospital and the Royal Liverpool Hospital will lead the project. Professor Pam Vallely and Dr Eddie McKenzieare University of Manchester experts involved in the project and the work will be done in collaboration with Professors Miles Carrol and Roger Hewson from Public Health England.

Dr Blanchard said:

“As we have seen in the case of Ebola there is now a real need to react quickly to fast spreading tropical diseases. Zika can cause serious illness, but it often has no visible symptoms, so a vaccine for those at risk is one of the most effective ways we have of combatting it.”

Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and the disease is mainly spread by mosquitoes, though there have been reports of human to human transmission. It is particularly serious for pregnant women, as it’s been linked to birth defects – in particular, microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s brain doesn’t grow properly and it is born with an abnormally small head and serious development problems.

A recent and particularly severe outbreak which began in South America and has since spread north to United States Territories prompted the Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund to launch a £4m rapid response funding initiative at the beginning of February.

The results of this call for proposals have been announced today and Dr Blanchard and his team were awarded £177,713 to build and test a vaccine as part of this.

It is expected that the results will be delivered within 18 months and although the first target will be the Zika virus, the nature of the vaccine candidate may enable it to combat many infectious diseases simultaneously.

Dr Blanchard added:

“We know that there’s an urgent need for this vaccine but we’ll be working carefully to deliver a product which is safe and effective and which can be quickly deployed to those who need it.

If we can also use this vaccine on multiple targets then this will represent an exciting step forward in dealing with these kinds of outbreaks.”

 

Becoming the Best: Women in Science

Women have made great strides towards achieving equality in science, but there’s a still a long way to go – according to a leading scientist from The University of Manchester.

Dr Hema Radhakrishnan, one of the nation’s top sight researchers, today launched a programme of events at The University to encourage women to advance in their field.

Called ‘Becoming the Best’, women from across science spoke to an audience of female academics and students on International Women’s Day.

The event was organised by Dr Radhakrishnan, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Professor Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility – both at the Faculty of Life Sciences.

The move builds on the prestigious Athena Swan Silver Award given in October 2015, which recognised the Faculty’s commitment to tackling gender inequality in higher education.

The Equality Challenge Unit gave the award to just 87 departments in the whole of the UK.

The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science.

Dr Radhakrishnan said:

 “Even though we are a long way forward from even 10 years ago, women are still more likely to progress in their careers at a rate that is slower than their male counterparts.

“Men and women do things differently and offer different perspectives; it doesn’t make sense to lose the talents of half the population.

“Women often drop out of science in the period between getting their PhD and finding an academic position and it’s family life which can act as a barrier.

“Sometimes, though it’s simply a question of women not putting themselves forwards for promotion.

“So to break that barrier, we have implemented flexible working, coaching and mentoring schemes – as well as establishing a Women in Life Sciences Group.

“And this programme is part of that ethos.”

Professor Bamford added:

” We strive to develop a culture of fairness, opportunity, flexibility, and respect and want to be a beacon in gender equality.

“So there is no pausing in our efforts, especially as we are now working towards our Athena Swan Gold award”

The event included a keynote speech from Professor Teresa Anderson MBE, Director of the Jodrell Bank Discover Centre

Other speakers at the event included:

Lopa Patel MBE – digital entrepreneur and founder of inclusion think tank ‘Diversity UK’.

Dr. Heather Williams – Director of ‘ScienceGrrl’, which celebrates and supports women in science.

Dr. Narmeen Varawalla – Executive ice-president and chief scientific officer of Lambda Therapeutic Research.

Dr Santos Bhanot – Chair of Asian Circle, a charity which supports vulnerable and disadvantaged women in India.

Professor Susan Kimber – Co-director of NEWSCC.

Angela Saini – Science journalist, author and broadcaster.

Professor Amrita Ahluwalia – Deputy director, The William Harvey Research Institute.

Professor Aline Miller – Professor of biomolecular engineering, The University of Manchester

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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.

 

Huge carbon stores discovered beneath UK grasslands

 

A nationwide survey by ecologists has revealed that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, helping to curb climate change.

However, decades of intensive farming, involving heavy fertilizer use and excessive livestock grazing, have caused a serous decline in valuable soil carbon stocks in grasslands across the UK.

The nationwide survey was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Reading and Newcastle, as well as Rothamsted Research.

The team found that 60% of the UK’s total soil carbon stored in grasslands – covering a third of UK land surface – is between 30cm and 1m deep. The team estimated the total grassland soil carbon in Great Britain to be 2097 teragrams of carbon to a depth of 1m.

Though the effects of high intensity agriculture are strongest in the surface layer of soil, they also discovered that this deep carbon is sensitive to the way land has been farmed.

Dr Sue Ward, the lead author of the paper from Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“What most surprised us was the depth at which we were still able to detect a change in soil carbon due to historic land management.

“We have long known that carbon is stored in surface soils and is sensitive to the way land is managed. But now we know that this too is true at considerable soil depths under our grasslands.

“This is of high relevance given the extent of land cover and the large stocks of carbon held in managed grasslands worldwide.”

In contrast, the soils that were richest in carbon were those that had been subjected to less intensive farming, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. The team found that soil carbon stocks were 10% higher at intermediate levels of management, compared to intensively managed grasslands.

Professor Richard Bardgett from The University of Manchester said:

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

He added:

“These findings could impact how grasslands are managed for carbon storage and climate mitigation, as current understanding does not account for changes in soil carbon at these depths.

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

The research is part of a five year research project, supported by DEFRA, aimed at managing UK grassland diversity for multiple ecosystem services, including carbon capture.

 


The paper, ‘Legacy effects of grassland management on soil 1 carbon to depth’ is available in the journal Global Change Biology.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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 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.


 

 

 

Academics and the autistic community to collaborate on research projects

The interdisciplinary group, autism@manchester are looking to work with the autistic community to improve the effectiveness and impact of their research. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how the autistic person makes sense of and interacts with other people and the world around them, often causing them, and those affected by them, considerable difficulty, discomfort and anxiety.

autism@manchester involves autism researchers from the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the NHS, as well as autistic individuals and parents of autistic children.  The group are concerned that the research they do should be relevant and of real advantage to those who live with the condition.  At the same time, many of those affected by autism feel disconnected from the very research that is supposed to be helping them, and voice concerns that researchers are not working on issues that are important to them.

This is why researchers from autism@manchester are very keen to involve those who live with autism in the research process and were awarded Welcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Funding to hold a series of three interactive workshops with members of the autistic community during November 2015. The project was run in partnership with Salfordautism, a local support group who work in the community to support autistic people and those around them. During the workshops, the autism@manchester team met with those who live with autism to discuss how best to work with the autism community in developing, choosing and designing research projects that would have real meaning for autistic people.

Emma Gowen, one the lead academics on the project, concludes:

“This was a highly challenging and exciting project to work on. One challenge was that the researchers involved were from a wide range of research disciplines – so we had to address communication barriers between the researchers as well as between researchers and the autism community. In the end, it all worked brilliantly! Everyone involved was very open and generous with their time and we learnt a lot from each other. It was a very enjoyable and encouraging interaction. However, this is only the beginning – we need to use the findings to develop some longer lasting initiatives”

Findings are currently being analysed and written up and will appear here when finished (http://www.autism.manchester.ac.uk/projectsandfindings/welcometrustworkshops/)

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.

Manchester Science Festival Opening Night

Yesterday was the launch night of the Manchester Science Festival – an annual event that showcases the extraordinary science of the city. MSc Science Communication student, Emily Lambert was invited to the event and has written up what happened and what is going to happen in the coming week.


Manchester’s annual Science Festival opened on Thursday, with a diverse programme of events for all ages happening across the city.

81,000 white balls make up ‘Jump In!’, Manchester’s first ever adults-only ball pool at the Museum of Science and Industry. ‘Part lab, part playground’, the ball pool is strictly for ages 18+ and is designed to promote stress relief and creative thinking through play. Jump In! can be used as a workspace that is a bit different from the average desk and businesses can book the area for meetings. It is open until 1 November with an entry fee of £5. MOSI is also organising some evening events in the space, with tickets still available for a Silent Disco on 24 October.

Two new exhibitions are at MOSI for the festival. ‘Evaporation’ is a striking art installation by Tania Kovats, inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a single interconnected living system. Kovats focuses on the connectivity of water. The exhibition features large metal bowls in the shape of the largest oceans that all contain a saline solution that is slowly evaporating, leaving salt crystal traces. There is also an impressive collection of water samples from over 200 of Earth’s seas. A campaign to find the remaining 31 samples needed to complete this ‘All the Seas’ piece will be launched after the festival.

‘Cravings: Does your food control you’ is a culmination of research from North West Scientists investigating the relationship between sensory perception and food. The exhibition is a fusion of art, science and interactive activities, including a surprising smell test. MOSI will play host to Cravings: Late on 28 October, a free event where guests will be invited to explore their own tastes with an array of talks, games and activities.

For the full programme of over 150 Manchester Science Festival Events, please visit www.manchestersciencefestival.com . Many events are free.

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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.

Student Placement: The door creaks back open – week 3

The latest blog post from our placement student George Campbell studying frogs in Colombia!

frogtastic blog

We complain about temperamental weather in England but even we don’t have it quite as extreme as it is here, it seems. Last night there was thunder, yesterday it was boiling hot and the night before it was torrential rain. Right now it’s cold but 5 minutes ago it was T-shirt & shorts weather…I keep getting reminded that Pamplona only has two seasons: wet and dry. So far they only have one though: random, and I guess this is where being a Brit comes in helpful as you naturally have to leave the house prepared for any and every possibility.

The town of Pamplona from the Universities viewpoint during the day:

DSC00382DSC00383

And later that night:

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Neither photos really do justice to either the weather at its best or worst, which had my landlady praying to god that the roof holds out. It did.

Anyway, that’s the British conversation starter of…

View original post 1,375 more words

When fashion meets science.

Two scientists have launched a fashion blog which aims to break the stereotypical image of the dowdy middle aged scientist.

The Tumblr site, called Sartorial Science, asks scientists to send in fashionable pictures of themselves.

Visitors to the site can also learn about each contributor’s research and gain some style inspiration as well.

The site is the work of Sam Illingwortha 31-year-old science communication lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sophie Powell, a 24-year-old PhD student from the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Though the site has only been live for a few days, there has already been a lively response from all across the world, with entries ranging from clinical psychologists in Costa Rica to zoologists in Belgium.

Biochemistry student Sophie, who studies arthritis, also publishes a blog called The Scientific Beauty, where she explains the science behind the latest beauty products and writes about being a female researcher.

She said:

Sartorial Science is all about challenging the stereotype of what a scientist looks like in the eyes of the public and actually, other colleagues. It’s really because as a young woman, there’s a fear I won’t be taken seriously if I care about the way I look, which is kind of frustrating. As a 14-year-old school girl, I was good at science but I remember feeling unsure if it was for me, as it seemed that it was for dowdy, middle-aged ‘boffins’ .

She is hopeful that this will change:

But hopefully this blog will challenge that. And I hope it will encourage young people into science when they realise that actually, we are real people with real interests. It’s not at all about being beautiful: anyone can send us their photos and it doesn’t matter if you think you’re good looking or not. It’s just about taking science out if its pigeonhole and showing that scientists can be fashionable too.

Publication checklist will improve efficiency and success rate of clinical trials

Faculty researchers have found that better method reporting in animal experiments could save hundreds of thousands of pounds as well as stop clinical trials that have no hope of success.

The team, led by Faculty member Dr Sheena Cruickshank and Professor Andy Brass of the School from Computer Sciences looked at 58 papers on research on inflammatory bowel disease that were published between 2000 and 2014. They found huge differences in how methods were reported and found that vital information about experiments were missing, meaning they couldn’t be accurately reproduced in animal or human models.

Pills and a needle

Dr Cruickshank says she was shocked at the lack of information provided in papers: “What our research has uncovered is that this lack of data makes it difficult to validate the experiment and the result. Crucially this is having an impact of the reproducibility of experiments, both in the animal model and when transferred to human trials.”

The team were originally investigating a bowel disease called colitis and were trying to generate a database of research articles. It became clear that the information reported in the papers was not sufficient as the data could not be understood by members of other disciplines. This poses a potentially huge problem as research is becoming increasingly cross-discipline meaning that multiple teams must be able to understand data from other fields.

In order to address the issue, the team has created a ‘critical checklist’ that lists what information should be included.  The list includes nine keys areas, such as the gender of the research subject, as well as the environmental conditions they were kept in.

Dr Cruickshank explains: “Our checklist sounds like fairly basic information that should be in all papers. But over the past few years journals have asked for more and more abbreviated methods so information has stopped being included. Instead, papers are focussed on the results and discussion and sometimes you have to go back to a paper from the sixties to find the last time a particular method was accurately recorded.”

The team felt it was important to stress that poor reporting of methodology does not necessarily mean that the research is inaccurate. However, if the research is poorly documented, then it makes it much harder for other teams to reproduce the results and therefore can slow down the progression of further research.

Moving forward, the Manchester team is recommending that their checklist is adopted as a staple for all publications in order to improve the quality, comparability and standardisation of studies into inflammatory bowel disease. They believe it will make the interpretation and translation of data to human disease more reliable and ultimately contribute to making clinical trials more su

Faculty student to give presentation at UK PlantSci 2015.

Faculty student Emily Schofield has recently been chosen to give a presentation at the UK PlantSci 2015 confereem photonce.

An annual event hosted by the UK Plant Sciences Federation, UK PlantSci brings together eminent plant scientists from all over the UK to discuss research and outreach. The conference, that takes place over two days on the 14-15th April, will feature a range of interesting talks from leading professionals in their field.

Emily, who is a 3rd year Plant Science undergraduate, has been chosen to give a talk on orchids. The talk entitled ‘Fungal symbionts and their role in germination and seedling development in British orchids’ is part of a series of talks about ‘Roots and soil – Finding riches in the dirt’. It is based on Emily’s work with Kew Gardens. She is there as part of her third year industrial placement, where students are able to get real-world experience in their degree area.

Emily says:

‘The application was to write an abstract for a current area of research. I chose to focus on British orchids as the data we were getting looked really interesting. It’s really exciting to be chosen to present at a national conference, I can’t wait to meet other scientists passionate about plants.’

For more information about the conference, please go to www.plantsci2015.org.uk

#PlayingGod videos

We told you all about the Playing God Film Series in a previous post, but now we have even more information from the organisers and contributors.

Dr David Kirby tells us the idea behind the series:

Amy Chambers discusses the potential audiences:

And Dr William Macauley gives a bit more info about the films included:

 

All six films will be shown at The Anthony Burgess Foundation and entrance is free. They’ll be looking at The Bride of Frankenstein, The Exorcist, Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Creation, and Altered States.

Which ones are you most looking forward to? Tell us in the comments.

Playing God in Manchester

Playing God postcardA unique and fascinating film series kicks off in Manchester on March 5, bringing together the diverse themes of religion and science.

The Playing God Film Series will explore the portrayal of these subjects in six classic movies. Each screening, showing at the Anthony Burgess Foundation across March, April, and May, will be introduced by an expert speaker and followed by a panel discussion.

The events have been organised by the Science and Entertainment Laboratory, based in the Faculty’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Dr David Kirby explains the thinking behind the series:

“We wanted to look at all six films in a new and different way, asking fresh questions about the content and challenging audiences to consider the nature of, and connections between, science and religion.”

The films are free to attend and booking is not required. All screenings, listed below, start at 18:30:

Bride of Frankenstein5th March: The Bride of Frankenstein

The film will be introduced by the science studies scholar Dr David Kirby.

Exorcist_19th March19th March: The Exorcist

With an introduction by film scholar Professor Mark Jancovich.

Planet of the Apes_16h April16th April: Planet of the Apes

Introduced by sci-fi expert Dr Amy Chambers.

Solaris_30th April30th April: Solaris

With an introduction by filmmaker Sean Martin.

Creation_14th May14th May: Creation

Introduced by theologian Professor Peter Scott and historian Professor Joe Cain.

altered_states_198021st May: Altered States

With an introduction by historian Dr William Macauley.

With a list of such controversial and at times genre-defining films, the discussions surrounding the Playing God Film Series promises to be fascinating. You can follow the conversations using the #PlayingGod hashtag on Twitter.