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!

What I learnt this week part 4 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHi everyone! For the last time, I will be talking you through what I learn this week. Given that it’s Easter, expect a lot of older things that have been squeezed out of my memory after going over my old notes, a few titbits from the lectures I dozed off in this semester, and maybe even something from the news. What did I finally decide to write about? You’re not going to find out if you stop reading after the introduction…

Double, double, toil and trouble!

I will start this off by being completely honest with you all: when I first read this news story, I was completely enthralled. It was almost unbelievable…then I began to get suspicious. Were the details of this experiment, announced on various websites on March 31st, an early April Fool? As the day went on, I became more convinced that actually, this was too good to have been true. I eagerly awaited the news that it had all been a hoax, however, none came. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge, what I am about to impart is fact. If it should be revealed that this was all a big joke (or it already has and I’ve just missed the memo), I beg your forgiveness. As a hoax, I must say it is really rather good, and even more so if not.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human neutrophil ingesting MRSA National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)It has been reported that academics at the University of Nottingham have discovered a potential new/old method of destroying the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. An antibiotic resistant strain of this bacteria is responsible for disease MRSA, and other strains can be the culprit of conditions such as food poisoning and boils. It is also responsible for some eye infections, and this is where our story begins.

Allegedly, a conversation between a microbiologist and an Anglo-Saxon historian at the University of Nottingham led to the historian mentioning a very old remedy to soothe the eyes -an eye salve. The microbiologist decided it might be interesting to recreate the potion and see if it had any anti-microbial properties. The list of instructions appeared rather complex and involved leaving the potion to rest for nine days and addition of ingredients such as leeks and wine. Once the microbiologists-turned-witches were satisfied with their brew, the testing began. The resulting slime was tested on pieces of skin taken from mice with MRSA. Here comes the shocker: it worked.

It’s been claimed that around 90% of the antibiotic resistant bacteria were killed by the potion, approximately the same percentage as are killed by the primary antibiotic used in the treatment of MRSA in humans. Considering antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasing problem for the modern world, this could be a huge step forward in the effort to find alternative medicines that, in the long term, won’t do more harm than good. The scientists reported that one interesting point to note about the potion was that it smelt of garlic – something wicked this way comes!

Some people have better humour(s) than others…
Stretching right back to a Bodies in History lecture form week two, I rediscovered the concept of the four humours. Interested by this, I went on to do some further reading into the topic, and here I am to report my findings.

In ancient Greek and Roman medicine, one of the main concepts related to person’s state of health was the four humours. The Aristotlefour humours, usually attributed in part to Aristotle and Galen, were four liquids that were present in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. For a person to be in good health, their individual balance of the humours must be correct. Imbalance, naturally, led to disease. But it doesn’t stop there – the theory of the humours became extremely embellished to the point where it seems that there were few factors that weren’t involved. For example, each of the humours had qualities which were related to the seasons, the environment, the four elements, your personality and maybe even how you looked. It was assumed that each person had their own set-up of humours that was formed at conception, and this differed between individuals. Therefore, rather than simply assessing symptoms, doctors were concerned with all of the factors mentioned above too – talk about getting personal!

Various elements of the humours persisted in medicine for many hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the treatments they offered where not always useful. For example, it was thought that some diseases were a result of too much blood in the body, so one treatment might be placing leeches on the body to suck out the excess – what a lovely way to recharge your batteries!

 

And on that note, now we must conclude the series that I have been forcing upon you over the last month. I have enjoyed sharing what I’ve learnt with you, and I hope I’ve made it somewhat more interesting that it would have been from a thick book with no pictures and lots of long words. Enjoy the rest of your Easter break, and hopefully your rest and recuperation won’t involve leaches. Farewell!

What I learnt this week part 3 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHi everyone, I’m back – which fortunately means I wasn’t crushed under a growing pile of books last week in an effort to finish my coursework on time. Lucky for you, this past week of essays and a brief tryst with some early revision have taught me a lot. Now, it is time for me to pass the fruits of my laborious week onto yourselves. Please enjoy these seeds of knowledge, and let us hope your metaphorical mind is awash with lichen so that they may germinate.

I’m lichen the side of this mountain

Yes, it is pronounced lie-ken, not lich-in.

Lichen are a symbiosis between two types of organism, as I rediscovered during an optimistic, yet ultimately short-lived, revision session for Microbes, Man and the Environment. Lichen are made up of two components: a photosynthetic alga and a fungus. Each organism has something to offer its partner – rather like any partnership. The alga provides the fungus with sugars, while the fungus attaches to a surface for the lichen to live on and protects the alga from desiccation. While this might sound likeLichen-covered_tree,_Tresco something of a fragile being, these little guys are extremely hardy. They can live in incredibly harsh environments, and as alluded to above, are the only known organism type that can colonise bare rock. It is a testament to their toughness that they can survive on mountains for over 4000 years.

Colonisation by lichen is vital for ecosystems in certain areas, with lichen also making homes on tree bark and rooftops. When the lichen colonises a new substrate, it brings organic molecules into the area. When the lichen dies, it breaks down and forms a basic soil. If a lucky, wind-dispersed seed drifts in the right direction, it might just find itself landing on a spot that used to be a lichen. The presence of the soil means it is possible for the seed to germinate in that particular place, leading to a plant growing on the previously bare surface. This can begin a chain reaction which eventually leads to a whole community of organisms living in a place that was once as barren as the library during the Easter break.

(Foxg)love hearts

Despite the enduring chill, its undeniable that spring is in the air – a time associated with flowering plants and new love. While this post may be rather heavy on the plants, the closest we get to love is rather symbolic – hearts. For an essay exploring the influence of herbal remedies on modern medicine, I found myself learning an awful lot about hearts and the common foxglove.

Digitalis purpurea2 by Kurt StüberThis plant has been used as a herbal remedy for centuries, intended as a cure for a huge variety of illnesses. It has even been used to encourage vomiting in patients as it was sometimes believed that this would help them – because all you need when you’re under-the-weather is a poisonous plant rubbed onto your skin to make you vomit. Fortunately, the wonderful William Withering published something that could be recognized as a scientific study into foxglove in 1785. Here, he discussed use of foxglove in helping those with heart problems. As it turns out, he was onto something. Today, a compound from the foxglove is used in the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias – irregular beating of the heart. In just the right quantities, the compound alters the behaviour of the sodium-potassium pump in cell membranes to encourage a stronger and steadier heart rate.

Unlike in Withering’s time, the doses given today are highly researched and unlikely to poison you, but if you see a foxglove when you’re out and about I wouldn’t recommend giving it a try!

 

Thus concludes another summary of what I learnt this week. I am now preparing to delve into the darkest, messiest and most incomprehensible lecture notes ever scrawled in an attempt to make some sense of them. Hopefully I will be able to tease some interesting stories out of them for my final instalment on this blog. Until next week!

What I learnt this week part 2 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHello again everyone. I hope it’s been a good week, and not too stressful for those with deadlines. For me, it’s been another week of exploring the weird and wonderful world of living things, a few of which shall feature in this blog. Once again, I have whittled down everything I have learnt this week to the most interesting (and sometimes amusing) nuggets of information.

Life isn’t Fir
I am currently taking part in a community project which involves volunteering at the university’s experimental gardens – also known as ‘The Firs’. This was going swimmingly, despite constantly looking over my shoulder for frogs, which I have an irrational and uncontrollable fear of. Then, as I had dreaded, a green blur in corner of my eye alerted me to the presence of one of the little croakFrog for blogers. While mildly traumatised by the event, I was unharmed. Unfortunately, many people do not face the same fortunate fate upon encountering amphibians – some frogs contain toxins that can be very dangerous.

As explained as part of the Drugs: from Molecules to Man module I am taking, the molecule responsible for making some amphibians best avoided is epibatidine. Epibatidine binds to a certain type of receptor in the nervous system, called the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and prevents proper control of parts of the nervous system. Additionally, it stops pain sensation from being felt, so the molecule can act as a painkiller. Due to this, epibatidine is a starting point for the development of some painkilling drugs.

Gut flora is for life, not just for Christmas
I have always had mixed feelings about being born the day after Boxing Day. It’s a nice uplift when everyone is miserable about Christmas being over, but it also means everybody is busy and any restaurant I should visit may not have had stock deliveries, leaving half of the menu temporarily defunct. Despite this, it’s my birthday and I’m stuck with it, just like the gut flora that was also bestowed on me at birth.

E. ColiAs was explained to me in Microbes, Man and the Environment, everybody has around a kilogram of bacteria living inside their body. A lot of this bacteria survive in the GI tract, and this is known as the gut flora. Your gut flora is determined by several factors and, surprisingly, is unique to each individual. The first factor that determines the types of bacteria in your gut flora is one of the first things humans ever experience: birth. How you were born affects your gut flora for the rest of your life. For example, if you were born by caesarean section, the first bacteria you were exposed to would have been very different to that of a natural birth. Your gut flora also depends on your diet – vegetarians generally have very different bacteria to those who eat meat. The interesting thing about this is that it’s very difficult to change your gut flora. If you go from eating meat to being a vegetarian, it can take as long as a year for any change in your gut flora to occur.

The fact that your gut flora can’t be changed can be somewhat unfortunate. The bacteria help you to digest the food you eat into products for absorption, and some people’s gut flora are better at this than others. Having gut flora which break down more carbohydrates can be a big factor in weight gain. The result of this? Don’t just blame a few extra pounds on the burgers – it might be because of your bacteria!

 

So, there are the two most interesting things I have learnt this week. I am delighted to find that I have a good reason to be scared of frogs, even if I am more concerned about their slimy skin, unpredictable hopping, and beady little eyes. I hope you found the story of your gut flora interesting – I find it rather comforting to know that you’re carrying a kilogram of tiny little friends with you that will never change. I look forward to seeing you next time, where biological anecdotes and rather awful puns shall continue to abound.

What I learnt this week part 1 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHello everyone – I think introductions are in order. My name is Elinor and I am a first year undergraduate on the Biology with Science and Society degree. The only first year undergraduate, in fact – so hopefully I will be able to impart a different perspective on the life sciences. I will be writing a short series of weekly posts based on what I’ve learnt in the previous week. Now the formalities are out of the way, prepare to find out what I have discovered this week…

Students have varying standards of hygiene

While unsurprising, there is some interesting scientific and historical debate surrounding that statement. During my Bodies in History: An Introduction to the History of Medicine seminar, we were discussing a lecture given by the infamous Sigmund Freud.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Freud changed the field of psychology entirely with the development of psychoanalysis. But how, I hear you ask, does this relate to student cleanliness?

Well, Freud treated patients of hysteria. He believed that repressed memories could manifest themselves into the physical Sigmend Freud courtesy of Max Halberstadtsymptoms shown by hysterical patients, and these memories could be drawn out by hypnosis. One woman treated with this technique, Anna O, was a hysterical patient who suffered extreme thirst yet was unable to drink.

Under hypnosis, she revealed that when she was younger, she witnessed a companion let a dog drink out of a glass of water. Anna was disgusted by this, yet repressed her anger for fear of upsetting her friend.  Freud and his colleague believed that this was the cause of the symptoms she experienced. The focus of our discussion rested with one word: why?

Some believed that it was because letting a dog drink out of a human’s glass is unhygienic. At that time, Anna would have been recipient of new information claiming that germs were everywhere and spread disease. Increasing emphasis on the importance of cleanliness may have caused her to feel such a great level of disgust.

Others took a different angle. They believed the Freudian approach was simply wrong, because a dog drinking out of a glass isn’t such a terrible thing. This, of course, begged another important question: is letting a dog drink out of a glass unhygienic? The resulting vote was inconclusive.

I thought of another joke, but it was a bit cheesy…

It’s a pretty standard viewpoint that letting bacteria and fungus into our food is a bad thing. However, many things we eat and drink actually require these microorganisms to turn the raw materials into delicious consumables. As lectured about in the Microbes, Man and the Environment module, microbes are particularly important in cheese making. Hopefully you haven’t got any nearby, because this actually sounds pretty disgusting….

Camembert of Normandy - image courtesy of NJGJCamembert is a popular French cheese with a soft, creamy interior, but how does the inside come to be that way? This is where it gets a little icky. After being cut into rounds, a mould called Penicillium camemberti is added to the surface of the cheese. This grows over the surface into a large structure of fungal branches called a mycelium. As the fungus spreads, it releases enzymes which break down the proteins and fats in the cheese. This partially liquefies the inside of the camembert, giving a soft texture.

While this is rather interesting, I would not recommend mentioning this if served camembert at a dinner party. It’s not very polite to tell the host that they’ve served partially digested fat surrounded by a nice coating of mould!

 

On that note, this concludes the most interesting things I have learnt this week. Hopefully you have learnt something new too, whether it be that Freudian psychology was rather odd, or that some mould is actually delicious. See you next week!

Faculty student wins prestigious award

Siddarth Krishnan Faculty student Siddharth Krishnan has won the Life Sciences category of The Undergraduate Awards, a prestigious international programme that identifies leading creative thinkers through their undergraduate coursework. There were 4,792 entries from 206 Universities across 27 countries. Another Faculty student, Eliot Haworth, was highly commended.

Siddharth entered his work from a placement at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, USA, in which he helped to characterise a novel gene linked to Alzheimer’s disease. This was part of his degree in Pharmacology with Industrial Experience. He said:

“I gained a lot of great experience during my placement. The Mayo Clinic has a hospital, education wing, and research centre all on the same site, so I was able to work with researchers and patients for my genetic studies. This gave me a lot of confidence, as it meant I had good research experience already. It also helped me get onto my PhD in Neuroscience and I had a strong submission to the awards. Still, I was surprised and delighted to win!”