Incredible invertebrates

Finally back to some science after an exciting few weeks in which I secured my next job…more about that later 😉

We often hear about biodiversity and the need to protect whole ecosystems and not just the large and beautiful animals that live on our planet. We also sometimes hear about the need to protect plants, as they may harbour chemicals that could be the basis of new drugs, as well as providing a habitat for many other things to live in. We’ve also been reminded recently about the great importance of bees but how often do we stop to consider the amazing variety of invertebrates on our planet.

I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to when and how creepy crawlies became established in our minds as something a bit yuck but they certainly don’t have a great reception from most people. It can’t be simply because some of them are poisonous and others like to drink our blood because lets face it that beautiful fluffy tiger everyone wants to see could kill you in just a few seconds! It can’t just be because they’re not beautiful because no one dislikes Rhino’s and they aren’t exactly pretty. Many of the invertebrates which are too small to see with the naked eye, or are so small they are just dots to us, are more ignored than disliked, except of course flees and mites, and that I can understand. Unless we have a particular reason to most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the things we can’t see.

So the invertebrate I want to introduce you to today is actually quite cute, well OK, some of the species are cute!

From the Tree of Life Web Project

It’s a tardigrada, it’s name is made up of tardus, which means slow, and gradu which means step and their common name is water bear. Unlike the huge mammalian bears they are very tiny, ranging from just 0.05mm to 1.2mm, so you can see the largest ones with the naked eye but not well enough to see in detail what they look like.

930 species have been described to date and as their name suggests they mostly live in water, some in fresh water, some in sea water and some miraculously live in the thin film of water often found on vegetation, particularly algae and moss. This is why I think they’re incredible. The can live for up to 60 years (Possibly longer, you have to be very patient to do that kind of study!) because if the water evaporates around them they also loose their body water as it evaporates through their permeable cuticle and they shrivel up in to barrel shaped dried out forms called tuns. In this state their oxygen consumption is reduced to 1/600th of normal and they can suvive temperatures as low as -272°C (Colder than liquid nitrogen!) and up to 150°C. They can also do a neat party trick called encystment when they detach themselves from the cuticle which is their outer skin, pull in their legs and curl up in a ball inside the cuticle for protection.

Like many other invertebrates they are suctorial feeders meaning they apply their mouth to the food, a pair of stylets then pierce the food and they suck out the contents. They don’t bite people though, some are vegetarian and others are carnivorous feeding on other equally small creatures and sometimes other tardigrades.

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Tranquil moments

We all need a quiet moment now and again and this is one of the places the Brontë sisters apparently used to go for inspiration.

There’s nothing more peaceful than listening to a little bubbling stream finding it’s way around the rocks.

Whilst science is all about evidence and logic it also requires us to be creative; to think of new approaches to a question or problem and possible solutions or theories about how something might work. When we’re writing about science we need inspiration to think of fun and interesting ways to explain something or ways to explain something complex clearly.

This is one moment from my holiday in Yorkshire that will stay with me, a place I’ll think of next time I need a tranquil moment to think or some inspiration.

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The life of a scientist is never dull! (Part 1)

But it is at times a little insanely busy!

In the lab I’m currently working on two projects, one is the research project I’ve been working on for a long time and I’m currently writing up part of it as a paper. The other is some loose ends of a project I took on briefly as a side project a few years ago and then handed over to a graduate student to work on – she’s worked hard on this and now we just need a few final experiments for a paper. So all in all my lab work is pretty exciting at the moment and that makes it easy to be motivated.

It isn’t all about lab work though, I went to visit Southfields Community College and had fun talking to some year 9 students about the brain and how nerves grow to the right places to connect up and function properly. I also gave a talk at the London Fly Meeting (A geeky club for people who work with fruit flies!) it was fun to talk about my work and hear about what ideas other people had.

The last two weeks have also involved  paperwork…but that’s not nearly as dull as it sounds! I’ve applied for a couple of jobs and I’ve also been preparing my application for chartered biologist status. As much as this takes up quite a bit of time, it’s a chance to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’d like to go next….

This variety is part of what I love about doing science, but for now it’s back to work for me, some more cool science posts when I have a bit more time 😉

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Would you recommend starting a blog?

At coffee a little while ago (Our whole department has coffee together at 11:00 every day, it’s very sociable) a friend asked me would I recommend starting a blog, so Jo, this post is especially for you 😉

The short answer to this question is of course yes, what could be more fun! Although I don’t subscribe to the idea that all scientists should blog it clearly works very well for some and those of us who do blog get plenty of enjoyment out of it. It takes a little time, but not so much, after all you can blog more or less depending on how busy you are. I worried about having enough to say before I started but the more you write the more you start to think of things you could write about, so for me the limiting factor is the time to sit down and write. I haven’t suffered from writers block much yet but it’s early days, maybe I’ll write an update to this post in a year!

I enjoy blogging because it’s a chance to give expression to my reflections and it’s creative. You can write about anything you like and include anything you like, even pictures of your personal lab mascot!

*Or crazy movies!

You can even talk directly to your audience…

I love writing about science and it gives me a forum to do that where I can write in a natural free flowing way, unstilted by the confines of traditional scientific communications (Click on this, honestly, it’s fun)! I even get that wow feeling when I see how many people read what I write or when someone tells me they really liked my latest post; it feels like a privilege to have a blog even though it’s practically a birthright in the developed world.

*You can read about the science behind the shrimp on a treadmill here!

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More women of outstanding achievement

So as promised my second blog post on the UKRC women of outstanding achievement awards.

In my last post I wrote about Athene Donald who won the lifetime achievement award, this time I want to tell you about a couple of the other great women who won awards. The other awards are for: Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Inspiration and Leadership; Tomorrow’s leader and for communicating SET to society.

Some of you may recognize Kate Bellingham, who won the communicating SET to society award, from the days when she presented Tomorrow’s World. She is now, amongst other things, the National STEM Careers Co-ordinator, like all the other women honoured with awards she does and has done many things. She has worked as an engineer and gained an MSc in electronics, she also trained and worked as a maths teacher. One of the really cool projects she works on now is the Bloodhound engineering adventure to break the land speed record. She is a patron of WISE (Women into science and engineering and construction) and has her own website about all the cool things she does here. Interestingly her A-levels were in maths, further maths, physics and music – she plays both the piano and the oboe.

Dervilla Mitchell won the award for inspiration and leadership in business and industry. She works for, and is a board member of, ARUP a firm of designers, planners and engineers. Dervilla led the team at ARUP who build Heathrow Terminal 5 and also worked on Portcullis House.

Rising to the top of an engineering firm whilst also having a family has made her an inspiration to many. What I think it is particularly inspiring is her work with ARUP’s diversity steering group and their inclusive leadership programme. She is a founding member of the diversity steering group and their aim is to create a working environment based on fairness, respect and merit: Isn’t that what we all want, regardless of our gender? The inclusive leadership programme is an initiative designed to tackle the unconscious bias that holds women back which I talked about briefly here and Athene Donald has also written about. She has also been instrumental in developing proposals for a mentoring programme, something which I feel could be used to very great effect in many different STEM industries and working environments. One of the common problems for women is a lack of confidence (Which occurs because of both the conscious and unconscious problems they face) and mentoring can be a powerful way to overcome this and help women progress in their careers.

The other 2011 winners were:

Cary Marsh for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Business and Industry

Professor Eileen Ingham for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Academia and Research

Professor Dame Ann Dowling for Inspiration and Leadership in Academia and Research

Dr Phebe Mann as Tomorrow’s Leader

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I was going to write the next instalment of my thoughts on the Women of Outstanding Achievement but I find my thoughts very much focussed on the careers of post-docs at the moment, so if you want to read that blog post you’ll have to tune in next time 🙂

I went to a very interesting debate at the Royal Institution recently to discuss whether the scientific establishment is letting down junior researchers (Post-docs and PhD students). I didn’t blog about this initially because I don’t generally write this blog with my fellow scientists in mind, I started it in order to start a conversation with the rest of the world. However my thoughts have returned to this subject many times over the last couple of weeks and as many people have called for more honesty in science so that new recruits know what they are getting into I thought I would share my reflections with you. Those of you who don’t work in scientific research may have some very useful thoughts of your own and if you do I’d love to hear them.

These are the problems as I see it:

  1. There is a big conflict of interest between what is in the best interests of the head of the lab (Aka Principal Investigators) and what is in the best interests of the post-doc. It’s not quite this simple but put briefly lab heads need post-docs to focus on research and produce lots of data and post-docs need to develop a range of skills and experience whether they wish to continue with scientific research or move into something else.
  2. Post-docs have a lot of very valuable knowledge and skills. Those are lost when post-docs move on to other things and very often this also means that there is no one remaining in a given lab to provide that expertise. All too often in labs time and resources are wasted as new members of the lab re-learn what was already known but has been lost.
  3. There are too many jobs at the bottom and not enough jobs at the top. David Willetts said that science would always be a pyramid and he’s right, pretty much all industries are: You don’t need 500 CEOs for 500 members of staff, there would be chaos! However, as Jenny Rohn so brilliantly put it there isn’t a pyramid in science it’s more like a flat line with a spike!
  4. Post-docs feel let down by the system because they can finish 6-8 years of post-doctoral training after 4 years as a PhD student and find that not only have they not been successful enough to get a faculty level position but that they are ill equipped for moving into other careers. The second part of this problem is that employers outside scientific research don’t always understand or recognise the value of post-doctoral training.

Solutions I think we should consider:

  1. As many people, but particularly Jenny Rohn, have suggested permanent post-doctoral positions, a sort of staff grade scientist, would firstly make the structure a little more pyramid like and would secondly prevent vital expertise being lost and having to be re-developed.
  2. The carrot and the stick! We need a measure of lab heads as trainers, since this is one of the jobs they do. I know any scientists reading this now think I’ve lost the plot but let me explain. Training others is a key part of the job lab heads do, one that takes up a large amount of time and one for which they get no other recognition than the satisfaction of knowing they did a good job and helped someone else. I know we’re in danger of becoming obsessed with metrics in science but we’re scientific, it makes sense to measure things so that our decisions are evidence based. Lab heads should be recognised and rewarded when they do a good job of training and supporting others, and perhaps penalised by funding bodies when they do not. This would help to reduce the conflict between lab heads and post-docs and would also help to address some of the bullying and equality issues that still exist in science. The best way to do this would require some careful thought.
  3. Professionalize post-doctoral training – not only would this address some of the problems for post-docs it could also be used as part of the metric above. Through the Society of Biology it is possible to gain chartered biologist status, what I am basically suggesting is that this could be developed and extended into something even more useful but perhaps with chartered status still at the end of it. Post-docs could be required to submit: a paper written by them; a 5 year research plan (Wouldn’t necessarily have to use this but develop it as a training exercise); a small grant proposal and evidence that they had developed a range of skills like communication, problem solving, leadership and teaching/training at the end of their post-doctoral training. This would provide two things, firstly the opportunity to think about and develop the skills they need and secondly evidence of what they are capable of which would be useful both when applying for faculty level positions and when applying for jobs outside scientific research.
If your on twitter you can find other blogs on this topic and follow the conversation through the hashtag #scicareers.
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Women of outstanding achievement

Having written about science and science careers recently I thought it was time to get back to some girl awesomeness!

I’m hoping that in just a few sentences you’re all going to say ‘oh I know all about that already’ I suspect, however, that at least a few of you don’t know about the UKRC’s women of outstanding achievement awards and don’t know about some of the amazing women who were honoured this year.

I think these awards are really great for a number of reasons. I love the fact that they are a bit creative: an exhibition of photographic portraits is made of the winners each year.  Portraits that can be hung in prominent places in academic institutions and learned societies where there are often few portraits of women. They also get lots of media coverage, which is why I’m hoping you’ve all heard of them already. The third thing I think is great, and I hope this won’t sound morbid, is that they are all living. There are many amazing and inspirational women in the history of science, but for me personally I find role models who are alive now, who live in the same world as us, more inspirational.

This year Athene Donald won the lifetime achievement award, I was really delighted by this, not only has she achieved many things and gone out of her way to open doors for others to succeed too, but she seems so down to earth and approachable.

Professor Dame Athene Donald became the first ever female professor of physics at Cambridge University in 1998, and I can’t help feeling that Cambridge took their time about that since it was quickly followed by her becoming a fellow of the Royal society in 1999. In 2010 she was awarded a DBE and became a Dame for her services to physics. She’s won so many prizes I won’t even try to list them here!

She is the University of Cambridge Gender Equality Champion but champions equality far and wide having been involved in many projects to promote women in science. She describes herself as a workaholic and a cursory glance at her CV illustrates just how true this is! She has also successfully juggled a home life with her illustrious career and has a son and a daughter. Many people believe you need to move around a lot and work in different places to successfully pursue a career in science, so if you take a look at Athene’s CV notice how much time she’s spent in Cambridge, a fact that has clearly not held her back or limited her research in any way.

Which brings me nicely to Athene’s research. It’s quite varied and quite complex so I’m just going to try and give you a taste of her work. All biological systems, as complex as they are, operate within the confines of the physical laws. This is where Athene’s work resides, in understanding the physics of biology and using physics to understand and examine biological systems.

Proteins can stick together to form aggregates, this is relevant to many things but is particularly important in Alzheimers disease. Athene is researching the factors that drive aggregation as well the effect of different forces on aggregates. She’s also interested in the forces involved when cells move and divide.

She’s interested in microrheology – substances that are soft allow particles to move within them and she has been looking at ways to track individual particles to understand their movement. This is important to biology because although we often think of the inside of a cell as being filled with fluid it’s actually jam packed full of molecules, especially proteins, which make the inside of a cell more like a gel than a liquid.

The final aspect of her work I want to talk about is Environmental scanning electron microscopy. Scanning electron microscopy allows scientists to see an amazing level of detail, however, samples usually have to be fixed, dried and coated for the technique to work.

This scanning EM picture of a starch grain was taken from Iowa State University website.

Environmental scanning electron microscopy allows samples in their normal state to be examined so we can see how they really look without all the artefacts caused by processing them. This will be really useful for lots of different branches of science.

Athene blogs at Occam’s Typewriter and can be found on twitter here!

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