The Society leads learned societies’ input to TEF development

By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

The Physiological Society has worked on higher education policy for many years. The key issue in this area is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed to improve teaching quality and give students more information when selecting their course.

The TEF is being developed in iterations, with attention focused at the moment on how to split its assessment down to subject level. The Department for Education (DfE) is developing this with input from many sector representatives, including Universities UK (UUK).

The Society convened a meeting with UUK and representatives from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute of Physics. This gave the opportunity for a wide range of views from the STEM sector to be aired and ideas for the future TEF to be discussed in detail.

The first phase of discussion covered the operation of the current institutional-level TEF. This is the first version of TEF to base its awards on metrics, covering the areas of teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes. There is general acceptance that these high level themes are appropriate, but much less satisfaction with the specific metrics chosen within them. The benchmarking process to set institutional targets is also contentious. The metrics are supplemented by a written submission, but it is acknowledged that the main element of the result is the metric scores. Exceed enough benchmarks and a gold award is given; fall below enough and you rate bronze. Given this is the case, there is a disturbing lack of trust in the National Student Survey and its reporting on student satisfaction. Similarly, the Destination of Leavers from HE (DLHE) survey only gives a snapshot six months after graduation, at which point many graduates have not yet entered their careers or made significant decisions.

The Society has long focused on the reward and recognition of teaching in HE. All participants agreed that the TEF as it stands does not touch on the status of teaching within universities, even though a good way to increase teaching quality would be to encourage and reward those staff members who focus on teaching. The trend in reality is towards increasing casualisation of teaching, including the use of zero-hours contracts and other non-permanent arrangements for teaching. A better appreciation of teaching staff by the TEF would be likely to help it achieve its original goals.

The conversation then moved on to proposals to increase the specificity of the TEF, moving to subject-level assessment. Current plans envision a blend of subject- and institution-level factors being combined to produce an overall score. Awards may potentially be given to institutions and departments separately. It is proving difficult to define the correct scale to identify a “subject”. Proposals exist for a TEF which combines certain schools and courses into units of assessment, but these may not be universally accepted. An alternative under consideration is an assessment of how much departments deviate (above or below) from the overall quality rating of the entire institution. The model used by Athena SWAN for department and institutional awards was discussed and is being evaluated.

The participants considered the meeting to be very successful, and the UUK representatives were pleased to receive a different viewpoint to that from the heads of institutions. The Society hopes to convene this group again and continue working to make the TEF as effective as possible.

If you have any comments or would like further detail, please contact policy@physoc.org.


The physiology of stress

Stress is a popular word in our society and is thought to be the biggest contributor to workplace sickness and depression. But what exactly is it?

Living in the human zoo, we are constantly exposed to stressors, especially those deemed unnecessary on a survival level such as consumerism and the pursuit of happiness. Stress is usually linked to just the mind – anger, upset and irrationalities – but it actually affects our entire body (HSE, 2016).

According to recent statistics, the total number of working days lost due to stress in 2015/2016 alone was 11.7 million (HSE, 2016) with a strong association found between unemployment and suicide (NHS Behind the Headlines, 2015). As well as affecting mental health, stress is also linked to chronic pain, a condition that affects just under 28 million adults in the UK (Fayaz. A, et.al., 2016).

Stress is defined as a physiological or biological response to a stressor. The stress response system is a common pathway across organisms, which is designed to temporarily assign energy currency from areas of the body considered useless in a stressful situation to other areas in the body that are beneficial for survival.

Whilst such components are considered an adaptation, when exposed to chronic stress (where the body is exposed to long periods of stress psychologically and/or physiologically) these components can cause all kinds of life-effecting issues such as high blood pressure, decreased immune function, or fertility issues.

There have been numerous studies considering how stress plays a part in debilitating conditions of the body and mind focusing on the physiological pathways of the stress response, such as the HPA, sympathetic nervous system, amygdala, and hypothalamus. What does the future hold for us humans living in a crowded and highly-pressured society?

Some experts focus on a need for pharmacologic interventions, whilst others look for longer term solutions such as psychotherapy. One interesting piece of research I have come across focuses on the idea that encouraging an understanding of stress, coping methods, and the impacts on health within individuals will advance the treatment of stress (Segerstrom. S et.al., 2012).

The Physiological Society’s annual theme ‘Making Sense of Stress’ is looking to contribute toward public engagement and education about the effects of stress, and research across the globe looking to alleviate chronic stress and its related ailments.


Tune in as we go LIVE this Tuesday, 21 February at 18:00 GMT, (or in person if you’re in London) for a panel and discussion chaired by Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever and one of the leaders of minds@work, and featuring neuroscientist Professor Stafford Lightman and occupational psychologist Professor Gail Kinman.

Post by Jessica Suter, Undergraduate of The Open University and Events Manager for Eaton Park Science Day


Fayaz, A., Croft, P., Langford, R. M., Donaldson, L. J. and Jones, G. T. (2016) ‘Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies.’, BMJ open, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, vol. 6, no. 6, p. e010364 [Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27324708 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Health and Safety Executive (2016) ‘Statistics – Work-related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain (GB)’, HSE [Online]. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/ (Accessed 29 November 2016).

McLannahan, H. (2004) “Chapter 3: Stress” SK277 Book 4: Life’s Challenges,  in The Open University. (eds), Plymouth, Latimer Trend and Company Ltd, pp. 79-113

NHS Choices (2015) ‘Unemployment and job insecurity linked to increased risk of suicide – Health News – NHS Choices’, Department of Health [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Unemployment-linked-to-increased-risk-of-suicide.aspx (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Segerstrom, S. C. and O’Connor, D. B. (2012) ‘Stress, health and illness: Four challenges for the future’, Psychology & Health, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 128–140 [Online]. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870446.2012.659516 (Accessed 29 November 2016).


In 2017, we are ‘Making Sense of Stress’ #YearOfStress

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ -Viktor Frankl

On the third day of 2017, several hundred people gathered on a panoramic hill in Budapest to let out a collective scream. The event’s Facebook page cited how awful 2016 was, and that people had loads of pent up stress (1).


By now, everyone has shared his or her two cents about how to approach the stressful 2017 ahead. Just a few weeks ago, The Lancet reported a possible physiological mechanism for linking emotional stress to increased risk of heart disease.

Here at The Physiological Society, we are all about studying normal function or disease in living systems. Living systems can be human or animal. While we toss around the word stress, coined only around 50 years ago by Hans Selye, on the daily, there isn’t a definition that everyone agrees on.

Our stress response system is ubiquitous in the body, there are individual differences, responsiveness to stress changes over time, and the amount of influence of genes vs. environment is unclear.

This is why we are devoting all of 2017 to ‘Making Sense of Stress.’ Check here regularly for our growing list of activities across all areas of our work: events, outreach, education, policy, communications, and our journals. Contact us here to get involved.


(1) Science hasn’t actually shown yelling to be helpful for stress reduction, contrary to the bold claims of primal scream therapy in the 60s and 70s.


Making sense of stress in the wild

Imagine leaning forward over the edge of a precipice. Lurching back to safety, you picture the forest hundreds of metres below. Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweating? Our body’s stress response to an ever-changing environment enables us to survive and flourish.

Physiologists play a crucial role in developing our understanding of the mechanisms involved. To highlight the exciting work that they do, our 2017 theme is ‘Making Sense of Stress’. Follow the conversation on Twitter using #YearOfStress.

Launching the theme will be Dr Kimberley Bennett’s talk, ‘Making sense of stress in the wild’, at the Association for Science Education’s (ASE’s) Annual Conference on 6 January 2017. Read a teaser to her talk below!

Coping with stress is a major issue in modern society, but it’s easy to forget that wildlife experiences stress too. Without enough water, plants wilt and die and whole crops fail; without the right habitat, a small population of rare animals dwindles and dies out, causing extinction of the species; a whole coral reef bleaches when the water temperature gets too high, causing catastrophe for the ecosystem, and massively increasing flooding risk for people living by the coast. We really need to pay attention to stress in the wild because the consequences can herald disaster.

Stress is the biological response to a major challenge, whether it’s at the whole organism or cell level. A gazelle in the Serengeti chased by a lion experiences the same stress responses that we do – a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that cause increased heart rate and blood pressure and a release of glucose. These changes make sure there is enough fuel and oxygen to cope with increased demand at the tissue and cell levels. Sudden change or mismatch in the supply of oxygen and fuel leads to increased production of reactive molecules called ‘free radicals’ that can damage cells. If the temperature gets too hot too fast or if the acidity of the cell changes too much, proteins (the molecules that catalyse reactions, transport substances and provide structure) can fall apart or unravel. So cells have to increase their defence mechanisms too. Cellular defences include antioxidants that mop up the free radicals, and heat shock proteins, which refold damaged proteins and stop them forming a sticky mess inside the cell.

The old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is often true: short term ‘good stress’ builds up these defences and makes organisms better able to deal with stress later on. However, sometimes defences can be overwhelmed or can’t be maintained for long periods. The organism then experiences the same sorts of problems as people under chronic stress: lower immunity, altered metabolism, anxiety and tissue damage (like ulcers). In wildlife, this can have major consequences for breeding success or even survival. By affecting whether organisms survive and thrive, stress dictates which individuals contribute to the next generation. Stress shapes population dynamics, lifestyle and adaptations, and is therefore a powerful agent of natural selection.


I work on seals, top marine predators that are used to stress as a normal part of their existence. Their individual and population level health is an indicator of ecosystem health. Seals are air breathing mammals that feed underwater, but need to come to the surface to breathe, and to come ashore to rest, breed and moult. Diving on a single breath hold means they need to conserve oxygen; to do this, blood flow is restricted mostly to the heart and brain, so that other tissues may experience free radical production while oxygen levels are low. On land, seals need to fast, often while they are doing energy-demanding activities i.e. shedding and replacing hair, producing milk, defending pups or territory, or undergoing rapid development. Injury and infection can occur from skirmishes or trampling. Seals may have to reduce their defences to deal with all these demands on their energy when food is not available. In addition to their ‘lifestyle stressors’, seals face stress from competition for access to fish, disturbance on haul out or displacement from foraging grounds as a result of human activity, and the accumulation of contaminants in their blubber.

We need to understand natural and man-made causes of stress in wild populations, distinguish good stress from bad stress, and understand how multiple stressors at the same time can create problems. That means we have to have effective tools to measure stress and its consequences in organisms that can’t tell us how they feel. But can we measure stress responses in wildlife? What do they mean in context? And can they help in managing stress in the wild?

I will address all these questions and more at the ASE’s Annual Conference on Friday 6 January 2017, as part of the annual Biology in the Real World (#BitRW) lecture series. Please drop by the Knight Building, LT 135, at the University of Reading, at 1.30pm to find out more!

Dr Kimberley Bennett, Abertay University



Danger! High Voltage!

Standing between school students and their weekends was always going to be a tough gig, but it was #PhysiologyFriday and we were determined to put on a show. Together with Orla and Ioannis, PhD students from the University of Reading, I arrived at East Ham Town Hall and was greeted by over 200 excited students and their teachers.

Our mission was to deliver an engaging session around electricity and pass on an innovative human-human interface educational resource that the students had won as part of a Physiological Society competition, The Science of Life 2016. After a brief introduction to human electricity and how we can detect it, we took the students on a journey from the first electroencephalogram (EEG) to the potential of neuroprosthetics in treating paralysis. We then tackled a live demonstration of the kit and the students were intrigued to see the interface in action.


Surely, one human cannot control another’s arm using only their brain activity? The wonders of neuroscience said it should be possible, but we sensed some doubters in the audience. Using the human-human interface Ioannis was going to harness his brain power to move Orla’s arm against her wishes……

Thankfully the demonstration was up to scratch with the students requesting several encores, and even asking for the voltage to be turned up! Normally the complexities of electrophysiology remain in the lab due to expensive and static equipment, however this kit gave us the ability to be mobile and take the dark art of electrophysiology to young minds keen to explore neuroscience. It was well worth it. The students left school for the weekend with a sense of excitement and thirst to learn more. Orla, Ioannis and I left East Ham Town Hall feeling that we had sparked the interest of the next generation of physiologists.

Dr Mark Dallas



Myth-busting: Do heart cells really have their own ‘pulse’?

By Dr. Andy James, University of Bristol

The comedian, Jake Yapp, has been presenting on BBC Radio 4’s website a series of short comic histories of science entitled, “Everything We’ve Ever Known About …” Informative and entertaining, these are invariably funny. A recent edition concerned the heart, neatly covering the development of our understanding of heart function through the millennia, from the ancient Egyptians to the present day – where Jake concludes by commenting that if you isolate a heart muscle cell it will have its own pulse. Actually, strictly speaking, a pulse is the increase in pressure within the arteries as a result of beating of the heart. ‘Rhythm’ is a better word.


It’s a commonly held misconception, even amongst specialists in cell biology, that all heart muscle cells have their own rhythm that synchronises when the cells couple together (meaning they join and allow electricity to flow between them). Beautiful as this idea is, it simply isn’t true. The heart’s rhythm originates as electrical activity in a specialised area of the heart known as the sinus node- the heart’s physiological pacemaker. The heart muscle cells of the sinus node generate rhythmic electrical activity so that, when isolated, they contract regularly.

In the intact heart, a conduction system ensures that the electrical activity is passed to the chambers to produce a well-coordinated contraction. Many of the cells of the conduction system would also beat when isolated. But the cells from the walls of the chambers that produce the pressure to – as the English anatomist, William Harvey, would have it – propel the blood, do not. Chamber cells only need to receive the signal, but not generate it themselves.

The persuasive and attractive idea that all heart muscle cells show their own rhythm may have arisen from attempts to maintain heart muscle cells for several days in a petri dish. Heart muscle cells from adult mammalian hearts do not generally multiply under these conditions and while it is possible to keep the cells alive for a short time, after a few days, the cells die. However, cells from embryonic, or even neonatal, hearts do multiply in culture. They often show rhythmic contractions and, yes, they synchronise once they form connections with their neighbours.

So do heart cells really have their own pulse? It depends! Cells from adult hearts are programmed to behave in a fixed way- as a pacemaker cell, a conducting cell or a contractile cell from a chamber wall. Cells from immature hearts, on the other hand, retain the ability to change their properties and tend to develop pacemaker-like function in the petri dish.

Measuring a moving target: Symposium on Hormone Sensing

What do puberty, doping in athletics, and the meat industry have in common? The answer is hormones. Secreted into the blood by specialized organs and tissues, hormones communicate a bewildering array of signals to a myriad of target sites.

Two weeks ago, The Physiological Society brought together experts in physiology, endocrinology, chemistry, physics and engineering, to discuss how to produce a new generation of tools and methods for detecting hormones inside our bodies

“The biggest hurdle facing basic and clinical endocrinologists is how we can measure hormones inside the body,” said one of the symposium organizers, Timothy Wells, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at Cardiff University.

Addressed by UK and international experts in hormone-receptor interactions, light-based sensing and nanocarbon-based sensing, the Society’s symposium explored how these molecular interactions could be exploited to quantify the dynamic changes in circulating hormone levels.


Cutting edge work featured

One of the potential approaches was presented by Frank Vollmer and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light. He and his team are attempting to reach the ultimate limit of detection, by sensing single molecule interactions and the resultant changes in three-dimensional shape. Their new technique, which was published this week in Nature Photonics, may enable the detection of individual hormone molecules.

Thus, the day of talks highlighted just how far we’ve come since Ernest Starling coined the term hormone in 1905.

The event, titled “Novel approaches to Hormone Sensing, The Inaugural Bayliss-Starling Symposium,” was part of the society’s H3 symposia. The next symposium will be held on 15 November about one of the biggest discoveries in biotech, CRISPR. Visit our website for more info: http://www.physoc.org/crispr/