Prize Lecture Memoria – Edward Sharpey-Schafer

M0020242 Portrait of Sir E.A. Sharpey-Schafer

Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer (1850 –1935) was an English physiologist and Fellow of the Royal Society. Born Edward Schäfer, he studied under the physiologist William Sharpey and became the first Sharpey Scholar in 1873 at University College London (UCL). In 1874 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Practical Physiology at UCL where he went on to become Jodrell Professor. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1878 at the age of just 28. Schäfer was appointed Chair of Physiology at the University of Edinburgh in 1899 where he would stay until his retirement. He was one of the nineteen founder members of the Physiological Society in 1876 and he also founded and edited [the Quarterly Journal of] Experimental Physiology from 1908 until 1933. Schäfer was knighted in 1913. He is renowned for his invention of the prone-pressure method or Schäfer method of artificial respiration. He was very active as a facilitator, mentor, coordinator, teacher and organiser through much of his career. He had started as a histologist and always emphasised the importance of structural knowledge. He was the co-discoverer (in 1894, with George Oliver) of adrenaline (as in the adrenal-derived, circulating hormone) and he coined the term ‘endocrine’ as the generic term for such secretions. He intuited (as did a few others, independently) that insulin must exist (i.e. a pancreatic hormone to account for diabetes mellitus) and coined the name (originally as ‘insuline’). (Banting and Best actually discovered what S-S and the others had predicted). Thus, he had a founding role in modern endocrinology. He also did important early work on the localisation of function (e.g. motor centres) to brain regions. After the death of his eldest son, John Sharpey Schafer, and in memory of his late professor William Sharpey, he changed his surname to Sharpey-Schafer in 1918. Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer died on 29 March 1935 aged 84. Funded by bequests from Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer (1850–1935) and his daughter Miss GM Sharpey-Schafer and in memory of Sir Edward and his grandson Professor EP Sharpey-Schafer, The Physiological Society established the Sharpey-Schafer Prize Lecture. This is a triennial lecture given alternately by an established physiologist (preferably but not necessarily from abroad) and a young physiologist chosen by The Society.

Researcher in the Spotlight June 2016

Lisa at Merton

Dr Lisa Heather PhD, is a Diabetes UK RD Lawrence Fellow in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford. Her research revolves around metabolism and energy generation in the heart.

Lisa will give The Physiological Society Bayliss-Starling Prize Lecture ‘Cardiac metabolism in disease: All fuels are equal, but some fuels are more equal than others’ at our main meeting P16 in Dublin, Sunday 31 July 9:00 am.



What is your research about?

I study energy metabolism in the heart. Metabolism explains how we extract energy from the fuels we eat: how we convert glucose and fatty acids into ATP via a series of chemical reactions within the cell. When this process goes wrong the cell can become starved of energy, and ATP dependent processes – such as contraction – will be impaired. Abnormal cardiac energy metabolism occurs in a large number of diseases, including diabetes and heart failure. Understanding why these metabolic abnormalities occur and whether changing metabolism is beneficial for cardiac function is my area of research.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

My undergraduate degree was in Medical Biochemistry at the University of Surrey, and I had an amazing lecturer, Dr Jack Salway, teaching metabolism. He made the subject exciting and relevant, and made me want to pursue it further to become a ‘die-hard metabolist’. I moved to Oxford in 2003 and joined the lab of Professor Kieran Clarke, studying the effects of disease on cardiac metabolism. Kieran was (and still is) an excellent mentor, providing support whenever I needed it, but equally allowing me freedom to explore my own directions and stand on my own two feet.

When I first started in the field of metabolism it wasn’t a particularly fashionable field – everyone was focused on genetics, and metabolism was viewed as a subject where all the questions had already been answered. Scientific fashions change, and in the last 10 years metabolism has had a huge renaissance, mainly driven by discoveries in the cancer field. It’s an exciting time to be working in this area, new collaborations are emerging between diverse fields that have realised metabolism is influencing or being influenced by their disease or cellular process. Suddenly, having a good understanding of the fundamentals of metabolism is a powerful tool.

I have never considered leaving the field of metabolism as it’s the area I love, and when I set up my own group in 2011 I decided it was the field of diabetes, the ultimate metabolic disease, that I wanted to specialise in.

Why is your work important?

Metabolism underpins all cellular processes. It provides ATP for all active processes to occur, it provides the building blocks and intermediates for diverse chemical reactions, and provides substrates for post-translational modifications. Changes in metabolism have been implicated in many diverse diseases of all organs in the body. As stated by Steven McKnight in Science in 2010 “One simple way of looking at things is to consider that 9 questions out of 10 could be solved without thinking about metabolism at all, but the 10th question is simply intractable…. if you are ignorant about the dynamics of metabolism”.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I really hope so. Understanding how a disease develops and progresses is the first step to working out how to prevent or reverse it.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical day can involve any combination of lab work, discussing data with students, planning new studies, writing and rewriting papers, teaching undergrads, and meetings. Each day is different and that’s one of the things I really enjoy about being an academic.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I love the ‘Aha!’ moments. When you have been busy trying to work out why something has changed or the mechanism involved, and suddenly everything fits together and makes sense. When you have discovered something, however small, that wasn’t known before. It reminds me of those “magic eye” pictures, when you stare at it long enough that the blurry 2D pattern finally turns into a beautiful 3D image. The “Aha” moments are the reward for all those times the experiments didn’t work.

 What do enjoy the least?

On a day to day basis, I really hate having to collect liquid nitrogen from our outside cylinder! It’s the worst job! I generally really love my job and feel grateful that I get to do this every day.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I really really really like designer shoes. If only Manolo Blahnik could make mitochondria-inspired pumps!

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Do what you love. Being a scientist is a tough career, so you have to love it to deal with the challenges, such as paper rejections and lack of job security. Have faith in your own abilities. Be nice to people and help people when you can, people are then more likely to come to your assistance when you need them. Smile :)!

Prize Lecture Memoria – William Paton

451_WDM PatonSir William Drummond Macdonald Paton (1917 –1993), always known as Bill Paton, was an English physiologist, pharmacologist and Fellow of the Royal Society, considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest pharmacologists. He was responsible for discovering two new classes of drug that acted on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. His theorised multiple types of nicotinic receptor (confirmed in the 1970s) formed the foundation of the development of Decamethonium, the first specific neuromuscular blocking drug and Hexamethonium, the first drug that specifically and safely lowered blood pressure. Paton was also charged with finding the solution to the problem of convulsions suffered by deep-sea divers if they went more than 200ft below sea-level, having discovered that the high pressure causing the convulsions could be reversed with anaesthetics. He was awarded a CBE in 1968 and knighted in 1979 for his work. Paton not only made countless discoveries but was also heavily involved in numerous public committees and had a special interest in the history of medicine. He made a substantial donation to The Society that founded the Paton Prize Fund for historical research on physiology and physiologists. Paton was Honorary Director of the Wellcome Institute for History of Medicine from 1983 to 1987. Sir William Drummold Macdonald Paton died on 17 October 1993. In 1994, The Physiological Society introduced the Paton Prize Lecture, this annual lecture commemorates Paton’s support and initiatives for promoting interest in the history of scientific experiments and ideas.

Horse or Human: who will win the race?

Place your bets now! Because tomorrow, on 11 June, the 36th annual Horse vs Man Marathon will take place in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, where humans will test their mettle against horses on 22 miles of mountainous terrain. Who will win this year?

On flat terrain, it would be a no-brainer: horses clearly have a significant advantage over humans. With their lean and muscular physique, thoroughbreds can reach speeds of up to 55 mph, while the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt, lags behind with a top speed of only 27 mph. So how do horses reach such impressive speeds? We can find some clues by studying their anatomy and physiology.

The first proper studies began over 200 years ago, after the death of a particularly special racehorse, Eclipse, who was never beaten throughout his racing career from 1769 to 1770. His extraordinary success prompted the founding of the Royal Veterinary College in 1791 and ever since then, veterinary scientists have been making great strides in finding out what it is that allows horses to run so fast. It turns out that several factors play a role, including a big heart and the ability to increase heart rate to a remarkable degree:


Horses’ ability to increase the amount of blood pumped by the heart around the body to the muscles makes all the difference in a race, and that is helped by the spleen, which contains a store of oxygen-carrying red blood cells that are released into the bloodstream during exercise. They have other tricks up their sleeve too:  compared to humans, they have a far greater tolerance of increased body temperature and blood acidity, both of which go up fast during intense exercise.

We can find other clues to horses’ speed in their long and light-weight legs, which have very springy tendons that save energy needed to move quickly. So where does the muscular power come from?  The leg muscles aren’t in the lower legs as humans’ are, but tucked up close to the body, connected to the lower legs by very long tendons, which also generate  ‘springiness’. As with all four-legged animals, the muscles in the back, neck and abdomen also contribute to the ability to gallop. The quickest racehorses have lots of fast twitch fibres in these muscles, helping them to generate more energy for movement via both aerobic and anaerobic respiration.

Also unlike humans, the stride in galloping directly controls the timing of breathing: the huge weight of the hindgut acts like a piston on the lungs at the front, sucking in the maximum amount of air possible and then expelling it rapidly, as the torso moves with each step. This neat trick means that horses can move large volumes of air in and out of the lungs very quickly, helping to maintain their performance for longer.

And, of course, no racehorse is complete without its rider – who also plays a key role in the horse’s performance. Have you ever wondered why jockeys ride crouching over the horse, rather than sitting upright? Well, this is known as the ‘monkey crouch’ and was invented by Americans in the 1890s in order to improve horse speeds. This position separates the stride of the horse from the rider i.e. as the horse moves forward, the rider moves back, and vice versa. In this way, the rider takes up some of the effort required to move forward, enabling the horse to save some much needed energy for the race.

But what about humans? How can we possibly measure up to all this? By levelling the playing field, to something less level – which is exactly what the Horse vs Man Marathon has done, by holding the race on mountainous terrain. This gives humans a fighting chance – so while it’s true that horses have dominated the Marathon so far, there have been two occasions when a human has won the race. How come?  On rough hilly ground, the horses’ ability to reach and maintain their peak speed is severely reduced. Humans are much lighter, so the changes in direction needed on rough ground take less energy than for the much larger horses.

If we look at the cases where humans have won the race, one factor immediately jumps out, and that is: hot weather. It’s not immediately clear why that favours humans. Our ability to sweat, which cools us down in hot weather, is shared with horses. But, being smaller, we have relatively more skin to sweat from than do horses, and that may be a greater benefit than horses’ greater tolerance of high body temperature. And humans can take on extra fluid during the race, replacing that lost in sweat, without having to stop – something their equine competitors can’t do.

So, who will win tomorrow? The weather forecast predicts maximum temperatures of 19°C, so the human participants will have to draw on all of their abilities, to be in with a chance of winning.

Who will you place your bet on?


Ode to Physiology: Animal Olympics! The Winners!

animal olympics

We are delighted to announce Charlie Toogood, Vismaya Kharkar and Rose McKerell  are the winners of our poetry competition ‘Ode to Physiology: Animal Olympics’, each coming up top out of their age groups.

We received over 100 entries to our science poetry competition which challenged participants to explore physiology through the medium of poetry. With some artistic licence entrants discussed the biological basis of elite performance using rhythm and rhyme. While the poems haven’t been checked for accuracy, we are delighted so many people engaged with the competition and expressed an interest in the science of life. A big thank you to everyone who took part!

Our expert judges Kelly Swain, poet in residence at Oxford University Museum, and Sian Hickson, previously an English teacher and now Director of Eureka Edinburgh, whittled down the entries to just one winner from the under 10s, 11-18s and the over 18s categories.

“Big and blue, can you guess who?” by Charlie Toogood (Under 10’s)

The cheetah would never have met this creature;
A massive blowhole is its best feature.
This is the nostril of the great beast,
Who usually adores a krill feast.
Every day it eats 8000 pounds,
 If I ate that much, I would be round!
The milk tastes like liver and chalk, people say,
But the babies still drink 50 gallons a day!
150 tons is its weight, It’s the biggest animal, isn’t that great?
With a life span 110 years long,
It’s the BLUE WHALE! Did you guess right or wrong?

 ‘Ode to the Hummingbird’ by Vismaya Kharkar (11-18s)

Just lighter than a copper pence,
With ropy muscle and wings of gold he floats,
His beak is sharp and needle-thin,
Soft feathers thinner than waves make up his coat.
From flower to flower he hovers and glides
Sucking sweet nectar from each in turn
For whenever he stops, from life he slides
Falling into a torpor
Deep and slow.
His heart flutters, powerful.
Nearly twenty beats a second, but at what cost?
He is founded upon excellence, and without it, he will sleep.
A modern aurora – tiny, gold, and shining
To awaken at the touch of nectar or a new day.

Ode to Physiology: Who am I? by Rose McKerrell (Over 18’s)

To give you a clue to my chosen athlete
Here are some features which make it elite
Its heart is amazing in strength, size and rate
When running flat out- pulse can increase times eight!
The lungs can expand to fill most of the chest,
Oxygenating blood is what they do best,
When running the guts move forward and back.
Like a piston they help fill those little air sacs…
The limb bones are reduced to run on one toe
And the lack of a collarbone lets the front leg just flow
The muscles are huge at the top they must go
When the fibres contract- some are fast , some are slow
The ligaments stretch to take all the strain
Then act like a catapult- forward again
Narrow in front with an elegant head
The air rushes past- for speed they are bred
But what is most clever is it isn’t just fast
This animal has stamina- it really can last It can win at eight furlongs or stay for the course.
Because as you’ve guessed- my favourite’s the horse!
Adapted for speed. Adapted to stay
 The horse is my winner every day
And there’s one other feature of which science hasn’t told
The horses second heart- the one made of gold!