Monthly Archives: October 2015

Researcher in the Spotlight October 2015

Carrie D

Dr Carrie Duckworth PhD, MA Hons is a tenure track research fellow in Cellular and Molecular Physiology in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the regulation of gastrointestinal architecture and the maintenance of gut homeostasis, in particular on the processes that modulate the susceptibility to the development of colitis and colitis-associated cancer.

What is your research about?

My research interest lies primarily in the study of the epithelium of the gut. The epithelium consists of a single layer of cells, turning over around every 5 days, and yet forms a very effective barrier against invasion into the body by bacteria and other microorganisms that are found in great abundance in the intestinal lumen. This barrier function of the intestine fails as either a cause or a consequence of several intestinal and systemic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), coeliac disease (CD) and sepsis, often resulting in excessive inflammation, epithelial cell destruction and further perpetuation of disease. My lab aims to target the processes and mechanisms responsible for this breakdown of intestinal barrier function, epithelial cell destruction and inflammation in order to develop novel therapeutic approaches. We have recently identified the NF-κB2 transcription factor as an important regulator of intestinal epithelial damage in murine in vivo models and in intestinal organoid culture, and are currently developing novel methods to modulate the NF-κB2 signalling pathway to prevent injury to the intestinal epithelium.

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

I have, for as long as I remember been interested in how the human body functions. As a reception class kid, I found an old encyclopaedia under the bed in our spare room and I was fascinated by the diagrams of organ systems. For my 4th birthday, my parents bought me a toy microscope kit, which I wanted in preference to a bike. From this point onwards, I wanted to be a “mad” scientist. I conducted a job study on a career in biomedical sciences in Year 9 and from this realised that I’d need a degree to achieve my dream job. Nobody in my family had been to university so this was very useful. I went on to do 5 A’ levels during which I really enjoyed learning about the gastrointestinal tract, possibly because my dad had ulcerative colitis. I studied for my BA degree at Cambridge University and sadly during this, my dad passed away from colitis-associated colon cancer. I then pursued a PhD at the University of Liverpool in gastroenterology, which became more and more exciting as time progressed as I became involved in several different research projects. Following 3 post-doc positions and a lot of hard work, I obtained a tenure-track fellowship post (equivalent to lecturer) which was (and still is) for me like winning the Lottery!

Why is your work important?

Naturally, my work is the most important on Earth…… doesn’t every scientist say that?! Host genetics contribute to the susceptibility towards intestinal diseases, however this is not the full story and these genetic factors almost always interact with the environment to establish disease. For instance, around about 30% of the Caucasian population carry known genetic risk factors for coeliac disease, yet only 1% are affected. Additionally, there is now a growing need for personalised medicines based on the interaction of drug treatments with patients’ genetics, either in terms of the clinical efficacy of these interactions or their unwanted side effects, which frequently damage the intestinal epithelium. My lab is exploring the interactions between genetic and environmental factors on gut function, which will have a huge impact on how patients are treated for gastrointestinal disease. There are around 100 trillion bacteria in the normal human gut and these bacteria have been described as the most recently discovered organ in the body. As a scientific community, we are still defining the intricacies of this ‘new’ organ and how it interacts with both the intestinal epithelium and the rest of the body. By investigating methods of preventing the breakdown of intestinal barrier function, this will prevent the passage of these bacteria into the body.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes, if I didn’t then I’d be researching something else. My ultimate aim is to improve patient quality of life by driving the development of novel therapeutic strategies. My work also contributes to the enhancement of knowledge and innovation in the scientific community.

What does a typical day involve?

I don’t think I have ever had two days alike and I am therefore unable to describe a ‘typical’ day! I commute to work and back for 1.5 hours in each direction daily and arrive at my desk shortly after 8 am, I’m then often on the 6 pm train back home. I regard my career as a way of life rather than a job and work creeps into my schedule at every available opportunity in the evenings and at weekends. I am at an early stage of my academic career and as such continue to spend a significant amount of time in the lab myself and also directly teaching PhD, MRes, and BSc students who I officially supervise, and also others who are officially supervised by more senior academic colleagues who are no longer able to spend time in the lab. I collaborate with several research groups in my institute, across the Faculty and at other institutions worldwide. I sit on several committees and attend meetings, seminars and conferences, lecture, give research talks, manage research budgets and write papers and grant applications. I am also establishing an alumni mentoring scheme for PhD students.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I thrive off problem solving and wanting to do things that no one in the world has ever done before. I enjoy the multi-faceted nature of the job and that each day brings something new. Life is too short and I wish everybody could be happy and comfortable, so the thought that my research may lead to novel therapeutic developments for several debilitating diseases that may help to enhance or prolong life is very rewarding.

What do you enjoy the least?

The one thing that will continue to frustrate me is something that also makes science exciting as a result of delving into the unknown. This is that research output is not entirely a function of effort. A large amount of time and effort can be spent on experiments resulting in a negative finding that is very difficult to publish in a good quality journal. Additionally, in the current economic climate, many well written, good quality research projects are unable to be funded and resubmission to the same grant awarding body is often not possible. I often wonder how many good research proposals are filed away in the back of filing cabinets around the country, never to be seen again.

Have you faced any challenges being a young women in science?

Not beyond those faced by males at the same stage of career. My department and institute are very supportive to both young women and men in science. I am a founding member of our Athena SWAN committee, which has been instrumental at helping to understand the needs of both women and men at each stage of their career and has been successful at generating a culture change to promote fairness to all, which we are continuing to improve upon. I think the biggest problem faced by women in science is when to have a baby so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on their career progression as a result of ‘time out’. It will be interesting to see the impact that the new government ‘Shared Parental Leave’ policy will have on the numbers of women staying in science now that there are no financial implications for their partner to take leave instead if they do so wish.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

Random is a good word to describe me. I got married last year, played tennis in my wedding dress and made my own cake. Whilst white water rafting in the Zambezi River in the summer, I almost drowned in the first rapid!

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

Maintain accurate and detailed records of everything you have done in the lab. Determine the reason behind every step in an experimental protocol and understand what you are trying to achieve before setting foot in the lab. Use your own initiative and try to be one step ahead of your supervisor. Depending on the definition of early career researcher, I potentially still fall into this category myself. I am currently 7 years post-doc and have been in an academic post for 2 years. I would say the best piece of advice I could offer anyone striving for an academic position would be to focus on generating lots of data and producing good publications as this environment is both ruthless and competitive.

Researcher in the Spotlight September 2015

annette dolphin

Annette C. Dolphin PhD, FMedSci, FRS, is a Professor of Pharmacology at the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, UCL.

What is your research about?

How calcium channels get to their site of action, how they function, how drugs interfere with their action, and how clinically relevant mutations and particular pathologies affect their function.

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

I was always interested in Neuroscience, and the mechanism of action of drugs, although my degree was in Biochemistry, and this is reflected in the fact that I tend to concentrate on molecular mechanisms.

Why is your work important?

I am a great believer that fundamental discoveries in any basic science are important because they advance knowledge, and also because you can never tell where the next drug target might be.  However, our work also relates directly to mechanisms of chronic pain and drugs to treat this.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes of course, all scientific study makes a difference to the sum of knowledge. Further to that, some of our work might lead to new drug targets or new ways of screening for particular drugs. In terms of drug discovery, I am involved in several projects that may lead to novel drugs in the future.

What does a typical day involve?

I try and spend a lot of time talking to my students and postdocs about their data. Other than that no day is the same. I spend my time writing papers and grants, helping with particular experiments, preparing and giving both teaching and research lectures, going to conferences, attending meetings about teaching and examining, marking essays and exams, attending meetings to promote equality and diversity at UCL, sitting on interview panels for external funders, reviewing grants and papers, making endless train/plane/hotel reservations and then making claims for the expenses, usually late. Unfortunately, despite the expansion of administrative staff in universities, most academics have no access to administrative help these days so much of our time seems to be taken up by this type of mundane task.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

Talking to students and postdocs about their work.

What do enjoy the least?

Teaching Committee meetings.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I’m a very private person

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

Only do research if it really excites you.

More than just a muse: Women writing science

There walks the man who lectures to the walls” – this was a comment made by two of Isaac Newton’s students, making reference to Newton’s infamous lecturing skills, which apparently were so terrible that none of his students ever attended his lectures and he was left talking to the walls.

Isaac Newton was not interested in good communication, and his ideas became widely known thanks to his followers, who translated, simplified and communicated them. It took many years for his ideas to be accepted.

Science needs to be communicated, and while the scientific world remained a place mainly reserved for men up until the modern days, women have nevertheless contributed to important scientific discoveries, as well as played a crucial role in communicating science, throughout history. Michael Faraday, for example, was so inspired by Jane Marcet’s 1805 book, ‘Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex’ that it prompted him to devote his life to science.

One of the most important women scientists and communicators and populariser of Newton was Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49), a French mathematician, physicist and author, who contradicted the belief that you cannot be both a women and a scientist. Her motto was to enjoy life and yourself, on a scientific as well as private level.

Together with her then lover Voltaire, she wrote ‘Elements of Newton’s Philosophy’ (Élements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), which was amongst the most influential works about Newton. Although the book only names Voltaire as the author, he fully acknowledged her immense influence and contribution.

Émilie continued writing books and probably her most important piece was a two-volume translation of – and commentary on – Newton’s Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). To this day, her work is the leading French translation as well as the only complete translation of Newton’s book. In addition to translating it from Latin into French, she also provided a long commentary, which explained, challenged and discussed his ideas and provided long footnotes with updates on recent research.

Another famous communicator was Mary Sommerville (1780—1872), the ‘Queen of sciences’. She translated Pierre-Simon Laplace’s book, and wrote many of her own books in which she explained and interpreted the latest scientific ideas.

But how and why did early women scientists use writing to further their careers, and how were they limited by their sex?

In Georgian times (and earlier), home science and family projects were fairly common and a good opportunity for women to get involved with science. But with the increasing importance of qualifications in the 19th century, it became more difficult for women to enter into science. As a consequence, many women turned to science writing and popularising, which would allow them to stay involve with science. Moreover, the more scientific publishing expanded, the bigger the gap between academic and popular science writing became.

Elizabeth Brown (1830-99), for example, was introduced to astronomy by her father. It was only after his death that she actively started travelling to record her observations. She wrote many books on that matter, and had active roles in astronomical societies.

Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) was home tutored, received university education through her brother, and became one of the most successful popularisers of astronomy in the 19th century.

Expectations were different for women than for men; it was favourable for women to possess a sound but fairly general and superficial knowledge. Only a few women attended university. Constance Herschel (Constance Anne (née Herschel), Lady Lubbock, 1855-1939), granddaughter of astronomer William Herschel, grew up surrounded by science and was one of the first women who went to Cambridge. Her letters point out gender inequalities in university education, but she finished her studies and continued in research until she got married and had children. Once her children were older, she started writing popular science.

Interestingly, subjects like maths and astronomy were very popular topics for women to research and write about (scientifically as well as popular writing), as these disciplines were more accessible and acceptable for a woman to pursue. Women could carry out calculations within the walls of their homes and were not dependant on a lab to get results. Before introduction of the Linnaean system, botany also was a very popular research topic amongst women1, but after Erasmus Darwin’s ‘The loves of the plants’2 it was no longer deemed acceptable.

In spite of family commitments, reservations and lack of education, women have carved out a niche that enabled them to work in the field of science. It would be interesting to see if the reason why many women leave research nowadays has the same underlying motivation that women in past times have experienced, or if it is simply because communication and education are (perceived) as a more feminine trait?

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton. Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself, reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work. Image source: 1738b-000fp-image/

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la
philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton.
Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself,
reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who
actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work.
Image source:

This article was published in Physiology News 100, p 38-39

The article is based on the event ‘Women writing science’, held on 10 March 2015 at The Royal Society, where historians Dr Patricia FaraDr Emily Winterburn and Dr Claire G. Jones explored the history of women publishing in journals, writing popular science and corresponding with the Royal Society.

1 Henderina Scott (1862-1929) – Botanist and Filmmaker created pioneering slow motion animations and demonstrated time-lapse films about plant development; Edith Saunders – Botanist; Marie Stopes – Palaeobotanist.

2 Browne J (1989) Botany for gentlemen: Erasmus Darwin and ‘The Loves of the Plants’. Isis 80, no. 4: 593-621.

Last day as an Intern


Tuesdaywas my last dayas an intern at PhySoc. Can’t believe my 3 months there has passed…

Below isa brief summary of my time here:

My experience – I have met a lot ofnew people (within and outside of PhySoc); did some networking; a bit of travelling; and also experienced a conference from the other side (the side of the organisers, rather than an attendee). Most importantly, I enjoyed my time here (thanks to everyone who works here!). Because The Society is small (less than 30 staff members), it was like being part ofa large family. I also tried making the most of living in London – though there’s still so much to see and do!

What I’ve learned – How The Society (and learned societies in general) work; working within Outreach and Public Engagement (and a bit of Education); got a glimpse of the different roles within a learned society…

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Outreach in a shopping centre


The Physiological Society went to Cardiff from Monday 6 – Wednesday 8 July, where they held their annual scientific conference, Physiology 2015.  Aside from the talks and poster presentations from many physiologists (and other scientists) from around the world (around 800 or so attended, I believe), there were career development workshops, discussion panels and socials – for networking, of course 😉 – all to cater the attendees who are in different stages of their careers.

PhySoc also held free public events, including this year’s annual public lecture by Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist and stand-up comedian, on the Science of Laughter. Amongst other things, Sophie has appeared on BBC Radio Four, and has been a TED speak this year in March. A live recording was made from her talk at Physiology 2015 which can be found on the Guardian’s website – a must watch for everyone, because who doesn’t…

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