Monthly Archives: November 2015

Thanksgiving, Turkeys, and Tryptophan




Photo credit: Tim Sackton (timsackton/Flickr) Photo credit: Tim Sackton (timsackton/Flickr)

Turkey is the star of the most famous dinner of the year; it is also the victim of a myth that persists every holiday season. At the end of Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a good chance that someone will mention that a molecule called tryptophan is the culprit for the post-feast drowsiness. The science seems sound enough. Turkey contains tryptophan, which is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter. In turn, serotonin produces melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. This myth perpetuates, like many others, because it is based on a huge oversimplification of the truth.

On the most fundamental level, tryptophan is an essential amino acid required to make many different proteins in the body. Our bodies can’t produce tryptophan, so we have to get it from the foods we eat. Considering amino acids are used to make proteins, we get them by consuming other…

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Behind the scenes of #BioBake-Off

The winning trio of the “Public vote” share their experience of this year’s #Biobakes competition.


Taking part in the Biology themed Bake Off competition was an immensely enjoyable experience.

Our journey from Brain to ‘Bun’ began a week prior to our intense baking session, where the three of us sat together brainstorm aloud several biology-related ideas. Initially we considered creating a brain themed bake, before progressing onto discussing the pros and cons of a cross section of a motor neuron (complete with electrical impulses!) However, when Caitlin suggested the idea of creating a cross-section of a womb with a foetus inside, we all set about rapidly developing the idea. We researched the different stages of foetal development, and after raiding our biology classroom for every biological model we could find, we came to our decision.

The day of the bake arrived, and we worked in shifts over the course of three and a half hours to in our school’s cookery room to complete the final product. Ella researched the recipe for our Victoria Sponge, Caitlin drew up annotated diagrams on the board of what we envisioned our cakes to look like (rather like the preview on Bake Off!) and Laura, our own Mary Berry, set about measuring out our ingredients, having been in charge of purchasing a few nights before hand. It was choosing which fondant that had particularly that worried her, as our foetus was to be our centrepiece of our entry.

However, the atmosphere in the cookery room was a very happy one, as we worked alongside our other entrants from our school, sharing ingredients and jokes as we worked. There was a brief moment of drama when we discovered that we had run out of eggs for our cupcakes, but after a quick emergency shopping trip, we were back on track. The most enjoyable part of the process (with the exception of eating the leftovers!) was working together when decorating the cake. It was so exciting to finally see our creation coming to ‘life’, and when our teacher Mrs Chambers had to pop out for a moment, for safety reasons she called out to check we didn’t “have a bun in the oven” before she left, giving us the perfect name for our cakes!

Thank you to everyone who voted for our cakes, we are so grateful for all of your support.

by Laura, Caitlin and Ella, Greenacre School for Girls

“Bun in the Oven” depicting the development of the foetus at 3 and 7 months won the Public’s heart in the national vote.

Researcher in the Spotlight November 2015


Prof Susan Wray BSc, PhD, FRCOG, FMedSci, is a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Institute Of Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool.

What is your research about?

I’m a smooth muscle physiologist. My favourite smooth muscle is that of the uterus, the myometrium. My research is about trying to increase our understanding of the basic science of myometrial contractility and its pathophysiology. To accomplish this I am interested in elucidating intracellular signalling pathways, the relation between metabolism and function and characterising biopsies taken from women with problems in pregnancy or labour.

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

I’m a physiologist thanks to my biology teacher, who interpreted my inarticulate scientific likes, as being those best suited to physiology. My enthusiasm was dampened after my first year at university, as there was no physiology and the course (as would have been the case wherever I studied) was mostly a repeat of A level physics, maths chemistry and biology, albeit with more boys than at a girls grammar school. After taking a year out, which was remarkably difficult to arrange as I had passed all my exams, and consisted of random odd jobs in the harsh real world, I returned and completed my BSc at UCL. Stuck for what next to do on degree day, I fell into a PhD. Since then, physiology was something I really wanted to do – I still love research.

Why is your work important?

Beyond paying the mortgage? Our knowledge of uterine physiology is still remarkably impoverished – we cannot even explain spontaneous activity, pacemaking or initiation of labour adequately. From this stems an inability to predict and prevent problems such as preterm labours, difficult term labour and post-partum haemorrhage, which all involve uterine contractility. Apart from the intellectual embarrassment, this ignorance impacts on the lives of women and their families and is unacceptable.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes. The work of my group and others is bringing definite progress. We have recently been awarded £1M to set up, in Liverpool, the Harris-Wellbeing Centre for preterm birth Research, which is a terrific boost. Also, our finding of increased lactate in myometrial capillary blood from women labouring dysfunctionally (slow to progress, poor contractions), has been taken up into a test to predict such difficult labours by measuring lactate in amniotic fluid. The physiologist in me, however, is more interested in knowing why some women have the increased lactate levels and preventing this in the first place.

What does a typical day involve?

A mixture of the usual graft around keeping up, writing papers or grants or reports, seeing students, interrupting the smooth flow of work in the labs, and finding time to be creative or thoughtful. I do my editorial work for Physiological Reports, of which I am extremely proud to be Editor-in-Chief, usually first or last thing each day. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, as it’s raining and I’m playing catch up.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

The variety, the discoveries, the people and helping put back into the system. This was my stimulus to take up cudgels for equality and become my university’s Director of Athena SWAN.

What do you enjoy the least?

Getting grants rejected – who are those fools?

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

My liver is in good shape and I’m still married.

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

Do it your way. Listen to others but challenge. Be tenacious but have fun. Enjoy your successes.

Antibiotic Awareness Week: Seven infections that are getting harder to treat

This week is the first ever global Antibiotic Awareness Week, which aims to increase understanding of how bacteria are evolving to beat our best drugs and what we can do about it. The Wellcome Trust recently commissioned research which showed that the problem of drug resistant infections has not been well communicated

Source: Antibiotic Awareness Week: Seven infections that are getting harder to treat

Five things having a career break has taught me

A great interview about how to get back into research after a career break. PhySoc has funding of up to £10,000 available for a 12-month period, to support physiologists in their first permanent academic position or returning to a permanent position after a career break. Find out more here 

Biochemical Society

By Marjorie Gibbon, Daphne Jackson Fellow, University of Bath2015-11-09 13.06.02

After a 16 year break from my research career I am really enjoying the opportunity that my Daphne Jackson Fellowship has given me. Based at the University of Bath, my project is to investigate the effects of hyperglycaemia (an excess of glucose in the bloodstream) on the immune response. People with diabetes have an impaired immune response and this, as well as the many other complications, is thought to be the result of the uncontrolled binding of sugars to proteins. To study this I am developing an invertebrate model of hyperglycaemia, which can be used to study these damaged proteins.

Having a career break has its ups and downs and I have summarised the five top things I have learned from my experience below. I hope they will help inform and inspire others in my position.

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Physiology Friday Festivities at University College Cork

Cork for PN Fig 2After an action-packed week of festivities, made possible by the tireless efforts of undergraduate and postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, academic, administrative and technical staff, we held our main event on (Physiology) Friday, 16 October 2015. It took place in the Western Gateway Building, one of the largest buildings dedicated to third level education in Ireland and home to the Department of Physiology.

The party kicked off with a trial of the ‘Mobile Physiology Laboratory (MPL)’, a portable bicycle ergometer and metabolic system, which we hope to use as a valuable outreach resource in the future. The MPL arrived at Bishopstown Community School, Cork City and was used to demonstrate cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic responses to exercise to year 4 pupils (equivalent to year 11/GCSE stage in the UK). This demonstration was met with enthusiastic responses from the class involved and will be developed further as an educational tool.

The foyer of the Gateway Building provided a space for interaction with members of the public and the University. Events included:

– a celebration of ‘Women in Physiology’, marked by a ‘newspaper’, a poster and ‘walking exhibitions’ (through the medium of tee-shirts), highlighting the achievements of the twelve female Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine

– double-sided posters presenting research carried out by postgraduates in the Department, with technical and lay versions aimed at different groups of visitors

– a world-record attempt to register the greatest number of ECG traces in five hours (over 280 were taken, including that of a government minister)

– a passport competition to record visits to various exhibits and a ‘bio-bake’ cake sale, which raised €605 for the Irish Heart Foundation.

Two research seminars were held during UCC’s Physiology Friday. One was a blitz session by academics and trainees in the Department, in which research activities were summarised in presentations delivered at a blistering pace (less than four minutes per ‘speaker’) in styles as diverse as poetry, Irish language, animation and rap. The second seminar was a highly entertaining and informative public lecture entitled ‘A First Kiss at Puberty: It’s all in the Mind’, presented by Prof Bill Colledge, from the University of Cambridge.

Our Physiology Friday celebrations were recorded for prosperity in multiple formats, which we aim to employ in the future for outreach to the public. These include a dedicated Physiology Friday page on our departmental website: and release of video clips via social media.  We would like to express our gratitude to The Society for funding these fun and exciting events, which will no doubt seed the growth of future successes in promoting Physiology as a discipline.

John Mackrill, Department of Physiology, UCCork

This article was published in Physiology News 101.

#Biobakes 2015 – Congratulations to all our winners

We are delighted to announce the winners of our Biology Week competition ‘The Bio-Bodies Bake-Off’!

The Physiologist Choice went to Carrie Duckworth for her cake ‘Gut Feeling’ – “This cake holds the key to preventing bacterial invasion in the small intestine”.

The Baker’s Choice went to Claire Lewis from the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast for her cake ‘Muscle Contraction’.

The Public Choice went to 17 year old Laura Bullimore and Caitlin McDowell, and 18 year old Ella Ifill-Williams for their cake ‘Bun in the oven’ showing the progression of a baby in the womb from two months to seven months.

To see all of our shortlisted cakes click here.