Monthly Archives: March 2017

Brexit is a major concern for physiologists

By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

It is dominating the news. It is dominating conversations over lunch, and over after-work pints. It is dominating Twitter. It is Brexit, and it is a big deal. No matter your personal feelings on leaving the European Union, every sector will have to adjust to the impending arrival of this new situation. Scientific research, and specifically physiology, is no different. Therefore we carried out a survey of our members into their views, their fears and their priorities concerning Brexit and physiology. We were pleased to receive 350 responses and case studies, and have collated them in an infographic to show the discipline’s views.

Here we shall dive into some of the conclusions in a bit more detail. The most fundamental issue to understand is the opinion on the big question – did physiologists want to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’? Well, of those respondents eligible to vote, 85% wanted to remain. A significant number of people also said that they were not UK nationals, but would have voted remain if given the chance. So that is not in much doubt. However, of those who voted to leave, only two said they would now change their mind, so that view is definitely still entrenched for most leavers.

Opinions about the key issue in the campaign period ahead of the referendum were split widely. The most important issue for respondents was the international movement of people, cited by 34% of those who took part in the survey. As for the most important goal to achieve in Brexit negotiations, free movement for scientists and continued access to EU research funding tied with 33% of the vote each, but free movement for students also received 9% of votes, showing that free movement overall is the most critical issue for the discipline. Large proportions of respondents had already lost funding or collaborators since the referendum result was announced, or seen colleagues and students leave positions in this country. It is plain that, despite our not having left the EU yet, the effects of Brexit are already making themselves known.
SGD_Infographic_Brexit_EffectsOnUKResearchCommunity

Our survey reveals that scientists are concerned about the impacts Brexit will have on science. When asked to rate how they had felt on referendum results day about the prospects for science after Brexit (with 0 being very negative, 5 being no change, and 10 being very positive), respondents’ average score was 2. With over six months having passed since then (when the survey was taken), giving time for the result to sink in, the average current score was… 2. In fact, of those people whose view had changed, 78% said the prospects for science had got worse. This was countered by a few who had greatly increased their score, leading to no appreciable overall change. Comments expressed a lack of faith in the promises given by government to shore up the research sector, or that they had not heard any government comments about science at all.SGD_Infographic_Brexit_SocialMedia

What of the sector’s actions to address the concerns of our members and other scientists? It would seem all of science needs to be more vocal in attempts to stave off the possible damage of Brexit to research. 52% of people said the sector was not active enough in response to Brexit, with only 47% saying enough is being done.

SGD_Infographic_Brexit_Negotiations

We are using the results of this survey to highlight the views of science to politicians during the Brexit process. Our infographic has been sent to all MPs, who we hope will find our results helpful and keep science uppermost in their minds as the Brexit deal is negotiated and ratified.

For more information on this survey, or the rest of our policy work, please contact policy@physoc.org.

Download our infographic here.

Bringing STEM into Parliament

By Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

Two weeks ago, I, along with around 150 other scientists, engineers, and mathematicians descended onto Westminster for this year’s STEM for Britain event. This annual event is organised by the Science and Technology Select Committee and has been happening since 1997 (barring a small break following the death of the original organiser, Dr Eric Wharton, in 2007).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords, thereby raising the profile of both UK STEM research and early career researchers. Policy and lawmaker attendees get a glimpse into the breadth of research being undertaken at UK institutions. Early career researchers step outside of their bubbles, albeit for a few hours.

Every year, the event receives around 500 applicants, of which around 35% are invited to present. Perhaps most enticing to many early career researchers, are the three prizes awarded to presenters in each category (Engineering, Mathematics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Physics and Chemistry), to the sum of £1000, £2000 and £3000 for third, second, and first prize respectively. The first prize winners for each category are then put forward for the prestigious Westminster Prize (this year I’m happy to say won by the winner of the Biological and Biomedical sciences category, but alas not me…).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords

The most striking point that will come as little surprise to many of you is the sheer number of non-UK nationals represented at this event. This is of particular pertinence this year as the UK looks to invoke stronger border controls following its departure from the EU in 2019. The many non-UK nationals invited to attend this event show the strong contribution made by foreign nationals to the UK’s research output.

Presenting my research: using vagal nerve activity to better control appetite

I presented my research on a new technological approach to treating obesity. According to Public Health England, almost 63% of the UK population were overweight or obese in 2015. The annual cost to the NHS of treating obesity and its associated co-morbidities was £27bn. Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

A therapy called vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is gaining popularity. It involves electrically stimulating the vagus nerve to “trick” the brain into feeling full and therefore limiting food intake. The issue with current VNS therapies is their lack of physiological feedback. This means that since the nerve is continuously stimulated, its ability to control appetite reduces with time.

Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

We developed a device that regulates nerve stimulation in response to food intake. After we eat, our gut normally releases hormones that say, “I am full.” This message is relayed to the vagal nerve and changes its electrical output. Our device measures this change in nerve activity and only signals when it hears the vagal nerve giving the ‘full’ signal.

The UK government is beginning to introduce policy, such as the sugar tax announced last year, to tackle the growing obesity problem in the UK. Most policy announcements encourage physical activity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go far enough. Increasing evidence suggests that once a person becomes obese, changes in their physiology mean that the chances of maintaining a reduced body weight after dieting are slim (no pun intended). We need more policies aimed at preventing obesity in the first place, likely by targeting children.

It is important to remember that the majority of politicians are not scientists. Events such as STEM for Britain are important for bridging the gap between basic science and government policy. Long may it continue.

Scientists and social media: Can you tweet your way to impact?

By Priya Mistry, Editorial Assistant, The Physiological Society, @Pri_Mis

Twitter has over 313 million active monthly users and Facebook has over 1.71 billion. Research has shown that social media can increase the number of journal article downloads . So why do some academics and research scientists still avoid these platforms?

Social media has become a global forum allowing people to share ideas, make new connections, and create new research paths at an international level. Can using social media actually affect the impact of research? If so, how can we measure its effect?

As a scientist in your field, it’s in your best interest to share your work and other related topics in your field. So how exactly can social media help you?

What is social media?

Social media platforms come in all shapes and sizes. How do you know which ones are right for you and your target audience? The most popular platforms are Facebook and Twitter, however, there are many, many others covering different niche areas and demands.

Online networking tools specifically for scientists include ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Mendeley, and these have millions of users. Reddit, a social news and discussion website, is so popular with scientists that Nature and PLOS have collaborated with them, allowing editors and authors from the journal to engage with verified accounts or ‘flairs’. The ‘subreddit’ r/Science has over 13 million subscribers, suggesting a demand for a more informal platform of science discussion.

Why should I engage?

You’re an academic, a professor, a PhD student, a science professional and you’ve been getting on fine without social media. So why should you engage online?

To network with peers

The community feel of online networking keeps you in touch with the latest scientific research and allows you to discuss and debate new ideas and developments at an international level. ‘Hashtags’ are a type of label used on social networks to categorize posts. During conferences, tweeting and following the conference hashtag can help you keep up with highlights.

For Public Engagement

We should communicate science to the public as it allows them to make informed decisions – issues around global warming and vaccines are examples of where this communication is important. 79% of the British public said they trust scientists to tell the truth, in contrast to 25% who trust journalists. Scientists have a responsibility not only to communicate their own research, but also to represent the scientific community, and engage the public to help them understand and appreciate science. Social media is an effective way to reach out to the general public and have a direct impact on them.

For Self-Promotion

You have put your blood, sweat and tears into creating a research paper that has just been accepted. You want your paper to be easily found, read, and ultimately cited. You are the best person to promote your article; you know the most about your research and the significance of it.

ResearchGate and Academia.edu are excellent ways to share your research with other academics. Sharing your work on Twitter and Facebook will help further your discoverability. While academic networking profiles and LinkedIn are useful tools to use as a ‘digital CV’, you also need to think about your digital footprint. If you Googled yourself, what would you find?

According to a recent survey by recruitment company Careerbuilder, in addition to looking at a CV or cover letter, 60% of employers use social networking sites to research candidates and 41% say they are less likely to interview job candidates if they are unable to find information about them online. Social media activity can be part of your digital profile. Showcasing your work and knowledge in this way can help you with recruitment and self-promotion, not to mention that it’s free!

How do I start?

Here are a few steps to help you get started:

  • Start off small: Create a profile, look at hashtags and browse what’s already available. Twitter is a good place to start. It’s quick and easy to set up and you only need to think of 140 characters for each tweet.
  • Follow your interests: Once you’ve set up an account, ‘follow’ or ‘add’ (depending on the platform you use) other accounts. You can follow your peers, your role models, relevant companies or institutions, and us (shameless plug )!
  • Engage: Only engage on social media when you feel comfortable. Some may find this easier than others, but don’t be discouraged if you find that your profile is looking a little bare or taking a while to get attention. Practice makes perfect!
  • Post optimally and consistently: The lifespan of a tweet is about 18-24 minutes – this means that your tweet is ‘pushed down’ the feed and is less likely to be viewed after this time. You should try to post at optimum times (mornings, lunch time and after work) and post consistently if you would like a bigger following.
  • Download the apps: Having social media apps on your phone means access to your profile is at your fingertips. This will make it easier to post from wherever you are.
  • Be yourself: Don’t be afraid to show your personality; giving your account a personal touch and sharing your interests can help distinguish you from countless other social media accounts
  • Have fun!

Once you get the hang of it, social media can be useful and quite enjoyable. You’ll find yourself constantly checking your profiles in no time!

  • Be responsible: Remember to be mindful of what you post and share. Opinions and discussion are welcome on these platforms, but posting provocative photos, discriminatory comments or negative remarks about a co-worker can affect your career.

How can I measure success?

As a scientist, you are hard-wired to track, analyse and evaluate anything you do. Luckily, tracking posts online is easier than you think. Links created via Kudos (an author service to help improve the reach of articles) can be easily tracked and analysed so you can see who’s been clicking and sharing your posts. Many publishers, including Wiley, have integrated Altmetrics onto their research papers, which gives articles a score based on popularity and the rank of the media on which it has been shared. The score can also be used to check how well your paper is doing on social media and you can find trending research by looking at articles with high Altmetrics scores. Twitter and Facebook analytics are another easy way to track the number of views and clicks your posts have received.

According to a study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research, articles which were highly tweeted about were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than those with no tweets. A paper from PLOS ONE has also shown that social media posts on a research article increase the number of people who view or download the paper, proving that social media can help to increase reach. In contrast, a study in Scientometrics showed a weak association between the number of times an article is tweeted and the number of citations. While tweeting may not be the cause of citations, Twitter can help predict which articles will be successful and can give you an idea on how well your article will do.

Conclusion

In this day and age of the internet, it’s difficult to keep your research distinctive, especially with around 2.5 million articles being published a year. Why not give your paper, and yourself, a boost by engaging online. Citations are not always the end goal and you can extend your impact beyond the papers you’ve published. Knowledge is only useful if shared!

Originally published in Physiology News 106, 32-34

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Stress in modern Britain: An update to the seminal 50 year old survey

StressInModernBritain

By Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

In the 21st century, stress is all-pervasive. The Physiological Society has conducted a national survey in the vein of the seminal work of Holmes and Rahe in 1967[1] to ascertain how different stressful events, both positive and negative, affect people. In partnership with polling firm YouGov,[2] we surveyed over 2000 British adults and asked them to rate how stressful they find (or imagine they would find) 18 different life events. The results suggest some enlightening conclusions.

The overall ordering of the stressor events is given here, along with an average score (out of ten points) assigned to each one.

Rank Event Stress /10
1 Death of spouse/relative/friend 9.43
2 Imprisonment 9.15
3 Flood/fire damaging your home 8.89
4 Being seriously ill 8.52
5 Being fired 8.47
6 Separation/divorce 8.47
7 Identity theft 8.16
8 Unexpected money problems 7.39
9 Starting a new job 6.54
10 Planning a wedding 6.51
11 Arrival of first child 6.06
12 Commute delays 5.94
13 Terrorist threats 5.84
14 Losing smartphone 5.79
15 Moving to bigger house 5.77
16 Brexit 4.23
17 Going on holiday 3.99
18 Promotion/success at work 3.78

Perhaps most interestingly, for every single event, the reported stress experienced by men was lower than that by women. The average difference was 0.56 points. The biggest difference was in the stress caused by the threat of terrorism, which was 1.25 points higher for women. The smallest difference was for the arrival of a first child – a life-changing event for either sex! Of course, we cannot tell from these figures if the women responding do experience greater stress, or are simply more willing to report it; an age-old problem of this type of research.

Overall regional differences were small, with the average stress level across Great Britain varying only by 0.28 points. The most stressed area was Scotland, while the least stressed was the South East of England. The East of England was notably upset by delays in their commutes, while Londoners were most sanguine about going on holiday.

The results for some events point towards stress levels increasing with age, most strongly for long-term problems such as illness or imprisonment. Exceptions to this trend were the loss of a smartphone, which fits with the added difficulties this would cause to highly-connected younger generations, and the arrival of a first child. This was rated highest by those 25-34, who are likely to be the group experiencing this most recently.

One interesting stressor was Brexit (with the given definition of “the process of leaving the European Union”). Though ranking low among all the stressors, Brexit had the greatest variety of responses given, shown by the highest standard deviation. Respondents aged 18-24 scored Brexit stress a point higher on average than those 55+. Those living in London and Scotland also scored Brexit a point higher on average than Wales and much of the rest of England. Most markedly, those respondents educated to higher degree level reported stress two points higher than people with only GCSEs or A-Levels, while undergraduate degree-holders were also more stressed, though more than a point lower than those with higher degrees. These trends correlate with the constituencies of the electorate most likely to vote Remain in the referendum, suggesting they are finding the Brexit process stressful while leavers are happier to let things play out.

Participants were also asked to fill in any other particularly stressful events which they felt the survey had missed out. The most common responses concerned driving: car breakdowns, suffering traffic, road rage, or being the passenger of a careless driver all featured. Another set of common response described caring responsibilities for aged, ill or disabled people.

Finally, to the person who responded: “Trying to enter an amateur radio contest when the ionospheric conditions are poor due to a coronal mass ejection, coupled with a neighbour’s plasma TV causing major interference on the 1.8 to 7 MHz bands.” All we can say is, we feel your pain.

[1] T Holmes and R Rahe, Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Vol. 11, pp. 213 to 218. Pergamon Press. 1967

[2] All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2078 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 28th December 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Researcher Futures: Weathering the storms of career change

By Sarah Blackford

‘Your career is your responsibility, but there is a lot of support available to you’, declared plenary speaker Liz Elvidge, as she kicked off the day with a run-through of her own career path. A former postdoc herself, Liz is head of the Postdoc Development Centre at Imperial College, London and also chairs the BBSRC postdoctoral researchers sub-group committee. Does she have any regrets about moving out of research herself? Definitely not, and, she adds, she doesn’t know of anyone else who has left and would rather be back in academia. Having said that, Liz offered advice for both “leavers” and “remainers”: If you want to stay, your best chance to secure a tenure-track position is to apply for research fellowships, which will help you to gain independence; if you prefer to leave, then start applying for jobs, expand your network and work on your CV. Drawing on her experience of assisting postdocs, Liz listed the key behaviours for successfully transitioning out of academia: put your research skills to good use; be bold; be clear about what’s important; be willing to take a risk and always ask for advice.

Held on ‘Doris Day’, when storms and gusts of wind made for challenging travel conditions, we were pleased that all our speakers had made it to London to take part in the first career workshop for mid/senior postdocs, co-organised by Chrissy Stokes of The Physiological Society and myself from the Society for Experimental Biology. The one-day programme aimed to provide a series of talks, advice and interactive sessions to help our 26 mid/senior postdoc delegates to help themselves. With little support available for this group, the workshop had filled up within a few days of advertising, demonstrating a real need for this kind of careers event.

My own session, “Researching your potential”, followed on after Liz, giving the participants the opportunity to work together to identify their personal attributes and strengths. Using skills and values self-assessments and other reflective tools, the interactive nature of the session aimed to enhance self-awareness and to link this to career choice. The primary aim of this short session was to highlight to more advanced postdocs the myriad of factors which influence their career decisions, including career stage, personal preferences and connections, as well as those further away from our control such as socio-economic and political factors and, of course, the magic of luck!

IMG_0676After lunch, during which there was plenty of chatting and swapping stories, Kate Murray (acting director, Goldsmiths University of London) gave the delegates a whistle-stop tour of LinkedIn, and its crucial role in expanding networks and researching  new roles and employers when searching for non-academic careers. Entitled, “The power of networking and communication”, Kate also provided really useful advice about how to build collaborative relationships: first, by asking questions; then moving on to asking for advice and assistance; and finally reaching the level of advocacy and alliance, when you may even end up working together – as in the case of Kate and myself J. With the inclusion of an exercise in which postdocs were asked to identify their own networks, this session received excellent feedback and set the scene for the final hour-long panel discussion with our panellist: Lewis Halsey (Senior lecturer, Roehampton University), Liz Rylott (Senior postdoctoral fellow, York University), Sai Pathmanathan (Freelance science education consultant) and Jack Leeming (Editor, Naturejobs).

Speaking on the subject of enhancing your skills towards your next career move, the top tip from the panel was to focus on what you enjoy doing and to maximise the little time you have as a postdoc on developing your career to suit you. Talking to people, expanding personal networks and getting advice was also high on the list, including making use of social media. For those seeking an academic position, Lewis and Liz recommended Google Scholar and Researchgate, with members of the audience pitching in to praise the merits of using Twitter hashtags to access conference tweets. Jack’s advice was to think about your personal brand and the image you’re portraying, so select your words carefully for any profile you produce. Finally, freelance entrepreneur, Sai, left the postdocs with a great personal ‘motto’: the more you look for stuff, the more stuff will find you!

Our networking reception at the end of the day was an extended affair due to the weather conditions, and a literal break down in the London transport system. However, despite these delays, we received 100% excellent/good feedback for the majority of the workshop, with some very useful comments on where we could improve for next time. All in all, it is safe to say the delegates were blown away by the day (but, luckily, not by storm Doris), so watch out for further career events of this nature, courtesy of the Physiological Society and Society for Experimental Biology.

Researcher Futures, a career workshop designed for mid/senior postdoctoral researchers, was held on 23rd February 2017 at Hodgkin Huxley House, London.

Let’s talk about stress

By Anastasia Stefanidou, Communications Officer, Biochemical Society

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015/2016 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health. It’s time for employers to support their staff and invest in giving people the techniques and guidance on how to cope with stressful situations.

To raise awareness of and encourage discussion around the issue, The Physiological Society held a “Under Pressure: Making sense of stress” panel discussion on Tuesday, 21 February 2017.

The Physiological Society is devoting all of 2017 to ‘Making Sense of Stress’ across all areas – events, outreach, education, policy, and communications – with the general aim of emphasizing the contribution, past and current, of physiology to our understanding of stress.

Geoff McDonald, leader of minds@work, chaired last week’s panel, which included Stafford Lightman, Director of the Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol and current President Elect of the British Neuroscience Association and Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology and Director of the Research Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

The mechanisms of stress

Hans Selye, known as “the father of stress,” noticed, as a medical student, that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick”. This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of the concept of stress.

Lightman opened the event presenting the mechanisms of stress. “Stress is perceived in the brain. You can’t have stress unless you perceive it. It’s something your body perceives as bad, and you need to adapt to it”, he said.

What happens to you when you’re stressed? When your brain perceives a stressor, it tells the inside of the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, and the outside to release glucocorticoids. This hormonal response is one way our body responds to stress.

Lightman also explained that we have evolved to respond to stress in a way that it is in our interest. In many situations, short term stress is good. For instance, stressful incidents increase our vigilance, activate our acute memory and increase heart rate, adrenaline and blood sugar.

image1
Physiological response to acute stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can cause all sorts of problems like depression, inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities (anhedonia), lack of sex drive, disrupted sleep, heart diseases, and metabolic syndromes like diabetes.

image2
Pathophysiological response to chronic stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

In addition to these physiological mechanisms, your genes, your early life experiences, and your stresses as an adult greatly influence your susceptibility to stress.

The cost of work-related stress

Kinman then spoke about the costs of work-related stress and wellbeing in demanding professions.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope.”

The statistics are alarming. The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show that:

  • The UK lost 11.7 million working days due to this condition in 2015/16 (average of 23.9 days lost per case).
  • In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.
  • Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.
  • The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety (LFS) were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support
  • Estimated financial burden is $221 million to $187 billion

What do we do now?

Everybody who needs help, has to be empowered to ask. It’s time to change our culture and help sufferers thrive in their workplace. Tackling work-related stress can bring benefit in many areas: reduced costs – of sick pay, sickness cover, overtime, and recruitment – and fewer days lost to sickness and absenteeism.

In January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a package of measures that aim to transform mental health support in the UK at each stage of a person’s life, including in workplaces, schools, and the community. This mental health reform is an opportunity to tackle the stigma associated with mental health.

Last week, #FuturePRoof published a report exploring the mental health of public relations professionals. The report included the following recommendations for employers:

  • Make mental health and wellbeing a management issue within your management team
  • Company policies and procedures should cover sickness due to mental health. Provide clear signposting and training to all employees and managers on policies and procedures
  • Where resources do not exist within an organization, access external support. Small organizations should consider retaining specialized support

Stress in the workplace is an epidemic. However, the normalisation of speaking up about mental health is slowly shifting attitudes and workplace culture. There’s no single solution but education and empathy go a long way in helping to tackle the issue. Make sure you help your co-workers by listening, being empathetic, and making sure they know they aren’t alone.

Geoff McDonald quoted Alexander den Heijer, who said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” With some understanding of the physiology of stress under our belts, it’s now up to all of us to influence the government! Everyone, do your part!

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