Category Archives: Events

#LGBTSTEMDay: Celebrating the diversity of science

By Shaun O’Boyle, founder of House of STEM

Today is the first International Day of LGBT+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, celebrating and encouraging diversity in science.

We do better science when our teams are made up of diverse people, with different perspectives, skills, and ideas. To achieve that diversity, however, we must first remove the roadblocks that are causing some minorities to remain underrepresented in science.

These roadblocks can arise early. A recent study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that 29% of LGBT+ young people choose to avoid a career in STEM because they fear discrimination. We know from research published in Science Advances that those who do enrol in STEM courses are more likely to drop out.

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Of those who do pursue a career in science, more than 40% are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, and this is having a negative impact on their career prospects. Remaining ‘in the closet’ also takes its toll on a person’s mental health, as they spend every single day monitoring, policing, and editing what they say and do. In the United States, one third of ‘out’ physicists have been told to stay in the closet to continue their career, and half of Trans physicists have experienced harassment in academia. We therefore need to work on the environments LGBT+ scientists work in, to make them more supportive and welcoming.

Take fieldwork, for example. For a scientist, field work can be dangerous—collecting samples near active volcanoes, gathering data in areas of conflict, risking insect-borne diseases while documenting species in the rainforest—and so we prepare as best we can to minimise those risks.

When an LGBT+ scientist is invited to do field work, we must first make sure it’s not to one of the 72 countries where it’s illegal to be LGBT+, or one of the eight where our identity carries the death penalty. Even in countries with no legal barriers, we must make sure that we are not going to a region with a high incidence of hate crime. These are complex risks to minimise. For example, we must make a choice about “coming out” to our colleagues—whether it is better to have their support, or if telling them risks us being accidentally outed on the trip.

LGBT+ scientists and our allies are working to ensure no one struggles to be themselves at work—whether it’s fieldwork or lab work, teaching or studying. Research initiatives such as Queer in STEM and the LGBT+ physical sciences climate survey are doing what scientists do best: gathering data. By having a clearer understanding of the experiences of LGBT+ scientists across different disciplines, we can develop supportive policies, and create more inclusive environments. Initiatives such as LGBTSTEM and 500 Queer Scientists are improving the visibility of LGBT+ scientists, helping to create role models for others in their fields.

Visibility is at the heart of a new initiative to amplify the voices of LGBT+ scientists around the world. Today is #LGBTSTEMDay, the first ever International Day of LGBT+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The initiative is being led by an international collaboration between four groups—Pride in STEM, House of STEM, InterEngineering, and Out in STEM—and supported by more than 40 organisations, including CERN, EMBL, Wellcome, and The Physiological Society.

#LGBTSTEMDay will see live events and get-togethers happen at physical locations from Brazil to Scotland, Toronto to Switzerland. Primarily, however, it will be an online campaign, and an opportunity to highlight the powerful work already being done by people, groups and organisations all around the world to advance the inclusion of LGBT+ people in STEM. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating the diversity of science.

Shaun O’Boyle is a science communicator and producer with a degree in Physiology and a PhD in Developmental Biology. He is the founder of House of STEM, a network of LGBT+ people who work in STEM in Ireland, and one of the organisers of LGBTSTEMDay.

Sleep across the animal kingdom

By Kimberley Whitehead, University College London

As creatures that spend a glorious one third of our lives asleep, we might be quick to assume that all animals on earth sleep.  Do they, and if so, how can we actually tell?

To understand the mechanisms of sleep and wakefulness better, physiologists often study animals. This is because their nervous systems are simpler, but still share similarities with ours. For example in animals with fewer genes involved in sleep, such as flies, it is easier to understand genetic effects. In the case of the zebrafish, life is made easier for neuroscientists who use this species because the fish is transparent when young, so the brain is visible and can be imaged in a living fish! However, if scientists study a fly or a fish, how can we tell that they’re asleep, especially if they don’t have eyelids?

Before we can look at differences in sleep between species, we first need to define criteria of sleep that we can apply to even simple animals. Firstly, sleep has to be reversible! If somebody was unconscious and couldn’t ever be roused, that would be a coma state, rather than sleep. Secondly, arousal threshold – i.e. what it would take to get a response – has to be increased during sleep, compared to wakefulness. For example, a cat will let you put all sorts of objects on it while sleeping, which it never would have tolerated when awake! Thirdly, sleep tends to happen at certain times of day, and in certain positions or situations: for us a nice comfy bed, for fish at the bottom of the tank.

In addition to these behavioural differences, if sleep is a distinct state from full consciousness, we would expect brain activity to differ. It turns out that indeed, even in flies, there is a difference in brainwaves between wakefulness and sleep. Brainwaves reduce in size as we fall asleep. Humans then go through cycles in which brainwaves get bigger and slower as sleep deepens whereas this is not apparent in flies for example.

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Monica Folgueira and Steve Wilson, Wellcome Collection

Not only does sleep differ from wakefulness, it also varies across our lifespan. The sleep-specific brainwaves of adults are not present in baby rodents and humans. This suggests that sleep in early life may differ from sleep in adults.

Young animals also sleep much more. This extensive sleep in early life might be important for learning; baby flies deprived of sleep don’t learn how to find an appropriate mate. In mammals, there is some evidence that the twitchy movements babies have during sleep might help them to learn how to sense their environment.

Not only is sleep different in early life, it also differs in later life. In the elderly, changes in sleep patterns are seen across the whole animal kingdom. In both flies and humans, their sleep becomes more fragmented and elderly humans are more likely to report sleep problems than young adults.

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Robert Hindges, Wellcome Collection

Understanding the criteria of what defines sleep, and the normal changes in sleep across the lifespan, paves the way to understand sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy. The brain circuits involved in narcolepsy are the same between zebrafish and humans. This offers exciting opportunities to understand these circuits better, because they’re so much easier to manipulate in fish. Aside from diseases which primarily affect sleep – like narcolepsy – many neurological disorders eventually affect sleep. This means that researchers using animal models can use sleep as a marker of overall brain health or degeneration.

Since there are ways to tell whether even simple animals are asleep, research about sleep across the animal kingdom can offer fresh insights into the million dollar questions of why we sleep, and what causes sleep problems.


This blog is based on a recent public engagement event at the Grant Museum of Zoology, put on by University College London and The Physiological Society. Surrounded by weird and wonderful pickled and stuffed animals, sleep scientists from University College London studying flies (James Jepson), zebrafish (Jason Rihel) and humans (me – Kimberley Whitehead) each brought a different angle to the discussion.

Follow these links to learn more about the research done by:

11 networking tips to boost your career

by Hannah Marie Kirton, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, UK

We hear it all the time: networking is so important for us. It’s true! Never underestimate the power of networking. However, for some of us, it’s not that easy. Do you find it daunting? Difficult to initiate? Or do you just need a motivational boost to start building new and existing relationships? Amidst the inhibitions to just get out there and network, it’s important to realise the true potential of networking and how it impacts career success. In this article, I have compiled a ‘Mini Journal’ of networking tips and advice, but more importantly, explained its importance.

What is networking?

Networking is an interaction that exchanges information and ideas, in order to develop productive and professional relationships. Networking is best, and easiest, at conferences and meetings, where there are a multitude of professionals in and related to your field of interest. But remember, networking is not just about speaking with key leaders in your field. It’s also just as important to talk and network with PhD students, postdocs and other early career researchers. If anything, forming new contacts with early career researchers is more beneficial, since you will grow together in your field and may regularly contact each other throughout. Plus, they are a direct contact to the group leaders who you may be interested in working with and therefore, a good way to understand how that lab or institute works and supports early career researchers.

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Why is networking important?

Put simply, networking with PhD students, postdocs and group leaders can benefit both your research and recognition, which, if performed correctly, will boost your career.

  • Research

Communicating with researchers and experts in your field can open up new questions and ideas for your research. This will enable you to view your research from a different point of view, both technically and theoretically. Collectively, this helps to shape and strengthen your research. This also forms the basis of collaborations, which generates a multidisciplinary approach to research and facilitates publications in high-impact journals.

  • Recognition

Networking is also an excellent platform to increase visibility within your research field, and visibility to prospective future employers. It also enables you to communicate with PhDs and postdocs you may later work with, who are equally key to your future.

How to network?

Try to break away from your comfort zone at conferences and meetings. It is so easy to stick to your lab team and supervisor, but remember, you have already formed professional relationships with them and see them every day! Challenge yourself. Be curious and open your mind.

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Beginners top tips

  • If networking is not your strongpoint, start by speaking to early career researchers in your field. Attend early career breakout meetings such as the postgrad, postdoc breakfasts and career sessions, and talk to the people around you, i.e. talk about their poster and research, or even their career. It’s amazing how quickly people let their guard down once you talk about or compliment their research.
  • Attend poster sessions. These are generally more informal and relaxed, helping you to ask your question and engage in conversation over research.
  • Add your e-mail address to your posters. This will help people to get in touch with you. Remember, you are not the only one networking.
  • Simple ways to interact with researchers at conferences can include striking a friendly conversation at a dinner or coffee queue or sitting next to someone at lunch. This is an easy way to build your confidence and get used to introducing yourself at conferences.
  • Alternatively, utilising a familiar point of reference helps to build relationships, i.e. mentioning a work colleague you both know.
  • If you’re not ready to ask a question at the end of oral presentations, approach the presenter after the session. Be confident, but think carefully about your question!

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Advanced top tips

  • If you aim to speak with team leaders in your field and don’t quite have the courage to walk over and introduce yourself, look out for them at the conference reception or dinner. An easy icebreaker is to smile, introduce yourself, and talk about your lab and research. Try to follow that up with an easy question about their research, or yours!
  • Be specific when you approach people. If you admire their work then demonstrate it, by saying something like: ‘I really enjoyed your recent paper in Neuron about sodium channels’.
  • If there is a particular person you would like to speak with, email them a few days before the conference and let them know you’d like to meet up. This cuts out any awkward introductions, and forces you to follow your plans to meet.
  • Alternatively, plan ahead prior to a conference or meeting. Read about their research and publications before approaching them with your questions. This will help you articulate questions specifically, clearly and with confidence.
  • Once you have developed a network, make a strong effort to maintain that link. Promptly reply to emails or make regular contact when possible. It is very hard to make connections, but very easy to lose them.

Night at the Vet College

Step inside the Royal Veterinary College’s inspiring campus on 22nd November for an evening of animal excitement at ‘Night at the Vet College’, in collaboration with The Physiological Society.

The theme of the night is ‘Wellbeing’, based on The Physiological Society’s 2017 theme of ‘Making Sense of Stress’. Complete with canine scientists, TV stars and a dissection, this event is not to be missed!

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Go behind the scenes at the RVC’s 226 year old Camden campus, admiring animal skeletons and specimens which have shaped the study of thousands of veterinary students. In the main Anatomy Museum you have the chance to get up close and personal with your favourite specimen for a drawing session, with artist Tim Pond.  Tim has drawn every animal under the sun, and will be showcasing his animal anatomy studies, which are fundamental for understanding animal wellbeing.

At 6 pm, move into the Great Hall for an exciting talk by the star of ‘Trust Me I’m A Vet’, Judy Puddifoot, who will be discussing the work behind the scenes of the programme, in particular her work with dogs, guinea pigs and tortoises!

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Judy Puddifoot on Trust Me I’m a Vet. ©BBC Two

Throughout the college you will find stands dedicated to different professions who care for animal wellbeing, including staff from our Hertfordshire Queen Mother Animal hospital talking about how your dog could save lives by giving blood. Check out visiting animal charities and community teams to see how their work with animals benefits both human and animal wellbeing. For instance, hear about how dogs are trained to become assistance animals, from The Dogs for Good team. Try on surgical gowns and develop your clinical skills in our mock clinic area; our neighbours the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital will be showcasing their accredited dog and cat waiting rooms, complete with research-approved classical music for the cats!

At 7 pm, get ready for a dissection conducted by the Head of Anatomy services, Andrew Crook MBE. He can assure you that “this will be a fantastic opportunity to witness a real dissection and learn about anatomical structures first hand.” You can either watch the dissection first hand (max 100 spaces in the theatre, first come first served), or if you prefer, the whole thing will be being live streamed to the Great Hall lecture theatre, for you to watch the process without the olfactory component.

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©Royal Vet College

By taking part in our activities you can learn about the world–class science being produced by our researchers, including ferret preferences and how fractures relate to neurobiology. Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Rowena Packer and her team will be talking about stress levels in Border Collie dogs, how it is affected by neurological disorders, and how they can measure it. You will find out how this cutting-edge research will benefit the wellbeing of dogs with epilepsy!

Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology and author Jack Ashby is also joining us with his new book – Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

You’ll have to try and remember all you heard about throughout the evening, because our student bar will be hosting a Pub Quiz. Time to use your new animal knowledge to win prizes!


Night at the Vet College is on November 22nd, 5.30-10pm, at the Royal Veterinary College’s Camden Campus: 4 Royal College Street, NW1 0TU (10 mins walk from Kings Cross, Mornington Crescent or Camden Town tube stations). You can book your free place here, however there is limited capacity so early booking is encouraged: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/night-at-the-vet-college-wellbeing-tickets-38770001117

Government fails to reassure over post-Brexit science

by Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Nothing about Brexit has been decided yet. This was made plain at the recent Labour and Conservative party conferences, which The Physiological Society policy team attended. Many of the fringe meetings at both events were either explicitly about Brexit, or had their discussion influenced by the shadow of Brexit hanging over them. The twin questions of “what will it look like?” and “how will we handle it?” do not yet have even proto-answers, let alone settled consensus. I worry that a sense of complacency exists around some aspects of the transition from EU member to a situation unspecified beyond not an EU member. Many of the facets of EU membership which are of great significance to science fall within this category.

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The UK has done well from European programmes for funding scientific research, with Horizon 2020 (H2020) being the current iteration of this scheme, winning more funding than it has contributed to the programme. There are other advantages beyond money, too, including access to facilities overseas, and an easy route to setting up collaborations. We are happy with this participation, and Europe is happy to have us. The government has suggested, without giving details, that it is willing to continue to buy access to useful activities such as this. But, examining the fine print, it may not be as easy as that. A number of non-EU countries have “associated country” status to H2020, individually negotiated to allow them to participate. One of these, Switzerland, had access severely restricted in 2014 after a referendum meant the Swiss government would not ratify Croatia’s inclusion in EU freedom of movement. Access was only restored in 2016 after a government compromise. One of the UK government’s stated aims from Brexit is to “control immigration”, i.e. restrict free movement from Europe. There is no reason to assume this will not also result in being disallowed from being awarded H2020 funds, should we wish to participate or not. It will take delicate negotiation, not a blithe assumption, for us to continue to enjoy the benefits of association to the programme.

The Treasury has said it will underwrite Horizon 2020 grants applied-for before our leaving date of March 2019, and signalled it may be willing to extend this. However, this short-term reassurance could also be seen as a long-term worry. The successor to Horizon 2020, Framework Programme 9, has not been mentioned. Underwriting grants is not the same as participation in the programme, and if the intention was to retain full participation in EU research programmes, underwriting would not be necessary.

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Scientists working on the continent, foreseeing these future difficulties in working with UK collaborators, are in some cases acting pre-emptively. British researchers have been asked to remove themselves from H2020 funding applications, or at least to switch from leading bids to being junior partners. About a fortnight after the Conservative conference, Science Minister Jo Johnson told the Science & Technology Select Committee, in response to fears of further exclusion of UK scientists from Horizon 2020 bids, “We have terrific scientists in this country; why wouldn’t you want them to play central roles in your consortia, wherever you’re from in the world?” Unfortunately that doesn’t acknowledge the reputational damage we know is already being done to UK science. We know from research we have carried out that European researchers could reply with any number of reasons, including fears of a lower chance of bid success, being unable to travel to the UK or facing much higher costs, fears of the UK collaborator being forced to drop out before the project’s conclusion, potentially facing incompatible regulatory regimes, or just an overall air of foreigners’ presence not being particularly welcome in the UK.

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Data from our Brexit survey about physiologists’ reactions to the vote.

The vastly-enhanced global mobility of the last decades has also been good to science. Ideas can be proposed and critiqued in person rather than by correspondence, and people can bring their knowledge and experience to bear at the forefront of their discipline, wherever that research happens to be conducted. However, the rights of EU citizens post-Brexit, to either remain in the UK or migrate here in future, are still very uncertain. None of the statements issued by the Prime Minister or the government have given full clarity, despite repeated insistences that EU citizens will not be part of the Brexit bargaining. Scientists are demonstrating their opinion of this with their feet, leaving the country or declining offers of employment that would bring them here. Other countries are taking full advantage of this disincentive to the UK, aggressively marketing their science facilities and available grants (including EU funding). Ireland in particular is painting itself as attractive to UK scientists, especially those currently in Northern Ireland, for whom a move over the border would retain their EU status while being geographically close.

The government will not have a lot of “easy wins” during the negotiations with the EU, so in some ways it is understandable that they would concentrate on the trickier aspects. However, the certainty displayed that science will pass through the negotiations unscathed seems unwarranted, especially given that science and innovation are identified priorities in the Industrial Strategy; keystones of the future UK economy. The government would do well to pay rather closer attention.

Wikipedia, women, and science

Every second, 6000 people across the world access Wikipedia. The opportunity to reach humans of the world is enormous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many eminent scientists, especially eminent female scientists, don’t have pages!

Melissa Highton is on a mission to fix this. Her first step was bringing together a group of students and librarians for an Edit-a-thon to update the page of the first female students matriculated in the UK, who started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. They’re known as the Edinburgh Seven.

Not only do Edit-a-thons provide information for the world, the Edinburgh Seven serve as role models for current students studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Melissa shines light on Wikipedia being skewed towards men, and also on structural inequalities that lead to so few women having pages. Women are often written out of history; they are the wives of famous someones who get recognised instead, they get lost in records because they change their last name, or they juggle raising a family, meaning they don’t work for as long or publish as much.

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Having a forum to talk openly and transparently about these inequalities is one of the steps to closing the gap. Our event for Physiology Friday 2017 did just that, and we hope participants will continue the conversation. Listen to Melissa’s talk here.