Category Archives: Outreach and Education

Perceptions of Stress

By Andy Powell, @DrAndyDPowell, Birmingham City University

Sleepless nights, sweaty palms, lack of appetite – the physiologist in me recognised the classic symptoms of the stress response. So why was I stressed? I have a loving family, a crazy border terrier who thinks he is still a puppy, and a job as university lecturer that I love.

First, a disclaimer. I recognise that the circumstances that left me displaying symptoms of stress were short term and had a definite resolution, but those circumstances and more importantly my reaction to them was an eye opener to what simple things can trigger a period of stress.

I was up at night tossing and turning thinking about “Fun and Brains,” a public outreach event I helped organise at British Neuroscience Association’s 2017 “Festival of Neuroscience”. The activities brought together art and neuroscience.  A performance artist explored the role of memories, participants built neurons, and speakers presented about how the brain works at all ages.

“Perception Playground” was the title of my activity. Participants of all ages explored how simple tasks can be affected by altering perception. They coloured in neurons and played table tennis with vision-altering prism glasses on. They saw first-hand why drunk-driving is a big no-no (drunk goggles + remote control car = absolute carnage).

My personal favourite was the headphones that create a small delay between the person’s speaking and hearing. It really affects your ability to speak! People were generally only able to get a few words into a sentence before ripping off their headphones. A common coping strategy was to shout, presumably to be heard through the headphones. I considered the activity a success when I had a bunch of kids shouting about how the brain works.

We did have one participant who was totally unaffected, which we put down to the fact that she was a regular user of Skype to call home. The regular breaks Skype introduces somehow conditioned her brain (I am sure there is a great research project in there somewhere).

I thought this would be right up my street. I am a STEM ambassador and I absolutely love sharing my passion for science. I mean, who in their right mind would go to the Big Bang Fair and stands for 6 hours, with their hands in gunge, explaining to school students who have fished an organ out of a simulated surgical patient, what those organs do (that would be me). What I love most is answering those completely out-of-left-field questions that only a child knows how to ask.

So why was this the most stressful thing I have ever done (even worse than my PhD viva)? I think the big difference here was that I was flying solo on the organisation of perception playground.  Remember my crazy border terrier? It’s like that moment as a puppy when he embarrasses you in the middle of a crowded town centre by peeing in an inappropriate place.

Perception playground was mine, but part of a larger whole – and nobody wants to let others down. So right from the beginning that internal pressure was different from previous experiences.  I would lie awake at night thinking: Have I booked the volunteers? Have I organised the activities correctly? What if the weather is bad (it was held outside)?

All the while the physiologist in me would be screaming – control your breathing, slow your mind – often to no avail.  Set-backs along the way didn’t help – the funding I applied for didn’t materialise.  Normally this is a not a problem. I have a thick skin from years of rejected grant applications and papers, but on top of the internal pressures it quickly became a screaming matter. Even the thought of writing my first blog post was a source of major stress. Who’d have thought that it would almost write itself?

So how did it go?

It went wonderfully. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It would however be remiss of me not to thank all of the volunteers who gave up their precious time and offered their valuable knowledge. Without them it would not have been possible.

Participants appeared to enjoy themselves and take away some nuggets of knowledge; a comment from one participant sums up why I do outreach – “Thank you for teaching me about my brain, I never considered what it does before”.  Hopefully that girl is now inspired to study neuroscience, and will present her PhD work at the 2029 “Festival of Neuroscience”.

What has it taught me?

I hope that I haven’t come across as trivialising the effects of stress. Yes, this was a stressful situation with a defined end.  However, I always thought that I was invulnerable to it and I never suspected that something that I love doing would be the trigger.  I now have a better understanding of just how crippling it can be, and how even small or much loved things can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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!

Read original post here

The physiology of stress

By Jessica Suter, Undergraduate of The Open University and Events Manager for Eaton Park Science Day

Stress is a popular word in our society and is thought to be the biggest contributor to workplace sickness and depression. But what exactly is it?

Living in the human zoo, we are constantly exposed to stressors, especially those deemed unnecessary on a survival level such as consumerism and the pursuit of happiness. Stress is usually linked to just the mind – anger, upset and irrationalities – but it actually affects our entire body (HSE, 2016).

According to recent statistics, the total number of working days lost due to stress in 2015/2016 alone was 11.7 million (HSE, 2016) with a strong association found between unemployment and suicide (NHS Behind the Headlines, 2015). As well as affecting mental health, stress is also linked to chronic pain, a condition that affects just under 28 million adults in the UK (Fayaz. A, et.al., 2016).

Stress is defined as a physiological or biological response to a stressor. The stress response system is a common pathway across organisms, which is designed to temporarily assign energy currency from areas of the body considered useless in a stressful situation to other areas in the body that are beneficial for survival.

Whilst such components are considered an adaptation, when exposed to chronic stress (where the body is exposed to long periods of stress psychologically and/or physiologically) these components can cause all kinds of life-effecting issues such as high blood pressure, decreased immune function, or fertility issues.

There have been numerous studies considering how stress plays a part in debilitating conditions of the body and mind focusing on the physiological pathways of the stress response, such as the HPA, sympathetic nervous system, amygdala, and hypothalamus. What does the future hold for us humans living in a crowded and highly-pressured society?

Some experts focus on a need for pharmacologic interventions, whilst others look for longer term solutions such as psychotherapy. One interesting piece of research I have come across focuses on the idea that encouraging an understanding of stress, coping methods, and the impacts on health within individuals will advance the treatment of stress (Segerstrom. S et.al., 2012).

The Physiological Society’s annual theme ‘Making Sense of Stress’ is looking to contribute toward public engagement and education about the effects of stress, and research across the globe looking to alleviate chronic stress and its related ailments.

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Tune in as we go LIVE this Tuesday, 21 February at 18:00 GMT, (or in person if you’re in London) for a panel and discussion chaired by Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever and one of the leaders of minds@work, and featuring neuroscientist Professor Stafford Lightman and occupational psychologist Professor Gail Kinman.

References:

Fayaz, A., Croft, P., Langford, R. M., Donaldson, L. J. and Jones, G. T. (2016) ‘Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies.’, BMJ open, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, vol. 6, no. 6, p. e010364 [Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27324708 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Health and Safety Executive (2016) ‘Statistics – Work-related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain (GB)’, HSE [Online]. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/ (Accessed 29 November 2016).

McLannahan, H. (2004) “Chapter 3: Stress” SK277 Book 4: Life’s Challenges,  in The Open University. (eds), Plymouth, Latimer Trend and Company Ltd, pp. 79-113

NHS Choices (2015) ‘Unemployment and job insecurity linked to increased risk of suicide – Health News – NHS Choices’, Department of Health [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Unemployment-linked-to-increased-risk-of-suicide.aspx (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Segerstrom, S. C. and O’Connor, D. B. (2012) ‘Stress, health and illness: Four challenges for the future’, Psychology & Health, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 128–140 [Online]. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870446.2012.659516 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Making sense of stress in the wild

By Kimberley Bennett, Abertay University

Imagine leaning forward over the edge of a precipice. Lurching back to safety, you picture the forest hundreds of metres below. Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweating? Our body’s stress response to an ever-changing environment enables us to survive and flourish.

Physiologists play a crucial role in developing our understanding of the mechanisms involved. To highlight the exciting work that they do, our 2017 theme is ‘Making Sense of Stress’. Follow the conversation on Twitter using #YearOfStress.

Launching the theme will be Dr Kimberley Bennett’s talk, ‘Making sense of stress in the wild’, at the Association for Science Education’s (ASE’s) Annual Conference on 6 January 2017. Read a teaser to her talk below!

Coping with stress is a major issue in modern society, but it’s easy to forget that wildlife experiences stress too. Without enough water, plants wilt and die and whole crops fail; without the right habitat, a small population of rare animals dwindles and dies out, causing extinction of the species; a whole coral reef bleaches when the water temperature gets too high, causing catastrophe for the ecosystem, and massively increasing flooding risk for people living by the coast. We really need to pay attention to stress in the wild because the consequences can herald disaster.

Stress is the biological response to a major challenge, whether it’s at the whole organism or cell level. A gazelle in the Serengeti chased by a lion experiences the same stress responses that we do – a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that cause increased heart rate and blood pressure and a release of glucose. These changes make sure there is enough fuel and oxygen to cope with increased demand at the tissue and cell levels. Sudden change or mismatch in the supply of oxygen and fuel leads to increased production of reactive molecules called ‘free radicals’ that can damage cells. If the temperature gets too hot too fast or if the acidity of the cell changes too much, proteins (the molecules that catalyse reactions, transport substances and provide structure) can fall apart or unravel. So cells have to increase their defence mechanisms too. Cellular defences include antioxidants that mop up the free radicals, and heat shock proteins, which refold damaged proteins and stop them forming a sticky mess inside the cell.

The old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is often true: short term ‘good stress’ builds up these defences and makes organisms better able to deal with stress later on. However, sometimes defences can be overwhelmed or can’t be maintained for long periods. The organism then experiences the same sorts of problems as people under chronic stress: lower immunity, altered metabolism, anxiety and tissue damage (like ulcers). In wildlife, this can have major consequences for breeding success or even survival. By affecting whether organisms survive and thrive, stress dictates which individuals contribute to the next generation. Stress shapes population dynamics, lifestyle and adaptations, and is therefore a powerful agent of natural selection.

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I work on seals, top marine predators that are used to stress as a normal part of their existence. Their individual and population level health is an indicator of ecosystem health. Seals are air breathing mammals that feed underwater, but need to come to the surface to breathe, and to come ashore to rest, breed and moult. Diving on a single breath hold means they need to conserve oxygen; to do this, blood flow is restricted mostly to the heart and brain, so that other tissues may experience free radical production while oxygen levels are low. On land, seals need to fast, often while they are doing energy-demanding activities i.e. shedding and replacing hair, producing milk, defending pups or territory, or undergoing rapid development. Injury and infection can occur from skirmishes or trampling. Seals may have to reduce their defences to deal with all these demands on their energy when food is not available. In addition to their ‘lifestyle stressors’, seals face stress from competition for access to fish, disturbance on haul out or displacement from foraging grounds as a result of human activity, and the accumulation of contaminants in their blubber.

We need to understand natural and man-made causes of stress in wild populations, distinguish good stress from bad stress, and understand how multiple stressors at the same time can create problems. That means we have to have effective tools to measure stress and its consequences in organisms that can’t tell us how they feel. But can we measure stress responses in wildlife? What do they mean in context? And can they help in managing stress in the wild?

I will address all these questions and more at the ASE’s Annual Conference on Friday 6 January 2017, as part of the annual Biology in the Real World (#BitRW) lecture series. Please drop by the Knight Building, LT 135, at the University of Reading, at 1.30pm to find out more!

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Danger! High Voltage!

By Mark Dallas, University of Reading, @drmarkdallas

Standing between school students and their weekends was always going to be a tough gig, but it was #PhysiologyFriday and we were determined to put on a show. Together with Orla and Ioannis, PhD students from the University of Reading, I arrived at East Ham Town Hall and was greeted by over 200 excited students and their teachers.

Our mission was to deliver an engaging session around electricity and pass on an innovative human-human interface educational resource that the students had won as part of a Physiological Society competition, The Science of Life 2016. After a brief introduction to human electricity and how we can detect it, we took the students on a journey from the first electroencephalogram (EEG) to the potential of neuroprosthetics in treating paralysis. We then tackled a live demonstration of the kit and the students were intrigued to see the interface in action.

 

Surely, one human cannot control another’s arm using only their brain activity? The wonders of neuroscience said it should be possible, but we sensed some doubters in the audience. Using the human-human interface Ioannis was going to harness his brain power to move Orla’s arm against her wishes……

Thankfully the demonstration was up to scratch with the students requesting several encores, and even asking for the voltage to be turned up! Normally the complexities of electrophysiology remain in the lab due to expensive and static equipment, however this kit gave us the ability to be mobile and take the dark art of electrophysiology to young minds keen to explore neuroscience. It was well worth it. The students left school for the weekend with a sense of excitement and thirst to learn more. Orla, Ioannis and I left East Ham Town Hall feeling that we had sparked the interest of the next generation of physiologists.

 

Myth-busting: Do heart cells really have their own ‘pulse’?

By Andy James, University of Bristol

The comedian, Jake Yapp, has been presenting on BBC Radio 4’s website a series of short comic histories of science entitled, “Everything We’ve Ever Known About …” Informative and entertaining, these are invariably funny. A recent edition concerned the heart, neatly covering the development of our understanding of heart function through the millennia, from the ancient Egyptians to the present day – where Jake concludes by commenting that if you isolate a heart muscle cell it will have its own pulse. Actually, strictly speaking, a pulse is the increase in pressure within the arteries as a result of beating of the heart. ‘Rhythm’ is a better word.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04bwbxl/player

It’s a commonly held misconception, even amongst specialists in cell biology, that all heart muscle cells have their own rhythm that synchronises when the cells couple together (meaning they join and allow electricity to flow between them). Beautiful as this idea is, it simply isn’t true. The heart’s rhythm originates as electrical activity in a specialised area of the heart known as the sinus node- the heart’s physiological pacemaker. The heart muscle cells of the sinus node generate rhythmic electrical activity so that, when isolated, they contract regularly.

In the intact heart, a conduction system ensures that the electrical activity is passed to the chambers to produce a well-coordinated contraction. Many of the cells of the conduction system would also beat when isolated. But the cells from the walls of the chambers that produce the pressure to – as the English anatomist, William Harvey, would have it – propel the blood, do not. Chamber cells only need to receive the signal, but not generate it themselves.

The persuasive and attractive idea that all heart muscle cells show their own rhythm may have arisen from attempts to maintain heart muscle cells for several days in a petri dish. Heart muscle cells from adult mammalian hearts do not generally multiply under these conditions and while it is possible to keep the cells alive for a short time, after a few days, the cells die. However, cells from embryonic, or even neonatal, hearts do multiply in culture. They often show rhythmic contractions and, yes, they synchronise once they form connections with their neighbours.

So do heart cells really have their own pulse? It depends! Cells from adult hearts are programmed to behave in a fixed way- as a pacemaker cell, a conducting cell or a contractile cell from a chamber wall. Cells from immature hearts, on the other hand, retain the ability to change their properties and tend to develop pacemaker-like function in the petri dish.