Category Archives: Outreach and Education

Shark Diary, Episode II: Meet the team

The main goal of our Greenland shark research mission was to gather physiological and biological information about the sharks. We tagged every shark we caught with an identification tag, in case they were caught in the future. We measured body and fin length in all sharks and took a small sample of tissue from each animal for DNA analysis. To further our understanding of how these sharks use their environment, we tagged some with satellite bio-loggers, which track their location as they move about in the depths. We also wanted to understand more about the way they swim – as Greenland sharks are considered among the slowest swimmers in the sea.  We employed a different kind of tag for this called an accelerometry tag.

Some of the sharks were injured on the line – either by being bitten by other Greenland sharks or by swallowing hooks. These sharks were humanely euthanized and brought aboard the vessel so that we could study their internal anatomy. We studied the reproductive organs of both male and female sharks. We also studied their skeletal muscle to link how the muscles contract with their slow swimming speed.  Lastly, we wanted to study their hearts and blood circulation. We wanted to learn about heart rate, about blood pressure about how the heart muscle contracts and how much blood it pumps, and about blood chemistry.

John Fleng Steffensen, University of Copenhagen

The Greenland Shark first caught my attention back in 2001 when the captain of our research vessel told me he’d heard that the creatures live to be very old. When I searched for past research on this creature, I only found one reference to their age, from back in the 1960s, when P.M. Hansen found that one shark had grown only 8 cm in 16 years. Such slow growth seemed to suggest they might live very long. It was our work in finding a way to calculate the age of these sharks that eventually determined that they could indeed live for centuries! Our cruises to southwestern Greenland have taught us much more than just the sharks’ longevity: on our latest mission, we looked at heart muscles, properties of the circulatory system (heart rate and blood pressure), where and how fast they swim, and filming their feeding at depths of 200 to 600 meters.

Takuji Noda, The Institute of Statistical Mathematics

I am an interdisciplinary scientist working between biology and informatics. My main interests are locomotion, behaviour and physiology of fish in their natural environment and how to measure that information in various types and sizes of fish. Therefore, I am developing customized animal-attached data loggers, composed of a variety of sensors (the technique is called bio-logging). With colleagues, I have established a company called Biologging Solutions Inc. to support the creation of customized data loggers and solutions for improving data recovery.

I am interested in the swimming ability and behaviour of Greenland sharks, which live in deep and cold waters. In the fjord of Greenland during the expedition, we attached multiple-sensor data loggers to Greenland sharks. The loggers automatically detached from the sharks and popped up to the surface of the water, where we could find and recover them using radio telemetry. Using a high-resolution accelerometer and speedometer, we measured swimming patterns such as tail-beat frequency and speed to understand how slowly they move and if they exhibit bursting movement when feeding.

Although it was difficult to measure bursting moment during the recording period, the data showed the sharks generally swims at very slow tail-beat frequency (at about 6 seconds per beat). This supports the measurements from physiological experiments in the lab.

Julius Nielsen, University of Copenhagen

I am a PhD student from the University of Copenhagen and have been working on the #GreenlandSharkProject since 2012. This project investigates many aspects of the biology of Greenland sharks including longevity, feeding ecology, migration patterns and population genetics.

I first started studying sharks caught as bycatch by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources during fish monitoring surveys. These sharks gave unique insights into this poorly studied species, for example revealing their extreme longevity. The oldest shark we analysed was at least 272 years old, making the Greenland shark the longest-living vertebrate known. We also learned that they catch fast-swimming prey like Atlantic cod and seals, an unexpected finding given their seemingly sluggish nature. How they do this is still a mystery; I expect they might be ambush predators, who catch prey by being stealthy rather than speedy, as well as opportunistic feeders, scavenging carcasses from the ocean floor.

On this expedition, my main focus is to deploy satellite tags on the sharks to learn more about their movement patterns. We especially want to tag sexually mature animals to learn about mating areas and pupping grounds. I will also take samples from any sharks too injured to release, to inform my ongoing investigations about feeding, longevity, and reproductive biology.

John, Peter, Diego and Emil

L-R: John Steffensen, Peter Bushnell, Diego Bernal and Emil Christensen aboard the research vessel.

Diego Bernal, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

I’m a comparative physiologist who studies how temperature affects the swimming muscles of fish who are elite swimmers. These quick fish, such as the tuna and mako shark, keep their bodies warm. The Greenland shark is the opposite of the fish I usually study, it’s slow and cold. I was curious to learn how its muscles function in its cold environment and how it manages to catch its prey. On our last expedition to study these sharks, the equipment we brought to study the muscles was too small for the huge muscle fibres. We also learned that we needed a way to keep the samples at 1-2 degrees Celsius, to mimic the water temperature where the sharks live.

Peter G Bushnell, Indiana University South Bend

I am a comparative physiologist: I’m interested in how different animals adapt their bodily functions to meet their needs. I focus on the circulatory and respiratory systems of marine animals, and have been studying polar animals in the Arctic and Antarctic for more than 25 years. When my colleague John Steffensen and I discovered how little was known about Greenland sharks, we decided to look at various aspects of their biology such as their swimming ability, migratory movements, diet, metabolism, and reproduction.

On this particular trip I was interested in how their hearts work, as this will impact their cardiovascular system, metabolism, and swimming ability. To do that, I cut out little strips of heart muscle and stretched them between clips. Every time a strip was stimulated by a small electric current, as happens in a normal heart to cause it to beat, the strip would briefly contract (shorten) and then relax: this is called a twitch. By measuring various aspects of the twitch, like strength and duration, we can learn a lot about how the heart might operate in an intact animal.

Making this technique work in Greenland sharks proved very challenging. However, I have managed to conclude that a twitch takes about 3-5 seconds, putting maximum heart rate somewhere between 12-20 beats/min. To put that in perspective, your normal resting heart rate is about 60-70 beats a minute with a maximum heart rate around 180 beats/min. Heart function is temperature sensitive, so it is not surprising that Greenland sharks swimming in very cold and deep water have much lower heart rates. However, I believe their heart contracts very slowly, which is in keeping with the idea that they don’t do anything quickly.

Robert Shadwick, University of British Columbia

I am a physiologist who studies animal form and function, also known as biomechanics. I am interested in the structure and mechanics of the heart and blood vessels in a variety of animals. Blood pressure is an important indicator in an animal. In fish, it reflects the level of activity of a species. Tuna for example are fast, continuous swimmers and have relatively high blood pressure compared to slower fish such as carps.

Activity levels vary greatly among shark species. The Greenland shark is generally considered very sluggish, but may swim fast to capture and eat seals. The purpose of my study was to estimate average blood pressure in the Greenland shark, to understand how these large sharks compare to other species.

To do this, we used the aorta, a large blood vessel that carries blood to the gills. The aorta is very elastic at low blood pressure, but when blood pressure is high the aorta wall becomes stiff. This transition between elastic and stiff typically occurs around the average blood pressure of the animal. By measuring the flexibility of Greenland shark aortas at different pressures, we can estimate the average blood pressure of these animals.

Our preliminary results show that the Greenland shark aorta is very flexible at pressures below 3 kilopascals (kPa, a measurement of pressure), but becomes very stiff with further increase in pressure. Therefore, we can tentatively estimate the average blood pressure to be around 2-3kPa. Our own blood pressure, in comparison, is about five times more (13 kPa), and the slow-moving dogfish shark’s is 4kPa. These results support the idea that Greenland sharks are indeed a sluggish and likely a slow-moving species.

the team in Narsaq, Captial of south Greenland

The team enjoy an evening on land in Narsaq, south Greenland. L-R: Julius Nielsen, Takuji Noda, Bob Shadwick, John Steffensen, Diego Bernal, Peter Bushnell.

Holly Shiels, University of Manchester

As a fish cardiovascular scientist I am interested in the mechanisms that maintain or adjust heart function in a changing environment. Such knowledge has application to cardiac health and disease and in predicting how organisms, populations, ecosystems and natural resources respond to environmental change and stressors.

Investigating cardiovascular function in the Greenland shark is very exciting, because these animals are long-lived and thrive in cold environments.  Several of their cardiac features make them particularly interesting. The first is their very slow heartbeat. Although not surprising for an animal living at 1-2⁰C, it takes a long time for their hearts to fill with blood between one beat and the next. This affects how much the heart stretches out and how strongly it then contracts to push out the blood. We suspect stretch regulation of force is particularly important in this shark.

We are also interested in the Greenland shark’s longevity.  In humans, age is associated with many cardiovascular problems, such as fibrosis (the aged heart becoming stiffer). A key question for us is whether the Greenland shark heart stiffens with age. And if it does, how does that affect its ability to fill will large blood volumes between heart beats?

Both stretch and fibrosis of the heart muscle create an environment for arrhythmia – irregular heart-beats.  Arrhythmias are dangerous in humans, but what about sharks?

During the expedition, we used echocardiography to measure heart rate before releasing the sharks. In animals too injured to release, we collected the hearts and measured pressure and flow relationships. We then preserved the hearts to study their structure, including fibrosis, in the lab.

Emil Aputsiaq Flindt Christensen, University of Copenhagen

I am a biologist with special interest in the interaction between ecology and physiology, the so-called ecophysiology, of fishes. I work both in the field, fitting animals with tags to study their behavior in the wild, and in the lab studying physiology through both animal behavior and biochemical analyses of tissues.

My research has focused a lot on the salt and water balance in fish. In that regard, sharks and similar species are “osmo-conformers”, meaning that they maintain water balance by producing organic molecules such as urea and a chemical called TMAO.

TMAO is an especially interesting compound to me, because it stabilizes chemical reactions that happen in the body, which is helpful under the high pressure conditions found in the deep sea. Thus, analyzing TMAO levels in the Greenland shark might tell us something about how deep it swims.

On a side note, Greenlandic hunters feed their dogs with Greenland shark, but sometimes the dogs get poisoned. This might be because TMAO degrades to a poisonous compound called TMA.

Follow #SharkDiary on Twitter to see all the updates about the expedition.


This expedition was made possible by funding from the Danish Centre for Marine Research, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Danish Natural Science Research Council and the Carlsberg Foundation.

Shark Diary, Episode I: On the trails of the Greenland Shark

By Holly Shiels, University of Manchester

The Greenland shark was one of the lesser-known species of sharks up until last year when their extreme longevity was uncovered. The finding that they live in the deep, dark Arctic waters for hundreds of years captured the imagination of the world and the attention of scientists. How does an animal born in Shakespeare’s time still patrol the deep today? What do they eat? When do they breed? What features distinguish males from females?

There are many open questions about these enigmatic animals.  The purpose of our #GreenlandSharkProject expedition was to use physiology – the science of how living things work – to help us find answers.

The Greenland shark can live for over 400 years.

The Greenland shark is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as data-deficient and near-threatened. While we know the species is under pressure to survive, we need more information about its biology to form an effective conservation plan.

To gather this information, John Fleng Steffensen, Professor in Fish Physiology at the University of Copenhagen, brought together an international group of eight physiologists. Our team includes experts in swimming and locomotion (kinematics), skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle, osmoregulation (the regulation of water, salt and other ions in the body) and eco-physiology (how an organism’s body adapts to its environment).

Researchers Diego Bernal, Bob Shadwick and Takuji Noda aboard the ship.

In the broadest sense, our mission was to gather data on the physiology of these mysterious animals – their hearts, their movements, their diet, and their reproduction. We were also interested in whether their body’s adaptation to cold water is related to their longevity. Clarifying how the Greenland sharks age without developing diseases associated with human ageing, like cancer and heart disease, could lead to new therapies down the line. Not only can we find clues about aging and disease, but also, understanding shark physiology is important for their conservation.

1,856 miles from Manchester to Nuuk

Before boarding the ocean-going research vessel to spend two weeks off the coast of southern Greenland, we gather in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. The journey from Manchester to the world’s largest Island proves to be an adventure in itself.

After a hectic day in the lab in Manchester, I head to the airport for my flight to Copenhagen. I’m travelling light: a hoodie, woolen socks and the rest of the bag filled with electronics, glassware, and chemicals to make up the 15 kilograms I’m allowed to carry. A few weeks ago, I sent three large boxes of equipment and clothes to be put on a cargo ship to Nuuk.

Fast forward to a few hours later. I’ve reached my hotel l in Copenhagen and head out on the town for some Danish beer with three of the other scientists, as our flight to Nuuk isn’t until the morning. Drinking now is important, as the research vessel is dry. Too much heavy equipment on the rough sea to have alcohol blurring judgement!

When I arrive back to my hotel room, I remember that I’ll need to keep my scientific chemicals cool during the night. There’s no fridge in my room, so out the window suspended on a string they go. It’s about 5 degrees Celsius outside so they should be fine, as long as there are no mischievous Danish squirrels about.

The team prepares to board the Dash-8 to Nuuk.

By the morning, two more team members have arrived. The five of us board our Greenland Air flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The plan is to connect there on a small plane to Nuuk, where we will join the rest of the team. The weather, however, has different plans. A large and unseasonal snowstorm is brewing above Nuuk.

Our small Dash-8 tries to find a clearing in the snow that will let us land. After circling and circling, we attempt a landing twice but the wind and snow are fierce. The pilot has no other choice but to abort. The altimeter shows that one of our landing attempts brings us just 110 metres above the runway! Finally, the captain comes over the radio with the bad news that we need to head back to Kangerlussuaq. We are running out of fuel and there was no sign of the storm lifting. This is a problem, as our ship is meant to be leaving Nuuk that night.

Luckily, the storm eventually lets up and we are able to join the rest of the team at the ship. In the end, our departure is pushed back to the next morning because of a radar issue. This gives us a final restful night at the dock before the adventure at sea!

The team finally reaches the snow-covered research ship.

Follow #SharkDiary on Twitter to see all the updates about the expedition.


This expedition was made possible by funding from the Danish Centre for Marine Research, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Danish Natural Science Research Council and the Carlsberg Foundation.

Spinning Out of Control? Public Engagement at SPIN Cycle Festival

By Daniel Brayson, @drdanbrayson

SPIN cycling festival, a celebration of all things cycling, took place on the weekend of 12 May 2017 at the Olympia in Kensington, London. Here at The Physiological Society, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the wonders of physiology, using funding from The Society’s Public Engagement Grants.

Banner pe grants 2017_extended deadline June

The premise of our activity was to find some anecdotal dogma, which is prevalent in sports like cycling, and disprove it. Put simply, we went on a myth-busting mission.

A popular assumption among amateur cycling enthusiasts is that it is good to cycle at a high cadence. Discarding the jargon, this essentially means pedalling really fast. Many people think this because successful professional athletes such as Chris Froome, and previously Lance Armstrong, cycled at very high cadences when they were racing in huge competitions such as the Tour de France, the most famous cycling race in the world.

We based our experiment on a paper in one of The Society’s journals, Physiological Reports, from 2015 by Formenti and colleagues titled Pedalling rate is an important determinant of human oxygen uptake during exercise on the cycle ergometer. What the paper essentially showed is that the faster you pedal for a given work rate, the more energy you use.

Bike like the wind

With this in mind, we set out to perform some live experiments on festival-goers. We set up a bike on a smart turbo trainer with a computer that we could use to read measurements. We recruited many willing volunteers over the course of the weekend, fitting them with a device to measure heart rate, and setting them up on the bike.

Using the smart turbo trainer, we set the amount of work that the volunteers would do to 150 watts of power and placed headphones on them. They then sat for 1 minute before beginning to cycle in time with a metronome, or a clicking sound, that was playing through the headphones. We changed the speed of the click at set intervals which meant that the volunteer would change their cadence accordingly. At each cadence, we recorded the heart rate of the volunteer twice, 30 seconds apart.

Pedalling faster, beating faster

We found that as pedalling rate increased, so did heart rate. This can be seen on the left-hand graph below by the line which goes up in diagonal from bottom left to top right. This suggests that faster pedalling did indeed require more energy, even though the power output remained constant.

spinfest3

Our graph, on the left, comes to a similar conclusion as Formenti and his colleagues on the right. As pedalling rate goes up, so does work rate and energy expenditure. Where Formenti measured oxygen uptake, which requires unwieldy equipment unsuitable for our event, we used heart rate as an easily obtainable proxy measurement, and it agrees nicely with Formenti’s findings.

What does it mean, really?

The real world meaning here is that cycling along the road in lower gears than necessary with high pedalling rate uses more energy than cycling in slightly higher gears but pedalling at a slower rate.

So what’s the deal with Chris Froome?

Chris Froome, and other pro cyclists are not your average human beings from a physiological perspective, so it’s probably a bad idea for us to copy them! The science does show that pedalling quickly at sustained power outputs up to 400 watts, achievable mostly by elite athletes, is far less wasteful. This is because most of the energy gets transferred to the bike in this scenario.

spinfest2

It was especially dynamic and rewarding to engage with a diverse mix of people and preach the gospel of physiology. I would like to thank all the visitors who staked their reputations by joining our experiment! I would also like to thank The Physiological Society for financial support and especially Anisha Tailor for all of her sage advice. A big thanks to Louis Passfield for his generous support and loan of equipment. Finally, I would especially like to thank all of my wonderful volunteer scientists without whom the whole event would surely have been a disaster Elizabeth Halton, Chris Fullerton, Ozama Ismail, Fulye Argunhan, Elena Wilde, Svetlana Mastitskaya, Xiao Xiao Han, and Nick Beazley-Long.

 

 

Practical Innovations in Life Science Education

By Nick Freestone, Kingston University

On 27- 28 April, The Physiological Society held a workshop under the auspices of the Education and Teaching Theme. The workshop was held at The Society’s HQ, Hodgkin Huxley House, and in somewhat of a departure for such an event, extended an invite to those unsung heroes of the Higher Education environment – technical support staff.  Thus, in the weeks leading up to the event, to encourage participation from this under-represented group (in The Physiological Society participation terms anyway) various inducements were proffered to our technical colleagues. Primary amongst these was the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to London contingent upon the submission of an abstract as a prelude to a poster presentation at the event itself. Who could refuse such a generous offer?

Equally heartening from the point of view of your cynical correspondent was the presence of a number of new faces to the physiological pedagogical arena. This served to greatly enliven the proceedings and ensured that the event wasn’t merely an echo chamber reverberating to the well-worn axioms of the usual suspects.

Happily the event kicked off with lunch, which served as a great prompt for punctuality. This was followed by Session 1 chaired with great aplomb by Sarah Hall (Cardiff University) where the audience was blown away by fantastic contributions from Iain Rowe (Robert Gordon University) on teaching pharmacokinetics, Viv Rolfe (University of the West of England) on Open Educational Resources, Michelle Sweeney (Newcastle University) on the use of LabTutor and our very own Derek Scott (Aberdeen) on developing a renal physiology practical for large groups – no urine required!.

This left the audience so energised that a refreshment break was necessary to recover. After this much-needed pause, Session 2 included contributions from Frances Macmillan (University of Bristol), on developing experimental design skills in first and second year students and Rachel Ashworth (Queen Mary University of London) on using technology to teach respiratory physiology from a clinical perspective.

Given so much food for thought it was an opportune time for the participants to form smaller discussion groups facilitated by the Education and Teaching Theme Leads and tireless organisers to discuss a variety of questions posed by The Physiological Society around the general question of “how can The Society help?”. Having set the world to rights in this format, and having provided The Physiological Society with an extensive to-do list, heroically noted down in real time by Chrissy Stokes, the formal part of the day was rounded off by a message from our sponsors, ADInstruments, who reported on upcoming initiatives involving their widely used educational wares. Rather more informal was a wine and poster session which melded seamlessly into a later gathering at a local hostelry.

Day 2 kicked off with a plenary lecture by Peter Alston of Liverpool University. While Peter is not a physiologist, his talk, “Technology-informed curriculum design” was received with rapt attention by an appreciative audience. At this stage of the proceedings, Professor Judy Harris (Bristol University) exerted her considerable crowd control skills and marshalled the next batch of contributions expertly and smoothly. These included talks from Dave Lewis (University of Leeds) on Open Educational Resources, Hannah Moir (Kingston University) who did a livestream of her lecture to us to her own students via an app called Periscope (Think about that for a while! Hannah lectured to us, whilst showing students that she was lecturing to us whilst giving us a demonstration of a technique to enhance student engagement. There’s too many layers there for me to unpack into a coherent story!), Louise Robinson (Derby University) and our very own Sheila Amici-Dargan on how online tools can be used to enhance the learning and teaching environment. Louise Robinson’s talk deserves a special mention here covering as it did a topic close to my own heart, lecturing using gamification techniques. This caused an appreciative hubbub from the assembled throng.

Now if you thought gamification was a bit outré in the august setting of The Physiological Society HQ then you would have been astonished by the contribution of Emma Hodson-Tole (Manchester Metropolitan University) who gave a talk on teaching physiology through the medium of interpretative dance!

I told you this was a different kind of conference. This presentation, in the batch of talks after refreshments, focussed on motor neurone disease and provided evidence on how learning can be facilitated across different groups using unconventional teaching techniques. Other talks in this section included my own (Kingston University) on Outreach and Public Engagement by the use of a “Lab in a Lorry”-initiative funded by HEFCE, and Dawn Davies (Bristol University) who talked about her work using patient simulators in public arenas such as shopping centres. This looked fantastic, if rather daunting fun!

Now I started off talking about how this wasn’t your usual run-of-the-mill academic event, with the old hands nodding sagely while trying not to fall asleep after lunch. No! This event included actual live students! These were Patrick Evans and Elodie Cox also of Bristol University (Judy’s enthusiasm for learning and teaching is obviously infectious). Their talk “Engaging the public with final year undergraduate projects” definitely proved one thing once and for all. Our students are a FANTASTIC resource, capable of giving much better talks than even the most seasoned academic. Suitably humbled and chastened by this demonstration of youthful excellence, the excited crowd networked over lunch whilst perusing some of the items of equipment one can put on the road in a “Lab in a Lorry”.

Feedback from the event was uniformly and overwhelmingly positive. Ideas are being gestated as we speak as a result of this inspirational event. Watch this space for more positive, energising educational stuff in the near future.

Just Take A Breath

By Molly Campbell, University of Leeds, @mollyrcampbell

Take deep breaths. Try to relax. Stay calm. In stressful situations, this is the advice we often receive. More often than not, this tends to work.

What you might not be aware of is that this advice is thousands of years old, and is also supported by extensive scientific research. You’ve heard of the Buddha, right? At the core of the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, meaning focusing on the present moment, is placing attention and focus on the breath. This has beneficial effects on our nervous system and subsequently our health.

yogi

Picture this. You are revising a particularly hard topic, perhaps a subject that you desperately need to ace to secure your college or university place. A train of thoughts frantically rushes through your brain and you panic. I’m not going to get the grade I want! I’m not going to get my college place and this will ruin everything for me! Sound familiar?

In these situations, our ‘fight or flight response’ (the sympathetic nervous system) can go into overdrive. Our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure. This stress response actually limits the function of some of our vital organs – most notably the digestive system. It also limits our cognitive abilities, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. So where does breathing come into the equation?

fightorflight.PNG

The breath is interesting because we can control it despite it being a function of the autonomic (or subconscious) nervous system. Pranayama, or ‘yogic breathing’ involves manipulating and deepening the breath; by doing so we cultivate awareness and consciousness that actually allows us to take the reins and stimulate our ‘rest and digest’ response (the parasympathetic nervous system), inducing relaxation.

How does this work? The vagus nerve, coined the ‘mind-body’ connection, is the longest nerve in the body. To avoid delving too deep into its anatomical route, let’s just say it innervates many organs and regulates many important functions. In the early 1900s, the German physiologist Otto Loewi found that simulating the vagus nerve reduces heart rate by releasing a substance that he called ‘Vagusstoff’. We now know that ‘Vagusstoff’ is actually the chemical acetylcholine that affects brain activity.

When we breathe deeply using our diaphragm, we create pressure in our abdomen that stimulates the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine. Acetylcholine slows down the heart and increases the activity of the digestive system.

Stimulating our ‘rest and digest’ response also inhibits our ‘fight or flight response’. One effect of this is decreasing the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. This then reduces the action of adrenaline in the brain. This is another mechanism behind the physiological workings of breathing for relaxation.

In March of this year, scientists in Italy measured the physiological and psychological responses of students who performed deep breathing (Perciavalle et al., 2017). Considering that the 38 volunteers were university students, the findings are particularly relevant to exam stress. Half of the 38 volunteers did deep breathing exercises once a week for 10 weeks.

The exercises included paying attention to how one breath differs from another, and contracting and releasing the muscles. After 10 weeks, students had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower heart rates.

In focusing on deepening the breath, we calm the nervous system and prevent our body going into ‘fight or flight’ overdrive. This sense of calm and clarity can help bring our attention to the present moment. Our anxiety about exams is regarding the future (What will happen if I fail?) or based on a mistake we made in the past. Using the breath to be present and aware allows us to focus on the now, on the task at hand. So, in times of stress – just take a breath!

References:

Nezlek, J., Holas, P., Rusanowska, M., Krejtz, I. 2016. Being present in the moment: Event-level relationships between mindfulness and stress, positivity, and importance. Personality and individual differences. 93(2016), pp. 1-5.

Bordoni, B and Zanier, E. 2013. Anatomic connections of the diaphragm: influence of respiration on the body system. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare. 6(281-289)

McCoy, A. and Tan, Y. 2014. Otto Loewi  (1873-1961): Dreamer and Nobel Laureate. Singapore Medicine Journal. 55(1), pp. 3-4.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F. and Coco, M. 2017. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences. 38(3), pp.451-458.

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.