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Bringing STEM into Parliament

By Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is social media?

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

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

Why should I engage?

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

To network with peers

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

For Public Engagement

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

For Self-Promotion

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

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

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

How do I start?

Here are a few steps to help you get started:

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

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

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

How can I measure success?

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

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

Conclusion

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

Originally published in Physiology News 106, 32-34

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Diversity at The Physiological Society – with a focus on our scientific events

As we have highlighted previously, The Physiological Society was one of the first signatories to the Science Council’s Declaration on Diversity. We welcomed this initiative and the recognition that there is room to improve the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in all areas of science – including at our own Society.

The Society has taken its commitment to this Declaration seriously.  Under the guidance of our Diversity Champions, we have made some significant improvements to our knowledge and practices – made possible by the engagement of staff, members and Trustees, and the support of the Science Council and its networks.

Our work began with surveys of the staff and membership.  With the results used in conjunction with retrospective analyses and benchmarking studies, we have made the following changes and improvements since 2015 (note the list is not exhaustive):

  • Unconscious Bias training available to all staff, Council and Committee members.
  • Unconscious Bias workshop for members at our main conference
  • Mandatory targets of 25 % and aspirational targets of 33% for female speakers in all symposia and Departmental Seminar Schemes
  • Early Career Networking events

Signing the Declaration has catalysed a review of The Society’s activities from a different perspective; whilst we didn’t previously consider ourselves to be exclusive in any way, we are now aware that others may have considered us so. To address this, we intend to review each of our specific activities for their level of ‘inclusivity’, and to promote positive actions through regular  updates to our website and via email to the membership when needed.

Ensuring access to our scientific events is a critically important Diversity, Equality and Inclusion consideration for us. Physically bringing together hundreds of people to progress the discipline of physiology is a challenging and complex task, but The Society is keen to enable everyone to attend. To a greater or lesser extent, every physiologist will have a different requirement to facilitate and enhance their engagement at a scientific meeting (such as Physiology 2016). Some steps that we have taken to ensure that you feel welcome and able to engage have been listed below:

  • Funding available for those with caring responsibilities (For more information and how to apply, please email events@physoc.org)
  • Free guest registration
  • Rooms for breastfeeding mothers
  • Child care facilities, where possible and practical
  • Early career networking events
  • Catering for specialist diets
  • Prayer facilities
  • Live streaming of key lectures, available free of charge

Barriers and obstacles can be diverse, and sometimes hidden, but we are keen to address these wherever possible. So, whilst we take every step to ensure attendance and engagement is possible, we always welcome feedback for improvements and allowances. Please contact events@physoc.org to discuss any specific needs that you might have.

 

 

 

Anti-doping: evolution or revolution?

debate-handout (002)_Page_1_crop

What is the best approach to tackle doping in sport? Should we improve our current detection and deterrence methods, or would a complete different approach be the best solution?

The event, held by Cycling Weekly and co-hosted with the University of Brighton, was inspired by two recent comment pieces published in CW; the first by sports ethics specialist Dr Paul Dimeo, who called for a revolution in anti-doping policy — a complete re-evaluation of what we mean by ‘cheating’.

In response, genetics expert Professor Yannis Pitsiladis countered that current anti-doping measures can succeed provided they evolve via improved testing and more severely punitive deterrents. Thus the debate was born — anti-doping: evolution or revolution?

You can catch up with the debate here.

We were delighted to have our Member Yannis Pitsiladis join our panel at Edinburgh Science Festival where he debated with sports psychologist Edward Coughlan about the relative importance of genetics and training in our event ‘Olympians: Born or built?’. The event, chaired by three time Paralympian Dan Gordon, was a huge success with the audience, continuing the debate online, and in the bar. The event was one of many stops in the Professor of Sport and Exercise Science public engagement appearance.

 

Of Ice Swims and Mountain Marathons (and So Much More)

I Spy Physiology Blog

If you regularly read this blog, you may know that the research questions that physiologists ask relate to wide range of topics—cells, tissues and organs, insects and animals, and how the environment influences all of these things. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the annual Experimental Biology meeting. This year, thousands of physiology-based research abstracts were presented over five days. Read on to learn about two research studies on extreme sports that caught our eye.

Glacier Dive Credit: Ram Barkai

Ice swimming is growing in popularity, with hundreds of athletes worldwide giving this chilly sport a try. Human performance in water this cold—swims must take place in water that’s 5 degrees Celsius or colder—has not been well-studied. In a study presented at the EB meeting, researchers looked at how age, gender and environmental factors such as wind chill affected athletes during one-mile ice swims. Among other results, they found…

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Science Communicators in the spotlight: Dr Kat Arney

An inspirational ‘Science Communicator spotlight’

Biochemical Society

By Rachel Burnett, Education and Public Engagement Officer, Biochemical Society

Kat Arney

We have interviewed our panel of expert judges for the Science Communication Competition series, to find out more about their career paths into science communication, and tips for those just starting out in this area. This post is by Dr Kat Arney, science communicator, freelance writer and broadcaster.

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Why Do You Gasp for Air on a Cold Winter’s Day?

I Spy Physiology Blog

Winter running - Young woman running outdoors on a cold winter d Credit: Getty Images

I live in South Dakota where the winter days can be frigid and very dry. Many people, including me, have difficulty breathing while exercising in the winter because our airways temporarily narrow during exercise. This condition is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), formerly known as exercise-induced asthma, and it’s often triggered by working out in cold, dry air.

Scientists believe it’s the dryness of the air breathed in and the quality of the air, not the coldness, that cause the airways to narrow. The lungs have a number of defense mechanisms and reflexes to protect the small airspaces from dry air and particles in the air. The extensive network of airways moistens and warms inhaled air so that by the time the air arrives at the gas-exchange areas—where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves—it is humidified and the same temperature as the body. The airways are…

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