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In 2017, we are ‘Making Sense of Stress’ #YearOfStress

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ -Viktor Frankl

On the third day of 2017, several hundred people gathered on a panoramic hill in Budapest to let out a collective scream. The event’s Facebook page cited how awful 2016 was, and that people had loads of pent up stress (1).

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By now, everyone has shared his or her two cents about how to approach the stressful 2017 ahead. Just a few weeks ago, The Lancet reported a possible physiological mechanism for linking emotional stress to increased risk of heart disease.

Here at The Physiological Society, we are all about studying normal function or disease in living systems. Living systems can be human or animal. While we toss around the word stress, coined only around 50 years ago by Hans Selye, on the daily, there isn’t a definition that everyone agrees on.

Our stress response system is ubiquitous in the body, there are individual differences, responsiveness to stress changes over time, and the amount of influence of genes vs. environment is unclear.

This is why we are devoting all of 2017 to ‘Making Sense of Stress.’ Check here regularly for our growing list of activities across all areas of our work: events, outreach, education, policy, communications, and our journals. Contact us here to get involved.

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(1) Science hasn’t actually shown yelling to be helpful for stress reduction, contrary to the bold claims of primal scream therapy in the 60s and 70s.

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Making sense of stress in the wild

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!

Dr Kimberley Bennett, Abertay University

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Researcher in the Spotlight June 2016

Lisa at Merton

Dr Lisa Heather PhD, is a Diabetes UK RD Lawrence Fellow in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford. Her research revolves around metabolism and energy generation in the heart.

Lisa will give The Physiological Society Bayliss-Starling Prize Lecture ‘Cardiac metabolism in disease: All fuels are equal, but some fuels are more equal than others’ at our main meeting P16 in Dublin, Sunday 31 July 9:00 am.

 

 

What is your research about?

I study energy metabolism in the heart. Metabolism explains how we extract energy from the fuels we eat: how we convert glucose and fatty acids into ATP via a series of chemical reactions within the cell. When this process goes wrong the cell can become starved of energy, and ATP dependent processes – such as contraction – will be impaired. Abnormal cardiac energy metabolism occurs in a large number of diseases, including diabetes and heart failure. Understanding why these metabolic abnormalities occur and whether changing metabolism is beneficial for cardiac function is my area of research.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

My undergraduate degree was in Medical Biochemistry at the University of Surrey, and I had an amazing lecturer, Dr Jack Salway, teaching metabolism. He made the subject exciting and relevant, and made me want to pursue it further to become a ‘die-hard metabolist’. I moved to Oxford in 2003 and joined the lab of Professor Kieran Clarke, studying the effects of disease on cardiac metabolism. Kieran was (and still is) an excellent mentor, providing support whenever I needed it, but equally allowing me freedom to explore my own directions and stand on my own two feet.

When I first started in the field of metabolism it wasn’t a particularly fashionable field – everyone was focused on genetics, and metabolism was viewed as a subject where all the questions had already been answered. Scientific fashions change, and in the last 10 years metabolism has had a huge renaissance, mainly driven by discoveries in the cancer field. It’s an exciting time to be working in this area, new collaborations are emerging between diverse fields that have realised metabolism is influencing or being influenced by their disease or cellular process. Suddenly, having a good understanding of the fundamentals of metabolism is a powerful tool.

I have never considered leaving the field of metabolism as it’s the area I love, and when I set up my own group in 2011 I decided it was the field of diabetes, the ultimate metabolic disease, that I wanted to specialise in.

Why is your work important?

Metabolism underpins all cellular processes. It provides ATP for all active processes to occur, it provides the building blocks and intermediates for diverse chemical reactions, and provides substrates for post-translational modifications. Changes in metabolism have been implicated in many diverse diseases of all organs in the body. As stated by Steven McKnight in Science in 2010 “One simple way of looking at things is to consider that 9 questions out of 10 could be solved without thinking about metabolism at all, but the 10th question is simply intractable…. if you are ignorant about the dynamics of metabolism”.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I really hope so. Understanding how a disease develops and progresses is the first step to working out how to prevent or reverse it.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical day can involve any combination of lab work, discussing data with students, planning new studies, writing and rewriting papers, teaching undergrads, and meetings. Each day is different and that’s one of the things I really enjoy about being an academic.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I love the ‘Aha!’ moments. When you have been busy trying to work out why something has changed or the mechanism involved, and suddenly everything fits together and makes sense. When you have discovered something, however small, that wasn’t known before. It reminds me of those “magic eye” pictures, when you stare at it long enough that the blurry 2D pattern finally turns into a beautiful 3D image. The “Aha” moments are the reward for all those times the experiments didn’t work.

 What do enjoy the least?

On a day to day basis, I really hate having to collect liquid nitrogen from our outside cylinder! It’s the worst job! I generally really love my job and feel grateful that I get to do this every day.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I really really really like designer shoes. If only Manolo Blahnik could make mitochondria-inspired pumps!

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Do what you love. Being a scientist is a tough career, so you have to love it to deal with the challenges, such as paper rejections and lack of job security. Have faith in your own abilities. Be nice to people and help people when you can, people are then more likely to come to your assistance when you need them. Smile :)!

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?

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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’

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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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