By Alexandra Williams, @AlexM_Williams
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, or read the full article in its original version in Physiology News.
By Charlotte Haigh, University of Leeds, @LottieHaigh
I was very honoured to be invited to Parliamentary Links Day, by The Physiological Society on the 26th June. The theme this year was science and the industrial strategy. Being Yorkshire, born and bred and still living up north, you don’t often get these opportunities and I was very unsure what to expect.
After arriving early and going through security checks, I found myself in a packed room in Portcullis House ready for the start of the day. Although the event was organised by the Royal Society of Biology, 13 other societies were represented by banners at the event from across the breadth of science, technology, engineering and maths.
The morning session was filled with speakers including five MP’s, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor and a representative from UKRI. These speakers all pulled out key points of how the science and industrial strategy is aimed to be delivered and how increasing the funding of R&D in the UK wasn’t the only challenge. The speeches were broken up by two discussion panels of people from many of the represented societies talking about how they were contributing to influencing and delivering some of the key elements of the strategy.
It was made apparent at the start that not many MP’s are well-versed in science, and this is a problem. We need more scientists and engineers in the House of Commons. This surprised me at first but then on reflection, as scientists, not many of us would aim for that type of profession.
The Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Norman Lamb MP, highlighted how important it is that we continue to get the best people to work in science in the UK. Government is currently working on a blueprint of the pact we need to agree on for science in the Brexit negotiations. I am sure many of us would support this.
Many of the discussions we have been having in the higher education sector at present and for many years were highlighted and discussed. We need to nurture young talent from an early age, right from primary school. We must concentrate on achieving diversity in areas such as gender and ethnicity in all STEM areas, taking it seriously and not just paying lip service to it. We should value technical staff and give them opportunities to flourish. There was also a discussion raised by our own Andrew Mackenzie (Head of Policy and Communications) about the issue of 45% of public spend on R&D going to the golden triangle (Oxford/Cambridge/London) and how we need to focus on getting economic development to poorer regions of country.
So what are my reflections on this day? Well, it was interesting to hear all this and there were no surprises in what was said. Lots of challenges, but not many answers. Many of the discussion points raised resonate and are mentioned within The Physiological Society’s new 2018-2022 strategy which is great to see. Throughout the day, lifelong health (The Society’s policy focus) was mentioned, more than once, as one of the grand challenges for STEM going forward. I think being involved in a day like this is important for The Society and its members, to make the government aware who we are and what we do and promote what I hope is a two-way stream of communication between Government and the scientific community. It was great to hear that ‘scientists on the coal face must be supported’ but the cynic in me questions how the government can really achieve this.
If you wish to see anymore highlights of the event, visit the Royal Society of Biology Facebook page or search #LinksDay18 on Twitter.
Cats. They’ll push your glass off the table, get you to open the window just to look outside some more, and recognise your voice but pretend they didn’t hear. Yet, the little despots rule the internet – and the couch. This International Cat Day, take your obsession with cats to a new level by learning about their physiology: how their bodies work.
How does cats’ hunter vision work?
Cats have a broader visual field than us, spanning about 200 degrees instead of 180, however they can only see objects 20 feet away, whereas we can see over 100 feet away. While our eyes are chock full of cone cells that specialise in detail and colour, cats’ are packed with rod cells specialised for dim light and night-vision. Because they have more rod cells, they can track quicker movements. This might explain why they find laser pointers so fascinating. While we see the laser darting from one spot to the next, a cat would see its path along the way.
Why do cats cause allergies?
Do cats have you reaching for tissues? They are a common cause of allergy: an overreaction of our immune system, which triggers mechanisms designed to fight infection (like a runny nose, itching and swelling) in response to harmless substances. Cat allergies are mostly triggered by two major allergen proteins. The most reactive one, Fel d 1, triggers reactions in more than half of cat allergy sufferers. It is found in cats’ saliva and waste, but is also produced by their skin cells. Another protein, Fel d 4, is similar to what triggers allergies to horses, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits. Allergens in cats’ saliva end up on their fur when they groom themselves. It is the fur they shed, along with dead skin cells, which flies around and ends up on surfaces, carpets… and in the noses of allergic people! But there is hope yet for allergic cat lovers. Allergen-specific immunotherapy, an ‘allergy vaccine’ of sorts, aims to train the immune system to stop overreacting to harmless allergens, by introducing it in small doses at first, and increasing them little by little. To avoid the risk of a dangerous allergic reaction during the process, scientists are developing molecules that look enough like the allergens to train the immune system, without the power to trigger an allergic reaction. In the meantime, allergic cat lovers might be tempted by claims of hypoallergenic animals. While some cats may naturally produce lower levels of allergens, this varies from cat to cat and no breed has been proven ‘hypoallergenic.’ Opting for a short-haired or bald cat breed may limit allergy risk because they won’t shed as much fur, but better keep those anti histamines close – cats have no notion of personal space!
How do cats purr?
What makes the purr distinctive from other cat vocalizations is that it is produced continually, while the cat breathes in and out. In contrast, a meow is only produced when breathing out, like when we speak. The purr sound is produced in the larynx – the voice box. Cats with a paralysed larynx can’t purr, and purring returns with their voice, after healing. In the larynx, the vocal folds oscillate to create the purring sound as inspired or expired air passes through.
Because it is created by a different mechanism than voice, purring can occur at the same time as a meow, hence the purr-cry that cats use to manipulate us when they want to be fed. And house cats are not the only ones to purr. Purring has been recorded in most felines, except for panther-like species: Lion, Leopard, Jaguar, Tiger, Snow Leopard and Clouded Leopard. As lovely as it is, a cat purring at the vet’s (if only!) may prevent them from hearing properly during auscultation. There’s an easy fix for it, just turn on a tap nearby!
What determines calico fur patterns?
The fur pattern of a calico or tortoiseshell cat all boils down to genetics, and specifically the X chromosome.
To understand how, we need to take a short detour into sex chromosomes. X and Y chromosomes, the two that determine sex, were not created equal; Y chromosomes have very few genes, whereas X chromosomes have hundreds. And while males only have one of the large X chromosomes, females have two. Double the chromosomes, double the proteins, right? Not quite, because producing double the amount of proteins from the X chromosome would be toxic. To make up for this imbalance, females shut down one of the X’s when the fertilised egg starts dividing. The gene for fur colour is on the X chromosome in calico cats. When the black fur gene is inactivated, the cell creates orange fur instead. The X chromosome that’s inactivated is randomly chosen in each cell. This means certain parts of the fur will be black and others will be red.
For up to £5000 for innovative public engagement projects about any aspect of physiology (available to both members and non-members), apply by 14 June. This grant has funded exciting projects, including the project Lewis tells us about below, Leith Labs.
Ocean Terminal is a shopping centre down in Leith, a proudly independent district of Edinburgh next to the coast of the Firth of Forth. Far from a purely commercial ecosystem of shops, cinema, and gym, there exists community spaces, social enterprises, pop-up art galleries, design exchanges, living museums and as of June 2016, a long-term science programme, Leith Labs.
Leith Labs is not the first use of science in malls, but is unique in that it is a long-term science residency involving both university researchers and professional science communicators, with regular, monthly, free events for both passing shoppers, families, and the adult communities who use the space.
On a given Saturday, there are simple drop-in activities exploring the Leith Lab’s theme (be it the science of the North Pole for Christmas, or fireworks for Bonfire Night) or explaining local research with scientists from the four universities in Edinburgh. We also have Science Buskers, both professional from Eureka Edinburgh and trained from the university, who perform short shows drawing in crowds around our hacked Leith Lab unit that was very kindly donated by the shopping centre. Finally, we also have informal discussions over tea and biscuits with researchers and community members at the Living Memory Association, a living reminiscent centre.
Leith Lab’s strengths as a project are based on principles that are vital for any science communication or education project that wants to meaningfully engage with communities.
Reaching out to new audiences:
Too often in science communication, we are not critical enough about who we are reaching with our events, and whether we are reaching beyond the “already converted” to science. Only 2% of the UK population have attended a science festival in the last year (Wellcome Trust Monitor, 2015) & up to 20% do not engage in science at all. If we want to reach the other community members, we can’t expect them to come to us. We, as science communicators, need to reach out to these communities in spaces where people go, be it libraries, arts/music festivals, pubs, cafes or shopping centres. This is an important principle guiding Leith labs, and our evaluation data is primarily looking at who is coming to our events, and filling our postcards.
Reaching out to new audiences is not enough if this is just a one-off. Whilst there is definitely a place in science communication for high-quality events that happen once, or even annually, such as science festivals, the lack of regular, long-term engagement opportunities can be a real barrier to audiences and attitude change generally.
Our current plan is to ensure Leith Labs runs in the long-term, at least once a month. The hope is that with more collaboration from research groups, we can eventually hold events even more regularly. There have been many occasions where conversations start with “I’ve seen you guys a few times before…”, indicating it was only after a few times that they came and engaged with the activities. We already have a few returning families who come to Ocean Terminal especially for the activities and arrive even before we’ve set up! We’re definitely interested in trying to evaluate how long it takes for people to come and visit.
For this project, we want it to be as community-led as possible. Over time, we want the questions collated from the post-cards to actually determine the themes of Leith Labs. If we get lots of questions based on space for example, there is obviously community interest in this, and this gives us an opportunity to reach out to the universities’ astrophysicists to help us provide content. We have been keen to reach out and collaborate with the community groups and projects that are already in Ocean Terminal, and this allows us to ensure that our talks are of interest.
Our close relationship with the Living Memory Association has been very important. Beyond providing a venue and support for the tea, science, and biscuits talks, we’ve had some success engaging their older audiences in some of the talks. This is still developing, and not quite there yet, but based on one community that use this space, Care for Carers, we’ve had several very successful talks discussing dementia and the role of music and language (including a session involving singing together).
From the outset, Leith Labs is trying to be as collaborative as possible, integrating with many different projects with overlapping goals. The planned programme built up towards being a major part of the university-led “Explorathon” project (EU Researchers Night) on the 30th of September and then continued as part of the Fun Palaces programme on the 1st of October (a nice tie to the origins of the project). Collaborating with Beltane, this provided mutual benefit, allowing the university to provide training for researchers and a venue out in the community (and new audiences).
On a similar note, we already have plans to integrate Leith Labs with other projects across the year (Edinburgh International Science Festival, Voluntary Arts Festival, Audacious Women Festival and Leith Festivals), and form partnerships with more university departments and life-long organisations such as Ragged University and People Know How. This is an important part of our sustainability plan for Leith Labs. We are all trying to do similar things when it comes to community engagement (science, further education, arts). The more we collaborate, pool resources and knowledge, and build relationships, the more we can achieve.
Evaluating of audience numbers and monitoring background: This can be very difficult and lots of different methods have been tried. Ideally, a project would have someone dedicated to evaluation. This of course depends on having a big enough team to dedicate someone to this task. During the Explorathon weekend, we were actually able to provide evaluation training beforehand for the volunteers.
Small audiences: For our tea, science, and biscuit discussions, it can sometimes be hard to get audiences even when community members usually use that space. Sometimes even too scientific a title can be intimidating, so we tried to have more broad titles, and to link each science talk with a more general discussion about art or society. However, our deepest engagement tends to happen with smaller audiences, so don’t neglect quality for quantity.
Thank You: A massive thank you to The Physiological Society for funding the project through their public engagement fund. Additional financial and in-kind support came from Edinburgh Beltane and Explorathon. A big thank you to Ocean Terminal for their support of the project and for providing both unit and space, including Alison Bancroft. We couldn’t do it without our partners and communities at Living Memory Association, People Know How, Eureka Edinburgh, guest partners including Haemophilia Scotland, ASCUS, all the science communicators (especially Ross and Craig) and all the researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Napier University, Heriot Watt and Queen Margaret University.
Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Ronan Berg, Department of Clinical Physiology & Nuclear Medicine, Frederiksberg and Bispebjerg Hospitals & Ronni Plovsing, Department of Intensive Care 4131, University Hospital Rigshospitalet, both in Copenhagen, Denmark.
While the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga have thrilled physiologists and non-physiologists alike, it may be worthwhile to take a look back at what we as respiratory physiologists have learned from the venerated space opera so far. It remains indisputable – at least between the authors of this paper – that the first six episodes’ protagonist-turned-villain-turned-saviour Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is the most fascinating case study on respiratory failure in the history of cinema. […]
Health hazards of volcanic fumes
In the Star Wars saga, the highly talented Jedi knight, Anakin Skywalker, choses to abandon the monastic Jedi Order and instead join his father figure Sheev Palpatine in the more exclusive and politically involved Sith Order. As he does this, he assumes a new identity as Darth Vader, and earns the title Dark Lord of the Sith. For a number of reasons, this change of careers does not impress a former Jedi Master of his, and the two soon clash in a light sabre duel on the volcanic planet Mustafar. The confrontation results in a near-fatal outcome for Darth Vader who loses several limbs in the fight, and while he is incapacitated on the volcanic shore, he furthermore suffers inhalational injury and third degree burns. However, before he passes away, Palpatine comes to the rescue, and organises timely medical intervention. […] After the incident, Darth Vader is unable to breathe freely at all; outside his personal meditation chamber, which also appears to function as some kind of a fancy hyperbaric oxygen facility, he continually relies on a mobile life-support system, which is integrated in a whole-body armoured suit, in order to survive (Figure 1).
Darth Vader’s acute respiratory failure appears to be the consequence of a number of factors, including direct thermal injury to the airways, chemical damage to the lung parenchyma caused by inhalation of smoke and volcanic dust particles, carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as secondary effects to his severe third degree burns, which seems to cover ~100 % of his total body surface area. […]
Due to his quite severe facial burns, it is difficult to determine whether Darth Vader exhibits ‘cherry-red cheeks’ at this stage, a typical clinical finding associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Inhalation-induced acute respiratory distress syndrome in a Sith Lord
Darth Vader’s immediate respiratory distress on the volcanic shore is probably caused by volcanic gaseous irritants with high water solubility in the volcanic fumes, which cause immediate symptoms of tracheobronchitis, and impair pulmonary gas exchange (Nemery 2006; Mlcak et al., 2007). Since Darth Vader may concurrently be exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, which both impairs the red blood cell uptake of oxygen in the lungs due to its higher affinity for haemoglobin than oxygen, and furthermore shifts the oxygenhaemoglobin saturation curve to the left, so that the release of oxygen from the red blood cells to tissue mitochondria (and perhaps also the conceivably similar midi-chlorians) in various organs is impaired; severe tissue hypoxia therefore ensues. Due to his quite severe facial burns, it is difficult to determine whether Darth Vader exhibits ‘cherry-red cheeks’ at this stage, a typical clinical finding associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, but his rather agitated emotional state is characteristic of the cerebral dysfunction often encountered in this clinical condition.
We deem it irrefutable that Darth Vader fulfils the diagnostic criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome within a few hours after the incident on Mustafar.
Within a few hours, that is, after Darth Vader has been evacuated by Palpatine, the effects of direct thermal injury on the central parts of the lungs, as well as the effects of the volcanic water soluble gaseous irritants and aerosols set in. These give rise to acute chemical pneumonitis with non-cardiogenic pulmonary oedema and induce a reduction in ventilatory capacity with increased pulmonary ventilation-perfusion inequality, thus severely impairing pulmonary gas exchange (Nemery 2006). At this stage, the systemic inflammatory response to the severe skin burns may furthermore disseminate from the blood stream to the alveolar compartment, and thus exaggerate the pulmonary inflammatory response. Although appropriate diagnostic imaging would be required to establish the diagnosis here on Earth, we deem it irrefutable that Darth Vader fulfils the diagnostic criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome within a few hours after the incident on Mustafar, which is a common complication both after inhalation injury and severe skin burns (Mlcak et al., 2007).
Following extensive robotic surgery, the medical droids choose to treat Darth Vader’s respiratory condition by means of the iconic whole-body armoured suit. The suit contains a mobile life-support system, and from a careful analysis of Episodes IV-VI, we have concluded that it functions as an advanced bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP) system that supports Darth Vader’s intrinsic breathing both during in- and expiration, while preventing airway collapse, and continually supplying him with oxygen (Plovsing & Berg 2014). Accordingly, his respiratory rate varies with his activity level (Figure 2), and pressure equalisation with the surroundings can clearly be heard when his helmet is detached. Other scientists have noted that Darth Vader’s whole-body armoured suit may furthermore function as a means of preventing infections, which is notably relevant in the immediate aftermath of the events on Mustafar, due to Darth Vader’s extensive skin burns (Perrella et al., 2015).
Read the full article in Physiology News.
Mlcak RP, Suman OE, Herndon DN (2007). Respiratory management of inhalation injury. Burns 33, 2-13
Nemery B (2006). Chemical-induced lung injury and its long-term sequelae. In: Imaging of Occupational and Environmental Disorders of the Chest. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 67-75.
Perrella A, Russo C, Giuliani A, Esposito C, Saturnino P (2015). Infection control in a far, far away Galaxy: new and alternative learning tool from popular culture to improve the antimicrobial stewardship. North Am J Med Sci 7, 236-7
Plovsing RR, Berg RMG (2014). Pulmonary pathophysiology in another galaxy. Anesthesiology 120, 230-2
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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