Category Archives: Women in Physiology

Wikipedia, women, and science

Every second, 6000 people across the world access Wikipedia. The opportunity to reach humans of the world is enormous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many eminent scientists, especially eminent female scientists, don’t have pages!

Melissa Highton is on a mission to fix this. Her first step was bringing together a group of students and librarians for an Edit-a-thon to update the page of the first female students matriculated in the UK, who started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. They’re known as the Edinburgh Seven.

Not only do Edit-a-thons provide information for the world, the Edinburgh Seven serve as role models for current students studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Melissa shines light on Wikipedia being skewed towards men, and also on structural inequalities that lead to so few women having pages. Women are often written out of history; they are the wives of famous someones who get recognised instead, they get lost in records because they change their last name, or they juggle raising a family, meaning they don’t work for as long or publish as much.

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Having a forum to talk openly and transparently about these inequalities is one of the steps to closing the gap. Our event for Physiology Friday 2017 did just that, and we hope participants will continue the conversation. Listen to Melissa’s talk here.

 

Watchers on the wall: Microglia and Alzheimer’s Disease

By Laura Thei, University of Reading, UK

The watch, worn by years of use, sits ticking on our table for the first time in two years. It has a simple ivory face and is the last memorabilia my partner has from Grandad Percy. Percy passed from us after a long personal battle with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. It is in his name that my partner and I will take to the beautiful winding pathways beside the Thames, to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society.

We will be taking part in a 7 km Memory Walk, with thousands of others, some my colleagues from the University, each sponsored generously by friends and families, each who has had their life touched by this disease in some way. Last year nearly 80,000 people took part in 31 walks, raising a record £6.6 million. As a researcher in Alzheimer’s disease, I am acutely aware of every penny’s impact in helping to solve the riddle of dementia.

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Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk

Alzheimer’s disease is ridiculously complicated. Oh, the premise is simple enough: two proteins, amyloid beta and phosphorylated tau, become overproduced in the brain and start to clog up the cells like hair down a plug. This causes these cells to be deprived of nutrients, oxygen and other vital factors that keep them alive. This eventually causes regional loss in areas specific to memory and personality. It’s simple in theory, but the reality is that we still have much to learn.

Current, extensive research is starting to answer these questions and whilst there is a growing list of risk factors – genetic (APOE4, clusterin, presenilin 1 and 2) and environmental (age, exercise, blood pressure) – confirmation only occurs when a brain scan shows the loss of brain region volume in addition to the presence of amyloid beta and tau. This means that by the time someone knows they have the disease, it’s possible that it’s already been chugging away at their brains for some time.

So we need to push diagnoses earlier. To do that we need to look at the very early stages of the disease, down to a cellular level, to find out how we can prevent the build-up of amyloid and tau in the first place. This is what I, the group I’m in, and many other researchers nationally and globally are striving to do.

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In a non-active state, microglia lie quietly surveying their local area of the brain. ©HBO

I am specifically focusing on the immune cells of the brain, microglia, and their contribution. Microglia are the most numerous cells in the brain. They act as the first line of defence, so their involvement and activation is often seen as an early sign of disease progression. Like all good defences, they tend to be alerted to damage before it becomes deadly. But, like the neurons (the basic building blocks of the brain), microglia are also susceptible to the disease. If they die, does that leave the brain more vulnerable to further insult? That is what I would like to know too!

In a non-active state, microglia lie quietly surveying their local area of the brain. When activated by a threat to the brain, they cluster around the targeted area, changing shape in the process. They then enter one of two states. The pro-inflammatory state releases molecules that attack the harmful pathogens directly, and the anti-inflammatory state releases ones that promote healing and protection of the area.

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Microglia can change shape to either attack pathogens or protect the area. ©Nickelodeon

With Alzheimer’s, microglia are activated by the accumulation of amyloid, not damage. They absorb the amyloid beta, and in the process, trigger the pro-inflammatory response. This then increases the permeability of the brain’s blood supply, allowing immune cells into the brain to assist removal of the excess protein. However, in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, the amyloid beta production outdoes the microglia’s ability to remove it. This creates a perpetual cycle of pro-inflammatory response, releasing molecules that can kill cells in the brain. It is unclear whether there is a threshold between beneficial or detrimental in the microglial response.

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Microglial response to fight Alzheimer’s Disease can become detrimental. ©2011 Scott Maynard

Given the importance of microglia in neurodegenerative diseases, a new field of microglial therapeutics has recently emerged, ranging from pharmacologically manipulating existing microglia by switching their response status, to inhibiting microglial activation altogether. Continued research and clinical efforts in the future will help us to improve our understanding of microglial physiology and their roles in neurological diseases.

We’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go, which is why every penny counts!

Stressing out the immune system

Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Natalie Riddell, School of Biosciences and Medicine, University of Surrey, UK, @N_Riddell_Immun

Natalie Riddell LatitudeStress can get under our skin. It can influence each and every physiological system, and all of the major contemporary diseases in the UK, including cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disorders, metabolic syndrome, infectious diseases and cancer, have been associated with stress. Stress affects everyone, and levels of anxiety and mental health disorders are increasing with work-related stress now being the second most commonly reported illness in the UK workforce. Over the last four decades, research in the area of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has identified stress induced immune alterations as a potential mediator between chronic stress and ill-health.

In the 1970s, Holmes and Rahe developed a scale to subjectively grade stress, [which inspired our recent survey of stress in modern Britain]. They ranked over 40 different types of life stressors, such as the death of someone close to you, changes in relationship status, work-related stress, even Christmas, and they assigned each stressor a score. The total tally of stress scores that a person had experienced in the last year could accurately predict the likeliness of future illness. This demonstrated that stress and illness were closely related. In the 1990’s, Cohen et al., eloquently demonstrated that psychological stress increased the rates of respiratory infections and clinical symptoms in participants inoculated with the common cold (Cohen, Tyrrell et al. 1993). Subsequent studies revealed that every organ, tissue and cell of the immune system could be altered by psychological stress. The involvement of immune alterations in stress induced diseases was recognised and the field of PNI was born.

Defining stress

Stress is highly subjective. Something that I may class as stressful (watching Arsenal this season), may not be stressful to other people (Tottenham supporters). So how can we define stress? In the 1960s, the psychologist Richard Lazarus introduced the concept that stress is a process consisting of three distinct steps. First, a stimulus (i.e., the stressor) has to be present and perceived. Second, the stimulus initiates a conscious or sub-conscious process whereby the stressor is evaluated in relation to available coping options. If the demands of the situation exceed the ability to cope, then the situation is perceived as stressful. Thirdly, this results in a stress response involving emotional (e.g., anxiety, embarrassment) and biological (e.g., autonomic-endocrine) adaptations. Put simply; stress is a situation or event that exceeds, or is perceived to exceed, the individual’s ability to cope, that then triggers an emotional and biological response.

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Image: Darryl Leja, NHGRI

The stress adaptation response and immunity

The biological adaptation to stress is activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The same biological response is induced whether the stressor is psychological, such as anxiety or embarrassment, or physical, for example, exercise, trauma or fever. In the case of psychological stress, the individual perceives an inability to cope and this results in the amygdala, a part of the brain that contributes to emotion processing, sending a distress signal to the nearby hypothalamus. The hypothalamus can communicate with the rest of the body via either of two arms of the involuntary nervous system: “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) or “fight or flight” (sympathetic). During stress, this “fight or flight” system is triggered and various physiological changes occur, including an increase in heart rate, respiration and energy production. This promotes survival of the individual by maximising physical capacity to cope with the stressor.

During stress, signalling from the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system causes the adrenal gland to secrete the two main stress hormones; adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can spread and act throughout the body via the circulation. The sympathetic nervous system innervates all of the organs of the immune system, and individual immune cells can directly respond to changes in circulating levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Stress is therefore able to alter every process of immunity, from the initial development of stem cells into early immune cells in the bone marrow, through to the triggering of immune responses to specific antigens in the lymph nodes. Even when in the peripheral tissues, such as the skin or gut, where mature immune cells are most likely to encounter infections, the cells can be regulated by stress hormones. It is therefore unsurprising that the immune system is a modifiable target of stress.

Read Natalie’s full article in our magazine Physiology News to find out how acute stress changes the composition of the blood, and why our Stone Age brain can’t cope with the constant stress of modern life. Her feature takes a more detailed dive into the effects of stress on the immune system’s day-night (circadian) rhythm, and points to stress management as an easy and affordable way to make us healthier.

Reference

Cohen, S., D. A. Tyrrell and A. P. Smith (1993). Negative life events, perceived stress, negative affect, and susceptibility to the common cold. J Pers Soc Psychol 64(1): 131-140.

 

 

Shark Diary, Episode IV: Life on board

Aboard the RV Sanna, our days rotate around meals, fishing, and experiments.

dry fish and musk ox

Our ship is the newest vessel of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Her name, RV Sanna, inspired from ‘Mother of the Ocean’ in Inuit mythology, shows the Institute’s commitment to safeguarding the aquatic environment and to advising governments on the sustainable use of living oceanic resources.

At 32 metres long, Sanna is small for an ocean-going vessel. She is, however, well-designed for scientific research in the marine environment. She is five stories tall, with engines in the bottom and the bridge, where the Captain sits, at the top. Our rooms are above the engines and below the waves.

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The hoverdeck on RV Sanna. Image courtesy of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

As the only female scientist aboard, I knew I’d have to share a room with one of the men. I ask for he-who-is-least-likely-to-snore, and that turns out to be Emil. He takes the bottom bunk, I take the top. It isn’t easy climbing up there on the rough seas. When a five-story-tall boat hits rough seas, you can really feel it!

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Rocky ride to the fjords

From Nuuk, the 40-hour transit south to the fjords near Narsaq is really tough. We head down along Greenland’s west coast towards Cape Farewell in gale force winds. The northerly winds hit the ship at around more than 12 metres per second as we get to the open sea and worsen overnight, creating five metre swells waves hitting our ship from all sides. Most of us need to use the patch against seasickness. One of its side effects is blurred vision, so I spend the first few nights half blind trying not to roll out of my bunk.

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Life on board tries to proceed as normal during the onslaught. Our cook Caroline makes a valiant effort to feed us despite the sensation of living inside of a washing machine. At lunch one day, Caroline is caught off-guard by a rogue wave. It hits the ship so hard that she and everything else that is not tied down goes flying five metres through the air and across the room. Chairs break, and dishes in the kitchen fly out of the cupboards and smash!

Living conditions improve when we finally reach the calm waters of the southern fjords, and pull into the port at Narsaq. In the quiet of the harbour, we set up our scientific equipment. Microscopes come out of boxes, chilling water circulators are plugged in, and apparatus used to measure all sorts of forces (like pressure, flow and tension) are calibrated. Most importantly, everything is placed on top of non-slip mats and is tied down, just to be safe. In the evening, we head into town to have a pint, meet the locals, and ask them where the sharks are. The Greenland shark is very common bycatch for the major Greenlandic fisheries (like halibut), so the local fishermen know which fjords harbor sharks of which sizes. We celebrate everyone surviving the 40-hour transit in the rough seas, and buy some more dishes for the galley!

The pub is in a wooden shed, serves local microbrews, and features a band playing Greenlandic folk songs. I get asked to dance by an elderly Greenlander. I don’t think I have the right moves; we don’t even last a whole song!

We get back to the ship around midnight to find it locked up. The captain must have gone off to bed. We try every door at no avail. Julius valiantly squeezes through the window used to tie the ship off, and lets us in from the cold. We all troop off to bed right away, as we need to be fresh for pulling up the longlines bright and early in the morning.

How to catch sharks, and only sharks

lonf lining from frdcdotcomdotau

Long line fishing. Image courtesy of the FRDC

Longlining is a fishing technique we use because the sharks swim up to 1.5 kilometers deep. The longline is the main line of reel that starts and ends with a buoy that floats on the top.  Between the buoys, our longlines sit at around 200 metres deep. From that main line, are a series of lines that end with baited hooks. These secondary lines are between 100 and 200 metres long. You can vary the depth of each set of lines to place the hooks in the part of the water column where you expect your fish to be. We usually set one or two longlines each morning and evening.

Each of our sets of lines has about ten hooks baited with ringed seal that we buy from local hunters. Seal meat is a common food in Greenland, but apparently sexually mature males don’t taste very good, so this is what we buy to bait the hooks. Seal meat is very oily and attracts the sharks better than other fish-based bait. Stomach content analysis confirms that these sharks eat seal. In fact, their stomachs contain whole seals suggesting that they sneak up from the depths and swallow the sleeping seals whole!

Setting_longline   Longline

Longline fishing has been criticized, especially in commercial fisheries such as for swordfish, because of the large amount of bycatch: the other marine creatures that are caught unintentionally. It’s a major problem for fisheries and is something that governments, environmental groups, and commercial fisheries are working to reduce globally. Our crew knew the correct combination of bait, depth and positioning needed to prevent bycatch. In our ten days of setting longlines, we caught 27 Greenland sharks, and had no bycatch whatsoever.

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.

Making sense of stress in the wild

By Kimberley Bennett, Abertay University

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

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

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

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

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

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

kb-fieldwork

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

Centenary Celebrations – Round up

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In 2015, we celebrated 100 years of  Women’s Membership of The Physiological Society. To honour this occasion, we are hosted a series of events and activities throughout the year.

Events

On Wednesday 2 December, The Physiological Society hosted the H3 Symposium “Celebrating 100 years of Women’s Membership of The Physiological Society”. Organised by Susan Wray, who together with Tili Tansey had published a book earlier in the year, the event brought together a group of inspirational women to recognise and celebrate achievements, challenges and the future of women in science. The event featured thought-provoking and inspirational talks as well as stimulating Q&A sessions, and provided a networking opportunity  with women at the top of their field. It goes without saying, the day was a great success.

The event was live-streamed on the day. If you missed it, you can watch the day here.

Education and Outreach

Schools were invited to celebrate the Centenary with a poster competition focusing on the achievements of women who’ve won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Elsie Moore, a 15 year-old student from The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, won with her creative poster summarising the work of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. As part of the prize, Elsie received a certificate, £50 Amazon gift voucher, and a visit from Research Assistant Dr Carmen Coxon (University of Bristol) to her school. An additional highlight of the prize was a personal message from Nobel Prize winner Christiane herself!

Publications

Experimental Physiology

To celebrate the centenary Experimental Physiology invited women physiologists who have given Society Lectures to give an update on their recent work and key developments in their fields since their lecture. These Review articles have been compiled in a special Women in Physiology December issue.

A selection of the journals earliest articles published by women are presented in the Virtual Issues.

The Journal of Physiology

To celebrate the centenary of the admittance of women to The Physiological Society, the 15 January issue of The Journal of Physiology featured a Classical Perspectives article by Tilli Tansey entitled ‘Women and the early Journal of Physiology’ and another by Mary J Morrell entitled ‘One hundred years of pulmonary function testing: a perspective on ‘The diffusion of gases through the lungs of man’ by Marie Krogh’,

The Journal of Physiology also produced a virtual issue which consolidated some top research my early female physiologists.