Category Archives: Women in Physiology

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.


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!


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.


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.


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!


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
  • 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 to discuss any specific needs that you might have.




Centenary Celebrations – Round up


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.


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!


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.

Winner of the ‘Women in Physiology’ competition receives prize visit from Bristol researcher

Earlier this year, 15-year-old Elsie Moore, from The Thomas Hardye School in Dorset, won our ‘Women in Physiology’ competition earlier this year. This competition was just one of the activities The Society held to mark 100 years of women’s membership in 2015. Winning with her poster on Nobel Prize winner Dr Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Elsie received a certificate, £50 Amazon gift voucher and a visit from a female physiologist to her school.

With the help of ScienceGrrl, a broad-based grassroots organisation celebrating and supporting women in science, we were able to arrange a visit from Dr Carmen Coxon, Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, to The Thomas Hardye School on 14 October 2015. During her visit, Carmen gave a lecture to their year 12 and 13 students, as well as a talk on the heart involving demonstrations with an electrocardiogram for Elsie’s class.

There was also one final – special – prize for Elsie, revealed only on the day itself: a personal message from Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, written on the poster and presented to Elsie by Headteacher Michael Foley (pictured).

Judith Wardlaw, Industry Partnership Development Manager at the school, said, ‘The day was fabulous – Carmen was truly brilliant with the students and her talks and demos were a real treat. Thank you so much for giving us this link as well as for arranging the special message.’

We would like to thank Carmen for providing this prize visit as well as ScienceGrrl and The Thomas Hardye School for their assistance with arranging it.

Further details about the competition are available at

This article was published in Physiology News 101.

Five things having a career break has taught me

A great interview about how to get back into research after a career break. PhySoc has funding of up to £10,000 available for a 12-month period, to support physiologists in their first permanent academic position or returning to a permanent position after a career break. Find out more here 

Biochemical Society

By Marjorie Gibbon, Daphne Jackson Fellow, University of Bath2015-11-09 13.06.02

After a 16 year break from my research career I am really enjoying the opportunity that my Daphne Jackson Fellowship has given me. Based at the University of Bath, my project is to investigate the effects of hyperglycaemia (an excess of glucose in the bloodstream) on the immune response. People with diabetes have an impaired immune response and this, as well as the many other complications, is thought to be the result of the uncontrolled binding of sugars to proteins. To study this I am developing an invertebrate model of hyperglycaemia, which can be used to study these damaged proteins.

Having a career break has its ups and downs and I have summarised the five top things I have learned from my experience below. I hope they will help inform and inspire others in my position.

View original post 789 more words

More than just a muse: Women writing science

There walks the man who lectures to the walls” – this was a comment made by two of Isaac Newton’s students, making reference to Newton’s infamous lecturing skills, which apparently were so terrible that none of his students ever attended his lectures and he was left talking to the walls.

Isaac Newton was not interested in good communication, and his ideas became widely known thanks to his followers, who translated, simplified and communicated them. It took many years for his ideas to be accepted.

Science needs to be communicated, and while the scientific world remained a place mainly reserved for men up until the modern days, women have nevertheless contributed to important scientific discoveries, as well as played a crucial role in communicating science, throughout history. Michael Faraday, for example, was so inspired by Jane Marcet’s 1805 book, ‘Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex’ that it prompted him to devote his life to science.

One of the most important women scientists and communicators and populariser of Newton was Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49), a French mathematician, physicist and author, who contradicted the belief that you cannot be both a women and a scientist. Her motto was to enjoy life and yourself, on a scientific as well as private level.

Together with her then lover Voltaire, she wrote ‘Elements of Newton’s Philosophy’ (Élements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), which was amongst the most influential works about Newton. Although the book only names Voltaire as the author, he fully acknowledged her immense influence and contribution.

Émilie continued writing books and probably her most important piece was a two-volume translation of – and commentary on – Newton’s Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). To this day, her work is the leading French translation as well as the only complete translation of Newton’s book. In addition to translating it from Latin into French, she also provided a long commentary, which explained, challenged and discussed his ideas and provided long footnotes with updates on recent research.

Another famous communicator was Mary Sommerville (1780—1872), the ‘Queen of sciences’. She translated Pierre-Simon Laplace’s book, and wrote many of her own books in which she explained and interpreted the latest scientific ideas.

But how and why did early women scientists use writing to further their careers, and how were they limited by their sex?

In Georgian times (and earlier), home science and family projects were fairly common and a good opportunity for women to get involved with science. But with the increasing importance of qualifications in the 19th century, it became more difficult for women to enter into science. As a consequence, many women turned to science writing and popularising, which would allow them to stay involve with science. Moreover, the more scientific publishing expanded, the bigger the gap between academic and popular science writing became.

Elizabeth Brown (1830-99), for example, was introduced to astronomy by her father. It was only after his death that she actively started travelling to record her observations. She wrote many books on that matter, and had active roles in astronomical societies.

Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) was home tutored, received university education through her brother, and became one of the most successful popularisers of astronomy in the 19th century.

Expectations were different for women than for men; it was favourable for women to possess a sound but fairly general and superficial knowledge. Only a few women attended university. Constance Herschel (Constance Anne (née Herschel), Lady Lubbock, 1855-1939), granddaughter of astronomer William Herschel, grew up surrounded by science and was one of the first women who went to Cambridge. Her letters point out gender inequalities in university education, but she finished her studies and continued in research until she got married and had children. Once her children were older, she started writing popular science.

Interestingly, subjects like maths and astronomy were very popular topics for women to research and write about (scientifically as well as popular writing), as these disciplines were more accessible and acceptable for a woman to pursue. Women could carry out calculations within the walls of their homes and were not dependant on a lab to get results. Before introduction of the Linnaean system, botany also was a very popular research topic amongst women1, but after Erasmus Darwin’s ‘The loves of the plants’2 it was no longer deemed acceptable.

In spite of family commitments, reservations and lack of education, women have carved out a niche that enabled them to work in the field of science. It would be interesting to see if the reason why many women leave research nowadays has the same underlying motivation that women in past times have experienced, or if it is simply because communication and education are (perceived) as a more feminine trait?

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton. Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself, reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work. Image source: 1738b-000fp-image/

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la
philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton.
Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself,
reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who
actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work.
Image source:

This article was published in Physiology News 100, p 38-39

The article is based on the event ‘Women writing science’, held on 10 March 2015 at The Royal Society, where historians Dr Patricia FaraDr Emily Winterburn and Dr Claire G. Jones explored the history of women publishing in journals, writing popular science and corresponding with the Royal Society.

1 Henderina Scott (1862-1929) – Botanist and Filmmaker created pioneering slow motion animations and demonstrated time-lapse films about plant development; Edith Saunders – Botanist; Marie Stopes – Palaeobotanist.

2 Browne J (1989) Botany for gentlemen: Erasmus Darwin and ‘The Loves of the Plants’. Isis 80, no. 4: 593-621.