Tag Archives: women in science

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!


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 :)!

Researcher in the Spotlight May 2016


Julia Attias, Msc, BSc, is a PhD Researcher at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences, King’s College London.

What is your research about?

I’m a PhD student at King’s College London researching into ways that will help to protect astronauts’ bodies in space. I research with a SkinSuit that has been designed to recreate gravity in order to help protect the health of astronauts when they go in to space. The SkinSuit may maintain the integrity of many physiological systems and processes, and it is my job to attempt an understanding of this. I am particularly interested in how the loading provided by the SkinSuit interacts with human movement and exercise, with emphasis on any changes it may incur to our energy expenditure or muscle activity. It’s also important that we understand this, in the hopeful eventuality that the SkinSuit is integrated with future space missions. It has already been integrated into International Space Station missions in 2015, and we hope for many more.

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

I have always been interested in extreme environmental physiology; that is, how the body functions in hostile environments. When I saw there was such a thing as an MSc in Space Physiology and Health, I jumped at the chance and pursued it in 2011-2012. During this time I started researching with the SkinSuit for my summer project. I then quickly realised how much I enjoyed doing research because it was the method by which to find out information that doesn’t currently exist. The project was (and still is) in collaboration with the European Space Agency, and thankfully the findings were of interest, and more research was warranted. I applied for funding for a PhD and two years later, I was fortunate enough to get awarded with a scholarship from the EPSRC, through King’s College London to continue researching with the SkinSuit and human movement. 

Up until university level, I actually wanted to be a TV presenter! After undertaking my BSc in sport science, I realised that I wanted a profession in physiology, and after my MSc, I realised I wanted a profession in space physiology/research. 

Why is your work important?

Plans for human space exploration on a far greater scale than what has been achieved before are on the agenda globally. Visits to Mars are expected within the next 20-30 years. In order to do so effectively, maintaining human function from lift off to landing is of utmost importance. The ideal recipe of countermeasures to tackle longstanding physiological de-conditioning associated with reduced gravity environments is yet to be determined. My work will hopefully go some way towards this, and if I can help even 0.0001%, I’ll be over the moon (no pun intended). 

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I really do believe so. The beauty of the research field I am in is the applicability of the findings to many other populations. Although I research with a countermeasure primarily designed for astronauts, populations such as those that are bed rested/immobilised for long periods of time, those that suffer from disuse atrophy, and those that have suffered from sustained injuries could all benefit from any positive research findings, owing to the analogies in physiological de-conditioning between these populations.

What does a typical day involve?

 A day in the life of me changes every day! It’s one of the things I like; every day is relatively unpredictable, though has its stable duties. I check emails continuously throughout the day as I work with international collaborators and we are all on different clocks. In addition, I will be working on whatever study I currently have running. So it may entail writing the ethics application, planning the study, testing subjects in the lab, analysing the data, or writing the results up and drawing some conclusions based on reading literature. Often I will create an abstract or presentation for a scientific conference. I have regular meetings with my supervisors/colleagues and peers and I also help to teach undergraduate physiology laboratory practicals, so based on the time of the year that could take up a chunk of my day too.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

Being a scientist is hugely beneficial to us all, as breakthroughs – whether about space, cancer, nutrition, exercise, plant biology, etc. – are found primarily through scientists working to tackle the world’s problems, and it feels great to be a part of that. It’s also hard not to enjoy meeting astronauts from time to time! 

What do enjoy the least?

Sometimes it can be disheartening when you didn’t find what you expected to find with your results, or similarly when you find something you didn’t expect to. Although on the flip side, I guess that’s what makes science science, and that’s what makes us as scientists curious to find out why that may have happened. After all, some scientific theories came through unexpected findings! It’s also not the most enthralling job in the world sitting in front of thousands of rows of numbers on an excel spreadsheet ready to analyse! But it’s all part and parcel of the job, and the end result of understanding your findings is always worth it.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I used to dance as a teenager, and performed twice on the BBC show Blue Peter. And of course, I have two badges to show for it!

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

Be curious. Don’t settle for knowing ‘that’ something happens; you need to want to know ‘why’ it happens. This curiosity will inadvertently cause you to be inquisitive, creative and determined. Don’t let the word ‘can’t’ live in your vocabulary and don’t take no for an answer if your gut tells you otherwise. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to, if we want it badly enough. Find something you feel passionate about – this will fill you with the motivation you need to work hard, be determined, and succeed.


Researcher in the Spotlight April 2016


Dr Melitta McNarry is a Senior Lecturer, College of Engineering at Swansea University and specialises in cardiorespiratory fitness across the health, fitness and lifespan with a particular interest in paediatric populations. 



What is your research about?

My recent work has focused on the development of non-pharmacological intervention strategies, such as inspiratory muscle training and high intensity interval training, for people with asthma and cystic fibrosis. I specialise in cardiorespiratory fitness across the health, fitness and lifespan with a particular interest in paediatric populations. Recent work has focused on the development of non-pharmacological intervention strategies, such as inspiratory muscle training and high intensity interval training, for people with asthma and cystic fibrosis.

Furthermore, I am interested in the role of pulmonary rehabilitation for patients with respiratory disease, especially Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, and the potential modifications that can be made to traditional strategies to optimise the outcome for the patients. With regards to such patient populations, I have recently begun to investigate the relationship between rheological parameters, namely blood clotting, hypoxia and exercise. Finally, following on from my PhD work, I continue to investigate the interaction between training and maturity on the bioenergetics responses of children and adolescents.

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

While studying for my Biology degree at the University of Exeter, I realised that I was more interested in human physiology than plants or microbiology, so when a conversation at training one evening led to the offer to complete my dissertation in the School of Sport and Health Sciences I jumped at it! Little did I know this was just the start as following the success of my undergraduate dissertation I was offered a scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Exeter. Whilst not something that I planned to do when I was “older”, I have been brought up in an academic family so it wasn’t a foreign concept when the opportunity arose.

Why is your work important?

My work unites theory with application, aiming to provide real-world solutions to pathophysiological conditions that do not revolve around pharmacological interventions. I therefore believe that my work has the potential to improve patients’ quality of life on a daily basis – even if this is only one patient I would count this as an important impact from my work.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I think my work has the potential to make a difference on the individual patient level, improving the functional capabilities and enhancing their quality of life.

What does a typical day involve?

I would say that the joy of this job is that there is no such thing as a typical day, every day differs with the only common features being that they are generally too busy and that I never get what I planned to do that day done but a thousand other things instead! Nonetheless, a ‘typical’ day involves getting to work early in the morning to try and fight a rising tide of emails before numerous meetings with everyone from undergraduates to internationally renowned professors. This is then combined with giving lectures and running lab sessions for our undergraduates and, on the good days, with conducting testing to advance our studies and research.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I enjoy working with children and patients in the lab and field, interacting with them and seeing research translated into real-life. The mundane (aka, admin-related) elements of the job often make you wonder why you continue working such hours but the rare moments you get to run physiological tests with participants reminds you why you started.

What do enjoy the least?

The requirement to be a jack-of-all-trades from teaching to research to administration, resulting in you being a master of none.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I am not formally trained in Sport Science or Exercise Physiology! My undergraduate degree was in Biosciences.

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

Working hard is more important than intelligence, but sometimes things will happen at their own pace and nothing you can do will speed it up; be patient as if it is meant to be, it will be.

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 www.understanding-life.org/competitions

This article was published in Physiology News 101.