Disease can originate from early development?!

Disease can originate from early development?!

Last week’s blog post was all about the #uosIDS 10 year celebrations here at the Institute of Developmental Sciences. We’re also the home of DOHaD (Developmental Origins of Health and Disease). But what is this? What is this hypothesis that forms the basis to the majority of research here? Well, I’ll enlighten you with some science!

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It’s well known that ‘bad genes’ and poor lifestyle choices affect our health and wellbeing in adulthood. But is it that simple? Is that all that determines our health? Professor David Barker, a Southampton based clinical epidemiologist, challenged these traditional ideas. In 1990 he proposed that poor nutrition in the womb resulted in common chronic diseases and ‘The Barker Hypothesis’ was born, which is now known as the ‘DOHaD Hypothesis’. He suggested that the environment during fetal and early life is what ‘programmes’ our health and risk of disease from infancy to adulthood. It is thought that the fetus adapts to the nutrient supply available during pregnancy. Some will have to adapt to a more restricted supply, which is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases.

Pregnancy health
Early life health. Photo: Pexels

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The science behind the hypothesis

UK lower socioeconomic areas – infant mortality rates in the early 20th century correlated with cardiovascular deaths 60-70 years later.

The Hertfordshire Study – Barker revealed that low birth weight (indicator of poor maternal environment) was associated with higher blood pressure, increased death by coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Helsinki, India and Amsterdam – studies revealed similar relationships between maternal nutrition/childhood growth and chronic disease.

The Dutch Winter Famine (1944-1945) – people including pregnant women were restricted to only 400–800 calories per day. Famine during early pregnancy lead to larger and heavier babies with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adulthood. However, exposure during mid-late pregnancy resulted in babies with reduced birth weight, a reduced ability to handle blood glucose levels and risk of type 2 diabetes.

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Over the past 25 years a wealth of research (both human and animal studies) has contributed to Barker’s theory. Effects of maternal stress, obesity and hypoxia (low oxygen) during pregnancy on offspring health are a few conditions being researched today. Research is still on going in Southampton as a result of Barker’s work. The Princess Ann Cohort and the Southampton Women’s Survey found a correlation between low maternal vitamin D levels and lower childhood bone mass and grip strength, respectively. These results have lead to interventional trials involving vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy.

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Human beings are like motor cars. They break down either because they are being driven on rough roads or because they were badly made in the first place. Rolls-Royce cars do not break down no matter where they are being driven. How do we build stronger people? By improving the nutrition of babies in the womb. The greatest gift we could give the next generation is to improve the nutrition and growth of girls and young women

Prof. David Barker

The power of epigenetics

For years scientists have studied single genes and how alterations in them affect our health status. Recent research suggests that there are factors (epigenetic factors) which in turn alter the function of these genes. Some epigenetic markers have been associated with the natural ageing process and some have been associated with diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

So what are epigenetic factors? Epigenetic changes modify our DNA, causing some genes to be switched on or off, and consequently causing more or less of the corresponding protein to be produced. Environmental factors such as undernutrition, overnutrition, stress and inflammation can alter our epigenetics. We know these factors experienced by the mother can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases for the child in later life. Epigenetic changes in critical developmental time frames are thought to cause long term effects and consequently increased susceptibility to disease throughout the life course.

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Human placenta. Turquoise= trophoblast (placental) cells, purple= connective tissue, pink= fetal blood vessels. Photo: Placenta Lab and Biomedical Imaging Unit, University of Southampton.

The placenta is the interface between mother and baby, and the source of all the baby’s nutrients during pregnancy. Transfer of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) via amino acid transporters are vital for fetal growth. A suboptimal placenta can therefore cause problems for the baby in later life. Research here at the IDS is currently investigating how epigenetic changes impact the placenta and these amino acid transporters. Studies are also looking into the epigenetic modifications leading to changes in gene expression associated with the risk of obesity and metabolic disease in later life, which is very relevant to our current population.

 

The hypothesis can lead to good things!…

The DOHaD hypothesis has lead to a huge amount of research over the years exploring the reasons for and why conditions during pregnancy affect the long term health of the child. This understanding which is constantly growing can have a huge positive impact…

  • shift the focus of public health interventions – should not just be focusing on the health during childhood and adulthood, but also during pregnancy.
  • opportunity to reassess education, availability of health services and professional training.
  • Enhance education in the importance of nutrition, exercise and emotional health.
  • Enhanced support for the mother during pregnancy. Stress and emotional struggles can have a serious knock to maternal wellbeing and result in severe consequences to offspring health.
  • Research focusses – researching genetic predisposition and epigenetic monitoring would enhance our ability to target chronic diseases more effectively in the future.

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Additional nutritional intervention studies are vital in order to further our understanding of chronic disease risk factors and the epigenetics which play a role in exacerbating these health complications.

David Barker and his hypothesis have really made scientists change their way of thinking. It has lead to ground breaking science and provides a foundation to improve public health services in order to enhance the health and wellbeing of future generations.

… And of course it’s formed the basis for my very own PhD research.

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#uosIDS: 10 years of developing healthy lives

#uosIDS: 10 years of developing healthy lives

A week has passed since we celebrated 10 years of developing healthy lives here at the Institute of Developmental Sciences (IDS), Southampton, UK.

I’ve been doing a science communication internship alongside PhD the past few months which was in the lead up to this event. My main role has been to increase the awareness of the IDS and the research that goes on behind our pod doors. I filmed interviews with various IDS academics, edited the footage and shared via our social media channels. I was involved in the main event too on the 8th November 2017 which was an absolute highlight… I had the amazing opportunity of interviewing a few special people!

 

“fundamental research into the processes by which the environment of the developing embryo, fetus and child lays the foundations for health and chronic disease risk across the life course”

– Prof. Mark Hanson, Director of IDS

IDS

Part 1: Celebrating 10 years of IDS research and the future.

The IDS is split into different research themes which formed the basis of the day event. I could go into so much awesome sciencey goodness for you but instead I thought I’d share some #uosIDS tweets from a few of us. What better way to give you short sharp fun snippets of science?!

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Developmental physiology and medicine

devphys3devphys2

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Nutrition and metabolism

nutrition3nutrition4

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Genomics

genomics3genomics1

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Epigenomics

epigen3epigen2epigen1

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Regenerative medicine

regen2regen1

“If you can’t explain the research you do down the pub then you’re missing a trick” #uosIDS

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Part 2: “Building Superhumans?” – Debating the ethics of altering development

Okay so this was BRILLIANT! In the evening we had our very own Question Time style debate. We were fortunate enough to have a fantastic panel to answer the audience’s very thought-provoking questions.

The panel

Chair: Lord Prof Robert Winston (middle)

Panellists: Dr Adam Rutherford (science writer and broadcaster), Jamie Raftery (The Holistic Chef and healthier diet advocate), Shelley Rudman (Olympian and fitness trainer), Prof. Neena Modi (medical researcher and President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health).

So how did this work? College/A-level students submitted their questions they wanted to ask the panel about altering human development and here’s what was picked out!

1. What are the panel’s ideas of a superhuman?

2. Do you think anyone given enough training can become an Olympian?

These two questions led onto the discussion between nature vs. nurture (genes vs. environment), and that both are pretty important. With regards to question no.2, Shelley Rudman highlighted that to be a successful athlete it’s not 100% about your physical condition, but training your ‘frame of mind’ is also vital.

3. We all need a ‘healthy diet’ but how do we determine what ‘healthy’ means for an individual person?

The panel agreed that a balanced diet is key. An interesting point Jamie Raftery mentioned was something we discussed in an interview beforehand,  that a diet which works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. We’re all different and so we need to work out our own balanced diet. Personalised diet is a form of personalised medicine, pretty cool concept right?! Dr Adam Rutherford raised the fact that according to scientific data, diets don’t work. Fad diets actually end up leading to weight gain! Prof. Neena Modi said we should give our children a whole range of foods, flavours and textures to give them the best chance of a healthy diet, and that if given a choice between unhealthy and healthy food, children tend to gravitate to the healthy stuff over time!

4. As it is now cheaper than before for genome mapping, should everyone have their genome mapped so that we can design or give interventions for diseases much earlier?

There was definitely a difference in opinion here! Some were in favour as it would be interesting to know what your genome says about you and your future health, but for those reasons, some would rather not know what lies ahead of them! Getting our genome mapped would be so fascinating, but what’s more important is knowing the results on a larger population scale, not just a few individuals. Could everyone’s genome be read at birth?

5. How do we draw the line between genetic modifications which improve health and those that give other perceived beneficial traits?

The opinions of the panel were divided on this one. Interesting, Prof. Neena Modi highlighted that by choosing who we have children with we’re actually selecting the traits we want to be carried on into the next generation. Is that a form of genetic modification? Advances in scientific technology are of course happening, and so we’ll see what happens in the future, but there could be some ethical dilemmas to figure out!

6. Should anyone be allowed to be a parent?

What a question to finish on! You could just see the whole audience lean out of their seats to see what the responses were going to be. Not surprisingly, a few of the panel did not want to respond with their personal thoughts! It’s a tricky one. The against side of this question were comments about how people such as paedophiles and murderers shouldn’t be allowed due to major impairments in their mental state. But we can’t live in a society which actively stops some people from conceiving children. That just leads down a nasty road and not very ethical! Lord Prof. Robert Winston threw the eugenics word into play! We of course already have framework in place to take children out of ‘bad’ homes. So although we can’t stop the reproductive process, and therefore the ‘nature’ side of development, we can to some extent tackle the ‘nurture’ element.

As you can probably tell this was a fantastic debate which gave me a lot of food for thought.

I just want to finish off with my personal highlight!

R.Winson interview

There are some exciting things coming from my work here, so watch this space!

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Now it’s your turn! How do YOU feel about these questions?! Let me know in the comments below!

Follow @uosIDS on Twitter to keep up-to-date with the research going on in this part of the world.

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World Diabetes Day

World Diabetes Day

Today is World Diabetes Day.

Diabetes is a condition which occurs when the body cannot regulate glucose (sugar) properly. The cells within the body are not able to respond and ‘use’ the glucose in a normal way, which leads to large amounts of glucose in the blood. It is the high blood glucose levels which can cause serious health conditions.

“Estimated 422 million people are living with diabetes in the world, 1 in 11 of the world’s adult population.”

– Word Health Organisation

So what stops these cells from utilising the glucose properly?

Let’s talk about insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. After we eat a meal we digest our food and the carbohydrates get broken down into glucose. This glucose needs to be utilised by our cells (particularly in fat tissue, the liver and skeletal muscle) in order to generate energy. Insulin is what allows the glucose to move into our cells.

Diabetes is often explained via a lock and key mechanism. Insulin being the key which enables the door of the cells to open and allow glucose to enter.

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Diabetes lock and key

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This lock and key mechanism is different in those with diabetes compared to those without it. This mechanism is also impaired in different way in the two main types of diabetes:

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Type 1 diabetes:

Insulin just isn’t produced by the pancreas so there’s no key to open the lock on the cells.

Type 1 diabetes affects 10% of diabetic patients in the UK. It’s what we call an autoimmune condition. The insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed which means that insulin is not produced by the body.

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Type 2 diabetes:

Insulin (the key) may not be able to unlock the door to the cells optimally, or it could be that it’s readily available but the lock isn’t working properly.

Type 2 diabetes is often associated with being overweight and affects 90% of UK diabetic patients.

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There’s also something called pre-diabetes. This is when someone has blood sugar levels above the normal range but not enough to be diagnosed as diabetic. Having pre-diabetes increases the risk of developing diabetes.

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What’s the treatment?

Sadly there is currently no cure for diabetes. HOWEVER, amazing scientific advancements has lead to the discovery of insulin (lowers blood glucose levels) and it’s use as a treatment (particularly for type 1), and the development of other medication and devices which are vital in managing diabetes. If diabetes is not managed and high blood glucose levels persist, it can lead to a plethora of health disorders such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, nerve damage, chronic kidney disease, foot ulcers and visual impairment.

Diabetes management

As I said, type 2 diabetes (most common form of diabetes) is often associated with being overweight. So eating healthily, exercising regularly and monitoring blood glucose levels is important…

Adults should do 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week. Muscle strengthening activity should also be included twice a week.

– recommended by The Department of Health

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… so hello #150mins campaign.

The lovely Krishana (@beyond.the.ivory.tower) over on Instagram has set up an inspiring campaign to raise awareness of diabetes throughout the month of November. Her campaign is to encourage others to work towards 150 minutes of exercise a week and to share their efforts on social media to inspire others. Here’s what she shared with the IG world:

150mins campaign

I’ve been sharing my workouts on my IG stories along with many others, so head over and join us by using the hashtags #150mins and #diabetesawareness! Krishana has also been doing fun daily diabetes-related Q&As, so give her a follow and learn something new!

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If you’d like to seek help with managing diabetes please talk to your doctor or visit the following websites:

http://www.diabetes.co.uk

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetes/

http://www.diabetes.org.uk/home

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PhD self-care tips

PhD self-care tips

Working in the world of academia as a PhD student can be very demanding. We don’t get awarded the title of Dr for simply generating some good data or coming up with an awesome idea, we work hard to earn that PhD. Hard work comes with stresses and sometimes a few road bumps along the way.

One thing a lot of us can forget is that all important self-care. A PhD is like an endurance event, it’s a long and rewarding journey, but we need to take care of ourselves to get to the finish line.

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So how can we look after ourselves? Here are my top 10 PhD self-care tips:

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Stop comparing yourself to others

You may start your PhD the same time as other students but everyone’s PhD is different. Comparing yourself to others on occasion can be a healthy kick up the backside if you’re slacking. But trust me, for the most part it’s unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Focus on you and your PhD.

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Need help? Ask!

Whether you need help with a protocol or you’re having a few struggles with mental wellbeing, seek help. We all need help at times no matter how big or small the problem is, and there is a wealth of support out there for you. Know the right people to ask for help in the lab, find out what support services your university provides, and read blogs to help with issues related to the PhD life.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Looking after yourself is not just for the weekends. Working 12-hour days during the week with those fun things left to the weekend is going to lead to burnout. Be honest with yourself, how productive are you after the normal 8/9 hour working day? Probably not very. So take time for you in the evenings, whether that’s just relaxing, going to the gym or seeing friends. Living for the weekend can lead to you associating the week with negative thoughts, that’s not exactly a great way to live.

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Emails. You don’t have to be attached 24/7.

Does your phone notify you as soon as you get a work email? If yes, I really suggest turning them off. Having them on means you never have a true break from work and in some situations this can lead to anxiety. Also, try not to check emails fist thing. Checking emails as soon as you get to work can lead you off track from your original plan for that day. Try opening them up a couple hours into work so you start your day off well. Are they really so important that they can’t wait a few hours?

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Sleep well, exercise regularly and eat right.

Being mindful of the foundations to leading a healthy life (mentally and physically) is so important. Getting those 7-9 hours sleep improves brain function. Regular exercise keeps you fit, allows you to focus on something non-work related and is a great stress reliever. Eating a balanced diet and not relying on sugar to keep you awake whilst working gives your brain and body the right fuel to function well. Being and feeling healthy helps to keep a positive mindset.

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Be organised

The deeper into the PhD journey you get, the more studies you’re juggling and the more items you have on that to-do list. Being organised is key to keeping yourself on track, focussed and motivated. These all lead to reductions in stress levels. Set short terms goals. I advise making daily goals at the start of the week or the day before and tick them off as you go along. Small steps make big progress.

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Play to your strengths

PhDs come with a degree of flexibility in how you work. If you are most productive in the morning, then start and end your working day earlier. Maximise that time you work well. If you aren’t a good multitasker then set aside blocks of time in your week to do your research, reading and the other odd jobs. There’s no point trying to tackle everything in one day if you know your brain doesn’t function like that!

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It’s ok to say no

You can’t take on everything your supervisor and others want you to. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout. Be aware of the work you can take on without compromising your work/life balance. Developing this awareness does take time but it allows you to then manage the expectations you have of yourself, and enables you to manage your supervisor’s expectations of you.  

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Celebrate successes

We work hard so reward yourself when you’ve reached a goal. Allowing yourself treats will help you to stay motivated. For the smaller goals treat yourself to something little like your favourite dinner, and for the bigger milestones reward yourself something super fun like a trip to the pub/cocktail bar or a day trip to the beach.

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Time off

Remember we are entitled to time off, everyone needs a break. Taking time off helps us to relax, unwind and gives that overworked brain some nice relax time. It helps us to come back to work energised and proactive. If a certain phase of laboratory work means it’s hard to take a whole week off, make sure you’re planning in some long weekends.

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Are you mindful of putting self-care into practice? Any other tips you can enlighten us all with? As always, I love to hear from you! Just comment below.

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[ I originally wrote this blog post as a guest contributor for Let’s Talk Academia. Check the website out here! It’s full of brilliant advice and experiences about life as a postgraduate student and working in academia. ]

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Science, scicomm and supporting women in STEM – Sasha Weiditch

Science, scicomm and supporting women in STEM – Sasha Weiditch

For November’s Scientist Showcase please welcome the fabulous Sasha. Sasha is a PhD student over in Toronto, Canada. Her passion for science, engaging the public with research, and mission to empower women in STEM is so inspiring, passions I can really relate too! Sasha shares her science life over on Instagram as @scigirlsash which you have to check out! Over to you Sasha…

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What are you researching?

My PhD is in biochemistry, specializing in protein chemistry. Protein chemistry is a big field, because proteins are arguably the ‘do-ers’ in an organism. Your DNA holds all the information that makes you, well, you (aka your genes). Genes are encoded into proteins that float about in the cell and get all the molecular processes going. I’m looking at a specific organism, the bacteriophage, and how it’s molecular workings cause it to perform its function, which is to kill bacteria. Scientists are now looking for alternative sources to fight bacteria in our bodies, food or anywhere really because of the rise of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria. This makes the study of bacteriophage an exciting prospect for the future.

Sasha lab1

“I loved doodling the Krebs cycle in high school biology and thinking about all the elements in the periodic table in chemistry. Putting it all together and understanding that these beautiful and intricate processes drive us and our world forward, it’s really something wonderful to investigate”.

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You started #PhDenomenalPhDemale – tell us more!

It’s pronounced phenomenal female, and the hashtag was inspired by the well, ‘phenomenal’ women I am fortunate to have met throughout my graduate career. These are women who are choosing science, pursuing challenging PhD programs and following their passion to use science to create a better tomorrow. I thought – ‘I already know about these inspiring women, why don’t more people, and especially more young women?’. Throughout my academic career I had experienced the plaguing uncertainty, the challenging competition with peers, the long hours of studying, the feeling of ‘why am I even doing this?’ and yet, above it all, I made it through. While I am now accustomed to those feelings being a natural part of the PhD process, I am aware of how debilitating those thoughts are as a high school or university student. Thus, PhDenomenalPhDemale is a way to give real life examples that with the right amount of perseverance, hard work and belief in yourself, your dreams are attainable.

phdenomenalphdemalelogo

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Let’s talk scicomm! Your Instagram is just beautiful.

I enjoy using Instagram for science communication as it’s a fast and fun way to be part of a community of scientists and bloggers. I love sharing cool science, or, everyday science that’s cool. Using IG to learn from other scientists and followers who comment and ask questions is one of my favourite ways to share information! I love that anyone can tap into their device and ask a scientist a question, or see what day-to-day research life is like. I’m hopeful that this type of interaction will shed a positive light on scientists and break stereotypes for women in science.

I’m also very aware of the negative aspects of an app that is on a device that is with you literally all. the. time. In one minute, harmful societal notions of how your body is supposed to look, what you’re supposed to say, eat and dress like are reaffirmed by these falsely idolized figures. So basically, I was sick of it. I wanted to be part of a space that promoted real women doing inspiring things in their lives and in science.

SoapBox Science

I recently took part in Soapbox Science, which I found out about through IG! I was honoured to be part of this event as it aligns with my goals as an ‘instagrammer’, which is to promote women in STEM. Standing on my Soapbox in the busiest intersection in downtown Toronto wearing my lab coat, I got asked many questions on my topic, the bacteriophage, by young and old, men and women. And – it was a lot of fun!

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How do you balance work, scicomm and personal life?

A valuable piece of advice given to me that sticks into my mind all the time: not every day has to be balanced to achieve ‘work-life balance’. Sometime days are longer, some days are shorter. Some weeks are longer, some weeks are shorter. Being a PhD student, this resonated with me because I often (like I think many millennials are) am trying to fit it ‘all’ in and succeed in my professional goals. I try my best to make time for things like fitness, spending time with family and friends and of course, keeping up with blogging and social media. Still my PhD work is primary, so keeping this advice in mind, I remember not to stress when the ‘balance’ isn’t met and make up for it in the future.

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For other current/soon-to-be PhD students, what are your dos and don’ts?!

Do NOT think that you are alone in experiencing the roller coaster of success and failures in your research or graduate school life. Great discoveries are spawn of the curiosity to try something that may not succeed (or better, you learn from that negative results as well!).

Stay focused on your research goals but also make time to find out what else excites you outside the lab or in other research groups. There’s a whole world waiting to collaborate in many cool ways.

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And finally, a day in the life of Sasha!

 

A huge thank you to Sasha for sharing her life as a scientist, science communicator and promoter of women in STEM. To see more of what she gets up to head over to her Instagram and give her a follow, or you can find her on Twitter!

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