Medic, researcher and blogger – Dr. Farah

Medic, researcher and blogger – Dr. Farah

It’s time for another Scientist Showcase and I’d like to welcome you to the wonderful Dr Farah! Farah is a medical doctor specialising in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology whilst also doing an academic research component investigating the effect of antibiotics on the gut microbiome and human breath. I love learning more about what she gets up to in the clinic and in the lab over on her Instagram! Farah is a self-taught belly dancer (incredible!) and a lover of tea, travelling and reading! Over to you Farah…

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Tell us more about the scientific research!

We’re doing a pilot study looking at how the route we administer antibiotics (through a drip or via tablets) impacts on the community of organisms/bugs (microbiome) that live naturally in the human gut. This is a big topic in research at the moment as we’re learning that while we live in harmony most of the time with this microbiome, it can affect our health, our brains and even how we think! Importantly, changes in this gut microbiome can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. If we can reduce effects on the microbiome, then we can potentially reduce antibiotic resistance. A lady in the US recently died because the infection she had was resistant to all our antibiotics. This should be one of our biggest fears- the antibiotic apocalypse!!

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What inspired you to go into medicine? And what inspired you to add research into the mix?

In all honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do in life (is anyone?!). I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to end up doing something I really love but that was honestly touch-and-go for a while. I wasn’t doing brilliantly in my AS levels and aiming for medicine helped me to achieve my grades. When I got into medical school, I found that I enjoyed the subject and I got better and better at it over time. I’m also a people person and enjoy the mix of skills, teamwork and the general variety within medicine. I was introduced to research during my undergrad- I did an extra degree for a year in International Health and conducted research in Ethiopia. I decided I wanted to be able to spend a bit of concentrated time on research, so here I am!

“I’m just proud of what I’m doing and have done, and happy with where I am in life.”

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How do you find balancing being a doctor and doing research? That’s a big job!

The NIHR-funded Academic Clinical Fellowship is great in that it allows for dedicated time to focus on research that is protected from clinical time. However, it is really tough pursuing both simultaneously and so I am having to balance that mix a little. I do it by trying to plan ahead, by listening to my body when it’s tired and by cutting myself slack when I’m not “achieving” the way I want to be. I find giving myself deadlines that I tell other people is also a big help. Also, I LOVE my Filofax. Writing things down physically and giving myself tick lists is the only way I focus my mind. I review and rewrite it every Sunday and during the week I work through it. I make that list short though. No more than 3 or 4 things to do. Never set yourself up for a fall!

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What advice would you give to those considering/currently combining medicine and research?

Do not say yes to everything. You have to learn to say no sometimes.

BUT be brave enough to say yes to open up opportunities for yourself!

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I learn so much from your science IG! What led to the decision to document your medical/science journey on social media and blog?

I’m not 100% sure how it happened. I think it started as a way of cementing my own learning. I’m a very visual learner so Instagram was an ideal platform. The blog came about because I had more things to say than I realised! Also, in thinking about doing a PhD, I noticed that funders like you to share your research and science, so I realised it wouldn’t just be seen as ‘time-wasting’ either. Scicomm is a skill (and a very difficult one to master) so every little helps. I became increasingly enthusiastic and I found the community a fun and supportive one too.

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Why is science communication important to you?

Lots of reasons, I think. It’s about showing the world why you’re passionate about your job and inspiring people to consider your career too. The thing with science communication is it breaks these ridiculous myths that science isn’t cool or that you have to be completely boring to do it. I want kids to be excited by schooling. I work with a charity called Students for Kids International Projects (SKIP) and when I was at uni we went to Zambia. The kids we worked with LOVED going to school- they saw it as fun, as an opportunity. I think finding learning fun is actually very natural for humans but it’s not always taught in the most engaging way. That’s because it’s difficult to do! Taking part in scicomm activities is challenging for me but it’s important in enthusing younger generations and showing them different possibilities for themselves.

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Finally, how do you balance work/scicomm and personal life?

I’ve been a bit poor at this for the last year or so, I’ve enjoyed my job so much and the balance hasn’t been great. Outside of work I used to go to Lindy Hop classes and my husband and I danced at our wedding in Lindy style! At the moment I mostly try to keep up with friends, relax in the evening to keep my sleep hygiene in tact and do exercise. Exercise used to be belly dancing around my room but now consists of BBG, walking and running. I also like reading and that for me is the best way to keep up with my Spanish language learning, in fact I’m reading Harry Potter in Spanish!

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Thank you Farah for being a guest on the blog! To learn more about her journey as a clinician and a researcher you can find Farah on Instagram and Twitter. Also, go and check out her blog!

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#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

This Sunday is World Cancer Day. Staff here at the University of Southampton have been wearing white in order to raise awareness of the life-saving research being performed behind the laboratory doors. In fact, today the University of Southampton are celebrating hitting the £25m target for the UK’s first dedicated Centre for Cancer Immunology!

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Why white?!

We have a lot of different cells in our body, in fact there’s thought to be approximately 200 different types of cells, but today I’m talking about our white blood cells. White bloods cells are the superhero cells, their role is to protect us from infection, disease and foreign invaders to keep us healthy. Here in Southampton, these white blood cells are being used in laboratory research to develop new therapies to fight cancer. The research is being applied into the clinic, and results from clinical trials is showing a lot of promise!

Wearing White

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We are the cure

Immunology is a pretty complex field, and so I’m not going to go into the details (you’d be sat here reading for hours trying to get a grip on a lot of different molecules), but basically, researchers have found that our immune system could actually be used to cure cancer. That’s pretty neat right?!

A type of treatment called immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells (see video below). Cancer cells have the ability to switch off or confuse our killer T cells which then enable the cancer cells to grow. Cancer cells are very hard to defeat! Immunotherapy switches these killer T cells back on and so those useful killer T cells become back in action. They are then able to detect the invasive cancer cells (and potentially any hidden cancer cells!) and destroy them, providing long lasting action to protect against cancer growth. There are different types of immunotherapy including the use of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, cytokines and adoptive cell transfer and you can read more about these here! They’re all about enhancing the ability of the T cells to recognise the cancer cells. Immunotherapy has the potential to provide us with a lifetime immunity to cancer.

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Successes

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, but the results from cancer immunology clinical trials suggest great hope for controlling and curing most cancers.

Immunotherapy clinical trial patients in Southampton:

  • As many as half of the patients with difficult and terminal cancers (often just given months to live) are showing dramatic improvements.
  • 20% patients are cancer free.
  • Drugs for advanced and terminal cancers, such as lung, skin (melanoma), blood (lymphoma), head and neck cancers and childhood cancer (neuroblastoma) are showing outstanding results.

“The cure for Cancer? You’re it.”

– University of Southampton

To read the stories of patients, researchers, fundraisers and donors click here and scroll down the page.

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For extra info click the following links: Cancer Research UK & Cancer Research Institute.

If you are interested in taking part in an immunotherapy clinical trial please contact your GP or cancer specialist.

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If you want to learn some more interesting science then check out my previous science blog posts here.

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Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

I’m very excited about the first Scientist Showcase of 2018! I’d like to welcome you to Martijn Peters, a scientist and very talented science communicator living in the land of beer, chocolate and French fries – Belgium! Over to you Martijn…

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So, why science?!

The origin of my spark for science can be traced back all the way to my early childhood. My grandfather took me on many hiking trips and explained everything he knew about nature. As a consequence, I developed an intrinsic need for wanting to understand everything that occurred around me. This eventually resulted in me studying the awesome science field that is Biomedical Sciences at university, I then specialized in Bioelectronics & Nanotechnology for my Master’s degree, and recently completed my PhD.  

“The human body is one of the most amazing accomplishments of nature and I really wanted to learn how it works and interacts with its environment.”

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Congratulations on getting your PhD just before Christmas! Tell us about your research!

Thank you! My PhD research revolves around a specific aspect of our brain. Our brain is one of our most precious treasures, one that requires protection at all costs. Therefore, nature safeguards it behind an impenetrable wall, called the blood-brain-barrier. This fortress keeps foreign invaders, like diseases, out but also makes it very hard for us researchers to investigate the brain when something goes wrong. As a results, to this day the working mechanisms of many brain diseases are still shrouded in mystery.

During my PhD I designed novel visualization probes that enable us to study the brain and diseases that wreak havoc upon it. These visualization probes are nanoparticles, small spheres one million time smaller than the width of a human hair, that consist of semiconducting polymers. Most people know these polymers from applications like solar panels or OLEDs that reside inside your smartphones and TVs, but they are also fluorescent and non-toxic. I covered the nanoparticles with special structures, which ensure that they will target specific cells, like a guided missile system. On top of that, they are small enough to cross the daunting blood-brain-barrier! This type of novel visualization probe will help us shine a new light on brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

Martijn - PhD defence

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

Persistence is the key! If you’re persist you will get there.

However, don’t lose yourself in the process and don’t focus too much on the accomplishments of others. It can be quite stressful working in an environment that consists of nothing but top students. You often wonder if you are good enough. But rest assured, you are. You are also one of those students. You can do it! So work hard for your passion but also don’t forget to take a break now and then. You need and deserve them!

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Why is science communication important to you?

To me, science communication is important because it is all about building bridges. We often forget that we are the expert in our own research topic, and everyone else (even fellow scientists) are a lay audience.

“Learning how to communicate will not only help society but also science. A good scientist is a good communicator.”

Throughout my PhD I discovered that I could combine my creative side with my technical side through science communication, which has been an eye-opening experience for me. I am rather proud of my science communication achievements (especially since I managed to achieve them without losing any quality in my science work) and it has become a passion for me.

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So you’re an award-winning science communicator? Tell us about OMGitsScience!

OMGitsScience is a project that I started to show the human side of science. Too often we just shower people with nothing but facts. Yet we do not provide them with insights into who we are or how science works. Because these aspects are missing, people have a hard time making a connection of trust with scientists and distinguishing between “science facts” and “fake facts”. To counter this movement, I started communicating science on Twitter and a YouTube channel called OMGitsScience on which I show the life of a scientist through vlogging. I’ve also embarked on an Instagram journey recently (I really love editing pics and combining them with a story).

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Check out this fun vlog which showcases a day in the life of Martijn! Enjoy!

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Finally, how do you balance work and personal life?

I think a healthy work-life balance differs for everyone. Some weeks were really hectic during my PhD with zero free time during the day, and some weeks were rather “chill” with lots of time to do things not revolving around my PhD. You have to listen to you own body and discover what works best for you. I have used most of my free time for science communication projects (from speaking assignments to competitions to organizing a TEDx conference to starting a YouTube channel). I love being creative and it gives me an outlet to combine science with creativity. I also really enjoy reading, watching series/movies and running.

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Thank you to Martijn for being part of my blog! I absolutely love to hear about the lives of others. He’s a brilliant science communicator so please go and follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and of course him awesome YouTube channel!

 

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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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Fancy reading a little more on this? Click here.

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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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