Post-PhD viva feels

Post-PhD viva feels

Okay, so confession time. I originally planned to have this up on my blog two weeks ago, a couple days after my viva whilst the emotions were all fresh. Truth be told (which I think is a totally valid reason!) I needed a few days away from the laptop to indulge in bubbles and cake, to catch up with family and friends as well as getting back into Crossfit. Life is good!

To give a bit of context to this blog post, I submitted my PhD thesis to the graduate school here at University of Southampton mid-January after 4.5 years of hard work. That was massive relief number one! On Tuesday 27th February I passed my PhD viva and I am SO thrilled to say I am now Dr. Lisa Ellen Jones, massive relief number two!

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What is a PhD viva?!

The format of a PhD varies hugely across the world. Here in the UK we have a ‘viva voce’ which means by word of mouth. To prove that we are worthy of that Dr title we are questioned on our knowledge of the research subject, our methodologies, what the data means and the greater impact of our work. This is carried out by one internal examiner (at the same university) and an external examiner (from another university), both in a similar field of research.

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My viva experience

Everyone says you can’t fully prepare for a viva, you can’t really predict what questions the examiners will ask and how thorough/pernickety they’ll be. Very true. Everything I revised did not come up! Despite this, there is no such thing as being over prepared for a PhD viva.  Revise as much as you can because if it doesn’t go well after all that hard work, you’ll be kicking yourself!

So, the day arrived and I kept my cool until I got to work. Examiners met to discuss what they thought of my thesis in private, so waiting in the coffee room until they were ready for me felt incredibly long. They called me in and we chatted for a little bit before the viva started. It’s pretty common (from other people’s experiences) for the initial questions to be ones that ease the candidate in, e.g. summarize your main PhD findings in 3 minutes. Yeah, I did not have that! I think my first question was to define what ‘developmental priming’ is in a couple of sentences which was not mentioned in my thesis. The second question (from memory) was delving into the intricacies of epigenetics which was not part of my thesis. Tough start! My viva lasted for 4 hours and it was a page-by-page thorough going over. At times I felt incredibly stressed, but at other times I was able to relax into the questions a bit more. A PhD viva is all about defending your work… and gosh I did! Sometimes I felt that my ability as a scientist was being seriously questioned due to the intensity of the discussion, but the examiners are there to push your knowledge and to also learn themselves – remember that! I think I lost the perspective that I was the expert in my research field and some questions were not to trick me but were because they wanted to learn themselves.

After the 4 hours I was asked to step out of the room so they could discuss between themselves. I felt like I had no idea how it had gone. Part of me felt that I had failed as every little result was questioned and I really had to defend certain methodologies and statistical analyses. I walked back into the room and my external examiner smiled at me, shook my hand and said “congratulations Dr. Jones”. Hearing those three words were incredibly overwhelming (yes, my eyes totally welled up). For those of you that have read my previous blog posts (e.g. PhD slump) or followed my science journey on Instagram, you’ll know my PhD has been far from easy. Two years ago at the end of 2015/start of 2016 I really did not think completing my PhD was a possibility. With an incredible amount of love and support from friends, family and my mentor I decided to stick it out and persevere. To have carried on in the lab, written a whole 271 page thesis and to pass my viva and to be called “Dr” is amazing to me. I am so proud of what I’ve accomplished and I have so much respect for all PhD students out there.

PhD viva

If you’re a PhD student reading this, I want you to know how amazing the feeling of reaching the final milestone and proving that you are worthy of that PhD is. In those tougher moments remember that you CAN do it. Be strong, be curious, work hard (but PLEASE not 24/7.. sleep and having fun is kinda important) and celebrate successes.

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So what now?

Now the madness of thesis writing and viva prep is over I am currently working for my PhD supervisor to finish off some image analysis as an extension from my PhD work. I’ve also got some fun scicomm projects on the go and I’m in the process of applying for jobs! I guess it’s time to enter the adult world. BUT not just yet. I’m all about treating yourself on completion of milestones, so in just over a week I’m taking myself off to Thailand and Bali for a month to relax, have fun and to get some energy back in me!

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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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Science journey update & 2018 goals

Science journey update & 2018 goals

After 4.5 years of PhD-ing, my thesis is finally written and I submitted it to my examiners last week! The PDF version got sent off on the Monday (little bit of an anti-climax!) but the printed & bound copies got sent off on the Wednesday. It started to sink in once I saw my hard work in a physical form and I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off of my shoulders! The last month of thesis writing was pretty stressful as I had a few road bumps which made it tougher than expected… but it’s now done! I can be proud of what I achieved and I can (sort of) relax! The journey to getting my PhD, however, is not quite over!

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So, what’s next?

  • My PhD viva/defence is end of February, so there will be a bit of revision required for that and practice vivas to be had! For those of you who don’t know what a viva is, or don’t know how it works over here in England, I have one ‘internal’ examiner from my university and one ‘external’ examiner from another university (relevant to my field). They will quiz me on my knowledge of the subject and my PhD work for 3-4 hours in order to see whether I’m worthy of being Dr Jones.
  • In the mean time I’m doing some image analysis work. This is carrying on from fluorescent microscopy I carried out in my PhD but the analysis was beyond the scope of my thesis. So, I’m back to counting and circling around muscle cells again!
  • My supervisor and I will be having weekly meetings to get the ball rolling on writing journal articles from my PhD work, so fingers crossed for some good publications.
  • It’s now time to be more proactive about my future. I’ll be updating my CV, LinkedIn, and applying for jobs etc etc!
  • In amongst all the ‘serious’ stuff I’m going to be getting back into a better fitness routine like I had before, and I’m in the process of planning my post-PhD travels! I’ve never had a gap year and I know I need time away to re-energise myself in order to come back and start my first post-PhD job all guns blazing!

I also want to use this blog post to share with you what I want to achieve in 2018. It’s not a secret that I love goals – whether that’s daily/weekly work goals, fitness goals or life goals! In fact, I wrote a blog post back in January 2017 on how to make effective goals, so go and check that out here!

This is the third year of making a goals board and it really does give me a sense of fulfilment when I tick them off one-by-one. In 2016 I ticked all of my goals off but in 2017 only half were achieved. Why? A few of them were all based on me submitting my thesis and having my viva in 2017, which didn’t happen! Thesis writing time had to be extended and that meant some of my goals suddenly became impossible. So, here’s to 2018 being a more exciting year! I’ve already achieved my first goal (submitting that thesis) and here’s everything I aim to achieve this year…

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I’m not one for New Years resolutions and it’s never too late to decide on what you want out of this year. What career/lifestyle goals do you want to complete in 2018?! Comment below, being a goal-geek I love to hear about them!

 

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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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One year of blogging

One year of blogging

A year ago today I announced the start of “In a Science World” and published my very first blog post! Where has the last year gone?! It’s been an incredible journey and I didn’t quite expect it to take me places it has done!

I started my blog as a way to figure out whether science communication was a career route I’d like to pursue. Let’s just say I haven’t had the most seamless PhD journey and about half way through I came to the realisation that a life in academia is not for me. With plenty of thinking time and self-reflection, I realised I LOVE the science and I love teaching others about it, but I do not enjoy the process of making the science! Weird right?!

Writing my blog has opened up many opportunities that I never imagined a year ago. It’s led me to being publicist for Pint of Science, completing a science communication internship, jumping out of my comfort zone and performing my very first science comedy set and being very kindly awarded the Versatile Blogger Award…. How crazy?!

When I set out on this journey I didn’t know whether people would care about what I wrote or would be interested in what I have to say but I want to say a massive thank you to YOU!! Thank you for reading this post, for taking time out of your day to read the words I write and for following my blog (if you don’t you totally should!). Thank you for following my science journey through Instagram, expressing your support through ‘likes’ and comments and sending words of encouragement. Thank you for listening to what I have to say. I whole-heartedly appreciate all of your support.

Thank you to YOU!

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The last year has taught me a lot. Here’s what I’ve learnt over the past year (yes you know I love a bit of self-reflection) and the other awesome blogs I value, which if you also don’t follow already you really should!….

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What my first year of blogging has taught me:

  • People do actually want to hear what I have to say and value it – that makes my heart feel warm and fuzzy.
  • 1000+ word blog posts are not ideal. I’ve cut them down – minus a few!
  • Posting once a week is the most I can commit to whilst doing a PhD. That’s a Thursday by the way.
  • There is an amazing and very supportive online scientific community – especially on Instagram.
  • Instagram is such a powerful tool – I can reach out to so many people.
  • As an aspiring science communicator never shy away from ‘scary’ opportunities. They will only enhance you and lead to more awesomeness!
  • Twitter is hard for me to stay on top of – I need to work on my Twitter presence!
  • I learn so much from other scientists on social media.
  • Social media analytics are interesting in order to see what posts generate more engagement BUT I cba to analyse them for hours. I want to carry on posting what comes naturally to me and what I genuinely want to say. A scientist ignoring stats?!
  • For someone who wants to always improve, there is not enough scicomm training in the UK. But… 2018 is coming and I’m involved in some cool stuff to tackle this 😉
  • You can (and should) do other ‘science-y’ things around your PhD. Maximise those opportunities! You’ll never know where they may take you.
  • Many PhD students don’t have an easy ride. You are NEVER alone and there are always people who can relate. My PhD SOS is my most popular feature… didn’t actually expect that.
  • It is SO hard for me to say no to exciting opportunities. Anything seems more fun than writing this thesis.
  • Hmm… I seem to have learnt a lot!

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I started this blog and my scicomm journey just as I was heading into my final year of PhD, so you could say it wasn’t an ideal time! The thesis will be handed in soon so let’s see where 2018 takes me and my blog. I love this science communication world I’ve discovered.

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On a final note my most popular blog posts are “The PhD Slump” and “PhD self-care tips“. Remember: A PhD is tough and you are not alone. There is a wealth of support out there for you and seeking help is not a weakness. Do what is right by you, do the science, be awesome and thrive! Don’t just try to survive.

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Finally, time to share the science love! Here are some other blogs to go and nose at! Just click on the pictures!

Making it Mindful
Making it Mindful
dr.ofwhat?
dr.ofwhat?
Sasha
PhDenomenalPhDemale
Conservationist Krissy
Conservationist Krissy

 

Fresh Science
Fresh Science
Bites of science
Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science
Scientific beauty
The Scientific Beauty
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Soph.talks.science
Heidi
Heidi Gardner

 

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Standing up for Science

Standing up for Science

It is so important that scientific research is carried out in a sound way, that it is communicated to the media clearly and effectively, and that it’s reported by the media accurately. It doesn’t always happen! From time-to-time ‘fake news’ circulates, and that’s not good. Yesterday I attended the Voice of Young Science “Standing up for Science” workshop hosted by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. It was absolutely brilliant!

Science communication is extremely important. As science is government-funded I feel that it’s only right we give back to society through engaging the public with research by communicating the intricacies in a digestible format for anyone to understand. Communicating our science effectively builds trust between the public and researchers, plus who doesn’t love to learn something new?!

As an aspiring science communicator, standing up for science and dealing with the media, journalists and ‘fake news’ could be of great relevance.  The idea of speaking about research to the media can seem daunting. What happens if you say something foolish and it will stick with you forever?! Well, the workshop provided us with the opportunity to meet scientists who’ve engaged with the media, as well as hearing from the journalists themselves about how the media works and what they want from scientists.

Here’s my summary of the day and what I learnt from the workshop.

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Session 1: Science and the media

Each panellists retold stories of their experiences with dealing with the media which were fascinating. We heard about the positives and the negatives and they dished out some useful tips.

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Photo: Voice of Young Science

Panellists:

Prof. Johnathan Napier: leading pioneer in plant biotechnology and GM field trials at Rothamsted Research.

“What’s the point in doing the science if you aren’t going to tell anyone about it?”

Dr Helen O’Neil: molecular geneticist working in embryology and IVF at the Institute for Women’s Health, UCL.

If you don’t know the answer, you can turn it around and say your key message in a different way – “it’s a second chance of getting the message across.”

Nataliya Tkachenko: PhD student at the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities.

“Remember, it is your interview so it is your choice what information you give out.”

Take-home messages:

  • It’s better to get media training in advance.
  • The media will take you word-for-word.
  • Certain words have a bad reputation (e.g. designer babies), so be wary!
  • Ask for the questions before the interview – but it’s not guaranteed they’ll ask those and only those! Anything can happen with the media.
  • If it’s a pre-recorded interview or a written article, ask to hear/read the final version before it’s sent out.
  • Think about the message you want to get across. Your mind will go blank so remember the overall message. You have the power to turn the conversation back round.
  • A lot of news is online so if there are any inaccuracies you can ask for them to be changed.
  • Go to science festivals, and any opportunities to engage with the public is great experience.

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Session 2: What journalists are looking for

The two panellists both spoke about how they work as a journalist, what their typical work day looks like and what they expect from scientists. The media can get a bad reputation, but it was nice to see that scientists and journalists have not-so-dissimilar perspectives.

Panel 2
Photo: Voice of Young Science

Panellists:

Jane Symons: freelance health writer and contributor to national newspapers. Dislikes nutritional nonsense and debunked homeopathy.

“Journalism is high stress but you get instant gratification.”

Oliver Moody: science correspondent at The Times.

“Journalists do go out of their way to get a well-rounded story.”

Take-home messages:

  • Journalists have tight time deadlines – 4-5 stories a day and writing might not start until the afternoon.
  • Clarity and simple explanations is vital – journalists are not always from a science background and so they can misinterpret, but it’s not intentional!
  • The story has to be entertaining – journalists are there to engage the reader.
  • Scientists can be just as guilty at ‘over-egging’ a story as journalists are.
  • It is okay to ask to check quotes before print.
  • Scientists and journalists work to different time frames. If you want to engage with the media, respond quickly! Knowing you respond quickly means it’s more likely they’ll contact you again.
  • Talk with your institute’s press office before speaking to the media. They’re there to help.
  • Journalism is very competitive, it is not always a collaborative field

 

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Session 3: Standing up for Science – the nut and bolts

This session was all about us being able to get practical guidance in getting our voices heard in debates about science and evidence. We learnt about how to respond to bad science if we see it, and top tips when coming face-to-face with a journalist.

Panellists:

Hilary Jones – senior press officer at the Medical Research Council.

“Speak to your press officer about any bad experiences.”

Leah Fitzsimmons – postdoctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Very proactive public engagement volunteer.

“There’s a risk of controversial issues being misinterpreted by media and public but we need the scientific voice in those debates most of all.”

Martin Smith – specialist for the House of Commons Science and Technology.

“Scientists should be active in making policy decisions. If you don’t, someone else will.”

  • Tell your institute’s press office about your paper when it’s just been accepted – don’t have to wait until publication.
  • Send the press office an image or video to go with the paper, they help to promote it!
  • Provide nice quotes. Again, helps the press office in producing a good press release.
  • Don’t have to be a public engagement specialist – small bits of training add up.
  • Be clear on what you want to communicate.
  • Practice communicating science through university magazines and blogs!
  • Get involved in social media. Check whether your institute has a social media policy.
  • If you go to the committee about a science issue, they’ll talk you through it and strive for a positive experience.
  • All scientists can be involved in committee meetings and what policy issues should be looked into.
  • Start in a ‘safe’ place. Sense about Science and their ‘Ask for evidence’ campaign is a great place to go.
  • Be an ambassador of the thing you love!

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The workshop was incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking. There was definitely a lot of information to take away from the day, and I highly encourage any other early career researchers/scientists to attend this workshop!

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To top the whole day off we attended the 2017 John Maddox Prize ceremony, an award given to a scientist who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest with perseverance and courage. Dr Riko Muranaka won the award for her efforts in countering HPV vaccine misinformation. A truly inspiring talk. You can read more about why she won the prize here.

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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.

placenta tips1
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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