Summer School in Shanghai

Kyle on Great WallAs part of our new International Associate Membership agreement with the Chinese Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (CSBMB), we helped four of our postgraduate members  attend  the  CSBMB’s Summer  School  in  Shanghai  in  July,  with  our  Society paying for travel and CSBMB covering registration and accommodation costs.

Kyle Fowler (University of Sheffield, UK) was one of the four, and reports on his experience:


“The 5th International Advanced Summer School was held in the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, and this year the theme of the meeting was RNA biology. The success of the Institute is highlighted by two key achievements: the total synthesis of crystalline bovine insulin in 1965 and the total synthesis of yeast alanine tRNA in 1981.

During my flight to Shanghai I was slightly apprehensive about finding my way from Shanghai Pu-Dong Airport to the hotel; however all signs in the metro and railway stations had English translations allowing me to easily travel anywhere in Shanghai for around 40 pence.

Each day began with a lecture from a renowned researcher from either the University of Toronto or the University of Leuven. Topics such as: alternative splicing, RNAi, RNA binding motifs and computational biology were discussed. I particularly enjoyed the talk on Thursday morning by Dr. Quaid Morris, in which he discussed the application of computational biology to both predict RNA secondary structure and to model the binding of RNA binding proteins to their RNA target. Following his talk I was enlightened to the current challenges faced by the field, and especially the need to model the change in RNA secondary structure that occurs during the binding of an RNA binding protein.

After the lunch break PhD students and post docs were given the opportunity to present their work and receive expert advice from the guest speakers. The day was concluded with a detailed group discussion within small groups. The discussion tended to cover questions about the presented lecture material and personal issues with one’s project, however other topics such as the qualities required to become a professor were often brought up.

During one of the afternoons we were taken on a tour of the laboratories and it became clear to me that in addition to all of the facilities on site, across the river (Pudong area) in The National Centre for Protein Science Shanghai there has been a huge amount of money invested in equipment such as the TitanKrios, which is the most powerful electron microscope in the world.

Following the Summer School I travelled to Beijing with two other students, where we visited sites such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We also did a 6 kilometre hike along the Great Wall.

Overall, the Summer School was very well organised and covered a range of topics in the field of RNA biology. This was my first trip to China, and it most certainly was one that I will never forget. I am extremely grateful to the Biochemical Society and Chinese Society of Biochemistry and Molecular for generously funding my flights, accommodation and meals for the entire week.”


Are you postgraduate student studying the molecular or cellular biosciences? Join the Biochemical Society and take advantage of our grants to help you attend conferences, both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Already a postgraduate member? The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Brazilian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will jointly host the 23rd IUBMB and 44th SBBq Congress in Brazil, 24–28 August 2015. A satellite IUBMB-SBBq Young Scientists Program will be held in the days preceding. Our postgraduate members are eligible to apply for free registration and shared accommodation for both events. Visit the Congress website for more information and to apply. The deadline is 15 October 2014. Biochemical Society members who are successful will also have the opportunity to apply for a Travel Grant of up to £650.

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Eisenthal Prize selected from record number of studentship applications

Sarah Pearsall (University of Leeds, UK) was today announced as the 2014 Eisenthal Prize winner, awarded to the highest quality student applicant for the Biochemical Society’s Summer Vacation Studentships. 

Sarah Pearsall, University of Leeds

Sarah Pearsall, University of Leeds

Sarah recently completed her eight-week placement at the University of Leeds under the supervision of Dr Roman Tuma, working on a project entitled “Engineering of hexameric helicases to translocate specific RNA molecules”.

She was alongside a record 195 other students and supervisors who applied for the Summer Vacation Studentships, a Biochemical Society scheme to benefit students with valuable lab experience and supervisors, who gain an extra pair of hands for the summer and can play a part in introducing a future scientist to research.

Dr Roman Tuma said: “I enjoyed working as a laboratory helper in a research institute from my early days at the university and had opportunity to contribute to research projects, including writing reports and presenting results at lab meetings. Such hands-on experience played an essential role in my training.

“Now as a supervisor I enjoy giving such opportunity to motivated undergraduates like Sarah. In her project she was able to engineer a viral molecular motor into an RNA-processing molecular machine which has potential applications in fighting viral infections. The project ventures into the realm of synthetic biology and builds upon our research into virus structure and replication.

“The Biochemical Society funding gave us opportunity to quickly capitalise on our basic research and demonstrate potential use of our discoveries.”

Sarah Pearsall, the undergraduate, said the studentship was an excellent and exciting opportunity, as she had not worked alongside professional scientists before.

“This experience will help me to refine my laboratory skills and provide me with insight into innovative, cutting-edge research. I am passionate about working in the lab and aspire to be a research scientist in the future, this internship will … be incredibly rewarding to me and support my extensive third year project. “

The Eisenthal Prize is awarded in memory of Professor Robert Eisenthal, formerly of the Biology and Biochemistry Department at the University of Bath, who was a long standing and active member of the Biochemical Society. The Society instituted the Eisenthal Prize to honour his commitment to science education and wishes this prize to be a lasting mark of respect for a colleague who did so much to make the Studentship scheme so successful.

Apply for a 2015 Summer Vacation Studentship

Grants are available for stipends of £200 per week for 6 – 8 weeks, and up to £1,600 in total, to support an undergraduate student to carry out a summer lab placement. This scheme not only benefits the student as they get valuable research experience, but the supervisor also gains an extra pair of hands in the lab.

Interested students must pair up with a potential supervisor, develop a project together, and then apply for funding. Applicants (supervisors) must be members of the Biochemical Society working in a university or research institute, and apply for the grant on behalf of the student.

The deadline for the 2014 applications has now passed. The deadline for the 2015 Studentships is 11 February 2015.

Visit our website for more information and to apply.

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Epigenetics – Why You Don’t Have Teeth in Your Eyeballs

In the last century, the question of how much nature vs nurture influences our development from embryo to adult has been debated furiously. Is our development driven solely by our genetic code, or is it influenced by environmental pressures? This is the question epigenetics seeks to answer.

Imagine the genetic code as a script, outlining which genes we should express.  Epigenetics is the study of how this gene expression is regulated by environmental factors.

The environmental factors can range from the signals produced by neighbouring cells in a developing embryo to pollutants in the atmosphere.  The importance of epigenetics can be demonstrated by the ways in which it influences health and disease.  Scientists working in epigenetics have revealed that gene regulation via epigenetics can contribute towards mental health conditions, the likelihood of developing various cancers, drug addiction and respiratory diseases, to name just a few. Epigenetics allows for our genetic script to be interpreted in many different ways.  This happens because of modifications that are placed on our genes. 

These modifications coat the genes and act as epigenetic tags, labelling genes which need to be turned “on” or “off”. This means different genes can be expressed without affecting the genetic code.

It is not fully understood how or why epigenetic changes occur. Studies are starting to show that interactions with our environment are a contributing factor. For example, your food intake, the amount of exercise you do, if you smoke and what kind of toxins and chemicals you are exposed to can all result in epigenetic changes to our genetic material, and can thereby influence how our cells and ultimately our bodies behave.

Epigenetic variation is all around us. When a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, its genetic code remains the same but an entirely different set of genes are expressed. Male and female crocodiles are genetically identical, yet they look completely different. One way scientists have been trying to understand and monitor epigenetics, is by observing identical twins. Identical twins are conceived from a single egg, so they have the same genome. This makes them ideal candidates for genetic and epigenetic studies.  By studying the epigenetic variation between twins, scientists are hoping to answer a question that has puzzled us for centuries.  Since twins have identical DNA, why do we frequently find that only one twin in a pair develops a disorder such as cancer or schizophrenia, even when the two people have been raised in a really similar environment? 

These studies have raised further questions, such as how heritable are epigenetic modifications? Are they reversible? Currently, researchers are working towards developing DNA demethylating agents such as Azacitidine as anti-cancer drugs, amongst other treatments in an attempt to reverse epigenetic modifications. The potential impact of this treatment is astonishing.

Large scale projects such as the Human Epigenome Project aim to “identify, catalogue and interpret genome-wide DNA methylation patterns of all human genes in all major tissues.” In doing this, scientists hope to uncover how genetics, the environment and disease are linked to further our understanding and diagnosis of human disease.

In celebration of this fascinating topic, we are holding a free public lecture “Epigenetics – Why You Don’t Have Teeth In Your Eyeballs” as part of the British Science Festival in Birmingham 2014. The session will be chaired by Professor Alice Roberts (University of Birmingham, UK) and will feature talks from Nessa Carey (Pfizer) and Bryan Turner (University of Birmingham, UK). After the talks, the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions and debate issues raised with our speakers.  

Visit for more details of the programme.


When: Monday 8 September 2014, 15.30-17.00

Where: Lecture Theatre S02, Poynting Physics Building, University of Birmingham

Registration: Click here


The event is to celebrate 50 years of FEBS, is the British Biology Sections presidential address, and is jointly organized with the University of Birmingham.

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Diversity and the Evidence Base

dataIf there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my role as Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society, it’s the importance of a solid evidence base. The question ‘where’s the evidence for that?’ is a bit of a mantra to those in the science policy community.

This passion for evidence-based approaches makes it confusing when an issue presents itself where there isn’t a solid evidence base, and what’s more, it’s arguable that there shouldn’t need to be one. I’m talking about issues of diversity in science, set to be a focus for the Biochemical Society in the next 5 years.

Most people inherently believe that diversity is a good thing. Initiatives to make science open to all and to remove barriers so that the science community can reflect the make-up of UK society would seem like no-brainers. Do we need evidence to show that this should be the case? This evidence would likely be based on economic considerations: would a more diverse scientific workforce be more productive? Would it foster better science and lead to increased return on investment?

This leads me to a further, and more fundamental, question; when it comes to issues of diversity, should moral arguments take precedent over scientific arguments? Do moral and ethical considerations trump the scientific and economic argument here; is inclusivity more important than scientific productivity? Thus should we even be seeking to evidence statements surrounding diversity in science? I’m aware that’s a lot of questions and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

The Royal Society recently published a report entitled ‘Diversity in STEMM: establishing a business case’. In this the authors attempted to outline the evidence for why diversity in science is good from a non-emotive perspective, setting moral and ethical considerations aside. In the process of doing this they received a great deal of criticism from commentators who found it inappropriate that anyone should seek to do more than accept the moral position that equality should be a given. Many firmly stated that they felt that diversity should not be argued on economic grounds and appeared to find it offensive that the Royal Society would even consider doing so. They believed that this amounted to a trivialisation of the moral case.

However I think the point of the Royal Society’s report was lost; it was seeking evidence to demonstrate that there is a business as well as a moral case to support a diverse workforce. It’s the ‘as well as’ here that’s key; clearly, and unfortunately, the moral and ethical considerations have only got us so far. We need to use all the tools on our armory to argue and fight to increase diversity in science.

So, in an attempt to answer a few of my own questions, I think that the moral imperative for diversity does stand-alone without the need for it to be ‘backed-up’ by economic figures. However, I think any additional ammunition we can garner is vital in order to address and tackle the problem, especially when facing those for whom numbers can matter more than ethics.    

As the Biochemical Society develops its 5 year equality and diversity strategy, commissioning research into diversity topics and issues will be considered. Applications for the Society’s diversity in science grants which  seek to kick-off research proposals would be very welcome; applications for catalytic funding will be considered as long as evidence of future funding to ensure project sustainability is provided.

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Glyoxalase Centennial meeting spurs new European research group

Last year a group of researchers came together at a Biochemical Society-sponsored Focused Meeting to celebrate 100 years since the discovery of glyoxalase. What emerged was not just an exciting opportunity to discuss the latest in research findings, but a brand new collaborative research group to take the study of glyoxalase forward.

Meeting organizer Dr Naila Rabbani (University of Warwick, UK) reports on the meeting and following success. If you want to propose your own subject for a Biochemical Society conference, you can apply today.


It has been 100 years since the discovery of the glyoxalase system, a metabolic pathway common to all – or nearly all – life forms. The history of the glyoxalase system has taken many turns and, 100 years on, continues to do so. Initially and incorrectly thought to be part of mainstream glucose metabolism in the 1930s, the glyoxalase system has re-emerged in the last 20 years or so as the system countering an otherwise unavoidable damaging aspect of glucose metabolism.  

It has been an area I have spent the last 15 years studying and together with Professor Paul Thornalley, who has been working on glyoxalase for about 30 years, we have organised three Biochemical Society-sponsored meetings on the subject.

The latest, in November 2013, celebrated a particularly special event – the Glyoxalase Centennial Focused Meeting at the University of Warwick; it being a 100 years since the discovery of glyoxalase.

The centennial meeting was a memorable occasion attended by 100 delegates from the UK, Europe, India, Far East and North & South America – a truly international gathering. The delegates were mostly from academia – life and biomedical sciences – with some delegates also from pharmaceutical, food and scientific instrument manufacturing companies.

Their work has linked glyoxalase to longevity, protection from heart disease, diabetes and renal failure, and multidrug resistant tumours. Yet the impact of glyoxalase is far wider – as evident in the diverse range of topics in the conference programme.

After a very successful meeting, every speaker submitted their papers for publication to Biochemical Society Transactions and a collaborative research group was formed to take glyoxalase research forward. An application to Horizon2020 is now in progress that includes eight European partners.

A proposal to form a new study group of the European Association to Study Diabetes (EASD) on the role of reactive metabolites in diabetes – reactive dicarbonyls and reactive oxygen species – was submitted to the EASD President. This was provisionally accepted and start-up mini-symposium of the EASD Reactive Metabolite Study Group will be held at the forthcoming 50th EASD annual meeting in Vienna, 14 September this year.

The aims of the study group are to define the contribution of reactive metabolites to health impairment, share best practice of analytical measurements, discuss mechanistic involvement in the development of diabetes and related complications, and facilitate the development of related therapeutic and diagnostic approaches.  

This Focused Meeting, as before, was sponsored by the Biochemical Society. Their continued support is greatly appreciated and has facilitated dissemination of findings to other fields and many further investigators to the filed. As evident, the meeting has spurned new-found collaborations and a chance to push glyoxalase research even further forward.


Want to propose your own conference? The Biochemical Society can provide financial support, full secretariat services and publish proceedings of events in Biochemical Society Transactions, giving your meeting and speakers’ research worldwide exposure. Visit our website for more information.

Want to know more about the Glyoxalase Centennial Focused Meeting. View videos from it on our YouTube Channel.

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Diversity in Science? It’s not just about women

Hands-upLet’s admit it, how many of us in the science community have spoken about or held events to discuss diversity in science issues then ended up focusing largely on gender equality? Asking for an imaginary show of hands would result in a lot of arms waving in the air right now I reckon.

There seems to have been an increased awareness of equality and diversity issues in the science community of late. However, while this is great news, for the most part these appear to have focused on gender equality. This is clearly an issue of huge importance, but it’s also crucial to remember that diversity should relate to the inclusion of other disadvantaged groups too.

(This is not to say that all diversity initiatives just focus on women; I’m well-aware that they don’t. It’s just that, from my perspective, gender equality often tends to be a focus.

Phew, disclaimer done; let’s move on.)

It’s a well-known fact that the scientific workforce in the UK doesn’t reflect the make-up of British Society. Women are certainly one of the groups who are under-represented, but those with disabilities, those from ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and individuals from socially-disadvantaged groups are also consistently underrepresented.

The Biochemical Society believes that a diverse workforce provides equal opportunities for the best minds regardless of gender, race, disability, sexuality, beliefs or means. Furthermore it supports the view that diversity is not limited to gender, and barriers still remain in all aspects of underrepresented groups. Diversity has been identified as an area of strategic focus for the Biochemical Society in the next five years. Read our updated position statement to find out more.

As part of our work in this area, the Society recently launched a series of new Diversity in Science grants. This scheme will provide three grants of up to £500 to individuals, groups, charities or businesses to support and address issues relating to diversity in science. Initiatives such as research proposals, conferences, events and roadshows will all be considered as well as other projects; the grants are not designed to support members on an individual basis. The deadline for applications is 30 September 2014 and successful applicants will be informed by 31 October 2014.

Let’s hope that, alongside continuing to work towards a gender-balanced scientific workforce at all levels of the career ladder, we can also make progress towards breaking down the barriers faced by other disadvantaged groups.

PS – My (imaginary) hand was also in the air…

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