Let’s all stand up for science

Guest blog: Latha Ramakrishnan, of Imperial College London, reports on a recent media workshop for young scientists.

A photo of young scientists at Sense about Science's media workshop

Sense about Science’s media workshop

What does it mean to “Stand up for Science”?

As a postdoctoral scientist, my hours are filled designing and performing experiments, reading literature, applying for grants and parental duties. So it’s hard to spare time to seriously consider the scientific issues that often haunt my mind

Consider the claims we see on products every day, such as the various cosmetic products labelled with complex biological components like pro-vitamin B5 (healthy hair/skin) or Coenzyme-Q10 (anti-aging). Being a biologist I have a tough time in the lab trying to keep my samples “bioactive”. It often means they have to come and go from a -20oC freezer or be housed in a -80oC ultra freezer, with liquid nitrogen (-196oC) or dry ice (frozen CO2).

So how are these advertised biologicals so stable in commercial products? In what concentration are they present (units are important in science, you see)?  How do they survive our harsh handling in our lay life? Do we even have the receptors/transport proteins to absorb such externally applied stuff? That’s a long list of questions…

Should we bother with these questions? The answer is a resounding yes, as I found out recently after attending an eye-opening media workshop organised by Sense About Science and supported by the Biochemical Society. The workshop is part of Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science network.

I used to assume that it was not my responsibility to question such apparent scientific discrepancies as I am at a very junior level of my career to do so. But, to my pleasant surprise, most of the delegates and the panellists who attended the workshop weren’t grey-haired either.

Many claims we come across during our everyday life are made with vague scientific foundations. Due to the commercial and political interests linked with such claims, it is vital that the public and the scientific community in particular stand up for science.

Sense About Science’s Ask for Evidence is an ongoing campaign, where we can dig deep into such claims. We can make the person/company making such claims more accountable and ask them to clarify if their conclusion(s) were drawn after rigorous peer-review. The public can help by asking more questions on issues they are worried about. The scientific community can help by answering some of these questions and sharing their expertise in a particular subject “for or against” a particular claim.

Sense about Science’s media workshop provided some great tips on how we can achieve this. The workshop highlighted the pressures journalists are under.  Journalists want stories that will interest their target audience. They have limited time to write them, let alone any time to undertake proper research. They must rely on experts and often the scientific quotes get partially or totally distorted by the time it is broadcast.

Such being the case, instead of blaming it all on the media, the workshop provided tips on how scientists could maximise the impact of a brief media encounter. Crucial take-home messages were to rehearse three simple but key points, in-perspective for lay audience and speak about it even if the reporter asked something else. That way one can make sure that the public gets to hear new scientific findings interpreted in context and not a sensational story spiced-up from a nervous interview.

I would encourage all early career researchers to join the Voice of Young Science network and if possible, attend one of their media workshops.

And for all scientists, early career or otherwise, the next time you read something in a newspaper or hear something on TV that makes you utter “hang on a minute, that doesn’t sound right”, please, without further hesitation:  Stand up for science and ask for the evidence!

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One person’s leaky pipeline is another person’s irrigation system

irrigationI have a confession; I am a ‘leaker’.

By this I mean that I ‘leaked’ from the scientific pipeline; the stream of graduates from PhD to postdoc to fellowship to PI to Professor.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the term ‘leaker’. It is often used to describe those who pursue scientific careers in areas outside of academic research; however the associated negative connotations and implications of being ‘lost’ just don’t fit.

Let’s backtrack. After my PhD, I realised that scientific research wasn’t for me; while still passionate about my area of research, I knew that I wasn’t suited to a life at the lab bench. A series of failed experiments and a frustration with narrow focus of my research led me to explore career options where a lab coat and safety glasses were not required.

Science policy was an obvious choice; still at the forefront of scientific developments but with a much broader focus, particularly on areas where scientific research informs policy-making and has implications for wider society. Cue a steep learning curve involving antimicrobial resistance, the drug discovery landscape in the UK, equality and diversity issues, the open access agenda, the economic arguments for scientific funding and more. I genuinely feel as though I make more of a scientific difference, and have more of an impact, now than I ever did while sat at my fumehood.

What’s more, the academic community need people like me; without us ‘leakers’, the pipeline wouldn’t work. It’s arguably broken as it is. The now-infamous arrow diagram from the 2010 Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity,  shows that the number of postdocs flowing towards PI and Professorial positions is far higher that the number of roles actually available. There is a significant narrowing of the pipeline. And we all know what happens when a large volume of liquid is forced through a narrow pipe. It bursts.

RS diagramThis diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people in to other sectors.

So how can we prevent this happening? How can we ensure that a generation of postdocs don’t end up disillusioned and career-less after trying (and failing) to gain permanent academic positions?

Well perhaps the solution is to encourage ‘leaking’ or, to think about things differently, create a system of scientific ‘irrigation’ across the careers landscape. Instead of viewing those who leave the academic system as ‘lost’ we should appreciate the value of having trained research scientists in other roles; in education, in policy, in government, in publishing, in scientific communication and public engagement and more. This way, the workforce is enriched with scientific knowledge and an appreciation of the value and importance of science.

The skills gained from training in scientific research go far beyond purely academic expertise. The so-called transferable skills mastered along the way include time management, team working, communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving alongside many others. The science community is finally beginning to recognise this and PhD education is no longer viewed solely as a foundation for an academic career. Doctoral training funders are increasingly appreciating that a science PhD is a basis for a variety of careers and are increasingly treating it as such.

The Research Councils, led by the BBSRC, are moving towards funding doctoral education via Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) and Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) models. These aim to provide a breadth of professional development training opportunities to enhance students’ capability and develop the world-class, highly skilled workforce the UK needs for its future. The BBSRC have gone one step further and introduced mandatory 3-month Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) placements. These non-lab based placements must be completed in an area outside of the student’s research specialism and aim to provide a platform to develop key transferable skills.

So, far from being ‘leakers’, those who use their scientific training in careers other than academic research form a vital part of the scientific community. We are ‘irrigators’ and, rather than being lost, we enrich the landscape surrounding the academic pipeline and serve to make sure it gets to where it needs to go.

Have I taken this analogy a bit too far? Probably.


Footnote: Much as I’d like to claim credit for the irrigation analogy, thanks are due to Dr Laura Bellingan, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology, for coming up with this idea (or reading about it somewhere – let me know if you’ve heard this before!).

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Developments in the battle against antibiotic resistance

The battle against antibiotic resistance is heating up.

From minimizing our reliance on antibiotics, making effective use of the drugs we have, and developing new drugs – action is being taking on all fronts to fight what could be a defining health issue of this era.


Is it enough? Comment below or Tweet us @biochemsoc.


Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria survive exposure to drugs. They develop a resistance to that form of treatment, requiring new drugs to be able to kill off the disease. But no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered in 25 years and resistance to the drugs we have is growing.

The threat is real – the World Health Organisation says antibiotic resistance is “happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country”.

In the past few weeks though we have seen some significant actions announced.

The Longitude Prize – a £10 million prize to solve one of the world’s major scientific challenges – selected antibiotic resistance as their challenge. Specifically, the challenge is to develop a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Point-of-care test kits will allow more targeted use of antibiotics, and an overall reduction in misdiagnosis and prescription, allowing for a more effective use of the antibiotics we already have.

Today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced an independent review, led by Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, to explore the economic issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance, including the regulatory environment, investment incentives and international cooperation.

The Biochemical Society, in our recently released Antimicrobial Resistance position statement, says that the regulatory processes for drug approval and incentives for private research must be addressed and reviewed to facilitate the development of new therapies.

Partnerships between industry and academia, and public-private partnerships, will be vital to promote research into new antimicrobials and alternatives, we say. Antimicrobials is a wider term for drugs that fight microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Hear more about antibiotic resistance at our free public lecture in Edinburgh

ImageJoin us for “Living in a post-antibiotic era: the challenge of disease resistance”, as Dr Paul Hoskisson (University of Strathclyde, UK) leads a discussion on the impending ‘post-antibiotic’ world that could soon become a reality.

The event, which takes place in Edinburgh on 15 July, will feature a panel of experts outlining the challenges that the global community faces as the drugs of today become obsolete.

Find out what it means for you and your family’s health care, and how scientists and policy makers are working together to develop innovative solutions. Ask your questions or listen to the thought-provoking discussion.

Find out more and register for free on our website.

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“Using technology to engage students” a Biochemical Society Workshop

Guest post by Mark Roberts (Queen Mary University of London) who attended the workshop.

The Biochemical Society held a one day workshop at Charles Darwin House on using technology to engage students. It was aimed to demonstrate how different technologies can be used to enhance teaching. I was interested in attending given the wide range of ways you can use technologies to hear from others how they are using technologies in their teaching and learn from their experiences.

The day opened with Professor Rob Beynon from Liverpool giving an interesting demonstration of livecode for writing small applications for both teaching and research. One nice thing of this demonstration was the ease of writing such small programs. Discussions of their use over lunch covered such as programs as a happy/ok/unhappy feedback clicker for lecture feedback or a bespoke data entry system to support a practical.

Dr Emma Taylor from Exeter spoke about how she is integrating mind maps to improve the problem based learning process (PBL) and help overcome some of the problems of the traditional PBL approach, in particular dealing with student anxiety of differences in learning objectives between groups. The approach employed at Exeter made use of technology to enhance a large group feedback session using interactive surface tables upon which students can display and discuss the research they have done on the PBL learning objectives.

Professor Neil Morris from Leeds lead a fascinating afternoon session covering a wide range of uses of technology that he has applied in his own teaching at Leeds and how he is now involved in the production of MOOCs. This resulted in a very interesting discussion about ensuring ‘digital equality’, that is not disadvantaging students because of the technology.  Neil discussed his experiences of using technology in his own teaching, in particular using tablets for discrete teaching sessions and for longer periods. He presented the findings from evaluations of those projects and provided an interesting insight of how such technologies could be deployed within a university setting and how they enhance teaching. One clear message from these projects was about app curation, guiding students to suitable apps as you would guide them to papers and text books on a reading list.

In the final session we looked at using tables both as a method for generating small pieces of teaching content and for delivering small teaching sessions using a range of apps. As highlighted in the previous session, there is a wide range of apps available, however, as with the plethora of text books covering an area which apps you choose may also be down to personal taste as well as function.

The workshop highlighted the range of different ways we can use technology to enhance learning. It provoked a lot of questions around access, ownership of equipment and openness of resources and certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of different methods and opportunities to use technology to enhance my teaching. I look forward to future events like this including the joint biochemical society FEBS conference on bioscience education next spring.

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Supporting scientists on a career break

Last week we launched the Stay Connected Bursaries, a new grant to help scientists on a career break keep up-to-date with scientific developments.

If you’re on a break in your career our new Bursaries can help with the cost of registration, accommodation and care provider cover when attending one of our conferences or other events.

Science moves at a rapid pace, so attending scientific events is a great way to keep informed about the latest developments while between jobs.

You do need to be a member to apply, but if you’re on a career break you can join for just £30 a year as an Associate Member. Not only can you apply for our Stay Connected Bursaries, you will receive free access to the Biochemical Journal, free registration at career events, and discounts on our events and other journals, to name just a few benefits.

Last year we ran a similar grant to support women on a career break, launched as part of the 2013 ‘Women in Biochemistry Year’. An expansion on that, our new Bursaries are available to anyone on a career break for any reason.

While not restricted, the grants are part of our drive to boost diversity in the biosciences and their launch coincided with release of our new Diversity in the Science Sector position statement.

In it, we say it is vital that the bioscience community reflects the make-up of UK society and that barriers, perceived or otherwise, to entering a career in the molecular biosciences are dispelled.

This is not just for moral and ethical considerations – there is a well-established and powerful business case for supporting increased equality and diversity in the science workforce.

Currently, individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, certain ethnic minorities, women, and people with disabilities are all under-represented in education, training and employment related to science.

As women are more likely than men to take a career break and the impacts of a career break could be more keenly felt by those from a low socio-economic background, we hope our new Bursaries will make a small but important contribution towards boosting diversity in the biosciences.

We have further work underway, including a forthcoming grant focussed in diversity issues. Keep an eye out for it here.

In the meantime, find out more and apply for a Stay Connected Bursary or read our new Diversity in the Science Sector position statement.

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Blood and Eyes – The messier the better!

A Biochemical Society funded outreach activity at Bridgwater Science Festival.

Guest post by Tarnjit Khera (University of Bristol, UK)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlood is messy and children like mess so what better way to teach children about the components of blood than letting them make it themselves? During the activity we discussed the role of each ingredient as it was added to a cup. Dried cranberries played the role of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, marshmallows were the bigger infection-fighting white blood cells and sugar glitter was used to depict platelets, which help scabs form. For the serum diluted milk containing food colouring was used. Each component was added in the ratio found in real human blood. Nearly all of the children knew blood is red, it keeps us alive and circulates around our bodies. The amount of information I gave in snippets was determined by the age of the child and the knowledge they already had therefore making the activity suitable for all. By about 9 years old, most children knew iron is present in blood and by about 12 years old, most children had heard of white blood cells and their role. So they were told about the different types of white blood cells and what happens during autoimmune disease.

My research focuses on how and why white blood cells are involved in uveitis, in particular the role macrophages play. Therefore white blood cells (aka marshmallows) were discussed in more detail. The children were also given a chance to make a mammalian cell by sticking organelles cut out of foam sheets onto a paper plate. We concentrated on role of the nucleus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi body. With the older children I discussed how cells talk to each other using ‘signalling molecules’ which they make and the ‘receptors’ that receive them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I am based in the Ophthalmology research laboratories in the Medical Sciences Building, University of Bristol, the structure of the eye was also covered. I gave the children the opportunity to make an eye. We used paper bowls to make the retina and front of the eye. A hole was cut out of one of the paper plate to depict the pupil and the iris coloured in. They then drew on the blood vessels in the retina on the other paper plate and stuck pipe cleaners on the back showing where the optic nerve connects the eye to the brain. All of the children took the eyes home with them but I disposed of the blood unless they had eaten it already! Colouring sheets – one showing the organelles in an eukaryotic cell and one showing the structure of the eye – were given out, as was a wordsearch and a crossword puzzle.

The kids loved it and even the parents attention was held! A big thank you to the Biochemical Society of funding the event and Karen Onions, Anna Franz, Hoang Anh Le and Nobue Itasaki for helping out too.

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Antimicrobial resistance: A very real threat

It has been described as a catastrophic threat – on a par with terrorism and climate change[i] – and one that is “happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country”[ii].

The threat is antimicrobial resistance, and the warnings are very real.

Today the Biochemical Society releases its Antimicrobial Resistance Position Statement, which lays out our concerns and the actions we are taking to support the battle against this potential health crisis.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when organisms (such as bacteria, viruses or parasites) survive exposure to drugs. They develop a resistance to that form of treatment, requiring new drugs to be able to kill off the disease.

The development of resistance to antimicrobial drugs is a natural evolutionary process. However, the misuse and inappropriate use of such drugs is accelerating this process. And while the process is accelerating, the development of new drugs – like antibiotics – is slowing.

Put simply: the drugs in our arsenal are becoming ineffective and we don’t have many more to replace them.

The extent of the problem should not be understated. World Health Organisation warnings include[iii], for example, that there were 450 000 new cases of multi drug-resistant tuberculosis in 2012, and that cases of gonorrhoea resistant to all drugs had been reported in 10 countries. With no vaccines or drugs in development, gonorrhoea may soon become untreatable, it says.

Nor should antimicrobial resistance be regarded as a future or third-world problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[iv], each year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.

The threat is real, but action can be taken to mitigate it. We need sustained research funding to drive the development of new antimicrobials and alternative approaches to combating infection, particularly vaccines. The development of rapid diagnostics will also be vital.

To this end, the Biochemical Society supports the work of Antibiotic Action. Their campaign seeks to inform and educate about the need for discovery, research and development of new antibiotics.

We are also part of an Anti-Infective Technologies and Strategies Policy Working Group, a collective of societies that aims to identify what learned societies can do to address the actions from the Department of Health’s Five-Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy[v].

Read our full Antimicrobial Resistance Position Statement on our website [PDF].

Hear more about antibiotic resistance at our free public lecture in Edinburgh

EFB-public-lecture-FP-160Join us for “Living in a post-antibiotic era: the challenge of disease resistance”, as Dr Paul Hoskisson (University of Strathclyde, UK) leads a discussion on the impending ‘post-antibiotic’ world that could soon become a reality.

The event, which takes place in Edinburgh on 15 July, will feature a panel of experts outlining the challenges that the global community faces as the drugs of today become obsolete.

Find out what it means for you and your family’s health care, and how scientists and policy makers are working together to develop innovative solutions. Ask your questions or listen to the thought-provoking discussion.

Find out more and register for free on our website.

Vote for the antibiotic resistance challenge in Longitude Prize 2014

Longitude Prize logoVoting on Longitude Prize 2014 closes next week. Six scientific challenges – including antibiotic resistance – are being voted on and the winning challenge will become the focus of a £10 million prize fund.

Our Scientific Policy Officer made the case for voting for the antibiotic resistance challenge in a recent blog post.

Visit the Longitude Prize website to vote and for more information.

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