A couple of months ago, I joined Stempra, a network of people working in science public relations, media and communications. The network supports members with events and training on a variety of topics to stay up to date with good practice for high quality science communication.
Last night, I attended my second Stempra event, Going global – working with international press – an intro on how to promote your work internationally. Following on from being a media spokesperson at Cancer Research UK and then an intern at the Science Media Centre a couple of months ago, I wanted to attend to bulk up my knowledge on all things science media and meet like-minded people.
The speakers came from diverse backgrounds, so their insights included many different scenarios and they shared some excellent advice about how to approach international comms. The speakers:
- Linda Capper, Head of Communications, British Antarctic Survey
- Daisy Barton, Media Relations Manager, The Lancet
- Stuart Coles, International PR Manager, King’s College London
- Ellen Rose, Director, Communications and External Affairs Leader, J&J Innovation Centre
This blog post is primarily intended as a learning record for myself, so the outline below covers the broader questions you’d ask yourself for any media story anyway, but expanded with yesterday’s specific insights about working on an international scale. And below that are a few gems about working with international press that fall under the category of things to watch out for.
- How will I get this story out?
- News services like EureakAlert or AlphaGalileo to share press releases far and wide
- Global news agencies like Reuters, Press Association, and Associated Press
- Social media – Twitter is a great place to connect to journalists around the world
- Collaborators of the story may have international links – use their networks
- Stay abreast of conferences that link to your stories
- Discover local PR agencies
- The BBC is a valuable global resource
- Why do I want to promote this story? Who will care and why? A multitude of possible answers, which may differ between all those involved internally.
- Strategic objectives
- Particular relevance to a country or on an international scale
- Researcher’s preferences
- A way to build contacts and reputation
- Monitor and evaluate – who else did care about the story?
- Google News’ alerts and Google Translate are your friends
- Specialist software if you are lucky enough to have the £££
And some extra gems about possible pitfalls, things to watch out for, and questions to ask before embarking:
- BBC country profiles have a wealth of info, including about a country’s media and are a great place to start if you feel a bit stuck.
- Different countries follow different reporting styles.
- The media culture can vary greatly between different countries – i.e. check whether there are any controls on the media.
- For the above two points, don’t assume that English-speaking countries conduct business in the same way as in the UK.
- Check time zones for setting embargoes.
- Not all countries obey embargoes, so make sure you know who will or will not!
- Make sure you know recent news in the country, or a country’s attitude to your topic to better appreciate the relevance of a story and to prep your spokesperson accordingly.
- Find out whether the country in question requires a spokesperson who speaks the local language.
- Check the local news agenda – trying to promote something during the build up to an election, or when a religious festival is on, may mean that your story falls to the bottom of the pile.
Please feel free to comment if you are one of the speakers or if you attended the event and have anything to add (or correct, but hopefully I haven’t made any glaring errors)! Or if you have any additional input to the conversation.
On the 29th of November, I went to a debate posing the question, ‘Do we need more scientists in parliament?’ The first in a new series of debates about policy hosted by the Society of Biology was fully booked, heralding a positive future for the series. Haralambos Dayantis, Science Communication graduate from Imperial College, organised the debate after exploring the subject for his dissertation and finding that many questions were yet to be answered. Given that the event was fully booked from early on, it seems that others are also keen to discuss the topic. An online poll conducted by the Society of Biology prior to the event was a landslide of 96% voting in favour of more scientists in parliament. I have to admit, my vote was also in favour, which, in hindsight, was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. This probably went something along the lines of, ‘Of course! Scientists have an evidence-based decision matrix and that will help sort out politics!’ I now think differently, but more of that later. The panel was balanced having an academic and a politician on each side who put their views across eloquently, despite some political posturing in the middle of the debate!
The panellists arguing for a greater number of scientists in parliament were:
* Dr Phillip Lee MP (Conservative MP for Bracknell, member of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Environment Group)
* Dr Jennifer Rohn (Cell biologist, novelist, founder and Chair of Science is Vital, and much more) The main arguments for an increase in scientifically trained parliamentarians (NB: an increase only, not a vast majority necessarily) in a very concise summary are:
- The country faces a large number of strategic challenges (climate change, an aging population, energy, access to food and water, healthcare) that require a scientific or engineering solution. The strategic problems we currently face have many aspects to them and scientists are trained in examining multiple variables and at finding a solution that takes account of them.
- Many in parliament are career politicians, which can mean that discussions are of poorer quality as a result of reduced diversity in academic background.
- More scientific representation in politics is required because scientific training provides skills that would be enormously beneficial in a political landscape alongside the lawyers, philosophers and theologians. Evidence-based decision-making, a good measure of scepticism to not accept things at face value, tenacity and analytical skills would all be advantageous for addressing policies.
This does not necessarily require professional scientists, just individuals with scientific training that equips them with learning how to examine a problem, determine workable solutions and analyse the results in a systematic way.
Debating against were:
* Dr Jack Stilgoe (Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, science and technology policy expert and blogger)
* Dr Evan Harris (former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, writer on science policy)
Arguing against, yet not quite opposing – i.e. the argument was not that there need not be any more scientists in parliament, rather that focussing on that was detracting from the actual issues that we face so that we forget about solving the actual problems and just waste time arguing about how great scientists would be in politics. Dr Stilgoe gave a balanced view taking account of the merits of the arguments for increasing scientific presence in parliament and explained why he thinks that those arguments, although valid, are weak. You can explore his reasoning further in his own words on his personal blog. I particularly thought his quote from Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, was relevant in this discussion, “every scientist out of their speciality is depressingly lay.” The main points from Dr Harris were that it is the actual policies that are put in place that matter; the point of focus should not be placed on who makes the policies but on whether the policies are serving the people of the nation. He also feels that the argument from the other side of the debate of the benefits of increased representation of scientists in parliament is weak – after all, many other professions may wish to be represented in politics but that is a very unlikely scenario. From his own personal experience in politics, he found that it is harder to convince scientifically trained members of the House of Lords, possibly due to a measure of prejudice about the evidence presented as they may have already come their own conclusions and be biased. A better use of resources would be to educate parliamentarians on technique in assessing scientific evidence and statistics.
Will they do it better? Well, yeah….but….no….but….
All the panellists agreed on one factor – insufficient scientific literacy due to fear that science is too difficult to comprehend, stigma attached to showing any kind of academic interest (during school years) or mere disinterest. One of the reasons why I am interested in communicating science is to diminish some of that fear factor – it really need not be scary but some people would benefit from innovative explanations or real-life links to it. The problems of stigma and disinterest are beginning to be tackled by the increasing amount of curricular enrichment of science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) in schools. Academics are eagerly taking on the role of this enrichment to meet public engagement targets issued by their funding bodies, raise the profile of their research topics, and because it is fun and stimulating to discuss your research in novel ways. Enthusing and impressing the importance of science to successive generations will help to safeguard against scientific illiteracy in the government in the future. Although that does not solve the problems discussed about parliament right now but at least all governmental departments now have chief scientific advisors so it certainly seems like the importance of taking scientific advice is apparent to those in parliament.
It does come down to having a certain aptitude for doing the role as well though. If a scientist is going to be interested in becoming a politician and is able to thrive in the environment, of course they should enter into it. But mere training in a certain way of approaching problems, one that has many merits and the opportunities to gain a range of transferrable skills, does not translate to the individual being able to apply themselves to a different field. In the end, it is the person – whether their training was in the sciences, law, geography, or welding – that has the potential to make a difference. I also think that the arguments on the opposing side from Drs Stilgoe and Harris were valid and I agreed with them that the issue is to figure out making policies that focus on what we need for the future. Our energies should be focussed there rather than on how to get more scientists in parliament. If there are scientists out there that are eager and suited for the role, I am certain that they will find a way in.
However, following on from that point but somewhat on the flip side, I do think it is entirely possible for parliament to become more populated with scientists – a point that Dr Rohn made and one that I have touched on briefly in an earlier post – far more PhDs are attained than can be accommodated in academic positions. Many PhD projects are now funded with stipends that have a liveable allowance so more people are attracted to pursuing what may have been more of a luxury in the past. The severe bottleneck that these PhDs are faced with in terms of careers in academia necessitates they broaden their transferrable skill set and consider other options. Just because someone has a degree in science does not preclude them from an interest and flair for politics so I think it is likely we will see an increased representation in the future.
So, for me – an interesting and lively debate, entertaining also as all the speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable but also made the audience laugh whilst making their case. And it wasn’t just my mind that was changed by the debate – a rough poll taken in the room showed that the nearly unanimous vote on the Society of Biology website in favour (which was always going to be a biased place to put the poll) had changed to approximately a third in favour, a third against and a third undecided. A great start to the Policy Lates series and I look forward to attending future events!
OK OK, so perhaps that title is a bit over the top given that I haven’t published many blog posts at all as yet but here is the reason for that.
In this new uncertain world outside of the protective womb of academia, I am now left to fend for myself – gone is the umbilical vessel feeding my brain nutrition in the form of seminars and stimulating coffee break conversations with colleagues (when we weren’t talking about hummus or cheese). Gone is that warm and protective environment – so familiar by the time of completing my PhD and two research posts in the same institution, surrounded by friends and being shielded from the big bad “real world”. After spending so long studying and in the academic environment, I enjoyed the work and the nurturing and stimulating atmosphere but I also think that my skills can probably be better applied to science outside of research. It is hard to make the break and leave that familiarity behind – the real world demands a lot more. I have had a lot of positive feedback but am lacking in experience outside of academia and unfortunately, public engagement doesn’t count enough at the moment with the employment situation so terrible for all. Great – overqualified and under experienced!
Well, I am now putting that to rights and is the reason why it has taken so long to blog again – I have been trying to sort out moving to London from Manchester, my home for the last 10 years. It has taken a little while to sort out the kerfuffles and logistics of moving and there have been many things to arrange. But now, kind and generous friends have taken me in and are helping me settle in whilst I try to overcome the hurdle of being under experienced. Next week, I will start a month-long internship at Breakthrough Breast Cancer to work with their Senior Information Officer – this will get the ball rolling for making contacts, getting some experience and seeing the difference in research in an office-based context.
Now that I am settled down a bit more, I can finally get back to blogging! This was greatly helped by the entertaining talks and inspiration last night at the first ever UK Science Blog Prize arranged by the lovely people of Good Thinking and Soho Skeptics. My first weekend in London and I get to go to something so fun that soothed and cradled my inner geek – like coming home and being embraced. The ten shortlisted bloggers gave very entertaining talks that I hope they write up on their blogs as they were varied and contained a mixture of humour (in one case complete hilarity – thank you very much Dean Burnett of Brain Flapping), advice and tons of inspiration. We were entertained halfway through by the amazingly talented Helen Arney who regaled us with ukelele music and also had us all in fits of giggles – I think I have developed science crushes for both, Helen and Dean! And really, Ben Goldacre was spot on saying that all the entrants were remarkable in doing such excellent work in sharing their passion so effectively with others all for the love of science and for wanting to break down the “us and them” barriers between scientists and the public. This last point in particular was emphasised in the talk by one of the shortlisted candidates – the anonymous Neuroskeptic – that it is vital to explain science to all, not just science geeks, because it is a way for understanding the world around us which is increasingly vital as the influence of scientific progress impacts us all in our day to day lives. How can we debate the big issues discussed in politics without having some knowledge of their influence and impact? It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share and is the reason I got into public engagement in the first place and why I am now doing this blog and why I imagine a lot of other scientists pursue public engagement or science blogging.
Now, normally, this would be written up as, ‘but there can only be one winner!’ However, the judges were so torn between two of the shortlisted candidates that they decided to have joint winners as well as the three runners up! Many congratulations to the runners up:
* Oliver Childs, Henry Scowcroft and Kat Arney that together run the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog to help people deal with all that conflicting information out there about the causes, prevention or cause and simultaneous prevention of cancer that seems to change from week to week in the mainstream media (Kat Arney also has her own personal blog).
* Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains expertly and with humour anything from birds that use passwords to spiky beetle penises.
* Dorothy Bishop of BishopBlog discusses many different academic-related matters and more and is a champion of the ‘oldies’ (her words, not mine).
The two winners then that are now even more highly recommended given that they are prize winners and all:
* David Colquhoun of DC’s Improbable Science battles ‘quackery’ – pseudoscience and alternative medicine – without rest whilst being a Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.
* Suzi Gage of Sifting the Evidence where she has fast amassed a massive following as she explains statistics and epidemiology. All the more remarkable given that she is still completing her PhD and as David Colquhoun quipped – he and Suzi were likely the oldest and youngest entrants for the competition.
For a very brief moment whilst I was there, I did feel intimidated in the presence of such eloquent, prolific and popular writers, feeling that I have entered the blogging world too late. But then I came to realise that I can learn so much and only move on up from here. As Suzi said in her talk, one of her tips – there will be at least one person out there that will enjoy what you have written and that is important. That was always how I felt doing schools events, some days there would be classes that consisted mostly of kids that had a fun trip to learn science at the museum forced on them but there would always be at least one that was dazzled by it and had wonder in their eyes, and that really does make it worth all the hard work you put into doing such things. So, I have a lot to learn and a lot to do from here on in. I have a few exciting projects that I may keep under wraps for now (until I learn whether the proposals are successful or not) even though they are making me quite giddy with excitement! Now that I am settled, one of them is to get writing and I have a few topics lined up. However, if there is anything to do with brains, developmental biology, fruit fly research or other biology topics that you want to know, feel free to suggest and I shall try to tackle them, or point you in the direction of someone that has already done it very well. Looking forward to some exciting times ahead! 🙂
As I did not receive any feedback for my entry to the science writing competition run by the Wellcome Trust in association with The Guardian and The Observer, I thought I would post it up here and see what people think of it. It was submitted for the 2011 competition and the subject matter is not from within my own field of expertise.
The topic was prompted by a close friend, who happens to be a very talented jeweller. Around the time of the competition, we were marvelling over a new ring she had bought that had been produced by 3D printing technology and I thought it was the perfect topic for the competition. Obviously, I did not win or even make runner up 😦 but that means I need to focus on how to improve. However, that requires some help – constructive feedback on what can be improved. Although, people are different and what excites one person, does not necessarily excite another. Well, here is my entry….make of it what you will and leave some (constructive) feedback if you wish.
Printing the Future
A close friend of mine happens to be a talented jeweller. Heather is often adorned with interesting pieces of jewellery and I was recently admiring a piece of hers – a metal ring with cavities resembling a cellular structure – and wondered if it was part of a new range she was designing. I listened in disbelief as she explained that the entire ring had been printed in its completed form, that is, no other work required after the printing was complete! Intrigued, I searched for more information on this technological marvel.
3D printing, it turns out, is not as recent a development as I initially thought – it has been in use since 1986 and is part of the new field of ‘additive fabrication’, which simply means construction by building up a structure rather than by chipping away. The term refers specifically to automated layering to create entire pieces, not additive in terms of using techniques such as welding, screwing, forging, etc in the assembly of the product.
Charles Hull developed the first of these technologies that he named stereolithography. This technique uses 3D modelling software that slices a 3D model of the object to be produced into several 2D sections. A UV laser ‘draws’ the first 2D section on a bed of resin to solidify and fuse that region. The building platform is lowered by 0.05-‐0.15mm (depending on the precision of the instrument) and a fresh layer of resin is applied by a blade that sweeps across the platform. The next 2D section is etched that bonds to the previous layer and so on until the object is completed. The un-‐solidified resin is cleared away and ta-‐da! the completed product is ready.
This concept is now applied in a few different ways in terms of the raw materials and the layering technology – these include other types of lasers that fuse particles of a variety of materials into a uniform structure (plastic, glass, ceramic or metal) known as selective laser sintering. Another commonly used apparatus uses a heated nozzle that melts the raw material to extrude it that then promptly solidifies where it has been layered. An obvious limitation of these examples is that the product is made of a single material. The key to this method of manufacturing, however, is speed, precision and adaptability. The machines are currently used by a wide variety manufacturers that use it to rapidly create prototypes of new designs. In aerospace engineering, for example, where precision is key but one-‐off parts for prototypes are costly. Using additive fabrication, the new part can be produced from powder of aerospace-‐grade titanium with high precision, quickly and with little to no waste as unused powder can be reused.
Being a biologist who actually studies cell culture myself, I was particularly astounded when I stumbled across a TED talk by Anthony Atala in which he described using an inkjet printer that used different cell types as the ‘ink’. Still it its infancy, this novel tissue engineering technique aims to develop the technology for organ transplantation or wound healing by printing whole organs or skin grafts. Atala envisions a day (likely very far away) when a patient can lie on the hospital bed and the printer hovers over the wound sweeping across and depositing different cells where they are required. Seems quite ‘out there’ but such innovative vision is important for making these leaps forward.
Inevitably, debates about the implications arise and it is important to think of consequences within a given field that adopts this method of production. Take for example the jewellery industry – a jeweller may not know that someone is infringing their copyright halfway across the world or in the house next door. Seedier situations are also possible: a black-‐market weapons dealer modifying semi-‐automatic guns into automatics with the greatest of ease merely by clicking print. All the gadgetry required for building an organ in highly sterile conditions will cost a lot of money – one would hope that this did not render it a service available to the privileged alone.
What I find most interesting about this is how versatile these additive fabrication technologies will be. Any item that requires a design – from jewellery to a lamp in your house – the customer can have design control via applets on the web so that the artist or manufacturer can produce and deliver a unique and personalised item. In addition, software for the printers may be sold or made available for others to use under a creative commons license. When I first heard of 3d printing, ‘replicators’ – voice operated machines from ‘Star Trek’ that reproduced food or clothing – were brought to mind and, similarly, the idea of the sweeping cellular printer makes me think of the hand-‐held ‘dermal regenerator’. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.
It can get you down, filling in application forms, writing letters and continually polishing the CV in the hopes of getting a job. So, I am glad that way back April I signed up for the NatureJobs Career Expo held on the 20th of September at the Business Design Centre in London. The Expo has been running for several years in various guises and, this year consisted of a free careers fair and a low cost conference.
Hilarity and inspiration
The conference, at the low cost of just £40, had a lot of useful sessions. The keynote speaker, Jorge Cham of the wonderfully entertaining PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip, got the audience giggling and a little less worried about whether they were going to make the right impression, talk to enough of the right people, get some clarity for future career direction or just about whether they’d get anything useful out of the day. The PHD comics have helped postgraduate students around the world feel a little less lonely when they are still at their desk or lab bench at 2am questioning what on earth they are doing there and why, and wondering when everybody around them was going to discover that they are just an impostor – it is just those sort of thoughts that Jorge brings alive in the comic in a comedic and empathetic way and was also how he presented his keynote speech.
The session on marketing yourself was useful in collating all those thoughts that float around your head on a good day when you remind yourself that, “hey, completing a PhD shows that I am not an impostor and all that extra-curricular stuff I took the initiative to do in my own time shows that I am pretty versatile so I’m sure I will get this job that I am applying for now.” It also provided good strategies on a systematic way to go about learning what is marketable about yourself and how to use that information effectively. Nicola Osborne, social media officer of EDINA then gave use lots of information about the utility of an online presence and how best to manage it – very handy indeed given that I have only just started this blog! This was followed by a highly entertaining and participatory session by Andrew Harries of VOX Coaching on best practice and tips for effective networking using some tricks of the theatrical trade – a lot of foot stamping and giggling ensued and for me personally, made me want to join an amateur dramatics society (not because it made me think that I’m any good at acting but because the coaching, which drew on some techniques used in drama classes, was just so much fun).
New elements to completing the PhD programme – and I helped!
Then came the session that really got me excited – Simon Cutler, Senior Programme Manager of the BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – a major funding body in the UK that is funded by the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) talking about science policy and programme management – something that many scientists overlook as dull and boring. Well, the talk was anything but. I do think it is important to understand how funding is managed and what direction it will follow, I should think this is especially important for researchers applying for grants – they need to know that the direction they want to pursue will be backed by their funding body and how to make their grants sexy so that they’ll be the ones to get a share of the money. It must be a complicated matter as targets and directions have to be forecast several years in advance and have to be in the best interest of issues we are predicted to be facing. I have to confess though that the most interesting part of the talk for me was self-indulgent – the information about the official scheme to support the professional development of PhD students funded by the BBSRC: integrated Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS).
You see, back in 2009, when I was in the 2nd year of my PhD and had recently completed a Researchers in Residence placement, I was invited to a workshop held in Manchester by the BBSRC for directors of postgraduate research. I was asked to give a presentation on my experience of doing a Researchers in Residence placement (a scheme that was then funded by Research Councils UK of whom BBSRC is a member). There was a bit of humour in there as I described my experience that was based on genuine fears – as I embarked on the placement, I was terrified of going into a classroom full of school children, having in my mind an image of the children from the film “Village of the Damned“. I don’t know what those fears were based on as I had done work with several school groups prior to that, perhaps the difference was that I was designing the whole thing myself and I wanted to do a good job of it.
The experience turned out to be fantastic and I got so much out of it. The reasons I decided to do it were to take on a challenge and step outside of my comfort zone, take the initiative to improve my communication and presentation skills and to flex my creative muscles as I came up with my session lesson plans. My description of how beneficial it was for my professional and personal development was well-received by most, although there were still some supervisors there that believed that their PhD students remain chained to their lab benches the entire time.
As recognised by the BBSRC, this attitude from supervisors cannot continue in the current climate where there are far more people completing PhDs than there are jobs available as a postdoc (see this interesting blog post by Casey Bergman on this topic). *I have to insert a cautionary note before I continue: in the following I am not doing PhD students a disservice and saying that they would not be able to avail themselves of opportunities outside of academia without taking part in initiatives such as PIPS. What I am getting at is that it really is useful for forging links, feeling empowered of your abilities outside of the academic environment and in the current employment situation you really need something to set you apart. Also, I always found that I was refreshed with my research when I had to step outside of it to consider science from a much broader perspective.*
So, those PhD students that do not continue in research require something to make themselves marketable to the world outside of academia. Of course, there are PhD students out there that may really want to concentrate solely on their research and not want to or see the point in gaining experience outside of academia. However, even for those students, it will be valuable at some time in their academic careers – it was described perfectly in the session I had seen earlier that day at the Expo on marketing yourself. From an early stage in academic life up until postdoc level, your knowledge base becomes narrower but you become specialised, an expert on a small segment of what is out there (with a little shifting around as you take on different projects with different jobs). As you continue to progress up the academic ladder though, you need to widen that knowledge base once again for managing several projects that you delegate to your lab members. Additionally, there is now just so much information so easily available over the internet about fields that are not as closely related, but that can spark innovation and collaborations to make that breakthrough with your research by examining it in combination with techniques that you normally wouldn’t encounter in your niche field of research. Then, you are loaded with greater admin responsibilities as you move into a senior academic position and beyond. I have attempted to make a reproduction of the image that was used in the session to describe what I mean, I hope it makes sense, see below! It cannot be detrimental to have wider experience at this stage even if it means that it is several years before the impact and usefulness of it is apparent.
It was fantastic to hear that my experience was involved in some way, big or small, in the implementation of a policy that allows BBSRC-funded PhD students to carry out a 3-month placement outside of the academic environment to get a taste of what else is out there and be empowered about their non-lab skills after completing a PhD.
Advice from the professionals
The careers fair was very useful too and featured several exhibitors from the science sector with representatives on hand to have chat with about the companies they represent. It was particularly interesting talking to Sarah Blackford, Head of Education and Public Affairs of The Society for Experimental Biology – she had many kind and encouraging words for me regarding my job search and also gave me very useful advice about my CV, unsurprising given that she has a book about career planning for bioscientists coming out next month. It was also great to hear from The Science Council that I can still provide evidence of continuing professional development to become a Chartered Scientist with the Society of Biology even though I want to move out of research and into a science communications role. I even got the chance to practice my Japanese with reps from Otsuka Pharma.
I am now reinvigorated in my job searching and am busy following up various leads, feeling hopeful for the future and happy about my progress thus far but aware that I need to continue my professional development to get that next position.
Here is a link to the Come Fly With Me poster (Perspectives poster) after which the blog is named. The info below was my application to the competition and got me selected as a finalist, what do you think about it?
Please describe your research in a way that is accessible to a non-scientist.
(250 words MAX.)
I am trying to understand how eyes are formed and how to cope with jet-lag (through examining the daily body clock) by studying fruit flies. I am trying to understand this by studying their genes. Astonishingly, there are a lot of similarities between human and fruit fly genes – the ‘master’ eye gene in fruit flies is 94% similar to the human gene! Animals’ genes are like their blueprint – they carry all the information required to make the animal. These blueprints are ‘read’ by a set of various proteins (‘labourers’ of the body), other sets of proteins then carry out the instructions from the genes. In different parts of the body, different proteins are used to read only the genes that are required for making that part of the body. For example, when an eye is being made, eye-making proteins read genes for making eyes but not genes that make legs. As the eyes are formed, there are lots of different genes and proteins (factors) involved at the same time and we only understand a handful of them at the moment. Sometimes, out of the several factors that are used in making eyes, some of them are sometimes used in making other parts of the body, for example brain cells. The main protein that I am investigating is used for making eyes and the part of the brain that forms the daily body clock. I am trying to see what other factors that make the eye also make the clock.
Why do you want to take part in perspectives?
(250 words MAX.)
I have been fortunate enough to have had several opportunities to try and spark my love of science in others during the course of my Ph.D. This has been through doing Researchers in Residence; demonstrating biology practicals to school groups and the public at Manchester Museum; setting up a ‘show-and-tell’ style exhibit at Manchester Museum for the ‘Darwin Extra Big Saturday’ event and demonstrating the intricacies of the brain to primary school children and at a train station as part of the ‘Brain Bus’. I think that it is important to make science accessible to people so that they know and understand it. As my research is sponsored by a publically funded research council, I also believe that the public have a right to know about current research that is, ultimately, funded by them. Perspectives is another fantastic opportunity to talk to the public about science and my own research.
What impact does your research area have on society (direct and/or indirect)?
(250 words MAX.)
Fruit flies are a popular and widely researched animal in life sciences. There are some remarkable similarities in how flies and humans function at the level of cells and within the cell. This high degree of similarity means that research on fruit flies can shows us how humans develop, this helps us understand how diseases start and progress when something goes wrong in the normal process. This can potentially have a massive impact on society down the line.
My research is contributing to a full comprehension of how genes work. Despite having a vast amount of information today about gene and protein interactions, we are still only scratching at the surface and new advances continue to be made. Strengthening this foundation is important to have a strong grasp on how genes and proteins work together as a network. The human genome has been sequenced but we still only understand a minute fraction of the data due to a lack of full insight about what is contained within. This is essential for a full understanding of genetic disorders and searching for targeted therapies. Thorough comprehension of the genetic basis for a disorder can aid drug development, allowing it to be targeted to the individual needs of the patient.
Understanding the body clock is becoming a vital issue as health effects caused by jet-lag and shift work (that disrupt the body clock) have only just begun to be appreciated. The cost of these to the individual and to society may be phenomenal.
How has your research (or research area) been shaped by society?
(250 words MAX.)
Using the fruit fly as the research animal of choice is in line with government policy to reduce, refine and replace the use of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish where possible in scientific research. Genetic studies in flies are currently being used to learn about a wide variety of issues that have become more pertinent in recent years; for example, drug addiction, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease can all be studied in fruit flies! Given the breadth of research possible in fruit flies and the need to replace higher animal models where possible, fruit fly research is a valuable alternative.
Another instance of society influencing research is down to our 24-hour lifestyles in the Western world that are becoming more and more prevalent. This leads to a large proportion of the work force doing shift work or disrupting their body clock for leisure. This in turn will have an ever greater impact on the costs incurred by the NHS in treating the outcomes of these lifestyles. These lifestyles, therefore, are certainly dictating the sort of research that is required today.