Monday, 28 November 2011

Acne, a side effect of being a successful 'high flying' career woman? Not at all.

This is the latest blight to 'successful', 'high powered', 'bossy' women...

According to The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Marie Claire, and Female First:

- 'Acne new problem for successful women'

- 'Acne, curse of the high-flying career woman: Growing stress levels to blame for outbreak of pimples'

- 'Stress causing acne in successful women'

Friday, 25 November 2011

Recognising Public Engagement

Universities in the UK have embraced 'Public Engagement'. There is a Public Engagement Manifesto. My university (University of Aberdeen) have signed it. But who carries this 'vital' work out and are they being recognised for it?

The University of Aberdeen is committed to achieving distinctive excellence across all aspects of its activities including the vital objective of engaging with society. We are building on a considerable track record, where public engagement has become ever more embedded in our core business. Moving forward, our Strategic Plan 2011-2015 reflects our ongoing commitment to support and empower our staff and students to help deliver a diverse, creative and accessible programme of activities with a measurable public impact. Partnership is central to our strategy and our active involvement with the work of the NCCPE extends back to its inception. We therefore endorse the principles of the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research and fully support the NCCPE Manifesto.” Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Aberdeen

This is great news. One I am pleased with as a PhD student. I want the university I am studying at to be embracing this and I want to (and do) support public engagement events. I think there is a great value in engagement and both for the university, the people at the university and for the public.
I do see one problem though. The vast amount of public engagement activities that happen are reliant on volunteers. The volunteers tend to be a small (ish) pool of people that take part in events and often the pool is of students (both undergraduate and postgraduate).  
Public Engagement is starting to be seen as something employees of the university should be doing within their 'normal work'. Some institutions are including it on their assessment and promotion criteria which is a great start at integrating it into peoples jobs (I am not sure that the University of Aberdeen have introduced this). Including it as promotion criteria makes sure that staff time is dedicated to public engagement and that people are rated, judged and recognised for the work they do.
I see plenty of support for people that want to get involved with public engagement and have an idea at the University of Aberdeen. However, I feel the recognition for people that take part in these activities; especially those that are students and on short term contracts (post doc etc) is lacking. This creates a culture where those interested in public engagement and feel strongly about it do it. But do it in their own time because they want to. There is no extra incentives other than 'building your C.V.'. As the university are placing an expectation on people to take part in these activities, should there be bigger incentives, recognition and awards or should people not taking part and not 'doing their bit'  be penalised?
UCL seems to be doing a good job at both embracing and recognising people (both staff and students) who take part in these activities through the Provost awards - However, is the introduction and use of awards such as these (although they may be great incentives to get people involved in public engagement activities) a way for the universities to get work that they deem as 'vital' done but not pay people for it?

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Cervical Cancer Jab and the 'Waking Coma'

I read an extremely sad news story this evening about a girl who is trapped in a 'waking coma'. Sleeping for 23 hours a day she has been unable to open her eyes for several weeks. Her condition is according to the news reports undiagnosed, but her symptoms have been linked to ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her story has been covered on The Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sun and many other major news websites after the local newspaper covered the story.

Unfortunately, I feel that this story has only hit the big newspapers as her symptoms coincided with her receiving the cervical cancer vaccine and the headlines and articles all suggest that the cancer vaccine is the cause of the girls condition. These are some of the headlines:

Daily Mail:  Girl, 13, left in 'waking coma' and sleeps for 23 hours a day after severe reaction to cervical cancer jabs

Telegraph: Cervical cancer jab left girl, 13, in 'waking coma'
The Sun:  Cervical cancer jab puts girl, 13, in 'waking coma'

The link between the jab and her condition has not been proven.

Obviously it is important to get to the bottom of this story,  and find out what is the cause of the symptoms, but I am disappointed to see this story being sold as an anti vaccine scare story.

News organisations may say they have a responsibility to report on stories that may suggest a danger from a product/vaccine however, is a very isolated case and overshadows the benefits of the vaccine (and other vaccines).

How can possible side effects be reported whilst making it clear that the links are not yet proven? Can they? Has the media still not learnt its lesson from previous misreporting of unsupported vaccine side-effects?

For the facts on the cervical cancer vaccine visit the NHS website:

I would encourage everyone to submit a complaint about these articles to the PCC here - as I feel they are in breach of clause 1 (accuracy) of the code of practice -

As Stephen Adams was identified as the author of the Telegraph acticle I contacted him:

I am writing to you in response to the article posted on The Telegraphs website titled - Cervical cancer jab left girl, 13, in 'waking coma'.
I am unsure why you have chosen to produce a story linking the jab to the girls condition when a link has not yet been proven. The article clearly comes across in a way that suggests the link is there and I think that is misleading. I have written more on my blog here
I have also submitted a complaint about the article to the PCC.
I would like to ask you why you felt the need to write the article in this way? Do you not see the need to be cautious in the representation of vaccine side effect stories after the problems with the MMR vaccine?

This Stephen's response:

The article clearly states that it is the parents' belief that the jab has produced an adverse reaction in their daughter.
It does not claim this is the doctors' judgement, or claim there is a proven link.
The article makes clear the very great benefit this vaccine should have in the future in reducing the burden of cervical cancer, and the fact that it has demonstrated a strong safety profile so far in trials and in practice.
That, however, should not stop papers from reporting suspected adverse reactions. And that is all we have done - reported the parents' fears of a suspected adverse reaction. It does not, as you write, suggest there is a link.
I believe papers should be free to report claims of such reactions, in a fair and balanced way. As a medical sciences student you undoubtedly know that vaccines can and do produce adverse reactions in a small proportion of people.
I don't have an axe to grind about vaccines, and am certainly not one of the minority who objects to them.
For your information I have written other reports on HPV vaccines, see for example here and here
Anti-vaccine campaigners might take the view that these are to 'pro-vaccine'.
You might, however, be interested to read some of the comments from parents on the bottom of the first of the two.
I am acutely aware of the need not to scaremonger about vaccinations in the wake of MMR; I think you will find most journalists are.

I haven't got much time to write my reaction - here is what I believe is the 'original' article in the local newspaper - This article really suggests that it is the parents feeling that there is a link to the jab more than the article in the Telegraph does. A lot of the stats and statments in this article also appear in the Telegraph article.

I understand that Stephen probably did not write the headline for the article in the Telegraph and I feel that it is the most misleading part, however, he doesn't see a problem with the article at all.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Wine, gives you cancer but makes you thin

Once again, reporters pick up on stories related to booze. There are two wine stories in the news at the moment. Both found on the Telegraph website (and others)

Booze, from
 Story 1, Red wine holds key to better health for obese patients

Headline suggests drinking wine = good for health. The headline is misleading, but the study write up is pretty good. No 'scientists' in this article, only EXPERTS. Whoever they are...

This article is written about a small study on humans (11 male obese patients). The patients were given the treatment for 30 days (so very short term). Treatment was an injection (not a glass of) resveratrol (compound found in grapes at low levels - according to The Telegraph you would have to drink 13 bottles a night to acheive a dose similar to that in the study - not sure where this figure comes from). Results were compared to placebo treatment (the participants were given a placebo injection for 30 days at the start of the trial). The paper found that, ' 30 days of resveratrol supplementation induces metabolic changes in obese humans, mimicking the effects of calorie restriction.'

The Daily Mail go with the headline -  Red wine ingredient protects against heart disease and diabetes

but fail to mention the amount of actual wine you would have to drink in order to match the levels used in the study (shame on you) and also throw in the rather bold claim, 'resveratrol, the wonder substance which found in the skin of red grapes, is also thought to increase life expectancy'.  I am not sure what backs that claim up...

Research paper freely available to read here -

Story 2, One glass of wine a day increases risk of breast cancer: research

Another story from the Telegraph, unsure why ':RESEARCH' is used in the headline. The study did not look at wine, it studied alcohol consumption.

Information from the study paper -  very large study (105 986 American Nurses) monitored between 1980 and 2008. The population of the nurses,93.7% white, 2% black, 0.7% Asian, and 3.6% other or unknown race/ethnicity.  Information was collected by survey - one consideration is, how truthful were the nurses about their alcohol consumption? Were those reporting low, 'moderate' amounts of alcohol really consuming low amounts? It seems alcohol consumption was averaged over years where there was missing data for participants. They did include 'dummy variables' for missing data. Obesity seems to have been completely omitted from the variables in the study, which is a problem because weight gain and loss is a risk factor in breast cancer.

Results (quoted from paper) 'Increasing alcohol consumption was associated with increased breast cancer risk that was statistically significant at levels as low as 5.0 to 9.9 g per day, equivalent to 3 to 6 drinks per week (relative risk, 1.15; 95% CI, 1.06-1.24; 333 cases/100 000 person-years).' The first line in the Telegraph reports, 'women who drink just four small glasses of wine a week increase their risk of developing breast cancer by 15 per cent'. I am unsure where The Telegraph have got this statistic from.

Also from The Telegraph, 'Women who drank up to four units a day were 50 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who did not drink at all, it was found'. Unless I am missing something, (and please correct me) the Telegraph seem to have created their own statistics for this study.

Daily Mail reports - Two glasses of wine a day could increase breast cancer risk by 50 per cent

Made up statistic in use on the headline. Article seems to be copied from The Telegraph, just rea-arranged in a different order.

Research paper available here -

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bring Back Board Games

I LOVE board games. I get aggressive, grumpy and bossy (but I NEVER cheat, despite what my family say). A couple of years ago I found this beauty of a board game on Ebay, NORTH SEA OIL (I think it is from the 70s). I bought it for my boyfriend (who works in the oil industry) -

It is FANTASTIC. It's like oil Monopoly. It has mini oil rigs and real life oil situations (bad weather = no oil production).

Board games have always been 'big' in my family... we have this one 'ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ'.. for a million years, although we have no idea how to play it. Our Monopoly board was bought by my Grandma when she was a teenager (she likes to tell us every time we play) with real metal pieces...

I usually buy a board game for Christmas, the weirder the better.. here are some suggestions from the lovely people on my Twitter feed. They all look FAB.

LOOPING LOUIE - some kind of crazy German game where you fly 'Louie' round a crazy obstacle course... (@sulsatweets)

UCKERS - Like 'Combat Ludo' - (@mrtotes)

THE GRAPE - You are your own wine grower (what's not to love!?) Even has it's own Facebook page (although only 5 'likes') (@don_frank)

DUNGEON QUEST, with a very reassuring 15% survival rate... (@Astronick)

SETTLERS OF CATAN Comes with high praise from @hollyjunesmith and @anclag !

Board games can be great fun (and can be very cheap).. Just get on ebay, type in 'board game' and hit 'ending soonest'. The weirder, the better.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

No Grazie, Grazia

A few weeks ago Dr Petra (@DrPetra) highlighted a story that was doing the rounds in the national press about 'bossy women have less sex'... Google it under news and you will see the stories from around the globe (see here, safe to click). The story was formulated from a piece of research carried out with Sub-Saharan African Women, (freely available for all to read here)

This extract is taken from the abstract of the research article, 'Understanding how women’s position in the household influences their sexual activity may be an essential piece in protecting the sexual rights of women and helping them to achieve a sexual life that is both safe and pleasurable.'

This weekend I picked up a copy of Grazia Magazine and found this story -

I tweeted it because I was frustrated, I tweeted it at Grazia and Dr Petra. I was frustrated that a magazine, marketed at women, that aims to go beyond regurgitating the usual trashy gossip that other magazines print, found it appropriate to include a 'debate' about this headline, which should never have been a headline. Another case of misrepresented research.

Others offered their support and said they were disappointed also. I sent an email to Grazia saying why I thought this story was inappropriate and that they could have done a much better job by covering the fact that the mainstream press thought it was appropriate to change this study about empowerment in women in Sub-Saharan Africa into a story about 'bossy women having less sex'.

The response from Grazia:

JaneGRAZIA @hapsci Sorry you feel that way, but that certainly wasn't our intention

DrPetra @ Tbh @janeGRAZIA unsure saying 'it wasn't our intention' to misrepresent research on African women's empowerment is good enough @hapsci

DrPetra @ Was it that writers didn't read this research or read it+ decided to misrepresent it?Both worrying @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

DrPetra @ A better approach=reflect on why folk upset with column+commit to reporting research more accurately AND entertainingly @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

JaneGRAZIA @DrPetra @hapsci It was a huge story in national press we were debating - not original research

JaneGRAZIA @ @marykmac @hapsci Hard not to react with frustration when accused of misogyny, and for that I apologise. We do take your comments on board

I wrote this blog post because I wanted to share this story with my friends away from Twitter and get their response about a magazine I know they read - what do you think?

UPDATE 12.10.11

Response from DrPetra

Thanks for writing this @hapsci. While Grazia's coverage wasn't the only problematic piece in this whole sorry media saga (which managed to completely twist a piece of research into suggesting the opposite of its actual findings), it is a good illustration of how the media relies on other press coverage rather than original research papers to inform stories. As such it's a great case study for teaching both journalism and science communication students/practitioners.

I may be wrong but it seems Grazia had not read the original research at all and probably had no idea about what it was really about. Again that's not unusual as often journalists misunderstand papers. In this case the research was freely available and easy to track down. The press release was also easily accessible. It would have taken a bit longer to find the original study and report it than it would have taken to simply do churnalism with existing press coverage, but that would have made for a lot more interesting piece. I'd be interested to hear from Grazia (and other journalists who covered this story) about why they did not do this? Or why they felt talking about the press coverage rather than the research itself was adequate?

Following the discussion on Twitter Grazia asked for people to get in touch. For the purposes of transparency here's the message I sent them:

"Following the discussions about the 'bossy women have less sex' here's a few resources that may be of use to you if you plan on taking this story further.

The original study (open access) is free to view here:

and the press release that went with it here:

As you can see neither of these go with the 'bossy woman' angle. In fact what the study set out to do was see how much autonomy women had within their lives and from that looked at sexual activity. They found that women who have more say over what happens elsewhere in their lives are less likely to be coerced into unwanted sexual behaviour. So rather than it being a case of 'bossy women having less sex', the study found that women who have control over their lives have more equal relationships. This is important as equality in relationships translates to more pleasurable sex for women and their partners. It's also very important given the context of this study was Sub Saharan Africa where there can be problems of gender equality and where coercive sex can be a problem. As talking about sex is often taboo, having a way to discuss relationships based on women's wider autonomy in the home could be a helpful means to uncover problems of coercion/violence but also be a way of looking at achieving gender equality and empowering women more widely.

When this research hit the headlines it got respun into 'bossy women have less sex' (summarised here by The Media Blog It's not clear why this happened, or where this angle originally came from. But if you compare this coverage to the original paper it's not just a case of getting the science a little bit wrong, it's an entire rewrite of the findings to basically advocate for the opposite position that the research is coming from. Resulting in reporting of this research that airbrushed out African women entirely while repackaging a study about women's agency into a stick to beat UK women with - for being both opinionated and withholding sex. A study that was looking at avoiding coercive sexual practices was transformed into coverage that implied saying when you don't (or do) want sex is a bad thing.

At the time of this reporting people were complaining about how badly the research had been covered, but it didn't stop it being picked up in other media outlets (including your own) in ways that rehearsed or added to the myth of the 'bossy women have less sex' account. Which is why there has been some vocal criticism about the coverage in Grazia.

I'm really glad you're taking time to reflect on this particular case and hope it can be something that could be used in future. Perhaps either as a timely warning that a research report in mainstream media always needs checking at source, or if you wanted to revisit the study to write up what was found (and perhaps interview the researchers who did the study), or to use the main outcomes from the study to discuss how women who have greater autonomy may enjoy more pleasurable sex lives - and how that might be achieved. UK women also can struggle in this area so it could become a sex positive piece about enjoying greater intimacy without rehearsing the usual misinformation about great sex being measured simply on how often you do it. I'd be happy to help out if you wanted to take this forward at all. And if you are writing about research in future and aren't sure about a study (or can't find an original paper) please do ask as if I can't help interpret it I'll usually know someone who can. Most academics working in this area want to help as much as we can to ensure interesting research hits the headlines in fun and empowering ways (that are also accurate)".

They've replied thanking me for my response and restating they were debating the coverage of the story as it appeared in the press, but they'd discuss it at their next meeting and as they're always looking for people to help with features would I be willing to provide quotes for future pieces. I've replied saying this is fine as I'm always happy to help journalists where I can.

In my experience with other cases like this journalists often seek to placate critics by seeming like they'll improve future pieces, but usually are just hoping the pesky scientists will go away and have no intention to alter practice. Time will tell if Grazia truly intends to sort out content and use original research to create fantastic coverage. I hope they do, and I'd be interested in hearing from them or any other journalist who could reflect on what happened here and how this could be moved forward positively.

Disclaimer: I wrote an advice column for Grazia for a while after launch and helped with content ideas for the early issues. More recently I've provided quotes for features.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Why get involved in 'Public Engagement' and 'Science Communication'?

I was asked to talk to the new PhD students about some of the 'public engagement and science communication' activities that I am involved in and encourage them to take part.

I just got stuck. Why should students give their time to get involved with these activities on behalf of their university? Are they really going to help their career? I was told that if I was applying for a post doc, I should probably leave out of my application all the activities I do, as the potential employer may worry that I do not do spend enough time in the lab. (Just to stress... my PhD is my absolute priority, I make sure that I prioritise my PhD first and I never do an 'activity' instead of my PhD. I do them as well as, and mostly in my spare time).

So why do I do them?

Honestly, I started getting involved these 'activities' in an effort to meet people. I moved here from London after growing up in the North West of England and going to university in the North East of England. I knew very few people in the far North East of Scotland (/arctic circle), probably about 6 people. I am a sociable person, so I started getting involved with things and I got involved with science things, because I am rubbish at sport and those seemed the best option for me. I also enjoy new experiences and love a challenge. I struggle to say no.

I am a registered STEM ambassador and during the past 2 years I have blown up film canisters for 5 year olds and talked about my PhD project to a group of people that wanted to hear about it. Just because the opportunity was available.

I started up Au Science Magazine because I felt that the University of Aberdeen produces some really great science, and really great events, but students and people in city did not know about any of it. How can a story get on the BBC news website, yet students from the university  know nothing about it? (I am not sure why I felt so strongly about this; it isn't my job to feel like this!)

I wanted to share with people just how exciting 'science' can be, because I find it exciting. I started by trying to get involved with the student newspaper, but that attempt failed somewhat, so I put forward an idea for the science magazine. It worked, and I met a great bunch of people through the magazine.

I started Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub because it looked like fun...

As a PhD student you are supposed to give a certain number of hours to 'development activities' but make of that what you will. You could spend your time teaching, attending some of the skill development courses that the university runs, enter yourself into business competitions (like Biotechnology YES) or do nothing at all. These alternatives could all help develop communication skills, without needing to get involved in 'public engagement'. The time is your own.

The situation gets even more difficult as a post-doc. Jobs are hard to come by and research papers are a necessity for employment, if 'public engagement' is not specifically written into your employment terms -why waste any precious time outside of the lab?

Do academic researchers have a duty to communicate what they are doing? (I would say yes if they are publicly funded). But what if they are industry funded? Do they have a duty to share their work?

The university depends on people giving up time and being involved in these kinds of activities, but what real incentive is there for the students? Is the promise of 'experience' or as a C.V. enhancer enough?

I know there are a million and one reasons why the universities encourage people to take part in 'public engagement' just take a look at

So why should students get involved in public engagement? Why did you get involved? Alternatively, why do you not get involved?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Get Ripped by Scoffing Chocolate

The world press has gone ABSOLUTELY CRAZ-EE with this fabulous piece of news, 'SCIENTISTS' claim, 'eating chocolate may be as good for you as going to the gym', ' eating chocolate is as good as jogging', 'as good as exercise'.

Image: André Karwath aka Aka

WOWZERS. As if we needed another excuse to skip a gym session and eat more chocolate. Unfortunately, none of the headlines above are true. Sorry. Here's why:

- The study was small and carried out on MICE. Not people.

- The mice were not given chocolate, they were given an extract, (–)-epicatechin (which is found in chocolate). There is nothing to say how much chocolate (and what types of chocolate) you would have to consume to get the benefits that were seen in mice. You might have to eat 5 bars of chocolate a day to get those levels of (–)-epicatechin, who knows. Chocolate contains lots of other things, namely fat and sugar (which is why we like it). They did not investigate chocolate vs exercise in this study, they investigated (-)-epicatechin.

- They only measured certain benefits of exercise, namely muscle performance. Exercise is known to have a whole host of other benefits, which were not assessed. The paper actually found that there were no differences in muscle mass between the groups.

It is impossible, incorrect and irresponsible to conclude that eating chocolate is as good for you as a gym session. The researchers did not conclude that either. The press did and/or the journal press department did.

The research is valid and interesting but it doesn't mean we can stop going to the gym. The news coverage of this story not only misrepresents the science, it is completely irresponsible. The U.K. (and other parts of the world) has a serious obesity problem. Reporting that chocolate, 'is as good as going to the gym' does not help the fight against the flab. It only encourages consumption of high fat food.

The research was published in the Journal of Physiology (paper available to read via this link). A peer reviewed scientific journal (therefore, 'good'). The NHS Choices website have already carried out a really good debunking of the news coverage, so I have just summarised why the news coverage is untrue - for a more in depth coverage of the paper vs the news, see here.

This 'story' has been covered by Marie Claire, The Mirror, The Scottish Daily Record, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail.. and around the world. EVERYWHERE. I am not including links to the stories. I don't want to encourage even more views on the web pages... If you are interested, just google 'exercise and chocolate' and please leave them a comment as to why they are incorrect... This is standard bad journalism.

I can't seem to find the source of this story, but I will try.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Who Can You Trust?


It has been proven by leading scientists that happy men are less attractive. However, happy women are more attractive. Have I got your attention? Do you trust me? Do you trust the 'scientists'? Are you going to change your behaviour?

How can you tell what to believe out of what you read, see or hear? Have you believed in something and then lost your belief? Green men from outerspace? Ghosts? Crop circles? God? Have you ever bought a new shampoo/mascara/body spray/car thinking it would change your life/get you the person of your dreams? We are bombarded with information, ideas, views and adverts. It is impossible for us to look into all the information that is thrown at us. How can we question an expert on a complex issue when we are not experts ourselves? Do we just pick and choose what we like to make ourselves feel better and to suit the beliefs we have already?

Often when we are given information we are presented with snapshot of the story, sometimes with an added bias from the person giving the information. Take news articles as an example. News articles are short, punchy and usually have a big bold strapline. GRUMPY MEN = MORE ATTRACTIVE. Although these snapshot headlines certainly do a great job of attracting attention and selling newspapers and other stuff they can often confuse the issue in question. How often do you check a news website to get a snapshot of what is going on that day? How many stories do you read into in more detail? And how many do you discuss with others?

Headlines stick in the mind. A headline might tell you that more carrots may help prevent Alzheimers, next time you are in the supermarket, instead of buying your usual vegetable of choice (let's say peas) you might buy carrots. Companies and organisations know this, obviously and can cook up ‘news’, in the form of dubious scientific studies, equations and stunt events in order to get attention. The example I created is probably harmless enough to everyone other than pea farmers. What if the headline tells you that chocolate, wine or cheesecake contains miracle crystals of health? You might use that to justify buying an extra treat, even if you know you are at risk of diabeties… still harmless? What if the headline tells you that the MMR jab causes autism? Or that climate change doesn’t exists and was created by scientists. Harmless now?

People are aware of these tactics but real news and rigourous scientific investigations get mixed up with the rubbish. How can you pick out what has sound reasoning and what hasn't? The BBC recently had a change in policy, all news articles that mention a scientific study or research link back to the journal of publication, which makes it slightly easier for people to follow up on the story. However, a lot of research is not freely available.  Beauty products do not provide the justification for the claims on bottles of shampoo. Everything is limited, the data is limited,  which leaves everyone else in the hands of ‘experts’.

Time is limited too, how do you know when to be sceptical? Is it worth the effort? Do you believe that you can spot a marketing tactic from a mile off? I am pretty good at it (although it doesn't stop the sales tactic working on me). Do you disregard anything that sounds too good to be true?

I didn't make the grumpy men are less attractive headline up by the way, it's a classic example from The Daily Mail.

At risk of sounding like an advert...If you are interested in delving deeper into stories (and find yourself researching the information behind the headlines) you might be interested in attending a Skeptics in the Pub meeting.. if you don't already, more info can be found here ...

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Meeting with Supervisor

This is a 'graph' of the one hour meeting I have just had with my supervisor. Fairly typical. The big drop occurred after we had a little search on Pub Med. I am now exhausted and need a large lunch to keep me going.

If you want to know more about my supervisor, she is on the fabulous Naked Scientist podcast this week, talking about medicines from Cannabis.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Wine and Grapes Will NOT Prevent Sunburn

I was really disappointed to see this article written in The Telegraph, ' 'Drinking Wine Could Help To Stop Sunburn' this week. A really glaringly obvious example of really bad science and bad churnalism.

The article states, 'Drinking wine or eating grapes could protect you from sunburn, according to a new study that found a chemical in the fruit can limit cell damage.' Alongside this very appealing picture of a glass of wine in the sun. Nice, well then, let's all go outside and have a glass of wine in the sunshine and feel good about ourselves. Sound too good to be true? It probably is.

The article refers to a study published in Agricultural and Food Chemistry (not free access). The study tested some grape extracts (polyphenolic fractions, not wine) on some skin cells in a dish. They then exposed the cells to some UVA and UVB rays. They found that some of the extracts reduced the numbers of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the treated vs untreated cells. The concentrations of the extracts the study uses are fairly high (5-20ug/ml). The research paper discusses potential topical applications for these extracts (putting these concentrated extracts on your skin) NOT benefits from eating grapes or drinking wine.  Nowhere does the research paper state or allude to that drinking wine or eating grapes can help prevent sunburn, skin cancer or skin aging (which are other benefits of drinking wine/eating grapes that the Telegraph article mentions). I bet you all the wine I have in my fridge that the levels of extracts used in the study are not achievable by drinking your recommended daily wine allowance.

Onto the sunburn, I believe in my somewhat limited knowledge of sunburn (despite being a bit ginger and suffering from it a few times) that the vast majority of the 'burn' is caused by direct DNA damage by UVB rays. The study did not look at DNA damage/cell death, they only looked at some upstream cell signalling pathways and the amount of ROS. UVA rays, however, are thought to cause damage through activation of ROS, so this is a reasonable way of assessing the efficacy of certain compounds against UVA damage, but not UVB, which is what causes the 'burn' (someone correct me if I am wrong here). So the study wasn't even focused on compounds that prevent sunburn.

Continuing on the subject of sunburn, the study does not indicate what the level of UV radiation the cells are exposed to is comparable too. There is no measure to say that the UV rays the cells were exposed to are approximately equal to 1 hours sunbathing in a UV index of 8 or 36 hours in in the sun in the north of Scotland (or any other equivalent).  To be fair to the study, it is designed to compare the efficacy of different types of compounds rather than prove a direct link to preventing skin damage (although that is eluded to). The problem here is with the Telegraph article directly concluding that drinking wine could help prevent sunburn as found by this particular study.

My next issue is with the study itself. As a pharmacology PhD student, the importance of a vehicle control is drummed deep into my soul. Whenever you use a compound/extract/anything you need to dilute it in something else to get the desired concentration, this is the 'vehicle'. Standard practice in an experiment, you need to run a vehicle control to ensure that the thing you are diluting in isn’t causing the effect you are seeing in the experiment. This research paper HAS NO VEHICLE CONTROL. They only compare the effects to untreated cells, which are different (as they haven't been treated with the vehicle). Bad science.

I am surprised this article didn't generate more groaning and criticism. It has certainly created a storm of spin off stories on various news stories around the world. It also has made a lot of people happier about sipping a few glasses of wine on holiday... I have also drank wine in the sun, I still suffered from sunburn (actually more so as it caused me forget to reapply suncream as frequently!!). In conclusion, WINE AND GRAPES WILL NOT STOP YOU FROM GETTING SUNBURNT.

I have access to the journal, so I have read the paper, if you would like any more info, just let me know. Had some sucesses with getting the story changed (see below) but unfortunately the story is now all over the internet...!

Read Magdeline Lum's take on the chemistry of this research here -

EDIT 3.8.11 The Huffington Post changed their story in response to mine and Magdelines blogposts, Nice to know they are prepared to change a story.

EDIT 4.8.11 The Telegraph have now altered the story to reflect the study and removed the old story. Thanks to @TomChivers who helped get the story changed at The Telegraph.


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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

the life of science

I have been talking to friends and others about careers in science. This started me wondering about a science career. The vast majority of people I have spoken to have had to move for postdocs and jobs. Do you have to be a nomad for a few years before you can 'settle' (and even then you might be required to uproot yourself and move at the drop of a hat) to have a career in science? Is the only way to get a 'good' career to be prepared to go wherever the wind takes you? And how many other careers require that kind of flexibility? Is it unusual? To have a good career in anything do you need to be prepared do down tools and move on (but is it 'unusual' in other careers, whereas in science it is more the norm)? I am not talking about 6/8 months away at a time. I am talking years. If it is, this sounds like a perfect career for me. I love change. I thrive off it. I love meeting new people and seeing different places (no matter where it is). But can I do it?

I am in Indiana for 5 weeks visiting a lab to try something new as part of my PhD project. I find myself stuck, wide awake at 21.30 (in the USA) with a lot of thoughts but no one to talk to. The vast majority of people I know and speak to regularly.. are asleep. That leaves me with twitter, Facebook (where no one is responding), blogging and some paper. I wanted to do this, I wanted to experience life in another lab and try something new and learn from someone else. I am somewhat blessed that my supervisor is incredibly supportive and used her contacts to set this up. I am loving it. That said, moving somewhere new, on your own, is hard. It is lonely (despite being surrounded by incredibly friendly people). It isn't home. I am enjoying it, but it isn't a walk in the park (nor did I expect it to be). A few weeks is not a long period of time, not long enough to properly immerse yourself in another place and build friendships, but it is an insight into what life might be like if I moved.

When I head back to the U.K. I will be going into the final year of my PhD, so I need to think about and be able to answer the horrid question, 'what next?' I would like to stay in science. I would also like to stay with my boyfriend. He works in the oil industry. There lies another problem. How do we coordinate if I am required to spend 5 years here there and everywhere? His career also requires flexibility. How long can long distance survive? In the end are we ever going to end up in the same place? What is the point of perusing a particular career for a number of years, if in the end one person has to give it all up to start from scratch? One reason I did this PhD was because I wanted to move closer to him. It was a good move (for many a reason other than being closer to him!) but it wasn't an easy move (made easier by the great opportunity). I am not scared of moving, but it does prevent you from settling.  I haven't lived in the same house/room for longer than 18 months since I was 18 (the PhD move being by far the longest 'settled' period). I don't long for home. I don't think I have ever experienced homesickness. How do you start to think about 'long term' if you have absolutely no idea where you are going to end up? Part of me likes this uncertainty but there is another part of me that doesn't.

I know no one can answer any of these questions and you have to do what is right for you at the time. Just thought I would stick my ramblings out there...  I think it ultimately comes down to that horrid career vs 'life' decision lots of people have to make at some point!! Is this one of the reasons so many people leave a research career?

(I do not usually blog about myself and I do not usually read more 'personal' blogs. I am being extremely self indulgent here and this is a bit of a ramble about myself and what I am thinking at this moment in time!)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Science Communication Conference 2011

Last week I attended the British Science Association, Science Communication Conference 2011. I was granted a bursary to attend, covering transport, accommodation and conference fees - which was nice, as without it I would not have been able to go! I was really looking forward to meeting people involved in science communication across the UK (& world) and some of the people I have spoken to through email & twitter. Creating networks when you are based so far away from the main source of the action can be difficult, social media does help enormously - but it still never beats meeting someone and having a conversation in person. The conference seemed the perfect opportunity to do this. So, off I went to London town with a bag full of Au magazines to share. I was really pleasantly surprised to find that quite a number of people had already come across the magazine and were interested in the project. That made conversation easy! As I was at the conference on my own I had no option but to speak to everyone I met (I'm not a fan of silence) and I met lots of wonderful, lovely people and shared lots of ideas and  found a few ideas that I would like to 'borrow' ..

The point of the conference, besides networking, was to have the opportunity to learn about different aspects of science communication and listen to a few keynote speakers. I don't wish this post to sound negative, but what I took from these sessions was somewhat limited. I felt that there was plenty of opportunity to share ideas & ask questions openly throughout these sessions but there was very little guidance or talk about how to actually push through the ideas discussed and implement them. Although I enjoyed the keynote speakers talks I felt the talks in someways were disconnected to the realities of implementing 'outreach/engagement/communication' activities. The beauty of the conference is that people from all different sides of science communication were there and maybe that is why (as science communication is not a part of my full time job) I felt somewhat disconnected to some of these discussions.

I do not want to post about all the problems and disagreements I had. The whole nature of the conference was to encourage debate, discussion and provoke different viewpoints. However, I think there were two rather large things missing from the conference that really need to be addressed.

I felt there was a lot of emphasis and talk about the monetary cost of engagement/communication activities. There was no talk (apart from the times I pushed it) about the time cost that people give up to take part in engagement/communication activities. Following this, there was no talk about how the people that do have an official engagement/communication role as their main job could help people that volunteer their time and put a serious amount of effort in to organise engagement and communication activities. There was however, a consensus that all PhD students & post docs have a responsibility to take part in these activities and Universities should support that. Would it not have been worthwhile to have a specific session for 'volunteer' engagers/communicators to help them get a network of support (these networks are there) and give some guidance on what they can do to make their somewhat 'extra curricular' activities become part of their main job in some way? I know that the activities of my university rely heavily on people volunteering to help. How do you make Universities realise the worth (and give proper reward) to these people?

The second point is regarding outcome and 'next steps' (to put my business hat on). There is no point just having endless discussions without some guidance/help of how these steps will be implemented after the conference. Going back to the point above. Although everyone seemed to agree (to a point) that engagement/communication should become part of the role for scientists, there was no talk on how people could communicate that to universities and help supervisors implement it. What can a student, who has a story they want to tell, do if their supervisor views 'engagement'/'communication' as a waste of time? You might dismiss that point as 'well that supervisor is missing out/doesn't understand' but that still leaves the student in a tricky position. I made the point at the conference, no PhD or Post Doc is going to be denied a job in research because they haven't taken part in any science engagement activities (and in fact, some people view taking time out away from research as a disadvantage), but that is a whole other debate...

I do think the science communication network/field/movement (whatever you like to call it) could learn an awful lot from the 'business community'. Essentially what a lot of people are doing, is, selling science. We have a segmentation model of how people think about science, which is a fantastic tool to use to understand how to reach out to the different people in a group of people. All businesses that have a product to sell have a segmentation model and there are many different ways to use these models, learn from the model and develop it further. Seriously tapping into that world of knowledge may open a lot of peoples eyes. Although, whenever I mentioned the word 'business' to people, I mostly got a look of fear and worry....

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Launching a Magazine

Blogging has taken a back seat recently, whilst I along with a team of others at the University of Aberdeen launched a new science themed magazine.

I think I am in a very lucky position here at the University of Aberdeen. I mentioned this idea of a science magazine last September to the public engagement team and since then they have very kindly sent anything they came across (including people, interviews, events, stories) in my direction. I organised a meeting with 5 others that had mentioned creating a science magazine to the public engagement team. We met, clicked and then set on a mission to create the magazine. Without working as a team this would have been impossible.

We have written stories that we think are interesting, but the science is not over-hyped. We do not shout about the latest cure for cancer, but we discuss how compounds in the cannabis plant are being tested for their therapeutic potential. We do not say there is life on Mars but we do talk about how we are exploring the possibility that there is life in space. We also explore links between art and science, the life of a researcher and have a bit of fun with Helen Keen.

It has taken A LOT of work and we have had a few setbacks (mainly bank account related) but we have done it and we have launched our magazine. It will be available in communal areas of the University of Aberdeen but also across Aberdeen city in bookshops, coffee shops etc (including Waterstones and the Satrosphere).

You can find Au (get it?) here on twitter @ausciencemag and on facebook

We are really interested in what people think, so please fill out our survey (accessed by clicking on the picture of mars on the homepage).

Friday, 4 March 2011

Why I dislike the term Scientist

What does the word 'scientist' mean? Really mean? Who can call themselves a ‘scientist’? Someone who studied a 'science' subject at degree level? But what if they became a HR manager and worked in a non 'sciency' company, are they still a scientist? Do you need to have a science PhD to be called a scientist? Or be actively doing science research? But what about all the people that work in science without 'sciency' qualifications? Are they still scientists?

Apparently the word scientist was coined by William Whewell in 1834 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, to describe a group of people all studying different scientific disciplines (I have to admit, I haven't found any solid sources for this but you can read more about the term scientist here). The word scientist can be used by anyone. The description of someone as a scientist in my view is pretty meaningless; it tells you nothing about the person. I think there is a problem with overuse of the futile word 'scientist' and I do not feel that science reporting, 'engagement' or the image of science in general is helped by the term. This thought occurred to me whilst watching the BBC Horizon programme (Horizon: Science Under Attack). Part of the programme involved looking at climate change articles in different newspapers, the conclusion being that the articles presented an inconsistent story and lead to confusion. Some of this confusion comes directly from the topic, in an area that is still being researched there are bound to be inconsistencies and limitations to what is known, theories are new and still being disproved. However, many science stories have different 'expert scientists' or 'a group of scientists' (named only as 'scientists' and not by their proper job title) who have ‘discovered’, offered an opinion on or have written about the topic in question. Calling yourself a 'scientist' does not give you an expert view on every aspect of science and the majority of media offerings do not make the distinction between different types of scientists or researchers. This lack of distinction is where confusion lies. Unqualified individuals can comment on issues and be seen as an 'expert scientist' in the eyes of the press and public, if the research is questioned by another scientist there is no distinction made between the expertise of the two scientists and therein is the problem, who do you believe? The more sinister side of the story is that people who are not qualified in any way start offering advice to people (an extreme example being misleading use of the word ‘Dr’ by Gillian McKeith) and become recognised public figures, whilst the real experts are ignored. Take this ‘Chocolate healthier than fruit’ (research carried out by scientists) story as an example (it is an example of awful journalism too, the science was carried out at ‘Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition’ which is clearly a conflict of interest). What it all basically comes down to is checking your sources.

There are other problems with the term 'scientist', such as the negative connotations it generates. For the majority of people the word scientist creates an image of a 'crazy mad scientist' and this has been proven through 'draw a scientist' experiments (if anyone has any other links to the results of any of these experiments please share it with me!). If you do not believe me, just do a quick Internet search for images of scientists. How much is the opinion of a crazy mad scientist who spends all day hiding in a lab really valued? I do not know - I imagine there has been some research into this, somewhere. The solution to this problem could be to drop the word scientist in the media all together and for people to insist that the proper job title of the person or group of people in question is used. I had a little tweet exchange with Mark Henderson (@markgfh) (Science Editor of The Times) and he said he tried to use proper titles but the title or explanation of the person had to be accessible/understandable to all readers. Personally, I think most terms are understood (biologist, pharmacologist, geologist, chemist, mathematician to name a few 'general' terms) by the public. If you really need to use the word scientist or scientists then I see no harm in specifying what kind of 'scientist' the 'scientist' in question is (i.e. cancer research scientist) or when describing a group of people, so a biologist, psychologist and a chemist there is no problem using the description as a 'group of scientists' as long as you specify who makes up the group.

Let me also add that I have no problem with use of the word science my only issue is with 'scientist'.

I would be interested to know what other people thought about this!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Skeptic Guide

I am compiling a list of interesting skeptic people/events/blogs to post on the Aberdeen Skeptics in The Pub Facebook site. I am giving a talk about other Skeptic groups, activism and the role of Skeptics in The Pub (if there is one) for our next event.  A lot of the people that come to Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub are not on Twitter and I wanted to give out a list of skeptics 'things'. This is what I have so far - please help me grow the list!

The Skeptic Guide: Home of The Skeptic (magazine), blog, skeptic news & events (lists all Skeptics in the Pubs in the UK and abroad)


There are Skeptic events in Dundee (, Glasgow ( and Edinburgh ( also for independent skeptical news and commentary in Scotland.

Aberdeen Skeptics in The Pub - Follow the
Facebook page for events and news.

Twitter is a great way of sharing ideas and for up to the minute news. People often tweet from conferences and events, so if you can't make it you can always follow what is going on. There are plenty of active skeptics on twitter, which stimulates a lot of discussion! 

Follow #sitp for general skeptic events/news/info

Follow me for tweets about Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub (@hapsci)


QEDcon - Skeptic conference in Manchester in Feb (

Aberdeen events:

Uncaged Monkeys
: 8th May 2011 (Robin Ince, Professor Brian Cox, Dr Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh)

Word Festival: University of Aberdeen festival (May 2011)

Cafe Scientifique/Cafe Controversial/Cafe Med: Series of talks given by researchers and experts about all different areas of science.

Some interesting blogs and things:
Eu:Sci - University of Edinburgh Science magazine, some really great stories and writing, all published online.  Twitter @Eusci Ben Goldacre's Blog (also has a message board forum) Twitter: @bengoldacre

Through the Looking Glass - - A blog by Alice Bell a Senior Teaching Fellow: Science Communication at UCL (also does other science communication work). Twitter: @alicebell

The Lay Scientist - Martin Robbins writes for The Guardian Twitter: @mjrobbins

The Geek Manifesto - - Mark Henderson (Science editor at
The Times) is  writing a book about science and politics (the disconnect between the two and consequent policy failures) . It’s called The Geek Manifesto. He is looking for contributions and will be posting questions and thoughts via this blog. Twitter: @markgfh

The Welsh Boyo - - Updates from Rhys Morgan about skepticism and MMS #bleachgate. Twitter @Rhysmorgan (see also @superwooduo for Rhys podcast) 

Gimpy's blog - 'inane witterings and badscience' from 'gimpy' sometimes a little controversial, but good. Twitter @gimpyblog

Cardiff SITP organisers blog at and

Science, reason & critical thinking: Twitter: @crispian_jago

Purely a figment of your imagination: Twitter: @noodlemaz (also part of @superwooduo)

Science Punk : Twitter: @sciencepunk

Dr Petra (likes to talk about SEX) : Twitter: @DrPetraOther Twitterers worth a follow for science and skepticism @JDMoffatt, @xtaldave, @penguingalaxy, @endless_psych (The 21st Floor and Edinburgh Skeptics), @scottama (organiser of Dundee and Glasgow Skeptics), @janisbennion, @MrMMarsh (Merseyside skeptics), @scientistmags, @christheneck (birmingham skeptics), @harrison_peter and many, many more!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Lab Politics and Post-it Notes (Not quite I Lick My Cheese)

In a shared house or flat, notes are often left to pass on information, claim ownership, or discourage others from eating your food (see I Lick My Cheese, a brilliant book). In a communal lab, notes are also left to offer instructions as to how the lab should run, pass on info, claim ownership and discourage others from nicking your stuff.

I use a communal tissue culture lab where most people use the lab for limited amounts of time (30mins or so) to culture their cells and then they go elsewhere to do their experiments. My experiments involve me spending longer periods of time in the tissue culture hood (HOURS). On my own. It is mind numbingly boring. So we introduced a radio. A lot of labs have radios, this is not unusual (the lab next door has a radio, usually on so loud that we can hear the bass thudding through the wall, 'the party lab').

I didn't think it was a big deal, everyone in the tissue culture lab is pretty friendly and says hello to each other. The protocols for radios in labs usually run so the radio is on, but if someone wants the radio off, they either turn it off or say 'I am turning the radio off'. No biggie. Everyone understands that not everyone wants the radio on.

The radio was in the lab for a couple of days, when, out of no-where, without any warning, THIS APPEARED.

Firstly, it was not MY CHOICE of music, it was the local radio station, which is RUBBISH admittedly but there is very limited radio reception with a £5 radio from the tissue culture lab. Secondly, NO ONE had mentioned that they found the radio too loud or wanted to turn it off. I had seen others using the radio when I was not in the lab. Thirdly, the note was anonymous which annoyed me greatly. Why leave an anonymous note? It makes it impossible to discuss the issue and reach a compromise agreement.

So, I posted a reply,

This note went up in the morning, by the afternoon it had vanished. No response. We continued to use the radio. Two weeks later, this happened...

Oh look, it is the radio. WITHOUT A POWER CORD. SOMEONE TOOK THE POWER CORD!!! We are a few months on now, there is still no sign of the power cord or the mystery note poster.... for a bunch of adults to behave in this way (there were no undergrad students around at the time) is absolutely ridiculous. I am pretty sure that this is not an isolated experience. Working in a lab can be like living with people at times (who forgot to do their washing up?!) Please share any stories you have that are along these lines!  For further amusement I am posting these notes, which are also found in that same lab.

To the Enthusiastic Chloros user -

There really are NO PRIZES in this lab:

THERE IS EVEN A NOTE ON THE BIN (notice how it is being ignored)

Sunday, 2 January 2011

'Complementary Therapies Help Boost Fertility' a truely awful article from the Daily Mail

I haven't been rattled by a news story for quite a while. This afternoon I came across this little beauty from (yes you guessed it) The Daily Mail, written by Naomi Coleman.

'Complementary therapies help boost fertility' - The title seems innocuous enough. The article itself is AWFUL the content is absolute rubbish and the advice given is absolute rubbish. 

The first line, "Scientific evidence shows that a range of alternative therapies from acupuncture and homeopathy to nutrition and hypnotherapy can help boost fertility." -Oh really, does the scientific evidence say that? Homeopathy you say? REALLY?

Queue quote from Zita West (Kate Winslet's midwife), complementary therapies can encourage conception by 'bringing the body back into balance'. I can understand that some therapies may reduce stress and aid relaxation and therefore could help someone get pregnant. Her website however, does support and sell various supplements (including omega 3 & 6 capsules), various 'fertility test kits' and also has a blog. Zita West's latest blog post is about how antioxidants improve sperm quality and how her vitamin supplement could help. No link to any scientific papers or where to find further information.  I did a quick search myself, but I am at home and do not have access to journals and therefore don't want to pass any view from the few I could read in full. If anyone has more information about this area, please share! I am interested to know more and I will have a look when I am able to access scientific journals.

Back to the Daily Mail, the article goes on to 'their guide to homeopathy'. Homeopathic remedies are diluted stuff. Fair enough. 'Practitioners claim homeopathic remedies can help women with a variety of fertility problems from blocked tubes and endometriosis to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).' Well the 'Practitioners' may claim that, but it is a load of rubbish. According to Dr Bob Lekridge (who is a real doctor and practiced as a GP) from Glasgow's homeopathic hospital, folliculinum may help kick start the reproductive system. RUBBISH. Folliculinum is made from Oestrone, a synthetic form of oestrogen (apparently, according to the homeopaths, the only link I could find on it). Oestrone (or E1) in my eyes is a perfectly naturally occurring oestrogen, secreted from adipose tissue (fat tissue) and the ovaries. It is the primary oestrogen in post-menopausal women, so it isn't synthetic. Regardless, the 'remedy' involves diluting it millions of times so it isn't going to do anything at all and there is no evidence to support that it does. 

The next question from the Daily Mail, 'Is it effective?' Ooh, promising here, are they going to question the evidence?! No. 'There is a strong body of evidence to show that homeopathy aids fertility. A German clinical trial showed twice as many women taking daily doses of the herb agnus castus fell pregnant compared to those not taking the drug. In another German study more than half of women with fertility problems experienced improved ovulation or pregnancy after taking a homeopathic remedy.' 

Oh, never mind, they are talking about something completely different to Folliculinum here. The herb agnus castus is NOT A HOMEOPATHIC REMEDY, it is not diluted, it is a HERB. So, about the 'other Germany study', which study? Which homeopathic remedy did they take? No information provided. 

The rest of the article is about acupuncture, the evidence for acupuncture was all supported by more unnamed German studies (is the author German or something?!) 

This article really is poor and provides poor information to people who are trying to have children. Unfortunately the Daily Mail website does not let you comment on the article, so I cannot share my views on their website. 

People are praying on the fact that sometimes there is no medical solution to infertility and that budding parents will do anything they can (and go to many lengths) to boost their chances of getting pregnant in order to make money. Folliculinum is also being 'prescribed' along with many other homeopathic remedies to help women with problems going through the menopause and for other hormonal problems. Although Folliculinum doesn't appear to be harmful (if it is just a sugar pill), it is a waste of time and money.  The Daily Mail through it's bad journalism isn't helping wannabe parents in their quest. 

*picture pinched from -

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