Saturday, 22 December 2012

Millie's Trust

This year two of my closest friends tragically lost their 9 month old daughter. My goddaughter.  This is extremely difficult to talk about and it is often seen as a taboo subject. I know people read my blog page and I wanted to share something with you all, which I am hoping people will be able to help with.

Millie was at nursery and choked on some food. There is an investigation on going to determine what happened. 

Millie and me
My friends have been incredibly strong over the past few months, and have put together and started Millie's trust. A charity which will provide money for people to attend first aid courses with a focus on first aid for babies and toddlers.

This Christmas would have been Millie's first, and it's going to be a difficult time for her parents, and everyone that had the pleasure of meeting Millie. Please help by supporting the charity. Like the facebook page, send them a message, share the page and donate what you would spend on a Christmas card or gift via paypal or for the charity launch night.

The website is here

Millie's Trust Facebook


You can donate via paypal using the email address - 

They are collecting prizes for a charity night being held on the 2nd of Feb at the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme (nr Manchester).

Thanks very much for reading and sharing this.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

What is meant by the term 'placebo effect'?

This is from F in Science.. a collection of lol answers from science. I bought it this morning and it made me smile and I thought I would share it. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

What would an independent Scotland mean for UK Science and Technology?

I'm not going to pretend to know a lot about Scottish politics because I don't. But I am interested in what impact independence would have on science and technology - not just in Scotland but across the UK as whole.

Science and technology funding comes from Westminster and the research councils that allocate this funding are UK wide. An independent Scotland could mean a complete reorganisation of the councils and funding allocations, which would affect science and technology across the whole of the UK.

Last month I attended Science and The Parliament in Edinburgh. An event organised by the RSC that brings politicians, policy makers, scientists and research councils together. Jolly good event.

The event finished with a panel debate that tackled the question 'What would happen to science and technology in Scotland if it became independent'. 

A brief overview of the debate and discussion would be that Scotland has a rich history of good science and technology and continues to contribute in this area. *stat from the panel* Scotland has 9% of the UK population but receives 13% of the science funding. 

The panel seemed unsure as to how research councils worked. At one point someone on the panel suggested that Scotland (and I quote), "would just take the bits of the research councils that Scotland wanted". I'm not sure what the rest of the UK would have to say about that.

I won't go through all the minute details of the event as I want to focus on the bigger picture that the debate touched on but didn't look at in detail. What would happen to science in the UK if Scotland were to be come independent?

  • How will the UK research councils be split up? 
  • Would Scotland still be part of the EU (or not) and would Scotland be eligible to apply for EU funding?
  • Where would the funding for science come from? At the minute it comes from Westminster, would a Scottish government match/increase/decrease that funding? Would Westminster change their strategy?
  • Would independence for Scotland reduce the amount of collaboration occurring between Scotland and the rest of the UK (and the world) (consensus being; probably not)
If the research councils were split in two then researchers would be competing with fewer researchers for money. Would that mean standards would slip across the UK as a whole?

This debate was eye opening for me, and clearly highlighted that these discussions haven't happened yet. I believe the research councils are starting to look in to what might happen but I do not know when these discussions will be shared. It's an area everyone in science and technology across the UK should be looking at, and thinking about not just those in Scotland.

You can read the coverage of this debate in The Herald here. I have also contacted the better together, and the Yes campaigns to get some reactions. If anyone has any suggestions as to who I could contact at the research councils then please let me know.  

Monday, 26 November 2012

Seeing Cells

Science images are becoming commonplace on social networks. But how are these beautiful, artistic images made and what use are they in research?

Human cells stained and probed for DNA, actin and protein.
I (Heather Doran) took this image -  please don't reuse it. 

I've taken quite a few images throughout my PhD. So many my university computer struggles under the weight of them. I've been taking microscopic images of cells to understand how the cell cytoskeleton allows them to move. And it has been one of the most interesting and favourite parts of my PhD project.

There are a number of ways of creating these images. The images all represent one or two components of the cell. Cells need to be fixed (in a fixative, like methanol or paraformaldehyde, to preserve them and the proteins and structures inside the cell). Different fixatives can be used depending on what it is you are looking for and how you are looking for it. Fixatives stop all movement, any reactions happening in the cell(s) and preserve and protect from degradation.

Once fixed, you can 'probe' the cells for what you want to look at..

I stain the DNA with various stains (below is a DAPI) stain. DAPI binds to A-T rich areas of DNA and becomes fluorescent. This is useful as all the cells I look at contain a nucleus containing DNA, the DAPI staining is strong and allows me to find, and focus on the cells under the microscope.

I also stain the cells for actin (actin is a vital part of the cell cytoskeleton - what helps the cell keep its shape) with something called phalloidin, which is actually a toxin that binds to the actin. If you attach a fluorescent tag to the phalloidin molecule, you can see the actin in the cell. 

Look for particular proteins using a primary antibody directed against particular proteins of interest. Antibodies detect a specific epitope on the antigen (which in this case would be the protein of interest). Then you can use a secondary antibody, that detects the primary antibody, but the secondary antibody has a fluorescent tag attached... and you can see if the protein is there, and where it is in the cell.

There are other ways of looking at proteins, the primary antibody can have a fluorescent tag itself, or you can genetically modify the cell so it expresses a protein that has a fluorescent tag attached. 

For the physics of fluorescent microscopy and confocal microscopy (which allows you to take a slice of a cell) see this fabulous explanation here.

All the images featured were taken by me. Please don't reuse them without permission. Thanks! 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Is the sherry that makes you merry going to make you heavy?

Alcohol and weight gain are two things associated with the season of merriment also known as Christmas. Most people pile on a few pounds over the festive period but is it really down to the sherry?

Falalalala la la la la
A recent story highlighted  the hidden calories in booze and warns of high calorie intake from alcohol in the US population.  It makes a good point, people forget that drink contain calories and therefore may unintentionally be consuming more than they realise, leading to an increase in dress size. The NHS choices website from the UK also have a section about booze, weight and hidden calories. 

If you didn't know, alcohol is made from sugar and starch and is extremely calorific. On the scale of calorie content to volume it comes second only to fat itself. There are around 500 calories in a bottle of wine, which if you are female is one quarter of your recommended daily calorie intake. You can use this handy drinks calculator (which includes different brands and mixers) to work out the calories you are taking in when drinking. 

But don't put your glass of port down just yet... the link between alcohol, calories and weight gain isn't 100% clear.

However, (put that glass of port back on the table) that doesn't mean that there isn't an association because if there is a direct association then it would be extremely difficult to demonstrate...

Weight gain can be caused by any number of different reasons. As you as a human probably realise. A new job, age, genetics, illness, medication, holidays, time of the year (and month) can all cause fluctuations in weight. Over a number of years and lifetime weight can vary enormously too. On top of all this many studies that monitor weight and try to look for associations often rely on participant recording of weight, height, amount of exercise,  food intake and alcohol consumption. This is important and problematic because people lie, especially about their height, weight, exercise, food intake and alcohol consumption. See a previous blog post about a study about how people lie about the amount of chocolate they consume.

No-one drinks pure ethanol either, and that adds a further complication. Alcohol is extremely calorific but drinking it with mixers that are fat and calorie heavy (like milk and sugary drinks) obviously increases the calorie intake. If you are part of a study and you mix up your drinks a lot, how can you (and it makes it difficult for studies) record your intake accurately.  And how can studies separate out an infinite number of drink combinations to decide if it's the alcohol or the chocolate milkshake that you drank with it that is causing your waistline to bulge?

Alcohol and calorific mixers would suggest that drinking more would lead to an increase in weight. It isn't all doom, gloom and hidden calories though, going back to the systematic review (pick that glass of port back up again).. some rather interesting findings were made.

Across all the different types of trials analysed, the results were inconclusive. BUT, big news for those that like the vino, when studies analysed the type of drink consumed a negative association between wine and weight gain was found (people that drink wine are skinnier).. This doesn't mean wine makes you skinner.. it could all be explained by the particular diet choices, and the lifestyle of wine drinkers. However, some studies (on rats, not humans) have shown that red wine can reduce fat  (associated with the red wine, not the alcohol) through a compound called resveratrol that is found in red wine, and is the source of many 'red wine is good for you' stories (note, studies are done on rats, or in dishes, not on humans) I found one study on resveratrol in humans. It wasn't reported very well and I debunked it here

Unfortunately drinking spirits was positively associated with weight gain. So if you like your whisky you are more likely to be a wee bit chubbier (but that might not necessarily be due to your tipple of choice).

A study of 37,000 US citizens (non smokers), investigated the amount and frequency of drinking alcohol determined that the people that drank alcohol the least (but did drink frequently) had lower BMI values than those that drink more, but less frequently. This study corrected for activity levels, suggetsing that something

Interestingly a US study found a positive correlation between slight to MODERATE alcohol intake and activity levels - which translates to mean that people that have a moderate alcohol intake are more active. This correlation continued even at high levels of alcohol intake. 

It has also been found that, alcoholics exercise less, but also have a lower body weight. Which contradicts the above study. But alcoholics might eat less as they can replace food intake with drink, and drinking excess alcohol can lead to liver disease, and other complications which can prevent the body from breaking down other nutrients causing malnutrition...

There are endless limitations, problems and variables associated with all of these studies. Which, like I said at the beginning, makes it difficult to understand the real relationship between alcohol and weight gain.

However, if you know that after a glass or two of wine, or a pint or two of beer you start reaching for the leftover turkey or cooking up a storm of fatty treats despite sticking to large helpings of sprouts and carrots during the daylight hours..... then sadly you probably know that a few nights getting merry might cause you to tip the scales in the wrong direction.

Alcohol has been proven to increase risk of other health problems so be wary of the amounts you drink. See here for more information and advice.


Sayon-Orea C, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Bes-Rastrollo M. Alcohol consumption and body weight: a systematic review. Nutr Rev 2011; 8: 419–431. | Article |

Monteiro RSoares RGuerreiro SPestana DConceicao CAzevedo IRed wine increases adipose tissue aromatase expressin and regulates body weight and adipocyte sizeNutrition. 2009;25:699705.


S. Liangpunsakul, D. W. Crabb, and R. Qi, “Relationship among alcohol intake, body fat, and physical activity: a population-based study,” Annals of Epidemiology, vol. 20, no. 9, pp. 670–675, 2010. View at Publisher · View at Google Scholar · View at Scopus

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Monday, 5 November 2012

Online Tools for Academics at Conferences

I am presenting a session at the #PhDjourney conference about social media and the PhD on Wednesday. I will post my slides and information after the talk, but as I was preparing I thought I would put together a list of useful online tools for keeping up with what is going on (and remembering what has happened) at conferences.

Please add any suggestions and thoughts.

Facebook - conferences usually have a facebook page, which can be useful before the conference to connect with people and learn more about what will be happening at the conference (and useful for keeping up to date, when full programmes are announced). Find the page by searching facebook for the conference, or looking for a facebook link on the conference website. Facebook is of limited use during the conference as you will only be able to see official updates from the organisers and/or posts from people you know at the conference. A facebook can be a good way of sharing blogs and other posts after the conference.

Twitter - hashtags e.g. #phdjourney can be used to follow any discussions that are happening at the conference, about the conference and by conference organisers. The conference itself should have a twitter account that you can follow for updates (like facebook). Individual sessions may have their own hashtags which can be followed as the sessions are happening. This way, if you know the hashtag you will never need to miss a conference session again! You can interact with the tweeters and even get delegates that are tweeting at the session to ask questions on your behalf at the session if you tweet in time. This method relies on people tweeting from the session in a way that allows you to follow and understand the talk and discussion. Twitter can be used at the conference to make new contacts, and conferences can be a great way of meeting people you already tweet. Create lists of people who are tweeting from the conference and follow all their activity through the list. You can also block a hashtag, which is handy if you have a lot of people tweeting from a conference at once.

Storify - Storify can be used to collate tweets (by searching by the hashtag) and other social media posts about conference topics and sessions into one readable online document. Really easy to use. The document can then be shared on twitter, or embedded into blogs. Storify can handily notify all the people who have tweeted about the session too (if you include tweets from them in your storify). If you do want to storify, I find it easiest to storify a session as you go, otherwise you might find it difficult to find all of the content. There are some tools that allow you to search on twitter see here.

Topsy - Topsy collates information about a search topic from twitter and the web. So you can search for a conference name/hashtag and get all the web posts and tweets that relate to your search term. Great for looking at online content and tweets. Click 'experts' on the left hand side and get a list of tweeters who have a number of mentions.. follow them on twitter and you are likely to pick up a lot of content related to the conference/topic.

- Slideshare - Share slides online...!

For keeping in contact with people you meet at the conference I find following them on twitter and adding them on linkedin is the best solution. I haven't managed to get round to finding any handy tools that beat writing a bit of information including their twitter @ on the back of their business card for remembering who I have met where, and who they are!

If you are sharing things from a conference talk or session, try and ask the speaker before sharing anything. If they are sharing new results, they might not want them splashed all over the internet...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Research Communication

I wanted to create something to visually represent different types of research communication. I wanted to get the point across that not all communication is public engagement, similarly not all blogs or social media is public engagement, or journalism. But some are. I think there is a place for all of these in research communication different people contribute to different parts in different ways and amounts.  

Please note, this diagram is not based on data and it isn't supposed to represent relative contributions to science communication (although if anyone had any ideas/data so I/we could do that it would be amazing). It represents overlaps. I wanted to use this with researchers to show how varied research communication is. Any feedback or suggestions would be great! 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Social Media and the PhD

I am a social media lover. I love using twitter, facebook and I am even getting the hand of Google +.. 

In November I am going to be speaking at the PhD Journey conference (set up by students, for other students)  in Aberdeen about social media and the PhD. 

I have done a number of things that simply would not have happened if social media did not exist. Like being invited to be an official blogger at an international conference (that also helped me raise money to attend the conference, and present some of my research work). I have also been able to keep up to date with research and network using social media.

I wanted to share a couple of ways in which using social media can help during the PhD. Including the use of support networks like #phdchat, #ecrchat and twitter journal clubs. 

I don't want to bore people with stories just about me so I wanted to know if people were willing to share any of their success stories, or find out what/why people have difficulties with using social media during their PhD.

If you are willing to share anything, you can leave a comment or email me :-) 


(This is a brief begging post, the thesis is still ongoing and is taking up the vast majority of my life but I am very nearly finished...)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Susan Greenfield at the British Science Festival 2012

Baroness Susan Greenfield will be speaking this evening at the British Science Festival 2012 in Aberdeen about the 21st century mind.
Her talk,
‘The human brain adapts to the environment in which it is placed. Today's cyber world is offering a new type of environment and the brain could therefore be changing in correspondingly new ways. We need to try and forsee what these changes, be they positive or negative, may be. Then we can minimise the threats and harness the opportunities. Join Susan Greenfield to explore the 21st century brain.’
Baroness Susan Greenfield is a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, a member of the House of Lords, a writer and a broadcaster.
She has, over the past 3 or 4 years shared her opinion that digital technology is having an impact on our brains. She has been associated with stories that Facebook and other social websites could be causing damage to our, and childrens brains. These are bold views and messages that the media has picked up on. She has also publicised her views through talks, interviews and her own stories.
She hasn’t yet published any of her thoughts, findings or ideas in a scientific paper – she has only used the media and talks to discuss these views.
A point I have seen and heard her make a number of times is that the impact of digital technology on our brains is a concern of hers, and that it is something we should be discussing openly.  Yet, she has failed to publish and take her thoughts through the proper scientific channels in order to get research in this field really moving.
In interviews she only presents her view, and she has never used a social networking site herself.
She has been publicly criticised by a number of other scientists who have urged her to publish her theory, including Professor Dorothy Bishop at her resident university (Oxford) , science writers and Dr Ben Goldacre .
I know people are looking forward to seeing Baroness Susan Greenfield. Many people that I have handed leaflets to about the festival were very pleased to see her on the featured page and I wanted to highlight some concerns though for those going to see her talk. I feel others have discussed the ins and outs of her arguments and research so I have included links to those for further reading.
Just a side note.. I think the festival is fantastic; it’s great that it is here in Aberdeen. I am involved with a number of events myself. I am also a great supporter and believer that scientists and researchers should interact with the public and be present in the media, social networks, blogs and any other outlet you can think of.
There is a fine line between the presentation of opinions and research findings. Just because an authoritative, intelligent speaker says something does not mean it is a proven fact. Always ask questions, and dig deeper.
If you want to see some great examples of the things happening in Aberdeen, please check out the Au Science Magazine website (of which I am the departing editor)

Some more Greenfield links worth a read (any other suggestions please let me know):

Friday, 17 August 2012

Does the PhD process need changing?

Just so you are aware, there is a conversation happening on the Nature Soapbox Blogs website and on twitter hashtag #phdelta about the PhD process and if it needs changing.

There are lots of reflections, thoughts and comments coming into the debate.

I have written a post about science communication and the PhD and this has sparked the question, should science communication activities be compulsory in a PhD? You can read it here.

Also, I spotted this fab post about why blogging during the PhD is good and how to get started :-)

Join twitter. If you need help getting started with twitter, this might be useful !

Monday, 13 August 2012

For Nails Carl Sagan Would Be Proud Of

I've started a Pinterest board for 'fashion inspired by science' you can see it here.

The first thing I came across was these 'galaxy nails'. As the video says, 'nails Carl Sagan would be proud of'

 I had my own bash at 'galaxy nails'. I think a little practice is needed but they do look a bit 'spacey'

Galaxy Nails -

Next up, I came across Jayne @cosmeticproof who is a scientist herself. I think my favourite are these DNA nails!

                                      Source: via hapsci on Pinterest

Next are these intricate beauties of 'Volvox, Amoeba, Trypanosoma, Euglena and Paramecium'! By @Fleuryrosenails

                                                          Source: via hapsci on Pinterest

I'm not sure my hands are quite steady enough for anything that intricate, but I might attempt some cell cytoskeleton/ actin inspired nails!

Put your science on your fingertips! #seemyscience

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

What makes a PhD Thesis?

*warning* this is a self-indulgent blog post. I am suffering from a large bout of PhD thesis 'tunnel vision'.

All I can think about at the moment is the massive amount of work I have to do in such a short space of time. When you have three years of work, a computer full of data and a head full of thoughts and ideas... where do you start?

The worry of unemployment also likes to creep in... I don't have a job lined up for when I finish (yet, but there are some things in the pipeline). My aim is to be mostly finished by October. My last payment from my PhD will be in August.

My brain starts panicking about all of these things at random times throughout the day, and then I can't get anything done.

It took me ages to get writing. I had a plan, but I still found it completely overwhelming.  I'm usually someone that forms a plan quickly and then gets going and I wasn't. So I started getting stressed about that.

The hard work has been done already. I know I have plenty of data, and (most) of it makes some kind of sense. The thinking, planning and discussions about my work have taken place throughout my PhD with my supervisor so there aren't too many 'unknowns' as I am writing.

I started with what I thought was the easiest/most straightforward part .. the methods section, and I am taking it from there. Once I got going I have found things to be OK. I made sure I had a good knowledge of all the software I am using, set myself templates up and decided how I would present all of my graphs early on, so I didn't waste whole days  playing around with fonts, formatting or references.

One thing I quickly realised is that I have been fairly good at writing summaries, and collating information throughout my PhD, so actually the amount of 'new' writing I have had to do is very little. I have also been disciplined in keeping my references up to date in refworks. This is making my life easier.

Some days I enjoy the writing, other days I can't seem to get anything done and I want to throw my computer out of the window. I know this isn't unusual.

I do worry that I haven't done enough, that there might be a fatal flaw in what I have found or the experiments I have done. I also have spotted a few areas that could have benefited from another experiment or another bit of data....

The biggest temptation is to stop everything other than the thesis writing, live in my PJs and become a hermit. So far I have resisted this. I don't cope well with being on my own, I start to worry about everything. I've purposefully  kept up with things that I enjoy, like Au Magazine and Skeptics in the Pub things. The social interactions help stop me from becoming isolated. I do find it hard to switch my brain on sometimes though and when people are talking to me, I often drift off in my head in to thesis land. Apologies to everyone I have spoken to in the past 4 weeks or so.

I don't read the health sections of any newspapers or magazines; they are far too much of a distraction at the moment! I also don't watch much T.V.

I am developing an addiction to exercise classes and gardening. There was one week where I couldn't do anything other than worry about my tomato plants. I was constantly googling information about tomato plants and I couldn't stop myself.

Thesis writing involves a lot of sitting, it doesn't make you feel great about yourself. I feel like the whole process, the writing, the worry about the thesis and unemployment, the constant self criticism and the sitting all slowly batters your confidence.

I know others with bigger worries than their thesis, and bigger worries about their thesis. Writing a thesis is a self-indulgent process. It's writing up the past three years of your life and asking someone else to judge you on it and, no matter how hard you try, you always end up comparing yourself to what others have done.

I will get through it, a thesis is by no means the worst thing to be doing, but it is rather a bizarre process. I want it finished, and I want to get on with the rest of my life.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Getting Women into Science, EU Directive

All my wonderful lady friends (I'm talking to the non sciency bods here) I need your help.

Please watch the video below and leave a comment on my blog page (at the bottom of this page) letting me know what you think of the video (giving your current job - you don't need to leave your name). Does it make you want to work in science?

Update 18.7.12

Thanks for all the comments! I  forwarded them on to the EU commission that produced the video. They did receive quite a response to the video from across the globe, and a few 10000 blog posts!! Here are a few reflections  -

Science, a people thing - I think this is the blog post I agreed with the most 

From the Guardian - Science: it's a girl thing! A viral fiasco

New Statesman

Huffington Post (UK)  - they ask 'is the video sexist?'

Wall Street Journal - describe it as a porn film

They did take the video down, and here is the website now -

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Should Scientists Be Audited?

I often wonder if  scientists (working on any project) in a university should be audited regularly.

Audited by an independent person who is independent of the specific project, subject and research group. The scientists in question would have to show that they can trace the ingredients they are using for experiments and prove that results are real (maybe the auditor would sit in on an experiment).

Would it help prevent mistakes, incorrect data, reduce paper retractions and increase credibility of science in general?

Or would it just be a big waste of time, money and be a painful process for everyone involved?

What do you think?

When I worked in industry, we were regularly audited in everything we did. I used to exist in a form of organised chaos, but knowing that anyone could ask to look at anything at any time (and they did), I became super organised.

It's a necessary, and very useful skill to have as a scientist but there isn't any pressure on me within my PhD, other than my own fear of the invisible auditor, to behave in this way. I have hopefully continued to be super-organised (or organised at least) throughout my PhD, although you might not believe me if you saw the state of my desk....

Monday, 11 June 2012

Why do women's magazines not promote critical thinking when it comes to beauty and health?

Women's fashion and lifestyle magazines have a bad habit of spouting pseudoscientific guff to their readers in in order to raise revenue through product placement, and advertising.

I like clothes, handbags and shoes but that doesn't make me stupid air-head or any less of a scientist. I want to know what the latest and best in beauty is, but I do not want to read rubbish science and products that claim to provide more than they will ever be able to offer.

I have seen very detailed and thought out articles on important issues like rape, women in the workplace and motherhood. But, when it comes to beauty and health, critical thinking seems to go out of the window and pseudoscience is used to disguise product placement.

Image From:
Commercial magazines rely on and exist because of the advertising revenue they get. Beauty product manufacturers must pay well to warrant this kind of treatment and exposure. Should there be more transparency when products are promoted in magazines? I know this discussion rages wildly in the bloggers-sphere. Should writers who are being paid to promote a product be forced to declare it? 

Women's lifestyle/fashion magazines have played an important role in the past, as promoters for womens education, a source of escape and a communication channel for women but, today the women's lifestyle/fashion magazine sector is shrinking

They claim to take an interest in what women want, like, and what is important in their lives. They sell themselves to women on these claims. Rather than bamboozling readers with nonsense science in order to gain more advertising revenue could they promote scientific literacy through critical evaluation of evidence in the beauty pages and carve out a new path to increase their readership?  

This is why I started thinking about the above.

I subscribe to Elle UK and, in the last issue (June 2012), I noticed that there were a number of articles that discussed health issues, and they even summarised some recent published research on the topics. It wasn't perfect, but it really stood out to me that maybe, just maybe, things were changing and they were trying to recognise the value in real academic research and bring in some informed and critical thinking. Good for them. 

However, in this months issue (July 2012) I was really disappointed with an article titled, 'The Truth About Sun Protection'

The article starts off well, highlighting the differences between different types of sun radiation (UVA, UVB, IRA) what that means, and what you should look for in a sun cream. Fantastic. 

Then it veers into the confusing and and suggests 6 specific products (none of which are a sunscreen).

First up, tomatoes prevent sun-damage but use a sachet to get the benefit instead. From Elle,

'Lesley Rhodes, professor of experimental dermatology at the University of Manchester, found that tomatoes boost the level of collagen in the skin, help to slow the appearance of ageing and even reduce the risk of sunburn. Rhodes's study found that participants who ate tomato paste had 33 per cent more protection. It's all down to lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, which is able to neutralise harmful free-radical molecules. ELLE loves Onca, £156 for 60 sachets, a supplement with the antioxidant beta-carotene that neutralises harmful molecules which can lead to a free-radical chain reaction in the skin.'

To me, this paragraph implies, but doesn't state, that these very expensive Onca sachets might help protect you from sunburn. Hang on, why not just eat tomatoes? And can tomatoes really stop you from getting sunburn?!

This is the press release from about the research about sun protection and tomatoes. The study was done on 20 people (very small), over a short period of time (12 weeks) with 10 exposures to UVR radiation (full paper here). The partipants were given tomato paste with olive oil on white bread. The control group were given olive oil and white bread only. The tomato paste was supplied by Unilever, but there is no declaration of any conflict of interest. The study assessed the amount of UVR (UVA and UVB) damage caused (by looking at the amount of mitochondrial DNA damage). They found that the 9 people taking the tomato supplement demonstrated a reduced amount of DNA damage post supplement, than they did before the supplement.

The press release states, 'Compared to the control group, the group who had eaten the paste were found to have 33 per cent more protection against sunburn, which can lead to skin cancer. The researchers calculated the protection offered by the tomato paste to be equivalent to a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 1.3...

...People should not think that tomatoes in any way can replace sun creams, but they may be a good additive." 

Interesting research, it does suggest that eating tomato puree with olive oil could help prevent SOME UVR damage. A longer, larger study is needed in order to verify and this is recognised by the paper authors and in the press release (from 2008). The paper does not show that tomatoes with olive oil can help prevent skin cancer. Nor does it show that it is the antioxidant potential of lycopene that is responsible. You also need to be eating blobs of tomato puree for a number of weeks before you can gain the massive SPF of 1.3. 

There has been a recent review published on the study of caratinoids (including lycopene and beta-carotene) and photodamage. It recognises that caratinoids have demonstrated a degree of photoprotection in some studies, but it also explicitly states that it isn't clear if it is an antioxidant mechanism that is creating the effects seen and also 'whether these effects are beneficial has to be assessed'.

In summary, tomatoes and beta-carotene might help sun damage and prevent sunburn, a bit. However, these benefits weren't compared to the benefits of a normal suncream with a high SPF, nor were they used in combination with suncream. There is no suggestion that they boost the effects of a suncream and they certainly do not appear to be adequate protection from sunburn. 

The Elle article also links to a new 'wonder pill', Colladeen Visage that claims to give the skin a natural boost of SPF 10. These studies appear to have been only conducted by the product manufacturer. I am not sure if they are independently verified as I cannot find any published research. The makers state that the SPF of 10 will vary between people, and that the pills should be used in addition to a normal sun cream. Elle magazine fails to mention this, as do other advertisers of the product. I can't help feeling that that is irresponsible. Personally, I am highly skeptical of this product, but in the U.K. there are no specified guidelines for the testing that products must complete in order to claim they contain SPF. This makes evaluation difficult.

The article also mentions products which claim to; protect your hair (fine), visualise the sun damage on your skin (fine) and protect nailcolour from bleaching (I've never personally had that problem, but fine). 

Lastly, a recommendation was given for a vitamin D supplement for when you have no sun (OK but there are risks, and these weren't mentioned in the Elle article).

Sun protection is important and the advice can be confusing. A balanced approach with a better analysis of what is on the market, rather than a pushing products with unclear benefits might have been a better and more responsible approach from Elle. 

I highlighted my concerns about the products in the article to the writer. This is the response received

Hi Heather,

Many thanks for your email, it's always very valuable to get feedback on our features.

Unfortunately we are limited on space (two pages for this particular story) and it's always a challenge condensing the many studies we research while at the same time making sure the information is accessible for our readers and doesn't become scientific study in itself. However, we would never recommend forgoing sun screen, in fact the entire feature has been designed to promote the use of UVA/UVB protection plus additional antioxidants to give the broadest protection possible from the sun.

But many thanks again for getting in touch and we'll be sure your take your feedback on-board for future features.

Kind Regards

More about the Onca sachets (for the skeptical types)

This website goes one step further and puts the claim that Elle alludes to together, suggesting the sachets offer sun protection -
Screenshot taken on the 9.5.12 from the website

The Onca sachet website, does not state these claims and includes a statement that the Onca satchets are not a medicine, treatment or cure for any disease or condition, but an extensive list of benefits from the ingredients in the satchets have been shown in clinical research, hospital studies and scientific journals.

It isn't clear if the levels of beta-carotene (a caratanoid) in the Onca satchets are comparable with levels of caratanoids that have offered protection in the literature.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Blog Review! Ed Yong's 'It's Not Exactly Rocket Science' in Au Science Mag

I wrote this 'Blog Review' for the latest edition of Au Science Magazine published in June 2012 (more info below)

Move over books, it’s the Age of the Internet, and blogs are the literature of choice. 

These aren’t the blogs of the Myspace era that shared too much information about teen troubles, break-ups and parent problems. The new wave of blogs are well written, informative, can help keep you up-to-date with the latest and greatest, or quite simply exist to provide entertainment. And as we are Au Science Magazine, I have taken a look at some of the science blogs out there in the crazy land of the Internet. 

Science blogs are often hosted by expert science writers and/or scientists. They debunk the latest news stories, explain the latest research as it is published and, best of all; they are easily readable on a quick lunch break. 

Quite possibly the biggest science blog cheerleader is Ed Yong. An award-winning British science writer who has written for New Scientist and the Guardian among others, he also writes Not Exactly Rocket Science (NERS), a blog hosted on the Discover Magazine website. 

NERS covers a range of topics from fungi to fMRI. Although, Ed’s personal interest in zoology is clear, insects and animals feature heavily, cuddly animal blog this is not. He also provides debate on current science issues as they happen, like conversations from a conference about controversial scientific studies on the h5n1 flu virus. News, topics and debate are all fresh, new and timely. 

Ed’s background is in science, with an ma in Natural Sciences from Cambridge and I have no doubt that his degree helps him pull out the best and most interesting news from published scientific papers. E d started blogging to, ‘flex [his] writing muscles on different topics’ in a style of his own. His goals, as he explained in an interview are to, ‘make the complicated seem simple, the obscure seem fun and the unknown seem tangible’. Which is a great quote to describe exactly what his blog achieves. 
His style is humourous and playful; take the headline, ‘Tiny insect soldiers with butch forearms are actually medics’ as an example. What Ed manages to do really well is create entertaining, understandable, informative and importantly, factually correct articles from science that would probably be ignored by the mainstream press. 

Many of the stories Ed covers are not found anywhere else, so, if you aren’t reading Ed’s blog or working in the field he covers, you are missing out. The title of the paper that gave the headline about ‘tiny insect soldiers’ above is, ‘An inherited virus influences the coexistence of parasitoid species through behaviour manipulation’. Not something you would find on the bbc News website. But Ed manages to transform it, like many of his other pieces, into a short, concise and perfectly to the point article worthy of a place on the ‘most read’ list. Ideal for that tea-break science fix. 

One of the most enjoyable things about blogs is that you can comment on an article and let the writer know your thoughts and that you enjoyed reading it (or not). Authors usually reply to comments and discussions can start. This interaction with the author adds an extra dimension that books do not allow. 
NERS is just one excellent example of a number of fantastic science blogs on the internet. If you want to read more good science writing on the web, Ed helpfully collates the best science writing he has seen and posts it on his blog under the title, ‘I’ve got your missing links right here.’ And if that is still not enough for you, Ed is also active on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook where he often shares links to other science writing on the Internet. 

Other science blogs worth a click:

Au Science Magazine is produced by students at the University of Aberdeen

Twitter @ausciencemag

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

What Does a Biologist Do All Day?

I'm a molecular pharmacologist, but what on earth does that mean I do at 10am on a Monday?

The vast majority of my PhD in Medical Sciences has been spent in a dark room, counting. Counting breast cancer cells that have moved. YES, moved.

Let's start at the beginning.

I work with breast cancer cells that have been taken from a donor who had breast cancer. Cancer cells can be grown in a laboratory environment if you give them the correct nutrients and keep them at the correct temperature, a cosy 37 degrees, just like in the body. The cells I use were collected back in the 1970s and have been kept growing in the lab ever since.

Cancer cells can be grown on a flat surface (or in a solution), in plastic dishes, like this:

The cells grow in 'media', a solution that contains all the nutrients they need to grow. The media is usually pink as it contains phenol-red, an indicator that changes colour if the pH of the media changes (pH needs to be around 7.2-7.4 for optimum growing conditions).

The cells I use most of the time look like this under a microscope (the dots are individual cells):

So, those are the cells.

I'm looking at some potential new drugs and I am trying to work out if they might help by blocking the movement of cancer cells.

Cancer grows and spreads through the body with catastrophic effects. One way the cells get around the body is by moving. The process of cell movement, and the establishment of cancer at a secondary site in the body is called metastasis.

This is a single cell migrating, taken using time lapse photography (this isn't my video) -

How do I quantify if these 'new drugs' might stop the movement of the cancer cells?

I use something called a, boyden chamber and this is also known as a 'chemotaxis' assay. It allows me to count the number of cells that have moved (or haven't moved) towards a drug. I put the cells in the top well, media  (solution that cells grow in) without cells with drug (chemoattractant) in the bottom well and these are separated by a membrane that has small pores, big enough for the cells to get through but small enough so the cells do not just fall through. Like this:

The chamber I use has 96 of these individual wells (yep 96!). The picture below shows the view looking in to the top of the chamber. I use 3 wells for each drug treatment.

After leaving the cells for 4 hours I take the membrane from the chamber, scrape off the cells from the top and stain the cells that have migrated through to the other side of the membrane.

Then, I look at the membrane through a light microscope and count the cells that have migrated. I spend a lot of time staring at something that looks like this -
View of migrated cells (taken using an iphone camera through a light microscope eye-piece) x10 magnification. The dots are migrated cells

Counting takes time, but eventually I get enough information to tell me which drugs cause migration, and which can prevent it.

I am sure you can appreciate, this is all on cells in a dish, and may not represent what happens in the body. A drug that performs well in my experiment have other effects on other cells in the body; it might make other cells die, or not work at all.

This is very, very, very early stage research!

As part of my PhD, I am also trying to understand how the drugs cause the cells to move which is a whole other ball game.

If you are interested in reading more about cell migration, see here -

Cell Migration Gateway -

Bretscher MS. On the shape of migrating cells--a 'front-to-back' model. J. Cell. Sci. 2008; 121:2625-8 PubMed.
Janetopoulos C, Firtel RA. Directional sensing during chemotaxis. FEBS Lett. 2008; 582:2075-85 PubMed.
Van Haastert PJ, Devreotes PN. Chemotaxis: signalling the way forward. Nat. Rev. Mol. Cell Biol. 2004; 5:626-34PubMed.
Horwitz R, Webb D. Cell migration. Curr. Biol. 2003; 13:R756-9 PubMed.
Horwitz AR, Parsons JT. Cell migration--movin' on. Science 1999; 286:1102-3 PubMed.
Parent CA, Devreotes PN. A cell's sense of direction. Science 1999; 284:765-70 PubMed.

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