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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