Monday, 21 October 2013

The Beauty Blogger Challenge to Ask for Evidence

Beauty and health product manufacturers are keen to open their doors to questions from users in order to get people on the web talking about their products ( If you're interested in following some of the chat then just look at #bblogs on twitter). But with the doors seemingly opening there's still a lack of people asking the right questions about what product testing takes place to create the claims they put forward and the real scientific basis behind their formulations and potions.

Beauty and health blogs are huuuuge business, many get numbers of hits that print newspapers would be jealous of. I'm tempted to mention a few products just to score myself a better ranking on google..  Beauty and health manufacturers know this, exploit it and often run events and send free samples just for beauty bloggers. Some blogs offer critical reviews of products, others just seem to like the freebies. Then there are the really shameful attempts at debunking that are just used to promote other products. Beauty and lifestyle magazines know this too and they engage with bloggers to get the lowdown on the latest and best things that the bloggers are enjoying (or not enjoying).

This is the bit I do not understand. Beauty bloggers are a clever bunch. They have codes of conduct and disclose which products they bought and which were PR samples. They pride themselves on reviewing and providing overviews of products but they don't ask for evidence from the product manufacturers on product claims.

This is a plea and a question to beauty bloggers out there. The ones I follow and the ones that I don't know yet....why don't you ask for more information and would you consider doing it in the future? 

I know many read these blogs for enjoyment and escapism but asking a few more questions about the product testing and results isn't about taking away the enjoyment of health and beauty it's about making better decisions regarding products so you can understand what is worth a higher price-tag (other than the packaging). What works for which skin/body types, which products can make a difference and pick the best for you. 

I'm going to illustrate this with an example of 'seemingly open doors but then closing them in your face when questions are asked' approach from Rodial on a Cosmo magazine webchat. 

I spotted that Rodial, the famous manufacturer of the 'boob growing cream', were doing a live webchat with Cosmopolitan. They promised to answer all questions, so I thought that might be an opportunity to ask them about some of their formulas and what testing they actually do in order to generate the claims they put forward.

They did answer my question on the post (you can link to the full Q&A session by clicking on the picture and take a look at what everyone else was asking).

They didn't answer my question fully, so I asked for more information and was given an email address. I wrote up my experience of asking for evidence for the amazing 'Sense About Science' Ask for Evidence Campaign where you can see other great examples (and outcomes) of people asking for evidence and advice on how to ask.

I followed up with email(s) to Rodial....

They weren't forthcoming with information and they still haven't answered by last response. I'm hoping this blog post will give them an extra nudge and will continue to try and discover how they have tested their claims to see if they can really back up what they are saying on their packs.

I enjoy reading beauty and health blogs for various reasons and there's no reason why these powerhouses of influence can't start asking more questions about the products and claims they are told. There are some resources online, such as beauty by the geeks (but even they don't ask how products are tested to make the claims on packs) and bloggers that tackle the science behind the products but I think the bloggers themselves (and encourage the magazines) to be more critical of the products (it's not like there's a lack of them on the market)... and challenge what is being said so it becomes normal routine rather than being a niche area for only some. 

You know what, with the masses of people available to beauty bloggers with their huge readerships with support they could even design and run their own some well planned and organised randomised controlled product trials of their own.

For more info on the boob growing cream see -

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Tycho Brahe Museum and the problems of publishing your science in the middle ages...

Yesterday I visited the Tycho Brahe Museum on the tiny island of Ven or Hven in Sweden. I'm going to write more about Tycho Brahe and the museum but for now (and the observatory he built in the 1500s).. here's a little descriptor from the gardens explaining how even in the 1500s it was important to disseminate research knowledge... and that Tycho the scientist didn't trust the people that printed his works. So he built his own printing press and printed it himself.

Uraniborg was Tycho's castle and the museum is based around where it once stood.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The end of the PhD

My PhD has been printed off, handed in, examined, corrected, printed off again in hardbound form, signed off, handed back in and I have graduated. AT LAST!!! This is my last post about the PhD (I think!) and goes through some coping mechanisms I developed at the end when I was juggling finishing off with a full time job...

Me and my younger sister at my graduation

The end of the PhD was hard work. It's a long, time consuming process that I have mentioned previously. I'm currently working as a project officer in public engagement with research, my job involves evenings, weekends and general odd hours. Juggling both the job and the PhD was a bit tricky at times, but just about manageable. I had to allocate work, PhD and free time effectively and stop doing a number of things that I enjoy. I haven't spoken to friends or family as much as I wanted to. Finding time to write blogs that required research was tricky as I just didn't have the time. There were a number of sunny weekends when I was stuck at my computer when I wanted to be outside.

I didn't give up everything I enjoyed though and actually this transition time between PhD and work allowed me to pick up a few new activities that helped me switch my mind off, replenish my thoughts and get some sleep. These, I think, have helped me focus a bit more and get me finished up.

For when I just couldn't switch my mind off 
I started lurking around on youtube late at night (as you do) to help me chill out and calm down as quite often my mind was whizzing. I ended up watching something called ASMR videos ... which stands for 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (I don't think it needs this overtly medical sounding terminology but it does help you find the videos on youtube). Basically, people talk about mundane things and make noises by tapping nails and crinkling wrappers. Don't just judge me... watch this video and tell me you don't feel sleepy! 

To get me outside and away from a computer
Gardening. I put my name down for an allotment (a patch of land to grow things on) with the local council when I started my PhD and 3 years later in Feb 2013 I got my own patch. It's been a great way to get outside and tire myself physically out (digging is hard work!). Even before the allotment I had been growing things in tubs in my yard and on my drive. Not having an allotment doesn't stop you from getting outside and growing!

To help me keep connected with friends and family despite lots of them being 500 miles away
I've had less time to travel so thanks to the wonders of technology I spoke to friends and family more using Facetime and Skype. It made me feel a bit less guilty about not seeing people. It helped me to schedule in time to call people rather than just calling on a whim. That way people didn't interrupt me when I was working hard and I didn't waste my downtime by ringing people who were busy. 

Planning for the future 
Having a focus for post-PhD life was also quite helpful. I've got quite a nice one as I am getting married next year.. BUT the temptation to spend all of my time planning a wedding rather than finishing up was all too tempting.. so I limited my planning for stages when I couldn't really do much to my PhD (like after I had handed in the first time and I was waiting for my first viva date). Having a positive focus such as a holiday/trip/event ANYTHING for life post PhD is great to think about when the end seems so far away. 

Mad Men 
I had to limit my TV viewing but there are a few guilty pleasure TV programmes that I did give myself chill out time to watch. One of which is Mad Men. It makes me happy. *spoiler alert*

Peggy Olson accidentally stabbing her boyfriend with a makeshift bayonet and then getting dumped in the ambulance was one of THE GREATEST things I have ever watched on T.V. 

Skeptics in the Pub
I am still co-organising and running SITP in Aberdeen with Sonia. It's an enjoyable social event and gives at least an hour and a half welcome distraction from my PhD. It only runs once a month so the time investment was relatively low.. although attending one the night before my viva may have made me a little bit more stressed than I needed to be (and I can't remember anything at all about that talk).

Things I avoided 
There are a large list of things that I tried to avoid. I sometimes failed but quite often these activities distracted me and rather than making me focus more got me a bit stressed out about other things.. these included (but were by no means limited to) BBC news, Twitter, The Daily Mail website, Candy Crush Saga and Heat magazine. I love twitter but sometimes when you need to concentrate hard on one thing it's best to just keep away. 

I don't know if anyone has any other suggestions for the end of the PhD to share. Please do. I imagine knitting is quite relaxing. I tried that for a period of time but I was rubbish at it. It seems that I went into my PhD as a young person who enjoyed festivals, travelling, going to gigs (I haven't been to a gig in what seems like a lifetime) to one that is quite happy pottering about an allotment with strawberries and attempting knitting.... 

And now, post PhD, I feel mostly relaxed. I was initially exhausted. Really exhausted. It took me a month or so before I started feeling like 'me' again (yes really). I slept and caught up with friends. Now my mind is wandering to what I can do with all the time I have 'free'..... and what to do with my blog! 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Social Media LinkedIn/Networking for employment workshop

I was invited to speak at a student led session about networking and LinkedIn with the main aims of using these to get a job...

My talk looked at networking and social media in general and outlined some of my own examples

I put together a prezi presentation so I thought I would share it here. 

If you are interested in this you might want to look at my 'how to use twitter' and Social media and the PhD presentation.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The PhD Viva (survival)

On my very first day at university I was queuing at the bank and in front of me was another female student waiting to open a bank account. One of the bank assistants came over and started filling the form in with her and he asked,  "Are you Miss or Mrs"? neither, she replied, "I'm a Dr, I passed my PhD viva this morning". I was in complete awe. I was stood in a queue with someone that had just passed a viva (whatever that is) and she is now a DR. I never imagined that 8 years later that I would be sitting one...

I sat my PhD viva last week and I am writing this in the post exam glow exhaustion. For anyone unfamiliar with a viva they can take on slightly different forms with different numbers of examiners and different requirements, but essentially 'a viva' is an oral exam. My viva was with two examiners, one from my university and the other from another university. Both examiners were researchers in an area related to my PhD topic.

I handed my thesis in back in January so there has been a gap of around 3/4 months between me finishing writing and sitting my viva. Not an unusual amount of time. I am not working in a lab, or on the same project (at all) anymore. So I had been very much removed from my PhD life. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It allowed me to look at my thesis before my viva with relatively fresh eyes and pick out some errors and areas where I could add clarity. I flagged those up with markers and highlighter pens and spent some time refreshing my memory on recent research papers/reviews and points relative to my thesis and project.

One week before the viva I felt fine about it. I knew my project and I knew what extra bits of reading I needed to do. My biggest worry was what I was going to wear (I chose a smart but comfy dress).

Then the fear set in. I was imagining nightmare scenarios and fundamental problems with my project. My biggest worry was being asked a really simple question that I wouldn't be able to answer and humiliating myself.

PhD vivas are daunting. Imagine finding two people you don't know but are examples of fine upstanding citizens and asking 'hey, want to judge me on the past 3/4/5/6 years of my life and tell me if it was worthwhile or not?'

Two days before my viva I was pretty stressed out. I was trying to keep calm but the fear had taken hold. I know that it didn't really matter, but it did matter. Googling 'failed PhD viva' and 'PhD viva horror stories' is not a good idea.

Going into the room I was a bit of a nervous wreck but my examiners kindly put me at ease by telling me that they had enjoyed reading my thesis, that I didn't need to worry and to think of the viva as more of a conversation.

For the next 3.5 hours we looked through my thesis and discussed the wider implications of my work, what my work involved, and how that led to my results and conclusions. They spotted typos and added their thoughts to my project and conclusions. It was a conversation, but it was one more like mastermind than a friendly chat in the pub. They were tough they asked me a few curve ball questions that did throw me a bit and on one occasion I had a complete mental block about a series of experiments that I had planned to do, but for the life of me couldn't recall (I did recall them a few minutes later).

I don't think I really enjoyed the experience but I didn't hate it either. At times being allowed the time to discuss thoughts and ideas was nice but I always was acutely aware that this was my viva and although the examiners were smiling I was being judged.

After they had finished discussing my thesis I was asked to leave the room as they had a discussion regarding the outcome of the viva. I was out of the door just long enough to tweet 'I'm standing outside after my viva waiting to go back in' when they called me back into the room and told me the magic words, "congratulations you have passed". So I passed my PhD with minor corrections and I was very happy, but mostly very tired.

I was exhausted, really exhausted. It isn't like getting a good set of exam results after the stress has passed and you can just go out and celebrate. I went to the pub with some friends and was underwhelmed. I couldn't sleep the night after my viva because I was still so switched on (despite the gin and champers). The following day I was still exhausted. I woke up again about three days later.

Some people on twitter asked for tips for 'surviving' a viva. All I can say is what was passed on to me before my viva:

  • know your stuff
  • don't be defensive 
  • try and relax
  • clarify the question before you answer it
  • be honest: theses aren't perfect 
  • no research project is perfect be aware of the projects limitations and strengths
  • take your thesis with you (with notes and things)
  • think about your thesis and findings in the context of the 'bigger picture'
  • be prepared to offer your own views where there is no right or wrong answer
Keep smiling :-)

For more info on PhD and survival tips see -

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Preparing for a viva examination

My PhD viva is in two weeks (ish). I am remaining calm (ish) (so far). I do have one major question weighing on my mind though... what do I wear?!
Appropriate viva wear?

I handed my thesis in back in January and I am no-longer working in the lab, or on my project, so I have taken quite a break from it. It's an advantage in some ways as I can see what I have written in my thesis from a clearer perspective. However, I also think it is a bit of a disadvantage as some knowledge seems to have fallen out of my brain and been replaced by 'other stuff' like how to correctly grow strawberry plants from seed and the ability to have a lengthy conversation with friends rather than my mind drifting away to my thesis layout.

What I am finding my mind wandering to more than often though, is what on earth I am going to wear for the viva. I know this is a very minor point.. but I want to come across the best I can, so I feel confident and so I am comfortable  There's nothing worse than being stuck in a room for what could be 5+ hours with a waistband that is cutting the circulation off to the bottom half of my body. So, do I go with shirt and trouser combo? Smart dress? A SKIRT and a top?! I don't know..  I think making that decision will help me feel even more ready for the viva.. but I am not quite there yet!

For some resources and tips about what to do to prepare for your viva then others have covered it really well from using sticky notes to highlight typos, to what to expect and how to handle yourself check out these links:

Thursday, 14 February 2013

This Valentines Day Ask for Evidence

Today (as with all days of significance) stories tend to appear that are linked to 'science', 'scientists' or 'experts'. Quite often loosely tied to a marketing campaign..

But what do you do if you spot something that might be a dubious claim or story? The Ask for Evidence campaign is a fantastic place to start... and this year they have sent everyone a lovely Valentines Day card titled 'Evidence is our aphrodisiac' .. find out what Voice of Young Science volunteers found out about aphrodisiacs when they asked researchers about various claims - click here (HT to @nonisa for sharing this!)

Some tips for spotting dubious claims and stories:

  • Where is it published? (On a website? Daily Mail? On a product?) - If you think the source is dubious, then follow up the claim by seeing if anyone else is covering the story, or search for more information online. If they quote any sources or evidence, check those out. 
  • Ask for evidence about the claim - and this is where Sense About Science can help. Click here for more info

Last year I started a scientifically correct Valentines day pinterest board.. you can see more by clicking the image below!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Gender divide in science, what can we do?

An article on the Guardian website offers advice as to how to reduce the gender divide in science subjects and how to best teach science to girls.

There are a number of problems with the article, nicely outlined by @soozaphone in this blog post. In summary of the article, it was an amalgamation of some US government advice from a large study, some data from recent test results (US) and some strange tips and opinions from 'experts' about how best to teach science to girls, although it isn't entirely clear who provided which pieces of information and advice. For an overview of an evidence based approach to encouraging both genders in science subjects (and recognising potential differences) see this post by Chris Chambers and Kate Clancy in the Guardian.

I believe it needs to be a collaborative effort across society with many small changes that may, slowly create an impact. Kate and Chris discuss here how challenging societal constraints and identifying and addressing structural inequality in our societies can support this goal. They call for a systematic approach to encouraging girls and boys in science, and I couldn't agree more. 

I think the next level of the debate has to be, what good, sound advice is there for those that want to teach, and encourage girls in STEM subjects?

Looking at the government report mentioned in the first Guardian article, it pulls out some key advice points, backed by findings in the report 'Encouraging girls in maths and science' from the National Centre for Education (US). I wanted to highlight the study mentioned as a source for the article, as I haven't seen much discusson about it.

Recommendations (table from the National Centre for Education Website)

Level of Evidence
1.Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.Source PDF – 1249 KBStrong
2.Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance. Prescriptive, informational feedback focuses on strategies, effort, and the process of learning (e.g., identifying gains in children’s use of particular strategies or specific errors in problem solving). Such feedback enhances students’ beliefs about their abilities, typically improves persistence, and improves performance on tasks.Source PDF – 1249 KBModerate
3.Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science. Even in elementary school, girls are aware of the stereotype that men are better in math and science than women are. Exposing girls to female role models (e.g., through biographies, guest speakers, or tutoring by older female students) can invalidate these stereotypes. Source PDF – 1249 KBMinimal
4.Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content. Teachers can provide ongoing access to resources for students who continue to express interest in a topic after the class has moved on to other areas.Source PDF – 1249 KBModerate
5.Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training. Spatial skills training is associated with performance in mathematics and science. Source PDF – 1249 KBMinimal

This study and advice was offered back in 2007 and it seems fairly sound. What would be interesting would be to see if any of these methods had an impact on girls in science, maths and engineering between 2007-2012.

Everyone has lots of opinions on what should be done to encourage and reduce the divide. But are there any measures and evaluated advice that can really show if we are making a difference or not? 

Friday, 25 January 2013

Saying Thanks

I am just about to send my thesis to the printers and the last part I did was my acknowledgements. I still have to do my viva examination, and I will have corrections but I couldn't wait to share this (and yes, I have thanked Twitter). 

There are also many more people I want to thank for helping me along the way. I could have written about 15 pages. 


Firstly I would like to thank my Mum, Dad, sister Joanne and Grandparents for being there throughout my whole education and always supporting me even if they lost track of where I was, didn’t quite understand what I was doing or didn’t have a clue what I was trying to achieve. They have continually challenged me in many ways but have always been there for me, and explaining my work to them was a starting platform for my other passion, sharing the wonders of biology with others.

My deepest appreciation goes to my supervisor Professor Ruth Ross and my PhD collaborators at Selcia. I want to thank them for believing in me, and giving me this opportunity. Working with such talented and inspirational supervisors has made this project an absolute pleasure. To those that have helped me in the lab who are now my friends I want to say a big  thank you, especially to Lesley Taylor for all the guidance at the start of my project (and continual guidance in my life), Lauren Whyte who is always available for a chat and without whom I would never have finished the final year of my project, Daniele Bolognini without whom I would probably be a lot thinner but not as happy, to Hollie Vase who has shared the ups and downs of the whole of my PhD and also to Gemma Baillie, Irene Hunter and Lesley Stevenson for their continued help, support and chats. I also want to thank Douglas McHugh and Heather Bradshaw at the University of Indiana for offering me the opportunity to spend time in their lab, welcoming me, and supporting my project.

To the Au Science Magazine team, sharing PhD stories and advice helped me throughout the whole process, provided me with great ideas and I want to thank you for your friendship, especially Gina Maffey, Sean McMahon and Kirsty Nutt. 

Sonia Watson and Alun Hughes, thanks for being my buddies in the pursuit of evidence based thinking and the battle against pseudoscience, a welcome pastime when I wasn’t working on my PhD.
I want to thank all my friends who haven’t forgotten me despite living 500 miles away and have still offered me support throughout my PhD and my life, Sarah Harrison (Sazzle), Joanne Thompson, Gemma Craig, Claire Collins, Lara Maisey, Katie (Mc)Tween(igal) and Sophie Dunne. I wouldn’t be here and couldn’t have done this without you.  And to those friends that have welcomed me in Aberdeen, especially the Phil’s (and Ryan) thank you for all the tea, cake and fun times. 

I want to offer a thanks to Jack Dorsey for inventing Twitter, and for those on Twitter that have offered advice and support and allowed me to connect with and present my work with the rest of the world, despite living in the north of Scotland.

Finally, but not least I want to thank Ben Frizzell (friend and husband-to-be) for his seemingly never ending patience and support throughout the ups and downs of the whole of my PhD.  

Monday, 7 January 2013

Finishing a PhD and managing an industrial partnership

Finishing up a PhD isn't a swift and easy process (something my family can find difficult to understand). It's made slightly more difficult if you move away, start a new job, or if your supervisor moves half way across the globe which is something many PhD students have to contend with. Although, supervisors are always busy even if they are in the same city as you are.

I'm reaching the final stretch now. My final hand in date is the 29th of January. I wrote my first full draft back in October and immediately sent it to my supervisor to look over. I took a break over Christmas, and I started my new job in October, went to the Abu Dhabi science festival and then went home ...  all great career stuff, but it delayed me a little getting the final bits of thesis completed.

My supervisor didn't have too many comments or corrections, so I have only got a few final tweaks (and the dreaded references) to sort out before the end of January. I am finding it useful to have had a complete break from it for a few months. Getting back into it feels less of a drag, and I don't feel like I have read every sentence 500 times which I did when it came to proof reading my final draft. Sending my completed draft of my thesis seemed to work well with my supervisor too. I was planning on sending drafts chapter by chapter but I got carried away and just wrote the whole thing.

I think it might be difficult reading a lone chapter without the introduction (I didn't write everything in order.. it went something like this -
  1. 3/4 of methods
  2. 3/4 of chapter 1 (which is the biggest chapter)
  3. all of chapter 2 (when I went back in the lab to do some extra bits)
  4. half of chapter 3
  5. the final quarter of chapter 1
  6. chapter 4
  7. rest of the methods
  8. introduction
  9. discussion/conclusion

I had discussed before I started writing anything the chapter structure, order and flow of my thesis with my supervisor. So she was aware of what I was doing. We were in agreement on how it should work too which was nice. I know many people have arguments at this stage about what should/shouldn't go in the thesis and the order it is written.

One thing I wasn't quite expecting is the amount of results I have. My thesis would have been a 700 page epic with them all in.

My PhD is funded by an industrial partner and I have spent a good portion of my time screening certain compounds (drugs) that they have created. I developed the screening and that is detailed in my thesis.  I/we didn't feel that endless drugs in a thesis would make very interesting reading, especially as I don't have the chemical structure of them. So I have concentrated on what we have learnt (or in some cases not learnt) about cell signaling pathways and behaviour in response to the common agonist and antagonist (pharmacology chat, apologies) that is well known in the literature.

So I have found myself writing two theses, one for my final examiners and another for our partners that contains all the work I have completed with their compounds. My PhD life has two sides. I have enjoyed the partnership and like working with our partners. The big downside to this is the lack of publications, as a lot of the data will be held by the company and permission needs to be sought about everything we wish to publish and talk about. My topic is a very new area too, so there is a delicate balance between holding on to information you have discovered before sharing it with the world (when you have confirmed it) and sharing it, as that is what gives you credibility in research. I was only able to present my work externally in my 3rd year at a conference.

Some of the things I have found could give the company a competitive advantage over others when it comes to drug development. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong. It's just the way it is with this kind of work and PhD at the current time. We aren't hiding things either. I have been working on this project as a lone ranger for 3 years only. Most of the 'findings' have been found in the last year and a half, and we are putting papers together to publish it at the minute. The way publications work at the minute means this process takes time.

Doing it this way also means my PhD thesis can be made public, if I had results on unpublished compounds in there, we would have to make it confidential.

I will let you all know as I start preparing for my viva... and when it is available online.... 

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