Partners: more than just a summer school

decorative header photo introducing foreword by Dr Damian Parry

I have been leading the Partners programme in the School of Biomedical Sciences (as it was then) since 2014 – and have enjoyed every moment.

In “normal times” it’s a great opportunity for students to come onto campus and experience university life in a “snapshot”. It’s my ideal that the experience will minimise fear of the unknown, seeing that Newcastle University’s School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences is a place where students can feel at home, see themselves thriving and anticipate a great 3 or 4 years ahead.

Obviously, last year and this year things have changed, and we’ve had to move the provision totally online, but hopefully there is still a chance to see what university life will be like, meet future colleagues in studies and members of staff, and get to know each other.

The School has an increasingly diverse student body coming from all sorts of backgrounds. Our aim is to build an inclusive environment where everyone is supported and encouraged to succeed regardless of who we are, and the Partners programme plays a key role in this. We all have hurdles in life which we need to navigate and it’s the job of all staff and students to make sure that everyone feels at home in the School.

For me, Partners has two main benefits: the most obvious is the reduced offer, but I think the most important is the removal of barriers. Enabling students to see the School as a place they want to be, where they feel they can belong and a place they can thrive.

Hear from some of our previous Partners, and current full-time, students below about how the Partners programme helped prepare them for university study. With bonus staff perspectives from Dr Geoff Bosson, Dr Harley Stevenson-Cocks and Dr Vanessa Armstrong on delivering the Partners programme in the remote world!

I have been involved with Partners for the last 2 years now and it’s something I really enjoy being part of. Although we were remote last year and will also be this year, we still managed to interact and discuss science over Zoom and on discussion boards, and I got to showcase just how important immunology is – especially mid-pandemic!

It was a very welcomed opportunity to interact with students again in the sessions we ran last year and COVID-19 seemed like an appropriate topic for the week where we could cover all of the subject disciplines we offer within the School. The feedback we received was really encouraging and I was grateful for my first experience of running a successful remote course all on a new virtual learning environment (VLE) platform (Canvas).

I’m passionate about supporting all students and encouraging uptake of opportunities to help develop new skills, support career progression and improve employability. I am the Academic Lead for Employability and also co-ordinate placement years with Harley. I was really keen to connect alumni from the School with Partners and to help insire.

Having had quite a convoluted career myself my motto is (sorry for the cliché!) “Life is a journey and not a destination”.

The Partners program opened a door to a university career I didn’t think I would ever experience. Coming from a lower-income background, without a perfect set of A-Levels, I had already accepted that I wouldn’t be studying at a first-choice university. When I noticed that Newcastle offered a program that specifically encouraged and facilitated the entry of disadvantaged students, I was sceptical at first. I thought, what’s the catch? 

Many universities offer foundation programs as a stepping-stone to their desired degree. However, those programs involve an extra year of university study, including the required funding. After attending the Partners summer school, I was very happy with what I’d experienced. The lecturers were welcoming, informative, and for once I was actually confident that I could attain a degree at a quality university. I’m currently in my second year of a (so far) successful Nutrition degree, and I appreciate the opportunity. 

When the Partners scheme had to be changed from an on-campus in-person experience to a virtual one at short notice, it meant that more academic staff could get involved…..and as I love to talk about science at any opportunity, I did not need asking twice if I would get involved!

As someone who did not enter academia through the traditional A-level route I am keen to support initiatives, such as Partners, that open educational opportunities to anybody who has the ability to reach their maximum potential.

Being able to talk about my favourite subject and explain the role that biochemistry plays in our understanding of the COVID-19 virus means I have had to keep up to date with the scientific literature. This thirst for knowledge is something I have always enjoyed and we want to ignite and cultivate in you during our Partners programme.

The sessions I enjoyed the most last year were the live online debates. The use of Zoom meant I was able to ‘virtually meet’ many of the students and engage in current scientific discussion. We will be including this successful format again this year as part of the week-long programme and I look forward to meeting you when you join in.

The Partners programme was thoroughly enjoyable and allowed me to meet new people, as well as giving me a head start on using Canvas. I found this really helpful, especially with changes to the way content is being delivered this year, as I had insight into how lectures would be delivered, enabling me to practice note taking.

Meeting people on my course was great, as it meant I already had people I could chat to about work, as well as being able to meet them (socially distanced) once we got to Newcastle, which helped me to settle in. Each day on the programme we studied a different aspect of biomedical science which I found very interesting, as this was a new level of detail compared to A-Level. The content was also linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus which made it relevant and therefore more engaging.

The Partners programme for me was an exciting, educating and eye-opening experience. Having just taken my A-Level exams, attending the summer school was a small glimpse at my future.

The format of the summer school allowed for myself and future students alike to get a feel for the university; to get used to our soon-to-be new home. I had the opportunity to experience what lectures, seminars and labs would be like whilst also having the opportunity to be taught by our future lecturers, an experience I was particularly excited for.

My own mental health issues ensures that I have a bucket of worries about changing environments and the summer school allowed these worries to be put at ease. Even though I did not end up going to university until the year after, the experience still aided me and, if anything, only gave me more reasons to reapply.

I’d only been working at Newcastle for a few weeks when I was asked to help with the School’s Partners scheme last summer, so I must admit I felt like a bit of an imposter. I hadn’t even been on the university campus by that point!

Nevertheless, as the physiology specialist for the week, I was excited by the prospect of delivering a day of content covering the impacts of COVID-19 on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and so I jumped at the chance to get involved. If anything, I was probably a bit too excited, as I got carried away and ended up recording an 80 minute lecture on the subject…

For me at the time, it was a great opportunity to work with new colleagues and deliver something new and engaging in the remote format we’d been forced into by the pandemic. Getting the balance right was tricky, as we weren’t able to rely on ‘live’ sessions which is what we are more used to, so we had to ensure our asynchronous (non-live) plan was still coherent, informative, challenging, and most importantly interesting!

It was also nice to get some student contact in, as I’d joined the team right at the end of the academic year when teaching was winding down.

When the current academic year started back in September, I recognised a lot of students from the Partners scheme were now enrolled as full-time students here, so it was good to know we hadn’t put everyone off! Our opportunities to see everyone in real life are unfortunately still limited, but fingers crossed that all changes soon and we can start seeing people in three-dimensions again.

In the end we received some overwhelmingly positive feedback about the scheme, which was great and showed our efforts had been appreciated. I’m very much looking forward to getting involved again this summer and building on what we learnt last year with the next Partners cohort!

When I attended Newcastle Partners in 2019, I was extremely excited about being offered this chance to spend a week on campus to get a taster of Biomedical Sciences and also to meet new people! At the time I was very shy and was nervous to leave home for a week to be in Newcastle, however when I arrived I realised everyone was feeling the same, so friendships came naturally!

I would say one of the most useful things in Partners were the lectures. As the style of teaching was so different from my sixth form this allowed myself time to trial and error note taking and figure out which type was best tailored to my particular learning style.

Overall I think the social events, trial lectures and the experience on campus really helped me get an idea of what Newcastle University was all about and helped me make friends that I still have today!

Clinics, Catering, and Community Settings: Placement Experiences in First Year Dietetics

September 2020 was just around the corner. I was feeling excited but also nervous to begin the journey as a student in the very first cohort of the MDiet course at Newcastle University. Little did I know that COVID-19 was going to change university life as we know it.

The new norm included logging in to different Zoom classes, communicating with classmates via e-mail or texts, and learning how to measure portion sizes from an online live lab. It was all new at first, but our lecturers were always ready to respond to any request we had. What I love the most is that our cohort is quite diverse with different people, ideas and backgrounds coming together to learn, discuss and debate on Nutrition and Dietetics matters. MDiet is a safe place for us to communicate our thoughts and goals.

Fast forward to March 2021

My ‘Relocate to Newcastle’ plan was activated. Words cannot describe how happy and grateful I was to finally meet all my peers and academic staff in person. Not to mention the excitement felt when placement dates and allocations were released. We were going to spend our placement in a range of settings: with a dietitian in a clinical setting, in a hospital’s catering department, a community care setting, and at a food bank, as well as 2 days on campus learning about communication.

Putting my “Student Dietitan” uniform on, moments before my very first hour of placement began.

The first day

The first day of placement had arrived! I’d barely slept through the night but was feeling enthusiastic as I packed my bag; “Student Dietitian” embroidered uniform, student ID, water and face covering – all check.

My classmate and I arrived 20 minutes early, changed into our uniforms and found the cafeteria where the dietitian would meet us. At 9:00am the dietitian approached our table, and we were heartily welcomed as she introduced herself and her role at the hospital. We all went up to the wards, where she explained to us her daily routine, showed us different types of tube feeding and when these are used.

At 10:30am, the ICU rounds began. We were able to observe and take notes on the daily communication processes. Medical practitioner and students, physiotherapist, senior nurse and students, acute dietitian, speech and language therapist and other healthcare professionals were all present and actively evaluating the patient’s condition.

Once finished, the dietitian explained the reasons behind the decisions made and gave us time to ask questions. A day in the life of an acute dietitian was a truly fascinating experience.

On our way to find the hospital’s cafeteria.

Hospital catering – efficient AND tasty

The next day it was our catering department placement. Same routine as before; we arrived early, got dressed and the head of the catering department met us at 9:00am. He gave us a tour of the facilities and then handed us over to the woman in charge of the wards. She showed us the different menus available and guided us through the entire process.

We were quite impressed with how well organised the catering department was. For example, the food in the freezer was arranged by popularity, with the most requested dishes near the front and the more unpopular ones towards the back. Once the orders from the wards came in, the process of collecting, distributing the food, cooking it at the ward kitchen and serving it began.

We were amazed at how smooth the process was and how efficiently the staff communicated. With the time left, we were able to ask questions and even got to interview some elderly patients about their satisfaction with the food. Another amazing and educational experience.

Left: Learning about the different IDDSI (International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative) levels of food available at the hospital. Right: IDDSI level 4; beef in gravy. It might look different but it was really tasty! 10 out of 10.

The food bank – a humbling experience

Our last off-campus experience before the Easter break was at a food bank. I was not sure what to expect as I was assigned to spend half a day at the warehouse.

My classmates and I were warmly welcomed to the facility and got a tour around the warehouse. The volunteers, as well as the working personnel, seemed to be doing a great job. The warehouse was well organised, and I was happy to see so many donations coming in.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending my day there and contributing to the community. It was definitely a life learning experience that I will never forget. Often, I hear people talk about food poverty and health inequality, but it makes such a difference when you actually get hands on experience of the only food options people in the community can afford.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before offering any advice was the lesson I learned that day.

Done for the day! Everything is categorised and ready to be packed and distributed to the community.

The importance of communication

During the last week before Easter, we had a communication simulation on campus. It was such a great and informative experience. I especially loved the part where we got split into pairs and had volunteers from roleplaynorth come in. The goal was to make conversation with the volunteers and have them open up without asking more than 10 questions.

As the theme was holidays, I thought that such an easy topic would not require 10 questions – and as you may well have guessed, I was wrong!

After the session I thought about how the 10-question practice task could be applied in a clinical setting. Whilst a dietitian needs to gather a lot of information, a patient may not wish to be asked a flurry of questions, so ‘minimal encouragers’ and appropriate body language are powerful tools to boost dialogue. Another day of placement well spent!

The journey has only just begun

As the Easter break came to an end, I was happy to go back and see all my classmates, as well as have another 2 days of placement. One day was in a care setting linked with St Anthony’s of Padua Community Association, and the other focussed on social media for nutrition and dietetics with Maeve Hanan of Dietetically Speaking.

It is truly fascinating to see so many different settings a dietitian can have an impact in. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, but I am confident we are off to a great start!

Until next time,


International Women’s Day Blog Competition

We recently asked our students to submit entries detailing the work of inspirational female scientists as part of a blog competition for International Women’s Day. We are delighted to share all of the entries below – choosing the top two was not an easy decision, so congratulations to all writers!

Ada Lovelace – by Olivia Rowe, 3rd year MSci Biochemistry (1st prize)

What does it mean to be a woman?

For centuries, women have been objectified and designated ‘The Second Sex’. Lord Byron’s 19th century poem ‘She Walks In Beauty’ is a prime example, where he describes his female subject to be as provocative as ‘starry skies’ on a clear night.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, defies all expectations of what femininity would look like in the 19th century. Termed the “enchantress of numbers” by mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, Ada’s work in the computer science field highlighted that women would no longer stand to be second to men.

Outwardly, Ada resembled the typical female subject of the 19th century, however, inwardly, she yielded intelligence surpassing all expectations at that time (Image source: Science Museum Group)

Ada made her mark when she published a translation article on the Analytical Engine, containing what some believe to be the first computer program. Ada’s vision of this Analytical Engine extended past its potential to revolutionise the field of mathematics, but to how it could even transform how music is composed.

The gender imbalance within computer science is as significant now as in the 19th century. Of those applying for computer science courses through UCAS in 2019, just 19% were female.

It makes me wonder if women were not viewed as ‘The Second Sex’, would society have progressed to greater things by now? Would we be living on Mars? Would there be a cure for cancer?

We must now encourage our daughters, sisters, and friends that anything is possible, regardless of gender.

Ada Lovelace Day, celebrated yearly on the second Tuesday in October, is a chance to do exactly this.

Mary Guinan – by Sarah Richardson, 3rd year BSc Food and Human Nutrition (2nd prize)

The first woman to become Chief Scientific Advisor to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr Mary Guinan, fought an uphill battle for several years to be allowed to study and work within epidemiology.

Following graduation, she began training in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC. She was initially prohibited from working towards smallpox eradication by the Indian Government. However,  after threatening to write to the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, she was accepted to the eradication programme.

In less than five months, the region Dr Guinan worked in was deemed smallpox-free.

One element of Dr Guinan’s varied career was contributing to a mass vaccination programme in India (Image source: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash)

Dr Guinan then turned her attention to sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and a mysterious disease affecting gay men. She interviewed those with Kaposi’s sarcoma (a cancer diagnosed in the early stages of the disease) and collected samples.

In 1984, the virus was finally identified as HIV thanks, in part, to the work of Dr Guinan. Since then, she has contributed to research and policy regarding childhood leukaemia and fluoridated water. She recently turned her attention to promoting intrauterine device (IUD) and implant use in order to reduce the prevalence of opioid-addicted babies in America.

As a female epidemiologist in the early 1970s, Dr Guinan stated that she never had a mentor, but her determination to contribute to the field has established her as a major role model for aspiring female epidemiologists. Her seminal work will forever inspire young women in STEM.

See also:

Renowned epidemiologist Mary Guinan shares stories from 40 years on the front lines of public health

Dr Mary Elizabeth Guinan

Flossie Wong-Staal – by Georgia Cohoon, 1st year BSc Food and Human Nutrition

International Women’s Day – the day when we appreciate how amazing we are. Women of all types too – cisgender, transgender and everything in between. We should be so proud of who we are and the things we achieve every single day. What better way to celebrate than by looking at one of the coolest women in the world?

One particularly inspirational woman I have had the pleasure of reading about is Flossie Wong-Staal. Dr Wong-Staal and her family fled from China to Hong Kong during the Communist Revolution. There she excelled in science, then proceeded to move to America to study Bacteriology at the University of California. She then obtained a PhD in molecular biology, and stayed to continue her research.

Now, as if these achievements aren’t incredible already, Dr Wong-Staal became the first scientist to clone HIV. This led to development of blood tests for HIV, and thus the eventual development of HIV treatment which is still used today.

The HIV epidemic resulted in people all over the world dying from unknown causes, alongside shame and a blanket of discrimination over the gay community. The significance of Dr Wong-Staal’s achievements is indescribable. 

HIV is no longer a death sentence. It is so incredible to write that statement. HIV is no longer a death sentence.

I could not make this statement if it was not for the work of Dr Wong-Staal, and for this, I and others will forever be grateful for her determination.

Dr Wong-Staal, you are just one of the reasons we celebrate International Women’s Day. I am so proud to be part of a community that fights back when the odds are against us. 

Happy International Women’s Day everyone.

Flossie Wong-Staal – by Nidhi Bhat, 1st year BSc Biomedical Sciences

Flossie Wong-Staal was a female, Chinese-American virologist who became the 1st scientist to aid in the molecular cloning of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which determined the function of its genes. Her research highlighted the mechanisms used by HIV to evade the immune system’s defences and, importantly, in 1983 revealed the causative link between HIV and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Flossie Wong-Staal also worked on the human T-cell leukaemia virus (HTLV) that revealed the existence of interleukins, a group of proteins which regulate communication between various cells.

Flossie Wong-Staal, American Virologist (Image source: National Institutes of Health)

This discovery led to progressive therapies and in 1984, she established that AIDS was caused by a retrovirus. In 1985, she genetically mapped the whole virus, then, in 1990, she carried out extensive gene therapy research into successfully repressing HIV using stem cells.

The inspiring scientific advances made by Flossie Wong-Staal helped develop specific tests for HIV, as well as the ability to screen donated blood used daily by hospitals across the world. These tests enabled accelerated testing and diagnosis for millions of patients.

Her work initiated future investigations into HIV treatments. This massively helped to reduce the societal stigma surrounding HIV and, with the potential for future testing and preventative treatments, gave hope to patients that their quality of life would be greatly improved.

Gertrude Elion – by Katie Riches, 2nd year BSc Pharmacology

As a female Pharmacology student, my inspirations have always been centred around Trudy. This woman is such an inspiration and someone I hope to live up to one day.

Trudy’s main life mission was to alleviate human suffering, and through the drugs she has created it is fair to say she has achieved this and continues to save people’s lives 22 years after she passed away.

Gertrude “Trudy” Belle Elion 23/01/1918 – 21/02/1999 (Image source: Wellcome Images)

Living in a world of sexist bias, Trudy took jobs as a secretary, chemistry teacher and an unpaid position in a lab until WW2 where she got her big break.

As WW2 diminished the number of male chemists, Trudy found the job of her dreams: assisting George Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome, which would ultimately become GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t

Gertrude Elion

Trudy introduced the world to the first drug which could help put leukaemia patients in remission. She then went on to discover a drug that would eventually help patients receive organ transplants without their body rejecting them.

She then went on to develop drugs to treat malaria, meningitis, septicaemia, and bacterial infections.

Although scientists doubted that drugs could fight viruses, Trudy persisted with this idea and from this came a drug which could attack herpes, Epstein-Barr virus, chickenpox, and shingles. With this development, the door was opened for the first AIDS drug: azidothymidine.

To this day Trudy’s name appears on 45 patents for life-saving drugs, and in 1988 she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George Hitchings for their work in drug development.

What we were aiming at was getting people well, and the satisfaction of that is much greater than any prize you can get

Gertrude Elion

Lucille V Abad – by Flavia Haryanto, 3rd year Food and Human Nutrition

There may be media famous female scientists such as Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin, but there are countless female scientists that do not receive enough appreciation or attention who are nonetheless impressive in their work.

One woman in STEM that I admire is Filipino scientist Dr Lucille V. Abad. Her research encompasses a plant-based sugar that comes from red edible seaweeds, which is modified then sprayed onto crops such as rice. After trials, Dr Abad and colleagues found that the rice crops treated with the modified sugar had higher yield and were healthier even during a typhoon when compared to untreated plants.

Dr Abad’s work has significant impact on the yield of rice crops in typhoon-prone areas (Image source: Loifotos via Pexels)

Her work led her to win the Julian A. Banzon Medal as a 2017 Outstanding Research and Development awardee. Not only was this difficult to get as she came from an underrepresented group in the STEM field, but in addition she was a female.

I admire her work as this finding of hers can offer life-saving solutions for countries hit by massive disasters. This also can help with sustainability in terms of sustainable diets where rare wild plant species do not grow very well and have low yield.

This discovery or invention can be a one of the global solutions to help the UN achieve their Sustainable Development Goals. This impressive scientist used her knowledge to come up with a solution for a better world, which is something I look up to.

A big pharma placement? There’s more to do than just science.

By Kate Jervis

When I first found out I had a placement at AstraZeneca (AZ), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what my days would be – hours and hours working in the lab, writing up experiments and poring over graphs. Maybe, I thought, I can improve my communication skills by presenting data to my team. But even with the unexpected shakeup of lockdown and coronavirus, I didn’t realise just how oversimplified my idea of a lab-based placement was.

Zoom call with coffee. Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

I am a fan of lab work, but anyone who knows me well can tell you that one of my favourite pastimes is admin. I have no shame in admitting that I’m the person who finds joy in organising an inbox, or drawing up spreadsheets to track a team’s progress through a big task. It’s a strange hobby, but it’s satisfying, and so when I saw adverts to recruit a new AZ early talent committee, I could hardly not apply for the role of secretary. I had no professional secretarial experience, but it sounded so me!

At this point I was still in the office a few days a week but social distancing and reduced building capacity meant that meeting people was a challenge, and joining a committee felt like a perfect way to build relationships. It was also something I’d never done before – the network this committee served at the time had over 230 members – so a new level of responsibility felt like the perfect way to put my organisational skills to good use.

The full 2020-21 AZinspire Cambridge committee, complete with my hastily-taken photo from when I realised I didn’t have any professional photos of myself on my first day.

As the role would benefit my career development, my supervisor wholeheartedly supported me giving up a couple of hours a week to work with AZinspire, who run events for placement students, apprentices, graduates and postgraduates across the Cambridge sites. My application was successful and before I knew it I was minute-taking for meetings, managing committee communications and updating distribution lists left right and centre.

As much as I love working on the science, it felt good to have a hand in something with shorter-term, more tangible impacts.

An AZinspire social from pre-COVID times, back when events could be held in person. Nowadays everything is via Teams or Zoom, which has the benefit of letting groups working in other countries attend much easier.

My first big job came late December, where I got a taste of event planning by helping to organise a week-long symposium focused on the skills needed to work from home. A small team of us were tasked to identify key speakers, arrange practical and relevant talks that fit the theme and audience, and publicise it enough to get a good turnout.

This was to be done around our usual 9-5 duties, and with an impossibly quick turnaround – our first meeting was the week before Christmas and the symposium started on 18th January! As event planning goes, I was definitely thrown in at the deep end.

Chocolate and kale brownies made by a symposium attendee, using one of the recipes included in the resource pack we shared.

But it was brilliant. The team split up and delegated tasks, but still supported each other when big decisions were made. I found a way to keep track of everyone’s progress so that as the big day approached, we all knew exactly what still needed to be done.

I took charge of arranging a session on career confidence and imposter syndrome, consulting with the CEO of a leading wellbeing training company, and helped design a tailored 2-hour event covering the topics key to our demographic.

In the week leading up to the symposium we received the most new members AZinspire Cambridge had ever seen, growing our network by 15% on event hype alone! Attendance for all sessions was unexpectedly high, and we received brilliant feedback. I was hooked.

An example of some of the data we got from our symposium feedback. If I hadn’t thought to add this question to the form the committee would have kept scheduling lunchtime events! Always a good feeling when you find out something useful unexpectedly.

Since organising this event I’ve taken on a greater role in AZinspire’s events programme: I’m currently organising cross-site coffee meetings and planning the network’s Socials Month. Thinking about my confidence over the years, especially as an autistic person, it can be hard for me to remember just how much I’ve grown and how capable I am now.

The work I’ve done already with AZinspire would have been a stretch for 2019 Kate, and downright unthinkable for 2016 Kate. But I have done it, and more than that, I enjoyed it, and for me that’s where so much of the value of a placement year is. It’s not just about being able to say you’ve worked in a lab, or meeting people in high places who might remember you when you apply for a grad scheme – it’s about grabbing an opportunity to try something interesting and coming out of it with proof that you’re more capable than you realised.

2016 Kate. Back then I wouldn’t even ask what aisle something was on at the supermarket, so to see myself now, getting involved in teams and working with new people all the time, it shows me how far I’ve come.

There are so many more opportunities I’ve taken at AstraZeneca already that I never expected to be able to do, from designing and writing global management training on neurodiversity to being one of the founding members of an LGBTQ+ alliance with GSK.

Thinking about my job, both inside and outside the lab, one thing’s for certain: a placement year in big pharma is so much more than just science.

Wholemeal is the new white!

By Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Stage 1 MDiet student

Hello everyone! My name is Katerina Sakellaropoulou and I’m a first-year MDiet student at Newcastle University, from Greece.

I don’t know about you, but for me bread often accompanies most meals of my day. From simple avocado or beans on toast, to egg salad sandwiches to even those amazing “croque madames” served for Sunday brunch. Let’s face it, bread or flour are impossible to avoid, and why would you?

Choosing the right one can be quite challenging though: white, sourdough, tiger, angel, stotty, wholemeal, multigrain, brioche, rye, pita, naan… I’m not even done listing them and I am already out of breath.

Earlier this academic year I had the chance to attend an incredible 2-hour session with Dr Andrew Wilkinson  as a guest speaker. This was part of the Food Studies module on the MDiet course, with Ms Alison Barnes as the module lead.

Little did I know but my relationship with bread was going to be forever changed. Dr Wilkinson’s presentation made me realise there was so much more to learn when buying a loaf of bread at the supermarket. What about soil health, milling quality, agricultural chemical residues, grain anatomy?! Not to mention the biggest question of all…

White or wholemeal bread?

I am not going to go into much detail but the answer is… Go for wholemeal or rye bread!

Perfecting the wholemeal recipe.

Why? Because of the higher content of dietary fibre, low glycaemic index (slower raise of blood sugar levels), and 100% ground whole grains, all meaning that the macro- and micro-nutrients stored in bran are now available on your plate; not to mention protein, zinc, and iron found in wheat grain.

To put this into perspective, if white flour was to be produced, all the stored macro- and micro-nutrients a grain has at the outer part (the bran, endosperm and aleurone layer) are removed during milling, resulting in white flour with minimal nutritional value. That’s where flour fortification comes in; according to UK law, flour needs to be fortified with calcium, B-vitamins and iron.

Food for thought: wholemeal stoneground flour is exempt from fortification.

After learning all this, I found myself searching for different brands that make “honest” wholemeal bread. Most wholemeal loafs were disappointing, with small percentages of wheat flour, added granulated or even caramelised sugar, palm oil (not sustainable), rapeseed oil, high salt content and preservatives.

I started to wonder how difficult making my own bread was going to be. I had a long talk with my family explaining all my findings and we were all intrigued to find a solution. An hour later we decided to do a 30-day challenge. These types of challenges seem to be getting quite popular during the pandemic, so we gave it a go and agreed to only consume homemade wholemeal bread for a month. We ordered a 6kg bag of wholemeal stoneground flour from a farm just outside Athens, Greece, and hoped for the best.

The best Mediterranean toppings can include feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, olives, oregano and capers.

It’s been almost 4 months since then and we would never go back. Making bread has become a weekly ritual that everyone can get involved in. Sometimes we add olives or feta cheese or halved cherry tomatoes or even rosemary, to change things up.

As a student dietitian it’s important to understand how the human body works, the underlying biochemistry, energy production, macro- and micro-nutrients and so much more. In addition, being able to use nutrition in our favour is equally important. Understanding the origin of the food is key to why a high-quality wholemeal bread can satisfy you for longer compared to white bread.

Fresh homemade bread with a mix of all Meditteranean toppings that tastes just like summer.

Why do we need dietary fibre, and what types of food offer that? All these questions have started to make sense, as I progress through my first year on the MDiet course. I am excited to see what the future holds but I am already feeling grateful for choosing a program that offers me scientific as well as in depth nutrition knowledge that applies to real life scenarios.

After 4 months of baking our own bread, not to mention many failed attempts, I think I finally have found the perfect balanced recipe for homemade bread. Watch the video below to find out how you can make wholemeal beer bread (that takes less than 45 mins to make) as well as traditional wholemeal bread:

If you made it to the end, I want to thank you for reading though my very first blog. I also want to thank our amazing program lead Ms Susan Lennie for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences as well as Ms Alison Barnes and Dr Andrew Wilkinson who gave me the knowledge I needed to make some lifetime changes.

Until next time,


Mary Seacole: A Scientist by Nature

In October, as part of Black History Month in the UK, we ran a competition asking students to submit blog posts showcasing the contribution of scientists of African and Caribbean descent to the scientific world. In the run-up to February’s Black History Month in North America, we are delighted to share the winning blog by Cerys Francis-Garside, Stage 1 Master of Dietetics student.

Mary Seacole: A Scientist by Nature

Perhaps on first hearing her name, you would not choose to label her a scientist. Perhaps you might think “Oh I’ve heard of her… who is she again?”. To me, the story of Mary Seacole is one of the most important in science as it is one we can continue to learn from again and again.

When I was about 8 years old I was given an assignment to complete about Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp. It is true that the effect that Nightingale had on modern nursing could not go unrecognised, particularly her work in sanitation. In fact, to this day we still recognise her importance by naming conference centres-turned-hospitals “Nightingales”. Furthermore, I do not wish to make it a habit to bring one woman down in order to build another up, but in this case, there is more to the story than my primary school curriculum covered.

Mary Jane Seacole

In Victorian England, a biracial black woman enters the scene. Half Scottish, half Jamaican; a time of desperation would be required to allow Seacole to fulfil her aim for which she travelled across the world. I would have thought that the Crimean War would have been enough, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Seacole was turned away. Although historians can only speculate, it was not so cut and dry as solely being an issue of skin colour; in contrary to popular assumption, black people did live in Victorian London. Seacole was turned away for having received no British Nursing training and it is here that I would like to draw the first parallel to the 21st century, as this distinction did not mean that Seacole was unqualified.

Sketch of Mary Seacole by William Simpson, c. 1855

In Jamaica, her mother – a free woman – had taught her an invaluable trade. Like many doctresses in the West Indies, she had excellent knowledge of diseases, herbal remedies, midwifery, and nursing; much of which had been learnt whilst nursing the injuries of fellow slaves. Importantly, in Seacole’s own autobiography, she stated how in the late 1700s these Jamaican doctresses were already practicing a high standard of hygiene.

Seacole’s father was a lieutenant in the British Army, and this link made it possible for her to spend time observing military doctors healing soldiers recovering from prevalent diseases at the time. A reflection of biracial privilege perhaps? The military had a large presence in the West Indies at the time, and a lack of preparation for tropical diseases led them to Seacole’s door. She was also on the front lines of the cholera epidemic in 1850s Jamaica, and again in Panama in 1851, where she successfully treated the first person to fall ill from the disease. So here we have a highly qualified, educated, empathetic nurse, but a widowed woman, yes “only a little brown” [1] by her own admission, and not British by training.

In case I have focused too much on the side of her empathy, in writing this piece I have made the claim that Seacole was a scientist. During the Panama cholera outbreak, Seacole personally performed autopsies; studying, hypothesising and drawing conclusions from each patient she treated. She completed minor surgeries and avoided the use of opiates and lead(II) acetate (now known to be toxic), instead proposing alternative remedies in their place with mixed success which she would later reflect on. I hope this is enough to convince you.

The Start of the Crimean War

With decades of experience under her belt, the Crimean war began. Hundreds of soldiers were dying from cholera, many in cramped, unsanitary hospitals. As previously mentioned, Seacole was laughed away from joining the nurses going to Crimea. It is hard to imagine that the colour of her skin played no part in this, as the death rate of soldiers soared from a variety of complications.

As each route Seacole attempted to take to Crimea was blocked by prejudice of some description, we find ourselves back with Florence Nightingale. I would not be able to explain Nightingale’s issues with Seacole better than she did herself:

“I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question!)… Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness – also much drunkenness and improper conduct” [2]

Again, we can only speculate the truth behind her opinion. Nightingale would go on to express gratitude and fond views of Seacole, despite wishing her nurses had no association with her. Eventually, Seacole found passage to the front line, and nursed many soldiers with her knowledge of disease, military injury, nutrition, and empathy.

Seacole’s nursing activities in the Crimean War were downplayed by the satirical magazine Punch in 1857 – vivandière is the French name for “canteen keepers”

Her Legacy

The life of Mary Seacole is one that continues to divide. After her death, she was forgotten for a century. Historians can claim that she only served “tea and lemonade” [3], or that she merely comforted those as they passed away, but I find her legacy far greater.

One American soldier described her as “so many shades removed from being entirely black” [1], which does not only read as an indication of her skin tone, but also a slight to characteristic perceptions of black people. Regarding the issue of colourism, it is likely that Seacole was seen as more acceptable. To this day, mixed race and light-skinned black people continue to be seen as the “moderate” choice in a world where diversity is foremost a buzzword.

Mary Seacole’s experience as a single biracial woman will always be relevant during this current time. Whatever it is that you draw from her story, I hope you do infer something. We are scientists, after all.

Interested in reading more about Mary Seacole? Check out the following sources cited in this blog!

  1. Seacole M. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands: Edited by W. J. S With an Introductory Preface by W. H. Russell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1857.
  2. Chang T-F. Creolizing the White Woman’s Burden: Mary Seacole Playing ‘Mother’ at the Colonial Crossroads between Panama and Crimea. College literature. 2017;44:527-557.
  3. McDonald L. Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth. Toronto: Iguana Books. 2014.

My role as an EDI rep

By Alex Washington, MSci Biomedical Genetics

For a little while now I’ve been looking for ways to help the LGBT+ and disabled communities but was never sure where to go or what I could do. I do still want to find other ways to help, but I found my starting point as an EDI (Equality, Disability, and Inclusivity) representative in the School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences.

How I got the role

I originally applied to be the LGBT+ rep, thinking “well I’m really queer so that’ll work,” but Dr Parry, head of the EDI committee at the time, thought I’d be better suited for the marginalised genders role, seeing as I’m very vocal about being trans. I didn’t have much of a choice when I was 19 going on 12 but I’m still open about it now, when I easily pass as a cis man (not looking quite 20 yet but getting there).

I am also the rep for disabilities, which wasn’t a part of the plan, but I’m very happy how it turned out. I have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and I know that it’s a serious disability, but a lot of times people brush it off and treat it as “not a real mental disability.” Because of this, a lot of the time I’m scared to speak up about it, in fear I won’t be taken seriously.

Me on my 19th vs me on my 20th (I had a cake, birthday bread was more iconic), thanks Puberty 2.0

At our first EDI meeting, it was mentioned our disabilities rep was a final year student, and so we’d have to find a replacement for when she finished university over summer. At that point I volunteered to be a co-rep with her until she left and take over the role afterwards if we didn’t have any other volunteers, and I’m really glad I did so. My fears of not having my ADHD taken seriously are very real, but they never reflected reality while working with the EDI team.

What I did with the role – it’s more than a way to get a free hoodie

Having worked side by side with the Faculty of Medical Sciences since February, I’m happy to say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far in my time as a rep, as I managed to make positive changes both to school- and university-wide policy, and to specific students dealing with LGBT+ and disability issues. From simple things like ensuring the lecture slides are more accessible to students, to more serious matters like how DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) is addressed in placement talks. After an extremely homophobic survey got sent out to students, we even got the university to change how student surveys are approved to be sent out.

Talk to us

From my experiences I can say that the School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences and Faculty of Medical Sciences are happy to support their students, but a lot of times issues can go unnoticed. Being a representative, I can highlight to the staff, at a professional capacity, any issues students bring up to me, and then address them. Once a solution is presented, I haven’t once seen excuses be made to avoid fixing the problem, no matter how big or small it was.

For this reason, I would urge any student that is having an issue adjusting to life at university to speak to either me or one of the other EDI reps – whoever is most suitable – so we can support you and help make the university experience more accessible.

EDI rep contact information can be found on the Biomedical and Biomolecular Sciences Stage 1-4 Community modules on Canvas.

Dietetics at Newcastle: Our first semester

By Millie Elcock and Cerys Francis-Garside.

Hi everyone!  We are first year students on Newcastle’s brand new 4 year Masters of Dietetics programme. Hopefully, this blog post will help you understand what dietetics is all about, the application process and reasons to get excited about dietetics.

What a year to start university, with all our lectures and seminars online! We are yet to go on campus or meet our course mates in person but hopefully that will change soon. Learning virtually can be challenging and frustrating but as it is all we know, we are discovering there are actually many advantages to studying online and certain aspects that we would like to continue such as the recorded lectures that allow us to go at our own pace.

We end most our lectures in need of a snack… following the Eatwell Guide of course!

Before we talk more about what we’re doing now, perhaps we should take you back to the beginning and explain why we chose to study dietetics.

Firstly, one of the main reasons for choosing dietetics was a love for food and cooking, and trying new foods and experimenting with them. This love for food then developed into an interest around the effect of food on health; how food can be used to maximise health by focusing on the food’s macro- and micro-nutrient content. The combination of food and its relation to health is what a dietetics degree is all about, and translating the science into advice is a key role of a Dietitian.

Furthermore, there is an overwhelming amount of ‘nutrition advice’ on social media and online, which can easily be misleading, so having the knowledge and qualifications to be able to know fact from fiction is a huge advantage. Dietitians must cut through all of the misinformation on the internet, and work only with the facts. Even an interest in nutrition will lead family and friends to your door, asking about their diets!

This passion for food and health led us to apply for the course. The application process appeared daunting but, if you take it step by step, it’s not as bad as you may first think! Gaining work experience in dietetics was difficult as opportunities to get into hospitals were limited. We both had different experiences with this:

Millie – First year Dietetics student with an interest in diabetes, obesity and paediatrics.

I, Millie, managed to arrange an afternoon shadowing a dietitian in a hospital which was really insightful and allowed me to see how they deliver their care and how they convey information, that could be quite confusing, to patients in an easy and efficient manner. I also attended a dietetic awareness day which highlighted the different areas a Dietitian can specialise in.

Cerys – First year Dietetics student excited to explore the many paths a degree in Dietetics can open up!

Dietitians are always interested in getting more people into the profession, so for me, Cerys, having a conversation with a Dietitian really consolidated for me that this was what I wanted to do. Any experience you can gain in a health or social setting will be useful in applying, or considering whether you enjoy this kind of work.

The interview process was a good chance to meet fellow candidates and gave us one of our first opportunities to meet like-minded individuals, which was actually really enjoyable. The staff members interviewing were all very friendly and welcoming, which will help to make you feel more relaxed. The lecturers are just trying to see if you are the right fit for the course and the university. Don’t forget, you should also be seeing if you think it is the right fit for you.

Looking back now, it seems like a long time ago all of the panic in applying but it was definitely all worth it as the degree programme has been very engaging and sparked our interest in dietetics even more. We are currently in week 8 of teaching and we are doing 4 modules simultaneously which gives us variation in what we are learning from the Human Organ Systems to DNA to Macro- and Micro-nutrients. The first weeks of teaching have developed our interest and also reinforced the fact that a keen interest in science is just as important as an interest in food!

A degree in dietetics could take you down so many career paths; research, acute care, or in the community. Each of those areas are diverse and varied in their own ways too. Dietetics is an exciting field to enter, with so much to learn and our knowledge being able to help so many. After all, everyone eats!

My placement year at Leica Biosystems

By Alexandra Lazarova

A placement with a Cancer Diagnostics company – yes please!

I’m studying BSc Biomedical Genetics with Professional Placement Year and knew I wanted to do a placement year since my first year of university, when I attended a placement talk given by several companies. A year and a half later, after applying to several companies, I found myself in an interview for a placement year at Leica Biosystems in Newcastle…and ended up getting the position!

Leica Biosystems: Advancing Cancer Diagnostics

Continue reading “My placement year at Leica Biosystems”

My Final Year Project

By Liza Petrova, BSc (Hons) Biomedical Sciences

Hi everyone! In January I began working on my final year project. In this blog post we will peek into a real neuroscience laboratory, check out the quirky equipment inside and I will share some details about experiments I do every day.

A bit of background

My project is about alpha-synucleinopathies, which are conditions where a protein called alpha synuclein (ASYN) is mutated and forms toxic “clumps” in the brain. Examples of alpha-synucleinopathies are Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Image of hand shaking whilst holding a glass.
Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Alessandro Grandini on Adobe Stock
Continue reading “My Final Year Project”