Athena SWAN is open for discussion

Posted by Suzanne Madgwick

Following on from the success of our Athena SWAN Bronze Award we began an open discussion on social media by posting an article about its principles and practice, the good and the bad! It’s been pretty clear that not everyone is entirely happy, some with the charter in principle and others with actions in ICaMB related to the charter. The issue is polarised both nationally and within the department. We certainly don’t want to shy away from this and so we asked you for your anonymous views.

The one consistent thread that emerged again from this feedback is that we all agree on the importance of gender equality in the workplace, this has never been in doubt. HOWEVER opinions on other aspects vary wildly, you’ll see from the following matrix that we don’t even all hold the same views on the AS team.

This has been a very productive exercise with which we can develop our future direction. Thank you for taking the time to post your comments. We’ve put together a team summary statement  and a full comments matrix to highlight our future approach and the types of conversations we are having. We have also organised the comments into a few main topics which are available by clicking on the pages below for a quick view.

We hope we can continue to openly discuss. So have a look at our statement for a more general view, the summaries focusing on the topics that interest you most and please do let us know what you think.

Positive discriminationPositive Discrimination

                                                         A Box ticking exerciseBox ticking 


Butterfly programmeThe Butterfly Program




AS5Having children harms your career

                                                        A historical problem?Historical problem?


Don’t forget to take the time to look through the full matrix. This is a working document that will continue to improve through open discussions and with your valuable feedback and help, so please leave your comments!

Thanks again

The AS team.

Not Athena SWAN again! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In one of today’s dual posts, we get the personal opinion of Suzanne Madgwick, a research fellow in ICaMB, about her experiences and the pros and cons of Athena SWAN.

The following opinions are all my own and not necessarily those of ICaMB, other good opinions are available; no men or women were harmed during the preparation of this article.

4th of November 2013 was the first time I heard the term Athena SWAN. An email dropped into academic inboxes, a message which has no doubt been rolled out in one form or another across countless institutions throughout the country. Something along the lines of: Inequalities between male and female academics which may exist need to be addressed ….. For many granting bodies this is becoming a major issue …….. NIHR have made it very clear that only institutions with at least an Athena Swan Silver Award will be eligible ……… others may follow …….. Self-Assessment Team …….. Application ……Volunteers’



Three thoughts ran through my head

Primarily confusion, in this position I can’t think of a time when I have felt discriminated against. Where has the notion that gender inequality exists in ICaMB come from? Whether I succeed or fail is based on many things; academic ability, resilience, character, free personal life choices and of course luck among others. I cannot currently identify a factor that could be singled out as a gender barrier. Sure, we work in a traditionally male-dominated environment but this is changing, gradually yes, but as far as I can see without conflict or resistance. Might it then be damaging to try and force this?

Secondly, why is there a possibility that government and charity money may in future only be awarded to institutions with a specific award? Is this necessarily the most responsible spend of money? When did the best research team stop being the one with the best idea? Given that there is increasing evidence to suggest that the most productive teams exist within flexible, progressive environments with good levels of female and male representation, again, are we not moving towards this anyway?

My final thought at the time was ‘Uh oh, I’m bound to be ‘asked’ to volunteer for our self-assessment team, this will be awkward’. But I reasoned that whilst I failed to see the existence of a problem I should help the department in an application. The Athena SWAN charter has us backed into a corner and whether I agree with it or not, in some way we will all benefit from an award.

Picture417 months on, I am now trapped in the frustrations of a Jekyll and Hyde type situation. I cannot ignore the fact that I still have these same objections and many more to boot. But I am also pleased to have become increasingly aware of the immense good that can come from a team striving to make improvements in relation to points 2 and 3 covered by the Athena SWAN charter.

The Good; in particular, but not limited to; mentoring schemes for both personal development and career progression, events for early career researchers to help identify and inform funding opportunities, promotion of flexible working hours, technical support and relief from additional duties for staff returning from leave, the formation of a team to identify, sponsor and encourage people who are able and talented but perhaps lack the self-promotion needed to reach the next level ……. and so on and so on. Brilliant! Everybody who has the ability and would like to, has an equal opportunity to stay in science. Creating a more flexible, inspirational working environment for all seems like a great idea, but continually lumping this together with ‘women’s issues’ is putting off a significant proportion of our workforce.

The Bad; nothing listed here is simply a gender issue, they are team issues and I am frustrated that all of these great positive changes are eclipsed by a much more visible yet awkward approach to addressing point 1.

Yes, there is evidence to suggest that women are sometimes a little more risk averse, less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, but this is by no means exclusive. If we have a mechanism in place to champion and support the different needs of all people, each and every time they need it, is this not equality without the need to keep using the word “women”? I can’t help thinking that there is a good dose of hypocrisy in all the ‘positive actions’ and events which are seen to be just for women. In the short term it’s generating friction and in the long term it certainly doesn’t seem like the best strategy when preaching fair play.


Athena SWAN is suffering an image crisis. To the people who are not engaging in the initiative, I can’t blame you. I’m uncomfortable with the image of Athena SWAN and I would assume I’m supposed to be a benefactor. Despite all the good, we are alienating people; they assume it’s not for them, or like me, they don’t see the barrier. Can we consider for a moment that when we’re feeling energised and determined in our careers that it might be a little insulting to tell us we are being discriminated against and may need extra help? Prior to Athena SWAN I felt that my position was born of the factors that I have listed at the beginning of this article. Only now do I look around and wonder.

I’m beginning to get the feeling I have an ‘Athena SWAN’ label. I don’t want to highlight anybody in particular but I am not alone here. It doesn’t take much of an internet search to find high profile women making comments about feeling that recently they’ve been asked to speak more and more about women’s issues and less and less about science.

Of course women are different, 80% of us will have children and not even the power of Athena SWAN can switch over the uterus. But my children are my children, my choice, not a dent in my or my husband’s career. I have taken several years off; I am several years behind a peer who has not taken time out and this is as it should be. But, also as it should be, there were options available to me to return to science. I’m very pleased to report how well supported I have been in this, as I’m sure are the cohort of men who have also gained Career Re-Entry Fellowships.

The Ugly; the corridor murmuring. I’m not going to participate in anything to do with Athena SWAN but I’m going to moan about it anyway. But perhaps people feel they can’t speak up, the ugly side of political correctness. Please challenge us, we may agree with you. I am reminded of Hilary Lappin-Scott’s final phrase at last year’s equality in academia event “best use of all our talent”. Our self-assessment team is not balanced. We are getting lots of things right but we are also getting some things wrong, these are then the points that go noticed. We have certainly tried to concentrate on charter points two and three, but I for one feel very uncomfortable about the fact that we are hamstrung by the need to address all three.

The Leaky Pipeline; we can’t deny the ‘leaky pipeline,’ the drop off in the proportion of female scientists who progress from Postdoc to PI (though current ICaMB fellows are 47% female); the Athena SWAN initiative began with a need to address this. Nevertheless, we also can’t assume that we know all the reasons for the leak. Identifying these reasons is a big part of the challenge faced by the Athena SWAN self-assessment team. As crazy as it might sound, we do not all want to stay in science (though Bob if you are reading, I do). I have recently read that 88% of female PhD students do not want to stay in academia, but then neither do 79% of male PhD students. Surely through sponsorship, mentoring, flexible working etc., we can make sure that everybody who would like to stay in science has an equal opportunity based on merit, without making this an alienating gender issue.

This brings me back to our Athena Swan event last month where Professor Helen Arthur, Jill Golightly and Professor Melanie Welham all gave highly entertaining, outstanding talks about three very different very successful career paths. Sitting in my chair at the end of the afternoon I felt thoroughly inspired not because they are three inspirational women but because they are 3 inspirational people……. Only to then stand up and feel disheartened as turned and noticed the proportion of men in the audience. Have we done this? Has the Image of Athena SWAN has done this? With this in mind ……



Discovery at the Discovery Museum



Great Hall

Great Hall

Ready to replicate the success of last year’s Away Day, it was en masse outing time for ICaMB again! Time to find out who all the new faces are, and to find out exactly what that person you have a ‘hello and a nod in the corridor’ relationship with actually does at the bench all day. This year we headed to the Great Hall of the Discovery Museum. Despite the leaking roof caused by the downpour outside and the sometimes dodgy acoustics the day was still a success.

Serious faces, this is science

Serious faces, this is science

ICaMB is a fast paced, constantly evolving institute. Everybody is busy with their own research, making a break and a get-together once in a while a vital part of reminding ourselves of the vast range of expertise and diverse set of interests beavering away in our labs and offices. The answer to that tricky problem or that elusive technique is quite possibly just a few yards away.

But also fun!

But also fun!

With that in mind, this year’s Away Day felt particularly important as we welcomed 8 new academic groups to ICaMB from CAV (Campus for Aging and Vitality) as well new IRES fellows and a list of other recent recruits. Drs Victor Korolchuk and Gabi Saretzki from the CAV both spoke at the away day about their interests in neurodegenerative diseases and the role of oxidative stress in the ageing process.

As ever the day was kicked off by the Institute director, Bob (Professor Robert Lightowlers), who gave us a taster of ICaMB’s growth and success stories over the past year. Without breaking into the tune of that well known Christmas song; 7 Vacation Studentships, 6 BBSRC awards, 5 MRC awards, 2 Wolfson awards, 2 Senior Investigator awards and 1 Henry Dale ………. Not to mention all the promotions, outstanding research papers and commercial contracts = 1 happy Bob.











A cell-tastic morning then ensued: the completely dispensable nature of bacterial cell walls (Professor Jeff Errington); the role of NF-kB in the pathogenesis of lymphoma (Dr Jill Hunter); and the cell death independent functions of inhibitors of apoptosis (new IRES recruit Dr Niall Kenneth). The session was wrapped up by Dr Paula Salgado summarising 3.5 years of structural C. difficile research in 15min. Some feat Paula!

Of course just as last year, an absolute highlight of the day were the six, animated, three minute thesis presentations by our brave PhD students ……..  Soon to be followed by the look of horror on several Professorial faces when it was suggested by PAN!C that at next year’s Away Day we have a session of 3 minute PI pitches! We can’t ignore the demands of our PhD students now can we? And congratulations to Mandeep Atwal from the Cowell/Austin lab who against steep competition was awarded the prize for best three minute thesis.

The possibilities of alginate bread?

The possibilities of alginate bread?

A spot of oxidative stress and the evolution of peroxidases by Dr Alison Day, and some lunch completed the morning’s discovery. Though half an hour later and Dr Peter Chater had us all wishing we’d had an alginate packed lunch (and a go with the model gut!). Perhaps the Pearson lab can cater next year’s event? If it’s good enough for the One Show it’s good enough for the ICaMB Away Day.

A major focus of the Away Day is not just to learn about the breadth of exciting research carried out in our institute, but also to learn all about the very latest techniques and expertise ripe for exploitation. This year the focal point of new techniques came from Dr Alex Laude and the Bio-Imaging facility, with some beautiful images and super resolution microscopy techniques, which again left a number of the audience wanting a turn!

P1000375An afternoon transcribing and translating with Dr Danny Castro-Roa; learning about how the crucial nature of cell polarity means we really don’t mix up our arse from our elbow (thank you new IRES recruit Dr Josana Rodriguez); and last but by no means least, how on earth all that DNA manages to faithfully copy and repackage itself time after time from yet another new recruit, Professor Jonathan Higgins.

This completes our diverse and entertaining line-up, just leaving enough time for complementary wine, and the amusement as speakers and audience alike embarrass themselves at the ICaMB quiz (and I hear also in the pub afterwards).

More ICaMB winners! Doctoral Thesis Prize Success.

‘The Faculty of Medical Sciences Doctoral Thesis Prize is a mark of recognition of an outstanding level of achievement by the end of a research doctorate. Prizes are awarded biannually on a very limited basis following nomination by thesis examiners.’ Dr Tim Cheek, Post Graduate Tutor

Doctoral Bling!

Doctoral Bling!

Prizes were first awarded in 2009 and included two ICaMB students, Holly Anderson and Monika Olahova. This was followed in 2011 by David Adams and in 2012 by Graham Scholefield. However, 2013, was an absolute triumph, with three out of only five potential Faculty Prizes being bestowed on theses submitted by ICaMB students. Dr Andrew Foster from Professor Nigel Robinson’s Lab (currently a post-doc in the Robinson lab in Durham), Dr Fiona Cuskin from Professor Harry Gilbert’s lab (currently a post-doc in the Gilbert lab) and Dr Kristoffer Winther from Professor Kenn Gerdes lab (currently a post-doc in Gerdes lab). With their new roles keeping them busy, our 3 winners only just managed to get together recently to be presented with their medals by the Dean of Post Graduate studies. Andrew and Fiona tell us about their past and present research.

Dr Andrew Foster

Dr Andrew Foster

Abstract by Dr Andrew Foster. Achieving metal selectivity is often more difficult than one might first imagine as the inherent chemical properties of metals often mean that a metalloprotein will preferentially select an incorrect metal over a correct one.

My PhD studies involved understanding metal selectivity among a group of proteins called metal sensors. These metal sensing, transcriptional regulators control the expression of genes of metal homeostasis and therefore influence the metallation of other proteins within the cell. I characterised a novel nickel sensor InrS and showed for the first time how metal selectivity could correlate with relative metal affinity across a class of proteins. The nickel sensor InrS has a tighter nickel affinity than the other sensors within the cell, thus InrS responds to nickel activating



a nickel efflux gene so that the buffered nickel concentration within the cell does not rise high enough to mis-populate the sensors of other metals.

During my PhD studies our lab moved from Newcastle to Durham University but I remained registered at Newcastle. This move was obviously very disruptive but at the same time made me more focussed and determined to make a success of the work in spite of the disruption.

Busy Andrew

Busy Andrew

I am currently working with Professor Nigel Robinson at Durham University. My current work seeks to understand how the affinity of a metal sensor relates to the available concentration of the sensed element within the cell. Our model system involves the nickel sensor I discovered, InrS, and nickel supply to hydrogenase, a nickel enzyme capable of hydrogen production. Metal supply to enzymes will be a key biotechnological challenge as we seek to utilise microbial factories for the production of fuel and other useful products.

Dr Fiona Cuskin.

Dr Fiona Cuskin.

Abstract by Dr Fiona Cuskin. The use of complex carbohydrates in the food industry is wide and varied; a few examples include the use of polysaccharides and oligosaccharides as gelling agents, emulsifiers and fat replacements. Small oligosaccharides are being increasingly used as prebiotics for the vast array of “friendly” bacteria in the gut of both humans and animals. The addition of small fructose oligosaccharides by the food industry into yoghurts, amongst other foods, has been shown to promote a healthy gut flora, which in turn has a positive effect on the host gut health and immune system.

Having been in the lab for just a month my supervisor abandoned me and moved to America. Not to worry I tracked him down and moved there too for a few months. The subject of my PhD was to investigate how bacteria use enzymes called glycoside hydrolases to breakdown complex carbohydrates for utilisation. Part of this was to characterise a glycoside hydrolase that degraded the fructose containing polysaccharide, levan.This glycoside hydrolase contained two

Happy gut!

Happy gut?

modules, the catalytic module and non-catalytic carbohydrate-binding module (CBM). CBMs are usually attached to enzymes that catalyse the breakdown of recalcitrant insoluble substrates to help target the catalytic module to the right carbohydrate. However, the CBM characterised in my PhD bound soluble fructan polysaccharides and potentiated the activity of the catalytic module ~100 fold. This work adds valuable knowledge to how bacteria breakdown complex polysaccharides. This knowledge can be exploited to better inform the use of prebiotics and to also choose enzymes that are efficient for the production of small oligosaccharides from polysaccharides.

We are very proud of our current winners. Who will be in the next batch of Doctoral Thesis Prize winners, adding to a growing list of ICaMB winners?


Deep Impact

Alginate bread on a pedestal under show-biz lights

Alginate bread on a pedestal under show-biz lights.


Another excellent post by ICaMB’s Dr Matthew Wilcox as the fame of alginate spreads and seaweed bread goes on tour!

Well, I was kindly invited along to the BBSRC Fostering Impact awards ceremony in London a couple of weeks ago and although I wasn’t up for anything, Newcastle University were.

Fostering impact is a scheme run by the BBSRC to capture the economic and social impact of research funded by them.  There are three competitions that fit the fostering impact scheme; ‘innovator of the year’, ‘activating impact’ and ‘excellence with impact’.  The first is for an individual researcher, the second is for the knowledge exchange teams and the final award is for research organisations (runs from 2013 – 2015).

Outside eventInside eventThe knowledge exchange and commercialisation team at Newcastle University has changed substantially over the past couple of years.  What was once a centralised Business Development Directorate has now become the Research Enterprise Service, comprised of three teams, each embedded in one of the Faculties.  Each Institute or School now has their own dedicated business development manager (BDM), with ICAMB’s BDM being Laura Rush (who is very nice).  They are now much easier to contact, whether it’s just a quick question or the drafting of patents.

Home baking

Home baking practice.

Newcastle’s application for the Activating Impact award was submitted back in October 2013 and used the wonderful research done by the beautiful people of ICAMB as its basis.  In January the RES team found out that they had successfully made it to the final five (from 18) and through to the grand final in London.  Newcastle was up against the knowledge exchange and commercialisation teams from King’s college London, Queen Mary University of London, University College London and University of Aberdeen. One of the requirements of the competition was to bring along someone to the final who had worked with RES, a ‘user’ (according to the BBSRC).  They also wanted an iconic object?!  Alginate bread it was then.  Back in the kitchen I went. How many loaves would I need to feed the people there? Two should do it, right?

Martin and Laura on the train gearing up for competition.

Martin and Laura on the train gearing up for competition.

In London Martin Cox presented the case for Newcastle in front of a panel of scientists, business types and other technology transferers, assembled by the BBSRC. Demonstrating what Newcastle does well, how BDM’s have been embedded into each institute and also what they would do with the money if we won (£100k).  He also described the additional internal funds that are available to help activate impact.  FMS has two funds available; the first is to help with data collection for translational grant applications, the second is to support further claims in patent applications.  The two internal grants can both potentially support a post doc salary for three months, plus consumables.

Dengue fever carrying mosquito

Dengue fever carrying mosquito.

The awards ceremony combined the ‘innovator of the year’ and ‘activating impact’.  I got a glitzy stand for my bread and also had the chance to look around the other pretty amazing stuff that was on display, like Dr Luke Alphey’s work. Luke ended up being named both social innovator and overall innovator of the year for his work on the genetic control of pests, including the dengue fever carrying mosquito.

I even got to meet the new (ish) CEO of the BBSRC, Professor Jackie Hunter, who was definitely not snapped stuffing free stuff into her bag!

BBSRC's CEO Jackie Hunter enjoying the exhibition

On the right BBSRC’s CEO Professor Jackie Hunter enjoying the exhibition.

Unfortunately Newcastle did not win, but being down to the last five of the competition is brilliant and should give confidence to ICAMB scientists that when help is required in achieving impact (social or economic), we have a great team to help.

Queen Mary University of London, whose entry was also being supported by a previous BBSRC Enterprise Fellow and King’s College London, ended up being joint winners each scooping £100k.

Perhaps if a few more of the world leading researchers in ICaMB engaged with the Enterprise team, they might not have to only take some eejit and his bread to the competition next year and increase NU’s chance of winning!

Skinny Seaweed


Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese (WHO). Dr Matthew Wilcox from Professor Jeff Pearson’s lab tells us about his research into the slimming powers of brown seaweed. A simple and sustainable food additive. 

“Seaweed bread” by Dr Matt Wilcox

Seaweed bread

Seaweed bread

Over 40% of the calories in your diet can come from fat (mainly triacylglycerol) and you digest and absorb between 95 and 100% of all the fat that you eat!  There is one enzyme (pancreatic lipase) that accounts for 80% of all fat digestion and if the activity of this enzyme can be reduced then we will absorb less fat from our diet.

The Pearson lab has shown that alginate (a dietary fibre extracted from brown seaweed) can reduce the activity of pancreatic lipase by up to 80%.  If you don’t digest fat you can’t absorb it.

Times pictureLipase is a recognised target as a treatment for obesity. In 2010 the pharmaceutical drug orlistat (Xenical) which acts on this enzyme accounted for 98% of all UK prescriptions for the treatment of obesity. The remaining 2% was for Sibutramine which has since been withdrawn. We are therefore heavily reliant upon one drug which can have some rather unpleasant side effects (brown trouser syndrome) greatly reducing patient compliance. So even though it’s the only pharmaceutical drug available, not everyone who is prescribed it will actually take it!

Tasteless alginate is already found in a number of foods (E400-405), salad dressings, ice-creams ..... even beer.

Tasteless alginate is already found in a number of foods (E400-405), salad dressings, ice-creams ….. even beer.

Thankfully there is still hope (and clean trousers) since some, if not all of the side effects of orlistat can be eliminated if it is taken with a high fibre product. Luckily, it just so happens that alginate is not only a lipase inhibitor but is also a dietary fibre itself, and to top it all off makes great bread!

Most commercial alginates come from seaweed, hence the seaweed bread.  The extraction process is relatively simple and you end up with a dry white (ish) powder, great to use in products with flour. There is no ‘seaweed’ taste (although seaweed bread is actually quite nice) and in blinded tests people actually prefer the alginate bread over standard white bread.  Likely to be due to the retention of moisture so it’s like eating fresh bread, even if it’s a day or so old

Seaweed culture and harvesting is big business around the world from the Shetlands to Shanghai and can even be seen from space. The extracted alginates are already used in the food industry, just not necessarily the right ones or in the right concentrations. The majority we test in the lab are from Norwegian or Scottish seaweeds.

The  latest technology in seaweed harvesting.

The latest technology in seaweed harvesting.

The alginate project in the lab started nearly eight years ago with simple colourimetric assays. These initial experiments showed that certain seaweed alginates can inhibit lipase. From this we developed a model of the upper gastrointestinal tract to test the alginates in a system as close to a human as possible without being human. Our model gut has now been used to show that alginate is released from the bread (amongst other things) and has also featured in a BBC3 program. We have just finished the first proof of concept trial in humans, so there will be more on this story to follow.

The Pearson Lab line-up

The Pearson Lab line-up

The big fat truth is that fat in food is often vital for the enjoyment, try eating cream crackers without butter (3 cracker challenge).  It’s hard!  So, if we can still get the enjoyment but not all the calories from our food then we can significantly reduce the amount of calories we take in.  It’s not just a reduction in the absorption of fat in the food that contains the alginate; it’s the entire meal that you eat.  Not that you should eat loads of burgers but if we could put alginate into burger buns then you would reduce the amount of fat absorbed from the burger, the cheese, the fries and the ridiculously oversized milkshake that you have with it.

Low fat lunch?

Low fat lunch?

Perhaps that’s the best way to end a blog with the thought of a ridiculously oversized milkshake and also by thanking the BBSRC for all their funding and support!

Matt’s PhD was a BBSRC CASE studentship sponsored by Technostics

This work has been patented

Full Links

The patent:


Matthew Wilcox:

Jeff Pearson: