University policy: evidence and evaluation

The ICaMBlog this week features an article from Professor Bernard Connolly. Bernard is retiring today (March 31st 2016) and so we asked him if he could write a post on ‘anything he wanted’. Here Bernard discusses his frustrations with the frequent lack of evidence based policy making in universities.

Prof ConnollyI began my academic career as an undergraduate student at Sheffield University in 1973, I finish as the Professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle in 2016. Possibly the biggest change to have occurred over this forty or so years is the degree of surveillance and monitoring to which everybody at the University is subject. During my undergraduate studies attendance at lectures was voluntary and it was up to me to decide if, and when, I should consult my tutor. While a PhD student and postgraduate there was no concept of mandated and recorded meetings with my supervisors and the only reports I was expected to prepare were first drafts of eventual publications. When starting as a lecturer at Southampton University, I had about five minutes with the Head of Department, was shown an office and left to get on with it. I had no formal meetings with my “line manager” (indeed this concept did not exist) and I was prepared for undergraduate teaching with a single three hour session. Today undergraduate attendance at lectures is recorded as are compulsory meetings with tutors; sanctions are applied for non-compliance. PhD students have multiple supervisors/mentors and are required to record compulsory meetings with them. A number of intermediate reports must be produced and assessed along the road to graduation with a doctoral degree. Staff have a PDR once a year and are required to complete forms detailing the work they perform and how they occupy every hour at, and away from, work. Although I personally prefer the old system, this article is not aimed at discussing which is better. Rather, it is to enquire how the University implements policy changes, often introduced at the cost of great disruption, to ensure they are based on best current practice. Further, how are the outcomes of these changes determined and any benefits measured?

Conquest quote

A few years ago all undergraduate teachers were informed that they would be required to use the “buddy system”. Here, two academics are paired and required to attend, and write a report, on one of their buddie’s lectures. Although not onerous, I enquired about evidence that such a scheme was beneficial. After much badgering I was eventually sent a link to two publications. The first, admittedly in a peer reviewed journal, consisted of about ten subjects beingcartoon asked if they found the scheme helpful. This paper could be used as an example of how not to do science and I can only assume that the author, a young medical doctor, felt that any publication, no matter how poor, would benefit his future career. The second was not even peer reviewed, rather a trenchant statement of a scheme supporter bereft of any evidence. The purpose of the buddying is assuredly to improve undergraduate teaching and, as we survey our students almost to destruction, I enquired if an improvement in quality had been observed. I received no reply and concluded that this scheme was started on the whim of the dean involved, based on little evidence and with no mechanism in place to observe its consequences. This example is trivial but similar considerations apply to the much more consequential issues addressed in the first paragraph. I have yet to be presented with evidence that constant monitoring and assessing of students and staff is based on rigorous studies that clearly demonstrate positive effects. We survey our undergraduates continually and for postgraduates and postdoctoral workers have data on their accomplishments (do PhDs graduate on time, how many publications result from Bernard phototheir work, what are their future job successes). But this data is never correlated with policy changes to measure their efficacy. Similarly for staff, following the introduction of PDR, has teaching improved, has grant funding increased, have more and better publications resulted? Overall is the University a better place in which to work, perhaps monitored by absenteeism rates, which correlate well with staff happiness. As academics we must insist that anybody introducing new policies should present the evidence underpinning the change. A system for monitoring outcomes, which places minimal burden on students and staff, should be demonstrably in place. While benefits at the individual level may be small they should surely be apparent over the entire University body. Finally anybody introducing procedures based on little evidence or not leading to favourable outcomes should rapidly be removed from any position of authority.



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.

The gender agenda: ICaMB welcomes the Athena Swan debate.

If you work in academia, then undoubtedly you will have heard something about the Athena SWAN charter over the last year or so. Athena SWAN is a national scheme that aims to rebalance the gender ratio in higher education and research, with a particular focus on employment in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) subjects. Like other research institutes, ICaMB has been engaged in this initiative, and were delighted to receive a bronze award when the results were recently announced.

However, Athena SWAN is not without its controversies. Although most (if not all) academics agree that the gender imbalance is a problem, not everybody agrees on the causes or on the best way to fix it. New research is published on the gender gap every week, but even this can prove contradictory (see for example here, here, here and here).

Today, we get two different personal opinions on Athena SWAN from members of the ICaMB Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team. First, we hear from Suzanne Madgwick, who says she doesn’t feel she has experienced the kind of discrimination that is often posited as a major cause of academic gender inequality.

Next we get the view of Nancy Rios, who tells us more about the gender imbalance, the Athena SWAN charter, how ICaMB has responded to it and what kind of changes can be put in place to make a positive impact.

On the ICaMBlog team, we are aware that this issue is not without controversy. However, we believe that the best way forward, as we proceed towards applying for silver and ultimately gold Athena SWAN status, is to have an open debate about these issues. We’d like to hear your opinions on this subject and are keen to hear from anyone who would also like to write an article on this subject. Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.

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 ……



Athena SWAN – deconstructed

In the second of today’s dual posts, we hear from Nancy Rios, Athena SWAN project officer for Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences. Nancy explains why Athena SWAN is necessary, and how ICaMB aims to change its gender imbalance.

Athena SWAN – so what’s it all about? According to the tin, Athena SWAN is a charter set Bronze awardup by women’s networks to tackle the under-representation of women in STEMM. The model is simple – we analyse our local situation, evaluate our working practices and then develop strategies and actions to make the workplace fairer for everyone. Universities and their departments can apply for either a Bronze, Silver or Gold award (renewable every three years). ICaMB has recently been awarded a Bronze award. So far, so good.

Why Athena SWAN? Let’s start with the evidence.

In FMS, around 60% of undergraduate students are women.

Figure 1


In ICAMB, approximately 50% of PhD students, 40% of Postdocs, 50% of Fellows and 15% of permanent academic staff, including only 10% of Professors, are women.

Figure 2

Figure 3

These numbers aren’t unusual. In fact the alarming drop out rate and low proportion of women in senior, strategic positions is typical in STEMM departments in universities all over the country. So there’s the statistical evidence – women scientists aren’t progressing in academia at the same rate as men.

Lab picturesSo why does all this matter? Why make gender equality something that should be addressed in our workplace? Being concerned about the loss of women scientists isn’t about being politically correct and nor is it about feminism. Athena SWAN is about developing a competitive and effective workplace and making the most of all of our talent for the benefit of the University and for science. It’s about becoming a modern and dynamic employer that understands that women and men both become parents or carers and both make great scientists. Quality needs diversity. Recent research shows that teams and boards that include women make better decisions and perform better in business. That’s why diversity is a priority for our university.

OK, but why are so many women leaving? Maybe women just don’t want to stay in science. You can’t chain anyone to a bench and why would you want to? Actually, when you look at the evidence, the reasons that women leave are varied and complex. They lie in a combination of structural, cultural and systemic factors, both conscious and unconscious bias. Biology is a factor too, of course. Even though parental responsibilities can be shared, adding to the family just does have more immediate impact on the mother.

Bias may be a dirty word, but if we pretend it isn’t happening, we can’t do anything about it. In a very recent and rather hair-raising example of blatant bias a peer-reviewer suggested two female biologists get a man to co-author their paper to improve it.  Another more local example came from a researcher who was asked at a job interview (at a different university) whether or not she was planning children. She said she wasn’t, and the panel asked her how she knew. There is also the less obvious unconscious bias that we all inevitably have. Unconscious bias means that our behaviours and the decisions that we make are influenced without our knowing it by preconceptions that we’ve been developing since birth. Our brains develop short cuts that cause us to make assumptions and ignore objective facts. These shortcuts are natural and necessary for survival, but they are not so good for business. Evidence would suggest that unconscious bias can have an impact at work at any level you care to think about.

For example Moss-Racusin et al, 2012, found that professors (of both genders) when evaluating applications from students for a post of lab manager rated the ‘male’ applicant more competent and hirable, and offered a higher starting salary, than that of an otherwise identical ‘female’ applicant.

A 2014 study showed that when students were asked to rate teaching instructors of online courses they rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity regardless of the actual gender.

And this bias can make a difference to which students are encouraged or ignored, who is asked to present group data at conferences or who is asked to make the tea. Biases can also make a difference to how much we feel we can achieve for ourselves.

There are also structural factors that can impact women more than men – out of date procedures and systems that make it hard to balance working with family life. For example, it tends to be more difficult for women to engage in networking opportunities, meetings and seminars after hours. Short term contracts, working abroad, travel, a ‘long hours’ culture and few opportunities to work part time are difficult for both men and women who have children or other dependants to look after.

It’s great to hear that researchers like Suzanne do not feel that they have personally experienced any discrimination. Unfortunately less positive accounts of women’s experiences at work are frequently heard. For example the PhD student who loved her field but wasn’t planning on staying beyond until her late twenties because she wanted to have a family and saw this as incompatible; an academic who got ill to the point where she was on medication trying to manage the transition back to work after maternity leave – she ‘didn’t dare’ ask for help; a professor in her 50s who pondered over whether the sacrifice she’d made twenty years earlier – she decided not to have children, in order to pursue her career – was really the right decision. There are accounts of bullying (gender related), discrimination (gender related) and resignation (in all senses of the word).

So what can Athena SWAN do?

SoapboxIn ICAMB, we’re using the Athena SWAN process to try and redress the balance and work towards a fairer workplace for all. For example, we looked at the first big attrition point for us – the transition from Postdoc to Lecturer. We found out that mentors were generally only available to Postdocs with fellowships, so we set up mentoring schemes to enable all Postdocs in FMS to access a mentor. We found that both women and men were unaware of what support they were entitled to around maternity and paternity leave and flexible working, so we’ve made an effort to highlight and publicise policies. We’ve committed to ensuring that all staff involved in recruitment panels attend training in unconscious bias. We provide additional time and money to support staff to attend training courses. We’ve started holding seminars at different times and we organise ‘equality in academia’ events. We are also engaging with national projects such as Soapbox Science.

Equality day

We are working with colleagues across FMS and the University on Athena SWAN. We are lobbying the University to provide a nursery with affordable creche provision for all staff. We’ve heard that many women have found it very difficult when returning from maternity leave to get their research back up to speed – so we’re in the process of setting up a programme that will offer research active staff (men and women) additional support at that time to make a successful transition back to a research career.

These are just a few of the small changes that we’ve started to make under Athena SWAN to make the workplace fairer for everyone, but it’s just the start of a journey. There are a plethora of other issues that are emerging that people are asking us to think about. What’s going on with our recruitment procedures that means we sometimes have so few women applying? How can people gain experience on committees? Can we simplify and update our policy around bringing children into the workplace in a fair but sensible way?

You may have noticed that the vast majority of actions benefit men as well as women, and ICAMBthere are changes that have a positive impact on everyone. That is why it is so important to get as many people as possible involved. We would love to have more volunteers on our Athena SWAN team to help out with input, ideas and challenges and help us achieve a Silver Award in the near future! Culture change is difficult and it’s inevitable that we won’t always get things right first time, so the more feedback we get, the better.

It’s concerning that Athena SWAN is so often misunderstood. There are ‘urban myths’ that it is about positive discrimination and giving women a ‘leg up’ the career ladder. If you think about it, this view is insulting to everyone. Let’s use the analogy of a footbal game – this isn’t about giving any player an advantage over another, its simply about levelling the pitch. We welcome an open discussion of the issues, of all the things that have been achieved so far and how they can be taken further.

Athena Swan team


Moss-Racusin et al, 2012:

Online course rating:

Soapbox Science:

A personal overview of the Science is Vital “R&D to 0.8%” campaign


by Paula Salgado

Science is Vital is a grass roots campaign of UK scientists and supporters of science who believe that a strong science base is vital to the UK’s economy and reputation. It launched its latest initiative to persuade the Government to increase investment in research and  development (R&D) in the 2015-16 budget, details of which will be announced on June 26. ICaMB’s blog own Paula Salgado, member of the Science is Vital Executive Committee, recalls the earlier campaigns and explains all about the current petition and ongoing survey.


It all started in September 2010, when a speech by the then recently appointed BIS secretary, Vince Cable, and rumours from the Government suggested major cuts – up to 25-35% – could hit the science budget. That led Jenny Rohn to a call for action and many scientists and non-scientists responded.

I am happy and proud to say I was of the initial wave of supporters. In only a few hours, there’s a Facebook page, in next couple of days the domain was registered and a  page created: the Science is Vital campaign was born. From the first moment, there was a clear intent to make this campaign about a key point: cutting science funding is not good for the economy. For me, having taken part in many demonstrations and campaigns as a student back in Portugal, this was a crucial point that made believe this was a campaign with a difference.

Delivering Science is Vital petition with ~33K signatures to N.10 (Photo by Joe Dunckley)


A petition gathered over 33,000 signatures in roughly 6 weeks, including many notable scientists and public figures, as well as the support of many learned societies, patient organisations and other NGO groups.



Lobbying Parliament to protect Science Funding (2010)


The campaign also included letters to MPs and a parliamentary lobby session, where we had an opportunity to directly address the issues with our representatives.



Finally, the campaign culminated with a rally in front of the Treasury:

Scientists in white lab coats and many non-scientist supporters at the rally in October 2010

Stewarding at the rally

I was there, helping as a steward (still not sure how that happened!) and seeing a constant stream of white coats and many non-scientist supporters streaming from the tube station was a very memorable sight. I even met a Portuguese colleague that had also been in many of those demonstrations back home and we couldn’t help comparing the situations and behaviours.

The result: cash-freeze

Despite the massive support gathered in such a short period of time, many of those involved, including me, were still unsure of how successful we could be at avoiding cuts… When the announcements were made and it was revealed that the science budget would be frozen for the next 4 years, we felt relieved, happy. I must admit I was also surprised: this was the first campaign I had taken part that was somewhat successful!

However, this was clearly a bitter-sweet victory: we were protected from deep cuts, but a cash-freeze means at least a 10% reduction in real terms due to inflation alone and cuts of up to 50% in capital spending and in many departments R&D budgets meant this was not great news for science in the UK in the long term.

Inspired by this result, SiV has continued to campaign, focusing on issues such as Science Careers and I continued to volunteer and help when I could. Last summer, at the First AGM, I was elected to become a member of the Executive Committee and have therefore become more involved in all aspects of the campaign.

Reverse the decline in science funding – R&D to 0.8% campaign

Despite the welcomed injections of capital by the Government, that somewhat minimised the effects for specific areas, the effects of the cash-freeze and other cuts are already being felt. A recent study by CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) clearly shows that, at the end of the spending review period (2014-15), there will still be a significant shortfall in science funding in real terms, estimated to be around .

This reduction is already having its effects in the research community and it must be reversed if the UK is to remain at the the forefront of scientific research.

Why a new campaign now?

As you might have heard, the Government is currently discussing a budget review for 2015-16, the results of which will be announced on June 26. There are many indicators of further cuts to announced so there is cause for concern. Despite reassurances from Vince Cable that science funding will be protected, we understand that the Treasury favours a continuation of the cash-freeze. This will continue the current decline and will send dangerous signals against long-term public investment in science.

Bringing in the big names

Our first question was: how can we raise awareness of this renewed threat to science funding and make sure there will be a public discussion on the issue? Getting renowned scientists in the UK to get involved was an obvious choice, and we spent a couple of weeks contacting them. At one point, I remember making the wild suggestion of cold emailing Prof Stephen Hawking, which other committee members thought was a good idea – I can’t tell you how surprised and delighted I when I got an email back, fully supporting the campaign!

So the campaign was launched with a letter in the Daily Telegraph signed by more than 50 prominent scientists in the UK, including Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Brian Cox, Paul Nurse and ICaMB’s own Jeff Errington.

We are asking the Government to show a clear long-term commitment to science in UK and set a target to increase public investment in R&D to 0.8% GDP – the G8 average – so we will regain our leading position and compete more effectively with the leading economies of the world.

Public spending in R&D as a percentage of GDP (via

Science funding in UK needs your help

Now, it’s your turn to help and support us.

We want to prepare a report, detailing the effects of the current cash-freeze is already having in the research community and alerting the Government for the dangers in pursuing the current policy of managed declined. For that, we need data. So please take our survey and tell us what you think.

We have prepared a public petition and ask you all to sign it. Importantly, we need to spread the word. As in 2010, we have used social media networks to tell people about the campaign. So please, sign it and tell everyone you know.

Also, you can write to your MP to get them involved in the discussion.

Science in UK needs you now. We only have a few weeks to get this important message across: Science is Vital for the UK.


A scientific note:


60 years ago today,  a ground breaking discovery was printed in Nature:

James Watson and Francis Crick published their proposed DNA structure, based on X-ray data collected by Rosalind Franklin, then working with Maurice Wilkins. There is hardly a need to explain the immense impact this paper had in science, medicine and our views of the world.

The fact that this was carried out in UK labs, with public funding, is one of the many examples of excellence in UK science.


We can not let this leading position be eroded, so what better way to celebrate it than join a campaign to help reverse science funding?


Science is Vital
R&D 0.8% campaign

ICaMB Postgraduate Research Symposium – students’ views


Once a year the final year PhD students in ICaMB have a one day symposium to present their data.  Here we ask some of these students to tell us how they found the occasion and discuss the projects they found particularly interesting.

 By Thomas Kinsman, Alexander Egan, Emma Button and Nichola Conlon

The ICaMB PGR Symposium was held on 25 March 2013. This annual symposium provides not only an excellent opportunity for final year PhD students to present their work to a mixed scientific audience of fellow students, research technicians, post docs and more senior researchers, but is also an excellent demonstration of the diversity of top quality research that is going on in ICaMB labs. The symposium and lunch were generously sponsored by GT Vision.

Session 1 – Reported by Thomas Kinsman (Lewis Lab)

The first session was centred on the study of DNA, yet talks ranged from the molecular biology of DNA polymerase processivity to the role of extracellular DNA in dental plaque biofilms. In addition to enabling me to gain a greater appreciation of the work that goes on in other labs within ICaMB, it was interesting that one of the speakers made a point of saying that preparing their talk had been very useful because it had made them realise they had enough results to write-up their PhD – I had not fully appreciated that this was another value of these talks!

Session 2 – Reported by Alex Egan (Vollmer Lab)

The second session of the symposium featured the work of students who look at various aspects of bacterial cell biology including; cell wall synthesis and cell division, bacterial cell motility, copper transport and storage and DNA replication. What immediately stands out from that list is the vast range of biological problems we work on here in ICaMB, and that’s just a small representation of the bacterial labs here. A positive impact of this vast range is that it creates an excellent centre for diverse knowledge, not just in gross terms, but in the myriad of different cellular and molecular techniques. With use of relatively simple yet elegant microscopy to study biological problems on cellular levels to the use of biochemical approaches to characterise the molecular basis of bacterial processes, it highlights that there’ll always be someone with experience who can provide advice and insight into almost any approach to biology. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of this, I believe it’s one of the great strengths of the symposium.

Session 3 – Reported by Emma Button (Veal Lab)

Session three was an exciting session in which talks ranged from the important interactions between the host and gut microbiota to mathematical equations used to refine a statistical modelling process that identifies subtle interactions involved telomere maintenance. Highlights of the session included a talk on the diverse roles of a peroxiredoxin (PRDX-6) in stress resistance and ageing, and a description of the importance of a DNA licensing protein (Cdt-1) and how it controlled DNA replication during embryo development in the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis.

Session 4 – Reported by Nichola Conlon (Thwaites Lab)

The final session had talks that were all related to the gut, yet ranged from studies at a molecular level to in vivo human clinical trials. The first talk demonstrated how understanding the structure of mammalian amino acid transporter proteins in the plasma membrane is vital in understanding the pathology of gastrointestinal diseases and in improving drug specificity and targeting. An interesting insight followed into the mystery surrounding the mechanisms by which enteropathogenic E.coli (EPEC) disrupts the intestinal epithelium to cause diarrhoeal disease. The talk described the ways in which EPEC targets host cell proteins and pathways and highlighted the complexity in understanding such a common disease. Focus then shifted to the gut in its entirety with an intriguing description of an in vitro ‘model gut’, which is used to study the effects of various compounds on digestion. This model has proved effective in identifying alginate as a novel lipase inhibitor that can inhibit fat digestion similar to a current commercially available drug that is plagued by unwanted side effects. In vitro then moved to in vivo with the final talk which described a human clinical study in which ileostomy patients were used to assess the ability of alginate-enriched bread to inhibit fat digestion in vivo. Preliminary results revealed that, as observed in the model gut, alginate can also inhibit fat digestion in vivo when added as a supplement to food. The idea is that alginate could be incorporated into everyday foods, such as a loaf of bread, to try and combat obesity in a ‘health by stealth’ manner.

Personally, I found the symposium a complete success: everybody in attendance, students and staff alike, seemed to benefit in different ways from the experience. As a first year student in my lab said to me, they are looking forward to their turn in two years time.

An academic viewpoint on social media portals


We are, as a society, becoming inundated with comments that fall in to categories such as “did you see X on Facebook” or “Have you had a sneaky peek at that viral video?” and news articles such as this one. Here what I would like to do is pass on some of my own impressions and experiences of the benefits of using social media, focusing on Twitter and LinkedIN.


Yes, simply said, the impact science can make through such outlets presents a perfect opportunity with the drive to bring our research to the general public. Social media allows us all to interact with other scientists but, once you get going, the general public too, as we discussed here.


Technically, you do not need an account to read what’s going on; you also do not need a smartphone, any steam kettle of a PC or MAC will do.

I am in no way advocating that you join up. Have a quiet trawl through what science is on there, and maybe like me, you will make the leap! Discussing science in this format makes you think about what you say.

Being able to have a conduit that will generally be viewed by people interested in science but also has the opportunity to be picked up by a wider audience is what we are being asked to do in science. The amount of work needed to be a scientist on Twitter but not become an addict is, in my opinion, well worth it.

A good starting point is to read some of the blogs and transcripts from a fantastic episode that ran under #overlyhonestmethods during the first half of Jan 2013: has a number of active twitter accounts. Nature Reviews Microbiology (@NatRevMicro) regularly generates lists of papers of interest.

Microbiology Twitter Journal Club (#microtwjc). This is an organised twitter-based chat on microbiology every two weeks where a chosen paper is discussed. Recently, Microtwjc succeeded in gaining a response to one discussion by the authors of the paper – This is a form of public engagement exploiting social media portals and the group in question got free advertisement for their work!


I will openly admit I can not remember actually joining up to this portal. I, like many of us, continually get emails asking me to accept someone’s invite to their community. Recently, my ex-PhD student started looking for a more secure opportunity of employment. He and a number of others in the same position were given advice to maintain their LinkedIN profile. Exploit it as a professional digital CV, use its features to the maximum and, importantly, generate your own “linked in community” of people you know in science that can support your claims. This includes knowing how to pour gels, purify proteins and use seriously kick-ass microscopes or any other piece of kit we have access to! He got his current position due to his profile fitting a match during an employment consultation search.

This experience has given me a chance to see what its uses are. This means that my LinkedIN profile has gone from being an annoyance to something that is there to support my students and post-docs (if I ever have any again!) when they are actively looking for employment. Its not there for my own gain, its there so that they can state who trained/taught them and if someone wishes to, they can view my profile and look at my own career history.

My social media timeline:

I have been on Facebook since 2009. I joined Twitter in March 2012 and this will be my second date with blogging.

I joined Facebook for a very specific reason. I had the amazing opportunity through a joint Royal Society and Daiwa foundation International Project Grant to visit my Japanese collaborators for 3 months. It was agreed that we would keep our family up to date with our antics by exploiting Facebook’s method of publishing photos.

I joined Twitter through a friend posting tweets to Facebook: these included what was floating their boat on new papers, commenting on science articles in the press and generally having science-based discussions with other scientists. I made a decision from day one Twitter would be for science (hahaha!). What do I have now? Well, I do focus on Science and I follow a good group of science communicators across the UK and US. I also seem to be following many of the real ale bars of Newcastle upon Tyne!

Image Sources: Here and Here