Chris Cole

There is life outside the lab!

By Chris Cole

I’m coming to the end of my PhD and looking back the one piece of advice I would give to anyone going down the academic route is this; remember there is life outside the lab! I’m not just talking about writing up or attending talks/conferences (although those are important). Instead I’m talking about having an outlet to get you out of work and blow off some steam even for just a few hours.

Around four years ago I started my MRes/PhD, which remains one of the biggest milestones of my life. However, at roughly the same time I made another decision. To go from being a bookworm with no committed hobbies to training aerial in the circus (e.g. trapeze, acrobatics). Yeah, you read that correctly and to this day it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Because of I’ve met some amazing and incredible individuals, travelled way more than I ever had previously and (more relevantly) it helped me through the most stressful moments of the past four years. And I wasn’t the only scientist who ran off to the circus. There is a trend in the circus community to have a range of people from STEM backgrounds. I’ve met medics, computer scientists, geologists, chemists and physicists who all train it as an outlet.

So, all I can say in reflection to anyone starting academia or feeling run down from the pressures that come with it is get out the lab! Think of something you’ve always wanted to try, google it and go do it! Maybe you’ll find something you’ll love and stick with it for life, or maybe it will be an experience. But regardless it could give you that much needed breather from the world of academia.

Leonie Schittenhelm

PhDs and how to survive them

By Leonie Schittenhelm

Research, my dear readers, is hard. It just is. Some parts are hard because no one has ever done them before, some other parts are hard because everyone constantly does them but they still won’t work in your hands. Sometimes things are hard because you’re dependent on other people, but they’re really really busy right now, and some other things are hard because you spend too much time on your own, staring into the depths of your data analysis. There’s a million different things that can be hard, and they might be very specific to your research. Luckily for all of us, the things that make the hard stuff a bit easier actually seem pretty universal: Eat right, sleep right and don’t forget to hang out with the people you love. While those are clearly the most important to stay healthy and resilient even in the face of adversity, here are some other ideas what to do when you get into a rut about your research.

  1. Pet something fluffy – I know having pets isn’t always feasible for busy PhD students, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit that friend with a cat more than all of your other friends. And if you’re too shy to ask complete strangers in the park if you could possibly cuddle their dog for a tiny bit, maybe this video about fluffy robot seals will cheer you up a bit?
  2. Get out into nature – especially after spending a couple of days in a darkened room with a microscope, there is nothing better than having a sandwich in the sunshine, with some birds chirping in the background. And why not take advantage of Newcastle’s unique location and take the metro to the beach after a long day in the lab?
  3. Change your point of view – Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery. Need to do a lot of reading but have been stuck in the office all week? Maybe take your computer to one of the libraries around campus or work in a coffee shop for a couple of hours. The same applies to all other points of view: speaking to people outside of science or even just outside of your field can provide some much-needed perspective.
  4. Volunteer – Okay, this is a hard one – I mean, who has the time? But sometimes, it helps to have a reminder of who your research is actually for. A friend of mine researches Alzheimers disease and her biweekly board game nights with some residents of an old peoples home is just the thing to get her inspired again – maybe there’s something you always wanted to try?
  5. Take care of each other – Not surprising, but the people you do your PhD alongside with can provide a huge amount of understanding and support. Because who understands the struggles of being a researcher better than another researcher, right? But for this support system to work and not be a source of even more stress, you actually need to put in some work as well – being honest about your own daily struggles, encouraging each other to be healthy and take well-deserved breaks and not engaging in the one-upping culture of who worked the most hours this week can go a long way.

Do you have any more ideas for stress relief that you want to share? Let us know in the comments!


Maker Faire UK 2018

Date: Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 April 2018
Venue: Life Science Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 4EP
Opening times: Saturday 10.00 am – 6.00pm, Sunday 10.00 am – 5.00pm
Ticket prices: Family (2 adults and 2 children, or 1 adult and 3 children): £24.00, Adults (18+): £8.00, Concession (OAP, student, unwaged): £7.00, Child (aged 5 – 17yrs): £6.00, Child (aged 4 and under): Free

Maker Faire UK is the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth—a family-friendly festival of creators, crafters, coders and DIY-ers, where everyone is encouraged to get stuck in! It brings together hundreds of hackers, crafters, inventors and coders from across the globe – people who love to make stuff and who want to share their passion with the public.
This year’s headline Makers include Steamroadsters, wasteland versions of penny farthings, Waterlight Graffiti, who have combined water and LEDs to make art and The Herd, a scrapheap safari. It’s really great fun for adults and kids alike, with all sorts of different things to try your hand at, from traditional crafts – including leather making and weaving – to hi-tech hacks, including robotics and coding. Prepare to be inspired!

There’ll be plenty of live entertainment on the day too. You can find out more about Maker Faire 2018, as well as check out a full list of makers at

Tickets are available to purchase now at
Extra charges may apply for some workshops and activities.

Liza Olkhova

Processing of a non-native language by bilinguals: a study by Zirnstein et al.

By Liza Olkhova

When you are learning a foreign language, you are bound to come across unknown  words or even expressions in text or speech. From my personal experience, it acts as a great learning tool, as you are sometimes able to assign a meaning to the unknown word based on the context. While reading a text it is not surprising that people usually predict the upcoming words based on their fluency and past experiences, aiding the cognitive processing.

Bilingualism is often considered to be advantageous to cognitive abilities. It is also believed that bilinguals’ reading skills are different to those of monolinguals, however a study published in Cognition has challenged this notion. The study sought to compare both monolingual and bilingual students recruited from Pennsylvania State University, USA, and has demonstrated that bilinguals are able to exploit strategies to predict upcoming words judging from the sentence context in a similar way when compared to their monolingual peers. For example, a sentence that was used in the study ‘After their meal, they forgot to leave a tip for the waitress’. In this sentence the predicted word would be ‘tip’, but the unexpected word used by researchers would be ‘ten’.  Zirnstein and others used electroencephalography technique (EEG) to measure brain electrical changes picked up by multiple electrodes sitting on the surface of the skull. Scientists were able to link some of the changes to the brain’s response to prediction error. The area that appeared most active when the word was different from the one predicted by study participants was the frontal cortex, crucial for decision making and other executive functions.

The results depended on language fluency as well as the inhibitory control of bilinguals. This means people who can speak at least two languages need to engage in dynamic shifts in executive functions to control both languages by constantly switching between activating one and suppressing another. Bilinguals may either disengage from one language when it may interfere with the other or activate it to aid in another.  In my opinion as a person fluent in Russian and English languages, this is also true. If I come across a scientific text written in Russian it poses a more demanding task to read compared to when it is written in English, probably because I am much more immersed in scientific content entirely written in English. In the former example, activation of my second language, English, when reading a word ‘mitochondrion’ (‘митохондрия’) in Russian as it is a similar word achieves cross-language support. On the contrary, by inhibiting English language when reading Russian for ‘cerebellum’ (‘мозжечок’) as it an entirely different word prevents cross-language interference.

Zirnstein M, van Hell J, Kroll J. Cognitive control ability mediates prediction costs in monolinguals and bilinguals. Cognition. 2018;176:87-106.

If you would like to find out more about the original study, head to

Leonie Schittenhelm

You smell! – Finding the right words to describe body odour

By Leonie Schittenhelm

The days grow longer, the sun gets warmer and Easter is just around the corner – while it is not quite T-shirt weather in the Northeast just yet, it surely can’t be much longer off now? A girl can dream. Then again, there’s surely one thing I don’t miss about the sure to come summer heatwave – sitting in public transport, the air heavy with a mix of more or less unpleasant body odours. But have you ever though how to specifically describe these types of smells?

This is what Dr. Caroline Allen, who works at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University tries to find out. Working together with collaborators from the UK and the Czech Republic, as well as the expert noses of 4 perfumers, she tried to work out how to find the words to correctly describe human body odour. Why is that important? Because odour is made up of a lot of different components, which – if correctly identified – can potentially tell us a lot about the health, fertility and even genetic make-up of the smelly person in question. However, most research on odours so far asked participants to rate odours on simple one trait scales, such as attractiveness of the smell or how likely it is to belong to a woman or a man. While useful, these don’t even come close to describing the complexity of the smell of another human being, which is where Dr. Allens research comes in.

Kind volunteers collected their body odours by wearing a pad under their armpits for 24 hours before trained perfumers and fragrance evaluators got together to agree on a primary lexicon of 15 smells that were commonly included in these samples. Personal highlights hereby included ‘Onion’ and ‘ChipFat’, but also terms such as ‘Milky’, ‘Metallic’ or ‘Vegetable’. They then used this newly built lexicon of smells to describe body odours they hadn’t smelled before, to test the validity of the words chosen. Interestingly, while the perfumers could not distinguish female and male body odour reliably, they used the descriptors ‘Animalic/Spicy’ preferentially for male samples, while female samples were often associated with the descriptors of ‘Milky/Sweet’. Although this lexicon holds exciting opportunities for the odour research community, I would probably still veer away from it in public transport – I’m sure no one would really appreciate you pointing out their ‘Moldy Animalic ChipFat’-type of smell…


If you want to check out this brilliant science story for yourself:
Allen, C., J. Havlíček, K. Williams, and S. C. Roberts. “Perfume experts’ perceptions of body odors: Toward a new lexicon for body odor description.” Journal of Sensory Studies (2018).


Cassie Bakshani

Waste-free living. It’s not as hard as you think.

By Cassie Bakshani

There’s been a focus in recent months on waste production, with talk of bottle return schemes and water refill stations being implemented across the UK, along with increasing tax on companies that use plastic packaging. Ultimately, excess waste is caused by material misuse and our modern linear infrastructure, where products are made to be used once and then discarded. It is reassuring however to see more businesses becoming increasingly aware of this global concern and being proactive about mitigating their environmental impact. As individuals, we can’t do everything when it comes to reducing waste production, but there are ways you can work towards reducing your own personal waste footprint.

    • Refuse single-use disposable items i.e. coffee cups, plastic cutlery/utensils, plastic bags and straws.
    • Be resourceful. Repair and re-purpose things you already own before simply chucking them away and if you need to buy something, scour markets, charity and vintage shops, car boot sales, eBay, Freecycle etc. before hitting the high street.
    • Invest in quality products that will make day-to-day waste reductions straight forward. These items are always in my backpack:
      1. A Slice Of Green stainless steel containers. They’re durable and safer than plastic containers because they won’t leech chemicals like BPA into your food.
      2. Chilly’s stainless steel bottle. Keeps your drink cold for 24 hours or hot for up to 12 hours and as an added bonus the designs are pretty fun too.
      3. JosephJoseph travel cutlery. Cleverly designed, compact, lightweight and so much more practical than flimsy plastic cutlery.
      4. Bodum travel mug. Functional and also absolutely necessary if, like me, you have a worrying caffeine dependence.
      5. A few reusable canvas bags. There are plenty of places to get hold of these but I tend just to steal them from my mum.
    • Recycle or dispose of things, that can’t be re-purposed, in a responsible manner.

Another hugely important aspect of reducing waste production is shopping locally and in doing so supporting your local community. Fortunately, for those of us living in Newcastle, this one is pretty easy. Newcastle is a hub for conscious, ethical independent shops and businesses, but if you aren’t sure where to start then I suggest Grainger Market. My favourite shops in the market are: Hoam Grown, a local greengrocer which stocks organic, seasonal produce. The French Oven, a lovely French-style bakery, committed to reducing waste by using paper and biodegradable plastic packaging and encouraging customers to bring their own bags and Tupperware to take products home. Pumphreys Coffee, which stocks a wide range of loose-leaf teas and they’re happy to weigh out what you want and fill your own container.

Outside of the city centre there is The Honey Tree in Heaton which sells Ecover and Ecoleaf plant-derived biodegradable cleaning products, along with providing refill stations so you can take your bottles back and restock. Alternative Stores in Palmersville, again, have a range of shampoo/conditioner and household cleaning product refill stations. The Paddock is a smallholding based on the Northumberland/Gateshead border that provide great value, home-grown or locally sourced seasonal veg boxes, which you can order online for delivery direct to your door. Finally, if you pop into their cafe in Jesmond, the good people at Ouseburn Coffee Co. are happy to fill up your container with any beans or ground coffee you wish to purchase.

I admit that this way of living/shopping may be more time-consuming than going to a single shop or supermarket, but buying only for convenience is both destructive and detaching. Instead, live and shop with quality, functionality and durability in mind. Take ownership of the things you have and in doing so give them value. We’ve all got a responsibility to be a bit more conscious about the impact we have on the planet, so why not make reducing your waste footprint where you start?

Emma Kampouraki

4 questions that people should be asking a final year PhD student, but aren’t

By Emma Kampouraki

I have met hundreds of people since I started my PhD, who have always asked me what it is like to be a PhD student and how it is going so far. Few of them normally ask what it is that I work on and even fewer – maybe that one person that is really curious – will ask what I am working on right now. Thinking about how I have reacted in similar situations, when I have been unsure what to ask to get the real feel of a person’s situation, I’ve tried asking what the questions are that they’ve never answered about their work. My thinking at first causes surprise and maybe embarrassment, but soon they get it. Now, putting myself in their shoes, I reveal what questions you could ask when you meet a PhD student. And if you are reading this, try those questions next time you wonder how to start a conversation with any hard-working employee.

  1. How do you balance social life and research?
    This is the key to a successful career; having time to spend with family and friends. Doing a PhD is really hard work, sometimes with similar emotional steps as going through the loss of a loved one. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are all parts of your psychological canvas throughout this stressful, but potentially the most satisfactory, period of your life. Balancing your life is therefore very crucial to survive and to make steps ahead. Always ask people for their tips and little secrets that save them time at work and offer more time for enjoyment. Especially when you have things in common with them, e.g. marital status, age group, etc. 
  2. How do you maintain such a smooth relationship with your supervisor?
    Especially if you are considering going for further studies, this is a question you should always ask. This person (or any other line manager) is your most important collaborator, who will decide on a variety of things about you in the future. You must find ways (plural, not just one!) to communicate effectively, avoid conflict, co-operate and work together. If you are not considering a PhD, then it is always nice of people to care how you are getting on with your boss, recognising the importance of such relationship for your work and life.
  3. What can be challenging when working in more than one lab?
    This is something only people close to you would know in the first instance. However, it can be a piece of information a PhD student needs to share when asked about their work. Having to move between different labs has many challenges, which can really make a difference in the experience of a PhD student, both positive and negative. This is especially true when labs are far from each other and so you also have to commute.
  4. What’s your real daily routine?
    I guess the picture above says it all. Think about asking about the things that actually mean something, such as the quality of life and the intensity of the daily routine. This really can show the diversity of interests, the requirements of one’s work environment and the person’s development throughout their PhD. Ultimately, it proves how much you care and want to know about how this person’s work environment may impact on their lives in several ways.

Have you thought of any other important and relevant questions about PhD life? Let us know in the comments and we’ll write about it as soon as we can!


Palace of Science

To celebrate the beginning of British Science Week and Brain Awareness Week, the Palace of Science festival is taking place at Wylam Brewery on 12th March from 5pm-midnight. Over the course of the evening there will be volunteers roaming the floor with science busking, thermal cameras, superconductivity levitation and much more!

More information and tickets can be found here. See you there!

Emma Kampouraki

Train PhD students to be much more than PhD students

By Emma Kampouraki

After surviving St Valentine’s Day one more year, I was back in the office next morning with a weird feeling that I’ve forgotten something. While opening my inbox, I found an e-mail from Nature Alert about the contents of the next issue. This is when I found myself reading an article titled “Train PhD students to be thinkers not just specialists”. And I thought… this is a good way of starting this week’s blog.

PhD life is long and difficult for each and every student. This is the best reason why we should look into ways of making it better and far more interesting than any other period of our lives. One way could be to pretend we are not doing a PhD, don’t be bothered too much and run in hell during the final year or never finish. Another way is to try and sort out your everyday workload asap and then relieve your depression with alcohol and sleep. We could do better than that, right?



The abovementioned article in Nature explains how changing the curricula of PhD studies can broaden the horizon of doctorate students, based on the view that “researchers who are educated more broadly will do science more thoughtfully”. Now, this is definitely what new generation of scientists is aiming for and they are absolutely right. Nevertheless, with less than 15% of doctorate graduates ending up in academia, we need to consider other skills that PhD students must acquire on the way to their last degree.

First could be team work and collaboration. During your PhD you might be asked to learn various techniques and join other research groups for training and/or data collection. You might even be required to perform experiments in a hospital or collaborate with other groups during field work. When that happens, grab the opportunity to check your team work and be prepared and willing to share your knowledge, experience and passion for science with them. Don’t forget to make friends and keep contacts.

The next skill would be problem solving. It might relate to your own work and assays or even to an assay of a new PhD or other student you are helping. It is a skill that few people acquire these days, doe to the massive help technology and technicians offer in our labs nowadays. In addition, it teaches you how to start thinking out of the box, be creative and of course how to deal with stress, which is always there accompanying every moment when things go wrong. Once you manage to solve a problem once, your confidence can reach the sky.

Speaking of students, ask your supervisor to give you the chance to supervise an undergraduate or master’s student. This is where you will find your leadership skills being developed. Being a proper leader requires much more than you’ve ever thought. But you will never know until you actually experience it first-hand.

Project management is one of those skills your employer will look for desperately when they are recruiting for managing positions, like a team leader. I know what you’re thinking; project management is your whole PhD. What about any other projects you might be managing simultaneously? What have this project taught you about time management and balance between different workload? Exactly…

Finally, communication is crucial in every job. Make sure you attend conferences, scientific meetings and other opportunities like this. Also, make sure you speak about your science in a lay audience as well. This is not only because you will have to do this at some point (during an interview for example), but because it can be quite fun as well. Science communication can be interesting for you, so can be science writing. So, next time you will be offered the chance to write for a student newspaper or magazine, grab it! Who knows how many job opportunities it could offer you in the future.

After all these, what had I forgotten to do in the first instance? I don’t know either. Is it still that important? I doubt it…

Train PhD students to be thinkers not just specialists, Bosch G. Nature 554, 277 (2018)

Christina Julius

Happy Valentine’s Day!

By Christina Julius

For those of you who are in love:

… And for those of you who aren’t:

White: Escherichia coli
Red: some contamination from the lab!