Chris Cole

Alexander Bogdanov: The Icarus of haematology

By Chris Cole

I, like most of us, am a complete sucker for stories of interesting people. So, in the past week I thought I’d try my hand at finding an interesting historical science figure to post about. The problem is the sheer choice of amazing stories to tell. Already there are dozens of stories of titans of science who pushed humanity forward monumental leaps. Then, during reading for my PhD I stumbled across one individual who caught my attention…

Now if you’re expecting a story of a humble underdog who overcame adversity and was proved right then temper your expectations my friend. This story takes a different direction. I present to you Alexander Bogdanov. Time to set the scene… It’s the early 1900s. Thanks to the work of Landsteiner, Decastello, Sturli and Janský (and countless others) we were beginning to understand the phenomena of blood groups allowing successful blood transfusions to take place. The discovery of other blood groups (e.g. rhesus groups) would continue for the next 50 years making this time a golden age for haematology.

In comes Bogdanov to our story. Born in 1873 in Russia, Bogdanov, in addition to being heavily involved in politics, was an established and respected physician involved in setting up Russian blood transfusion services. In the 1920s when our understanding of blood groups and blood borne disease was escalating, Bogdanov formed a hypothesis: that giving himself blood transfusions would rejuvenate his health or perhaps grant immortality… So essentially vampirism… To test his hypothesis Bogdanov transfused 11 different students blood into himself (be grateful he wasn’t your supervisor).

Now I expect you’re wondering whether he became immortal or reverse ageing?… Not quite. He reported massive improvements to his health and reduced balding (apparently the placebo effect had not become a known phenomenon by this point), but unfortunately his miraculous treatment turned on him when he administered himself with the blood of a student whom had tuberculosis and malaria, which predictably proved lethal. The story almost reads like a Grecian myth warning of the danger of hubris… And untested blood transfusions. So, what can we take as a life lesson from Bogadov? Well maybe this: if the original idea isn’t grounded in sound reasoning then it’s probably not the best idea to jump into live human experimentation… Even if it could potentially halt balding.


Introduction to Science Journalism and the Media with {React} Science Magazine

Don’t forget that our Introduction to Science Journalism and the Media with {React} Science Magazine workshops are happening tomorrow from 9:30 til 16:30 in the FMS Graduate Training Room (MG207)!

The timetable will be as follows:

9:30 – 10:00 meet and discuss aims of {react}
10:00 – 12:00 Principles behind Public Engagement with Science, what is a science magazine for? – Duncan Yellowlees
12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:00 Design of a Science Magazine – Danielle Stone (JUMP)
14:00 – 15:00 Science Communication the University perspective – Brett Cherry
15:00 – 15:30 Tea & discussion time
15:30 – 16:30 Balance and avoiding the echo chamber – SarahJayne Boulton
16:30 Close

You can still register for this event HERE, looking forward to seeing you there!


Issue 10 is live!

Thank you to everyone who made it down to our Issue 10 celebration at Wylam Brewery last night – we hope you you enjoyed it! If you didn’t manage to make it, you can read Issue 10 online now.

At the event, we announced the theme for Issue 11: synergy! If you would like to get involved with our next issue, we are now accepting abstract submissions so get your synergistic ideas to us. The deadline for submissions is the 28th February, just email your abstracts to us at

Leonie Schittenhelm

What do you need to do a PhD?

By Leonie Schittenhelm


The first time I heard the title of the latest issue of the REACT print magazine, I was in the middle of what one could call a scientific crisis. After my first year progression review had been successfully passed I had finally made a breakthrough in an experiment I had been optimising and tinkering with for months. I was confident and ready to work hard to acquire as many samples as I possibly could. And then, in an unexpected turn so common in science, something came up and everything slowly grinded to – what it felt like for me at the time – a halt.

It felt like none of my experiments worked and like everyone else was speeding up, while I was slowing down. In flew the call for submissions for the newest issue of REACT magazine and remember thinking: Endurance. That’s exactly what I need. So after Emma’s brilliant list of not leaving your lab mates out in the rain after you finish your PhD from last week, here some thoughts about how to get through your PhD in the first place.

1. Courage
Doing your PhD will require a lot of new things that seem scary and new. Talking in front of a room full of people who know way more about the thing you’re talking about than you. Coming up with your own ideas for experiments and suggesting them to your supervisors. Going up to that seminar speaker and asking a question about their work. Usually the scariest things also seem the most worth it – and I can promise you, everything gets less scary after having done it a couple of times!

2. Organisation
Can’t really get around that – you need to know where your data is, how you got it and if all consents ethical approvals were in place. Especially if stuff starts going wrong, having all your things organised will help you figure out where the problem might be coming from.

3. Compassion
Everyone knows the almost mythical PhD horror stories of students who come in at 11am and leave at 3pm, who don’t care about their science and who invariably fail. I had considered putting ‘high work ethic’ on this list, but as I thought about it, I realised every single PhD student I know is incredibly hard-working already, sometimes at great personal cost. So instead, an urge to be compassionate both towards yourself and your fellow students. You are working hard and you are doing your best, everything else will fall into place.

4. Endurance
Stuff will be going wrong. And then it will go wrong again. It might actually never work out. And that is absolutely okay. You are here to learn, and as they say: you need to break some eggs to make an omelette. Thinking back to my personal scientific ‘crisis’ last year, I have to say, I’m not sure where I would be now without it. While frustrating and exhausting, it drove me to talk to more different people than I had in the 6 months leading up to this point combined. It made me bolder in trying out some of my own ideas and – maybe most importantly – it gave me to courage to fail at something until I figured it out.

Let us know what qualities you find most helpful in doing your PhD in the comments!


Issue 10 Celebration and Science Journalism Workshops

Don’t forget about our 10th Issue and 6th Anniversary Celebration! Join us in The Grand Hall at the Palace of Arts, Wylam Brewery, tomorrow at 5pm, to commemorate 6 years of {react}!

And if you can’t make it tomorrow, we are running some exciting Introduction to Science Journalism and the Media with {React} Science Magazine workshops on 6th February from 10am to 4:30pm! The full programme for the day will be published nearer the time, at which point you can decide whether you want to come for the whole day or just attend individual workshops that interest you. For more information and to register just click here.

Emma Kampouraki

Lab endurance is your duty!

By Emma Kampouraki

In our days, there is no such thing as dong a PhD without at some point finding yourself in need of something used, produced or ordered by the previous doctorate student before you even arrive. We’ve all been there, and if you haven’t you will get there at some point. My own experience has showed that those “somethings” are much more than I could ever imagine, so it is now a good time to define the 5 golden rules of how to complete your PhD without leaving a mess behind.

  1. Keep an organised lab book

A Latin proverb says “Verba volant, scripta manent”. It is so true that spoken words fly away, while written words remain. Especially so for protocols optimised or developed during your PhD, but haven’t been published yet.

  1. Share your secrets

It is always kind and wise of you to make good notes of what worked and what didn’t in your experiments. Random observations that can really make a difference, experiments to test different factors that might have an influence on the technique and all those little things you learned or changed during working in this particular lab. Make a list or have a quick meeting with the newbie that’s about to start working where you used to and make sure you pass on this information. The way you have organised the drawers, or the place where you’ve stored those important chemicals will save loads of time and effort. Think about how you felt when you were searching for something and three months later, when you finally located it, it was nowhere near where you would expect it to be. Grrr…

  1. Leave your bench tidy

No matter what time of the year you are leaving, you should always remember to throw all the things you stuck on walls or hung above your bench and which are totally useless for the next poor guy that will have to spend 3 years at least in this bench. Organise the stuff you used to throw in your drawers, dispose of any chemicals that have expired but you kept them in the fridge “just in case” and in general, make every effort to return the bench better than how you found it. It is a gesture of respect to the next generations.

  1. Share your thesis with your colleagues

Another cute gesture that everyone who completes a PhD should consider would be to send an electronic copy of the thesis to the guys you leave behind. This simple thing will save them hours of searching for a paper you have talked to them about in the past, or for a paper with more clearly defined methods as in your lab book, or for results that they may be asked to replicate, or even a good template when they decide to start writing their own thesis. Not to mention that your thesis will be certainly referenced in theirs.

  1. Keep in touch

I’ve always hated those people that never reply to my e-mails. Even worse when at some point I asked a previous PhD student about where some samples were stored and never bothered to get back to me. I spent days looking for them and when I found them and had one more question, my supervisor dropped them a line and they replied the same day!!! For this reason, the 5th golden rule will have to be: “Keep in touch with your lab group and always reply back when someone contacts you about samples you have worked with before, no matter who it is that’s asking”.

Photo credit:

Archive Chris Cole

We need to talk science…

By Chris Cole

Over the past few decades, support for the concept of communicating science and research to the public has exploded. Gone are the days of scientists being largely able to stay locked away in the labs doing their research and having little regard for the world outside. Instead we are now actively encouraged to try and communicate our research when possible and always think on how our research can affect society. For some in academia, this push to share the concept of their work and engage in dialogue with the public is frivolous, but I would argue that given the past decades it’s now more important than ever that we as scientists do not lock ourselves away in labs (however tempting it may be!).

You may ask why I think it’s particularly important? Well, not to flog a dead horse (excuse the macabre expression) but I’d like to briefly visit the MMR vaccine scandal of the late 1990s. No doubt most (or hopefully all) of you reading this will know of the scandalous (and now revoked) paper in The Lancet in 1998, which falsely claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Now, this has already been tackled by countless people far smarter than I, so I will not be ripping this shameful aspect of medical history any further. But why do I bring this up?

Well, simply put we are now seeing a resurgence of measles in the western world thanks to parents, even today, not vaccinating their children. A debilitating disease that should rightfully be eradicated is still afflicting children 20 years on from that paper. Clearly many people have engaged with the public trying to explain why they should obviously vaccinate their children, but even today there are charlatans posing as experts pushing this dangerous misinformation. More and more it seems like there is growing distrust of scientists, doctors and experts by vocal parts of society (e.g. the flat earth society) who, thanks to social media, can spread their ignorance far and wide. So, I ask, isn’t getting a better dialogue going between the scientific community and the public one of the best ways to remedy this?

For examples of organisations and events both here in Newcastle and on a national level who are engaged in getting science out to the public visit:
– Bright club
– Pint of Science
– Soapbox science

Alethea Mountford Archive

Preparing for your first research cruise

By Alethea Mountford

On the 16th November, I travelled from Newcastle to Cambridge, from Cambridge to Brize Norton airport in Oxford, and from there I flew to Mount Pleasant airport in the Falkland Islands. After a few days in Stanley, I boarded the RRS James Clark Ross, and so began my first research cruise (JR17001), travelling south from Stanley with a stop off in Rothera, and back to Stanley towards the end of December (or at least that was the plan). I had little idea what to expect, or what to pack, so in the months and weeks leading up to my departure I spent a long time on the Internet searching for packing lists and other people’s experiences. These are a few things I wish someone had told me before I left, and things that I learned while I was away…

  • Make a packing list and actually stick to it – I made a list, but ended up doing the majority of my packing a couple of nights before I left and realised when it was too late that I had no idea what I had actually packed 

  • Seasickness tablets can make you feel really awful – I took a couple of seasickness tablets when we first started steaming, as I wasn’t sure how I would fare at sea, and I wasn’t prepared for how out of it I would feel because of the tablets. It’s obviously best to take them as a precaution but be prepared for the side effects!  

  • Things will most likely not go to plan, try to be as flexible as you can – bad and unpredictable weather can lead to changes in plans at a moment’s notice leading to changes in timings, direction and science schedules.  

  • Be prepared for every eventuality, particularly when it comes to your journey home – I had anticipated getting back to Newcastle a few days before Christmas, so had a train ticket booked from there to my parent’s a couple of days after I was scheduled to get back. I ended up arriving back to Heathrow on Christmas Eve, so ended up having to book new train tickets back up as I hadn’t taken my train tickets with me.  

  • Speak to as many different people as you can – you never know who you may end up on a cruise with; people from other disciplines may be able to offer a perspective on your work that you hadn’t considered, people from the same discipline may be able to offer advice on your methods or make you aware of new pieces of work.  

  • Take earplugs and an eyemask – depending on if you’re bunking with other people, you may have very different shift patterns (I was working midnight-noon and my cabin mate was working noon-midnight), so getting a decent amount of sleep might be a challenge! 

  • Don’t spend the whole time looking through a camera – of course taking photos is important, particularly if you’re somewhere beautiful, but make sure you spend time in the moment appreciating what’s around you. 

If you want to read more about what me and the rest of my team got up to on JR17001, check out the Drake Passage blog

Archive Emma Kampouraki

Christmas quiz? It reminds me of something!

By Emma Kampouraki

The ICM (Institute of Cellular Medicine) Christmas meeting took place last Monday, 18th December 2017 and was a great success indeed, more than any other Christmas meeting in these three years I have been around. What made it a success? The Christmas quiz of course!!! ICM staff had organised a great quiz for the festive period of Christmas with lots of questions and activities. They included photos of celebrities dressed like Santa, questions about Christmas traditions (some of which I had no clue about), Christmas movies, Christmas songs, an activity with logos and lots of nibbles and mulled wine.

This was the exact time I realised how much this whole quiz experience resembled my experience in science during the PhD. First of all, the idea of taking part in a quiz for some reason creates an unprecedented excitement. It drives you to the point where you try to remember previous quizzes you’ve participated in and predict the questions you’ll have to face in this one. It never works like that – admit it – but there is always a hope. At this very point, it reminds me of something…

And then the next stage comes… Teams formed, seated in circles, starting conspiring and ready to fight! It’s really like a race and the team with the most Christmas fans is meant to win. Slides and projector are sorted, questions start to appear one by one and we all look each other deep in the eyes, trying to guess who knows what. This is when you start having those thoughts that you don’t know anything and you should probably commit suicide for not remembering this and that, which are all so simple and easy otherwise. Ah, it reminds me of something…

But the thrill is about to begin when you know this detail from that popular movie and you are sure like hell, because you actually watched the movie, as tradition wants, last weekend.  You know you can’t scream but you know that you know it and all you can celebrate with is the mulled wine. You announce the answer with the speed of light and then glasses up and a big sip of well-deserved wine goes down, as waves of happiness flow inside you. It truly reminded me of something…

Nevertheless, it has its downs too, when you have absolutely no clue about what the question is about. When you don’t know the answer and it matters; that kind of thing. You are pissed with everyone, but can’t change much (no, phones ARE forbidden!) so you have to live with the loss. Yeah, I know, it hurts. And guess what; it reminds me of something once again.

You know what it reminds me of. It’s my PhD, your PhD, everyone’s PhD that has its successes and its difficulties, like all situations in life. You might ask why it reminds me of that and not anything else in life, right? Well, if you are “sailing” towards a PhD yourself, you know exactly how things get magnified during this era of your life. If not, “don’t try this at home” (just kidding!). If not, at least you know the sadness of not winning the chocolates at the end of the quiz as well as the absolute madness when you actually end up winning and you feel like hero.

For the sake of my story, my team won this quiz and we got the delicious choco candies. Let’s see what happens with my PhD now…

Archive Leonie Schittenhelm

Perceptual Load and the magic of Science Podcasts

By Leonie Schittenhelm

One of the many joys of being a PhD student? Data analysis. Endless hours of data analysis. During the last year of my PhD I have progressively become quicker and also slowly coaxed my computer to do more and more of the really boring stuff, such as ordering things and applying the same analysis over and over, for me. But still, I spend about 1-2 days of my week coping with the data my experiments generate. And with that I’m not even at the top end of what a lot of my PhD pals have to deal with on a weekly and monthly basis. So what to do when a hard drive full of data, a noisy office and the knowledge that you will have to sit at it until you’re finished because you want to have something to show to your supervisor the next day await you? Easy: Podcasts, especially of the scientific variety.

Okay, bear with me on this one. ‘I can’t concentrate when I’m listening to people talk on the desk behind me, why should it be different when I’m listening to people in my headphones?’ I hear you say. And – while I do get your point, office gossip is the best and worst at the same time – to that I have just one answer: Science proves me right. Before I explain that a bit further we have to go back to roughly last year, when I hadn’t quite figured out yet how to make my computer do the really boring stuff for me yet. And by really boring I mean resizing tiny pictures of my data so they tidily fit into a grid and in line with a lot of other tiny pictures of my data. What I didn’t get was that even though I was staring for so long at this data, I still made a lot of silly mistakes that would usually occur to me only when presenting my data to others. And even worse, everything took me hours upon unenjoyable hours. All of this because I kept getting distracted from the task at hand: analysing my data quickly and accurately, formatting it in a logical way.

In comes perceptual load theory, a term coined by the psychologist Nili Lavie in the mid-nineties. The basic gist of perceptual load theory is that you have a certain amount of attention to give at any one moment. If you perform tasks that are termed ‘High load’, such as giving a presentation or doing a really difficult reagent calculation in your head, all of your attention is taken up by this one task, meaning there is little to none that can take your attention from this task. One of the most famous experiments on this involved a person in a gorilla costume and countless test subjects who, when tasked with a high-load visual task, could simply not remember even seeing the brown fluffy individual walking right through their field of vision. On the other hand, if the main task at hand is low-load, for example me when formatting my data so it fit a grid, your mind diverts the rest of the available attention to other less important things. This not only makes you less competent at the task at hand, it also means it takes you longer to complete because you become constantly distracted.

And why podcasts, you may ask? Okay, here this becomes less science and more personal preference. I did find that listening to people talk, often even learning something new in the process, provided exactly the right mix of attention to data versus attention to listening to keep my focus and enjoy myself in the process. And with so many science-themed podcasts to choose from, you’re really spoiled for choice. Here a short list of my absolute favourites:

  • Babes of Science – Ever wanted to know more about all the kick-ass female scientists your science book forgot to mention? This podcast by Poncie Rutsch is your fix – the only criticism I have is that the episodes are much too short because I enjoy them so much, but if you start now you will have a rich library of episodes to go back to and explore.
    Listen to under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.

  • The Story Collider – A colourful mix of science-storytelling. While not all people will be from your field, it is great to hear stories about life in science and how not getting results is hard for everyone. It is also a great learning utensil for preparing talks – as all science stories are recorded in front of a life audience, you can get a really good feel for what types of jokes work with audiences. And even better, it makes you think about your own science-story and how you would tell it to other people
    Listen under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.

  • No such thing as a fish – while not strictly about just science, this podcast by the QI elves talks about a different surprising fact each week. And while learning some new things I definitely always have to stifle a laugh to not alert my desk neighbours as to why my data is being so hilarious.
    Listen under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.