Joseph Smith

The North East Postgraduate Conference 2018: Putting Engagement First

The North East Postgraduate Conference (NEPG) 2018
by Joseph Smith

The NEPG provides a friendly and supportive environment for postgraduate students to present their research, through both poster and oral presentations, and to engage with research going on throughout Newcastle University and the North East. While focusing on the latest medical, health, and bioscience research carried out by top postgraduate students, the NEPG also offers insightful talks by renowned speakers, and participation in interactive workshops.

Moreover, for the first time in the NEPG’s history, the conference will follow a theme, with the initial one being engagement! Scientific engagement is becoming increasingly important for researchers at all levels and being able to disseminate your findings in formats other than peer-reviewed publication is a highly valued skill. This year, the NEPG will offer both keynote speakers and workshops particularly relevant to this area. We hope they will provide a brilliant experience for those taking part!

Firstly, we are very happy to announce our first keynote speaker, Dr Giles Yeo, Principal Research Associate and Scientific Director of the Genomics/Transcriptomics Core at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, University of Cambridge. Giles is also a member of the Public Engagement Advisory Group at the University of Cambridge and a presenter for BBC Horizon. In line with our engagement theme, Giles will be giving a talk entitled, “Communication of Research to non-experts in the ‘post-truth’ era”, and we can’t wait! Secondly, this year’s theme will provide delegates with the chance to present, or learn to present, their research outputs in a non-academic way, making it understandable to non-scientists. For example, attendees can experience alternative presentation formats like PechaKucha or 3 minute thesis.

So why is scientific engagement important?

To engage with any audience you must be able to communicate effectively. By learning how to explain your research to the general public, you can strengthen these communication skills. Inherently, if you are able to translate scientific research into dialogue that is engaging and understandable to a lay audience, then you will be able to communicate your findings to your peers, or scientists that work in a different field. Not only this, but through effective communication you can raise the profile of your research, whether it is through presenting at conferences, writing papers, or forming collaborations, all ventures with the potential to open doors to your future scientific career.

But scientific engagement doesn’t stop at public understanding! By engaging with the general public you can enthuse others to get involved, whether that’s taking part in a more interactive dialogue between scientists and the public, or inspiring the next generation of researchers!

For more information about NEPG 2018, please visit: 
Abstract submission open until 5pm, 6th July 2018.
Please submit abstracts at:

Liza Olkhova

Brain activity associated with reward can predict patient response to SSRI anti-depressants

By Liza Olkhova

Anhedonia, or an inability to experience pleasure, is a prominent feature of anxiety and depression. It is a failure to seek rewards by avoiding anxiety-inducing activities or to modulate one’s behaviour according to rewards. Hence, susceptible individuals become less responsive to reward. Interestingly, it is possible to measure an individual’s response to receiving a reward, known as reward positivity, via electroencephalography (EEG) – a non-invasive method of measuring brain activity. An inverse relationship between reward positivity and depression symptoms has been reported by some studies.

The first study to look at linking reward positivity and patients’ responsiveness to either anti-depressants (in this case, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was a publication by Burkhouse and colleagues. These two treatments are considered to be the gold-standard in depression: one pharmacological, which increases serotonin levels in synapses and is believed to elevate mood, and one, CBT, a method of talk therapy. However, many patients with depression do not improve their symptoms following either of these therapies and often develop unpleasant side-effects with SSRIs.

Authors of the study asked the simple question of whether the baseline reward positivity (measured before the treatment onset) would predict the symptom lessening following the 12-week treatment with either SSRIs or the CBT. The second question was whether the difference between post- and pre-treatment reward positivity would correlate to a reduction in depressive symptoms. To measure reward positivity, participants were asked to choose one out of two doors in the computer task, a guessing game in which you either gain or lose money depending on the decision made.

The results have established the positive relationship between reward positivity and improvement of depressive symptoms. Reward positivity seems to also emerge as an objective neurophysiological predictor of responsiveness to the SSRI treatment, but not to CBT, using EEG. Authors have found that an attenuated reward positivity signal predicts reduction of symptoms in patients with depression.

This EEG method has promising potential as an objective predictor of anti-depressant therapy and a marker of treatment efficacy. Moreover, it is readily available in clinical settings and has advantages over the subjective depression rating scales that are used in the majority of clinical trials, but are highly subject to placebo effects.

Please head over to to read the original study.

Emma Kampouraki

Pint of Science: Smart Cities? Lessons from the frontline of urban monitoring

by Emma Kampouraki

Over the last couple of centuries, we have faced rapid and unprecedented urbanisation. Cities comprise of a complicated urban system which can easily break down as a result of both external and internal factors.

In an attempt to study the system of a system and understand how a city operates, we have to go the traditional way and do what drives scientific research over time; observe! An observatory is more likely to be a keyword for astronomy; nevertheless, it is also a useful concept when trying to collect observations about our cities. Our observations in turn help us generate the data needed to understand how one system impacts the other system, for example in the interaction of transport, electricity and drainage. In the desert of our knowledge about cities, making evidence-based decisions seems like a sci-fi scenario. We normally ‘try stuff without having data’ and we then have to deal with our disappointment and a few thousand pounds -if not more- wasted. At the same time, politics and various short-term requirements drive policies that stay in place longer than their optimum lifespan.

With this in mind, researchers from Newcastle University, as part of the Urban Observatory Programme of the University and the national UKCRIC observatory programme through the CORONA project, have installed as many as 200 air pollution monitoring sensors fitted with CCTV cameras (that take up to 2000 observations per minute) around Newcastle. This compares to a devastating figure of only 35 sensors in London.

The sensors record more than 60 variables of air pollution, wind, people and movement, all day and night. As expected, before and after an event, the image of air pollution that is received can be markedly different. However, the function of the sensors is highly dependant on a number of other systems, the most critical of which is the availability of network for data transmission. And here comes the take of lamppost; urban monitoring is hard, owned by councils and managed by other stakeholders. The question of reliability is of course always relevant; damp and gaps in data are some of the major issues to be resolved.

As Philip James, Senior Lecturer in GIS pointed out, ‘’smart cities are not a done deal. Sensors cost a lot, mainly for maintenance, and context is always more important than just data.’’

The Air Quality Directive takes account of guidelines from the World Health Organisation. It sets certain limits and information requirements for several pollutants to help countries address and prioritise the harmful effects of pollution. For nitrogen dioxide (NO2) the Air Quality Directive sets the annual mean concentration levels of NO2 limit value at 40μg/m3 for the protection of human health.

Over a ‘pint of science’, we learnt with real examples that city monitoring is a great way to not only learn more about the urban environment we have constructed, but also assess biodiversity and raise citizen awareness. Smart cities have more than sensors, for example smart bins, but we’ve still got time for improvement.

Chris Cole

When life doesn’t give you enough cornea, print your own!

by Chris Cole

3D printing is fast becoming a more commercially available technology every year. With all the potential applications it likely stands to revolutionise several aspects of research and innovation. One such example of this appeared in the news just over a week ago, and it was from our very own local Newcastle University! The labs of Dr Steve Swioklo and Prof Che Connon got national attention for their work attempting to produce synthetic corneas with the potential for transplantation.

Reports estimate that 15 million people across the globe suffer from some form of corneal blindness (or at risk of becoming blind). Whilst the good news is these conditions can be treated by corneal transplant, there is still a large obstacle due to the lack of donor corneas for the patients. Using 3D printing it appears there is a potential way around this problem. In their work published in Experimental Eye Research, they detail their methodology of creating a “bio-ink”, made with a mix of human corneal stromal stem cells, alginate and collagen. The ink is then used with a 3D printer in order to produce an object matching the shape of a human cornea. By culturing the synthetic cornea, the stem cells are then able to grow around the cornea structure, effectively replicating/ imitating a healthy human cornea.

Although it’s easy (and correct) to be excited by such stories, which almost seem straight out of science fiction for how futuristic they appear, it will likely be several years before this technique undergoes clinical testing and comes into clinical practice. Still, the amazing research sets an example of the potential benefits of 3D printing to personalised medicine and of the high calibre of research that researchers at Newcastle University produce.

Image of 3D bio-printer taken from Newcastle University press office release video

Learn more: Isaacson A, Swioklo S, Connon CJ (2018) “3D bioprinting of a corneal stroma equivalent” Experimental Eye Research 173: 188-193


Alethea Mountford

Our Oceans: Pint of Science Recap

by Alethea Mountford

On a gloriously sunny evening, I sat tucked into the upstairs function room in the Bridge Hotel with a pint in hand. The event kicked off with a live interview with Burhan Shamurad, an Engineering PhD student from Kurdistan. After his undergraduate engineering degree and a year in medical science, he began working with non-governmental organisations in Kurdistan on environmental planning and solid waste management in the region. He spoke about having to travel to and from Baghdad to collect £1.5 million in cash, Facebook messages from Kurdistan’s Prime Minister and his plans for wastewater treatment and environmental waste management. Burhan was a passionate and inspiring speaker, who rounded off his interview by saying that he is working so hard because environmental issues affect everyone in every walk of life and he has the desire to save humanity.

Next up, Dr Miguel Morales Maqueda (Senior Lecturer in Oceanography and my PhD supervisor) spoke about plastic pollution in the oceans. He took us on a journey through the history of plastics, global production and pathways for plastic to get into the marine environment. He gave an eye-opening account of the levels of plastic pollution in the oceans, as well as the work that’s being done both at Newcastle University and other institutions to help to catalogue what’s already in the ocean and where it is. Being such a hot topic at the moment, particularly in the media, the audience had plenty of questions and discussions continued at the bar during the drinks break.

Finally, Prof. Grant Burgess (Professor in Marine Biotechnology) introduced us to the natural history of slime. With Newcastle’s history as a ship building area, the need to reduce slime and biofouling on the hulls of ships was very apparent. The world’s oceans have provided us with numerous compounds with biotechnological applications, for example Zovirax, an anti-viral medication from a Caribbean sponge, and Yondelis, an anti-tumour chemotherapy drug from a tunicate. Slime reduction research started with seaweed, leading to the discovery of a natural slime-busting enzyme named NucB. This enzyme has been used in the medical field, primarily for reducing slime growth and associated infection on artificial implants, and even to help large-scale brewing companies with getting rid of yeast slime in their barrels! Mucus also got a special mention for its abilities to degrade coral disease-causing bacteria, and fellow skincare fanatics may have heard people raving about benefits of snail mucin for your skin!

Overall, it was lovely to be able to enjoy science in a relaxed setting, particularly hearing about things that you may be interested in but not actively studying. If you can get along to an event next year I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

Leonie Schittenhelm

The Rise of the Cyborgs

By Leonie Schittenhelm

Cyborgs. The word might conjure thoughts of summer science fiction blockbusters and gleaming, metallic facial features, or ‘far off’ and ‘the science just isn’t quite there yet’. But if you think about it, Cyborgs already live among us, and you, yeah you reading this, probably know not only one but a couple of them.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to definitions – what is a cyborg exactly? The term, consisting of ‘cyb’ for cybernetic and ‘org’ for organism, was first coined in the 1960 paper by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. In simplest terms, it describes a living organism that is somehow enhanced or brought back to normal function by technology. As this definition is so broad, modern day cyborgs don’t have to look at all like the half-robotic beings of science fiction. Instead they are much more likely to be your elderly neighbour with the heart pacemaker, your colleague with the prosthetic limb, or the woman in the shop with a cochlear implant. But if cyborgs are already a thing of the present, how do our laws protect them?

This is a question that researchers from Newcastle and Birmingham Law School are trying to answer in their recently published paper, ‘Everyday Cyborgs: On Integrated Persons and Integrated Goods’. As any attentive reader of dystopian science function might tell you, rigorous ethical and legal discussion and regulation of medical and scientific advances can save us from heaps and heaps of trouble in the future. But the questions that arise around modern cyborgs can be much more puzzling than one might think.

A transplanted device is a product that can be sold and bought, meaning that messing with it in any way would constitute common property damage. If, however, it is transplanted into a human being and thus becomes potentially necessary for their survival, the distinction between property damage and assault is suddenly blurry. What about devices becoming increasingly ‘smart’ in the near future? How do we prosecute someone who’s hacked into the interface that releases the insulin you need after your next meal? And will the public figure assassinations of the future be done by the click of the mouse to disable someone’s pacemaker? Questions remain to be answered, but one thing is clear: laws will have to change considerably as more and more of us become cyborgs ourselves.

Curious if you are in fact a cyborg? Why not have a read of the article yourself, find it under Quigley, Muireann, and Semande Ayihongbe. “Everyday Cyborgs: On Integrated Persons and Integrated Goods.” Medical law review 26, no. 2 (2018): 276-308.

Picture from:

Georgia Collins

Fostering Synergy in the Lab

By Georgia Collins

The life of an academic can be a solitary one. Wander around the average research institute of a late afternoon and you are likely to see individuals making great efforts to ignore the fact they are in a building full of other people: shut away into tiny isolated offices or crammed into shared workspaces, everyone desperately using ever-larger headphones to try and block out the noise of their colleagues and ‘get on with their work’. Even walking around to get a drink or go to the toilet becomes an exercise in extreme social avoidance. Intense staring at the floor, fixed grimace smiles and glazed eyes, all designed to put anyone off who does happen to look up and think you might be up for a chat. On occasion the ‘I have a deadline’ panic face is observed, often accompanied by the hurried walk. Together these are excellent tools for extreme social avoidance, but must be used in moderation or people start asking if you are done yet – expecting a party, etc. when you are. Busy staff and students can often see other people as a distraction, a nuisance and a drag on their precious work time. We barely restrain our irritation when some poor soul interrupts our intellectual process/ writing of ‘important’ emails/ reading silly things on the internet/ YouTube video watching/ re-reading the same paper for the fifteenth time (select as appropriate). Politeness and the social norm of saying ‘good morning’ are often the only reasons people even look at another human.

It’s a sad state to be in. Here we are, this collection of individuals, clumped together but yet all alone. Each one of us isolated in our enclosed minds; worrying over ever-increasing workloads and failed experiments, panicking over deadlines and trying to figure out what were we supposed to be doing here in the first place.

But all is not so bleak. We do not need to resign ourselves to a life of ignoring people with our strategy of headphones and minimal eye contact for the sake of science. Writing in Nature, Rebecca Heald, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California Berkeley, reveals her key to success in promoting a collaborative and supportive research environment where scientists are encouraged to talk to each other. Together with two other colleagues, she created the ‘Trilab’, a place where scientists from three different groups talked, socialised, worked and shared their research with one another. They even created a special ‘lunch room’ by knocking down a wall in the institute to make a space big enough for them all to have food together .

Professor Heald shows that through fostering a collaborative environment, her own team, as well as the other two labs involved in the ‘Trilab’, benefit from each other’s expertise, friendship and even grant proposals and lab space. They hold joint weekly lab meetings where junior scientists get to hear about a range of different techniques and ideas outside of their own field and learn how to explain their science to non-expert colleagues. This also seems to provide the confidence and space for group members to collaborate and explore new ideas together, leading to new and exciting research directions.

What benefits the larger group also benefits the individual lab, and vice versa. A network of human interactions is central to progress and success,” she states. Professor Heald believes that cooperation is key and that leaders of the group should respect and encourage the diversity of a group, as each individual brings a range of experiences to the research team. She also encourages young researchers to seek out places where this sort of environment could occur, but that even where it is difficult to envisage, a collaborative mind-set can improve the health of individual labs in any situation.

So, next time you plug in your headphones or try to look busy when somebody comes near your desk, why not try smiling and asking them what they are up to? Or tell them what you are stuck on? Maybe we all can start trying to build our network of human interactions. What benefits others is likely to benefit ourselves and, you never know, by reaching out and talking, you might be writing about what happened next in a Nature paper one day yourself.

Read the full piece from Professor Heald:
“A lab co-op helps young faculty members to thrive”. Comment and Opinion. Nature 556, p. 402

Liza Olkhova

How Genomics Reshaped Our Understanding of Human Evolution

By Liza Olkhova

What is the definition of the classification term ‘species’? In biology class we usually learn that members of the same species are capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring. However, with recent discoveries of the new species within our genus Homo and some genomic revelations about our own species Homo sapiens sapiens, this definition suddenly becomes a blurred one.

This story is ultimately about caves, bones and stretches of genetic code, which can be aligned and compared between different species to give us an idea of how closely related they are and even an estimation of the point in time at which they diverged.

Denisova molar replica (Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Most of the Neanderthal genome was obtained from individuals found in the Vindija Cave, Croatia, and it shows that present day humans of European descent carry approximately 1-4% of the Neanderthal genome. It means that our species was successful at interbreeding with other species of the Homo genus.

In 2010, a major finding was made within one of the caves located in the Altai Mountains, southern Siberia. Denisova Cave had ancient secrets buried inside, including the remains of another yet-undescribed hominin: a tooth and a finger bone, from which DNA was extracted. At this point, a pattern started to emerge, and decoding the DNA demonstrated that Homo sapiens had also bred with Denisovans. However, stretches of Denisovan genetic information can also be found in modern-day Melanesian populations, for example, in Papua New Guinea. This poses the intriguing question of how Denisovans or the Homo sapiens who interbred with them might have migrated to these regions from Siberia.

An evolutionary tree according to Darwin and most people’s understanding of evolution is represented by clear-cut linear branches with distinct separation. As with the majority of biological processes and events, however, it is a lot more complex: we are now able to see how these branches intertwine, giving us a much messier, but complete, depiction of evolution of our genus. Blue arrows on this tree show interbreeding and the moment in time where it was most likely to occur. This representation shows that Denisovans and Neanderthal groups are more closely related to each other than either of them to Homo sapiens.

To complicate matters even further, geneticists that have looked at over 5000 genomes collected from across the globe have found that some of the ancient chunks of DNA do not match Neanderthal nor Denisovan DNA sequences, hinting at the existence of another yet unknown ghostly hominin species.

As both Neanderthals and Denisovans are extinct, we are the only modern human species remaining. However, our species’ capacity to interbreed with both means that we still carry their DNA within us .


Post was inspired by a book called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived written by Adam Rutherford. If you would like to find out more head over to:


Joanna Ciafone

Next Week: Pint of Science

This 14-16 of May, Newcastle will be joining hundreds of cities across 21 countries in hosting Pint of Science. Some of the toon’s best-loved venues will see local researchers sharing their cutting-edge and thought-provoking work with a diverse audience. From brain transplantation to galaxy formation and understanding arsonists, there’s a topic to entice everyone. Think digestible science in a relaxed atmosphere. Delicious!

Tickets for the 12 events are still available but going fast!

Contributors from {react} will be cosying up to the bar next week so keep an eye out for blog posts on their experiences coming soon!


Emma Kampouraki

8 tips for effective time management during revision or dissertation writing

By Emma Kampouraki

Exam and writing-up periods are the worst, we all admit that. Especially when the weather starts making our days brighter and our mood better. So many interesting and pleasant things to do, so little time… What shall we do with the unpleasant ones, though? Follow me to explore 8 ways to make the most out of your time of study.

1. Prepare your notes early

I’ve always found myself panicked when starting studying for an exam. I was that student who would keep a notebook for one module and it would end up having notes for multiple modules (or even recipes). So, it used to take me 2 days to sort out what’s relevant and what’s not.

This is not a good example, so don’t follow my rule! If you are like me, tackle the issue early, always carry some blank notebooks or sheets with you, or start early! Before the end of the term, start working on your notes, numbering them according to the lectures, slides and further reading material available. It will save loads of time and won’t add fatigue to your shoulders during revision.

If you spend your last term writing up, then it’s worth starting preparing your introduction early by making notes on papers you’ve read or creating an online library using EndNote. Your methods will also be in your lab book quite early, so make sure you transfer them to your word document. It’s all about making a start really!


2. Make a realistic schedule

Start by setting the basic parameters of your revision, described by the following questions: “what module I am studying for each day?” and possibly (if you can) “what amount of the curriculum will I have finished each 3-4 of days?”. If you organise it strictly by day, something will go wrong and you’ll be depressed from the first week of revision.

Same with your dissertation; start early and set deadlines for your introduction. You’ll soon realise you needed more allocated time for this part and maybe less than what you had expected for methods and results. Plan realistically and leave some margin for procrastination and bad mood.


3. Follow the schedule and reward yourself

At the end of each day, whether it’s early or late, go back to your precious schedule and compare where you should be and where you are. If you’re close enough, you might consider continuing for another half an hour to reach your target. Otherwise, you might give up.

In any case, remember to buy some treats for yourself for each target you reach. Hopefully, it will increase your motivation! Oh and… ask your flatmate or friend to keep them, it’s always a better idea!

4. Change the environment

Sitting on the same chair, looking at the same view and studying at the same place for a month won’t offer you something important you need during this period of time: visual memory.

I have always combined spaces with information. Something I did, the way I was sitting, the person or the wall in front of me were different while I was studying about this rare genetic syndrome. That’s how I now remember it’s symptoms. Don’t you believe me? Well, try it! Replace your desk at home, with the library, then a quiet cluster and then a different library. You’ll see it happening automatically, especially for information you don’t really care about.


5. Keep the 10-minute break precise

One of the biggest rules of exams is a ten-minute break for every hour of study. This has been predicted from the average time our concentration lasts. Therefore, even if you don’t organise this break, you’ll have it in the form of not paying attention to what you study.

Keep your break short enough so that you don’t get totally out of the flow. Also, make sure it’s a proper relaxing break, so avoid stimulating activities such as playing video games.

Stay away from social media, as well. It can take hours to find the courage to close the “window”/app.


6. Prepare your biological clock

Different students choose different times of the day to study. I was one of those students who would start in the morning and would finish in the evening. Night was not my best as I always felt sleepy. It was important that I organise my lunch and dinner at reasonable hours to keep my brain up and running. I would wake up early and go to bed quite early.

If your daily routine differs, you would have to consider keeping it stable for the whole revision or writing-up period, as any changes would disturb your brain function and would take days for your body to adapt. For this reason, make sure you keep in mind your biological clock, without leaving behind your examination hours. Imagine staying up the whole night and struggling to wake up at 9am for your exam at 10am. NOT pleasant at all and probably impossible!


7. Fruits and chocolate vs salty snacks

Leave your favourite crisps in the cupboard and avoid hamburgers from McDonalds. Choose healthier options for your breaks. Fruits will help your body stay hydrated, without overloading your stomach and making you feel hungry all the time. A significant quantity, combined with yogurt, cereals and/ or chocolate will feel in the gap much better. Vitamins and minerals will help you stay focused, taking good care of yourself will increase your confidence and chocolate will definitely provide enough glucose for our brain.

8. Repeat before sleep

This only applies to ‘revisioners’. A final tip I always follow is: keep a note of the most difficult things, the ones you’ve failed to remember the whole day, then give it a read just before you turn off your lights (and brain) in bed. While asleep, you will subconsciously repeat it, you might even dream of it and in the morning it will be somewhere in your mind when you need it.

These might sound too much or impossible to implement. They are not! Certainly, there are few of them you definitely follow already. Your experience will show you the best way to study and that will be according to your results. So, think about these small details that make great changes and adapt them to your own study needs. Good luck with this and your exams and try the best for yourself.