Archive Jonny Bennett

Interview with Chi Onwurah, MP Newcastle Central

By Jonny Bennett



Chi Onwurah is not your typical member of parliament. Not only is she Newcastle’s first black MP, but she has had an impressive career in electrical engineering. Since training at Imperial College London, she has worked in industry for over two decades and travelled the globe. Elected as an MP in 2010, she was quickly identified as ministerial material, and now holds the office of Shadow Minister for Business and the Digital Economy. It goes without saying that very few of those sat in parliament can boast a background as diverse and as interesting as hers.

Her experience as an engineer not only makes her uniquely suitable for representing the North East, given its extensive industrial history, but has also given her insight into the way these industries do business within Europe. This has no doubt influenced her stance on the current EU debate, and we caught up with Chi so that she could explain why she has opted for the UK to remain in Europe.

Although staunchly pro-Europe, Chi says that, “I’m a proponent of a reformed, renegotiated relationship (with Europe)”. She cites that, Europe makes up our largest market for trade, but British MEPs often remain unknown and as a consequence, largely unaccountable. Chi attributes this to the fact that “a large segment of the population isn’t directly engaged with Europe”, and this may well be true; it seems likely that a majority of the population wouldn’t know who their MEP was, let alone their stance on European issues.

That said, it is her opinions on the common market that form the main basis for Chi’s argument. When we put it to her that other countries outside the EU, such as Norway, have access to the market, she rebuffs that, saying “they (member states) still have to follow and subscribe to standards without getting a voice”, alluding to the point that these countries don’t have representation in the European parliament. This view is certainly not without substance; it cost Norway an estimated £134 per person for access to the common market last year, yet they remain unable to influence the direction of policy within the market they compete.

It seems that her worries surrounding the common market are also shared by Chi’s ministry. “When we looked at a recent survey of digital start up companies, 82% were concerned that Brexit will damage their business… (there is) strong support in the tech, digital and science community that we’re stronger in Europe”.  Last month 50 local business leaders co-wrote a letter to the Newcastle Chronicle pledging their support for the UK to remain in Europe. This comes off the back of various other surveys, including one conducted for the leading scientific journal Nature, which found that of the 903 researchers surveyed, 83% would vote for the UK to remain.

Chi is also sceptical of Brexiteer’s claims that the UK would be a special case, observing that “campaigners of Brexit talk about full access to the market without free movement of people, yet nowhere else in the world is this the case”. This concern is justified; recent events in Switzerland saw them denied EU funding through the Horizon 2020 Initiative for refusing to ratify a freedom of movement treaty with Croatia.

With the EU referendum fast approaching, the eyes of European countries turn to the UK and concerns about the legacy of the referendum are being raised. Even if we vote to remain, what damage has been done in highlighting the depth and breadth of anti-EU sentiment? Chi too is worried, “it will make people question our commitment to Europe, and our place on the global stage”. Further repercussions could resonate in the years to come as European applicants choose to favour mainland European countries, which can offer a comparable standard of science, without the anti-EU feeling.

Archive Grace Laws

Modern-day Mummification: A Tool to Unravel Nature’s Physiology

By Grace Laws

Building upon the enormous success of the Bodyworlds exhibition, Dr Gunther von Hagens and Dr Angelina Whalley have brought to life the intricate features of animal physiology in their latest exhibition, Animal Inside Out. Aptly described as an “anatomical safari” with more than 100 plastinates on display, the exhibition enables an expedition of anatomy through the animal kingdom.

Plastinates in this exhibition have been created by the technique invented by Dr Gunther von Hagens. Plastination itself brings decomposition to a standstill, resulting in a completely sterile and durable specimen. The process begins by injecting formalin into the body, preserving it in the short-term and delaying the onset of rigor mortis. Dissections of the skin and connecting tissues allow for preparation of the anatomical structures. Next, liquids and soluble fats are immersed in a solvent bath. The solvent, e.g. acetone, replaces all of the liquids and fats that are otherwise problematic for preservation.  To replace the acetone in the body, a second exchange is carried out by vacuum impregnation with a reactive polymer. Following this, the body is positioned for display and hardened with gas, light or heat to finish the process. The total process is lengthy, with the average time for one plastination equal to a full year of work.

Addressing the rather large African elephant within the room, those interested in viewing the exhibition can rest assured that no animals were killed for the purpose of this exhibition. Animals have been donated through University veterinary programmes, zoos and animal groups. Although the prospect of plastination may be gut wrenching to some, the educational value of exhibits has enabled the acceptance of plastination in today’s society. The aim of Animal Inside Out is to encourage admiration and understanding of nature’s wonders. Fascinating evolutionary deviations of anatomy and organ function are highlighted, such as the powerful 11kg giraffe heart that is required to pump blood up its 1.8m long neck to the brain.  Organs from various species presented side by side allow an interactive comparison of physiology. The exhibition successfully and innovatively reveals the sophistication of anatomy to anyone interested.Animal Inside Out can be viewed in addition to on-going exhibitions at the renowned Centre for Life. A trip is definitely recommended. For more information on Animal Inside Out please visit: For more information on Plastination please visit:

Archive Becky Bramley

Inspiration from a Nobel Prize winner; Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan comes to Newcastle

By Becky Bramley

Scientist or non-scientist, everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize. It is often considered the “ultimate goal” of aspiring scientists, and remains one of the most prestigious forms of scientific achievement. Last Friday, Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan popped into Newcastle University to give a talk which would mark the 5th Baddiley Lecture. This annual event celebrates the legacy of our very own Professor Sir James Baddiley who discovered a major class of bacterial cell wall components called teichoic acids. This has attracted several high calibre speakers in the past few years, including winners of the Nobel Prize, the Lasker Award and the Louis-Jeantet.

Professor Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (let’s call him Venki) was introduced to the audience as a “quiet and modest man”. This is perhaps surprising given his list of credentials; the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, a knighthood in 2012, and President of the Royal Society by 2015. His contribution to the Nobel Prize was solving the precise structure of key components of the ribosome. This is a massive molecular machine (2.5 million Daltons worth) which translates our DNA into proteins, materialising our very being from our genetic information. As Venki elegantly describes, the ribosome “turns the blueprint of life into life itself”.

Nobody said it would be easy, and indeed the scope of the challenge is one of the things that drew Venki to this area in the first place. In his lecture, Venki described the toil of recruiting many post-docs to come “solve a subunit”, in a project with no guarantees of success. In an interview with The Guardian, Venki explains that “It takes courage to tackle very hard problems in science”. With pressure from competitors and funding stresses, it can be difficult to remain hopeful for the duration of such a difficult and ambitious project.

But this was no one-man job. In fact, solving the structure of the ribosome was a 40 year effort on the part of several research groups, and Venki shares his Nobel Prize with two other important scientists in the field. Indeed, Venki is quick to mention the key contributions of many other scientists who did not share in the glory of the Nobel Prize. The discovery is a good example of how collaboration can lead to great things in science.

Whether our ultimate goal is winning the Nobel Prize or simply obtaining a PhD, the pursuit of science takes risks – embracing uncertainty and persevering in the face of failure. Solving the structure of the ribosome helps us to better understand one of the central dogmas of biology, but this could not have been possible without endurance and the willingness to share expert skills and knowledge. So what does it take to really succeed in science? Collaboration over competition, and courage over convenience.

To read what Professor Sir Ramakrishnan has to say about his Nobel Prize:

Archive Erin Cocks

From 3D light microscopy to 3D electron microscopy workshop

By Erin Cocks

I was recently given the opportunity to attend a workshop on 3D Light and Electron Microscopy and the Gatan 3View Users conference at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. Being my first experience at an academic conference I was excited to hear from those who have helped develop the electron microscopy discipline. From those who pioneered the first Serial-Block Face Scanning Electron Microscope, SBFSEM, to the new and upcoming developments or research being done across the globe. The technique itself allows for serial sectioning and imaging of a block of tissue, which can then be annotated or segmented and 3D reconstructions made of the tissue, like the example below.

An EM orthoslice of Guinea Pig Foetal Skeletal Muscle and the 3D reconstruction of the stack of images (Scale bar is 1µm), taken from my own research. The light blue is mitochondria, green the cell boundary, the pink is chromatin and the dark blue the nucleolus in the nucleus, which has been made transparent.

The topics discussed ranged from neural tissue to plant tissue 3D reconstruction as well as new ways to optimise the processing techniques for specific tissue types. One of the advances in neuronal tissue reconstructing is the ability to now do whole brain staining (Mikula and Denk, 2015). This means that large volumes of tissue can be reconstructed all from the same brain, leading to the reconstruction of an entire mouse brain. This is all part of the ongoing Connectomics project  With these advancements in the technique we will only learn more and more about the brain and many other tissues.

A lot was learnt at the conferences, too much to put in a single blog post, and I am already looking forward to the next one in 2 years time and the other conferences and courses in between.


Mikula, S., and Denk, W. (2015). High-resolution whole-brain staining for electron microscopic circuit reconstruction. Nat. Methods 12, 541–546


For those in the Durham area


write for {react} – deadline approaching!



The {REACT} magazine is back and in the process of being revamped but we will soon be needing writers to contribute towards the next issue, with the theme of


Inline with this new theme we now have a new purpose, summarised here:

” {REACT} magazine wants to inform those interested in science on science-based research, providing an insight not only into the end products of research but all activities that go on behind the red brick doors of Newcastle’s science departments.”

With this new purpose we will be focusing more on the research happening at Newcastle University across all the Science departments, delving into the areas of science that you may not hear about everyday. We look forward to hearing more about the new and exciting research that goes on within our university and hope to keep you informed on it.