Cassie Bakshani

Say ‘no’ and work better

by Cassie Bakshani

As early-career researchers, and as young people in general, the pressure to say ‘yes’ can become a little overwhelming. ‘Yes’ to work requests, ‘yes’ to exciting collaborations, ‘yes’ to having at least some semblance of a social life.

Whilst no doubt there are plenty of useful opportunities that can enrich your life and career, it’s important to recognise that an opportunity, even one that is perceived to be life-changing and unmissable, is only actually life-changing and unmissable if you have the capacity to fully commit yourself to it. If you aren’t able to input sufficient time and resources, the experience won’t be productive for you, or anyone else involved. Really, what I’m trying to say, is there is also great value in politely declining, or in other words, saying ‘no’.

Saying no, contrary to the voice in your head, does not represent failure or inadequacy. It’s about knowing your worth and the extent of your capabilities, whilst acknowledging that by taking on anything further, you could jeopardise the success of existing commitments. Spreading yourself too thinly can have serious implications, not only for your professional integrity, but more importantly, for your mental and physical wellbeing.

Practise and embrace saying no. Some of the most accomplished scientists in history are renowned for their dedication to pondering specific problems, not on the length of their ‘to-do’ list. Slow the pace, reduce the complexity and fulfil the obligations you already have, to the very best of your ability. In doing so, you’ll give yourself more time to appreciate the quiet moments of contemplation.

Cassie Bakshani

Virtual reality: the new kid on the block in memory research

by Cassie Bakshani

Memories are intrinsically linked to context; sounds, smells and other types of sensory stimuli can affect how a memory forms and is retrieved. The environments associated with conventional neuropsychological assessments, such as inside an MRI scanner, is a very different context than that of everyday memory situations. Consequently, traditional methods often do not accurately reflect an individual’s regular day-to-day memory ability.

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In light of this, virtual reality (VR) technology is currently being explored as a tool to aid memory research. VR is defined as any three-dimensional, computer generated environment that transports the user to a place that is different to that of their physical surroundings. Within this space, the user can explore, interact with objects, or perform certain actions. Virtual reality alleviates the issue of context associated with conventional memory tasks, as it provides a unique platform, whereby an immersive visuospatial context can be generated. Within the virtual environment, memories can be formed and/or retrieved in relation to a higher degree of prosaic cognitive demands, thus enhancing the ecological relevance of the data collected.

Data from VR headsets can be downloaded and analysed wirelessly. By recording the brain signals of a participant whilst they are simultaneously immersed in the virtual environment, specific neural oscillations can be identified that are associated with learning and navigating through new environments. Researchers are then able to quantify how these oscillations relate to successful memory formation. VR technology is revolutionising memory research by allowing us to understand more clearly what is happening in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain during the formation of new memories and the retrieval of old memories.

From a methodological perspective VR is advantageous as it allows researchers to standardise assessment conditions and to maintain experimental control over critical features of the learning and testing experience. Another benefit is that environments can be constructed that would be impossible, or at least highly impractical, to create using traditional methods. For example, it is possible to rapidly modify environmental features and, in doing so, customise the visuospatial context to meet specific task requirements- participants can even be teleported between environments and thus, contexts. Virtual environments and scenarios explored in the literature for memory research purposes include a car, a shop, a kitchen and a maze, amongst others. This ability to generate and manipulate the environments more commonly found in daily life is significant because it ensures the results are more representative of everyday memory situations.

The applications of VR in memory research are extensive and its worth has already been realised in many areas. Applications include rehabilitation following post-traumatic amnesia, treatment of individuals with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, understanding prospective memory in stroke patients and the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. One particularly concerning aspect of Alzheimer’s disease, and other types of dementia, is the loss of sociality and subsequent feelings of isolation, which often succeed the loss of physical autonomy. VR is now being implemented as a form of therapy, called reminiscence therapy, to help combat this issue in individuals with dementia. With the help of family members and carers, the person can be immersed in familiar environments or those that relate to important parts of their past. The hope is that this technology will encourage the generation of autobiographical memories and help those with dementia to retain or regain a sense of self, and along with it a renewed confidence to socialise.

It is truly remarkable to think that technology that started out as a means to provide interactive theatrical experiences could have such far-reaching implications. Not only in how we study brain functioning and cognition in humans, but also how we respond to and treat those with serious cognitive impairments.

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Cassie Bakshani

The legacy of Koko the gorilla

by Cassie Bakshani

Hanabi-ko, or Koko, as she was affectionately named, was a female western lowland gorilla born at San Francisco Zoo on July 4th 1971. She spent most of her life at the Gorilla Foundation in California and it was here that she died in her sleep on June 19th, 2018, at the age of 46.

Koko, an ambassador for her species, was instrumental in developing our understanding of cognition in great apes. In 1972, Stanford University graduate and developmental psychologist Francine Patterson began teaching one year old Koko American Sign Language. The infant gorilla was initially confused and reluctant, and would attempt to bite Francine when she moulded Koko’s hands into the correct configuration for a sign. However, after moving Koko away from the distractions of the zoo enclosure and introducing her to more isolated living quarters in a mobile trailer, Francine reported that Koko was acquiring new signs at a rate of one sign per month. By seven years old, it was estimated that Koko possessed a working vocabulary of approximately 375 signs. By the time of her death, she was able to understand more than 1,000 words.

Communicating in this way, Koko provided valuable insights into the minds of great apes, including their emotional capacity and information processing abilities. Researchers marvelled at her ability to express herself in a ‘humanlike’ manner, discussing her likes and dislikes using aspects of our own language and demonstrating empathy within interspecies relationships. Notably with an adopted kitten named All Ball, with whom she developed a close maternal bond, she displayed behaviours we associate with grieving upon learning of his death, signing the words ‘bad, sad, bad, frown, cry-frown, sad’.

Koko provided an example of how our closest living primate relatives rely on complex social interactions to navigate through daily life. Nevertheless, whilst scientists learnt a great deal from studying Koko, it is important to recognise the sacrifice she was required to make to her everyday existence purely to fulfil our scientific curiosity. The ethics associated with confining an intelligent animal in unnatural conditions are concerning, particularly, as in Koko’s case, where she was largely unable to communicate with others of her own kind, let alone in the social group-settings observed in wild gorilla families.

Koko’s impact will undoubtedly be long-lasting and it is my hope that we reflect on this experience and allow it to inform how we, as scientists, study animals in the future. We have a duty to ensure focus on not only our intellectual gain, but also on the physical and psychological wellbeing of these incredible animals.

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?

Archive Cassie Bakshani

Pioneers for Women in STEM

By Cassie Bakshani

Last week we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Curie, the first person in history to become a double Nobel Laureate. Remembered for her discovery of polonium and radium and her contribution to development of cancer treatments.  It was deflating to read in the same week that only 47% of respondents, from a 3000-person survey conducted by YouGov, could name any woman scientist. In light of this, I thought I would share some of the incredible women- some you will (hopefully) know and others you may not- who have amplified my interest in STEM fields and reinforce my aspiration to pursue a career in science.

Rosalind Franklin: British Chemist
After attaining a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945, Franklin was appointed at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. Here she worked with Jacques Mering, who taught her crystallography and X-ray diffraction. Franklin developed an expertise in X-ray diffraction and in 1951 began applying these techniques to the study of DNA fibres. This ultimately led to her discovery of the structure of DNA, documented in the famous Photograph 51. Unfortunately, however, Franklin was never truly accredited for this monumental discovery.

Grace Hopper: Mathematician, Military leader and Computer Programmer
Hopper was responsible for the compiler, which is a precursor to the universal Common Business Orientated Language (COBOL) and translates worded instructions into code, so that they can be read by the computer. Hopper was instrumental in revolutionising computer programming and thus the development of modern computing.

Shirley Ann Jackson: Theoretical Physicist
Jackson’s 1950s research led to the development of caller ID and call waiting. This technology laid the foundation for solar cells, fibre optic cables and portable fax machines. Interestingly, she is also the first African American woman to achieve a PhD in theoretical solid state physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An outstanding achievement, made even more impressive when you consider that of all physics PhDs given in the USA, only 19% of these are awarded to women, and of that, only ~2.5% go to women of minority groups.

Peggy Annette Whitson: Astronaut and Biochemist
Whitson achieved numerous firsts for women astronauts, being the first woman commander to lead a space exploration and the first woman to command the International Space Station- not once, but twice. Not only this, but Whitson also surpassed her predecessor Jeff Williams’ record for most days spent in space by a NASA astronaut, creating a new record of 665 days.

Mary Anderson: Businesswoman and Inventor
It’s likely that you have used Anderson’s invention countless times without realising. In 1903, Anderson was awarded a patent for the development of a windscreen wiper, which would alleviate the dangerous and highly impractical need for a driver to lean out of the cabin to clear the windscreen. Anderson showcased her invention to numerous car companies, but it remained unpopular due to the perception that it would ‘distract drivers’. The windscreen wiper later became standard in car design and manufacturing; however, Mary was never recognised as the inventor and thus never profited.

Rosalyn Yalow: Nuclear Physicist
Yalow developed radioimmunoassay together with Dr Solomon Berson, which can be used to measure small concentrations of bioactive molecules in the blood, including hormones. Using this method, Yalow and Berson tracked insulin, by injecting radioactive iodine into their patient’s blood. In doing so, they found that type 2 diabetes can be attributed to an inefficient use of insulin by the body, rather than a lack of insulin.

Esther Lederberg: Microbiologist and Geneticist
Lederberg was true trailblazer in bacterial genetics, responsible for the discovery of the lambda phage. The lambda phage is a bacterial virus with a mechanism of virulence which differs from other viruses; it doesn’t destroy cells, but rather integrates its DNA into the bacterial DNA, thus ensuring it is spread to subsequent generations. It is still used successfully as a tool to study genetic recombination and gene regulation. In addition, Lederberg invented the replica plating technique, which can be used to isolate and analyse bacterial mutants and monitor antibiotic resistance.

Josephine Cochrane: Socialite turned Inventor
Cochrane was known for hosting many dinner parties at her home with husband William Cochran. Due to frustration with inadequate cleaning of her fine china by their housekeeping staff, she endeavoured to create a machine that could clean her dishes more effectively. Whilst at this time she was successful in producing a prototype, the machine was never put into construction. Following the death of her husband in 1883, Cochrane was left with $1,535.59 and crippling debt. This instigated the commercialisation of her invention and following collaboration with mechanic George Butters, to optimise construction, Cochrane was awarded a patent for her Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine in 1886.

Amy Cuddy: Social Psychologist and Harvard Business School Professor
Along with Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, Cuddy developed the Social Content Model and The Behaviours from Intergroup Assect and Stereotypes Map, which are used to make judgements of individuals within social situations in two-trait dimensions, warmth and competence. This is now a universal framework which can be applied across different cultures, historical and modern-day cases to predict stereotyping and intergroup prejudices. Cuddy also delivered the second-most viewed TED talk of all time, with over 32 million views.

May-Britt Moser: Professor of Neuroscience and Founding Director of Centre for Neural Computation
Moser’s work, along with husband Edvard Moser, focusses on the neural basis of spatial location, including the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. Her research group is working to elucidate the functional organisation of the grid-cell circuit and how this contributes to memory formation within the hippocampus. She shares a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe, which was awarded in 2014.

Ellie Cosgrave: Lecturer in Urban Innovation at UCL
Cosgrave is a civil engineer by training and works now as a lecturer in urban innovation within STEaPP City Leadership Laboratory, where she is also Deputy Director. This initiative focusses on inclusive engineering, with three different target areas: gender, the smart city and how the creative arts can influence design processes. One aspect of Cosgrave’s research addresses how urban design can be improved to tackle sexual violence in cities. Cosgrave is also a Director at ScienceGrrl, a grassroots organisation which showcases the work of women scientists from diverse backgrounds.

Masayo Takahashi: Ophthalmologist and Project Leader in Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology
Until recently it was assumed that the adult mammalian retina was incapable of regeneration, however research conducted within Takahashi’s group has shown that new retinal neurons can be generated following damage. Using these insights, Takahashi developed a new approach to produce retinal pigment epithelial cells by reprogramming mature cells back into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). In March of this year, Takahashi’s iPS cell protocol was deployed in the world’s first successful retinal cell transplantation to treat macular degeneration.

Tamara Rogers: Reader in Computational Astrophysics
Newcastle University’s very own Dr Rogers specialises in numerical simulation of hydrodynamics and magnetohydrodynamics of giant exoplanets, also known as ‘hot Jupiters’. Dr Rogers used an unusual observation, that atmospheric winds on planet HAT-P-7b are variable and can move uncharacteristically from eastward to westward, to estimate the strength of the planet’s magnetic field. This ground-breaking research was published in Nature Astronomy and provides a new foundation to explore the formation and evolution of our solar system, as it can be used to elucidate size, formation and migratory paths of far-off planets.

Within the UK, the contribution of women to the total STEM workforce stands at just 21%. However, these examples highlight, that despite women representing a minority within STEM careers, we are continually at the forefront of innovation and discovery. So, just imagine what could be achieved with fair representation of the sexes in STEM.

Archive Cassie Bakshani

The (Novice) Yogi’s Guide to Mental Wellbeing

By Cassie Bakshani

It’s easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities and forget to take time to look after yourself; my previously fractious mental state and perpetual anxiety were a testament to this. I prioritised work intensely and neglected my interests, at the expense of my health and mental wellbeing. I took me a long time to realise that this lifestyle was entirely unsustainable and even then I wasn’t sure how to rectify it.

My first tentative step was scheduling time for myself, with the aim of reinvigorating old interests and acquiring new ones. That’s how I stumbled upon yoga. It looked like a fun class to do at the gym I’d just joined and two of my friends were keen to try it too. What I hadn’t anticipated was that beginning practising yoga would be a metaphorical (and actually, incidentally rather literal) sigh of relief for both my body and mind. A few sessions in and I was generally a bit less tense, ten sessions in and I was looking upon the week ahead with greater clarity and perspective. Nearly one year, one inversions class, 6427 handstand attempts and innumerable falling-on-face incidents later, I’m a different person mentally. I now do two taught sessions and three-four hours of independent practise weekly and I think it has opened me up to many of the restorative benefits yoga has to offer; it allows me to reflect, refocus, be consistently more productive and less irritable. I know some of you reading this may be a little concerned by the lack of solid evidence to back up those last statements, so let me provide some for you now.

It is well-known that meditative practices such as yoga facilitate the transition in the body from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. from fight or flight mode to rest and digest mode. This is because focusing on and controlling breathing allows practitioners to achieve a state of deep relaxation and mental calm. Subsequently, the body reduces cortisol and catecholamine levels, including epinephrine/adrenaline and norepinephrine/noradrenaline, which trigger anxiety responses, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. Moreover, a study published this year found that, when sustained for a period of 3 months or more, yoga stimulated production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein supports growth, survival and plasticity of hippocampal and cortical neurons and is concurrently involved in mood regulation and promotion of stress resilience, therefore could play a significant role in cognitive restructuring in response to stress.

Convinced yet? Maybe not, but I definitely encourage you to at least give yoga a try. It may not necessarily change your life, but it could make your day, and your head, that little bit lighter.


Here are some great yoga events and classes/workshops taking place in the North East in the coming months: