Leonie Schittenhelm

Insects on the menu

By Leonie Schittenhelm

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As the reality of climate change becomes more and more apparent and governments seem to be slow in implementing the changes needed to prevent temperatures rising above accepted limits, I’ve been thinking more about my diet. Cutting down on meat and dairy should be a no-brainer, given that their production uses 83% of farmable land and makes up for 60% of carbon emissions in the food industry. It also becomes a valuable tool for engagement when feeling powerless in the face of melting glaciers and slow-moving politics. While lentils and beans are a common way to replace meat in many recipes, there’s one option I haven’t explored yet: Insects.

While eating these chitin-covered delicacies is far from uncommon – it is estimated that over 80% of nations eat insects – I personally haven’t had far more experiences than the crispy honey-glazed grasshopper that came as part of a novelty gift. But would eating more insects solve some of the problems that come from rearing much larger livestock?

A lot of reasons speak for eating insects: studies have found that to rear the same amount of insects, over 10 times less biomaterial is needed compared to meat. Furthermore, they have extremely fast life cycles, increasing in body weight and size much faster than mammalian livestock. They are also nutritious, providing not only a source of protein and unsaturated fats but also amino acids, of which people who have mainly grain-based diets are often deficient.

However, there are also some caveats. While insect farming was generally found to be positive, dwindling wild insect populations could be further diminished by people ‘foraging’ them from their natural habitats. Another problem is the negative attitude especially western culture has towards eating insects, which could prove difficult when introducing these ingredients into the market.

I’m definitely open to including insects into my diet, even if to demonstrate that there is a market and a demand for more sustainable products. However, I will see how the next evening with friends goes when I proudly serve them some vegetable soup with a garnish of salty mealworms…


If you would like to know more about eating insects, check out these resources:

Premalatha, M., et al. “Energy-efficient food production to reduce global warming and ecodegradation: The use of edible insects.” Renewable and sustainable energy reviews 15.9 (2011): 4357-4360.

Leonie Schittenhelm

From cinnamon sniffers & milking maids – the holiday season in the lab

by Leonie Schittenhelm

Ah, it’s that wonderful time of the year. Christmas songs on every radio station, the socially acceptable amount of cookies you’re allowed to eat reaches new highs and despite gift madness, it’s nice to look forward to spending some time with those nearest and dearest to us. But scientists wouldn’t be scientists if they couldn’t make even the jolliest of all times relevant to their research. With no further ado, a special Christmas collection of published papers you can bring up over Christmas lunch with your grandma when she asks you what it exactly is that you’re doing – you’re welcome.

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Take a sniff – the smell of nutmeg, clove and – is that cinnamon? – wafts through the house and you just know it’s Christmas. Researchers actually found out that not only do people associate the smell of cinnamon with Christmas, they also tend to enjoy smelling it a lot more when the cold season comes around. I mean, who wants a gingerbread latte in late July, right?

image freely available

“On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me –“ – we’ve probably all head this song and despite frequent difficulties in remembering the correct order it is a well-loved classic Christmas carol. But Diane M. Dean took a rather unsentimental but even more humorous look when she published her paper ‘Cost analysis: the acquisition of the items listed in a popular song’ in 2007, where she meticulously estimates the total price for the gifts mentioned in the carol. An example here: To give your true love 8 maids a-milking you need 8 milk maids paid at current minimum wage, 8 cows of course and also 8 buckets (a bargain at $5/bucket) and 8 milking stools, coming to the whopping cost of $2,166.56 for only one of the items on your beloved’s Christmas wish list. While she notices a slight increase in cost between the 2005 and 2006, she also advises: “All errors and omissions will be cheerfully admitted to. This study should not be taken seriously. If you find yourself tempted to quote this study as a definitive authority at your next Christmas Party, please administer yourself more alcohol.”.

image freely available

Let’s be real – most days around Christmas will be spent in some sort of food coma. In the paper ‘The Christmas Feast’, scientists measured weight and blood glucose levels before and after Christmas and found that all 35 study participants gained weight over the holiday period, with scientists estimating that an excess of around 6000 calories were ingested. But fear not, rather than admonishing people for indulging over the days around Christmas, the researchers realistically stated ‘This study is not likely to affect any future Christmas.’. Phew, glad we got away with this one…

image freely available

And to end this article on a more whimsical note, research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, titled ‘What makes for a merry Christmas?’ actually found what we suspected all along: rather than chasing expensive gifts or being stressed about drying out the Turkey, people are happiest on Christmas if they spend quality time with their loved ones. So wherever you are this festive period, I hope you are surrounded by people you love when you tuck into that Tofurkey – environmentally friendly consumption being another predictor for a cheerful holiday season.

Leonie Schittenhelm

How to make a baby with three parents

by Leonie Schittenhelm

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It was only about 18 months ago that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted the UK’s first licence for Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT) to the Newcastle Fertility centre. But why would you need to replace mitochondria and what does that have to do with making a baby?

Mitochondria, often cheekily referred to as ‘the powerhouses of the cell’, are enormously important to transform the things we eat into the energy carrier ATP our cells use to drive basically all their activities. It is no surprise then that mitochondrial diseases, a collection of rare conditions that affect these vital cell organelles, can have far-reaching effects on the people who have them. Depending on where the dysfunctional mitochondria are located, symptoms can include epileptic seizures, muscle weakness, dementia and disease in multiple vital organs. Indeed the brain, nerves and muscles show the most severe symptoms as they use the most energy. While 0.5% of people could be classed as having a mitochondrial disease, only about 0.2% show severe symptoms, as a significant proportion of a cell’s energy suppliers has to be affected to cause disease. While these conditions can be caused by infection or adverse reactions to medication, they can also be passed down from your mother.

Here is where an interesting thing about mitochondria comes into play: you only inherit them from your mother. While fertilisation of your mother’s egg with your father’s sperm should shuffle their genes to make up a new person, this isn’t quite the same for the mitochondria present in the egg, which has its own separate DNA that the sperm cell does not contribute to at all. Here is where mitochondrial replacement therapy comes in. Mothers who are at risk of passing on debilitating and often life-threatening mitochondrial diseases to their children can now, with help of in-vitro fertilisation, transfer the nucleus of their own egg cell merged with the sperm cell of the father, containing all their combined genetic information, into an egg donated by a donor with healthy mitochondria. This not only allows these parents to have healthy biological children, but it also restricts the disease from being transferred to the next generation.

But what has happened in the 18 months since the HFEA has granted the licence to perform Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy? In February it was announced that two women affected by a mitochondrial condition called MERRF were chosen to be the first ones to receive the revolutionary therapy in the UK. While they are not the first to receive the treatment, they benefit from an integrated care pathway that includes rigorous testing of the health of both mother and child throughout pregnancy and into the first years of life, ensuring that any risks associated with the method are mediated. This could mean a huge improvement to the quality of life of the up to 150 children that have a risk of being born with mitochondrial diseases in the UK each year and hope for the carriers of mitochondrial disease that often have to think carefully if having their own children is even a possibility. And who knows, maybe we could even welcome the first British “3-person” baby before the end of this year.

If you want to read more about mitochondrial replacement therapy: Gorman, Gráinne S., Robert McFarland, Jane Stewart, Catherine Feeney, and Doug M. Turnbull. “Mitochondrial donation: from test tube to clinic.” The Lancet 392, no. 10154 (2018): 1191-1192.

Leonie Schittenhelm

How to ace your first conference

by Leonie Schittenhelm

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Scientific conferences are really cool. They just are. I mean, a ton of people interested in the same stuff you’re interested in coming together to talk about said stuff all day long? And you get snacks in between? Sign me up. But scientific conferences are also fraught with feelings of stress and insecurity – What if everyone thinks that question I want to ask is really dumb? What if my poster doesn’t measure up to what everyone else shows? How do I network with that one expert in my field, when I’m pretty sure I’ll stumble over my words because of how in awe I’m of her work? These are all hard questions.

I’m going to be really honest with you people here: I definitely did not ace my first conference. Or my second for that matter. I definitely had a problem with mostly talking to people I already knew. And I was most definitely too timid to ask a question while leaders in their fields were sitting all around me. But how do you get over that kind of stuff? And how do you ace your first (or second or fifth) conference? Here some suggestions, tested and approved by PhD students older and wiser than me. But whether you are an undergraduate student just looking to have a first whiff of the world of scientific conferences or an experienced Postdoc, conferences should be about learning new things from a variety of people and in turn let them learn from you. And eat copious amounts of snacks provided of course.

  1. Talk to people – I personally hate the word networking, but forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and chatting to a ton of new people can be really beneficial for your science. But collaborations and idea sharing aside, you shouldn’t only talk to people that you think will be somehow “useful” to you in the future. Sometimes it’s just a nice chat about the weather with a PhD student from across the country or asking one of the sponsors about their products that can make all the difference.
  2. Get active – A great way to speak to a lot of people is to volunteer some of your time at the conference to help out. Offering to be the mike runner during question time or helping to set up the presentation before the session might not only ingratiate you with the conference organisers – and potentially even shave off a couple of dollars of your registration fee – it also gives you great opportunity to chat with the speakers and other conference participants.
  3. Make sure you do your reading – Especially in bigger conferences, several sessions run at the same time, leaving you with the responsibility to make an informed decision as to which one will be the most interesting to you. Plus, by reading up a bit on the science of the session you like the most you will benefit from the little boost in background knowledge and can hit the ground running. And if you really want to talk to that one person specifically, google them and check if they published anything recently so you can chat to them about it.
  4. Review your notes – This is especially important if your hand-writing skills are as scraggly as mine. Reviewing your notes from the talks will bring back what you thought was so interesting about them in the first place and make sure you can go back to these records even in a year’s time when something clicks into place for you.

Caught the conference bug but don’t know where to start? Why don’t you sign up to Newcastle’s very own NEPG 2018 (North Eastern Postgraduate Conference) and check it out for yourself – it hits off on the 9th of November, but online registration is now open!

Leonie Schittenhelm

Just keep watching: the science behind the common TV binge

by Leonie Schittenhelm

Who doesn’t know this situation: you had the longest day, so all you want to do is go home, plop down your bag and cuddle up for an episode of your favourite TV show before an early night. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But after your first episode, you decide to watch one more, and then – the plot quickens and you just really want to make sure that one character survived the gnarly explosion – just one more. Suddenly, it’s 2am on a weeknight and you are about to assure Netflix, that yes, you are still here, and for the love of god, would they please just continue with the next episode before that latest cliff-hanger makes you die of curiosity. Those my friend, are the classic signs of a TV binge.

Just as other binges involving alcohol or food, the TV binge has moved into the focus of modern research. While the negative side effects of excessive drinking might be more immediately obvious, a team of researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Stirling and Ottawa University are arguing for the importance of investigating TV binges in their paper, ‘‘‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching”. Not for nothing is lack of physical activity number four on the list of mortality risks worldwide, and TV watching is the most popular sedentary activity during people’s free time. But what even constitutes a binge? And how do people feel about them?

These are just some of the questions the paper tried to answer by asking 110 people about their TV watching habits. They defined a TV ‘binge’ as watching more than two consecutive episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. While this seems quite a low threshold – and embarrassingly ups my TV binges per week to above the average of 1.47 that was reported by the participants – the reason that you move from the second into the third episode is that you are likely to have switched from a conscious decision to watch TV to a zombie-like ‘keep playing’-mode. This automaticity of pressing the ‘next episode’ button was reported to be especially frustrating for the study participants: most connected their excessive TV watching with feelings of regret and indicated that it interfered with pursuing other goals important to them. While a lot more research has to be done, TV binges are a cultural phenomenon that are not going away. Until we know more, I’d better get working on my personal impulse control.

Want to know more about this study? Give it a read yourself: Walton-Pattison, Emily, Stephan U. Dombrowski, and Justin Presseau. “‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching.” Journal of health psychology 23, no. 1 (2018): 17-24.

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.

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Leonie Schittenhelm

PhDs and how to survive them

By Leonie Schittenhelm

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

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

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

Leonie Schittenhelm

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

By Leonie Schittenhelm

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

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

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


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


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!

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.