Archive Philippa Rickard

Academic anxiety – you’re not alone.

By Philippa Rickard

Eureka moments typically come during the most mundane activities. Washing the dishes, cutting the grass, showering, driving. It was during one long motorway stretch that I realised surprised: “The intellectual challenge is less than I anticipated, but the psychological challenge is so much more”. I was talking about my PhD, and my post-grad peer in the passenger seat nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

The PhD experience, for me, is a perpetual swing from feeling like a dog with a ball to a cat in a bath, great accomplishment to existential angst and back again. I have lost count of the number of times that I have burst into tears in front of my supervisors; because of malfunctioning machines, workload bottlenecks, exhaustion, even just ideas for further experiments. They tell me that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all, and they’re right, it’s not. There are so many bigger things happening in the world: wars, famine, disease, poverty, climate change. In the bigger picture, at this moment, what I’m doing, what I’m stressed about doesn’t actually matter. What I am suffering is, by popular definition, very much a ‘first world problem’. While this is a well-meaning truth, and provides some much needed perspective, ultimately it undermines my anxiety and in turn intensifies the isolation.

The University bubble is very insular, and research is a bubble within that bubble. The stage of your studies doesn’t matter or whether you are dealing with exams, coursework or general university life; stress, loneliness, anxiety and unworthiness are commonplace. You are not alone. The fact that these feelings are somewhat routine in academia is not OK (and that is another story all together), but there are ways to help yourself.

  1. Talk about it. To anyone inside or outside of your university life. You are not a failure for feeling unable to cope, and you certainly aren’t letting anyone down by admitting it. You will be surprised by how many of your peers feel the same.

  2. Plan your time each day. Especially important is to plan free time. Free time is not a luxury. If you struggle to find it, write it in your diary and stick to it.

  3. Break down your to-do list, and each task, into manageable chunks. Group things into how soon they need to be done and how critical it is that they actually get done.

  4. Assign different tasks to different times of day, according to your own cycles of focus and productivity.

  5. Find your own work locations, be it a quiet office, a noisy café or at home.

  6. Sleep properly.

  7. Eat properly.

  8. Take holidays.

  9. Spend time with the important people in your life.

  10. Do what works for you and do not compare yourself to others.

Often I feel as if I am leading a double life. I keep my ‘work’ life very much separate to my ‘home’ life. Being a PhD student is not my whole identity. Actually, it doesn’t even come close to being half of my identity. I struggle the most when I have to make sacrifices in my home life to make room for academia. To mitigate this I have learned to plan my time, down to the hour, weeks in advance. First, I plan in my time dedicated to what I enjoy, which for me is my chosen sport. Second, in goes digital or face-to-face time with friends and family (who I have normally been neglecting). Then, dead last, in goes my work time in line with deadlines and other commitments. This is by no means a perfect process, curve balls get thrown that you can’t control, and dealing with those is something I’m still learning.

That is the point of all this though. Learning. Nothing is perfect, no one knows everything, and learning is a perpetual process. There is more to life than academic credit, learn to be kind to yourself.

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Archive Leonie Schittenhelm

Celebrating women in science

By Leonie Schittenhelm

This week is British Science Week 2017, a yearly occurrence that promises a week full of talks, hands-on experiments and film-showings for the British public of all ages. With international women’s day still fresh in our minds, what better way to start British Science Week than to have a look at some of the exciting things female scientists did and do get up to all over the world? Most people will be familiar with the likes of Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winner in both Physics and Chemistry, and Rosalind Franklin, who essentially laid the foundation for the discovery of the structure of DNA . If you are not familiar, I recommend picking up the newest issue of our print magazine and checking out Abbie Kelly’s take on ‘Women in Science’ to discover some exciting new facts about these pivotal women. How about a few of the others?

Kamala Sohonie for example. As the first Indian woman to earn a PhD in science in the UK, she discovered the enzyme cytochrome c, a protein that is fundamental in how we understand photosynthesis and energy generation within cells in general. Vera Danchakoff, the first woman to attain a professorship in Russia, essentially predicted the presence of stem cells as early as 1916, when she suggested that all blood cells, as different as they may seem, originate from a single precursor. And what about present day scientists, such as Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli, the Morrocan nuclear physicist who worked on the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or Kathleen I. Pritchard, whose work on breast cancer has made her one of the most-cited scientists in the world two years in a row.

Let us know your favourite female scientists in the comments and check out the events organised for British Science Week in Newcastle over the next week – maybe you’ll meet some inspiring scientists there for yourself?

To have a look at events put on for British Science Week 2017:

Amy Tooke Archive

Who can be a scientist?

By Amy Tooke

Anyone! That’s the idea behind “citizen science” projects, where research scientists ask members of the public to help them with gathering and analysing data. Anyone who is interested in science can get involved in the latest research projects. Typically projects either involve the public collecting the data themselves and then submitting it back to the researchers, or going online to help analyse data that the researchers have already collected.

One example of the public analysing previously collected data is the Worm Watch Lab project. Run by the Medical Research Council, the project is investigating how the genetics of the nematode worm (C. elegans) affect its nervous system and behaviour. Researchers have made thousands of movies of worms with different genetic mutations, in order to study the function of those particular genes. The movies are online for members of the public to watch and report each time the worms lay eggs; so far a grand total of 74,032 videos have been analysed by 11,992 volunteers. Results have helped uncover new roles for the genes in the nervous system that were mutated. Believe it or not, many of the nematode genes are similar to human genes, which means that this information can help understand how the human brain works.

You might think that this idea of “crowd-sourced” science is relatively new in the age of social media, but some projects have been running for decades. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has been running its Big Garden Birdwatch since 1979. They ask people to count the birds in their gardens for one hour over a particular weekend in January – it’s too late to take part this year but they’ll be announcing the results soon. Last year people counted more than eight million birds over the weekend! The Big Garden Birdwatch is a wonderful example of how citizen science projects can grow and develop – it was originally started as an activity for junior members of the RSPB to do at the weekend, whilst at the same time collecting information to find out what the 10 most common species of birds were. Now, it has been running for over 35 years enabling analysis of year to year trends in bird populations. This can help to identify potential problems – then measures can be put in place to help reverse them.

What else can I get involved with?

There are all sorts of projects running at the moment. You don’t need a PhD and a lab coat to contribute to exciting science!
The Citizen Science Alliance has details of a huge range of projects over at
OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) run a number of environmental surveys, from counting bugs to pond dipping
The Big Butterfly Count runs from 14th July – 6th August and is the world’s biggest butterfly survey

Alex Martin Archive

Do medical schools’ curricula place enough emphasis on translational research?

By Alex Martin

Evidence based medicine is at the core of modern medical practice. Although institutions such as the Cochrane Collaboration and the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) produce guidelines on best practice, clinicians should have the confidence to weigh and interpret research findings and their application.

Despite this, in recent years there has been a shift in many medical schools towards more clinically-oriented training, which values early patient contact and clinical experience over the traditional medical sciences and research fluency. The selection of candidates for medical school has also shifted to emphasise empathy and social skills over scientific ability. In a medical school interview today, you are more likely to be asked about how you would approach an upset shop customer than your knowledge of the Krebs cycle. Empathy is crucial to good medical practice and this emphasis rightly selects and trains more personable and approachable clinicians. However, it may also reduce confidence in the basic science on which much traditional research is based and discourage medical students from getting involved in research or considering an academic career component.

Translational research links basic science findings to developments at the bedside. Teaching medical students about translational research and encouraging their participation in research projects which are relevant to clinical practice could bridge the gap between medical students and the science that their practice is based upon. In partnership with patients, clinician-academics can help direct research in clinically-important directions. Even for those who do not have any academic component to their career, the confidence to interpret the quality and validity of evidence for treatments will produce better-rounded clinicians.

The General Medical Council requires graduates to be a “scholar and a scientist” with the ability to “apply scientific method and approaches to medical research” [1].  However, a 2010 survey at University College Cork, Ireland found medical undergraduates had a poor understanding of translational research and perceived clinical academics as being isolated from patients [2], despite the many opportunities for patient-facing research.

It is therefore important for those who wish to promote research among medical undergraduates to widen the perception of research beyond what occurs in the lab and demonstrate that wherever your interests lie on the spectrum of bench to bedside, translational research offers the chance to make positive changes to clinical practice.

  1. General Medical Council UK. Tomorrow’s Doctors, outcomes and standards for undergraduate medical education. 2009.
  2. Burgoyne LN, Flynn S, Boylan GB. Undergraduate medical research: the student perspective. 2010. 2010;15.
Archive Beccie Brennan

Public engagement isn’t science fiction, so why does it feel so alien?

By Beccie Brennan

Despite science-fiction concepts like aliens appealing greatly to the general public, relaying scientific research can be alien to both the public and scientists. This should not and does not have to be the case. So how can we bring our scientific research to ‘life’?

Having attended a public engagement (PE) course at the Royal Society in London in October (run by Dr Steve Cross: Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow), and being involved in other PE events, I wanted to share my experience and relevant information and to help and encourage researchers with public engagement.

  • Public engagement communication
    Firstly, communication is the major barrier in PE. As researchers we often use language that the majority of others don’t speak. Imagine you are someone to whom science was alien; would you want to hear scientific terminology, or language which was easy to comprehend and relate to? The key to effective communication with others is finding common ground. Finding the level of their scientific education and cater to that level, whilst introducing something new. Can you explain your point using metaphors or analogies? If possible, find out more about the individual and explain by incorporating their interests.

  • Catering to the right audience
    Not all communication is verbal. Everyone’s learning style is unique and is a mixture of auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, logical, social, solitary, or verbal stimuli. We have all been in social situations, interviews, family gatherings, or work where we have had to explain our work to others. You might not believe it, but these are all different forms of PE. Use these opportunities to practice different means of engagement to gauge which stimuli suits their learning style to effectively help them understand. It is important to consider factors like age, gender, socioeconomic background, and ethnicity, as each will contribute to finding ‘common ground’ and accommodate to their learning style.

  • Getting involved & public engagement opportunities
    PE shouldn’t feel entirely like work. In fact, most people do it because it’s rewarding and fun! You develop key personal skills whilst socialising. Scientific funding bodies and job prospects expect researchers to do more PE and now is the best time to get involved. If you’re new to PE, contact a PE co-ordinator, or get involved with an upcoming event (there are always plenty being advertised). Alternatively, PE introductory courses are available and funding bodies have large pots of money set aside (which are waiting to be used) specifically to support PE events!

Attached are a list of useful contacts, national schemes, and opportunities to get you started, but don’t be afraid to take initiative and organise something yourself or in a group. PE can take place virtually anywhere.

  • Patient groups/ in hospitals

  • Outreach centres

  • Schools and colleges

  • Summer Science Exhibitions

  • (Science/ Arts/ Music) Festivals

  • Food fairs

  • Radio or Podcasts

I got involved with PE events during my PhD and have now been involved with various PE events organised through the University and Wellcome Trust, from national competitions to patient conferences. I also teamed up with colleagues in my lab to encourage college students in Italy to pursue research by engaging them with Biomedical Research principles. This was kindly funded by Marie Curie. For me, PE has always been enjoyable and stress-free. It has enabled me to meet new people and help them engage with the science in a fun and interesting way.

There are so many opportunities available that cater to and suit different types of people. So have a look at what might suit you, get involved and make PE feel less like ET!

Archive Christina Julius

REACT Issue 9 out soon!

By Christina Julius

Issue 9 of REACT will be out shortly so watch this space! The magazine will be themed on  ‘translation’ . As usual we will have a puzzle page. In case you can’t wait until then, here is a word search for our REACT readers.

Archive Grace Laws

Can we inoculate against fake science?

By Grace Laws

Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed and you will encounter many clickbait headlines, inevitably some of which are completely untrue. Fake news has been credited to play a role in influencing how people vote in referendums and presidential elections. The pandemic of fake news has long been in ‘scientific news’, with misleading reports such as ‘‘vaccines linked to autism”. More recently a nonsense physics paper written by IOS autocomplete was accepted for a conference. It is so easy for false information to be absorbed as truth, leading scientists to ask the question- how can we decipher fact from fiction?

Understanding the process of vaccination and applying it to fake news could offer insight. The MMR vaccine, although not responsible for autism, is effective in protecting us from measles, mumps and rubella through a process called immunisation. Immmunisation works by exposing the body to a weakened version of the disease (a vaccine), allowing the immune system to build up antibodies against it. If you then come into contact with the disease later in life, the immune system will immediately produce the antibodies needed to fight the disease and this prevents you from becoming ill. A group of researchers at Cambridge University have exploited the process of vaccination to determine whether we can inoculate against false facts on climate change.

In a recent study, researchers compared reactions to the accurate statement “97% of scientists agree on man-made climate change” to the false statement that there is no general consensus. Participants were asked to guess the percentage of consensus between scientists on the issue. In a group that was presented with the false statement after the accurate statement, there was no shift in participants initial opinions about the consensus- suggesting the lie cancelled out the truth. When participants were warned with a specific or general ‘inoculation’ against fake facts, the misinformation presented had less influence on the participants’ estimation of a consensus. By providing a warning against misinformation the researchers effectively protected against fake facts. Maybe we should take note of this warning to avoid falling susceptible to fake facts, and be wary of believing every ‘fact’ we read.

Archive Grace Laws


By Grace Laws

Are you passionate about sharing the latest research? If there is a concept in science, maths, engineering or technology you can share on stage in just three minutes then FameLab is for you. FameLab is an international competition and a fantastic, exciting way to communicate research. Previous finalists have tackled curiosities such as “Can we stop ageing?” and “The science of love”. Since 2005, FameLab has been offering a snapshot into the world of science and the 2017 competition is about to begin!

UK competitors have the chance to win a weekend Master Class alongside media & communication skills experts. Successful competitors will be given the opportunity to appear in the FameLab International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June 2017.

If you are currently working in science, technology, engineering or maths and over the age of 21 then you are eligible to join in. More details can be found on the website:

For those based in Newcastle, the Newcastle heats are taking place at the Centre for Life on the 27th January 2017. This heat will be part of the Friday Night Life adult event at the science centre.

Archive Leonie Schittenhelm

Work hard, play hard – what has LEGO™ got to do with science?

By Leonie Schittenhelm

Getting your hands on one of the coveted LEGO™ catalogues, full of marvels and usually conveniently found in toy shops, was always considered a lucky day in my house. Discussions about new models with friends and family and overturning our LEGO™ collections to build something even remotely similar invariably ensued.  My prime objective was having fun, so only in hindsight is it that I learned about all the positive effects playing with the colourful building blocks was supposed to have: improving spatial sense, honing fine motor skills and encouraging creativity. Now that I’m working in a lab full time, incidentally these are all skills I am using every day, from figuring out how a molecule might bind to a receptor to pipetting a truly minuscule amount of reagent. After facing repeated criticism for targeting their marketing campaigns increasingly towards boys, with their ranges targeted at girls often portraying harmful gender stereotypes, LEGO™ even introduced a mini-figure range of female scientists.

But LEGO™ is not only a thing to be enjoyed when you’re a child – researchers all over the world are using the brick-based toy for their own purposes. A group of researchers in Canada uses a lego-built model to teach first year medical students how to interview a patient most effectively. And – maybe not surprisingly – it turns out that building space-filling protein models out of LEGO™ is not only a more reliable way to teach protein synthesis but also might be a quick way to generate 3D geometric models of various compounds you want to visualise.

This weekend the Centre for Life, the beloved science museum of Newcastle, reopens its doors with its new exhibition North East LEGO™ Landmarks. Why don’t you check it out for yourself? I’m sure I will.


Using LEGO™ to teach med students how to talk to patients: Harding, Sheila Rutledge, and Marcel F. D’Eon. “Using a LegoTM-Based Communications Simulation to Introduce Medical Students to Patient-Centered Interviewing.” Teaching and learning in medicine 13, no. 2 (2001): 130-135.

Teaching Protein Synthesis using LEGO™: Templin, Mark A., and Marcia K. Fetters. “A working model of protein synthesis using LegoTM building blocks.” The American Biology Teacher 64, no. 9 (2002): 673-678.

Using LEGO™ as inspiration for a 3D modelling system: Eng, Markus, Ken Camarata, Ellen Yi-Luen Do, and Mark D. Gross. “Flexm: Designing a physical construction kit for 3d modeling.” International Journal of Architectural Computing 4, no. 2 (2006): 27-47.

Archive Christina Julius

Christmas spores. Merry Christmas from the REACT team

By Christina Julius

When we think about bacteria, we tend to think of spoiled food and illness. But not all bacteria are bad- they are the most diverse organisms on the planet!  They are important for a range of biochemical processes, such as helping cattle to digest grass and producing cheese from milk. To study bacteria, we can grow bacteria into colonies on plates containing a media (agar) of essential nutrients and chemicals.  We can also use bacteria to make some fascinating and festive images to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

For making these images I had a lot of help finding strains and media. I want to thank all my colleagues at CBCB (Newcastle University)- especially Yulia Yuzenkova, Amber Riaz-Bradley, Charles Winterhalter, Kaveh Emami, Fernando Santos Beneit, Valeria Verrone and Olga Chrobak.

The bacteria behind the photos

1. Christmas Tree: Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. Cyanobacteria are usually green due to photosynthesis but here it seems that the presence of a lot of glucose (food) lead the strain to turn slightly yellow.
Christmas Baubles:  Streptomyces spp. Streptomyces are actinobacteria and the natural source of many antibiotics e.g. streptomycin, tetracycline or chloramphenicol.

2. Merry Christmas: E. coli MG1655. E. coli is the most commonly used model organism in microbiology.
Stars: E. coli MG25113. This strain is genetically altered and contains GFP (green fluorescent protein). The addition of arabinose induces the expression of GFP.

3. Snowman: Streptomyces coelicolor M145. This Streptomyces produces the antibiotic actinorhodin which diffuses into the agar and dyes it blue. At prolonged incubation, the cells will start to produce spores as a survival mechanism, which would turn the snowman white.

4. Small Christmas Tree: Klebsiella pneumoniae. An opportunistic pathogen that causes urinary or respiratory tract infections and is often transmitted via hospital equipment or staff. Many strains also have a multitude of antibiotic resistances. The patients from which the strains were isolated suffered from reoccurring bacteremia (blood infection).
Christmas baubles: E. coli.The strain here is not a model organism from the lab but a blood isolate from the hospital. Some pathogenic strains of the otherwise harmless species E.coli can cause very severe conditions. Often they are multi-resistant.