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A CAREER AS A PATENT ATTORNEY?
An intellectually challenging and rewarding career option
What Does It Involve? Training as a Patent Attorney is a career path that will enable you to combine your understanding of science with legal expertise. You will leave the lab environment yet remain at the cutting edge of science and technology, applying your knowledge and skill in a commercial context. You will help to protect intellectual property assets and grow businesses.
James Egleton MChem in Chemistry, University of Oxford (2011) DPhil in Organic Chemistry, University of Oxford (2015)
Sound Interesting? Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Munich. We welcome applications from exceptional candidates at any time of the year. Eleanor Healey BA and MSci in Natural Sciences, University of Cambridge (2011) DPhil in Structural Biology, University of Oxford (2015)
The STEMinista Revolution: an interview with Coryne Forest
[Donâ€™t] Keep Swimming
STEMming the Flow
The Gift of Life
Made in China
Domo arigato, Mrs Roboto
Unlocking the Power of Big Data
How can you mend a broken heart?
The Oxford Scientist Schools Writing Competition
Could suspended animation change the future of Accident & Emergency?
You are what you eat [and so is your baby]
The X-Inactivation Factor
Women in Wildlife Conservation
Mother of All
The Science of Spotify
editors in chief Jessica Cherry Carla V. FuenteslĂłpez Amy Fitzmaurice deputy editors Hannah Ralph Olivia Shovlin creative director Adam Story sub-editorial team Freddy Barnes Fiona Donnan Ian Foo Malhar Khushu Ellen Pasternack Bramman Rajkumar Matthew Sutton
ospl staff chairman managing director finance director tech director strategic director events director non-executive directors
Copyright The Oxford Scientist 2018
India Barrett Polly Halladay Bryce Ning Antonia Siu Harry Gosling Tess Hulton Louis Walker Bex Illes Katie Birnie
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / EDITORIAL
Editorial Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison, Annie Kenney. These women were trailblazers of the Suffragette movement, and over a century on the impact of their achievements and struggles still ring true today. In 1918, women in the UK were granted suffrage under the Representation of the People Act. Nevertheless, this right was reserved for a very specific group - women over 30 who owned property, had a university education or were married to a member of the Local Government Register. Although restrictive and overly selective, this move changed the electorate composition and heralded the start of major social change. Now, 100 years later, the issues surrounding women in society are still at the forefront of public attention.
#Sexual harassment The #MeToo went viral in October 2017, highlighting sexual misconduct allegations against Harry Weinstein and others in the workplace. Women were encouraged to tweet about their experience and ‘give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. This problem has been endemic for years, decades, centuries. Despite the differences in age, religion, and ethnicity women across the world were brought together by this campaign. 3
The so-called ‘Silence Breakers’ were elected as Time Person of the Year. On paper, men and women have the same rights. There is, however, evidence to show that this is still far from being the truth in terms of equal pay and opportunities. This is particularly relevant to the area of science. In the UK, women make up only 21% of physics and 9.1% of engineering undergraduates. Established in 2005, the Equality Challenge Units’ Athena SWAN Charter aims ‘to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM)’. In 2015, it was expanded to recognise work undertaken in the arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL). This charter covers women (and men where appropriate) in academic roles in STEMM and AHSSBL. It currently has 143 members, including the University of Oxford.
‘Women in Science’ Scientists are people who, as young children, are often interested in the natural world and how things work. They are intrinsically curious about the world around them and make a living out of asking questions. It is, however,
not enough to have inherent curiosity to succeed in this field. Perhaps the most important part of developing a career is having a person, whether that be a teacher, parent or mentor, who can inspire and support a young scientist to achieve their potential and consolidate their career. The ‘Women and Science’ Project was launched by the University of Oxford with the aim of supporting women in their decision making and offering them the opportunity to ‘explore a broad range of experiences shared by other women through video interviews’. The project focused on many issues – the culture of science, publishing, obtaining funding, having a mentor and Athena SWAN. Of the 39 women who were interviewed, many felt that they had not
been exposed to unhelpful stereotypes of science being a ‘masculine’ subject. They were inspired to pursue a career in science because they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, whether that be in research or industry. So, what can be done to extend this attitude to a wider audience? The answer will never be simple or straightforward, but it does need addressing. The role of women in science has always been a discussion point amongst scientists, and several areas of research have found that the public still see scientists as the stereotypical, white old man in a lab coat, but perceptions are changing. Here, in this Trinity Term issue of The Oxford Scientist, we choose to celebrate the achievements of women in science, as well as hail the impact that science has on women in general.
Carla V. Fuenteslópez
“Nucealic Acid Prodder”
“Big Cat Rangler”
PGCE Science (Biology)
MSc Nanotechnology for Medicine and Healthcare
PhD Human-wildlife conflict
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / NEWS
News Journal finally retracts paper claiming that the HPV vaccine causes brain damage After 17 months in circulation, a paper claiming that the HPV vaccine caused reduced mobility and signs of neurological damage in mice has been retracted by Scientific Reports. The team behind the piece, led by Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, was the subject of letters from scientific groups who objected to its experimental setup, inconsistencies between the data and the manner in which the results were described, and the potentially devastating impact of making such bold claims against a vaccine meant to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, the mice used in the study were given a dose of the HPV vaccine which was proportionally enormous compared to the dose administered to girls in a clinical setting. The injection was also delivered alongside a toxin called pertussis which makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable to drugs and other substances, further undermining the results. Health authorities are concerned that the paper, which has already been cited 20 times and mentioned on twitter nearly 1000 times, will justify anti vaccination campaigners, whose pressure on Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has already caused the organisation to stop recommending the vaccine. Written by Olivia Shovlin
Study of sweet potato busts long-held beliefs about the history of Polynesia A new report published by Professor Robert Scotland, as well as postdoctoral students Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez and Tom Carruthers from Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences, has come up with a new in5
terpretation of Polynesia’s history. In the past, reports that the sweet potato, known to have originated in America, was present on the Pacific Islands when the first European explorers arrived was used as evidence that American and Polynesian people were interacting long before explorers like Christopher Columbus came on the scene. However, this report shows that several species of the closely related morning glory actually colonised Polynesia by natural means. Not only that, but historic herbarium samples of the sweet potato (collected on Captain Cook’s 1769 voyage on the Endeavor) have been shown to be members of a plant variety which originated before humans had even colonised Polynesia. All of this suggests that the seeds of the sweet potato travelled remarkable distances without any human help at all, colonising the islands before humans even set foot there. This likely spells the end for the main piece of evidence supporting pre-Columbian interactions between the two countries. Written by Olivia Shovlin
New speed record for quantum ‘logic gates’ means we are one step closer to efficient quantum computing Researchers from the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT), led by Oxford University, have set a new speed record for quantum ‘logic gates’. Efficient quantum computers, regarded as the holy grail of Computer Science, have so far been merely theoretical machines because of their speed (current classical supercomputers are still faster) and lack of accuracy. The lead authors of the paper are Oxford doctoral student Vera Schäfer and Dr Chris Ballance, a research fellow at Magdalen College. They claim their model could increase
the speed of quantum gates by a factor of 20 to 60 compared to previous gates, with an accuracy of 99.8%, which means they have reached the accuracy demands of a quantum computer. Vera Schäfer said: ‘The next step is to think about it in practical terms and work towards scaling up our system to create a viable quantum computer.’ Written by Andrei Diaconu
New Alterego device can respond to user’s “inner voice” Researchers at MIT have developed a new wearable device, Alterego, that promises to revolutionize the way we talk to our machines by making the whole process completely silent. Using an array of electrodes that touch the face, the system manages to pick up neuromuscular signals triggered by internal verbalization - the user’s ‘inner monologue’. The processed data is then fed to a neural network that identifies the words using a probabilistic model, which are sent to a computer for analysis. The output is communicated back to the user using bone conduction headphones that transmit vibrations through the bones of the face to the inner ear. While Alterego has been tested for common day to day activities, the researchers plan to use it to help people who have disabilities where they can’t vocalize normally or even in special operations, where silence is key. Written by Andrei Diaconu
Abnormal uterine environment could cause polycystic ovary syndrome Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) causes higher testosterone in women and can render them infertile. Small follicles in the ovary, of which PCOS women have more,
produce antimüllerian hormone (AMH). This means that women with the syndrome have more AMH in their system. In a recent study, scientists have injected pregnant mice with AMH. A subset of neurons in the brain seemed to respond to the hormone by releasing increased amounts of luteinizing hormone (LH), which, in turn, causes release of testosterone and suppresses the process of ovulation, which is essential for fertility. This testosterone seemed to cross the placenta in pregnant mice, affecting development of female offspring and causing them to exhibit PCOS like symptoms in adulthood. These experiments may bring us closer to understanding the most common cause of female infertility. Written by Gerda Mickute
New Ebola Outbreak On May 8, Ministry of Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo has announced 2 laboratory confirmed cases of Ebola virus in the city of Bikoro. The BBC reports that as of May 17, there were 44 cases and 23 deaths recorded of suspected infection. Moreover, now there has been a confirmed case in a city of a million habitants, Mbandaka, which raises risk of further spread. In response to these news, WHO has decided to release US$ 1 million from its emergency funds and send around 50 experts on site to contain the virus. This effort was joined by the British government, the Wellcome trust and the United Nations, together raising millions of US$. These funds and resources are much needed as health facilities in the area of outbreak are poor and rely on international organisations for medical supplies. In addition, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has agreed to produce an emergency stockpile of 300,000 doses of rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine against the virus. Since not licensed yet, this vaccine would be used for a clinical trial in the area Written by Gerda Mickute
W O M E N A N D S C I E N C E / C A R L A V. F U E N T E S L Ó P E Z
The STEMinista Revolution: an interview with Coryne Forest
n 2008, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an alarming statistic: 52% of women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields leave their jobs due to a hostile work environment. This inspired Coryne to create ‘STEMinista Revolution’ - a movement that strives to support and encourage women in STEM careers.
What is the ‘STEMinista Revolution’? It is a movement that strives to band women with STEM careers together to support and encourage each other. I find the figures reported in the HBR article alarming! How are women ever going to change the landscape [in STEM professions] if we lose half of our meagre numbers before they can become senior leaders? Work environments and societal norms cannot be tackled single-handedly, so by banding women together we can work on their own resilience and responses to hostile behaviours at work. The movement focuses on empowering each ‘STEMinista’, a woman or anyone identifying as female, who desires to balance aspects of her life – career, partnership, mother, and self-care. The term itself derives from combining three elements: a STEM career, education or interest; the term ‘fashionista’; and a feminist ideology that believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
Are STEMinistas a sub-division of Feminists? I never thought of it that way, but I guess STEMinistas are a sub-division of feminists. Every woman with a STEM career I’ve met believes that she should be treated equally with her male counterparts in class or at work. In fact, with an increased global awareness on workplace diversity measures, female STEM graduates are a hot commodity right now. It’s what’s happening once they are in the workplace that I’m concerned about. Companies can hire all the STEM women they can find, but if the environment is bad, these women will leave and never reach the senior ranks. It’s hard for me to imagine a seething horde of STEM women marching on our capitols, demanding change. We are a rather reserved lot at heart! But when my revolution gets some teeth, who knows? Again, there’s power in numbers and STEM women know it! According to the figures reported in the HBR article, one of the most important challenges that women or individuals
who identify as female face in the workplace is a hostile work environment (HWE).
Can you elaborate on this and other challenges faced by women nowadays? I’ve been working in an R&D centre for 30 years and never would’ve classified it as a hostile environment. However, when I learnt what the HBR study calls a HWE, I can legitimately say ‘’Well, yeah, all that has happened to me’’. Hostile behaviours are broken down into three categories: office housekeeping, overlooked contributions, and social strain. Office housekeeping is the assumption that a woman will take care of certain office things (i.e. taking the notes in a meeting, cleaning the table/white boards after a meeting, planning the team-building lunch). It’s not that women don’t want to do these things, it’s just assumed they will do it. Overlooked contributions are more insidious but, in my mind, more damaging. Women are twice as likely to be interrupted when they are speaking; questions are often addressed to the men in the room; or women’s ideas are ‘glossed over’ until a man corroborates them. Women don’t “toot their own horn”
lenges? Do the challenges women in this field face differen between countries? Are women/people who identify as female deterred from pursuing a STEM career because of these challenges? Do the challenges women in this field face differ between countries?
as much as men, so often their part in a project or contribution in a meeting is not recognized. As for social strain, it is created by both men and women. Women don’t feel welcome to join the ‘male cliques’, even if they have similar interests. As for women, we are doing it to ourselves, too.
What about the challenges STEM women face outside of work? STEM women seem to be buckling under the pressure of societal norms and their career. It seems that it is the woman’s primary responsibility to take care of the household and raising children. Men are helping, but, as one of my clients put it: ‘my husband is more than happy to stop and pick up toilet paper, but I have to be the one who knows we are out and ask him to get some’. This ‘norm’ does not appear to be evolving and certainly not quickly enough. Many of the women I interviewed talked about mummy-guilt. It appears to be a special kind of guilt that women who chose to have a career experience, as it takes time away from their children. Additionally, the ever-changing realm of technology will continue to be a paradox for all STEMinistas. On one hand, the use of technology can help our lives tremendously in our jobs and with things like communication, keeping lists, tracking calendars and sharing information. On the other, it’s our biggest distraction to getting meaningful work done.
Are women/people who identify as female deterred from pursuing a STEMcareer because of these chal-
Yes and no. STEM careers tend to be stable (i.e. jobs are plentiful) and financially lucrative. Typically, the individuals who are interested in these careers tend to be quite logical; which translates into a certain percentage of women who continue to pursue STEM careers. Since people who are drawn to STEM are typically logical, those two reasons will always carry a lot of weight. Interestingly enough, there is an inverse relationship between how ‘gender equal’ a country is and how many women graduate with a STEM degree. For instance, countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway, in which women are perceived to have ‘more rights and freedoms’, the number of women with a STEM degree is lower than in countries in which women are more restricted. The prevailing theory that attempts to explain this phenomenon is that in gender equal countries, women have more choices and allow themselves to choose other fields. However, in countries with a higher disparity between genders, women see STEM as their ticket to financial freedom. In essence, women are not deterred from pursuing a STEM career because of the challenges it entails, they simply are not choosing these career paths because they have a myriad of options.
Coryne Forest is the Deputy Director for Organisation Development for a U.S. Army R&D Centre and owner of Forest Leadership Solutions. She worked as an engineer for the U.S. Army for 18 years before moving into technology leadership. A writer, speaker, workshop facilitator and coach, she strives to change the technical landscape so that there are more women in senior leadership positions. 8
WO M E N A N D S C I E N C E / JAC K F E LT HA M
[Don’t] Keep Swimming The demand for male fertility control is high.
or a long time, male fertility control (MFC) has not been a priority in the pharmaceutical industry and as such reversible contraceptive options for men are primitive and limited in number and effectiveness. Essentially three options are available: withdrawal, abstinence, and condoms. Of these, the first is notoriously ineffective, and although abstinence is effective, many would argue that it misses the point. Of course, there is also the option of vasectomy but that is very much a one-way street on the fertility front. Realistically, for many men, that only leaves condoms as a practical option. As one of the few barrier methods on the market, condoms are a leading choice for couples as they provide additional protection against STDs. That said, they can have their limitations and are far from foolproof. Because of these issues, responsibility for contraception in longterm relationships often falls on women, even though many female contraceptives have serious side-effects including depression. Obviously, this presents a major obstacle on the road to gender equality.
“Responsibility for contraception in long-term relationships often falls on women” This needn’t be the case though as demand for male contraceptives is high. A 2005 study found that around 55% of males would consider using a new contraceptive method and a recent Bloomberg report suggested that a new male contraceptive could occupy up to 50% of the total contraceptives market. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence in interest in male contraceptives and a new wave of researchers are now competing to fill the gap in the market. As with female contraceptives, the products being developed can be divided into temporary and semi-permanent methods. Temporary male contraceptives are dominated by tablets that either block sperm production or inhibit a specific step in the process of conception itself. In contrast, semi-permanent male contraceptives generally rely on methods where a physical or chemical barrier is implanted into the vas deferens (the tubes carrying sperm away from the testes) preventing the passage of live sperm.
“A new male contraceptive could occupy up to 50% of the total contraceptives market” The pills under development for temporary contraception can be further divided between hormonal and non-hormonal approaches. Much like female contraceptives, the hormonal approaches rely on interfering with the hormonal regulation of sperm production. However, they have fallen out of favour in recent years as their effectiveness is strongly dependent on ethnicity. The high testosterone pill for example reduces fertility by 90% in Chinese men but by only 60% in Caucasians. Furthermore, as with the female pill, these drugs can carry a risk of depression.
In contrast, non-hormonal methods seem to be showing more promise. The gendarussa pill, which is already available by prescription in Indonesia, is claimed to have a 99.96% success rate and complete reversal within three days. Based on a brew drunk by Papuan tribesmen on their wedding nights, it appears to work by inhibiting the enzymes that allow a sperm cell to penetrate the egg. The main limitation of gendarussa is that it has to be taken within 30 minutes of intercourse, so there’s a risk that when caught up in the moment, a couple may neglect to take it. The anti-eppin pill, although at a much earlier stage of development, also shows promise. This drug acts by mimicking a protein that binds to sperm in the testes and switches off their ability to swim. Despite this, since this pill is only now entering phase-I clinical trials, it will be many years before it actually reaches the market. It hasn’t all been straightforward for non-hormonal methods. For some time, the “clean sheets” pill that acts by preventing a man from ejaculating (whilst still allowing orgasm) looked like it might be very successful. Research into this method stalled during clinical trials when many men stated that they found their inability to ejaculate rather off-putting. Temporary contraceptives are ideal for men who are looking for flexibility and rapid-reversibility but for many men in long-term relationships, a semi-permanent method may provide greater ease-of-use and peace-of-mind. The majority of semi-permanent strategies have focused on blocking the passage of live sperm through the vas deferens. Reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance (RISUG) is a method that was developed in India and is currently under trial. It works by injecting a polymer gel into the vas that sets, narrowing the tubing and coating it with spermicidal agents. Then as sperm pass the gel they are neutralised. This process is easily reversed by flushing the gel away with a second injection. A slightly modified form of RISUG has been taken up for development in the US under the name Vasalgel and will likely enter clinical trials there soon. The latest development in this area is a variation in which magnetic iron and copper ions are added to the gel. This both boosts the spermicidal properties of the gel and allows a physician to monitor and even control the spreading of the gel throughout the vas. This may also be easier to reverse as it can be liquefied using microwaves making flushing of the vas far easier. Unlike RISUG, the intra-vas device (IVD) being developed by Chinese researchers employs a polyurethane mesh that physically blocks the passage of sperm whilst allowing fluids to pass through. The trapped sperm are then broken down and re-absorbed by the body, preventing the build-up of pressure that is sometimes seen after vasectomies. What’s more, as with RISUG, it is easily reversed simply by removing the IVD from the patient. The latest development in vas-blocking methods is the so called “Sperm Switch”. Developed by German carpenter Clemens Bimek, it combines the convenience and peace-of-mind of a semi-permanent method with the rapid reversibility of a temporary method.
The device includes a valve that wraps around the vas, which when closed blocks the passage of sperm. The valve can easily be opened and closed via a switch that is accessible through the scrotum. To date however, only Bimek himself has had a â€œSperm Switchâ€? installed and little is known about its safety and effectiveness. Critics have expressed concern that the device may cause scarring that would allow sperm to flow even in the closed position and that if left closed too long, the vas may become permanently blocked. Nevertheless, with so many products under development and many of them near to or even at the point of being marketed in certain
countries, it is an inspiring time for male fertility control. Vasalgel for example could be on the market in the West within the next decade or so, with other methods following shortly behind. That said, there is a danger in letting expectations get too high. For decades we have been told that scientists have finally developed a male pill, only for it to fall flat due to ineffectiveness or side-effects. This could easily happen to any or all of the products that are under development today and it raises an interesting question. Would the female pill have still reached the market if it was developed today?
W O M E N A N D S C I E N C E / V I C T O R I A G R AY & A S H E R W I N T E R
STEMming the Flow More should be done to encourage young women to pursue STEM subjects.
n the earlier years of education, girls and boys seem to have an equal ability and inclination to study science. A study of 1,000 girls and young women (aged 11 to 30) has shown that there is on average only a five year window to cultivate enthusiasm and passion for STEM subjects. The study, commissioned by Microsoft, indicates that girls in the UK are attracted to these subjects aged 11 but interest drops dramatically by the age of 17— around the time that girls are choosing their early career paths. This highlights the importance of secondary education to encourage teens’ interest in STEM, and raises the question—do girls lose interest or do they feel discouraged? Girls and boys have similar levels of attainment in GCSEs, but girls on average tend to score a couple of percentage points higher, both in individual subjects and across the curriculum as a whole. (Infographic – GCSE attainment)
“Based on this it cannot be argued that girls have a lower aptitude for STEM subjects: something else is driving the reduction in girls undertaking further study.” Based on this it cannot be argued that girls have a lower aptitude for STEM subjects: something else is driving the reduction in girls undertaking further study. One possibility is gender stereotypes surrounding intelligence, which are perpetuated from a very young age. These stereotypes portray high-level intellectual ability as a male trait and are likely to discourage girls from pursuing STEM subjects, which may be perceived to require an inherent brilliance rather than commitment, hard work and a passion for one’s subject. A study in 2017 indicated that this stereotype is ‘endorsed by, and influences the interests of, children as young as six’. This has an immediate effect on the pursuit of STEM related activities and may continue to influence desire to undertake these activities as they reach these key five years. This drop off is reflected in the dramatic difference between high levels of attainment in STEM GCSEs at the age of 16 and the number of young women choosing to continue to study these subjects at A Level. Generally, girls in A Level classrooms for STEM subjects will find themselves in the minority— with some exceptions, such as biology. (Infographic – A level attainment) This imbalance is also reflected in imagined ideas of individuals who have STEM orientated careers. Many prominent scientists seen in the media are male. The Draw-a-Scientist test, which asks young people to make a drawing of a scientist, finds that a large proportion still depict a stereotypical scientist— a white, ageing man in a lab coat surrounded by various complicated looking pieces of equipment. This reinforced perception that science is a ‘boys club’ may discourage them from continuing to study the sciences in their teenage years as they attempt to fit in with their peers. Encouragingly, this perception is beginning to shift – now, close to a
third of drawings are of female scientists (versus ~1% 50 years ago). As young women look ahead to their future careers, they need to be able to imagine themselves in a potential job and climbing the metaphorical career ladder. How can they do this when they are unable to see women like themselves currently occupying these roles? It is especially true in biological and clinicals science that more women than men are now studying for a degree. Of course, this is not the case for all areas of science. (Infographic – degree level proportions) Despite this, women are still not publishing papers at anywhere near the same rate as men. Additionally, there is a so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ where women seem to leave scientific careers early. So why is this happening? Women are in general less likely to obtain grant funding than men for academic research. This is true across almost all areas of science and even when applications differ only in the gender of the author. Indeed, this disparity may contribute towards a climate where women feel less valued and so are less likely to even apply for grants. The proportion of women publishing in pure science is even lower – the simple reason is that there are fewer women attaining undergraduate degrees in pure science than applied science. Women may experience more stress due to the specific pressures and discrimination they face in their jobs. In 2008 the Athena Factor report (an industry sponsored investigation into barriers for women in STEM) found that in male-dominated jobs, women were more often fired for mistakes; men got second chances, women did not. There are other problems that contribute to this increased anxiety such as women being viewed less favourably than men in positions of authority. It is more likely that these issues will be encountered after women’s time as an undergraduate, which could explain why their contributions drop off after this point—they are pushed out. There is a more quantifiable factor too. Namely, women leave their careers to start families. Research careers are dominated by short term contracts and very poor job security, meaning researchers cannot easily return after maternity leave. Of course, trying to find a work-family balance has an impact on men too, but domestic labour tends to disproportionately fall on women.
We must try and find a way to keep these bright young women encouraged and engaged, not only for the fantastic contributions they could make to scientific understanding, but also so that they can become role models for future generations.” Many organisations are conducting reviews and setting quotas with the aim of addressing sexism in evaluating job and grant applications. The solution to the institutionalised sexism that can drive fe-
male researchers away is less obvious. To really fix the â€˜leaky pipelineâ€™ there needs to be more support for women who have children. It is apparent that some girls have a talent for these subjects that we are losing; whether they choose not to pursue STEM subjects beyond A level or leave during their postdoctoral years. We must
try and find a way to keep these bright young women encouraged and engaged, not only for the fantastic contributions they could make to scientific understanding, but also so that they can become role models for future generations. For this to happen, there needs to be a real pushâ€”both from within and outside academia.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / ELEANOR FREW
The Gift of Life Meet three remarkable women whose research is helping us live longer.
he history of women in science has been marred by battles. In the past, their biggest battle was to even be allowed to study. Fortunately, women are no longer battling to access the lab. Instead, they’re fighting the biggest challenges that face humankind. Here are three women who have led ground-breaking research to help the world overcome severe diseases.
“Fortunately, women are no longer battling to access the lab. Instead, they’re fighting the biggest challenges that face humankind.”
Dubbed the “matriarch of modern cancer genetics” by Nature, Rowley was one of the first people to identify cancer as a genetic disease. Before this, it was thought that changes in chromosomes were an effect of cancer, not a cause. In the 1970s, during a spell in Churchill Hospital, Oxford, Rowley was experimenting with highlighting chromosomes using a technique called Giemsa staining. This uses a compound that binds strongly to regions of DNA with significant adenine-thymine bonding. Rowley perfected methods called banding techniques to highlight certain parts of chromosomes instead of the entire structure. But it was Rowley’s later work that proved her biggest achievement. After leaving Oxford, she began using banding techniques to compare the appearance of normal and abnormal chromosomes, which lead to an important breakthrough. While studying abnormal chromosomes in leukaemia patients, Rowley noticed that chromosome number 22 was longer than normal, and chromosome number nine shorter than normal, by the same amount. This revealed the mechanism of translocation, a process where pieces from one chromosome break off and attach to another. Rowley was the first person to realise that translocations are the causes for some diseases. By 1990, around seventy translocations had been identified as the causes of various conditions, work made possible by Rowley’s keen eye and scientific intrigue.
After receiving her Ph.D. from the Pasteur Institute, Barré-Sinoussi began exploring the relationship between retroviruses and cancers. A retrovirus is a virus that attacks a cell and uses an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to convert RNA into DNA in order to integrate into the host cell. The cell replicates this new, altered sequence. During this research, the AIDS epidemic struck, and Barré-Sinoussi and her group began to investigate if a retrovirus was the cause of AIDS. They investigated the lymph glands of AIDS patients and found a virus present that attacked the DNA in lymphocytes, blood cells that protect the body’s immune system. They noted that if new lymphocytes were added, the disease would still occur, a characteristic of a retrovirus.
The retrovirus discovered would later be known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. This kickstarted the hunt to find medicines to treat it, greatly helping to improve the prospects of those battling the disease.
At the time Goldman-Rakic began her research, the view was that the frontal lobes of the brain were far too complex to be analysed in detail. This was her first battle. Fortunately, it didn’t stop her harnessing new techniques, like radioactive tracers, to map the brain. Using her images, Goldman-Rakic was the first person to understand the power of the prefrontal cortex and link it to memory. She then set her mind to studying the relationship between dopamine and functions of the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons to transmit signals related to movement and emotions, and Goldman-Rakic identified the link between dopamine deficiencies and diseases like Parkinson’s. She investigated the effects that different dopamine concentrations had on the result of special delayed response tasks. These are tasks involving objects whose result is dependent on the outcome of the previous task. Goldman-Rakic found that low dopamine concentrations negatively affected the results, linking low concentrations to a poorer shortterm memory. The effect of dopamine depletion that Goldman-Rakic discovered has led to some important treatments, like enzymes that can increase the strength of weak neuron signals. This was a crucial finding for neurological disorders like schizophrenia and a real leap forward in the treatment of those debilitating conditions. These are just three examples of pioneering women, who you may not have heard of, and their medical breakthroughs that are now taken for granted. Luckily for us, there are more amazing women fighting medical battles and pushing the boundaries of medical research as we speak.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / JAC QU I G I L L
Made in China Tu Youyou, the first Chinese woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, made huge sacrifices to develop a treatment for malaria.
n 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of artemisinin as a treatment for malaria. She was the first woman from the People’s Republic of China to win a Nobel Prize, and her story is one of personal sacrifice, self-belief, and extraordinary commitment that ultimately lead to her saving millions of lives.
“Her story is one of personal sacrifice, self-belief, and extraordinary commitment that ultimately lead to her saving millions of lives.” Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases on Earth. In 2016, the World Health Organisation estimated that there were 216,000,000 cases, resulting in 731,000 deaths. It is typically caused by a bite from a female Anopheles mosquito, which passes on a Plasmodium parasite in its saliva. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, fatigue and headaches, and in severe cases, seizure, coma and death. Evidence for the symptoms of malaria can be found throughout recorded history, particularly concentrated around the equator. The word “malaria” comes from the medieval Italian mala aria, which literally translates to bad air. The ancient Romans struggled tremendously with the disease, at the time known as “Roman Fever”, and it is considered to be at least partially responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. Many traditional peoples had developed remedies to treat malaria with varying success, and in the 17th century, Europeans began to use quinine to treat the symptoms, which they isolated from the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Cinchona bark had been used by the indigenous peoples of South America as a muscle relaxant, but also proved effective for the treatment of malaria. Quinine remained the antimalarial drug of choice until the mid-20th century, when a related compound called chloroquine began to be used as it had fewer adverse side effects. However, resistance to these antimalarials soon emerged. On 30th December 1930 in Ningbo, Zhejiang, an Eastern coastal province of China, Tu Youyou was born. Her father worked in a bank, and her mother looked after Tu and her four brothers. After contracting tuberculosis at age 16, Tu decided to pursue a career in medical research. She graduated in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Peking University in 1955. Tu lived through some tumultuous times in China. In the November following her graduation, the Vietnam War broke out. The fight revolved around the North Vietnamese efforts to reunify Vietnam, which was viewed by the South Vietnamese and other anti-communist countries as an attempted communist take-over. The North Vietnamese army, along with the pro-communist Viet Cong army in the South, were supported by communist allies including the Soviet Union and China, where Tu Youyou was just beginning her career in research.
To provide support to troops in the South, the North Vietnamese used the Ho Chi Minh trail, a series of mountain and jungle trails running from North Vietnam, through South Vietnam, to Laos and Cambodia. However, many of the troops became infected with chloroquine-resistant malaria when passing through this area. China, which had been suffering with malaria in many of its southern provinces for a very long time, was asked by North Vietnam for help researching a new treatment for chloroquine-resistant malaria. On 23rd May 1967, China launched Project 523, a secret drug discovery programme focussing on synthetic drugs and traditional Chinese medicine as potential antimalarials. The Great Cultural Revolution in China had just started and led to many universities being shut down. It was during this time that Tu started her research into malaria at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. In 1969, she was appointed head of Project 523. She was sent to Hainan, the smallest, southernmost province of China, over 2000 kilometres away from her husband and two young daughters in Beijing. Not long after Tu had left, her husband, a metallurgical engineer, was sent from Beijing to train in the countryside as part of a policy to relocate privileged urban youth out of cities. Their four-yearold daughter was sent to a nursery in Beijing, and their youngest daughter, who was just one year old, went to live with Tu’s parents. The family remained separated for several years. Tu has spoken of her youngest daughter who, heartbreakingly, “couldn’t recognize me” when she visited her three years later, and how her eldest daughter “hid behind her teacher” when Tu picked her up. Tu quickly set to work scouring traditional Chinese medicine books for potential antimalarial remedies. Because malaria had existed in China for such a long time, there was a large amount of literature surrounding its treatment. Tu collected over 2000 potential recipes and began screening them for their effectiveness as antimalarials. Eventually, she came across Qinghao, the Chinese name for Artemisia plants, which include at least six different species. Unfortunately, the species or part of the plant that was effective was not mentioned in the books. Initially, Tu found that Qinghao produced mixed results in malarial animal models. However, she later became concerned that in traditional medicine, most herbs are boiled in water and concentrated into a drink before use. She wondered if the high temperatures used in her extraction of Qinghao had denatured the active compounds. Tu redesigned her experiments at lower temperatures, and also separated the leaves and stems of the herbs. In October 1971, 4 years after she had begun work on Project 523, Tu and her team found that this modified extraction technique using one species of Qinghao, called sweet wormwood, had 100% effectiveness in inhibiting malaria parasites in rodents. In January 1972, the same success was achieved in malaria-infected monkeys. They named the compound Qinghaosu, or artemisinin.
Due to the Great Cultural Revolution, and the secret nature of the work, there were no pharmaceutical labs available for Tu’s team to scale-up their extractions, so the team carried out extensive amounts of extractions themselves. Due to poor facilities and long-term exposure to the compounds, some of the team members, including Tu, started to show adverse symptoms, but they persevered.
“To prevent having to delay the project until the next malaria season a year later, Tu bravely volunteered to take the compound herself.” By July 1972, the malaria season in Hainan was coming to an end and the team were experiencing problems determining the toxicity of the compound in animal studies. To prevent having to delay the project until the next malaria season a year later, Tu bravely volunteered to take the compound herself, along with two other team members. Thankfully, there were no negative side effects, and the team was able to begin clinical trials in time. The
clinical trials were successful; all patients recovered from their fevers, and no malaria parasites were detected post-treatment.
“Tu credited “strengths from both Chinese and Western medicine” in the discovery of artemisinin.” The results of the study were not published until 1979. Although the scientific community was initially hesitant to accept the results, by the mid-2000s, artemisinin-derived compounds had become some of the major antimalarials and are now one of the World Health Organisation’s recommended first-line therapies against malaria. Typically used in combination therapy, they have been used to treat hundreds of millions of people. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Tu credited “strengths from both Chinese and Western medicine” in the discovery of artemisinin and hoped that medical researchers would be able to develop many more novel medicines from the “substantial” natural resources we have available. She also quoted Chairman Mao to remind us that “Chinese medicine and pharmacology are a great treasure-house. We should explore them and raise them to a higher level”.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / HANNAH RALPH
Domo arigato, Mrs Roboto To combat bias in artificial intelligence, we need a diverse workforce to develop the technology.
f you’ve ever asked Siri to check the weather, told Alexa to play music or listened to Cortana tell you your daily schedule, it won’t be a surprise to you that interacting with artificial intelligence (AI) is now a normal part of our daily lives. Beyond the core technology that drives these ‘personal assistants’ and other humanoid robots, however, lies an intriguing link: the majority all have female personas. Why is this the case? After all, there is no reason why a robotic assistant should be inherently ‘he’ or ‘she’. It’s usual for humans to anthropomorphise the things we interact with and it naturally follows that we would attach names to personal assistants that we can use when interacting with them. So why have developers overwhelmingly adopted female personas for the AIs they create? A simple explanation is user desire and comfort. Karl F. MacDorman, a scientist studying human-computer interactions, has found that people generally prefer the sound of female voices. Many perceive a female persona as friendlier and more approachable. This may also be linked to the way robots have been portrayed in popular media - it’s easy to imagine why developers would want to distance themselves from violent associations originating from films such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The gender we assign to AI personas may tell us something about the role we expect them to play in our lives. Many believe that it represents an uncomfortable truth about the way women continue to be perceived in society. MacDorman suggests that the majority of AIs have female personas because most have been designed to fill roles traditionally performed by women. Kathleen Richardson, author of a book on the anthropology of robots and AI, further mentions that female humanoid robots tend to be modelled after “attractive, subservient” women. In many cases, the technology we interact with reflects the social norms and views of those that created them. It comes as no surprise then that a lack of diversity translates into tangible biases in how AIs interact with
people. These biases are built into the very code that underpins AI. Given this, many have voiced concern about the inadequate inclusion of women and minorities in technology development. Although you might think an algorithm is inherently unbiased, there is one striking vulnerability – AI can learn our own human bias. After all, machine learning algorithms are created by people and learn from people. Infamously, the AI chatbot developed by Microsoft – and designed to copy the natural speech patterns of a teenage girl – learnt to spew racist and sexist remarks in less than 24 hours. In recent years, there have been numerous highly publicised examples of apparent bias in algorithms. One such example came from a group led by Annupam Datta, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon. By creating a number of fake accounts, they were able to monitor the relationship between Google usage and the adverts a user was shown. They found that Google was more likely to show highly paid executive job adverts to men. The online behaviour of these fake accounts – visiting job search sites – was the same in all cases. The sole difference was that some were listed as men and some as women. Many women have been fighting against sexism and racism within the technology industry. One such woman is Tess Posner, the CEO of non-profit organisation AI4ALL. The aim of AI4ALL is to increase diversity in AI by getting more women and under-represented minorities interested in technology development, running programs and mentorship schemes for school-age pupils to foster early exposure to the uses of AI. She credits her approach with engaging girls by showing them how AI technology can solve problems, as opposed to seeing it as a purely theoretical mathematical or programming subject. The efforts of activists and vocal members of the AI community will take time to come to fruition but require our support and recognition. Until there is better representation in STEM, the technology we interact with on a daily basis will continue to reflect the bias of the society that created them.
W O M E N A N D S C I E N C E / V I C T O R I A G R AY
Unlocking the Power of Big Data How can researchers use the vast amount of medical data available to improve cancer care?
n recent years, improvements in sequencing and high-throughput technology has driven an influx of biological information leading to a challenge for researchers. How can so much data from different sources be integrated in a meaningful way? Breast, lung, and colorectal cancers make up over half (53%) of new cancer diagnoses among women in the UK. “Big Data” is facilitating many high impact breakthroughs in these cancer types by enabling ground-breaking collaborative approaches. For instance, the Bakal Group from the Institute of Cancer Research, London has identified several targets for breast cancer treatments in a gene network linked to breast cancer cell shape. This was done using high-throughput screening approaches and may make it easier to use physical appearance in identifying an aggressive cancer. Big data approaches are also really important in genetics, enabling
statistical analyses of particular aspects of cancer and genetic variants. Each of us carries differences in our DNA which may be linked to different disease risk or clinical outcomes. These studies have revealed 45 different areas of the genome associated with lung cancer susceptibility that have the potential to be used as predictive markers. Additionally, studies involving colorectal and bowel cancer are linking an individual’s genetics with survival time depending on common treatments including chemotherapies. This may allow a more personalised approach to treatment in the future, with patients being offered genetic screening. “Big data” is already contributing to ground-breaking research in common cancer types and offers high potential for future discoveries. Presently, this is limited only by the tools available to analyse the sheer volume of data being produced.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / SAMUEL SUSSMES
How can you mend a broken heart?
The potential role of the ‘love’ hormone in repairing cardiac damage.
t’s the hormone that helps mother-child bonding, taking a few puffs of it before a date is supposed to relax you, and it’s the reason why dogs apparently love their owners more than cats. Oxytocin, colloquially known as the ‘love hormone’, is well known for its social and behavioural roles. However, can oxytocin really be used to mend a broken heart? Unfortunately, we don’t mean helping you get over your latest ex: by a broken heart we mean one that has suffered a heart attack, a phenomenon experienced by 545 individuals on a daily basis in the UK alone.
“Can oxytocin really be used to mend a broken heart?” A heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries becomes suddenly blocked, stopping the heart’s vital supply of oxygen and nutrients, damaging the heart muscle, and leading to the loss of around one billion heart cells. Nowadays, thanks to medical advances, around 70% of people who experience a heart attack survive. Despite this, the damage caused often leads to heart failure for survivors, meaning the heart can no longer properly function as an effective pump. It is now estimated that over half a million people are living with heart failure in the UK, for which currently there exists no suitable cure. The only available cure today is a heart transplant, but demand grossly outweighs supply. Most patients rely on pharmacological therapies on a daily basis, but these only reduce symptoms and delay the progressive worsening of the underlying condition; they do not work to replace the lost heart cells. Cell therapies are being investigated as potential heart failure treatments. Many have involved transplanting stem cells into the heart. Despite early success in animal models, these therapies have only shown small improvements in heart function in human clinical trials and there remains a whole host of other challenges which mean they are a long way from becoming a standard clinical treatment. For a long time, the heart was considered to lack regenerative capacity, unlike organs such as the liver. However, this idea has since been challenged as there is now evidence that the heart has the ability to renew its cells into adult life. A major finding was the discovery of stem cells – called cardiac progenitor cells (CPCs) – that reside in the adult heart. Although activated upon injury they only repair the damaged tissue to a very limited extent. It is hoped that one day, drugs will be able to enhance this natural repair mechanism following a heart attack.
So, where does oxytocin fit into all of this? Various growth factors, proteins and RNA molecules have been shown to activate CPCs and promote their migration to the damaged areas of the heart after a heart attack. It is thought that studying cardiac development - the process of forming the entire heart from stem cells - will help identify molecules that have a role. It is hoped these molecules will be able to activate CPCs in the adult heart and drive regeneration. Alongside all the physiological functions and connotations with love, oxytocin also plays a role in heart development–the question is, could it be used to activate CPCs? A group of scientists in 2004 isolated a particular group of CPC in the adult mouse heart that expressed a specific stem cell surface marker called Stem cells antigen-1 (Sca1). These Sca1+ progenitor cells were given oxytocin and this was shown to induce proliferation and differentiation of the cells to cardiac muscle cells, as seen by an increased expression of proteins specific to the heart and the spontaneous beating of cells. They also showed a different type of progenitor to be activated that migrated to the damaged areas in injured hearts, and that these progenitors also differentiated into heart cells upon exposure to oxytocin. Additional studies have shown oxytocin has various other cardioprotective roles such as promoting the survival of existing cardiomyocytes and inducing new blood vessel formation, which, together with the findings described here, make oxytocin appear an attractive and promising candidate in heart regeneration. Despite this, oxytocin, alongside various other molecules that have been investigated and found to cause proliferation and differentiation of progenitors, has not become a viable treatment option just yet. One of the reasons is that it is thought that, although these molecules activate progenitors in animal models, the extent of regeneration is considered too low for the molecules to be used in humans who have much larger hearts and different proportions of CPCs to other animals. It may be the case that a cocktail of growth factors, proteins and hormones is needed to adequately regenerate the heart, or it may simply be that a single molecule to sufficiently reactivate progenitors on its own has not been identified yet. Either way, identifying suitable candidates remains a very active area of research in cardiac regenerative medicine. There is still hope that one day we will be able to mend broken hearts following injury but perhaps love on its own may not be enough.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / KAROLINA ZIEBA
Bloody Hell At present, the only solutions for heavy menstrual bleeding involve radical surgery or hormonal side effects. Now, new research is offering hope to sufferers.
or a long time, male fertility control (MFC) has not been a priority in the pharmaceutical industry and as such reversible contraceptive options for men are primitive and limited in number and effectiveness. Essentially three options are available: withdrawal, abstinence, and condoms. Of these, the first is notoriously ineffective, and although abstinence is effective, many would argue that it misses the point. Of course, there is also the option of vasectomy but that is very much a one-way street on the fertility front. Realistically, for many men, that only leaves condoms as a practical option. One in three women experience heavy menstrual bleeding, which causes regular pain, discomfort, and often attracts little sympathy or understanding. Considering the number of people affected, menorrhagia, the medical term for heavy bleeding, is not discussed in society or science with enough emphasis. However new research has
shed light on a new mechanism and possible treatment giving hope to thousands of sufferers. Losing more than 80 millilitres of blood per menstrual cycle, which is the general benchmark for diagnosis, can have a tremendous impact on women, both physically and psychologically. Menorrhagia can lead to severe anemia where there aren’t enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. It can cause intolerable abdominal pain, bloating, irregular periods, and fatigue. Many sufferers also develop depression.
“Current treatments can prevent pregnancy and are associated with a myriad of side-effects.”
Heavy bleeding is the primary reason people pay their gynaecologist a visit and in the UK alone more than 800,000 women seek treatment annually. The currently available treatments are hormonal or surgical. Some women choose to undergo a hysterectomy, which is the surgical removal of the uterus and may include surrounding organs, like the cervix, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. Current treatments can prevent pregnancy and are associated with a myriad of side-effects. Earlier this year sufferers were offered some hope. A research team led by Dr. Jackie Maybin at the University of Edinburgh MRC Centre for Reproductive Health identified a cause of heavy menstrual bleeding. The scientists described a crucial protein—called the hypoxia inducible factor (HIF-1)—that could explain a cause of menorrhagia and open doors to improved treatments. Maybin’s team studied the endometrium, which is the womb lining and is shed during menstruation. What causes prolonged and excessive bleeding, is the body’s inability to repair the wound-like surface left behind. They realized that lowered levels of oxygen, known as hypoxia, create the correct environment for HIF-1 production and therefore the repair of the womb. The team’s findings showed that women with menorrhagia had lower levels of HIF-1 compared to women without the condition. Hypoxia is important to uterine wall repair. The lack of oxygen stabilized HIF-1. For those with normal bleeding, the hypoxic conditions are created by constricting blood vessels in the uterus around the time of menstruation, allowing less oxygen to dissolve from the blood. The researchers hypothesize that it is the inability of blood vessels to narrow that is to blame.
The paper published in Nature Communications shows success of a compound which stabilized HIF-1 in mice without hypoxic conditions. The drug prevents the breakdown of the protein, so it is present even when oxygen levels are high. Tests showed accelerated endometrium repair and reduced blood flow. The drug is not hormonal and therefore would not cause the same side-effects as the contraceptive pill, for example. Future research is needed to determine what side effects it may cause. Maybin’s team hopes to proceed to a clinical study in the next ten years; however, preliminary results don’t show any obstruction of fertility with the treatment, which is a good sign. Maybin has suggested limiting the compound’s functions to the uterus alone, which would restrict the possible side-effects. Finding viable treatment could potentially ease the experiences of many with the condition. It is important to remember that women are not the only ones who get their periods; transgender men or non-binary individuals can also experience exaggerated body dysphoria while menstruating, especially if they are sufferers of menorrhagia. The condition can also be a major socio-economic burden, not only because of days missed from work, but also because of the increased need for tampons and pads. With slogans like “everything men can do, I can do bleeding” circling around, it becomes difficult for women with heavy bleeding to feel included in the movement, and sometimes like they’re not women enough, since they cannot do everything while bleeding. Science hasn’t emphasised what would typically be considered women’s issues in the past, but hopefully, looking forward, the lives of those living with heavy menstrual bleeding can be improved with practical and effective medicine.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / COMPETITION WINNER
Could Suspended Animation Change the Future of Accident & Emergency? By Banda Chisomo, King Edward IV Five Ways School, Birmingham
icture this: a patient has a large gunshot wound to their lower abdomen and they had excessive haemorrhaging before suffering from myocardial infarction and flatlining. They are rushed to the accident and emergency ward where the doctors assess the extent of the damage and they agree that under traditional care the patient has a 7% chance of survival. However, with the use of suspended animation, the survival rate of this particular patient (and plenty other trauma patients) could be vastly increased. The technical term for this process is emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR). This idea has appeared plenty of times in movies but it is often more extreme, resembling something like cryogenic preservation whereby patients are thawed after “x” amount of time. This type of suspended animation actually involves the doctors inducing a state of hypothermia in the patient. Their blood is replaced with a very cold, saline solution (10°C/50°F) in about 15 minutes. This is quite strange to imagine because we require blood to transport oxygen around the body for vital life processes. However, when the body temperature is this low, cellular activity is significantly reduced and often grinds to a halt enabling cells to survive without oxygen. This prevents further damage to tissue and organs. One mustn’t forget the brain, which can suffer irreversible damage without blood flow for 4-5 minutes at normal temperature, so cooling is the main priority. The exact process is as follows: 1. Insert a cannula directly into the aorta. 2. Pump cold, saline solution in through the heart and towards the brain first (the most vulnerable organ to oxygen deprivation) 3. Pump solution to the rest of the body which empties the remaining blood volume of the patient. At this point the patient should have no blood and no brain activity. 4. After the surgical repairs, replace the saline solution with blood again. The patient will then be resuscitated using a heart-lung bypass machine, should the heart not start again independently.
This is where the major discrepancy between this technique and cryogenic freezing lies. It allows surgeons around two hours to treat and repair the trauma injuries, which is plenty more than they would have using traditional treatment. Effectively it’s like pressing a pause button whilst surgeons get to work. Quite obviously this is different to freezing a patient for many years and bringing them back to life. Dr Sam Tisherman and a team of surgeons at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started human trials for a practical application of EPR back in 2014. Dr Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona in Tucson also began research on this much before Tisherman after being approached by the military and developed a technique through experimenting on pigs. Dr Rhee’s work was more focused on the re-warming of trauma victims to find the optimum rate of re-warming. He inflicted a lethal wound on 40 test pigs to simulate real-world trauma scenarios and some pigs were cooled down using a very similar method. He had ten control pigs which were not cooled down and they all died due to excessive haemorrhage while their core temperature was maintained at 36°C-37°C. The surgeons were able to save seventeen other pigs and they were split into groups. A group of 10 had their bodies re-warmed at a rate of 0.25°C/minute (slow), another group of ten had their bodies re-warmed at a rate of 0.5°C/minute (medium) and the final group of ten had their bodies re-warmed at a rate of 1°C/minute (fast). Of the ten re-warmed slowly, 50% survived; of the 10 re-warmed at a medium rate, 90% survived and of the 10 re-warmed quickly, 30% survived. To quote the research “after discontinuation of cardiopulmonary bypass, the animals were recovered and monitored for six weeks for neurological deficits, cognitive function and organ dysfunction. All the surviving animals were neurologically intact, displayed normal learning capacity, and had no long-term organ dysfunction.” This research is integral because it shows that long-term survival is heavily influenced by the rate of reversal of hypothermia. EPR seems revolutionary and it should become normal practice in the coming years. This will not only save more lives but reduce the amount of stress in the lives of trauma surgeons.
WO M E N A N D S C I E N C E / O R E S T I S K AT S O U L I S
Resistance The fight is on!
he accidental discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 gave the scientific community, as well as the rest of the world, a vital sigh of relief. Suddenly, infections such as bacterial meningitis, syphilis, gonorrhoea and typhoid fever, which at the time accounted for a staggering amount of lives lost every day, were now treatable.
“Unfortunately, that sigh of relief was rather short-lived; it was soon discovered that bacteria can evolve and acquire genes that make them resistant to an antibiotic” Unfortunately, that sigh of relief was rather short-lived; it was soon discovered that bacteria can evolve and acquire genes that make them resistant to an antibiotic. The more excessive the use of the antibiotic, the wider the spread of the gene that confers resistance against it. But it’s not just the overuse of antibiotics that can promote antibiotic resistance. According to a study recently published in Nature, the use of some non-antibiotic drugs (which target human cells instead of bacterial ones), such as antipsychotics, proton-pump inhibitors and painkillers, can also promote antibiotic resistance by interfering with the commensal (‘beneficial’) bacteria constituting the gut microbiome in humans. Based on the observation that some non-antibiotic drugs have been associated with changes to the human gut microbiome, researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology aimed to investigate the extent to which this phenomenon occurs. The researchers looked at distinct bacterial species that normally colonise the gut of heathy individuals and exposed them to more than 1000 compounds that are administered to humans. Out of these compounds, more than 10% had antibacterial activity and a further 88 were active against other types of pathogens (fungi, parasites or viruses). The remaining compounds – which should target human cells – were not expected to have bactericidal activity. An astonishing 24% of the human-targeted compounds were found to inhibit the growth of at least one bacterial strain. The researchers even found that 40 of the compounds were super effective – they inhibited the growth of at least ten different strains. Interestingly, this means that some of the drugs could be modified as an alternative to existing antibiotics. For example, auranofin (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis), was found to be effective against a wide range of bacteria even at especially low concentrations. Similar results have been seen in the past. Patients who take PPIs long term (as a treatment for acid reflux) were found to have a compromised gut microbiome. In fact, the patients were missing the same bacterial species that were found by the researchers to be inhibited in this study. Furthermore, the majority of bacterial strains that were unaf-
fected by the antibiotic compounds tested, were also unaffected by most of the human-targeted drugs, hinting at the existence of a common resistance mechanism for both types of drugs. In recent years, the medical community has begun to realise the impact that the gut microbiome has on many aspects of human health. So, the implications of these findings are huge, as they point towards an unprecedented risk of promoting antibiotic resistance through the administration of non-antibiotics and reveals the urgent need for additional research on this area.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / ASHER WINTER
Battery Powered A look at the technological developments that could be powering the future.
ick of your phone lasting 30 minutes between charges? Your laptop dying and losing all your work? A new generation of battery technology could solve not just these problems but the desperate need for renewable energy too. Wind turbines and solar cells can generate more than sufficient energy during peak times but they’re just not flexible enough. The wind doesn’t blow every time you want a cup of tea. High capacity, low loss batteries could prove to be the solution to this.
While Lithium-ion batteries ushered in a portable-power revolution, most agree the technology has reached its limit. A huge amount of research is being conducted into making even better batteries and here are some of the most promising concepts:
John Goodenough, none other than the inventor of the rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery and now 95 years old, along with Maria Braga have recently patented a solid-state battery referred to as a ‘glass battery’. The technology has a much higher energy density than Li-ion, charges in minutes rather than hours and can be operated at temperatures as low as -20⁰C. Instead of a liquid, the electrolyte is highly conductive glass made from lithium compounds and doped with barium. ‘Glass batteries’ are not by any means the only type of solid state battery; all variations offer increased capacity and most significantly they are non-flammable (as it is the liquid electrolyte which can cause fires). This makes the batteries perfect for use in cars and they are being touted as a significant threat to Tesla’s Li-ion technology. However, most are too expensive for use in portable technology right now and the technology is notably resistant to economies of scale.
Graphene is often touted as a miracle material for its strength, elasticity and high conductivity. Manufacturers, particularly Samsung, have looked to put this to use in batteries. Graphene
balls have been added into Li-ion batteries, increasing capacity by 45% and reducing charging times significantly. As graphene is so flexible it could also have applications in wearable technology that might need to bend, such as smart watches. However, high grade graphene is currently expensive and it is only really an extension to Li-ion, meaning it probably doesn’t have the capacity for storing energy on a large scale.
Zinc-air batteries are an exciting prospect due to their high energy density and the abundance of the materials required to make them. As the name suggests, the cells use air (specifically oxygen) to interact with the zinc cathode and generate a voltage. The air is not stored in the battery but ‘breathed in’, allowing more zinc to be packed in to the cell and increasing the energy density. The problem always was that the zinc became unusable very quickly as it was oxidised. Researchers at the University of Sydney may have solved this, creating catalysts from materials that are also abundant, allowing cheap, rechargeable zinc-air batteries to be made. Their low cost makes them economically viable for large-scale storage.
These operate quite differently to conventional batteries (to the point it is disputed if they should be called batteries). The fundamental difference between conventional batteries and flow cells is that energy is stored not as the electrode material but as the electrolyte. This electrolyte is kept outside the cell and pumped in, causing a reaction. There are different types of flow cell, the most common being a ‘redox’ flow cell, and amongst these there are still many variations based on the ions they use. Flow batteries are particularly suited to load balancing (storing energy when production exceeds demand and then releasing it when the opposite is true) which is key for renewable energy sources due to their scalability. The only problem, which is being worked on, is their comparatively low energy density.
W O M E N A N D S C I E N C E / S H A K I R A M A H A D E VA
You are what you eat [and so is your baby] Women can influence their babies genetic make-up – even before they are pregnant!
rowing another human inside of you is pretty cool. In 9 months, from nothing more than a single fertilised egg cell, comes a baby with a beating heart, breathing lungs, and a thinking brain. As if this wasn’t enough, the process of pregnancy becomes even more incredible when you consider what is happening to the baby’s DNA. We once thought that the information encoded in DNA was set in stone, but we now know this is not the case. Our environment can influence our genes: that doesn’t just include our diet, but other experiences like stress, too. This phenomenon is known as epigenetics. Taken literally, this means ‘on top of ’ genetics but only in recent years are we beginning to get to the bottom of the mechanisms behind it, and much remains a mystery. What we do know though, is that it’s not only our own DNA that can be affected by our actions; for a pregnant mother, epigenetic modifications can occur in her baby’s DNA too.
“It’s not only our own DNA that can be affected by our actions; for a pregnant mother, epigenetic modifications can occur in her baby’s DNA too.” The most well-known example of this is alcohol. You’ve probably heard that pregnant women shouldn’t drink and that babies exposed to alcohol in the womb develop foetal alcohol syndrome, which causes poor growth, facial abnormalities and learning difficulties as they grow up. The precise mechanism is not yet known, but experiments with mice suggest that the alcohol, which cannot be processed by the baby’s undeveloped liver, is in some way affecting the DNA of the unborn child’s cells. Okay so pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol. But that’s definitely not all; there is a long list of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ when it comes to eating and drinking during pregnancy. One of the ‘shoulds’ is eating folate. Folate molecules provide methyl groups, which are essential in the biochemical process of DNA methylation: the most common epigenetic modification. The basic structure of DNA is a long-twisted ladder; the ‘rungs’ are pairs of bases (adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C)). DNA methylation involves the addition of a methyl group (the chemical group CH3) directly to the DNA base cytosine. This is a critical process in genetic regulation (switching genes on or off), and is especially important for brain function, so a lack of folate in a pregnant women’s diet can cause brain and spinal cord defects in her child. To avoid this, she should reach for folate-rich foods such as spinach and broccoli, as well as citrus fruits, legumes, and cereals.
But it’s not just molecules in our diet that can influence our epigenetics. You might be surprised to hear that stress too can have an influence. Worryingly, the babies of mothers who experience chronic stress during their pregnancy (perhaps due to anxiety or bereavement) have a much higher risk of psychological and behavioural disorders when they grow up. The reason behind this appears to be, once again, DNA methylation. Babies of mothers exposed to chronic stress seem to have high levels of methylation on genes coding for receptors of the stress hormones, glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are released in times of stress; their recognition by receptors triggers the body’s stress response. Methylation of receptor genes switches them off, meaning that fewer receptor molecules are produced. The body is then less able to recognise and respond to stress hormones, leading to conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression. As if mothers didn’t already feel enough responsibility during their pregnancy – it might not just be their children who are affected, but their grandchildren too. Scientists first put forward the idea of epigenetic heritability after findings from an isolated province called Norrbotten in the far north of Sweden where, in the 19th century, harvests were extremely unpredictable so food could go from scarce one season to ridiculously abundant the next. Studies on data from this period have suggested that even the experiences of people early in their lives, long before pregnancy, can affect their children’s DNA. Children who went from normal eating during poor harvest to gorging on copious amounts of food the next season lived an average of 6 years shorter than those who endured years of only poor harvest. And, most intriguingly, this pattern was shown in their children too. So even experiences parents had early in their life, rather than when they were pregnant, seem to have impacted their children’s DNA. Even scarier, the pattern was also shown in their grandchildren, suggesting that epigenetic patterns can be passed on through the generations.
“As strange as it sounds, our behaviour can change our DNA.” If this is true, a mother’s behaviour seems to be able to affect her child in two ways: definitely when molecules are shared with her baby across the placenta, affecting its epigenome, and maybe even through the inheritance of epigenetic patterns from her germ cells. The question of how this could occur though was, for a while, extremely puzzling to scientists. At first glance it seems as though cells have a mechanism to stop any epigenetic inheritance occurring. The egg and sperm precursor cells have a reprogramming mechanism where they erase their methylation marks to reset the genes before they are passed on to the offspring. So, the findings of studies like Norrbotten seem impossible. That is, until we found out that some rare methylation is able to escape the reprogramming process and
could therefore be passed on to the next generation and, in the same way, to the generation after that. This seems to go against everything we know about evolution, where according to Darwin, changes to our genetics occur over hundreds of thousands of years. Epigenetics seems not to obey this rule. As strange as it sounds, our behaviour can change our DNA – and for a minority of genes these changes might be passed on to our offspring. This means it’s not just the mother’s actions in the spotlight any more. The father’s behaviour may be able to have an influence too: epigenetic modifications in his DNA might be able to escape reprogramming and be passed on to his child via his sperm. However, studies on this so far have been small scale and largely carried out in mice so we the evidence is far from conclusive.
“Our genetic material is not fixed, but malleable.” The emerging field of epigenetics has certainly changed the way we look at our DNA. We are beginning to see that our genetic material is not fixed, but malleable. It can be shaped by our experiences, our mothers’ experiences when we were just foetuses in the womb… and maybe even our fathers’ and grandparents’ experiences via epigenetic inheritance. However, it is still an incredibly new field so, for now, one of the few things we can say for definite is that a lot remains to be understood.
W O M E N A N D S C I E N C E / P A N D O R A D E WA N
The X-Inactivation Factor How the body deals with a double dose of the X-chromosome.
ett Syndrome (RTT) is a progressive neurological disorder, first described by Andreas Rett in 1966. It predominantly affects girls and occurs in roughly one out of 10,000 live female births. Symptoms of RTT begin to manifest after an apparently normal post-natal period of development. After about six months, affected children begin to lose acquired speech and motor skills. They develop cognitive disabilities, breathing irregularities, repetitive hand movements, and seizures. RTT is a genetic condition, usually resulting from sporadic mutations (meaning it is not inherited from either parent). As well as classic RTT there are several atypical variants that result from the specific location of these mutations. Mutations in the gene methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MECP2) account for around 95% of typical RTT cases. MECP2 is expressed throughout all human tissues but is particularly active in neurons. Its protein product, MeCP2, plays a central role in regulation of gene expression in many cell types. Correct function of MeCP2 is vital for brain development and it is thought to be involved in maintaining neuronal maturation, activity, and plasticity. 555 different mutations that cause RTT have been identified in this gene, but some mutations have much more severe consequences than others.
zygous, meaning they have one normal gene copy and one mutant. Consequently, a female with an RTT mutation may not exhibit any symptoms because the healthy X-chromosome is active in almost all of her cells. This can be seen in pairs of monozygotic twins, where one girl may exhibit severe symptoms of RTT while the other, who shares the same MECP2 mutation, may be unaffected as a result of different XCI patterns. Current treatments for RTT are restricted to providing relief of specific symptoms, due to our limited understanding of the mechanisms
“Why then does the XX female not suffer from potentially lethal double doses of X-linked genes?” MECP2 is located on the X-chromosome. Male mammals (XY) carry just one copy, which alone produces high enough levels of gene expression for correct cellular function. Why then does the XX female not suffer from potentially lethal double doses of X-linked genes? The answer lies in X-Chromosome Inactivation (XCI), a process by which female mammals compensate for this double gene dosage through transcriptional silencing of one of the two X-chromosomes in each of their cells.
“This can be seen in pairs of monozygotic twins, where one girl may exhibit severe symptoms of RTT while the other, who shares the same MECP2 mutation, may be unaffected as a result of different XCI patterns.” Once established, XCI is stably maintained by epigenetic remodelling (biochemical modifications that regulate gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence). Skewed XCI patterns may produce non-classical inheritance of X-driven phenotypes— observable characteristics resulting from inherited information. Therefore, while MECP2 mutation status can be a strong predictor of clinical severity of RTT, phenotypic variation is also greatly affected by variation in patterns of XCI. Female RTT patients are hetero-
by which MECP2 mutations cause RTT. The brain is a complex organ with many different cell types so results from epigenetic studies of the whole brain are difficult to interpret. Promisingly, the use of new single-cell genomic technologies may increase our understanding of the various functional targets of MeCP2 in different cells, facilitating development of more effective treatments. Recent research has demonstrated the possibility of reversing XCI in differentiated cells. Moreover, in 2007 Guy et al. achieved RTT symptom reversal in MeCP2 mutant mice after the onset of neurological and motor dysfunction by restoring normal MeCP2 expression in affected cells. This study indicates that dysfunctional MeCP2 does not irreversibly damage the neuron and supports XCI reversal as a potential treatment for RTT patients. Further definitive research into the causes of such disorders will be needed to develop targeted treatments. Nevertheless, a better understanding of the mechanisms of XCI may be achieved using induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC) to study XCI in human embryogenesis and development. Data from studies with iPSCs is much simpler to analyse than that obtained from studying neural cells in vivo. If we can decipher the molecular processes involved in X-chromosome reactivation we may be able to offer hope in the future for individuals and families affected by RTT and similar X-linked disorders,
WOM E N A N D S C I E N C E / A M Y F I T Z M AU R I C E
Women in Wildlife Conservation Wildlife Conservation is an important scientific discipline because not only does to aim to protect our planet but also aims to help local people.
young and inspiring conservationist Geraldine Werhahn recently won the Future for Nature 2018 Award and received her award at the ceremony held in April.
The Himalayan Wolves Project collaborates with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotlandâ€™s WildGenes, the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal and the Molecular Ecology Lab at Peking University in China. The collaboration provides training to cover mitochondrial and nuclear DNA methods to research the phylogeny and distribution of the Himalayan wolf. Not only has her teamâ€™s work highlighted that wolves living in the Himalayas are genetically different to the original wolf species that were designated to, their research has rediscovered the Wild Yak in Nepal and valuable data on other species. Geraldine and her team will be using the Future for Nature Award to continue to protect the Himalayan wolf by continuing research to understand conflicts and develop and implement suitable mitigation strategies. They intend to secure an intact wild wolf population and habitat, optimize livestock protection, facilitate self-financed compensation schemes and improve conservation education.
2014: Geraldine founded the Himalayan Wolves Project focussing on wolf phylogeny, trophic ecology and human-wolf conflict. 2015: Research began to scout for wolves in Upper Dolpa and Humla in Western Nepal. 2016: Geraldine lead wolf research expeditions to Kanchenjunga Conservation Area in Eastern Nepal and to Upper Dolpa. 2017: The team went to Qinghai Tibetan Plateau of China to Sanjangyuan National Nature Reserve. If you would like to know more about her work, please follow the link below. The Himalayan Wolves Project http://www.himalayanwolvesproject.org/field-research/
WO M E N A N D S C I E N C E / C H R I S TA H U D D L E S T O N
Mother of All
Using mitochondrial DNA passed through our maternal lineage, we can trace our most recent common ancestor.
cientists believe that during evolution a single-celled organism engulfed a bacterium. Over time, through symbiosis, this bacterium became the first mitochondrion. The mitochondrion, often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell, is responsible for energy production in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The mitochondrion has its own genome that functions separately from nuclear DNA. Uniquely, mtDNA is only passed to the offspring via the female egg, meaning the mitochondrion is always inherited from our mother. Our mtDNA is essentially identical to that of our mother. Sons inherit their mtDNA from their mother but cannot pass it to their own children. As a result, researchers are able to track our matrilineal ancestry back to the most recent woman that we descend from. Her name: Mitochondrial Eve. The term ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ can be misleading because, contrary to its biblical reference, mitochondrial Eve is not the first living female. Rather, she is the hypotheti-
cal most recent female ancestor from which all currently living humans can trace their ancestry. Mitochondrial Eve is thought to have lived in Africa 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and many maternal generations can be traced from her origin based on mitochondrial haplogroups.
“Our mtDNA is essentially identical to that of our mother.” Mitochondrial haplogroups are characterized by differences in mtDNA that can be traced over time from human origins in Africa to our spread across the world via early migration patterns. They are used to trace where our female ancestors branched off from one another in the greater phylogenetic tree. If you know your maternal haplogroup, you can trace your maternal lineage and understand the migration patterns of your ancestors. Even if you do not know your maternal haplogroup, it is safe to say that Mitochondrial Eve of Africa is your maternal ancestor.
WOMEN AND SCIENCE / IAN FO O
The Science of Spotify Have you ever wondered how Spotify manages to predict the music you want to hear?
f you use Spotify, you know it has an uncanny ability to identify and predict the songs and music you like. Some call it magic or mind-reading but make no mistake–this is machine learning at work. Lying behind your Discover Weekly playlist is the same technology that lets Google interpret searches and suggest preferences.
“Some call it magic or mind-reading but make no mistake–this is machine learning at work.” Spotify combines multiple strategies to analyse and compare song content. One strategy is collaborative filtering, first popularised by Netflix, which directly compares the lists of songs that people have listened to. If two people are a close match, Spotify recommends songs from one person’s playlist that the other hasn’t listened to yet. This approach is applied to over 140 million users, greatly amplifying its effectiveness.
In addition, Spotify constantly searches the internet for articles and posts about music and artists. It uses text-based Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis models on this data, assigning terms and adjectives to songs according to algorithms that determine relevance. Finally, the raw audio itself is analysed with convolutional neural networks; a machine learning strategy used for classification. This is the same technology used in facial recognition but adapted for audio processing. Characteristics like loudness, key, and tempo are quantified. All this data is used in combination to identify common points between tracks, and predict new songs based on similarity to those you’ve already listened to. In a time where users are growing increasingly sceptical of internet giants and the data they collect, Spotify has remained open about its data and methods. Such transparency is vital - Spotify looks set to continue collecting big data from its customers, which so far has helped it deliver personalised content and shoot ahead of its competition.
Issue #2 of the Oxford Scientist. This 'Women and Science' issue focusses on the impact that women have had on science, as well as the impac...
Published on Jun 4, 2018
Issue #2 of the Oxford Scientist. This 'Women and Science' issue focusses on the impact that women have had on science, as well as the impac...