Easter 2020 Issue 48 www.bluesci.co.uk
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Fire and Water on a Warming Planet
Fake Science . Evolution of Flight Herbaria . Experiences in Science
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On The Cover News Reviews
Flying - a Story of Success
Felicitas Pamatat guides us through the evolution of flying 9
Seeds of Change
Alice McDowell looks at Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement 10
2 4 5
16 - 21
Turning Over an Old Leaf
Bryony Yates speaks to Dr. Lauren Gardiner, Curator of Cambridge University Herbarium 12
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Ruby Coates looks into the development of lab-based alternatives for livestock products 14
The Undercover Hero of the Sea
Ellie Wilding introduces seagrass as a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change 22
Pavilion: Be Better, Not Banned
Callum Beesley explores the impact of single-use items 24
A Career in Science; Living the Dream? Lucy Hart discusses the results of surveys into researcher mental health
Anonymous writers give an insight into incidents of sabotage in research laboratories
BlueSci was established in 2004 to provide a student forum for science communication. As the longest running science magazine in Cambridge, BlueSci publishes the best science writing from across the University each term. We combine high quality writing with stunning images to provide fascinating yet accessible science to everyone. But BlueSci does not stop there. At www.bluesci.co.uk, we have extra articles, regular news stories, podcasts and science films to inform and entertain between print issues. Produced entirely by members of the University, the diversity of expertise and talent combine to produce a unique science experience
FIRE AND WATER ON A WARMING PLANET Evan Wroe and Annika Schlemm discuss extreme weather events and their increasing frequency
Science Fact or Fiction?
Navigating the Next Step
Weird and Wonderful
Liam Ives highlights the detective work of Elisabeth Bik
Susannah McLaren and Anna Yakovleva reflect on their experiences as in2science mentors
Baby Talk Disrupting Language Genital Genealogy
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Issue 48: Easter 2020 Issue Editor: Hazel Walker Managing Editor: Sarah Lindsay, Laura Nunez-Mulder Second editors: Ruby Coates, Jessica Corry, Juliana Cudini, Ellery Gopaoco, Leia Judge, Lizzie Knight, Zak Lakota-Baldwin, Jonathan Lam, Sarah Lindsay, Miriam Lisci, Maeve Madigan, Michelle Miniter, Sona Popat, Laia Serratosa Capdevila, Clifford Sia, Hazel Walker, Charlotte Zemmel Art Editor: Pauline Kerekes News Team: Liza Karmannaya, Adiyant Lamba, Billy Morris, Shamil Shah Reviews: Grace Field, Gareth Hart, Kate Howlett Feature Writers: Callum Beesley, Ruby Coates, Lucy Hart, Liam Ives, Alice McDowell, Susannah McLaren, Felicitas Pamatat, Annika Schlemm, Ellie Wilding, Evan Wroe, Anna Yakovleva, Bryony Yates Focus Team: Annika Schlemm, Evan Wroe Weird and Wonderful: Jonathan Lam, Billy Morris, Clifford Sia Production Team: Alex Bates, Serene Dhawan, Pauline Kerekes, Sarah Lindsay, Andrew Malcolm, Hazel Walker Caption Writer: Hazel Walker Copy Editors: Ruby Coates, Juliana Cudini, Leia Judge, Pauline Kerekes, Lizzie Knight, Hazel Walker, Bryony Yates Advertiser: Christina Turner Illustrators: Charlotte Airey, Prannoy Chaudhuri-Vayalambrone, Hinze Ho, Mariadaria Ianni-Ravn, Nataliia Kuksa, Susannah McLaren, Marzia Munafò, Clara Munger, Eva Pillai, Alexandra Pinggera, Rosanna Rann, Rita Sasidharan, Erin Slatery, Maria Yakovleva Cover image: Marzia Munafò
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License (unless marked by a ©, in which case the copyright remains with the original rights holder). To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons. org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.
Nature's Helping Hand Wildfires, flooding, hurricanes. Will these extreme weather events once deemed 'rare' soon become the new normal? Last year, encouraged by Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate, schoolchildren from all corners of the globe rose to the challenge of fighting for large-scale action to mitigate climate change. This action helped to put climate change at the forefront of people’s minds. However, projections tell us we are still not doing enough to safeguard our future and protect the inhabitants of Planet Earth. In this issue, we look at climate breakdown-related events in more detail and celebrate innovative science that aims to tackle the mammoth challenge of climate change. Many of the featured solutions are nature-based, highlighting the need to work with the natural world in order to conserve it. We also look into the wellbeing of researchers tasked with finding solutions to global problems and discuss how the mental demands faced by researchers can, in some cases, jeopardise research integrity. In the FOCUS piece, Evan Wroe and Annika Schlemm take a closer look at the recordbreaking Australian bushfires and flooding in Indonesia. Felicitas Pamatat tells the story of the evolution of flight and Callum Beesley gets us thinking about single-use items in the Pavilion piece. Next, we look at under the radar science initiatives that can contribute to the fight against climate change. Alice McDowell introduces the Green Belt Movement, reminding us of the power of communities working together while Bryony Yates explains how herbarium samples from the past can be used to protect the future. Ruby Coates highlights the potential for lab grown meat substitutes to reduce carbon emissions and Ellie Wilding presents seagrass as a future hero in climate change mitigation. The first half of this issue highlights the importance of science and research in solving the challenges that we will inevitably face in the coming century. Of course, for ideas to come to fruition, researchers need to be supported in order to produce their best work. Recent surveys suggest that a large proportion of academic researchers are struggling with their mental health as a result of the pressure they face at work. In some extreme cases, this can lead to acts of laboratory sabotage and fabricated results. Lucy Hart introduces this topic by discussing the findings of recent surveys on research culture. Liam Ives takes a deeper dive into the work being done to uncover doctored results in published work. This is followed by a piece featuring anecdotes from those who have found themselves working in cut-throat scientific environments. We finish this section with a piece by Susannah McLaren and Anna Yakovleva highlighting the benefits of ensuring greater access to laboratory environments when considering a scientific career. As a scientific community, we face big challenges now and into the future. By working together to foster supportive research environments we can ensure that academics are able produce their best work without negatively impacting their own wellbeing in the process. This issue also highlights that many solutions in the fight against climate change already exist in the natural world. By engaging with these solutions, we are not only protecting our own futures but those of the plants and animals we share this planet with. With that being said, I write this editorial from home while social distancing as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting more than ever the need for research and knowledge in order to respond to instances such as these. On behalf of BlueSci, I would like to thank all of those in the medical and scientific community and beyond who are working to keep people safe. We hope that this issue can offer a brief escape for our readers during this worrying time Hazel Walker Issue Editor #48
On the Cover 'TAKE MY HAND AND HOLD IT TIGHT' This is Nature's whisper, carried by the winds and the oceans, hidden in the flowers and in the trees. Ours is the choice to grasp that motherly hand and embrace the whole of which we are an essential part. We live in an era of extreme weather events, endangered species, deforestation and ever-accelerating urbanisation. All of this is gradually and irreversibly damaging our planet, and many of us are aware that now is the time to act. My illustration stems from the idea that the only way forward for our species is building again contact with Nature and living in harmony with the planet and all its creatures. Hence, I wanted to depict Nature as a rich, generous and verdant hand offering us the help we need not to fall. In the end, Mother Nature is reaching out to save us, but we must choose to hold their hand in return Marzia MunafĂ˛ Cover Artist
On the Cover
News Hunting for the Axion: Needle in a Haystack
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The standard model of particle physics describes our reality in terms of fundamental forces and particles — but searching for these elementary particles is no mean feat! Scientists have employed many methods in order to detect them, a famous example being the high-energy particle collisions at CERN that resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson. A recent study in Cambridge took a rather different approach: instead of examining the small, Professor Christopher Reynolds and colleagues looked to the vast expanse of the cosmos. These researchers were searching for axions, hypothetical particles that could resolve many unanswered questions, such as that of the ‘strong interaction’ (a fundamental force) and ‘dark matter’ (undetected matter in the universe). The study aims to detect axions from characteristic distortions in the X-ray radiation spectrum emitted from galaxy clusters. Although the researchers were not able to confirm the existence of axions, they managed to place the most sensitive limits to date on the particle’s properties. While searching for elementary units in the immenseness of the cosmos may seem like a ‘needle in a haystack’ approach, it is not a novel one — the element Helium was discovered from the Sun’s radiation spectrum back in 1868. AL/SS
Facebook Dataset to Improve Social Science Social science research asks fascinating questions about human behaviour. However, it often suffers from a lack of adequate data, due to difficulties finding enough people to participate in experiments or complete questionnaires, and due to social desirability bias — the tendency to answer survey questions in ways that will be viewed favourably by others. A new observational, large dataset, shared by Gary King and Nathaniel Persily in February, may offer a solution to such problems. The dataset spans more than two years and summarizes information from 38 million URLs shared on Facebook, including whether the links were fact-checked, flagged or shared without viewing by users, as well as the types of users who interacted with these links. Through the Social Science One initiative, researchers are invited to apply to access this unique dataset to study the effect of social media on elections and democracy. A common concern with open social media data is user privacy. King and Persily used the differential privacy approach, anonymizing data and introducing statistical noise and censoring to prevent reidentification of any individual represented in the data. It is likely that more datasets like this will be created and shared in the future, allowing social scientists to ask broader questions, and answer them in more naturalistic ways whilst preserving individuals’ privacy. EK
Connectomics - a Fly-Brained Contribution to Neuroscience To say the brain is a highly complex organ would be an
understatement. We use animal models to investigate how the brain functions at the level of its constituent neurons. This has led to the detailed investigation of specific brain pathways in organisms as diverse as monkeys, mice, octopodes, and even flies. It is in simpler organisms like fruit flies where we have accumulated the most detailed knowledge, although even this is vastly incomplete. A significant issue is that we are still unaware of the types of neurons that make up a brain and how these fit together. The recent fruit fly hemibrain connectome, published on bioRxiv by scientists at Janelia Campus alongside Google,
represents a significant step towards solving this problem. Their work has resulted in a catalog of neurons and their connections from a section of a fly brain that spans key regions devoted to navigation, memory and motor control. Essentially, this connectome is a roadmap of the fly brain, providing structural knowledge which neuroscientists can use to disentangle how the organisation of the brain contributes to its function. Much like the rapid progress in genetics that followed the publication of the first genome, this connectome may lead us to a similar leap forward for neuroscience. BM Background Credit: FlyEM/Janelia Research Campus
Reviews How is the Scientific Method Doing? - Sabine Hossenfelder On January 28th , the Cavendish Research Staff Committee hosted theoretical physicist Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder to discuss the question that has made her famous: “How is the scientific method doing?” She is known for her controversial answer — in short, ‘badly’. The problem, she argues, lies in the set of processes we rely on to pick the good science out from the bad. From funding allocation to impact assessment to job selection, she argues that we are not just failing to support the “most promising” science. We are actively supporting science that clearly is not very promising at all. What is the point, she asks, in spending billions of dollars to build more powerful particle accelerators when the ones we have are failing to live up to expectations? It was fascinating to watch Dr. Hossenfelder address these issues in person. By raising questions that few members of the scientific community would dare raise, for fear of compromising public faith in science, or perhaps for fear of compromising public faith in their own personal authority — she has started an important conversation. At a time when our best weapon against widespread unjustified scepticism towards science is awareness — awareness of the real issues that science does face — Sabine Hossenfelder provides a rare inside view. GF
“What is the point, she asks, in spending billions of dollars to build more powerful particle accelerators when the ones we have are failing to live up to expectations?”
Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf - Peter Wothers 2019 was designated as the International Year of the Periodic Table, marking the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev’s formulation. Dr. Peter Wothers delights us in ‘Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf: How the Elements were Named ’ with a journey through the history of the naming of the elements. Dr. Wothers’ lectures are certainly memorable to many natural scientists who studied chemistry in the first year of the Natural Sciences Tripos, as are his series of 2012 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution. However, the ‘modern alchemist’ takes a route away from his successful textbooks with this title, contributing to the world of popular chemistry. Having had the pleasure of discussing Dr. Wothers’ extensive library of old chemistry texts in person on several occasions, it is incredible to see the result of his studies on these works. As well as the comprehensive bibliography owing to books held by Dr. Wothers in St Catharine’s College, links to Cambridge are clear, with the help of many fellows and PhD students acknowledged. Although the naming of elements such as Einsteinium may be obvious, others such as oxygen are less so. This is a book with great charm, which should be read by chemists, historians and non-specialists alike. GH
“Although the naming of elements such as Einsteinium may be obvious, other such as oxygen are less so”
Evolution or Extinction: Will Humanity Survive the 21st Century? Chris Packham Naturalist and wildlife presenter Chris Packham used his time with a captive audience to deliver a clear message: the ecological crisis can be lessened if, and only if, we act now. Delivering the Darwin Day Lecture in London, an annual event organised by Humanists UK, he discussed humankind’s innate fascination with the natural world and how childhood experiences nurture this connection to nature. He highlighted that through our recent obsession with safety and cleanliness, we now lock children out of nature, instead of encouraging them to explore and experience it. Packham spoke movingly of his experience meeting the Orang Rimba people in 1998, an isolated community of hunter gatherers living in Sumatra, and of being profoundly moved by their supreme confidence and beauty living in balance with their natural habitat. Revisiting in 2018, he found survivors of this group now living amongst plantations on ground littered with plastic, a change we are all responsible for inflicting. Emphasising how humans can make rapid and systemic change when faced with an acknowledged emergency, he urged us all to shout loudly above the political noise, ensuring this issue is pushed to the top of every person’s priority list. KH
“...shout loudly above the political noise”
Flying - a Story of Success Felicitas Pamatat looks into the emergence of flying species It is 09:57 am, I am sitting in the library, the air is filled with the smell of old and dusty books. From the open window, I can hear birds singing, in the distance the sound of children playing. As I look up from my book, I can see the scrupulously tended garden, with its many flowers, and the freshly mowed grass. But what catches my eye is not one of the opulent sculptures. It is a small black and white bird and a black cat with white spots sitting merely arms-length apart. The prey and its predator sit next to one another in, what seems like, harmony. This sight makes me wonder: 'Why does the cat not attack? Was it just fed? Is the cat sleepy and wanting to rest? Or, is the fact that the small bird could just fly away before the cat reaches it reason enough? What would the cat do if, instead of the bird, a mouse sat in front of it?' My thoughts are interrupted by a sudden motion in the garden — the cat pounced. The bird flew off. The cat did not even come close to the bird in its pathetic attempt to catch its prey. I follow its flight further until the small bird lands on a window sill, very close to where I am sitting. As flight is so abundant, I could venture to many different places on our planet to find answers to the phenomenon. Flight is everywhere, from the north to the south, from the snowy owl in the empty tundra of the Arctic, to the birds of paradise in the species-rich rainforest, to the vultures in the hot and sparse plains of the desert and to the albatrosses in a cold and unforgiving Antarctica. But to understand the origins of flight, I must go far, far into the past and start with the basics — what is flight? With this in mind, and no budget, I start my journey where all good journeys start — in a museum. To be precise, in the Museum of Zoology, here in Cambridge. As I enter the Museum, I see the specimen of a goose and a flying squirrel and I wonder, can both of them fly? The answer is a simple no. Birds, such as geese, are able to fly and glide, but the flying squirrel only glides from tree to tree without being able to ‘fly’. So what is the difference between gliding and flying? The main difference is that flight is powered through the use of a wing stroke, hence why it is often referred to as powered or active flight. Gliding, however, is passive and no stroke of the wing is required. To cover a greater horizontal distance, gliding animals usually climb trees or other heights and let themselves drop, using their parachute-like structures. Other gliding animals, such as the flying fish, move with high speed before going airborne. The last stroke of the tail fin coincides with the 6
Flying - a Story of Success
time their wings unfurl and the wings remain in place until they contract during landing. Although gliding animals do not use any sort of active prolongation, some can travel impressive distances. The flying fish can travel an astonishing 50 metres while completely airborne, while the flying squirrel can cover even greater distances, up to 115 metres. With many different species being able to glide but not fly the question remains; which animals can fly?
The ability to fly evolved only four different times in birds, bats, insects and the extinct Pterosaur, a member in the group Avemetatarsalia. The number of species currently living in each of these groups is extraordinary, with 1,116 bat, 9,000 bird and at least 1,000,000 recorded flying insect species, in total making up more than half of the total global number of species. In contrast, gliding has evolved separately multiple times but it does not show the same overall abundance and success as flight, as it is only seen in a minimal number of species. The origin of flight can be traced back to shortly after the origin of trees and complex terrestrial ecosystems, which evolved around 412 Ma (million years ago). The first fossil record of a flying animal dates to ~324 Ma, which let palaeontologists estimate the first occurrence of flight as being ~406 Ma and thereby marks the beginning of the Pterygota, the winged insects.
With insects starting to monopolize the air, it took another 200 Myr (million years) before the first vertebrate started to fly. In relation, humans have only been on this planet for about 2.80 to 2.75 Myr. The origin of flight is still debated and multiple different models have been suggested to explain the evolution from being ground-bound to being able to fly. The most promising theory about the evolution of flight is the arboreal, or gliding theory. This theory predicts that powered flight evolved from the ability to glide from tree to tree and was first described by Darwin in 1859. With the evolution of flight, a whole new habitat could be explored and being able to fly gives rise to many different advantages. Flight is truly a story of success. All eight of the fastest animals on our planet are able to fly, amongst them birds, as well as bats, with the peregrine falcon being able to reach 389 km/h in a dive flight. Other flying species such as the arctic tern, a sea bird species, travel more than any other animal. On its annual migration from the Arctic to Antarctica it will travel around 71,000 km. But what makes the ability to fly so successful? Flying is the most energy efficient way of transporting a unit of mass on land, with only swimming being overall the most efficient. This makes traveling a certain distance less energy costly than walking or running and can considerably increase the dispersal radius. Flying offers the opportunity to migrate between land masses, as flying animals are not restricted to one location. The expansion into three-dimensional space causes an increase of species richness as various habitats can now be accessed. Furthermore, the ability to fly increases the chances of escaping from a predator as well as feeding and breeding, and finding resources without the threat of land predators. While the list of the benefits of flight is nearly endless, nevertheless, everything comes with a cost. The ability to fly comes with a high metabolic cost such that many flying animals, e.g. the hummingbird, consume their weight in food on a daily basis. Furthermore, being airborne increases the likelihood of being spotted as potential prey, and resources, which could otherwise be used for reproduction and growth, must be allocated to the development of navigation abilities, especially in migratory bird species. With the evolution of vertebrate flight and examples of the first birds and other early-avians, many associate feathers with the ability to fly. The Archaeopteryx, the first recognised bird-like dinosaur, is often taken as an example of an animal which has feathers but cannot fly (Note: experts are debating if the Archaeopteryx was able to fly or not. Update: Only recently researchers at the University of Cambridge discovered the Wonderchicken, a species now known as the oldest modern bird.)
"Flight is truly a story of success. All eight of the fastest animals on our planet are able to fly, amongst them birds, as well as bats, with the peregrine falcon being able to reach 389 km/h in a dive flight"
Flying - a Story of Success 7
Not all vertebrates which are able to fly have feathers, in fact only birds and their early ancestors do. But why do some flying animals have feathers while others do not? The answer is not so simple and took years of research. Nonetheless, ground-breaking work revealed that feathers evolved independently from the ability to fly. It was nearly 30 million years after the origin of the feather (~230Ma) before the first vertebrate was able to fly. This first specimen showed feather-like structures, which were more complex than hair but simpler than more evolved feathers which show very advanced branching structures. Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to show active flight and also the first to show feather-like structures. Recent studies surmise these feathers were used for tactile sensing, signalling, thermoregulation, and aerodynamics and were not yet suitable for the use of flight. Only through molecular modifications were these early feathers made suitable for flight, and it is suggested that they coevolved with the ability to fly. But feathers are not the only factor which determines the ability of an animal to fly. For instance, all Pterosaurs only possessed wings without modified feathers but the Pterosaur species Quetzalcoatlus northropi was the largest flying animal that ever lived. Its body mass was an astonishing 250 kg and it had a wingspan of an impressive 15.5 metres. Q. northropi was not the only giant of its time. Some time before the first vertebrate was able to fly, insects of enormous size evolved due to the lack of airborne vertebrate predators and higher levels of oxygen in our atmosphere. During the time of historical “insect gigantism”, around 300 Ma, the largest insect ever recorded, the dragonfly Meganeura monyi, could grow to be enormous with a wing span of 70 cm. Although these giants are long lost to our planet, we can still see some of the ancestors of the ancient insects and birds which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. Furthermore, the success story of flight continued, as more flying species, birds, bats, and insects alike, evolved. Nowadays, flying species contribute to more than half of our species richness but due to climate change these fantastic species, which took millions of years to evolve, are in great danger. Migratory birds are especially impacted by the rising temperatures. Many of these birds migrate in early spring to higher latitudes to nest and breed in the temperate and polar regions. As larvae and other insects are a typical food source for young bird hatchlings, the synchronisation of the larval peak abundance and chick hatching time is crucial for their survival. As the poles are warming, new green foliage emerges earlier in the year, leading to an earlier peak of larval abundance. Due to this, the perfect synchronisation between bird migration and food availability is pushed into disequilibrium. As the mismatch progresses, experts predict populations will plummet, as the gap grows until it is completely mismatched. 8
Flying - a Story of Success
The first studies investigating climate change were conducted more than ten years ago but have led to fairly limited actions. Since the ability to fly has come a long way and has fascinated many, it would be a shame to let millions of years of evolution go to waste. Finding solutions to climate change is, therefore, the necessary next step to continue this story of success. — I blinked and noticed a movement outside. The small bird had flown off —
Felicitas Pamatat is an MPhil student in Zoology at King's College. Artwork by Clara Munger and Marzia Munafò
Seeds of Change Alice McDowell discusses Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement Whilst this issue was being produced, thousands Despite strict celebrated Wangari Maathai Day. Previously known as restrictions Africa Environment Day, March 3rd now commemorates on political Africa’s first female Nobel prize winner. As a scientist, activism at the environmental activist, and politician, Wangari Maathai time, Maathai empowered women to manage forest nurseries, save achieved public land, and fight for self-determination, justice, and significant democracy. progress by Born in 1940 in Ihithe, Kenya, Maathai was raised framing her with a keen respect for local biodiversity and its place in Movement as her culture. After studying in the US and Germany, she a conservation completed her doctoral thesis in Nairobi and became effort. However, the first woman in Central or East Africa to obtain a after protests at PhD. While continuing her academic research, Maathai Uhuru Park in campaigned for equal benefits for female university 1989, Maathai was staff. She later proposed the planting of seven trees warned that her name in downtown Nairobi representing seven community was on a list of proleaders; this was the first 'Green Belt' and marked the democracy activists targeted birth of a Movement that would eventually plant over 51 for government-sponsored million trees. assassination. After barricading In 1977, Maathai was appointed as an associate herself in her house for three days, she was arrested and professor at the University of Nairobi, making her the charged with offences including treason. The charges most senior female academic in Kenya. Soon after, were eventually dropped after international pressure. however, she was hounded by the press while undergoing Following a decade-long struggle in which Maathai divorce proceedings. She later wrote: 'Anybody who had strove to unite the opposition to the authoritarian a grudge against modern, educated, and independent government, Maathai was elected as an MP in 2002. women was being given an opportunity to spit on me'. In 2004, she became the first environmentalist to be Struggling to provide for her three children, Maathai awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. reluctantly left them with their father and travelled across Maathai’s achievements are immense: her Movement Africa to work for the Economic Commission for Africa. planted over 4,000 nurseries, providing income for From 1978 to 2002, Kenya was governed by the 150,000 people. Moreover, her impact extends beyond dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, who enforced a borders. In 2007, nine-year-old Felix Finkbeiner, from repressive regime in which women had few civil rights. Germany, read Maathai’s story and founded Plant-forMaathai realised that women were also particularly the-Planet. By 2011, the year of Maathai’s death due affected by deforestation; they had to walk further for to cancer, Plant-for-the-Planet had planted 1 million firewood and water, farm increasingly arid land, and take trees. They are now totalling over 13.6 billion trees. the entire burden of childcare and housekeeping while By integrating democracy and human rights with their partners migrated to cities for work. A 2019 paper environmentalism, Maathai left a legacy that reaches by Rao et al. in Nature Climate Change has shown that beyond the nurseries. When accepting her Nobel Prize, this issue is widespread in climate change hotspots across Maathai said, 'I always felt that our work was not simply Africa and Asia. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement sought about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to empower rural women to improve their standard of to take charge of their environment, the system that living by planting forest nurseries. The Movement also governed them, their lives, and their future' protested the development of public land and started programmes to teach women about income-generating activities and sexual health. Alice McDowell is a 2nd year PhD student in Biochemistry.
“I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives, and their future”
Artwork by Charlotte Airey
Seeds of Change
Turning Over an Old Leaf Bryony Yates discusses the value of herbaria with Dr. Lauren Gardiner, Curator of Cambridge University Herbarium “It’s a sort of tutankhamun’s tomb” says Dr. Lauren Gardiner, describing the plant collection she curates. 'I regularly feel like I’m opening the door to a treasure trove and going "Folks? Does anyone realise what’s here?”'. Cambridge University Herbarium is a little-known collection, tucked away in a basement within the Sainsbury Laboratory, on the site of Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It houses an estimated 1.1 million plant specimens that have been dried, pressed, and preserved. The Herbarium (also known by its international herbarium code CGE) forms one node in a global network of over 3,000 herbaria that collectively house an estimated 380 million specimens. One of the largest collections in the UK, CGE is 'laden with the most extraordinary collections' says Dr. Gardiner 'and would be considered to be the national collection in many countries'. It is home to one of the finest collections of British flora and plant specimens collected by famous naturalists including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The Herbarium also holds many 'type' specimens, an estimated 50,000: each one is the original specimen upon which the description of its species was based. Despite its importance, the collection has received little attention in recent decades. As a result, many specimens are uncatalogued mysteries; some have lain untouched for centuries. 'It is pretty amazing when you find something in the collection… and then you realise you have something really significant' says Dr. Gardiner. 'I quite regularly find these in this collection'. As recently as 2019, previously undocumented specimens collected by Darwin have been discovered, some still wrapped in the newspaper they had originally been collected in. While plants collected by Darwin will excite any keen natural scientist, herbaria are much more than mere curiosities. '[Herbaria] are collected for scientific purposes. They are enormous research datasets' explains Dr. Gardiner. Individual ecological studies tend to be limited by funding cycles, conducted on only a handful of species and locations, and restricted to a few years at most. With herbaria 'others have done a lot of fieldwork over the years and you can do your research on the material they collected. You have specimens that go back over a long time period and have a wider geographic and species range than you could possibly cover in one research project'. Worldwide, the oldest herbarium specimens date from as early as the 16th Century; CGE’s collections stretch back an impressive 300 years. Crucially, this period covers the onset of industrialisation and globalisation, perhaps humankind’s most large-scale and long-term experiments. Plants have witnessed, and bear the scars of, the rapid and intense global changes that have characterised this era: climate change, pollution, urbanisation, biological invasions, and more. Herbaria offer unique insights into such changes because they match the scales at which these processes operate: over decades and centuries, across all species, everywhere. A single specimen contains many layers of information. The preserved morphology (form) of the plant records its life-cycle stage at the time it 10
Turning Over an Old Leaf
was collected as well as characteristics of its growth. Interactions with other organisms may have left their physical mark on the specimen: disease lesions for example, or bite-marks from a hungry herbivore. The plant tissue itself holds information that can be carefully extracted with biochemical methods. Environmental pollutants and nutrients retained in the tissue can paint a picture of the plant’s growth environment. The presence of a plant’s own defensive compounds point to interactions with pests and pathogens. Even the plant’s genetic makeup, its DNA, is largely preserved. Importantly, each specimen is accompanied by metadata, usually at least the plant name, date, location, and the collector’s name. All of the characteristics of each specimen can therefore be mapped to a specific place and time, with varying degrees of accuracy. This allows changes to be tracked over time and correlated with other relevant data, such as climate and land-use. While many specimens remain on shelves and in boxes, leveraging their potential is challenging. 'There’s an international network of herbaria and a UK network as well…We can loan material back and forth between collections' highlights Dr. Gardiner. However, physical exchange of material can only go so far. A global priority for herbaria is the digitisation of specimens. Digital records, made available via online portals, are accessible and usable by researchers around the world. However, digitisation is both slow and requires human resource. Some herbaria are finding creative ways to accelerate the process, using machine learning or engaging the public through citizen science initiatives. CGE is in the process of digitising its priority specimens —those of special historical importance and holotypes — and plans to make them freely available via portals such as the Cambridge Digital Library and JSTOR Global Plants. Wider use of the collections is central to Lauren’s vision for CGE. 'I would like the collection to be much, much more active... particularly to see it embedded in the teaching and research of the [Plant Science] department…part of the department’s day-to-day activities...there’s a lot of research that could use the collection'. She also emphasizes the cultural importance of the collection. 'These kinds of collections were put together, particularly in the 19th century and before that, by polymaths who were interested in everything. We have botanical specimens collected by literary figures known for their writing - all sorts of people'. Other significant items in the collection include original botanical artwork, photographs and portraits. It even holds the teaching materials used by Darwin’s botany Professor, John Stevens Henslow. These materials create even more opportunities to collaborate with other collections: 'I would like to see the Herbarium’s collections represented in exhibitions at the University of Cambridge Museums and the Botanic Garden…to strengthen the links between our collections and to explore the stories behind them'. Despite their exciting potential, the future of herbaria is under threat in many UK organisations. There are immediate threats, such as the Easter 2020
risk of flooding and infestation by insects that eat the specimens. CGE requires careful pest monitoring and all new specimens must be frozen before entering the collection. A more serious threat is the decline in financial support that is needed to sustain herbaria. 'There were points in time when this collection was definitely at risk of being broken up' Dr. Gardiner explains. The more valuable specimens would probably have been distributed to other collections, but others could have been disposed of. 'Sometimes people think it’s not of much interest — “it’s just a bunch of dead plants”'. This attitude seems short-sighted, given that herbaria may hold the key to understanding some of the biggest threats facing our plant-life and even our planet. To safeguard the future of CGE, and other herbaria, it is critical their utility is recognised. 'I would like people to know that we’re even here', Dr. Gardiner emphasises, 'and [for them to] value the collection as the treasure it really is' Bryony Yates is a fourth year Natural Sciences student at Newnham College. Image: credit Left: John Lindley, Wellcome Collection. Right: Cambridge University Herbarium, CGE
IT’S NOT JUST A BUNCH OF DEAD PLANTS! How information in herbarium specimens can help us understand global change Metadata | Location and date of collection can be used to map changes in plant diversity and distribution over time. Records show that many plants are moving higher in altitude and towards the poles, following their climatic niches as their environment warms. Not all changes can be escaped, however: studies reveal that urbanisation and modern agriculture have caused extensive species losses. Where humans have introduced non-native 'invasive' species, herbarium records can be used to understand the causes and dynamics of these invasions. An important caveat is that collection efforts can be inconsistent across time and space. This can introduce biases into the data if they are not carefully accounted for. Morphology | Changes to plant growth and form can be related to global change. This is used to understand how such change impacts plant-life and how plants might be adapting to new stresses. One study found that as atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen, the density of stomata (air pores) on leaves has reduced. Other research found that peak flowering advanced by 2.4 days for every 1°C increase in temperature. Changes like these could impede the interactions of plants with other organisms, upsetting the fine ecological balance. For example, if plants flower earlier but their pollinators continue to hatch at the same time, both will struggle to reproduce. At a global level, leaf gas exchange rates can affect carbon balance, and plants are a cornerstone of nutrient cycling. It is important that we know what changes are occurring to better understand the potential wide-reaching impacts. Chemicals | Plants accumulate and exchange a wide range of chemicals during their lifetime and these are present in herbarium specimens. Historic pollution levels can be tracked by measuring heavy metal compounds. This information can be correlated with other types of data (morphology, DNA, etc.) to understand the long-term effects of pollution. The composition of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the plant can reflect physiological changes. Studies suggest that the ratio of photosynthesis to water loss may be increasing as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises. DNA | Samples of so-called ancient DNA (aDNA) can be retrieved from small pieces of tissue, even those which are centuries old. Segments or whole genomes of plants (and their co-preserved pathogens) can be sequenced, revealing their genetic instructions. This powerful information can be used to characterise evolutionary responses to global change. Changes to plant traits that have occurred gradually, over centuries, can now be linked to their genetic basis. Evolutionary relationships can be reconstructed, and even population dynamics — how populations have grown, shrunk, migrated, and interbred — can be revealed from the letters of code. This rich seam of information has not been widely utilised, in part owing to technical difficulties such as contamination and DNA degradation. However, modern molecular techniques are increasingly able to utilise this data in older and older specimens.
Turning Over an Old Leaf 11
Fake It 'Til You Make It Ruby Coates looks at the rise of meat and dairy alternatives
Since humans first established agriculture, livestock products including meat and dairy have constituted a major proportion of our diets. However, the consumption of alternatives to livestock products is becoming more commonplace; plantbased milks, dairy-free cheese, the infamous vegan sausage roll. This movement has partially been triggered by the revelation that food production puts an enormous strain on the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The projected impact of reducing meat intake is significant; in a 2018 Nature article, Springmann and colleagues calculated that if global red meat consumption was reduced to 1 serving a week and white meat consumption to 3.5 servings a week, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would halve by 2050. Aside from meat, a 2018 study published in Science by Poore and Nemecek calculated that 200 mL of cowsâ€™ milk requires 120 L of water to produce, releasing 0.6 kg of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Meanwhile in 2019, 9.4 billion eggs were produced in the USA in January alone. When paired with estimates from researchers at the University of 12
Fake It 'Til You Make It
Oviedo that 12 eggs carry a carbon footprint equivalent to 2.7 kg CO2, the environmental impact of this scale of industry must be considered. Environmental awareness alongside animal welfare concerns have awakened movements towards animal-free eating. The Vegan Society reported that the number of UK vegans quadrupled between 2014 â€“ 2019. However, many people struggle to envision life without meat or dairy. The sharing and enjoyment of food is a key element of the human experience, and inclusion of these food groups is considered essential in many cultures. What options are there for those who want to eat sustainably without having to radically change their diet? The answer may lie in the expanding field of food biotechnology, where scientists and start-ups worldwide have been working on producing livestock products such as meat, milk, and eggs without farming animals at all. Perhaps the most famous example of this is cultured meat, where animal cells are isolated and grown in the laboratory to produce meat. Cultured meat gained media attention in 2013 when Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University unveiled the first cultured meat burger and cooked it live on air. The burger Easter 2020
had been made with 20,000 strands of muscle fibres grown in the lab. Although some viewed it as a whimsical pursuit, cultured meat has since become a serious area of research. According to David Hicks, Scott Allan and Moein Mir Fakhar, researchers working on cultured meat at the University of Bath in partnership with Cellular Agriculture Ltd., producing meat this way carries many advantages. 'Cultured meat production has the potential to offer a number of (...) benefits, including reduced land and water usage, reduced use of antibiotics, and the production of a highly specific end product with little waste or by-product formation' they say. However, progress in this field is highly dependent on the nature of the final product. For instance, Hicks and colleagues explain that producing cell powders for use as protein additives in food simply requires growing muscle cells in a bioreactor, which are then harvested and dried. In comparison, to make a product replicating the composition and texture of a cut of meat, the process is more complicated, involving multiple cell types grown on a scaffold. 'For a (...) product such as a full cut of steak, the challenge will be ensuring a favourable distribution of the two (or more) cell types throughout the chosen scaffold (...). Edible scaffolds have been tested, with the theory that these could be incorporated to lend their material properties, such as texture, to the end-product' they say. In spite of this, Hicks and colleagues mention that there is traction in the field of cultured meat. 'Many of the largest start-up companies in the field have said that they hope to have their cultured meat products in high-end restaurants and on supermarket shelves in the next 3-5 years'. Whilst lab-grown meat has taken the centre-stage as a futuristic alternative, other livestock products have been targeted for culinary mimicry. By combining molecular biology and chemical engineering, the USA-based company Perfect Day has developed 'synthetic' milk which they claim has the same texture, taste and nutrition as cows’ milk. They achieved this by expressing genes encoding milk proteins including whey and casein in culturable fungi from the Trichoderma genus. By growing the fungus in industrial fermentation tanks, large quantities of milk proteins are isolated and combined with vitamins, minerals, fats, and water to generate imitation cows’ milk. This reductionist approach of identifying the minimal elements of milk, producing them in-house and then mixing them into a synthetic milk cocktail means that troublesome components including lactose or cholesterol can be omitted and factors including fat content easily controlled. Whilst synthetic milk is not yet available for purchase, a campaign selling limited edition ice cream made using the fungus-grown milk proteins was highly successful, with all stock selling out. The company is also working on using its technology to make synthetic cheese and yoghurt. If their products taste as authentic as they claim then the replacement of cows’ milk could potentially be on the horizon. Arguably, the most difficult livestock product to replace is the chicken egg, a versatile product with a complex
composition. Further to their consumption alone, eggs have an array of uses, including binding, emulsification, thickening, and foaming. Developing a substitute that functions well in all of these areas is challenging. Some alternatives such as aquafaba — the liquid gathered from soaking chickpeas in water — can form foams and emulsions, but cannot be consumed alone in the same manner as an egg. To address this, Silicon valley-based company JUST developed a chicken-free egg substitute which they claim scrambles and tastes identical to eggs. They use mung-bean protein along with turmeric to create a yellow liquid akin to scrambled egg mixture. Meanwhile, other companies are attempting to replicate eggs entirely — even down to the shell. French entrepreneurs Philippine Soulères and Sheryline Thavisouk own a company called La Merveillœuse, which is set to release vegan eggs in mid2020. Although their methods are proprietary, they have managed to recreate eggs with both whites and yolks, and are currently developing eco-friendly egg shells to contain them in. A huge amount of creativity, money and scientific thought is being channelled into developing alternatives to livestock products that have been familiar to humans since agriculture was first established. Lab grown meat, synthetic milk, and a foray into replicate eggs is only the beginning of what can be achieved in food science with technological advances. However, this will require a great deal of investment as well as support from the public as there is little use in developing alternatives if no-one wants to consume them. There is also the question of the necessity of such alternatives, especially considering the wide range of plant-based products that are already available. Some would argue that all that is required for more sustainable eating is a recalibration of our expectations and habits — eating a little less meat, consuming less dairy, sourcing food responsibly — without the need for developing like-for-like alternatives. Nevertheless, the expansion of this area of food science demonstrates that some of these products may become familiar items in our supermarkets in coming years
"Cultured meat gained media attention in 2013 when Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University unveiled the first cultured meat burger and cooked it live on air"
Ruby Coates is a 2nd year Microbiology PhD student at Darwin College. Artwork by Hinze Ho and Alexandra Pinggera
Fake It 'Til You Make It
The Undercover Hero of the Sea Ellie Wilding explores how seagrass can help to fight climate change
What Is seagrass? Blanketing coastlines across every continent except Antarctica, 72 species of humble seagrass quietly engineer their environment to benefit coastlines, wildlife, and people around the globe. Interest in their existence has been largely unacknowledged until recent years when their abilities to draw in and store huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere has attracted large scientific attention. Despite their vast global benefits, seagrasses remain poorly understood. Belonging to the same group of plants as grasses, lilies, and palms (monocotyledons), seagrasses have roots, leaves, and veins like their terrestrial counterparts, and function much in the same way. Like any other grass species, they photosynthesise and produce flowers and seeds. Of the 72 species, most live in depths of 1â€“3 metres where light levels are high, however one species (Halophila decipiens) is known to grow at depths of up to 58 metres. The number of species comprising a meadow varies greatly depending upon location, with the highest diversity recorded in tropical areas where up to 14 species can grow together. What Makes Seagrass a Wonder Plant? For over 10,000 years, seagrasses have been used by humans to fertilise fields, insulate houses, make bandages, thatch roofs, and even weave furniture. Beyond their direct use, seagrass meadows also support commercial fisheries making them one of the most
The Undercover Hero of the Sea
valuable ecosystems on the planet with one hectare estimated to be worth over US$19,000 per year. 'In Australia, one hectare of seagrass produces 200 kg more fish than a hectare of empty seafloor' says Dr. Maria del Mar Palacios, a marine scientist from the Blue Carbon Lab, Deakin University. Often referred to as â€˜lungs of the seaâ€™, seagrasses can generate 10 litres of oxygen per square metre through photosynthesis. They also play important roles in nutrient cycling and water filtration along the coastlines that they occupy. Their roots and blades trap and stabilise sediment, helping to improve water quality and absorb nutrients in runoff from land. The nutrients trapped in the soil by the seagrass can then be taken up and released by the seagrass plants themselves. How Can Seagrass Help in the Fight Against Climate Change? Another feature that makes seagrasses wonder-plants is their ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They can do this by dissipating wave energy and protecting coastlines from erosion, but one of their greatest weapons in the fight against climate change is their ability to store and sequester carbon. Dr. Palacios continues 'seagrasses, along with mangroves and tidal marshes, are efficient carbon sinks that are able to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide back into the ground'. Despite only occupying less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, seagrass meadows account for 10% of all blue carbon stores and can capture carbon from the atmosphere up to 35 times faster than terrestrial forests In fact, Easter 2020
it has been estimated that just one square metre of seagrass can sequester approximately 83 grams of carbon per year, the same amount emitted by a car travelling approximately 6,212 km. 'We know that seagrass meadows have fast soil carbon burial rates and capacity to lock the carbon in the soil for centuries and millennia' says Dr. Palacios. However, there is very little understanding of the drivers that determine the ability of seagrass meadows to store carbon and additionally, how these can be affected by climate change. Scientists around the globe are working to address these critical knowledge gaps and further our understanding of seagrass ecosystems. For example, at the Blue Carbon Lab, scientists are working on projects to quantify the economic value of seagrass ecosystem services (including coastal protection, fisheries production, recreation, and carbon storage), to understand how the degradation of seagrass beds by sea urchins can affect blue carbon stocks and to compare the carbon decomposition rates of seagrass meadows across the world (TeaCompositionH2O program). The potential of seagrasses to sequester blue carbon is gaining international attention as efforts to tackle the climate emergency become increasingly urgent. In 2016, the United Nations Paris Agreement entered into force, requiring the 189 countries that signed up to submit plans — referred to as nationally determined contributions — to tackle climate change. Of these 189 countries, 159 have seagrass on their shores. However, only ten countries included seagrass in their existing nationally determined contributions (NDCs). If contributions from seagrasses were included by all 159 countries, their impact could be significant. What Are the Threats and Pressures Facing Seagrass Meadows? At present, it is estimated that seagrass meadows are being lost globally at a rate of 1.5% per year — equating to approximately 2 football fields every hour. Following an assessment from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2011, it was found that nearly 25% of all seagrass species are threatened or near threatened. Both direct and indirect effects of human activities account for the largest losses of seagrass meadows. For example, anchors and propellers from boats can leave scars in the seagrass beds, which not only kills sections of the seagrass, but also fragments the habitat causing increased erosion around the edges. Seagrass meadows are also sensitive to reductions in light levels caused by sediment runoff from agriculture and land development. This sediment runoff often contains nutrients from fertilisers that cause algal blooms, which further blocks off light from the seagrass and reduces its growth. Despite their climate mitigation potential, seagrass meadows are also under great threat from climate change itself. A study published in the journal, Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, has shown that as sea levels rise, it reduces the amount of light accessible to seagrasses. This reduction in light Easter 2020
levels affects the photosynthetic capacity of the seagrasses, increasing their vulnerability to diseases and causing widespread loss of deeper seagrass meadows. Disease can lead to severe devastation of seagrass meadows as was seen in the 1930s when approximately 90% of all eel grass growing in North America was lost to a wasting disease. What Does the Future Look Like for Seagrass? Restoring seagrass meadows can offer some hope in combating their alarming rate of loss. However, seagrass restoration is difficult and expensive, and it has been found that in order to have a reasonable chance of success, this restoration must be huge in scale. The largest seagrass restoration project — Seagrass Ocean Rescue — is currently underway in the UK through a collaboration of scientists and conservationists at Sky Ocean Rescue, WWF, and Swansea University. Over the summer of 2019, one million seeds were collected from seagrass meadows around the UK and taken to laboratories at Swansea University, where they are currently being prepared for planting. The seeds will be put in hessian bags and planted across a 2 hectare area in Dale Bay, Pembrokeshire, which despite having suitable conditions for seagrass growth, has suffered widespread loss in recent history. Should this project prove to be a success, it offers hope for future large-scale seagrass restoration projects. This coincides with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030 which aims to draw together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to scale up restoration of terrestrial, coastal, and marine systems on a global scale. It is evident that seagrasses offer great hope in the fight against climate change and the more we are able to understand these ecosystems, the better the chance we have of conserving, restoring, and maximising their future potential
"Despite only occupying less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, seagrass meadows account for 10% of all carbon stores"
Ellie Wilding is a Geography MPhil student at Fitzwilliam College. Artwork by Eva Pillai
The Undercover Hero of the Sea
Fire and Water Evan Wroe and Annika Schlemm explore the links between climate change and extreme weather events around the world The climate crisis is upon us. Decades’ worth of
unrelenting greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, leading to a breakdown in once-reliable climate systems. The effects of climate breakdown pervade many aspects of human society and life on Earth in general. A changing climate affects agriculture, water resources, ecosystem integrity, ocean acidity, and a multitude of other aspects of the world. But the most striking of these, the moments that shock us into silence, that leave us grasping at straws due to the sheer scale of them, are extreme weather events. Hurricanes, flash floods, heatwaves, and wildfires are all natural features of the planet’s weather system. But as global temperatures rise, these events are becoming more severe and more likely to occur. Globally, this puts us in a position where natural disasters seem to be happening constantly; we are still reeling from one while the next one looms on the not-too-distant horizon. The summer of 2019 saw swathes of the Amazon on fire, followed by Hurricane Dorian hitting the Bahamas at the start of September. In another hemisphere, the Australian bushfire season was starting early in September and October, and lasted right through until January, at which point there was mass flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia. These are just the disasters that made headlines. These natural disasters have devastating impacts on human lives and livelihoods, as well as the rest of the natural environment. To understand the extent of these impacts, we must first understand how extreme weather events come about, and how they link into the greater story of climate breakdown. A key part of this is recognising that global climate systems and ecosystems are interconnected, and changing one part has knock-on effects for the entire planet. To quote fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, 'Rain on Roke may be drought in Osskil… a calm in the East may be storm and ruin in the West'. Here, we focus on two recent natural disasters that unfolded concurrently — the Australian bushfire season, and flash flooding in Jakarta —and look at how they tie into the greater story of climate and ecological breakdown. A World on Fire The past few months have seen some of the largest bushfires in Australian history; across the country, 110,000 sq km have been engulfed in fire. Social media was inundated with
dramatic images of great columns of smoke stretching into the heavens, and of whole cities turned a hellish orange by the ash and glow of nearby fires. At least 33 people have died as a result of the fires — four of them firefighters — and ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than a billion animals have been killed. Bushfires are normal for this time of year, but this fire season has been long-lasting and widespread. It is a painfully in-your-face indictment of global warming that these wildfires come at the end of Australia’s hottest year on record. In December 2019, Australia’s temperature record was broken twice (on consecutive days) to reach 41.9 ˚C, with the 2019 mean temperature more than 1.5 ˚C higher than average. For reference, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that the global average temperature should be prevented from increasing by more than 1.5 °C. They forecast that at current emission rates, and thus warming rates, the average global temperature could reach this mark as early as 2030. Looking at 2019, Australia appears to be worryingly ahead of the curve, and this should serve as a warning to the rest of the world as to what a 1.5 ˚C temperature increase means in reality. High temperatures alone are not the only meteorological driving force behind bushfires. 2019 was also an unusually dry year, thanks largely to a climate phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the Indian Ocean’s answer to the more famous El Niño-Southern Oscillation weather system of the Pacific Ocean. The IOD is the result of a difference in sea surface temperature between one side of the Indian Ocean (off the east coast of Africa) and the other (closer to South East Asia and Australia). The dipole exists in a balance; if one side of the Indian Ocean is significantly warmer than usual, the other side will be cooler. A warmer ocean experiences more evaporation and in turn nearby land experiences more rainfall. Both El Niño and the IOD demonstrate the delicate, interconnected nature of coupled climate systems. In 2019 this balance was tipped to its extreme, which resulted in both the bone-dry conditions needed to start an early fire season in Australia, and months of extreme rainfall and flash flooding across East Africa. The IOD is a natural phenomenon — an intrinsic part of Earth’s complex climate system — and extreme IOD events have occured before.
However, in 2014 climatologists from institutions across Australia, India, China, and Japan projected that under increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, extreme IOD events would increase in incidence from one every 17 years to one every 6 years. The increasing occurrence of these dry periods over Australia, in combination with what are sure to be many more years of record breaking temperatures, presents a bleak outlook for future Australian summers. Extreme weather events rarely occur in isolation, and the IOD is a prime example. While Australia was burning, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and other countries in the Horn of Africa were enduring up to 300% of their average rainfall, resulting in over 300 deaths across the region. Similarly, the fires in southeast Australia were so extensive that the ash released was able to cross the Tasman Sea and blacken glaciers in New Zealand. Darker colours absorb more heat than lighter colours, which is why you will feel cooler in summer in a white top than a black one. Here, this means that the blackened glaciers are melting more quickly than normal. A sure-fire sign of a crisis: fires in Australia melting glaciers in New Zealand. While high temperatures and minimal rainfall create conditions ripe for mega-fires, there is a third, often overlooked, contribution to the increasing coverage of fires in the Australian bush; the way the land is managed. In a country where fires are inevitable, land management means the difference between small, controlled burns and wildfires running across the land. There are two broad schools of thought when it comes to land management for fire reduction: hot burns and cool burns. Hot burning is practiced by many Western governments, including the Australian government, and it is quite literally a scorchedearth tactic, in which areas of land near to settlements are burnt to the ground to deplete the fuel of any would-be wildfires. This is known as ‘backburning’ and while it can stop fires making it right up to towns and cities, it doesn’t address the build-up of fuel away from settlements, which can lead to worse fires in the long term. In contrast, cool burns are smaller fires set at more regular intervals before the dry season to reduce fuel while protecting biodiversity. They are practiced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples across Australia, and have an emphasis on being tailored to the local environment and ecology. In recent decades, First Nation Peoples of Australia have had their access to the land restricted, and management has been taken over by governmental bodies. 'The fact of the matter is that we don’t have the expertise in the current land management sector to look after the landscape the right way' Victor Steffensen, an Indigenous fire practitioner, told ABC at their Bushfires Special in February. 'We have a landscape now that is just full of fuel, and it’s just backed up to the communities… We need to start training people to read 18 Focus
landscapes, understand the soil and understand when to burn the right ecosystems at the right time'. First Nations Peoples have been in Australia and practicing fire stewardship for 65,000 years. Their relationship with land embodies the fact that humans are a part of the ecosystem, and how we act has profound effects on the rest of the natural world. Steffensen goes on to explain how human factors compound to create the natural disasters we are increasingly facing. 'It’s about all of it. We need to get the scientists to help us reduce emissions, and we need to get communities and people out on country[side], learning about the environment and reconnecting with the landscape again, just as Aboriginal Peoples have done for thousands of years'. A World Under Water While the world was watching Australia burn, another disaster was unfolding in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. On New Year’s Eve Jakarta experienced the highest level of rainfall in a single day since records began, at the time of Dutch colonisation in the 1800s. This was the start of more than a week of unrelenting downpour, during which more than 60 people died and some 180 neighbourhoods across the city were flooded. Parts of the city were left under 19 feet of water and other regions were hit by devastating landslides which killed at least a dozen people. The central urban region of Jakarta is of an equivalent size to London; a population of about 10 million and covering a similar land area. Picture flooding throughout almost 200 neighbourhoods across London, with Camden Market under two stories of water; this is the extent of the disaster that hit Jakarta. An increasingly common question when natural disasters hit is 'was this one caused by climate change?'. After all, Jakarta’s monsoon season stretches over eight months of the year, from October to May, so it is not uncommon to see heavy rainfall. It is tempting then to view this as simply a strong storm, an extreme outlier in what is already a complex system. But this is not an event which exists in isolation — Jakarta’s monsoons are one part of a network of weather systems all trapped within one warming planet. In their 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere, the IPCC outlined how coastal ecosystems and communities can expect to be impacted by global warming and the consequent rising sea levels. Following our current warming trajectory, the IPCC calculate that extreme sea level events — like the storm which hit Jakarta — could increase in frequency from once-a-century events to once-a-year events by 2050. As with all extreme weather events, it isn’t possible to assign blame for the flooding to climate change alone,
but we do know that these events are made more likely under global warming. This was recognised by Dwikorita Karnawati, Director of the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics, when she told reporters 'the impact of a one degree increase can be severe… Among that is these floods'. As a low-lying island nation with a long coastline, Indonesia is in a precarious position, trapped between increasing rainfall and rising sea-levels. To make matters worse, Jakarta is sinking. The city sits on an aquifer, an underground layer of water-bearing material, that is being pumped out for use by industry and residents, to such a degree that in some parts of the city the land sinks by 10 inches every year. Researchers at the Bandung Institute of Technology forecast that by mid-century 95% of North Jakarta will be underwater if preventative measures are not put in place. By pumping out groundwater, Jakarta is pulling its legs out from under itself, and exacerbating its susceptibility to the effects of the changing climate. Jakarta’s precarious situation will likely see many of its residents leave, if they are able to; the government has announced that the site of the capital will move in 2024. Climate migrancy is something we will see more of as extreme weather events intensify; sociologists at Cornell University predict that in the next 40 years, 1.4 billion people will be forced to migrate due to the effects of climate breakdown. But it might not be too late for Jakarta. Other coastal cities have faced similar degrees of sinking and changed course (to varying degrees of success). In the 1960s, for example, Tokyo halted the pumping of groundwater after finding that the city had sunk three metres since the start of the century. By the mid ‘70s, the city’s water was being piped in from beyond city limits, and sinking had also been halted (at just over four metres). Jakarta, however, doesn’t look set to stop its groundwater pumping anytime soon, opting instead to start work on a $4 billion, 40 km-long sea wall across Jakarta Bay. This would act as a water-break for the storm surges that threaten the sinking city, and would decrease the impact of rising sea levels on the current inner sea walls. While it might lessen the immediate threats of flooding and storm surges, a sea wall would bring environmental problems of its own. 'As the water is trapped, the pollutants deposited by the 13 rivers in Jakarta would accumulate in one place' Taslim Arifin, a researcher at the Research and Development Center for Marine and Coastal Resources told the Jakarta Post. 'The water inside the seawall would become a big pond of pollution'. As well as forming the perfect conditions for the spread of water-borne diseases, the pollution would threaten the coral reefs of Jakarta bay and the condition of fish sourced from the bay. An alliance of local community groups, collectively called the Save the Jakarta Bay Coalition, wrote in an open
letter 'We are deeply concerned about the livelihood loss and infringement of human rights, as well as irreparable environmental damage, caused by the project… Tens of thousands of people connected to small-scale fisheries will lose their livelihood'. There are other solutions to saving a sinking city. Upon accounting for the destruction of forest and peatland carbon stores, Indonesia is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. If it wants to stave off the rising tides, that seems like a good place to start. Like many other formerly colonised nations, it has been industrialising rapidly to keep pace with the developed world, and this comes at the expense of the environment. However, with almost a quarter of Indonesian citizens denying the reality of climate breakdown, there may need to be a wider change in mentality before action will be taken to ensure climate justice for Indonesia. A World Shared Whether looking at fires in Australia, flooding in Indonesia or other extreme weather events, human lives are never the only ones at stake. The story of climate breakdown is one that threatens both humanity and the wider ecosystem that we are a part of, and indeed depend on. The First Nations Peoples of Australia are a prime example of the interdependence between humans and the natural environment. Their understanding of the surrounding ecosystem has allowed them to safeguard unique animals and plants, using them within ecological limits. The Australian habitats, which have existed in geographical isolation for millions of years, have provided the perfect setting for high rates of speciation. However, this isolation also renders these ecosystems especially vulnerable to change, as exemplified by the extinction of many species following the loss of Aboriginal practices and the introduction of invasive species upon the arrival of European colonists in the 18th century. Australia lost 29 mammals following the arrival of Europeans, whereas North America only lost one mammal. The Australian landscape was forged in flames, allowing many species to evolve adaptations that enable them to survive and thrive in such harsh conditions, such as Banksia plants which scientists at Curtin University discovered have evolved with fire for 61 million years. These plants display innovative adaptations, such as containing the seeds within cones which are melted by the fire, meaning wildfire is required for them to release their seeds and resprout. What they haven’t had time to evolve defences towards, however, is the scale, intensity, and timing of the current fires. These fires go beyond the limits of their current adaptations.
The loss of biodiversity within Australia is particularly prominent as many native species aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Already, it is estimated that the fires have pushed at least 20 species towards extinction. This number could rise to 100, and amongst the endangered is Kangaroo Island’s distinctive glossy black cockatoo, for which the island was its last refuge. This cockatoo species had rebounded from near extinction and reached record numbers in 2019, but the recent wildfires have devastated the birds’ natural habitat and destroyed their only food source: seeds from the drooping she-oak. Similarly, the entire habitat and all known monitoring sites of the Kangaroo Island dunnart have been burnt, pushing them towards the brink of extinction. At this rate, it is possible that species could become extinct before we’ve even had the chance to discover them. Only a third of Australia’s 250,000 insect species have been named. Names crossed out after millions of years of evolution before we can even write them down. Entomologist at the University of Sydney Tanya Latty is trying to address this threat, telling the Times that the endemic short-range velvet worms studied by her lab may be used for a captive breeding programme in order to save the species. 'As an ecologist' Latty said, 'it’s a very tragic thing to find yourself having to think “What if my species is now extinct?”'. Even for those animals that survive the immediate danger of the wildfires, the knock-on effects of the fire can have an equally devastating impact on the ecosystem. Species may suffer from the resulting lack of food and the loss of shelter, leaving them vulnerable to predators. Any subsequent rain would also wash large quantities of ash and soot into rivers and lakes, developing algal blooms and endangering aquatic life.
With 3 million hectares along its coastline, Indonesia harbours 23% of the world’s mangrove forests. Yet rather than protecting these vital ecosystems, the Indonesian government has done nothing to stop companies from burning mangrove forests to make way for palm oil plantations, which severely affects coastal ecosystems and releases the stored carbon in these ecosystems. This deforestation results in the release of 190 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year, accounting for one fifth of Indonesia’s land use emissions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 40% of Indonesia’s mangrove forests have been destroyed since the 1980s. The shoreline on central Java has suffered in particular, the damage compounded by conversions of mangrove forest for aquaculture, groundwater extraction, and infrastructure development. To address this risk posed to the 30 million inhabitants of Java, initiatives such as the ‘Building with Nature’ Indonesia project, work to restore mangroves in order to protect against erosion, improve water purification, increase carbon storage, revive fisheries, and offer further opportunities for recreation and tourism. It is hoped that nature-based projects such as this can provide sustainable, long-term solutions to the coastal communities most at risk from climate breakdown. It is important that we don’t decouple nature’s survival from our own. Without the complex networks of fungi, microbes, plants, and animals that support ecosystems, food security becomes threatened and disease more easily spread. Pairing the extreme weather changes with additional urbanisation and invasive species introduction has the potential to lead to unknown consequences and tipping points within nature and human society.
While nature is often threatened by a changing climate and the extreme weather events it brings, it is also a part of the remedy. In the case of Indonesia, man-made solutions, such as building a sea wall, provide an expensive plaster to a worsening issue that isn’t skin deep. But there exist alternatives to these gray solutions, known as 'blue and green infrastructure' which seek to strengthen and use existing natural defences, such as building vegetative river banks and wetlands to combat the effects of coastal erosion.
In both Jakarta and Australia, the loss of human life was echoed by widespread environmental destruction. The governments and industries of these two countries are deeply invested in the extractive industries that produced these phenomena; in fact Indonesia and Australia are the two biggest exporters of coal in the world. There is a hypocrisy here, in that the people profiting from this industry are not the ones affected by the resulting disasters. Take Jakarta: in a country of extreme inequality, in which the richest 10 % of the population own 77 % of the wealth, the people that died in the flooding were more likely to have lived in the city’s slums than its skyscrapers.
Mangroves, the salt-tolerant trees that reside in the intertidal zones of coastlines in tropical and sub-tropical regions, have been dubbed ‘green coastal guardians’. Thanks to their complex root system, mangroves act as an eco-buffer which stabilise coastlines, reduce erosion, store carbon, provide habitats for fish, and enhance ecosystem stability. Mangroves are also incredibly effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere, with their mean long-term carbon burial rates more than 45 times greater than tropical and boreal forests.
This trend is true across the globe, as we see governments continue to clear forests and invest in fossil fuels while their citizens are battered by storms and fires. It is difficult to imagine this situation changing while economic growth increases the demand for our planet’s finite resources. Speaking at the Oscars, Bong Joon-ho, Director of Parasite, expressed this simply — ‘we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism’. The events that unfolded in Jakarta and Australia — their causes, who was affected, our
collective response to them â€” tell us a lot about the new era that we are entering. An era in which megafires and superfloods are no longer rare. An era in which food systems are threatened, and billions of people may be forced into migration. An era brought on by blind faith in capitalism as a system of governance and as an ethical compass. As we move together through the 21st century, we need to ask whether this system has the answers to the questions that are burning down our homes, and if not, if there are other systems of knowledge that do. When responding to natural disasters, we will need to decide whether we want to work against nature or work with it; whether we want to build sea walls or plant mangrove forests Evan Wroe is a PhD student in Chemistry at Queens' College and Annika Schlemm is an MPhil student in Biological Sciences (Zoology) at Queens' College. Artwork by Rosanna Rann
Above: Children in Jakarta being rescued from the floods
Artwork Above piece: Title: Not Yet Recyclable Materials: Acrylic prints made with non-recyclable plastic items on paper A word from the artist: My intention was to create an image using a process that would imitate an irresponsible act of disposing plastic items. I took some ‘not yet recyclable’ items from my bin, covered them with acrylics — a plastic material in itself — and threw them on a clean surface leaving dirty, irremovable traces.
Bottom right piece (pg. 23): Title: Frivolity Materials: Pencil, paper A word from the artist: Once produced, plastic will remain on the Earth’s surface— just as your words, once pronounced, cannot be taken back.
Be Better, Not Banned A Single-Use Speech ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: No. Scrap that. See how easy it is to just throw something away. See how quickly those three words: ‘ladies’ ‘and’ ‘gentleman’ are discarded. But hey, words are recyclable. I copy and paste, change cases, rewrite and backspace my messages all the time. Let us start again with some words. Let me address you: Ladies and Gentleman. And let me also address you: Plastic Straws. You: Plastic Bags. You: Single-Use Coffee Cups, Takeaway Cartons, Bottle Caps, Napkins, Laminate Sheets, Shredded Paper, Styrofoam, Earbuds, Light Bulbs, Mirrors — this is for you. So sit up straight and listen, we’ve got work to do if we want to be better, not banned. When you sat down at your tables tonight and after searching for your recycled paper place cards, you noticed a brown bag on your seat. There is a brown paper bag for each and every one of you tonight. This is your bag. Don’t say Apple Inc. never treats you — Go ahead, open it. Plastic Bags. Where are you? Please, stand up and show everybody exactly what it is you have got. Tucked neatly inside your brown paper bag, the severed head of a herring gull. Suffocated by a distant cousin of yours still floating his or her way towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Don’t be shocked. Be better, not banned.
This reminds me, before I finish tonight I want to share something my Great Grandmother, Morag, used to say. This was back when newspapers were used to wrap Friday’s dinner. She used to come home from The Golden Fillet stinking of fish, prop me up on her inky knee and say, ‘Once you print something, son, you can’t take it back,’ and she’d continue with the latest sordid headline a customer had found imprinted along the side of a battered cod. Think of Granny Morag next time you consider burying yourselves at sea. Treat your dead relatives like, ‘I love you’. Treat them like, ‘I was wrong’. Treat every type of plastic like precious words and phrases that should not be taken back, but reused time and again. For if you cast them into the sea, they will return. Please, recycle your family appropriately, before it’s too late. You never know when they might end up on your plate. There are, however, four words I want you to use freely tonight. Four words I want you to chuck around as much, and as loud as you can. All together now, everybody… Be better, not banned. Thank you. Good night
Plastic Straws. Lime green, Blue and Cerise. Don’t be shy. Everyone, look at these shells of a saltwater terrapin. Go on. Hold them right up. That’s it. You’ll need to use all of your flex now. I want all of you to earn your drinks tonight. I want you to perform a magic trick. Yes, I want you to reach deep inside your shells and pull out every piece of red, blue, green, and purple polypropylene out. Until the shells are empty. Remember folks, all of this is to help you be better and not banned. Neon fishing line. A special present for you: the tusk of a sea lion. It’s on a piece of string, so place it around your neck. Do you like how it feels against your skin? Not too tight? Do you think sea lions feel warmth inside their hearts every time you wrap your green arms around their pups’ necks? You’ll have ample time to reflect on this tonight, I promise, but if ever you find yourself unsure of the correct answers, just look down at your new necklace. I’ll be quizzing you later. I almost forgot. My turn. The organisers have kept whatever’s in my bag a secret but I think I can guess what’s inside — by the smell. I’m told I need to screengrab my reaction. What do you give a spoiled iPhone? Let’s have a look. Is that… a mouldy QR code? Hang on, please excuse me a second while I — my daughter’s better with these things than I am — there we go. A download link for… an app called… Plenty of Dead Fish? Let's put it on the big screen. Haddock. Cod. Lots of Pollock there. A Ray. Callum Beesley is a creative writing MSt student at the University of Cambridge. Artwork by Nataliia Kuksa
A Career in Science; Living the Dream? Lucy Hart explores research culture and it's impact on the wellbeing of academics Many students at the University of Cambridge dream of a career in academia, and the first step in achieving this is to complete a PhD. Indeed, with surveys performed in 2019 by both Nature and AdvanceHE indicating a satisfaction level of ~75 % among PhD students, it appears to be an attractive option. However, there are difficulties along the way and the world of academia is not without problems, as demonstrated in a recent report on research culture by the Wellcome Trust. Carried out to provide a rigorous dataset from which factors that contribute to productivity of the research sector could be identified, this survey of 4,000 researchers from all stages of their careers raised some worrying questions about the sustainability of the current system. Together, the surveys found that complaints fall into three main areas: long working hours, insecurity about career progression, and the impact of externally applied metrics on the quality of research. Nature’s survey of 6,300 early career researchers from across the globe reveals that three-quarters of respondents work over 41 hours a week compared to an estimated 38.4 hours a week for the average British person. 85% of those who worked over 41 hours a week were dissatisfied with their hours, suggesting that reasons other than passion for their project led to such long days. The situation appears to be driven by academic culture, with nearly half of respondents saying they felt their institution called for them to work long hours and even through the night. Students are also uncertain that the hours they put in will be worth it. The Wellcome Trust report shows that only 37% of researchers at entry level feel secure about their job prospects, with this figure falling to just 19% for early-stage researchers. In fact, just under half of those who have left academia cite their main reason for doing so as difficulty in finding a job and an uncertain career trajectory. Another reason for leaving may be academic research culture itself. When asked to describe research culture in the Wellcome Trust’s survey, the most common response was ‘competitive’, with the majority meaning this negatively. Competitive atmospheres may be driven by the importance of external metrics such as publications and citations in assessing the worth of academics’ research, meaning young researchers feel pressured to outperform their peers rather than work collaboratively. There was also concern that the emphasis on metrics encourages academic dishonesty, such as distorting or embellishing data to get published in more prestigious journals. Metrics may not be the only factor pushing scientists towards over-emphasising the impact of their results. Respondents felt that key stakeholders are
A Career in Science; Living the Dream?
becoming increasingly risk-averse and interested only in the shortterm impact of projects. This is having a negative impact on the ability of scientists to explore curiosity-driven ‘blue skies research’, with 75% of respondents feeling that their creativity was being stifled. Furthermore, the survey found that bullying, harassment, and discrimination were rife with 61% of people having witnessed it and 43% having experienced it. Alarmingly, only a third of respondents felt that they would be comfortable speaking out about cases of bullying or harassment, citing concerns about being viewed as a troublemaker and potential negative impacts on their career. The combined effect of these stresses is taking its toll on the mental health of researchers and PhD students. Only 14% of postgraduate students surveyed by AdvanceHE reported low anxiety, compared to 41% in the general population, with the Wellcome Trust reporting that just over half of researchers had sought or received help for anxiety or depression at some point during their academic career. Many academics reported feeling lonely and isolated. Furthermore, researchers under pressure often find it hard to separate professional failings from personal ones. This means that upsets at work or negative results can have a broader impact on their personal lives. That being said, what can, and is, being done to improve the situation? All of the surveys agreed that researchers are proud of what they do and enjoy the intellectual challenge of their job. However, they feel stuck in a system that demands too much of their time and rewards those willing to step over others to get ahead. The rising levels of concern and discontent about the problem can be seen from last year’s strike of the University and College Union, which was partly brought about by academics’ grievances relating to workload, equality, and job security. In 2018, the Royal Society held a conference entitled ‘Research culture: Changing expectations’ in an effort to examine these issues and create a space in which academics from all stages of their career could discuss possible solutions. There was a broad consensus on what needs to change, including changing how people are evaluated and rewarded within academia, a focus on collaboration over competition, and moving away from a ‘publish or perish’ culture. This points to an overall need for academia to change focus from where a paper is published to what the paper contains. There needs to be a shift in emphasis from volume of output to how that output was generated and what it means, both in terms of progression of knowledge and what it can contribute to society. These points,
and other recommendations for good scientific practice, have been encapsulated in the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA), which UK Research and Innovation recently signed up to. Furthermore, to support those doing their PhDs and early in their career, the conference has recommended emphasising that academia is not the only option and that pursuing another career does not make one a ‘failed academic’. The conference recommended that PhD students should have opportunities to improve their skills in a range of areas, such as public engagement and policy development, so that their PhD better equips them to carry out a range of roles both within and outside academia. This would give PhD students a wider range of options once they finish their degree and ensure they feel less confined to a particular career path. Universities also have a role to play, by making it easier to access appropriate mental health support so that those struggling don’t feel so alone. There is widening recognition of this problem, with Cambridge having recently received part of a £1.5 million partnership between Mind and Goldman Sachs. This partnership aims to provide support and specialist training to students and staff to help them look after their mental health. However, the availability of such services is highly variable between universities, and much of it is focused on undergraduates. Furthermore, even if counselling and mindfulness courses are on offer, it can be difficult for students in high-pressure environments to justify taking the time off to look after themselves.
53% of researchers sought help for depression or anxiety during their career.
With these facts in mind, embarking on a PhD may seem like a less enticing career move to some. Long hours, a competitive atmosphere, and questionable career prospects would be enough to turn many people off a job. However, the call of science is a hard one to ignore and many students see the risks as being worth it to pursue the subject they love. Hopefully, by raising awareness of the issues existing within the academic community, surveys such as these will help to trigger tangible changes to research culture, and so create an environment better suited to allowing researchers to thrive Lucy Hart is a 3rd year Physics student at Peterhouse College. Artwork by Prannoy Chaudhari-Vayalambrone
57% of researchers report a
19% of young researchers f eel
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about their career prospects Easter 2020
A Career in Science; Living the Dream?
Cut-Throat Science: The Less Documented Cases of Scientific Malpractice Anonymous anecdotes reveal harassment, bullying and sabotage in academia.
"61% of researchers have witnessed bullying or harassment"
Science attracts many bright, young minds. PhD applications describe enthusiastic and curious graduate students who enjoyed their undergraduate studies and, with vocational intent, are passionate about studying the natural world around them. Why is it, that despite this intention, around 70% of PhD students quit academia and do not continue to pursue academic roles? In this article, we cover one of the causes of this disillusionment: competitive research laboratory cultures that can foster toxic behaviours such as bullying and sabotage. While these issues range in severity, there have been several instances of laboratory arguments resulting in high profile court cases. In 2014, a Stanford laboratory student was charged with four counts of felony for poisoning. She filled her colleagues’ drinking water bottles with a toxic, clear paraformaldehyde solution. Similarly, in 2009, a coffee machine in Harvard University was filled with water containing a high concentration of a toxic chemical which can be fatal in high doses. One professor openly told the press that he believed it was 'not an accident'. These rather extreme cases point to an underlying problem that stems from academia's competitive culture. Unfortunately, less extreme cases of sabotage and dishonesty often go unnoticed. These incidents can range from experimental sabotage (e.g. mysterious alterations of laboratory equipment settings) to verbal threats. The statistics show clearly that harassment, bullying, and misconduct is far from uncommon. A recent survey by Wellcome found that 61% of researchers have witnessed bullying or harassment, with 43% experiencing it themselves. Often, laboratory members are reluctant to speak up about such occurrences, wary of lengthy complaints processes and potential repercussions. In other cases, issues were raised with a person of higher authority but little was done to address the problem. In our experience, everyone working in science knows at least one person who has been affected by these issues. At BlueSci, we have collected several
anonymous anecdotes to illustrate the range of experiences researchers can have. One researcher told us: 'Halfway through my PhD, I realised that a colleague was coming into the lab at night to destroy existing data and disturb experiments. Although my supervisor was initially shocked and supportive, once I gathered video evidence, a senior figure in the department warned me that I would face consequences if I chose to formally complain. My supervisor also suddenly changed their mind — they further threatened they would try to have a negative impact on my career if I spoke up. I had no choice but to leave the lab. Luckily, I managed to change supervisors while keeping my PhD funding and staying in the same university. These events affected my productivity and have taken an emotional toll on me that I have struggled with throughout the rest of my PhD'. For others, PhDs become a time of emotionally stressful detective work. In one anecdote, a PhD student had problems with the communal microscope. After months of struggling, and loss of many important samples, she discovered that a senior lab member was placing a post-it in front of the laser source before her imaging sessions. In another instance, a PhD student continued to find their experimental worms mysteriously dying over the weekends with no obvious cause. To test their suspicions, the student labelled only half of their experimental animals. As expected, they found that only the worms explicitly labelled with their name were found dead the following Monday. When the student went to their supervisor for support, the mysterious acts were dismissed and rather, the student was told to come in on the weekends to take better care of their experiments. 'I didn’t feel comfortable escalating the issue to human resources, but I also couldn’t feasibly continue my work. I discontinued animal work for the rest of my PhD'. Listening to such anecdotes, it is not difficult to see why PhD students often suffer mental health problems. One researcher explains this constant Easter 2020
distrust and paranoia. 'Imagine worrying about losing months of hard work every time you store away your samples to go home, imagine having to work side-by-side and small talk with people who would not blink twice before sabotaging your work'. A common thread across these stories is institutional silence. This silence not only hurts victims, but also leaves harassers unpunished. In prioritising strategies to prevent these incidents from happening, a key step that universities and funding agencies can take is to set up robust reporting systems for victims of bullying and harassment. If these troubling actions continue going unpunished, there will be little incentive for the perpetrators to stop targeting more people. Although such reporting mechanisms exist, at least in theory, they are often ineffective. Many research institutions have a strong culture of silence aimed at limiting reputational damage. This is best exemplified by a BBC investigation which found that UK universities had devoted in excess of £87 million to funding non-disclosure agreements between 2017 and 2019 to keep stories of bullying and harassment from entering the public domain. Even in the extremely rare cases where institutions take action, consequences are short-lived. Just take the case of Prof Nazneen Rahman, CBE. Once a prominent researcher at the Institute for Cancer Research in London, she resigned due to bullying allegations and had £3.5 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust revoked. However, shortly after she was appointed as a Non-Executive Director of AstraZeneca. As funding bodies rely on university-level reporting systems, they often do not handle misconduct cases relating to people they fund, and explicitly decline to be involved. However, this may soon change. Wellcome, a major UK-based funding body, has recently changed its policy regarding bullying, According to the Wellcome website, institutions receiving Wellcome funding will now 'be required to tell [Wellcome] of allegations when they decide to investigate'. This policy has been welcomed as a step in the right direction, but some scientists think more could still be done. For example, funding bodies may take the whole reporting system into their own hands, since the university systems are often marred by conflicts of interest and a desire to maintain pristine reputations. There are other areas, however, that funders can directly influence. When reflecting about what drove people to extreme behaviours in the lab, victims often cite skewed incentives and a toxic work culture. Data seems to corroborate this account — a recent survey by Wellcome found that 78% of researchers believed that high levels of competition had created unkind and aggressive working conditions. To Easter 2020
ease this problem, Wellcome recently launched a campaign, Reimagine Research Culture, aiming to raise awareness about the issue and to foster local, grassroots discussion across UK research institutes through a so-called 'Café Culture'. Hopefully, initiatives like Café Culture will help raise awareness of this growing issue, and empower people to speak up. Be it through changing reporting policies or research culture itself, the widespread problem of toxic academic practices is slowly being tackled. With a problem of such overwhelming scale, it can be difficult to even begin to think about how to improve the situation. Even with new initiatives in place, we must all do our best to push for systemic changes to research culture and university misconduct reporting systems. The bright young minds walking into our universities deserve better
"Imagine having to work side by side and small talk with people who would not blink twice before sabotaging your work"
This opinion piece was written by PhD students at several different universities, who wish to remain anonymous. This article was commissioned by Alex Bates and Laia Serratosa Capdevila. Artwork by Mariadaria Ianni-Ravn
Science Fact or Fiction? Liam Ives investigates the spread of fake science
In 1975, the American physicist and mathematician Jack H. Hetherington named his cat a co-author on one of his papers. He did this to avoid having to correct his accidental use of 'we' instead of 'I'. While this fake feline author was harmless, fake authors and papers are an emerging problem in the scientific world. A growing number of papers have been discovered in which images are manipulated or even completely faked — the scientific equivalent of photoshopping your photos to make yourself look better. While the very nature of science is to criticise research methods and findings, we don’t often consider the scandalous possibility that the results are entirely fabricated. In response to this, a group of eagle-eyed researchers are dedicating their time and effort to investigating the problem and exposing the guilty parties. One of the biggest sleuths is microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik. Bik is a distinguished author in the field of gut bacteria, and founded a blog that compiles scientific papers on microbiomes. After receiving her PhD at Utrecht University, Bik became the Science Editor at a biotechnology company, and then joined a medical company as their Director of Science. But beyond all of this, Bik is working hard to maintain the integrity of the scientific community. Bik first stumbled upon the issue of plagiarism in science when reading an online book. She noticed that the book had plagiarised phrases from other scientific papers, including her own! After this incident, Bik kept a closer eye on the literature for similar cases. When she began to look through peer-reviewed papers instead of just online books, Bik discovered that, in several papers, microscope images of protein gels and biological tissues had been manipulated to steer the results in a certain direction. These edits might have been easily overlooked, as such images are complex in nature. However, Bik noticed that the features from one area of a figure had been copied and pasted into
Science Fact or Fiction?
another area. Many studies use images as a main source of data, so the fact that such image manipulation could be happening in many other fields is a big concern for research integrity. As the list of offending papers lengthened, a formal study was launched. In 2016 Elisabeth Bik, Arturo Casadevall and Ferric C. Fang examined over 20,000 papers. As many as 4% of these papers were deemed suspicious. Examples of figure manipulation included cropping, cutting and pasting sections of an image, and duplicating data. Such plagiarism turned out to be so widespread that Bik has recently peeled herself away from her research to investigate papers with ‘suspicious figures’ in a full-time capacity. After reading a potentially offending paper, Bik contacts the journal in which it is published. In most cases, however, the journal does not respond and no changes are made to the publication. This shows that the journals are neglecting their responsibilities of ensuring effective, transparent peer-review and taking action if its quality is brought into question. Bik has taken to voicing her findings on Twitter (@MicrobiomDigest) or PubPeer, an online forum for peer-reviewing published papers, highlighting the problematic images. Other users can discuss the research with her, find more papers with suspicious features and, importantly, drum up attention by encouraging conversations with academics and the journals themselves. Given the severity of these offences, it is surprising that the papers were successfully published in the first place. More disturbingly, what Bik initially thought were unrelated incidents turned out to belong to a network of deception connecting multiple suspicious papers. Digging further, Bik and a group of online collaborators unearthed a ‘paper mill’ run from China. This service allows users to pay to have their name on a paper published in a seemingly reputable journal. The results are photoshopped, the text is stolen, and the
paper is rushed through peer-review via the collusion of corrupt editors. Bik and others noticed this connection from the observation that many published papers seemed to be replicas of one another, and the ‘authors’ were not contactable. More recently, Bik’s group found advertisements online for 'your name on a peer-reviewed paper', presumably by a similar paper mill. This is not where the fraud ends. Predatory conferences convince scientists, usually those who are young and inexperienced, to pay registration fees and give presentations. When the attendees arrive, however, the conference itself turns out to be a sham event. There is no clear management, the alleged guest speakers often do not show up, and the presentation topics have little consistency both in content and intended audience. The wrongdoing is not only on the part of the organisers: sometimes researchers intentionally attend these conferences. A record of attendance at these events both raises their profile and makes them seem more experienced without any effort on their part. There are a number of potential causes for all of these types of misconduct. In any research environment there is pressure to publish. Sometimes, quantity is favoured over quality. A high volume of research output can lead to greater opportunities, higher paid jobs, and a greater profile for those tied up in these scams. For some, these schemes are a quick and dirty way of having a more impressive publication list. Other causes include a general lack of control, rigour, or peer-review within the journal. It is also important to think about how scientific literature is consumed by modern researchers. The publishing industry has changed dramatically in recent times. There used to be fewer journals, and one could receive these in print and be assured of their reliability. Now, there are more papers being published than ever. New journals have been established all over the world with different peer-review regulations. Literature aggregators and search engines such as Mendeley and Google Scholar are becoming more popular, so scientists often do not pay attention to the actual journals in which these papers are published. Furthermore, up-and-coming methods of distributing scientific findings such as preprints are competing with the main journals. Preprints are versions of scientific papers that are available online but precede peer-review and publication, making them more susceptible to false information. Overall, with readers interacting with the publications in a range of new ways, and research being published at increasing rates, it is difficult but more important than ever to sort the real from the fake. Bik has made a number of suggestions to try and resolve the situation. Firstly, every journal should employ their own forensic image analyst, or artificial intelligence should be developed that can detect misleading figure manipulations and similarities between papers. Secondly,
on a wider scale, national and international scientific policy must clamp down on fraudulent publications. Furthermore, scientists should be encouraged to do their own post-publication peer-review, just as Bik does, to reinforce the culture of mutual criticism which the scientific community strives to have. Despite these problems, Bik stresses that science is still good at its core. ‘Don't get fooled into thinking that science is broken’, she says on Twitter. ‘Always ask critical questions. If someone claims that vaccines kill more lives than save lives, don't just shrug or walk away. Teach, convince, give evidence. Be a beacon of knowledge in your environment’
"A growing number of papers have been discovered in which images are manipulated or even completely faked"
Liam Ives is a 1st year PhD student in Material Science and Metallurgy at Selwyn College. Artwork by Erin Slatery
Science Fact or Fiction?
Navigating the Next Step Susannah McLaren and Anna Yakovleva discuss their experiences as in2science mentors At the beginning of our final year as PhD students, we sat down for a mid-experiment Chelsea bun break at Cambridge’s iconic Fitzbillies to discuss our time volunteering as mentors on the in2scienceUK scheme. The programme pairs up secondary school students from underrepresented backgrounds with mentors from research labs to provide an insight into what STEM research is like. Intriguingly, we found many similarities in the challenges facing us in our final stages of the PhD and those of our students, thinking of the first steps along their career paths. Our motivation to take part in the in2scienceUK scheme stemmed from our experiences of pursuing lab summer projects as undergraduates, which ultimately influenced our decision to embark on PhDs. For us, those experiences gave us the information we needed to make informed decisions to follow a research-focussed path. We felt it was important that similar opportunities to the ones we had were available to students in the process of deciding their next steps. Now coming to the end of our PhDs, we realise that there is uncertainty at all stages along a career path, making support and mentorship just as important at later career stages. It is crucial as a community that we increase our efforts in supporting the next generation by learning from our mistakes and making sure the difficulties we faced aren’t passed on. For us, taking part in the in2scienceUK scheme provided many benefits. The most rewarding part was seeing the enthusiasm of our students when they discovered the beauty of transparent zebrafish embryos, or the visualisation of fluorescently tagged proteins in cells. Seeing our work from a fresh perspective uncovered a lost appreciation for our research, and also reminded us that the science we get to do on a daily basis is a privilege. We spoke to the founder of in2scienceUK, Dr. Rebecca McKelvey, about navigating your interests and making a difference at work. The former teacher and Head of Science at a school in East London,
who founded the scheme upon a return to academia to pursue a PhD, was committed to addressing the problems she observed during her teaching position — inaccessibility to STEM research. Rebecca explains that 'as a member of the local community, I didn’t realise that the world of research existed, and I was amazed at how many smart and brilliant PhD students and researchers were at my doorstep'. Keen to put this brain power to use in training the next generation, and promoting social mobility and diversity in science, Dr. McKelvey set up the in2scienceUK scheme. Over the next four years of her PhD, in2scienceUK grew and adapted to involve more scientists and reach more students. The charity holds two aims for the future: 'To continue expansion of the programme nationally, and to ensure the programme is relevant and develops the skills that young people in the workplace need'. When it comes to addressing inequality, Dr. McKelvey explains that 'degrees from top universities, which are dominated by private school students, are a crucial step towards entering a top level profession'. One of the steps we should be taking in order to see improvement in the levels of inequality we see in research is to advocate and participate in increasing access to the highest ranking university education. When asked to give some advice to researchers wanting to contribute, Dr. McKelvey said 'in addition to getting involved with in2scienceUK (...) finding ways to open your doors to the local community is a good place to start. I believe in getting young people in rather than researchers going out. It’s the research that’s inspiring, seeing is believing!' Susannah McLaren is a PhD student studying developmental biology at King's College and Anna Yakovleva is a PhD student studying virology at Fitzwilliam College. Artwork by Susannah McLaren and Maria Yakovleva
"We worked with zebrafish embryos, using gene expression to tag different cell types"
Navigating the Next Step
The Student's Perspective Students Aleena Paul, Matthew Kwok, and Autumn Goddard discuss their experience of the programme Aleena and Matthew write: 'During the summer, we were lucky to have the opportunity to complete a 2-week placement at the University of Cambridge via the in2scienceUK programme'. Aleena and Matthew shadowed PhD students trying to understand how an embryo transforms from a single cell into an organism with complex body shape. They studied different model organisms (non-human species used in the lab to study biological processes) to gain insights into the mechanisms of embryonic development. They explain, 'We worked with zebrafish embryos, using gene expression to tag different cell types'. Aleena writes of her experience: 'At university, I wish to study Medicine and although I gained hospital-based work experience, I wanted to understand the research aspect of biological sciences, outside of a school laboratory. The placement gave me an opportunity to delve deeper into the research I was reading about in my school textbooks. But more importantly, I got an insight into the life of a scientist and discovered that it wasn’t a strict, repetitive routine. In fact, every day there’s something new to learn and at the end, there’s the exciting prospect of contributing to the scientific community, something the world has never known about!'
Autumn wondered: 'How does a virus hijack its host, and how does a virus make the host ill? I am curious about diseases and how we can best fight against them, so I wanted to learn more about the life of scientists. I was thrilled to start my placement at the University of Cambridge, where I discovered the field of noroviruses. I was shocked to learn that these tiny viruses are capable of shutting down hospital wards and cause many deaths each year among patients whose immune systems are not as strong, for example the elderly and young
Matthew explains: 'Having never been in a proper lab before I had no idea what our experience would be like. Our placement gave me the opportunity to experience the life of a researcher and see what a job in science is like. The skills I learnt will prove to be very useful as I aim to go to University to study Biochemistry. Most importantly I felt at home in the lab and can see myself as a PhD student in the future, something I did not consider prior to this placement'. 'We both thoroughly enjoyed our experience and managed to pick up essential lab skills as well as being able to work with more advanced equipment not accessible in school. Being in a lab also gave us the chance to see what science is like outside of school and allowed us to explore our scientific interests. We would highly recommend all students to partake in any summer schools or lab placements you can as they not only look excellent on your personal statement, but it will also provide a fresh perspective on science as a whole'.
children. Yet when a patient is infected with norovirus, there’s not much a doctor can do. There are no cures or drugs available. I learned that to solve such a big problem we need to focus on the molecular level. The first step is to understand what the viral proteins do - which I tried out in the lab, particularly identifying proteins’ cellular localisation using the green fluorescent protein and western blotting. This experience has really shaped my understanding of the medical field, and how important scientific advancements are in developing new technologies'.
If you are interested in getting involved and hosting a student this summer, contact the team at in2scienceUK.org
Navigating the Next Step
Weird and Wonderful Let’s Talk Baby Talk Why is it that whenever we see a baby, our voices morph into a strange, overly exaggerated, almost comical version of our regular voices? It seems near impossible to speak to an infant as we would to anyone else. Globally, speech and language varies in a wonderfully diverse way, but in spite of this, communication has one thing in common — the way we speak to children. Recognised and documented since the 1960s, this ‘parentese’, or child-directed speech (CDS), is characterised by higher and broader pitch variations, coupled with a slower tempo and vowel exaggeration. It may be a common sight, but we rarely consider how speaking this way affects children’s development in their early years. In a recent study undertaken at the University of Washington, researchers have done just that. Families with children aged six to fourteen months old were randomly assigned to two groups where parents’ interactions with their children were monitored; however, only one group was actively coached to increase levels of CDS. Amongst other benefits, the children whose parents were coached were seen to have an average vocabulary almost double that of the control group. With this intriguing discovery in mind, we can rest assured that whenever we talk to infants in this way, however amusing it may look, we are giving them a head start in life. JL
Artwork by Rita Sasidharan
Genealogy Through Genitals
Across nature there are an abundance of species that are
The near magical ability of each portion of the neocortex
virtually indistinguishable from one another. This can be because they are closely related, or because a certain appearance has been selected for in separate species by evolutionary pressures. In some of these cases, we can use modern genetic techniques to determine species identity, however, this is not always feasible. In these cases, some of the old-school techniques can still be valuable. One of which being the careful examination of the genitals of individuals from each population. Genitals change very fast in evolutionary time as there is strong evolutionary pressure to prevent mating with similarly appearing species. This is because mating with a member of a different species won’t lead to the production of offspring, and is at best a waste of time and energy. What better way to ensure this can’t happen than to be physically incapable of the act? Due to this, genitals can often provide handy clues. Even in the 21st century this technique has revealed new insights, for example separating the Cryptic Wood White from the Wood White butterfly in 2001. With anthropogenic stressors driving species loss and biodiversity changes, an accurate knowledge of current species and their distributions is vital. Genital morphology is still an appreciable tool in our technical belt to accomplish this task. BM 32
Weird and Wonderful
to encode one aspect of the full range of perceptual experiences is well known, but few recognise the unseen role of the broad bands of association fibers connecting the neocortex. Consider, for instance, their importance in language. Each word is but a label, linking its perception or generation to the contexts in which it might apply. Association fibers are uniquely suited for this, as they form numerous, yet localised connections to allow the faithful, long distance sharing of cortical activity, contextualising the information that they represent. Without association fibers, the brain’s capacity for language is diminished. Disrupt the arcuate fasciculus, and gone is the synchronisation between meaning and pronunciation, preventing fluent speech. Disrupt the inferior longitudinal fasciculus, and individual concepts are dissociated from their underlying form, colour, and shape, creating an inability to label reality in concrete or abstract terms. Finally, disrupt the occipitofrontal fasciculus, and you separate the abstract features that underlie language from their underlying somatosensory and syntactic representations, completely disrupting language. CS