Satellite imagery of Gabon captures the intricacy of a tropical coastline and its mangroves. Sentinel-1 imagery courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA), coloured by Harry Carstairs
Who is that, down on the beach, crouched over a pile of sand, with pockets stuffed full of shells? It is Mika Kontiainen, of course, looking for complexity in all its forms. We all feel like the world we live in is complex, but no one more so than the people who try to predict the weather, traffic, or election results. Flip to page 9 to join Mika in his quest to find out what this mind-bogglingly varied topic is all about. If a tropical coastline is more your kind of thing, then you will be pleased to hear that progress was made at COP26 to protect mangroves. These semiaquatic ecosystems lock up carbon faster than tropical forests, as Ellen Frances Heimpel writes on page 14. If our coastal distractions can’t keep you from thinking about your next step, don’t worry. You should find plenty of inspiration, as well as practical advice, in our careers section starting on page 32.
Snippets from around the world of science
9 14 17 18 20 22
Physics – pictures from a complex day at the beach Climate – the tide changes on coastal carbon COP26 – the bouncy castle that saved the day Chemistry – how an Edinburgh scientist was forgotten Biology – is your internal clock running slow? Neuroscience – political satire meets science
25 26 28 29
Science writing – how to tell a story Genetics – ancestry testing companies can do better Outreach – rebranding is not enough Festivals – communicating science requires creativity
Careers – five graduates talk to EUSci and give their top tips
Puzzles and games
Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 3
Psilocybin, one of the psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms, was found to have comparable effects to the antidepressant escitalopram. The Phase 2 trial, conducted by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris et al. at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, was published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine. The 59 participants were all suffering from major depressive disorder and over a six-week period received either two doses of psilocybin or daily doses of escitalopram as well as psychological support. The primary outcome was a self-reporting questionnaire on depressive symptoms, and by this measure there was no significant difference between psilocybin and escitalopram. However, the trial also involved several secondary outcomes including other measures of depression and related conditions. In every secondary measure, psilocybin performed significantly better than escitalopram. While the results of this trial suggest that psilocybin is a promising option for treating depression, they are far from conclusive. Larger and longer trials will be required before psilocybin can be used in the clinic, but this study demonstrates that the drug certainly has potential in being a safe and effective new treatment for depression. Written by Jacob Smith, illustrated by Kruthika Sundaram
Catherine Heymans, professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, was named Astronomer Royal for Scotland in May 2021. Professor Heymans, who also serves as director of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing at Ruhr-University Bochum, thus becomes the first female to be awarded the title dating back almost 200 years. A world-renowned expert on the dark universe, Heymans seeks to shed light on the elusive mysteries that make up our cosmos. One of her major achievements to date is the first large-scale map of dark matter. Since its creation in 1834, the position of Astronomer Royal for Scotland was originally held by the director of the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh. From 1995 onwards it has been awarded as an honorary title. Professor Heymans put forward her intention to use this platform to encourage a wider engagement with science, both in amateur and professional settings. She plans to start by installing telescopes at all remote outdoor learning centres in Scotland, popular school-trip destinations. “My hope is that once that spark and connection with the Universe is made, children will carry that excitement home with them and develop a life-long passion for astronomy or, even better, science as a whole,” she said. Written by Alkisti Kallinikou, illustrated by Freya Aylward 4 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
Spinal cord injuries in humans often lead to lifelong paralysis. Intriguingly, some invertebrates including zebrafish can regenerate their spinal cord after injury and quickly regain normal swimming ability. Scientists in the Becker group at the University of Edinburgh have been investigating whether the immune system can contribute to this regeneration. By looking at the genes expressed by immune cells after spinal cord injury in zebrafish, the team identified a signal called Tnf which is secreted by a specific group of these immune cells. This Tnf can then act directly on the descendants of stem cells in the spinal cord to trigger a cascade of changes, which stimulate the generation of new neurons to replace those lost in injury. When levels of Tnf or its receptor were reduced in the fish, they showed fewer new neurons after injury. The hope is that this research can be used to harness the immune system to encourage spinal cord regeneration in humans. Written by Louisa Drake, illustrated by Toyo Vignal
A new study has discovered that bumble bees show different responses to chemicals depending on their social context. Entomologists Dr. Margarita Orlova and Dr. Etya Amsalem of Pennsylvania State University directly monitored the importance of “who was in the room” during chemical communication between queen bumble bees and their workers. Previous studies on pheromones may have missed the point by studying them in isolation, as these are the chemicals that social insects use to talk to each other. Orlova and Amsalem studied differences in worker reproduction between three contextual settings: no queen and no eggs; presence of a live queen; and presence of a live queen with eggs. From their findings they deduced that queen pheromones work in conjunction with the queen’s visual presence and the presence of eggs to influence worker reproduction. “Our findings highlight the necessity for a broader view of what constitutes a queen pheromone,” they concluded. Written by Nicole Martinez, illustrated by Kate Summerson
Glitter is a beautiful but messy material. It is usually made from toxic and unsustainable materials, such as plastic, titanium dioxide, or mica. These contribute to pollution and can be unethically sourced. Titanium dioxide is banned from food applications in the EU as a potential carcinogen. Professor Silvia Vignolini and collaborating researchers at the University of Cambridge have produced a sustainable alternative using cellulose, a major component of plant cells. The pigment has structural colour, so the colours are created by how the particles interfere with light. Unlike previous studies, Vignolini’s team made plant-based glitter at a large scale. They made films of cellulose nanocrystals using a roll-to-roll (R2R) system, which is a common processing system in industrial manufacturing. Heat treatment allows the films to be ground into glitters that keep their colour and are long-lasting, and the temperatures involved are much lower than in traditional pigment processing and so use less energy. The result? A sustainable, non-toxic, vegan glitter that is completely biodegradable and suitable for many applications. “We believe this product could revolutionise the cosmetics industry,” said Vignolini in a news release. Written by Madison MacLeay, image by Nixx Studio courtesy of Unsplash Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 5
In an ironic turn of events, the honesty of a top dishonesty researcher is under question. Their 2012 paper claimed that signing a statement of honest intent at the top, rather than bottom, of insurance papers decreased dishonest behaviour. Dan Ariely, a behavioural scientist at Duke University, received the dataset from an insurance company. Now accused of falsification, he no longer has any proof that he received the data as-is. After the group were unable to replicate the findings, the data were deposited into an open directory in 2020. From here, anonymous data sleuths got to work. A simple data quality check was enough to convince the Data Colada blog of wrongdoing. Digging deeper, they found that the dataset was most likely completely fabricated. After reading the revealing blog, co-authors of the original paper retracted it from publication. As no email trail remains, and Ariely won’t name the company, this may be the most action we can expect. Cases like this erode trust between academics and with the public. Open science practices, like depositing data online, can help catch data fraudsters. In the meantime, you might want to archive those important emails. Written by Katie Dubarry, illustrated by Vishal Gulati
Researchers at Imperial College London have conducted research suggesting that artificial intelligence systems could be improved by making them more like the human brain. By studying networks of individual electric “cells”, they found that having differences between cells led to more stable and robust learning. Neurons in the human brain are heterogeneous – they each process information at a different speed. However, the cells used in electronic neural networks are usually homogeneous, meaning that they all operate under the same time constant (which is how long the cell takes to decide what to do based on the decisions of its neighbours). By individually tweaking the time constant of each cell, the networks were enabled to learn faster and with fewer cells, making them more efficient. Most AI systems use homogeneous neural networks, but this new research will help to improve their efficiency and accuracy for everyday tasks such as speech-to-text transcription and image identification. First author Nicolas Perez, a PhD student at Imperial’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said “Our work suggests that having a diversity of neurons in both brains and AI systems […] could boost learning.” Written by Feargus Jamieson-Ball, illustrated by Amy Perks
Researchers have comprehensively identified the molecules released by E. coli bacteria, in a bid to find new drugs. Bacteria secrete a variety of molecules, including individual proteins and tiny spheres called outer membrane vesicles (OMVs). OMVs can interfere with a host’s immune system to help the bacteria hide and survive, or contain digestive enzymes and fuse with host cells. A study at Clermont Auvergne University in France has characterised the secretions of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (which causes both food poisoning and bloody diarrhoea) under different growth conditions. The secreted proteins and OMVs were identified using mass spectroscopy. To predict how the proteins were secreted, researchers looked for “barcodes” on the proteins (known as secretion signals) which normally help the bacterium localise proteins within the cell. The researchers also characterised proteins that may be used as novel drug targets to treat an E. coli infection. Written by Alastair Scott, illustrated by Yen Peng (Apple) Chew 6 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
Using a mouse model of severe spinal cord injury (SCI), Professor Samuel Stupp (Northwestern University, Chicago) and his team found that injection of a protein “scaffold” into the spinal cords of mice with paralysed hindlimbs resulted in the recovery of their ability to walk. The scaffold is composed of monomer protein units which assemble themselves into long chains. When injected, these chains form a gel at the site of injury. The recovery is mediated by bioactive parts of the protein scaffold which promote neuronal regeneration when detected by receptors on spinal cord cells. The researchers also experimented with the non-bioactive part and found that increasing the intensity of motion within the structure was related to enhanced neuron survival, blood vessel regeneration, and functional recovery from SCI. The findings of this study are promising and could be a step towards curing paralysis in humans. This remains a major challenge, however, as this kind of spinal cord regeneration is yet to be seen in adult humans. Written by Hannah Smith, illustrated by Laura Cooper
Keeping personal information secret is tougher than ever, as we all increasingly rely on digital technology for everything from buying a house to buying a cup of coffee. Counteracting digital prying eyes is an ongoing goal for cybersecurity experts worldwide. Researchers at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, have developed an experimental way to put a blinder on those eyes and prove your knowledge of personal information, like your name or date of birth, without actually sharing it. The experiment sets up a dual verification process from a pair of users that are physically separated. Each user provides the solution to a “zero-knowledge proof” that is mathematically complex to solve but can be easily demonstrated by the user. The security of the proof depends on the verification being provided at the same time by the separated users. The authors compare this approach to the police interviewing two suspects in separate locations at the same time to see if their stories match. Like most good detective stories, further evidence is needed to prove the usefulness of this approach. Written by Maureen Whalen, illustrated by Vishal Gulati
Pharmaceutical companies have been working tirelessly to find drugs to treat severe Covid-19 symptoms. Recently, two oral antiviral drugs have emerged with exciting results: molnupiravir and Paxlovid from pharmaceutical giants Merck and Pfizer, respectively. Molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalisation by up to 50% and it may even reduce viral transmission. It was approved for use in the UK (marketed as Lagevrio) on 4 November 2021 and is the first oral antiviral for Covid-19. Hot on the heels of molnupiravir, Pfizer has shown that Paxlovid is 89% effective in reducing hospitalisation or death when taken three days after the first appearance of symptoms; there have been calls for the drug to be fasttracked to the approval stage in the US. Participants in both global trials were required to have an underlying medical condition or be over 60 years old, making them extremely vulnerable to severe Covid-19 related illness. Both drugs have been proven to be successful against the different SARS-CoV-2 variants and also other coronaviruses. Oral administration is hugely advantageous, as other approved antivirals are either administered intravenously or injected. Alongside the vaccines, these drugs look promising in the global fight against Covid-19. Written by Kevin Boyle, illustrated by Kruthika Sundaram Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 7
Imagine travelling 190 million years into the past and beholding herds of spectacular dinosaurs performing sophisticated social behaviours. A team led by Dr. Diego Pol, an Argentina-based palaeontologist, have discovered the earliest record of complex social behaviour in dinosaurs that precedes the previous record by a staggering 40 million years. Unlike previous research that attempted to determine social behaviour from fragmentary and controversial fossils, this new research is based on evidence gathered from over 100 fossilised eggs and 80 specimens of the dinosaur Mussaurus. Mussaurus lived in what is now southern Patagonia, Argentina, around 190 million years ago. It was an ancestor of the famous and ridiculously long-necked Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. Despite being smaller, Mussaurus would still likely have reached six meters in length and possibly weighed over a ton. Dr. Pol and his team found hundreds of eggs that were seemingly
laid in the same place and at the same time. This suggests that dozens, if not hundreds, of Mussaurus gathered together to lay eggs in the same place, a behaviour which can be observed today in herons and storks. Colonial nesting has its benefits: it provides protection from predators as large adults guard the eggs, and soon-to-be hatchlings are placed close to food sources. However, it’s unclear how often the mothers were laying eggs in the nesting site and whether or not they stayed near the eggs afterwards. The team also concluded that each Mussaurus lived together in groups of a similar age. This was determined from their discovery of similar-aged Mussaurus that were fossilised together. The scientists revealed how old the dinosaurs were when they died from both their size and how developed the inside of their bones were. The phenomenon of social groups being formed by individuals of the same age is referred to as age segregation and can be seen in
modern mammals, such as bighorn sheep. It is known that adult and juvenile bighorn sheep feed on different shrubs and greenery and worry about different predators. So, the adults tend to aggregate with other adults who have found sufficient food sources and safety, and the juveniles do the same with other juveniles. Mussaurus might have had an agesegregated social structure for the same reasons. However, there are limitations to this evidence. Firstly, fossils only show us who died together, not who lived together. Secondly, the fossils containing the juveniles might not have preserved any adults that were rearing the juveniles, and the fossil of the two adults might not have preserved any youngsters that might have been living with them. Therefore, it is still possible that social groups were not age-segregated. What Dr. Pol and his team have discovered not only sheds light on the social behaviour of Mussaurus but also of dinosaurs in general. Since Mussaurus is a fairly primitive dinosaur, it’s likely many of the larger and more formidable dinosaurs that succeeded it retained these social behaviours. Some may have had even more advanced social behaviours such as segregating groups based on age and sex. There is still a lot we don’t know about dinosaur behaviour though. There’s uncertainty surrounding the relationships between mothers and their hatchlings, and we don’t know to what extent individuals within a social group interacted with each other. Future studies will hopefully unravel these mysteries. Hady (he/him) is a master’s student researching palaeontology and geobiology
8 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
A pile of sand, seashells, schools of fish, and unpredictable weather. Join Mika Kontiainen for a trip to the beach where the wonders of nature are on full display. Illustration by Mika Kontianen. The author’s modest attempt at the Abelian sandpile. The picture measures 600 x 600 squares and the number of grains of sand on each square is indicated by colour. As further grains are added, the picture grows ever more intricate.
he term complexity seems to be all the rage these days, but try x the word into your preferred typing search engine and you’ll end up in a tangle, quite literally. Two types of pictures flood the page: men in dark suits staring confusedly at blackboards filled with high schoollevel mathematics and strips of rainbow-coloured twine twisted into a knot theorist’s nightmare. While perhaps capturing the colloquial sense of complexity, visuals such as these can only go so far in conveying what one of the defining trends in 21st century science is all about. 2022 marks fifty years since the publication of Philip W. Anderson’s polemical essay “More is Different” which played an undeniable role in launching the complexity revolution. And in light of the latest round of Nobel Prizes in Physics going to a trio of physicists for their “groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems”, a fresh look at some of the core concepts underlying modern complexity theory is in place. To begin, detach yourself from any semester-time worries for a moment and imagine a picturesque day at a x
beach of your choosing. As a student deprived of the great outdoors for weeks on end, you seize this opportunity to invoke your inner child, picking up a handful of sand and letting it slip between your fingers back onto the ground where a small pile begins to form. With the scientific instinct of a EUSci reader you try out different pouring speeds and discover a curious law: pour too fast and the sandpile becomes unstable with tiny avalanches forming on its flanks, more slowly and the sand builds up, the slope of the sandpile eventually settling at a characteristic 34˚ angle. What is behind this curious behaviour? In the language of complexity, the sandpile is said to exhibit self-organised criticality (SOC), a phenomenon in which a system responds to externalforcing by spontaneously settling into a state at the brink of instability. A mathematical model of SOC inspired by the sandpile was presented by Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld in 1987. Often referred to simply as the Abelian sandpile, the model is based on two straightforward rules: 1) Individual grains of sand are added randomly x
onto an infinite, two-dimensional grid. 2) Whenever a square contains four or more grains of sand, it topples over onto its neighbouring squares. Amazingly, instead of a flat heap of sand, repeating this process thousands or even millions of times produces intricate patterns reminiscent of a Persian rug. Soon after the inflow of sand has ceased, the pile reaches a minimal stable state in which no further changes occur but the addition of even a single grain may set off a new series of avalanches. One need not see a world in a grain of sand to appreciate the complexity on display here, but let’s not fool ourselves: the Abelian sandpile is but an algorithmic model and a simple one at that, lacking friction and other features of real, physical systems. However, while you won’t be coming across any Abelian sandpiles on the beach anytime soon, the idealised model serves as a demonstration of how rich, even complex behaviour can arise from the simplest of rules. Drawing closer to the waterline, the sand grows ever more inundated with the treasures of the sea: tiny shards of polished glass and scraps of wood litter the ground. But it is the x
Illustration by Mika Kontiainen; Image of seashell by Flickr, courtesy of Richard Ling The update rules of the Rule 30 cellular automaton and the resulting pattern after 250 iterations. While not exact, Rule 30 bears a striking resemblance to the patterns gracing the shell of the highly venomous sea snail Conus textile.
10 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
features automata-based models have also found surprising applications in the study of traffic flow, capturing the complex dynamics of the highway by representing each car as an individual cell.
shells we’ve come here for. On a lucky day, an Oliva porphyria or a Conus striatus might poke out of the sand, begging a passerby to marvel at the feat of Darwinian engineering that must have gone into creating such an artwork worthy of the Louvre without human intervention. As it turns out, nature follows a simple algorithm that took us humans until the 1980s to figure out. Both the Abelian sandpile and the shells’ intricate pigmentation patterns belong to a broader class of computational models called cellular automata. The simplest, onedimensional automaton is represented at any one time by a row of cells with each cell having a discrete value governed by its adjacent cells in the preceding row. By summarising this underlying algorithm in a table, such as the one shown above, the entire future evolution of the cellular automaton can be worked out on the back of an envelope. In the case of the seashells, the patterns are formed by a band of pigment-secreting cells lying along the shell’s lip. Since the secretion rate of each cell depends on the activity of its neighbouring cells, the shell essentially functions as a natural cellular automaton. While the shells are undoubtedly pretty, cellular automata are by no means mere aesthetic curiosities. More complicated, stochastic cellular automata, in which the evolution of the model is governed by probabilistic rules, are widely used in physics to simulate phase transitions, such as the demagnetisation of ferromagnets or the more mundane phenomenon of a liquid evaporating into a gas. Thanks to their computational efficiency, x
f sketching out automata is not your cup of tea, the time may be ripe for x in the sea. Before heading for the a dip water, however, a clarifying interlude at the mojito bar is in place. In its modern incarnation, the concept of complexity should not be understood in contrast to simplicity, per se, but rather to independence. The rules governing the constituents of a complex system may well be simple, as in the case of cellular automata, but the interdependencies between the individual components can lead to a whole host of rich, unpredictable behaviour. This x
phenomenon of new patterns of collective behaviour arising from a multitude of simple interactions is called emergence and lies at the very heart of modern complexity theory. In many ways, the concept of emergence subverts the reductionist paradigm of science, which attempts to understand a system by breaking it up and treating its constituents in isolation. A trip to the beach is hardly complete without a bone-chilling plunge into the blue, and this will be no exception. So, get your goggles on and wonder at yet another manifestation of emergence lurking beneath the surface: schools of fish undulating through the deep expanse in perfect synchrony. Despite having no clear leader, the fish cling together through thick and thin, evading predators via head-spinning. x
manoeuvres. How does this conglomeration of thousands of fish choreograph itself? Once again, the clue lies in just a handful of rules. By simply sticking close to its neighbours while avoiding collisions, each fish in the school plays its part in the emergence of spontaneous order, another form of collective behaviour that could not be discerned from studying an individual fish in isolation. Schooling species of fish, such as sardines and barracudas, tend to have highly responsive sensory systems, allowing them to rapidly change course and pass on information through their motion when faced with either predator or prey. Nature likes to replicate its tricks, so it should come as no surprise that the mathematical tools used to study schooling fish can be equally well applied to flocking birds or the somewhat less pleasant (but no less breathtaking, albeit in a different way) event of human stampedes. Little progress have we made since evolving from primitive fish. Thankfully, the depths of an ocean are a notoriously solitary place with little risk of being squished by a herd of beachgoers. But even here a semblance of sociality persists. As a famously outgoing species, bottlenose dolphins have been a particular focus in the study of social behaviour in animals. By representing the connections between individual dolphins as a network (a graph for the more mathematically minded), the complex group dynamics of an entire population can be studied in detail. A 2004 collaboration between marine biologist David Lusseau and physicist Mark Newman highlights. x
Image by Flickr, courtesy of Dive Site Seychelles
Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 11
Illustration by Mika Kontiainen The bottlenose dolphin population of Doubtful Sound depicted as a network. Each node corresponds to an individual dolphin while the edges stand for social connections. The size of each node represents its degree of connectivity measured as the number of immediate connections. As discovered by Lusseau and Newman, the population consists of two smaller, tight-knit communities held together by only a handful of individuals.
the power of this network approach. By identifying smaller communities within a bottlenose dolphin population living in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, they were able to pinpoint individuals crucial to the social cohesion of the entire population. The removal of even one of these well-connected dolphins (denoted by a node) could lead to the population fracturing into smaller groups. Beyond the marine kingdom, this kind of resilience analysis yields insights into the interdependencies at play in complex systems and underlies modern attempts at building more robust energy networks.
ays on the beach always go by too quickly, and back on dry land land afternoon is already upon us. Swirls of vapour rise from the sea surface, reaching for the skies to form cloud puffs. This process of convection – the ascent of warm air – leads us straight to the realm of chaos. It was precisely upon studying a model of atmospheric convection in 1963 that the meteorologist-cum-mathematician Edward Lorenz came across the first traces of deterministic yet unpredictable – hence chaotic – 12xWinter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
behaviour in a seemingly simple set of equations. Lorenz’s model woke the scientific community up to the drastic effect even a tiny deviation in the initial conditions can have on the outcome of a model and laid to rest any dreams of ever exactly predicting the weather.
“One need not see a world in a grain of sand to appreciate the complexity on display here.” The discovery of this sensitive dependence on initial conditions, better known as the butterfly effect, sparked a flurry of research into the role chaos plays in nature. Soon enough, chaotic behaviour was found everywhere from the stock markets to the slow drip of a loose tap, and the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could have dramatic repercussions for the weather on the other side of the globe captured the public imagination. Exactly thirty years after Lorenz’s x
discovery, chaos theory made its big screen debut when the butterfly effect was neatly, if slimily, summarised by Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park. Notwithstanding this Hollywood interpretation, the original convection model remains perhaps the most illustrative example of the complex phenomena at play. In Lorenz’s model, the rate of convection as well as the horizontal and vertical temperature variation in a column of air are represented by the variables x, y, and z, respectively. By depicting how these variables change over time in a three-dimensional phase space, in which each point corresponds to a unique state of the system, the iconic, butterfly-like shape emerges. This strange attractor of the Lorenz system is the last remnant of order in this chaotic domain: while the (x, y, z) state of the system may swirl erratically around the phase space, it is always confined to lie on the attractor. In meteorology, this remarkable discovery gave birth to a numerical method of weather prediction called ensemble forecasting in which a number of forecasts are produced with x
features minutely different initial conditions. The most likely outcome can then be determined statistically, providing us with the occasionally reliable predictions we’ve come to know and complain about. But given the difficulties posed by chaos on weather prediction, what hope is there for the climate? As a vast, complex system dependent not only on the incoming solar radiation and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but also on ocean circulation patterns, plate tectonics, and variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, among other effects, the global climate may seem too daunting for any one scientist to model. So, in 1966, as Lorenz’s original paper was just beginning to make the rounds, meteorologists Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald teamed up to apply recent advances in weather forecasting to create the first-ever computer model of the Earth’s climate. Based on their original model, x x
Manabe and Wetherald predicted that doubling the atmospheric CO2 content would raise the global average surface temperature by 2.3˚C, largely in line with modern estimates. Over time, the climate model was extended to capture the complex interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, and global ice cover, producing ever more accurate predictions and eventually alerting the society at large to the reality of human-caused global warming. In the 1970s, oceanographer Klaus Hasselmann further improved on Manabe and Wetherald’s work by incorporating the influence of chaotic weather into the model as random noise, proving the reliability of climate models despite the deep-rooted unpredictability present in smallerscale processes. It was for these pioneering efforts that Manabe and Hasselmann, alongside physicist Giorgio Parisi, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics. While our understanding of x
global warming has increased by leaps and bounds, the staggering complexity of the climate system remains far from being tamed. Meanwhile, emerging fields at the intersection of physics, biology, and social science, are taking on problems long deemed too complex for science to tackle. Equipped with the tools of modern complex systems theory, researchers in fields like sociophysics are bridging the age-old gaps between natural and social sciences. To fully elucidate the intricacies of these unifying efforts would require another beach day or two, but the arrow of time is ruthless, and we must depart. With one final glance at the shells adorning the waterline, we traipse past our self-organised sandpile and leave the complexity of the beach behind. Mika (he/him) is a third-year astrophysics student and the head copy editor of EUSci a.k.a. the guy to blame for any typos.
Illustration by Mika Kontiainen The famous Lorenz attractor in three-dimensional phase space. When the system is started from an initial condition (diamond), the combination of the three state variables (x, y, z) traces an unpredictable path along the attractor, in this case ending up not too far from the starting point (square).
Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 13
“It's not about us, or even our countries … It's about the kids. What we are trying to do here is to set up a world for them which is not on fire”. These powerful words were spoken by the UN Secretary-General Special Envoy for the Ocean in reference to his necklace. Peter Thomson, a Fijian diplomat, was wearing a chain of shells attached to a piece of cardboard with the colourful words “Grandfather of Grace, Mirabella, Poppy, and Rosie. Kids’ rights now.” as he opened the COP26 Green Zone panel on mangrove ecosystems. Blue Ventures, the panel organisers, had gathered together a diverse group of people to discuss the essential role of blue carbon, particularly mangroves, in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The panel largely consisted of representatives from tropical countries around the world that are at the forefront of the climate crisis and who directly experience the benefits that blue carbon can provide.
Coastal blue carbon is the organic carbon that is captured and stored by coastal ecosystems, including mangrove trees, seagrass meadows, and tidal marshes. It is a so-called “nature-based solution” that, long overlooked, has been gaining more attention in recent years. While only covering 2% of the total ocean area, it accounts for approximately half of the carbon sequestered in ocean sediments per year. Mangrove forests thrive in tropical regions, inhabiting the zone flooded regularly by tidal water. They take in carbon from the atmosphere and store it above ground in the biomass of plants, below ground in roots and rhizomes, and in the carbon-rich soils that are typical of these ecosystems. In fact, per unit area, mangrove ecosystems store more carbon over the long term than land-based forests. It is estimated that the average annual carbon sequestration rate of mangrove ecosystems averages between 6 and 8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare
– approximately 2 to 4 times higher than global rates observed in tropical forests. Not only that, but mangroves are brilliant for biodiversity, providing food, breeding grounds, and nursery sites for a variety of terrestrial and marine organisms. However, mangrove ecosystems across the world are being lost at an alarming rate. Globally, between 20% and 35% of mangrove area has been lost since 1980 and mangrove areas are disappearing at the rate of approximately 1% per year, with other estimates as high as 2–8% per year. Maps from the Global Mangrove Watch, created using satellite imagery, estimate that 10.8% of mangrove ecosystems were lost in the period from 1996 to 2016 alone.
“Mangrove deforestation accounts for up to 10% of emissions from deforestation globally, despite covering just 0.7% of the world’s land” The deforestation of mangrove ecosystems releases significant amounts of CO2, with experts estimating that mangrove deforestation accounts for up to 10% of emissions from deforestation globally, despite covering just 0.7% of the world’s land. The main causes of loss vary around the world but are largely driven by human activities. Common drivers include aquaculture, agriculture, terrestrial and marine sources of pollution, and industrial and urban coastal development. Peter Thomson described with joy his enjoyment of mangrove forests as a young boy, how they were his “magical kingdoms” full of fish, birds and adventure, and the grief he feels now that so many of his childhood playgrounds have been destroyed and built over. As well as their benefits for nature, mangroves provide at least US$1.6 billion each year in ecosystem services. These services include improved coastal marine water quality (which they deliver by filtering pollutants and contaminants
14 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
from coastal water), supporting fisheries by providing nurseries and spawning ground for commercial fish species, and protecting coastal communities and developments from storms, erosion, and floods. Across the world, mangroves reduce the flood risk for more than 15 million people every year. Helen Cutillar, the City Information and Tourism Officer for the City Government of Sagay, Philippines, spoke on the panel about her personal experience of the coastal protection provided by mangroves. She described Typhoon Yolanda, a major typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2013 with winds over 100 miles per hour. Inside the marine reserves, they were protected by the mangroves, and nobody died in her area. From this day she has called the mangroves her community’s “protectors and guardians”. It is clear that the benefits of mangroves are abundant. But how can we work to harness the potential of mangroves and incorporate their restoration and protection into policy? It was a key hope for all the panelists that this question would be discussed during the COP negotiations. Ulfath Ibrahim (who recently graduated with an MSc from the University of Edinburgh) spoke about the potential of mangroves to offset the emissions of the Maldives – a nation that is 99% ocean. Being fully
dependent on resources from the ocean, they are among the first to feel the effects of the climate crisis. They are also leaders on their carbon policies, with commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Ulfath talked about the possibility of including blue carbon in the nation’s NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions). However, she says in order to do this, we need scientific innovation in order to reduce the uncertainty in exactly how much carbon is stored by these ecosystems. When it comes to the mangrove restoration projects themselves, a vital part of any and every project is the involvement of local communities. In the panel, Ceclin Rakotomahazo, Sru Bunthary, and Mwanarusi Mwafrica, speaking from projects in Madagascar, Cambodia, and Kenya, highlighted that mangrove conservation is impossible if the local people aren’t on board and actively involved in the process. Mwanarusi Mwafrica works on a community-led carbon mangrove project based in Kenya with the aim of conservation and restoration of about 460 hectares of mangroves against degradation activities. She described how the success of the project is due to the community members being inspired by other similar projects and believing that they could also work on mitigating climate change and directly receive benefits from it,
including money through the sale of carbon credits. While many believe that the policies and decisions to come out of COP26 were a laughable attempt at any kind of real action, there were some wins that are important to address. For one, the decision text of COP26 formally recognises the role of nature and the ocean in addressing the climate crisis. A new analysis from the WWF also shows a clear increase from 82% to 92% in the proportion of Nationally Determined Contributions that include a reference to nature. Until recently, oceans were conspicuously absent from the climate talks. In the first round of NDCs in 2016, fewer than 20% of countries with coastal blue carbon ecosystems even discussed their roles as carbon sinks. However, the November 2021 update which analyzed 62 submissions of new or updated NDCs from coastal countries found that 54 included at least one ocean element. Perhaps Ulfath was right when she claimed that the “tide is turning” for the future of mangrove forests. Ellen (she/her) is a first-year PhD student studying monodominance in tropical African rainforests
Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 15
The Scottish chemist who got there first
Illustration by Adelaide Grosse
Kevin Boyle uncovers the story of a little-known Scottish chemist, Archibald Scott Couper, who made massive advances in chemical theory but ended up with none of the credit for it. Archibald Scott Couper – this is a name you are unlikely to be familiar with. What about Frederich August Kekulé? Anyone who has studied chemistry knows Kekulé for his eponymous theory on the structure of benzene. This theory underpins many modern materials, from drugs and dyes to plastics, and made Kekulé one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century. To say Couper is not so well known would be a huge understatement. Couper, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, developed a groundbreaking chemical theory around the same time as Kekulé but had to watch as history forgot him and immortalised the other scientist. Couper’s story as a chemist begins in Paris, 1856. After only one year of formal study in chemistry, he landed a job in the laboratory of the influential French scientist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. Here, he was the first to publish an article on the properties of benzene, the first to synthesise bromobenzene, and he carried out work on salicylic acid, all of which are used in chemistry today. He was clearly a brilliant young chemist, but his greatest discovery was yet to come. In 1858, at the age of just 27, his life changed forever. Couper wrote his 18 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
revolutionary theory on chemical structure and carbon compounds, which now forms the very foundations of modern organic chemistry. He showed that carbon atoms bond to each other, and he drew structures of molecules with dashed lines to represent bonds. His diagrams were worlds apart from the theories that chemists were working on at that time – it was the work of a genius. He gave his article, “On a New Chemical Theory”, to Wurtz to be presented to the French Academy for publication in their prestigious journal. However, Wurtz did not put forward Couper’s work immediately. Instead, he waited.
“The injustice seemed to break him mentally and, along with it, his love of chemistry.” At the same time, Kekulé was working on a very similar theory, independently of Couper. The delay by Wurtz meant that Kekulé’s work was published a month before Couper’s article hit the press. In science, the prestige and the prizes are
for those who do it first: the pioneers. And so it was that the credit for the “Theory of Chemical Structure'' belonged solely to Kekulé, whose career then flourished while Couper’s went in the opposite direction, along with his health. The crucial question is: why did Wurtz wait so long? Some reckon it was a simple error of judgment and Wurtz did not spot the importance of Couper’s work. Wurtz was not a member of the French Academy, which was a requirement for publication, so he had to find someone to present the work on Couper’s behalf. Eventually, but without urgency, Wurtz passed it on to Jean Baptiste André Dumas for publication. The German scientist Albert Ladenburg claims that Wurtz “bungled this a little”. However, there is evidence that there was more to it than that. Couper was firm in his beliefs. He rejected the theories of his more decorated colleagues and wasn’t always kind in how he did it. He described their theories as “simply absurd”, “philosophically false”, and a “scientific blunder”. In his publication, Couper outlined the problems he had with the other scientists’ theories which he was attempting to blow out of the water. Although he turned out
features to be correct, here was a young, littleknown chemist upsetting those above him in the hierarchy. Another piece to the puzzle could be that Wurtz and Kekulé were personally acquainted. They became close friends when Kekulé was working in Paris in 1851.
“The injustice seemed to break him mentally and, along with it, his love of chemistry.” Kekulé said of their relationship, “it was not possible that two people could agree more closely with the general conception of a science than we two”. He added in a letter, “I lay more value on [Wurtz’s] judgement than that of most modern chemists”. In 1860 they worked together to put on the first conference of the International Chemical Congress, and it was Wurtz who presented Kekulé’s benzene theory for publication in 1865. After Couper’s publication, he claimed that his theories were equal to Kekulé’s and should have been published first. He came under fire, even from Wurtz himself, who staunchly backed Kekulé and did not like the abrupt language of Couper’s article. Kekulé himself responded with an air of indignation, saying “I will not, à la Couper, blow my own horn, trumpeting my views as a ‘new chemical theory’”. Couper was furious with Wurtz and the disagreement led to Couper being sacked. Although he took up a post in the chemistry department at the University of Edinburgh, the injustice seemed to break him mentally and, along with it, his love of chemistry. He never published anything in science again and suffered a breakdown not long after arriving in Edinburgh. He ended up living with x
Illustration by Adelaide Grosse
his mother, and was in and out of asylums for three years before he died at the age of 60. It was Kekulé’s successor, Richard Anschutz, who uncovered Couper’s story. He wrote biographies of both Kekulé and Couper. When carrying out his initial research, he couldn’t find Couper’s name in “any dictionary of biographies of scientists”, which highlighted the complete lack of recognition of Couper’s work, while Kekulé was on his way to fame. Anschutz vowed to “place the memory of Archibald Scott Couper in its rightful place in the history of our science”. He argued that Couper’s theory should be viewed as equal to Kekulé’s and actually superior in some areas. Anschutz described Kekulé as “lucky”. Couper’s story is not uncommon in science. Over the course of history, many scientists have not received the credit they deserve, with discrimination, bias, and cronyism often playing their parts. Perhaps the most infamous of all was the case of Rosalind Franklin who was initially given no credit for her fundamental work in solving the structure of DNA. Or take the case of Douglas Prasher who was the first person to discover the green fluorescent protein (GFP) which is now used in almost every molecular biology laboratory. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery went not to him but to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien. Prasher went on to work as a van driver instead of becoming a world-famous scientist. His story is now known, but, as with Couper, it should have had a very different conclusion. Kevin has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Edinburgh and now works as a chemistry tutor.
Illustration by Adelaide Grosse
Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 19
Do you have the time? A closer look at our bodies’ internal clocks Vanessa Fernandez Vidueira explores how the human body may not actually follow a 24-hour circadian cycle as previously thought, and how personal schedules could help us to become healthier and more productive. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise". But wait, does it? It depends on how your internal body clock ticks. Did you know your internal clock doesn’t run on a precise 24-hour schedule? Although it may be surprising to know that we will never have a perfect clock, the good news is there are things you can do to help your body stay on track. Imagine you were put in an underground bunker, with nothing to tell you the time, to live in complete isolation for several weeks. Would you still be hungry, sleepy, or alert at the same times you are in your regular life? Scientists started to delve into these questions many years ago, after observing that daily leaf movements in plants prevailed even when the plants were exposed to constant darkness. In 1938, the physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman, and one of his students spent 32 days isolated in a cave to test the flexibility of their internal clocks. By keeping temperature, illumination, and noise constant in the cave, and refraining from social interactions, they attempted to acclimatise to lengthy 28-hour days (9 hours sleep, 10 hours work, 9 hours leisure). Despite the significantly longer days and the absence of any external cues, their body temperature continued to follow a cycle of around 24 hours. However, the small sample size, difficulty to completely remove external cues, and differences in the participants’ responses resulted in the research being inconclusive. More sophisticated experiments by Jürgen Aschoff in the 60s confirmed that subjects in isolation still show clear cycles of body temperature, urine excretion, sleep, and wakefulness, amongst others. These cyclical patterns, which are now known to control physiological, psychological, and behavioural processes, are called “circadian rhythms” and are orchestrated by a x 20 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
Illustration by Elizabeth Stroud
group of cells in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), your internal timekeeping mechanism. While the world continued to cycle through dawn and dusk over a 24hour period, the participants in Aschoff’s bunker experiment settled into circadian rhythms closer to 25 hours. It turned out that our internal cycle is, in fact, slightly longer than 24 hours. No wonder you are always left wishing there was one more hour in the day! Although the reason for this is unknown, theories suggest that some flexibility in our “almost 24hour clock” allows for an easier adaptation to different photoperiods (day lengths). The Earth continues to rotate inexorably with a 24-hour period. Like a watch that keeps falling behind, our bodies need to readjust everyday to the external time. They do so through external cues (termed zeitgebers - from the German word zeit meaning “time” and geber meaning “giver”) which allow them to synchronise to the natural 24-hour day. Light is the most powerful zeitgeber and regulates the release of x
melatonin, the main hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle. Other well-studied zeitgebers are meals, physical activity, and social interactions. Controlling these gives your body the right hints to know when you need to get ready to sleep or to be productive during the day. Why can some people be up and alert at 6 am in the morning while others don’t feel rested if they don’t sleep until midday? You can probably identify yourself as an early bird, a night owl, or somewhere in between. Scientifically, a person’s natural predisposition to be asleep or awake at specific times is known as their chronotype. Your chronotype is not necessarily a product of your choice but dictated by internal biological rhythms and the consequent physiological variations such as body temperature and hormone release, which make you feel sleepy or fully alert at different times of the day. Chronobiology research has important repercussions on a person’s health. Studies have shown, for example, that some cancer treatments have fewer side effects when x
features administered at the time of day that best aligns with the patient’s internal clock. Recently, scientists have also found some aspects of immune activity to follow a circadian pattern, with immune responses being at their highest at the end of a resting period (early morning for humans). These findings could have implications for the most efficient times for vaccinations and immunotherapies. When it comes to what is best, a healthy body clock should smoothly align with the external environment, that is, our sleep and wakefulness should be synchronised to the day and night cycle. The master clock in the SCN should also work in harmony with peripheral clocks located in other body tissues, with all of them ticking at the same rate. Any disruptions to these mechanisms could put your circadian rhythm out of sync, a disorder known as circadian misalignment. Such misalignments have been associated with an increased risk of health problems (obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular problems, amongst others). While morning-types’ clocks can fit well to modern social schedules (such as school and work times), evening-types' internal timer is continuously fighting these social constraints, which puts night owls in a constant jet lag state. Not only do evening-types see their sleep reduced due to the early wake up times imposed by social demands, but they are also asked to be alert and perform at their best at a time of day when their bodies are not ready. Flexible working schedules and later school start times are some of the measures which have been suggested to reduce evening-types’ disadvantages and increase performance, health, and wellbeing. Based on these recommendations, some school districts have already taken action and shifted their schedules to later start times. Improvements in academic performance and attendance rates, as well as a reduced number of car crashes in teen drivers were reported in schools with a start later than 8:35 am in a study conducted with over 9,000 students in the US. At this point you may be wondering whether your chronotype can be changed. Although there is no definitive answer, if your parents enjoy late evenings and lie-ins, chances are you are following that pattern too. The reason is because chronotypes are mostly determined x
genetically. Other factors such as age, sex, and environmental factors are involved as well. A marked shift towards eveningness is characteristic of the adolescent period, for example, and women usually show a greater tendency towards morningness. While most factors influencing your chronotype can’t be changed, using zeitgebers to help your body clock readjust daily can benefit your timekeeping machinery.
Here is how you can look after your internal clock: 1. Light exposure at the right time of day: light in the morning helps your clock to reset and increases alertness whereas minimising light exposure in the evenings (no electronic devices, dim lights, and so on) helps your body get ready to sleep. 2. Exercise but not close to bedtime. 3. Avoid caffeine late in the day and alcohol before bedtime. While alcohol may help you to fall asleep, it decreases the quality of sleep. 4. Create a good environment for a good night’s sleep: have a power-down routine when closer to bedtime, keep your bedroom dark and the temperature low, use a good mattress and pillow, and avoid noises and distractions. 5. Try to keep bed and wake-up times consistent. 6. And probably the best piece of advice: don’t fight it. Whenever possible, do the bulk of your work when you feel most productive, creative, awake, and rest when your body asks you to do so.
Illustration by Elizabeth Stroud
If we had ever wondered whether flexible working hours would benefit our biological rhythms and ability to synchronise with the environment, the Covid19 pandemic may have accidentally given us the answer. Increased sleep duration and decreased social jet lag have been reported during lockdowns, factors which have helped to decrease stress in some populations as well. We may not be able to change our chronotype, but we are starting to understand how personalised schedules can keep our body clocks in sync to “make us healthy, wealthy, and wise”. Vanessa (@VanessaVidueira) is a PhD student exploring the role of chronotypes on sports performance in adolescence. Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 21
One of Us Who says neuroscience can’t be light-hearted? Taking inspiration from the 80s political satire Yes Minister, Yogesh Movendane turns a breakthrough experiment into a comedic sketch. “What is it all about?”, enquired an anxious Mr Brain, the Minister for Neuronal Administrative Affairs (NAA). “A breakdown in communications I gather, Minister”, Sir Fireaway calmly answered. “It’s rumoured to be the inevitable calamity caused by an unforeseen crisis – an externally induced ischemia.” “An unforeseen crisis?! Why wasn’t I warned before? You’re the Permanent Secretary of NAA, aren’t you Fireaway?” fired away Mr Brain, still puzzled and even more anxious about the event. It so happens that Sir Fireaway could not have foreseen the injury, for it was a meticulously calculated attack by a group of scientists. The inquisitive intruders injected a hormone called ET1 to induce ischemia - a severe lack of oxygen. Unaware of the chaos breaking out in the NAA, the scientists were exploring the chances of a new therapy to restore lost connections in the brain. “Minister, it wouldn’t be an ‘unforeseen crisis’ if I could foresee the unforeseeable, rather it would merely be a prediction.” At this point, Sir Fireaway read out the report emanating from the ischemic injury. “Only a segment of the visual cortical circuit – very minor in scale compared to the great complexity of the interconnected neuronal circuit system – has been injured. Regrettably, however, every node appears to be broken. It’s the thin end of the wedge, Minister!” Mr Brain (like any other Minister heading a great department responsible for stability and sustainability) was not exactly pleased to hear about the disastrous damage done to function and structural integrity within the fabric of the NAA.
Glossary Glial cells – cells of the nervous system that perform a variety of “supporting roles” to the neurons. Astrocytes – a type of glial cells with star shaped structure, responsible for holding the neuronal network structure intact and functional. Glial scarring – a reactive healing process induced by injury in glial cells, which can be detrimental as the scar prevents a full recovery of the nervous system. NeuN marker – Neuronal Nuclear protein, a molecular marker expressed by maturing neurons.
22 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
Illustration by Adelaide Grosse
“Fireaway, what set it off? I want a full independent investigation on the issue. See to it, would you?” ordered an aggravated Minister, worried about a glial scar which could potentially diminish any chance of neuronal regeneration. “With all due respect, Minister, we can’t see. If you could forgive my expression, we've been hit with a dose of ET1. It has constricted the blood vessels already. The visual cortex circuit is down,” replied a sarcastic Sir Fireaway. “Fireaway!“ rebuked the Minister, appalled by his sarcasm. “However, I’m fully seized of your intentions and I’ll set the wheels in motion,” responded a hasty Sir Fireaway. Meanwhile, the scientists Chubykin and Yu were discussing the possible outcomes of their study. “You know, Yu, if those reprogrammed astrocytes develop into functional neurons, we could actually propose a safe way to rebuild lost neuronal circuits,” said a hopeful Chubykin.
features “Yes, yes. Quite so, Chubykin. It does remove the risk of the immune system attacking the foreign cells and cuts the chances of cancer, but I’m not sure. There are pages and pages of questions: will the reprogrammed neurons integrate into complex functional circuits? Could they develop aberrant cellular properties? Could they have different developmental paths?” replied Yu, preparing to inject a modified gene. The team had induced ischemia in the neuronal network to see if a modified gene could reprogram an astrocyte into a functional neuron. If successful, this gene therapy strategy to restore vision might be redesigned to rebuild damaged neurons of the brain. Back at the NAA, Sir Fireaway was busy dealing with the crisis. “Minister, as a routine response, the NAA has initiated glial scarring and I’m happy to inform you that injury has been confined,” announced Sir Fireaway calmly. Both the Minister and Sir Fireaway knew the consequences well. A chance of irreversible impairment of vision. “Fireaway! You do know what it means if we continue with glial scarring, don’t you? The astrocyte to neuron ratio will hit the roof! Is there no other way to re-establish the circuit connections?” enquired Mr Brain. Sir Fireaway grimly explained, “Alas! Minister, one must be a realist. The neuronal cells are exclusive and one of a kind. They are uniquely designed to connect multiple centres across complex neuronal circuits. They mature with time like oak trees and fine-tune their functional specializations, learning from constant exposure to stimuli,” detailed Sir Fireaway. He further continued, “The NAA is merely responsible for preserving the natural structure, function and behavioural
pattern, but given the current capabilities of the NAA, the only course of action is to let the glial cells contain the injury.” They were quickly interrupted by Mr Grey, the Principal Private Secretary to the Minister, who appeared clutching a new crisis report. “Minister. Sir Fireaway. There’s been a development.” “On what, Grey?” asked a concerned Sir Fireaway. “An uprising, Sir. A subpopulation of glial cells seem to be converting themselves into neuronal cells. The local statistics from the ischemic area showed that astrocyte markers were increasing. But it now appears that the astrocytes have been persuaded, by some new external interference, to express both astrocyte markers and NeuN markers temporarily. Then, eventually, they seem to express only the neuronal marker, NeuN,” reported Mr Grey. “Impossible! Astrocytes don’t simply convert to neurons,” exclaimed a confused Sir Fireaway. Mr Brain grew more curious and enquired, “Grey, What else do we know about this? This might not be entirely bad news.” Mr Grey quickly went through the report and explained, “The reprogrammed astrocytes do have original neuron identities and seem to integrate with the existing circuit, Minister.” Sir Fireaway, concerned with increasing externally backed interference within his administration, had had enough of it. “Minister, how am I supposed to deal with a focal ischemia if the injury can’t be contained?” he said with a certain frustration. “Didn’t you say the astrocytes seem to be capable of functional circuit integration?” asked the Minister. “Yes,” replied Mr Grey, monosyllabically. “Well, perhaps this is it. If this astrocyte reprogramming works, why don’t we let them re-establish the lost neuronal connection,” wondered an intrigued Mr Brain. Sir Fireaway instantly retaliated, “Minister. That’s unthinkable.“ “Why? After all those astrocytes are “one of us”, belonging to our exclusive neuronal community, Fireaway. We might solve one issue with another,” said the Minister. “If they acquire orientational and directional specificity, to an extent good enough to replace the original neurons…see if we could see again, would you Fireaway?” instructed the Minister, returning Sir Fireaway’s subtle sarcasm. “Yes, Minister,” replied Sir Fireaway, simply with no counter-arguments. With the crisis ending at the NAA, the scientists rejoiced at successfully reprogramming the already available glial cells to function as neurons. They know it’s a long road ahead for using gene therapy to restore damaged and lost parts of the brain by reprogramming glial cells within the brain, but theirs seems a realistic and promising strategy.
Image by Pixabay
Yogesh (he/him) is a postgraduate research student in biomedical science. Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 23
Today, more than one million species are threatened with extinction. Every day, our carbon emissions tip the global climate further away from its natural balance. Every year, we cut down an area of forest the size of Scotland. But there is something we can do. That something is rewilding: taking degraded landscapes and actively restoring them for nature; helping ecosystems to thrive again; giving something back to the planet we have plundered to the brink of collapse. We spoke to Mossy Earth, who had a wild idea - to give nature the real economic value it deserves. For good reason, trees are at the heart of ecosystem restoration projects around the world, but there is a catch. Planting the wrong trees in the wrong place can do more harm than good. Simply maximising tree cover or carbon sequestration is an easy pitfall - a monoculture of non-native trees may achieve this, but be vulnerable to changes in climate, harbour few other species, and struggle to renew itself. When it comes to sustainability, there is no match for the intricate, diverse, interconnected web of a natural forest. “The right tree in the right place” is therefore one of the mottos of rewilding, where the aim is to create the conditions that allow nature to thrive independently again. It turns out we don’t need to look far from home to find degraded landscapes in need of help - the highlands of Scotland are a prime example. Following centuries of deforestation and overgrazing, many of Scotland’s hills now stand bare and silent, where once vast expanses of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen and juniper echoed the calls of capercaillie and gave home to the iconic wildcat. In the west, only fragments remain of the ancient rainforest where gnarled oak and birch grew from a rich green carpet of mosses, ferns and lichens. Since 2019, Mossy Earth have planted 17,200 native trees in Scotland, including the majestic Scots pine and the now rare aspen. Riverbanks are one of their target areas, as reforestation here brings shade, nutrients and insects to the rivers, thereby supporting wild salmon populations. By tracking the movements of salmon, Mossy Earth also work to ensure their migratory routes from sea to river are not blocked by hydroelectric schemes.
Furthermore, Mossy Earth have built nesting platforms for golden and white-tailed eagles, and continue to work on understory restoration, as well as camera trap studies to better understand Scotland’s wildlife. Further afield, some of their other projects focus on Slovakian turtles, Namibian vultures and the endemic cave-dwelling species of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They operate through a subscription system, whereby companies and consumers pay to make the projects happen and get progress updates in return.
- sponsored article -
We are all scientists – some of us just do science for a living. While science communication is sometimes framed as reaching out to “non-scientists”, I don’t find this helpful. Most people look curiously at the world around them and try to understand the reality they face. Every single person who wonders things like “why” and “how” has started the most important step of the scientific process – recognising that there are questions to be asked. So, instead of “non-scientists”, let’s talk about lay scientists.* It is vitally important for professional science to be well communicated beyond the borders of academia. After all, lay scientists often possess valuable insights from their own lived experience. The best science is done when a diversity of voices and perspectives are heard**, and making the conversation around science understandable to lay scientists is an important step towards ensuring that diversity is present. Here is how I think we can get there. Most fundamentally, science communication should serve not just to provide the audience with new facts but to demystify the process of performing science. Often that means that the results are secondary to the broader questions that the research team were chasing, how they went about collecting data, the obstacles they encountered in doing so, and what assumptions or compromises they had to make. Ultimately, these aspects of science are centred on the people, and stories about people (especially those local to areas being studied or from historically marginalised groups) will more effectively engage the reader Plus, only by showing science’s inner workings can we guard against
scientism (a quasi-religion, where the outcomes of science are taken as absolute truths and people point to the work of professional scientists as holding similar authority to deities of old). The dogmatic beliefs of scientism completely miss the point that science is a human endeavour and thus an activity performed by social, political beings with biases and flaws. A good piece of science writing is characterised by clear language but also a respect for the reader. We need to be on the lookout for jargon and to think of creative ways to explain the arcane language used in academic papers. For this, I love a clever metaphor or analogy (science writing’s bread and butter). However, clarity in language must be balanced by a respect for the intelligence of the audience. One of my greatest pet peeves in science writing is when writers use baby-like language to talk to the audience, or say things like “I
won’t bore you with the details”. In both cases, a clear distinction between the writer who “knows the science” and the audience is drawn. People who engage with science writing are interested and intelligent. They just aren't specialists in that topic. Science writing that doesn't talk down to the audience or condescend them is the best way to spark a meaningful conversation. Finally, quality science writing incorporates the perspectives and comments of people external to the work to provide broader context. This wider context of the story can also be achieved by signposting further resources to the reader, either as hyperlinks on a webpage or as a list of suggested further readings*** in print media. These additional perspectives and resources provide a good framework for interested parties to continue their learning and promote further engagement with the topic at hand. Despite the serious consequences, let’s not forget that science communication should be a thing of joy. On a note of pure wonderment, the universe (and all that is in it) is interesting and cool! So, whether you are a professional scientist or a lay scientist, talk about science. It is fun, it is exciting, and – if you ask me – it is the ultimate sign of human flourishing that we can take the time to try and unpick the workings of our reality. Paige is studying for a PhD in paleontology (she made headlines last year when she discovered new dinosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye)
Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 25
For just £79, companies offer tests that claim to connect people with long-lost relatives, uncover family history, or expose lurking danger in the form of susceptibility to disease. They are presented as an empowering way for individuals to discover their past and take control of their own health. But the marketing and discussion surrounding direct-toconsumer genetic testing are at odds with their delivery in many ways. Genetic tests for both ancestry and health risks can be unreliable tools for consumers of colour and may reinforce incorrect notions of race and ancestry. Genetic testing companies have a customer base of eager genetic sleuths from many different backgrounds and they market accordingly, with results of varying success. For example, a 2019 Ancestry.com campaign invites Canadian consumers to “uncover the lost chapter of [their] family history” over dramatised footage of a Black woman and a white man eloping. The ad, set in the antebellum American South, suggested a narrative many viewers found overly romanticised. Wired documents numerous falsities in the ad, including the idea “that most mixed-race people in America today
26 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
descend from loving, consenting relationships” and that “the North was some promised land of equal opportunity.” Ancestry.com swiftly pulled the ad, but it remains an example of the optimistic premise most ancestry testing services are based on. While many consumers will be pleasantly surprised by their results, the potential to uncover violence always looms: it just doesn’t make for a very inviting advertisement. Dig deeper and it becomes apparent that genetic testing’s plight is much worse than a 30-second ad spot. People of European ancestry make up more than three quarters of genetic study participants despite accounting for less than one quarter of the world’s population. These are the studies that genetic testing companies use to develop their services. Ancestry testing compares the DNA sent in from a customer with DNA of known ethnic origins. To provide accurate results, the company must compare tiny variations in a consumer’s DNA with a database that can indicate which variations are common in which ethnic groups. Companies such as Ancestry.com have their own databases which
diversify along with their customers but still currently give much finer detail on European ancestry than other areas. Ancestry.com separates Ireland into a whopping 85 populations, for example, in comparison to nine for the entire continent of Africa. With this in mind, it’s clear to see why they’d court Black Canadian consumers, an underrepresented demographic in genetic studies whose interest would increase not just their revenue but their accuracy as well. The problem of representation in genetic databases extends to healthcare. In 2001, a “reference genome” was compiled from numerous donors who responded to a 1997 ad in a Buffalo, New York, paper. Supposedly representing the entirety of an “average” human genetic code, the idea was to provide a comparison that scientists would use to comb through a patient’s genome for potential causes of illness. However, 70% of the genome was sourced from a single donor (whose ethnic background is unknown). Furthermore, the underlying theory is also skewed, as it’s impossible to condense the genetic variation of humanity into a standardized genome.
Scientists regularly face issues when comparing their patients’ DNA to the reference genome, such as struggling to find a diagnosis and overlooking significant genetic mutations. One study found that almost 300 million base pairs of DNA were present in 910 African American subjects but absent from the reference genome. This count is disputed by some experts, but many geneticists agree that the reference genome has such large gaps that it is almost useless. To combat these shortcomings, many research groups, including one from the testing company 23andMe, have produced ethnicity-specific reference genomes for use in diagnostic medicine. But even these run into issues because many self-categorising individuals are mistaken or uninformed about their ancestry.
“Many geneticists agree that the reference genome has such large gaps that it is almost useless” The lack of diversity in genetic databases means some companies do not offer equal access to their health tests. In 2019, 23andMe announced a new test for type 2 diabetes risk, developed using data from 2.5 million users. The move indicated a significant step away from the company’s signature ancestry testing but had some drawbacks. The test was found to be less accurate in people of non-European descent, who also happen to be more likely to be affected by type 2 diabetes. Established in 2017, Myriad Genetics only expanded its breast cancer risk testing services to “women of all ancestries” in 2021 and now provides information on their website regarding the struggle to provide accurate results for women of non-European ancestry. It may seem surprising that these exclusionary tests get to market. Alicia Zhou, who heads research at Color Genomics, explained: “To be only able to offer a product to one part of the population is inequitable and should be unacceptable to the field,” however, “holding back data from individuals that could benefit” would also be wrong. Unfortunately, those people of European ancestry who are most likely to benefit from a test such as Color Genomics’ often have better access to healthcare already. Ethnic minorities, while more likely to
experience poor health than white British people, have inconsistent access to healthcare and are also more likely to report a poor experience with it. The lack of diversity within these companies’ existing databases thus has the potential not only to provide inaccurate ancestry testing results, but also to exacerbate existing health inequalities. If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed the careful language that companies use when describing their tests. “Ancestry” and “ethnicity” are not the same as race, but consumers are, to some measure, expected to extrapolate. Mark Thomas, professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London, calls it “shifty”. These companies encourage our collective interest in ancestry and categorisation but avoid using the word “race” because their tests can’t – and won’t – tell you what race(s) you are. That is dependent on how you are perceived by society, how you’re raised, and how you yourself feel. We conflate the differences in appearance between people that we use to assign races, such as skin colour, with genetic differences, despite the evidence. The science overwhelmingly suggests, as explained by biologist Joseph L. Graves, that “there is no single physical trait or gene that can be used to unambiguously assign people to racial groups.” It is simply too difficult to find enough racespecific differences to warrant applying the informal category of biological race to humans. Biological race exists – it’s been found in other animal species, such as chimpanzees – but the same level of genetic difference has not been found in humans. Rather, race in humans is a social and political category.
Despite these issues with access and accuracy, the genetic testing industry is a great place to begin deconstructing our society’s ideas about biological human differences. Taking an ancestry test can overturn individuals’ ideas about their own race: those who take ancestry tests are more likely to identify as multiracial, or, at the very least, adopt more specific identifiers. This demonstrates the fluid nature of our understanding of race and the potential of genetic tests to impact it. A Duke University study found that white Americans were significantly less likely to express racial essentialist beliefs, such as “certain races are smarter than others because of genetics”, when they’d been given background information about genetics and race before taking a test. This suggests that, with proper education, taking a genetic test can demonstrate the flaws in racist ideology and help change people’s mindsets. In order to become a positive addition to popular science, genetic testing companies should be honest about the groups they serve and explicitly reject the false notion of biological race in humans. Including more clear, comprehensive information on websites regarding a test’s development accuracy is a good way to help potential users make informed choices about what test to use and evaluate what they really want to get out of it. Genetic tests can still be valuable resources whether you’re looking for medical insight or a long-lost relative. But before you buy, consider if you’re really getting your £79 worth. Charlotte (she/her) is a first-year biological sciences student
Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 27
“Is that a bouncy castle?” asked every single child when their parents suggested going to an event called the Big Bounce. The answer turned out to be no – it’s actually, err, a physics festival. Science! Yeah... I’ll pass, thanks. I’ve got TV to watch. The Big Bounce was a physics festival in disguise. The idea was to reach out to people “from areas of high socioeconomic deprivation” – the most academic turn of phrase I have ever heard to squirm out of using the word poor – by ditching physics from the name, switching venue to the east end of Glasgow, and throwing in a free bag of crisps. Were the people of Haghill and Dalmarnock fooled into thinking that the world of hadron colliders and gravitational waves suddenly belonged to them? No, of course they weren’t. Barely anybody showed up, and those that did were the sort of people you’d expect to see at a science festival – kids who play with Lego and have parents who work as acoustic engineers.
“Rebranding the Festival of Physics as an outreach event wasn’t enough to make it one.” Don’t get me wrong: physics has a diversity problem, I think we should be working to fix it, and I’m glad the Institute of Physics (IOP) is starting to make an effort. I just feel that rebranding the Festival of Physics as an outreach event wasn’t enough to make it one. The rest was pretty much the same as ever: a bunch of university students sitting behind posters explaining how awesome they find quantum mechanics to whoever dares to come near; a show in which some people dressed as aliens mix things together and make some loud bangs; and a workshop for kids to take stuff to pieces. All good fun – for people who had a reason to come. Festivals weren’t really designed with outreach 28 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
in mind; they are about bringing likeminded people together to celebrate something. The IOP’s Festival of Physics used to be a joyous occasion. The atmosphere at Dynamic Earth (if you don’t know what that is, go – it never gets old) was vibrant, the queue was out the door and it genuinely felt like being at a festival. But of course the kids came from the leafy suburbs of Edinburgh and already knew their times tables, because only parents who already value science would take their children to an event like that. If we are serious about doing outreach, we have to listen. If people in the East End aren’t interested in science, we need to ask them why not, find out what they do care about, and understand who they trust. Barging into their community spaces and shouting loudly about how much we love science is not going to cut it. Calling an event that has absolutely nothing to do with bouncing the Big Bounce isn’t going to magically persuade a whole new demographic that science shows are how they want to spend the October holidays. Did the IOP even consider whether the parents they were targeting would necessarily be able to afford to take the week off when they scheduled the event for a Wednesday?
Here is what I suggest. Firstly, showcase diversity at science festivals through the people that exhibit and perform at them. Instead of defaulting to people like me (I’m a white, straight, privately educated male who got a gig at the festival through sheer privilege), actively seek out people who represent the future we want to see. Secondly, stop trying to force feed “old format” science festivals to people who have been systemically let down by the education system and have no existing interest in science. The chances are, they aren’t going to come. These big, shiny events are great for the in-crowd to celebrate but intimidating to newcomers. Finally, it is time to start interacting with under-represented groups on their terms, not ours. In practice, that means going to settings where they feel comfortable, whether that be shopping centres, football stadiums, schools, pubs, or skate parks and allowing them to lead the conversation. In a proper science outreach event, the only people who feel out of place should be the scientists. Harry (he/him) studied physics before starting a PhD in remote sensing of tropical forests. Views expressed in this article are his own.
Discos and Disney Creativity is key to public engagement Elizabeth Orhadje gives her tips for a successful science festival gig.
Illustration by Alyssa Brandt
Interested in science communication? I’m guessing you are, considering you’re reading the middle pages of EUSci. You should get involved with a science festival, and after my trip to one myself (The Big Bounce, Glasgow 2021), I have some ideas on how you can make your exhibit a success. (1) Incorporate different types of media. For example, the Gravity Synth exhibit at the Big Bounce featured synth music (think “alien robot disco”), topped off with neon light displays. Leon Trimble’s synthesiser produces music using a Michelson interferometer, which is a key component of a gravitational wave detector. Michelson interferometers use mirrors to merge multiple light sources into an interference pattern, which helps the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) to measure the minuscule changes in gravitational waves as black holes collide. However, the synthesiser manipulates the chirp sounds caused by black hole collisions as they warp sound waves. Seeing and hearing the interferometer in action helped bring the concept of a gravitational wave detector down to earth (get it?). The Navigating with the Stars exhibit included a video clip from Disney’s Moana, where Moana lifts her hand to the horizon to navigate her way at sea, all while singing the popular song How Far I’ll Go. This exemplified how Polynesians and other ancient civilizations signifix
cantly contributed to our understanding of astronomy today, with this knowledge passed on and used through hand signs. While familiar music like this can resonate with your audience, a recent study monitoring people’s brainwaves as they listen to music advises to use it sparingly, as repeating familiar music can decrease engagement. However, repeating unfamiliar music, as in Gravity Synth, can captivate and sustain an audience’s interest. (2) Collaborate with others. One of the festival’s headline events, a youth panel on “Bouncing back – can science prevent rising temperatures?”, featured physicists speaking alongside climate change activists about the science behind climate change and what young people can do to promote environmentally friendly activities within their community. The activists’ perspectives were critical to understanding how the findings generated by scientists can be used by governments and laypeople to provide meaningful, practical solutions. For example, did you know that you can contact charities like Four Square and the British Heart Foundation to collect your old furniture for free? This is easier than dumping it by the bin, just for it to end up in landfill, and contributes to a great cause! Collaborating with others benefits you and your audience: you can have someone else to share the work with, while your audience can better understand, remember, and apply x
what they’ve learned. (3) Help your audience understand complex ideas by activating their senses. In the Gravity Synth exhibit, a student demonstrator used some objects in the room, such as a mini cactus and a petri dish, to help the audience see how the different parts of the gravitational wave detector, including mirrors, lasers, and beam splitters, worked together in 3D space. However, not everyone learns visually, so it is also worth thinking about incorporating things into your exhibit for your audience to touch, feel, hear – maybe even smell or taste. (4) Keep your audience’s age in mind. A lot of science exhibits are pitched towards children and teenagers. Do you remember what would capture your attention as a kid? Try to think about what your audience might like, such as books, comics, TV shows, movies, music, video games, and more. It may help to increase engagement with your exhibit if you include or connect to things your audience already engages with (the Moana clip in the astronomy exhibit was a great example of this). Finally, and most importantly, attend a science festival yourself to see science communication in action and pick up some tips of your own. I’ll see you there! Elizabeth (she/her) is a third-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh. Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 29
I’m a scientist - get me some work experience! Written by The University of Edinburgh Careers Service
Find out more about how to build experience by going to our website:
Many science students are keen to get scientific work experience during their degree. While there are some platforms that advertise scientific internships e.g. Gradcracker and Bright Network, often these opportunities are targeted only at penultimate year students. The Careers Service encourages you to understand yourself better, discover what’s out there, and build experience. These are the key elements of our Careers Compass, which helps you to break career planning down into manageable chunks with clear actions you can take.
In these uncertain times, it helps to be adaptable, curious and open to consider a range of approaches and opportunities:
www.ed.ac.uk/careers/students/u ndergraduates/build-experience or searching for our video Top Tips: Building Experience on Media
Furthermore, there is a suite of resources at our Career Service + website: ed.careercentre.me, including school specific pages. These are a great starting point if you are looking for research or industry experience. They also highlight programmes such as:
Equate Scotland’s CareersWise placements for students from 1st to 4th years to address gender inequality in science Bright Green Business offers environmental placements.
Talk to science alumni on PlatformOne or LinkedIn alumni to ask for advice and information first. What’s their advice on getting work experience? Approach organisations directly. Nervous about that? Check our advice on creating your own opportunity. Get involved with EUSci and develop your skills and experience that way!
If you need more advice and support after using these tools, talk to us about work experience. We run online drop-ins every day as well as bookable appointments. All the opportunities mentioned here can be reached through our website.
Any of these are great CV boosters:
Hear from three of the EUSci team about their experiences: “I was involved in organising my PhD programme’s symposium. This gave me the opportunity to interact with academics and build my confidence and organisation skills. I think this will be a good thing to add to my CV when applying for jobs in the future, as well as for applying to internships, which is a mandatory part of my PhD training programme.’” - Katie, PhD Student, Genetics and Molecular Medicine, University of Edinburgh
“At the start of the first lockdown, I created Not Another Science Podcast. This really helped me get my current job in sci-comm. Always be creating! With every new article or project you get a little bit better. My second piece of advice: Have a portfolio! I hosted all of my articles and podcast episodes on a website that I created using Wix — essentially a digital CV — which looks fantastic to employers.’ - Tom, Scientific Writer at Notch Communications, a life sciences communications agency based in Manchester -- sponsored article --
“During my undergrad I did an STFC summer placement working at the ISIS neutron source. The project really matched my interests which helped a lot with my application and interview. It’s definitely worth putting time into applications you are really interested in. The placement had to be remote thanks to the pandemic, but I still formed great connections with the lab and fellow students. The techniques have proved invaluable during my PhD and it was an excellent way to experience working with a lab group and supervisor.” - Ellie, PhD Student, Chemistry, University of Edinburgh
Next steps To PhD or not to PhD? That is the question. Well, one of the many questions you might start asking yourself as you get towards the end of a science degree. To help you out, we’ve got in touch with five graduates who are doing cool things with their careers. Interviews conducted by Katie Pickup and Harry Carstairs
Illustration by Isabel Key
Powering Up • • •
Monika O’Shea (she/her) on working in the rapidly changing energy sector Degree: BSc Geophysics, University of Edinburgh Current Position: Power Market Analyst at Genscape, Boston
What do you like most about your job on a day-to-day basis?
What do you do as a power market analyst? I forecast the price of energy on a daily basis. At my work each analyst is assigned to a specific transmission grid. Our in-house meteorologists forecast demand and wind production day to day, then we use that data, as well as data from various monitored power plants, to help our clients optimize their positions in the energy market. Our clients consist of those who sell power (like folk who manage wind farms or gas plants), those who want to buy power, and those who want to trade virtual power. We call our clients every day to suggest when they should buy/sell, and discuss specific trades they could profit from. 32 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
I love that my job is exciting and changeable day-to-day. Although my role remains the same, because power demand and renewable supply are both weather-dependent, every day poses a new challenge in a fast-paced environment. I spend most of my day reading transmission maps and weather maps, and feel comfort in being able to assess power flow patterns across the transmission grid as if they were rivers across a topographic map. I also really enjoy speaking to clients on a daily basis and forming connections with them over the years. What kind of academic backgrounds do other people in the energy industry come from? The people I work with usually come from one of three backgrounds: engineering, finance/economics, or environmental sciences. I am the only geophysics graduate out of our group of thirty analysts but I know one or x
two of our clients who used to be geophysicists before moving into the power industry. Experience with coding is also a valuable resource in this line of work. We also have a crew of meteorologists who work with our teams. As the world transitions to renewable energy, how will this affect power analysis? The power sector is ever-growing, and the transition to renewable energy is a cornerstone of our field. In our work specifically, our clients rely largely on our analysis, as the continuous buildout of renewable assets across the USA spurs changes to each grid’s pricing, reliability, and congestion patterns. Job openings in the energy industry are booming right now as companies race to build out wind, solar and storage while subsidies and prime locations last, and power analysis in this time of great change is more vital and in-demand than ever. It feels very exciting to be riding this wave.
Back to Academia • • •
Shona Jenkins (she/her) on returning for a PhD after working in the private and charitable sectors. Degree: MSc Sustainability Studies & Environmental Science, Lund University Current Position: PhD Student at School of Geoscience, University of Edinburgh
Why did you choose to come back to academia? It is a twist of fate that I ended up doing my PhD here in Edinburgh! When I finished my master’s in 2017, I was accepted to start a PhD at Massey University in New Zealand, but it didn’t work out due to my circumstances at the time. Instead, I went on to work for an international NGO in the Hague that was an association for professionals and academics in the water sector. After that, I worked at an international development firm in Oxford and another international NGO in Edinburgh that advocates for water security. These experiences gave me the opportunity to work at the interface of research and policymaking, as well as to travel extensively across sub-Saharan Africa. This phase of my professional life was definitely learning by doing, and I was often faced with steep learning curves that felt like ‘sink or swim’ moments. The desire to do the PhD came about when I was facing uncertainty about my last employment contract and I had to ask myself ‘what is it that I want to do next?’. I realised that what I was looking for was time and space to develop technically as an interdisciplinary social scientist, and doing a PhD would give me that freedom. The topics that interest me most are climate change, natural resource use and governance, so when I saw the PhD project ‘assessing the human uses of the central Congo Basin peatlands’ I decided to take it. That said, in the beginning I had to work hard to convince myself that I had it in me to be a PhD student. Do you feel that you are better equipped now to do a PhD, having developed some professional skills outside of academia?
Illustration by Isabel Key
I think the most valuable skills that my previous work has given me is x
what you would call transferable skills, like how to coordinate international and multicultural teams, how to set expectations and mediate misunderstandings if they arise. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons was seeing with my own eyes the challenges faced by governments, NGOs and communities in the water sector, and hearing their views on research and development programmes. I now see my own research through a very pragmatic lens and spend quite a lot of time reflecting on how what I do contributes to change, on what level and for whom. What is your favourite thing about being a student again? It sounds simple, but I really enjoy the challenges and having the space to learn. I feel privileged to be part of a research project that is well-resourced and is open to supporting a PhD project with a strong social science focus. The experience of being a PhD student feels very different to my master’s or bachelor’s, and I feel very focused and determined right now, which is great as I am surrounded by other really passionate researchers. What would you say to science graduates who are unsure if a PhD is the right choice for them? This may not be the tip you want to hear, but I don’t believe you can ever be 100% sure if a PhD is the right choice. If you have strong doubts and you have the opportunity to work in areas that interest you, do that. It will help shape how you think about your research area or you may find really meaningful work outside of research. If you do decide to do a PhD, you are not bound to work in academia forever. Considering the pressing issues of our time (e.g., climate change, resource scarcity, environmental degradation) there are only going to be more opportunities across different sectors for science graduates who are determined to make a positive impact. Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 33
Programming with purpose • • •
Kristian Bodolai (he/him) on tackling climate change using machine learning Degree: BSc Physics, University of Valencia Current Position: Developer at Space Intelligence, Edinburgh
What do you enjoy most about working in a small company?
How did you get into the field of machine learning (ML)? After my degree in physics I didn’t really understand anything about ML but really wanted to. So I did a couple of online courses and searched for interesting projects to apply it to. I then came to see it as a very powerful general tool for solving complex problems in different domains. `Beating
It’s amazing to work with such a supportive and talented team, especially since I entered with close to no experience of satellite data. I’ve learned more in one year than I would have in 3 or 4 on my own! When did you realise that you could use machine learning to help tackle climate change? I wanted to apply what I had learned into a project that would have added value, so one of the first things that came to mind was to use satellite data to map different things, such as the potential for putting solar panels on x
rooftops. I was going for that win-win situation where I could satisfy my curiosity and work on something with a positive impact. Luckily for me, that’s now my job in Space Intelligence! What would be your top career tips? I’d recommend people learn as many tools as they can, and think about how you could apply them in different domains. You never know where you’re going to end up - I never thought of doing remote sensing when studying physics! Plus, being able to explain difficult concepts clearly is a crucial skill, so practice that whenever you can.
cancer • • •
Katherine Kelly (she/her) on her role in translating research into treatments Degrees: BSc Pharmacology, MSc Drug Discovery, both King’s College London Current Position: Strategic Alliance Executive, Cancer Research UK
chance of translating into new treatments. Getting ideas from early academia to the patient is a complex process and requires a strong business strategy, collaboration and communication.
What does your current role involve? I manage relationships between Cancer Research UK’s labs and pharmaceutical companies. The idea is to bring together complementary capabilities and expertise to develop new therapeutics for cancer patients. I work closely with these industrial partners to negotiate aspects of the collaboration such as aims, intellectual property, contracts commercialisation strategies. I also work closely with scientists to ensure new innovations have appropriate development and comercialisation strategies to have the best x 34 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
What differences do you see between the charity sector, academia and industry? Academia and charity colleagues approach research in an exploratory manner, opening up more avenues, whereas industry partners look to narrow down the avenues to reach a specific goal. Both are important, and it takes good communication to bring together both sectors so research can transition out of academia and into industry smoothly. How big a role does the charity sector play in achieving impact from scientific research? They have an incredibly important role: they fund research directly, and x
give patients and the public a say on funding decisions to ensure donations are used in the best way. The charity sector also drives successful funding by reviewing and managing grant applications, influencing policy and widely communicating scientific breakthroughs. What experience has helped you most in your career? Supportive colleagues and mentors. It’s surprising how many people, at all career stages, are happy to give their time to support you if you are proactive in approaching them. I find that to get the most out of a mentor's time, I need to think carefully about the questions and gaps I want to address so they can give specific advice and look for ways to help you gain the experience you’re looking for. Also, learning not to be afraid of asking for things is crucial, that could be anything from leading a project to going on a training course. More often than not the answer will be yes.
Doing EUSci proud • • •
Em Dixon (they/she) on their work as a professional science communicator Degrees: BSc (Hons) Cell Biology, University of St Andrews; MSc Science Communication & Public Engagement, University of Edinburgh Current position: Education & Learning Officer at Wellcome Connecting Science (Wellcome Genome Campus)
working out how to make it relevant How do you feel your role links science and society? What does your current role involve? My role involves developing and delivering educational content to school students and teachers, as well as supporting scientists to talk to school groups about their work. I started this job during lockdown, so it has involved developing a digital programme including webinars, online resources, and online outreach sessions. What is your favourite aspect of working in science engagement? All of it! Talking to children and young people about science is my favourite part, especially hearing them come up with questions that adults never would. Being able to support students and teachers over the last year through lockdowns and home learning has felt particularly rewarding. I also really love learning about new research in science, and and age-appropriate to young people x
Firstly, working in science education, I am working with the next generation of scientists – whilst I’m not presuming that every young person I work with will want to go into science (and that’s okay!), I’m hoping that through inclusive science engagement, students from underrepresented backgrounds might be encouraged to consider a career in science. Secondly, I try to highlight that science isn’t just about being able to pass exams and go to university that engaging with it helps young people to become informed citizens and make good health and medical decisions. Do you think the pandemic has changed the role of science communicators? We’ve seen everything from the best to the worst in science communication practice over the last 18 months, so I’m sure that’s had an impact on public views on science communicators! It also felt ironic that at a time when we x
ought to be in high demand, many scicomm industries – museums and science centres especially – struggled the most. I hope that science communicators have been able to reflect and change how they see the public, especially when it comes to trust and vaccine hesitancy. There’s been some really great communication around this, but also some terrible examples of shaming people for being hesitant, and not understanding why some groups – especially racial minorities in the UK – are rightly more sceptical about government recommended medicine. What experience has helped you most in your career? The first thing that comes to mind is my MSc year at Edinburgh. I knew I needed to gain lots of experience to get a job after graduating, so I wrote and edited for EUSci, was a student ambassador, a peer proofreader, Pint of Science event organiser, and volunteered at Edinburgh Zoo. I don’t recommend doing that many things during a master’s degree, but perhaps it was worth it to get into a science communication career!
Illustration by Isabel Key
Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 35
-- sponsored article --
Edinburgh hits 100 start-ups in one year A record number of new businesses sprung out of the University of Edinburgh last academic year. In total, 102 students, 45 of whom were current undergraduates, and alumni saw their creative ideas go commercial. Ranging from robotic recycling systems and a virtualreality tennis coaching aid to health apps, many of the start-ups focused on using data and technology to solve pressing problems. Investments raised by the start-ups added up to £11m over the course of the year.
Free business advice and access to mentoring networks at the University helped students to hit the milestone. Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service, also runs accelerator programs and competitions throughout the year and supports international students to stay in the UK as entrepreneurs. EUSci spoke to three of the new founders to find out more about their start-ups and to ask them about their journey into the world of business.
A helping hand Co-founded by four engineering students, Bioliberty aims to improve the lives of people with hand weakness. Their solution is a robotic glove which strengthens grip, combined with a digital therapy platform which helps develop natural hand strength. Rowan Armstrong, who did his master’s in electronic engineering at Edinburgh said “we became aware of the problem because Ross [another of the co-founders] has an aunt who suffers from MS [multiple sclerosis]. When the MS affected her legs, there were crutches, a wheelchair, and then a mobility scooter to help her independently. But when it attacked her hand, there was very little technology to help with that weakness. “But we looked into it and realised it's not just MS. Arthritis, strokes, motor neuron disease, carpal tunnel syndrome: all of these conditions can lead to hand weakness. We estimated 2.5 million people in the UK suffer from some form of it. Our idea was to create a robotic glove that strengthens grip. It contains a sensing system which tunes into the muscle in the forearm, including very weak muscles. We had to make something that was really, really sensitive to pick up even the slightest bit of muscle activity. “The challenge from there was to generate some force to help people with day-to-day tasks. That's where we cooked up a new technology that co-operates well with the human hand. When we showed it to occupational therapists, they suggested we try to use it for rehabilitation as well. So we started working on incorporating resistive training to put people on a path towards natural strength again.” Rowan found he had surprised himself by becoming an entrepreneur. “I remember the day Ross came to me with the idea. At the time I was working for a large medical device company, and I remember saying to him ‘Ross, that
is the worst idea I've ever heard in my life, how do you think we could achieve that!’ “It was when we got onto the Edinburgh Innovations start-up summer accelerator that we got the validation that we needed. We just needed a bit of faith – having that support behind us. We definitely wouldn't exist if it weren't for that support from Edinburgh University, so make sure you really make the most of it if you are a student there. “If you are thinking about entrepreneurship, this would be my advice. Perfect is the enemy of good. If it's good, it might be good enough for the customer, or it might be at a good enough stage where you can improve it to make it good enough, but it doesn't need to be perfect right now. The thing that we started with wasn’t great, but the thing that it's turned into is actually really valuable: it just took time to figure out. Go on accelerators, learn how business works and just do it. Give it everything.”
Bioliberty has engineered a robotic glove that assists people suffering from hand weakness.
36 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
-- sponsored article --
Games for Good Edinburgh alumna Elena Höge started Yaldi Games – a company that aims to create meaningful games that go beyond digital. Their first title, Wholesome: Out And About, promises players that the skills they learn in the game could also come in handy outdoors. Elena feels that computer games can be a force for healthy, positive changes. “My goal is to create meaningful screen time that has an impact beyond the digital world. Games currently on the market don’t tend to integrate real processes and real knowledge. With our kids spending more and more time in front of screens, I think we should look to create educational content that inspires people to put down their devices and create their own experiences.” The idea for Wholesome was sparked by Elena’s interest in foraging. “I noticed how excited I got once I learned the basics. As soon as you know one plant, that gives you a foundation to be passionate about nature. Foraging enabled me to spend more time outside, get active, and have a lot of fun. Wholesome’s mission is to be a game just like any other life sim, but instead of using fictional content we’re introducing people to real ecosystems.” Elena has big ambitions for Yaldi Games, hoping one day to be something of a “digital Lego”. Her advice to
anyone thinking about entrepreneurship is to “make sure it is something that you are passionate about, because if you're just doing it for the money it will make it a lot harder when the obstacles start piling up – and that will happen for any startup!”
using satellite imagery. So I went ahead and I put my life savings into hiring a small team. We came up with a prototype, put it in front of foresters, and they signed up for pilot projects. Six months later we're still working on making it work, but we now have 40,000 hectares of pilot projects.” His company, Wildsense, takes freely available imagery from the European Space Agency and analyses it using machine learning algorithms. “The algorithm predicts where bark beetles may have attacked, flagging this for the foresters to go up and look. They can then remove the trees before the bark beetles reproduce. Plus, in the early stages of infection, a tree still has most of its value, so if we find the outbreak early enough the foresters are able to sell the wood at a much higher price than they would otherwise.”
Spotting Beetles from Space While studying for his MSc at Edinburgh, Thibault Sorret decided to put theory into practice. “I had learned about remote sensing and read in the literature it is possible to find bark beetle attacks in forests (or at least the symptoms of a bark beetle attack, which is a dying tree)
Thibault reckons that commitment is the key to success. “Jump in and test things out. It’s really important to try to go beyond the idea. The saying ‘ideas are cheap, execution is expensive’ is very true. If dreaming up goals was enough, everybody would be a billionaire! But if you’re at the University of Edinburgh you're in luck. Honestly, Edinburgh Innovations is fantastic, and if you can, join the summer accelerator next year. Beyond the support and resources you’ll get from the programme, you get paid £3,000 to attend, so it's like a summer job, but you get to try building your own company. It's honestly a nobrainer.”
How about you? Ready to make the change you want to see in the world? Head to www.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-innovations/for-students to find out more about the support provided by Edinburgh Innovations. Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk 37
set by Laura Cooper
Across 5 Bison bison (7) 6 E.g., Atacama (7) 9 Ring-shaped reef (5) 10 Edible crustaceans (9) 11 Soybean in the pod (7) 13 More frosty (5) 15 Author of The Voyage of the Beagle (7,6) 19 Home of giraffes (6) 20 Wool wax (7) 23 Component of DNA (9) 24 Lava underground (5) 26 E.g., Scouse and Geordie (7) 27 Itch caused by mites (7)
Down 1 Natural Black hairstyle (4) 2 Traditional dish of Valencia (6) 3 Supported (9) 4 _ intelligence (10) 5 Dam builder (6) 6 Red or roe (4) 7 Company to soft boiled egg (7) 8 One example of 6 across (6) 12 Feeling of hatred (10) 14 Alpine flower, song from The Sound of Music (9) 16 Wash bear, or trash panda (7) 17 Orange fruit with black seeds (6) 18 Prowls (6) 21 Termite-eating Western Australian (6) 22 Photographs, for short (4) 25 The _ hypothesis of Lovelock (4)
1. A country received and understood 2. Hitler's criminal revealed 3. Sully's descent into revenant foe 4. Queen's: undo lace him! 5. Strangely prefer to cross river (not earnest) 6. Recently convicted in the end 7. MA given to romeo double with trashy drink
38 Winter 2022 | eusci.org.uk
+ writers Kevin Boyle, Charlotte Cody, Paige dePolo, Louisa Drake, Katie Dubarry, Hady George, Ellen Frances Heimpel, Feargus Jamieson-Ball, Alkisti Kallinikou, Madison MacLeay, Nicole Martinez, Yogesh Movendane, Elizabeth Orhadje, Alastair Scott, Hannah Smith, Jacob Smith, Vanessa Fernandez Vidueira, and Maureen Whalen
+ editors Arthur Erb, Liz Howell, Simar Mann, Maya Maxwell, Cat Pilkington, Arianna Schneier, and Sophia Schubert + illustrators Freya Aylward, Alyssa Brandt, Yen Peng (Apple) Chew, Laura Cooper, Christian Donohoe, Adelaide Grosse, Vishal Gulati, Isabel Key, Sharessa Naidoo, Amy Perks, Isha Prabhu Elizabeth Stroud, Kate Summerson, Kruthika Sundaram, Anima Sutradhar, and Toyo Vignal
We believe that science should be accessible and interesting to everyone, and a big part of that is quality science journalism. We believe that science stories – whether in print, online, or audio – can be both accurate, enlightening, and entertaining. All it takes is practice. Our mission is to provide a stepping stone into science journalism for anybody who agrees that you shouldn’t need a PhD to understand what’s going on in science.
Our community is open to anyone – you don’t have to be a science student (or even a student at all) to join us as a writer, editor or illustrator. Head to our website to find out more.
eusci.org.uk Join our mailing list to stay up to date with the latest opportunities:
If you want to support us, you can donate towards the printing cost of this magazine using this QR code. Note you must not be signed in as a student on EUSA.
Winter 2022| eusci.org.uk 39