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Insight blog

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

Racing sperm at a different kind of festival

6 Sep 2012

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Vicky Young and her fellow PhD student Gemma Sharp from the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health can often be found toting a two-metre model of a womb around the country, most recently at the Green Man festival in August. Here Vicky tells us what they get out of their unusual science communication activity, and how children and adults alike learn from ‘sperm racing’.

I never thought that when I was accepted to do a PhD I would spend my weekends making a giant model of a uterus to race sperm through, or that I’d then be invited to music festivals to race these sperm.

But that’s what I found myself doing at this year’s Green Man Festival in Wales, where we returned to Einstein’s Garden, part of the festival full of performances, workshops, musicians, crafts and activities based around science and nature. We’ve been running the Egg and Sperm Race for 18 months now and it basically does what it says on the tin — we race sperm. [...]

Continue reading: Racing sperm at a different kind of festival

A meeting of young minds

4 Sep 2012

Discussing a poster (Credit: Eliot Bradshaw)

Delegates deep in discussion over a poster (Copyright: Eliot Bradshaw)

PhD student Kathryn Bowles is researching the role of cell signalling in Huntington’s disease at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity to get together and discuss neurodegenerative research with other early-career researchers, she took matters into her own hands and organised a symposium of her own.

As a student pipetting my way through the second year of my PhD, why on earth would I decide it’s a good idea to hold a national symposium for other early-careerscientists? To plump up my CV? To practise my already-impressive ‘to do’ list writing skills?

Admittedly, both of those were a factor. Most importantly though, I thought it was something that young scientists needed. Most conferences we go to are dominated by our supervisors and star ‘names’ in the field. We could do with the chance to discuss our work with our peers, without the intimidation of more senior scientists. [...]

Continue reading: A meeting of young minds

Aiming high

31 Aug 2012

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King's College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Professor Declan Murphy studies the link between abnormal brain development and autism. He spoke to Sarah Harrop about leading EU AIMS, the biggest individually-funded autism research project in the world and follow-on from his work on the major MRC-funded study UK AIMS.

Why do autism research?

Autism is much more prevalent than we once thought: we used to think it affected around one in 120 people but we now know it’s more like one in 80. Whether cases are increasing or we’re diagnosing it differently, we’re much more aware that autism must be addressed. Having autism significantly increases your risk for other serious mental health problems such as ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders.

We’re also beginning to understand the enormous cost of autism, both to the individual and to society. In terms of economic burden, it’s the most costly neuropsychiatric disorder currently in the US and the UK. [...]

Continue reading: Aiming high

£60m to unravel genes and disease

29 Aug 2012

The MRC has awarded £60m over five years to the MRC Human Genetics Unit and the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM) at the University of Edinburgh. This video, produced by the University of Edinburgh, explains how researchers will use this funding to look at the genetics that underlie diseases such as melanoma and heart disease, and incorporate what they learn into diagnosing and treating patients. [...]

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Profile: Qing-Jun Meng

21 Aug 2012

Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng is an MRC fellow at the University of Manchester. He told Katherine Nightingale about his research into biological clocks, their role in age-associated conditions, and how they offer a whole new way of looking at disease.

How does a Chinese flight surgeon end up researching biological clocks in Manchester? In the early 2000s, Qing-Jun Meng was advising pilots and medical officers for astronauts in China’s burgeoning space programme. Now he’s halfway through an MRC fellowship researching how changes in the body’s circadian rhythm during ageing cause disease.

The two fields aren’t actually so different, says Qing-Jun. “It sounds like discipline hopping but some of the lectures I gave to pilots were about body clocks and jet lag. That was when I first got interested in the field.”

Frustrated by the lack of opportunity to do cutting edge research, particularly that which would benefit people, Qing-Jun began applying for postdoc jobs abroad. His acceptance to work in vascular tissue engineering at Manchester Royal Infirmary was the first step; a second step just down the road to the University of Manchester landed him in biological clocks, where he’s remained ever since. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Qing-Jun Meng

Profile: Amy Foulkes

16 Aug 2012

Amy Foulkes

Amy Foulkes (Image copyright: Amy Foulkes)

Amy Foulkes is a dermatologist and MRC fellow based at the University of Manchester. She told Katherine Nightingale why she is passionate about personalising treatments for the skin disease psoriasis.

Amy Foulkes never wanted to do science for the sake of it. When she was younger, she wanted to work in disease control. “I thought I wanted to work with dangerous infectious diseases in a lab,” she says.

She chose to intercalate immunology into her medicine degree at the University of Nottingham, but a few months of investigating immune cells in the lab without a clear sight of how this would help people made her reconsider her plans to go into research. Then during her house officer rotation in Edinburgh, she spent time in various hospital units that had a research focus. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Amy Foulkes

Inside Westminster

14 Aug 2012

Theresa Dahm

Theresa Dahm outside the Houses of Parliament (Image copyright: Theresa Dahm)

Theresa Dahm, a PhD student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, recently spent three months as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. So just how different were the halls of Westminster from life in the lab?

This summer I traded my life as a PhD student in Cambridge for life as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. And what a trade it was! I may be used to criticising research papers, but scrutinising government was a whole new challenge.

The world of policy-making seemed at first to contrast sharply with the research environment I was so used to. I went from managing my own long research project, with its looming but fairly intangible deadline, to working closely with members of a tight-knit committee and meeting deadlines every week. I also left behind the comfort of being a specialist in my research area (how depression affects self-control) to work in an area I had little knowledge of: an inquiry into the regulation of medical implants. Armed with a licence to ask questions and the need to learn a lot and fast, I set to work. [...]

Continue reading: Inside Westminster

Profile: Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

9 Aug 2012

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra is an MRC fellow studying the use of ‘out-of-pocket’ payments for healthcare at Imperial College London’s Centre for Health Policy. He told Katherine Nightingale about why he wants to use economics to improve healthcare, and why that means putting up with more rain than he’s used to.  

No one could accuse Rodrigo Moreno-Serra of hiding himself away in an ivory tower. The health economics researcher is clear about his aim to make sure that the fruits of his research make it to decision-makers — and eventually to the public that needs it.

Having grown up in the emerging economy of Brazil, Rodrigo has seen the impact of an underdeveloped health system, and is keen to make sure that his economics expertise is used to improve the way that health systems are run.

“If you are a researcher it is very exciting to see that the results of your research are being taken into account. I don’t want to only be publishing in nice journals that stay on a shelf, I want to influence policy,” he says. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Wallpaper, wax and paper DNA: the tools of a mini scientist

7 Aug 2012

Mini Scientists at the Edinburgh Science Festival

Mini Scientists at the Edinburgh Science Festival

MRC Regional Communications Manager Hazel Lambert reveals a little of what goes into preparing research for curious ‘mini scientists’, just one of the activities in which MRC researchers share their expertise with thousands of people at UK science festivals every year.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are flooded with rain so wellies are essential for walking in Scotland’s cities today. I leave mine at reception in the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit where I’ve come to meet researchers who’ve been developing a game they call Health and the City. I’m looking for new ideas for Mini Scientists, the MRC lab at the Edinburgh International Science Festival where MRC-funded researchers help kids aged seven and over explore stem cells, DNA and even cell-signalling with the help of play-doh and cuddly brain cells.

PhD student Gillian Fergie shows me a tower block and tenement she has improvised out of wooden blocks and laminated paper to represent Glasgow’s housing. Using a blank roll of wallpaper liner as our city backdrop, and interlocking sections of toy road, cars and trees, we think about how we can share public health research with festival-goers. [...]

Continue reading: Wallpaper, wax and paper DNA: the tools of a mini scientist