Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
1 Oct 2014
Christoffer van Tulleken
In his winning article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2014, Dr Christoffer van Tulleken tells us what a chicken has got to do with HIV, and how his research studying how the virus interacts with machinery inside our cells may, or may not, lead to new drugs.
The most important chicken in medical history was a Plymouth Barred Rock Hen from New York. The chicken’s name is not recorded but in 1911 she was brought by her owner to a young pathologist called Peyton Rous because of a large tumour growing out of her neck.
Rous subsequently performed a series of experiments so elegant it is hard to believe he didn’t know what he was looking for. He showed that the filtered extract from the tumour, containing no actual tumour cells, could cause more tumours in another chicken. Rous had discovered a type of virus that can cause cancer called a retrovirus. [...]
Continue reading: How 100-year-old research could help patients with HIV
24 Sep 2014
It’s been more than a year since we launched Worm Watch Lab, a citizen science project in which people watch videos of tiny nematode worms. So what’s been spotted in the intervening year? Vicky Butt, a summer student in the Behavioural Genomics Lab at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, brings us up to date and explains why we need your help more than ever.
It’s been a busy year for the Worm Watch Lab. Since going live on 25 July 2013, 6,500 people have watched videos of nematode worms laying eggs almost 200,000 times.
Just like other Zooniverse projects ― such as Galaxy Zoo ― anyone can sign up to be a worm watcher. The idea is that they watch 30-second videos of the worms, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), and press ‘z’ on their keyboard whenever they see the worm lay an egg.
Impressive worm-tracking cameras attached to microscopes make videos of each worm strain. There are more than 300 strains, each with a different mutation. But why are we looking at the worms like this? It’s because looking at how the mutation affects egg-laying is an easily visible way of getting clues about what the mutation does. [...]
Continue reading: Worm Watch Lab: one year on
29 Jul 2014
Last month it was announced that from September 2014 all seven research councils will use the Researchfish tool to collect information from their researchers. As the questions Researchfish will ask researchers are revealed, MRC Evaluation Officer Ellen Charman explains what the move means for MRC-funded researchers.
In a couple of months, the remaining research councils will be joining the MRC and STFC in using Researchfish to collect information on the outputs and impact of research.
So what? I hear you ask… Well, practically, there is little change for MRC researchers. The system remains open to enter data at any time and this year’s data submission period will go ahead as planned, opening on 16 October and closing on 13 November.
To take into account the addition of five extra research disciplines, there will be some minor changes to the question set.The majority of these changes are to the guidance and help text; however there are a few additional questions where we’ll ask for more detail, for example, the type of further funding and the purpose of an engagement activity.
There is also a new opportunity for you to tell us about your creative side, which Professor Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London might have found helpful last year when letting us know about his 2012 stage performance — ‘Our germs, our guns: an uneasy peace’ — at the Albert Hall Theatre in Brussels. [...]
Continue reading: Fishing with the same rod
29 May 2014
Martin Christlieb (Image copyright: Martin Christlieb)
MRC researchers get involved in all kinds of activities that help members of the public engage with medical research. From extracting DNA from strawberries to looking at cells under a microscope, there is an array of hands-on experiments to guide people through. But Dr Martin Christlieb, the public engagement manager for Oxford’s Department of Oncology, thinks that engagement works best when researchers introduce people to their own research. Here he explains why.
If you want to engage people with science you’ll need to entertain and convince as well as inform and educate. That takes passion. You’re most likely to display passion if you feel it, and that means talking about the science that gets you out of bed each morning.
That means talking about your work: you care about your work, right? You know that what you do is important, and that what you do is part of a bigger picture of understanding how to tackle disease.
The money that funds research comes from public sources; funding councils distribute money taken in tax, and charities the money they collect in donations. A scientist’s part of the deal must be to make an effort to communicate what we’re doing, how it’s going, and what impact it might make. [...]
Continue reading: Let’s talk about me ― making your science the focus
21 May 2014
James Rowe (Image copyright: James Rowe)
MRC-funded research into how the brain processes music was the topic of the winning entry to the Europe PubMed Central ‘Access to Understanding’ science writing competition, announced in March. Here Dr James Rowe from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit tells us about the research, what it means to him, and why he made sure it was published on an open access basis.
I was delighted when I learned that Elizabeth Kirkham had chosen to write about our article in the EuropePMC writing competition, and even more so when it won. This paper was special to me for lots of reasons, over and above its scientific merit.
First, it represented an unexpected but highly productive and enjoyable collaboration with Dr Jessica Grahn, linking my work at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Such innovative studies are greatly helped by core funding to the unit from the MRC, which encourages creative dialogue between scientists. [...]
Continue reading: Opening up research
12 May 2014
Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.
Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”
He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.
His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited. [...]
Continue reading: Max Perutz: science communicator
19 Dec 2013
2013 has been a big year for the MRC, marking 100 years since our founding committee met for the first time to plan the spending of public money on medical research. We’ve achieved much since then, and throughout the year we celebrated the past, present and future of the MRC. Here Centenary coordinator Adrian Penrose provides a snapshot of highlights from our Centenary year, shoehorned into a familiar format …
Twelve groups celebrating
We’ve held 12 events this year in the UK celebrating our Centenary with MRC staff and our wider community. The MRC is a large organisation, funding and carrying out such a range of research, so we wanted to get people together to share their knowledge. Activities included the broadcast of films about past and present MRC research at the London event, hands-on fun activities in Edinburgh, a Centenary Quiz and photography competition in Cambridge, and a special sciSCREEN-style screening and discussion of The Nightmare Before Christmas in Cardiff.
Eleven scientists writing
We shortlisted 11 MRC-funded early-career researchers for this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award held at the Science Museum in London. Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, presented the £100 Centenary Prize to Helen Keyworth for her article Running Away from Addiction, while Peter Kilbride won the Centenary challenge of describing where his research area would be in 100 years. [...]
Continue reading: The 12 days of the MRC Centenary
21 Nov 2013
Networking tool, forum for debate, a way to reach people you wouldn’t ordinarily … reasons for using social media such as blogs and Twitter are many and various. Researchers are probably used to hearing how they ‘should’ be using social media, but some have probably heard just as many scare stories about wasted time or tweet-based slip-ups. So what’s in it for scientists? We asked three researchers to explain what they get out of using social media: so you can hear straight from the horse’s mouth.
Suzi Gage is a PhD student at the University of Bristol looking at relationship between drug use and mental health. She writes a blog called Sifting the Evidence for The Guardian’s science blog network.
[Video link for access] (Video produced by Emma Howell, University of Bristol) [...]
Continue reading: Why do scientists use social media?
29 Oct 2013
Members of the public at T in the Park: the festival atmosphere lent itself to open discussions about stem cell research (Image copyright: Hope Beyond Hype)
Often communicating science is about going where people are, rather than expecting them to come to you. The people behind Hope Beyond Hype, a project based at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, took that advice to heart this summer, touring Scottish festivals with their tales of stem cell biology and medicine. Here Public Engagement Manager Cathy Southworth reports back.
Some time ago, while working during the summer as a play leader, I became quite adept at painting butterflies and tigers on the faces of young Liverpudlians. Who would have thought that two decades later an opportunity would arise to hone these latent skills on the festival-going Scottish public? It turns out that face painting was ideal for setting up a relaxed context for some interesting chat about stem cell biology.
Engaging people with stem cell research was our aim this summer as we embarked on a five-festival run across Scotland, taking in The Royal Highland Show, T in the Park, Tiree Music Festival, The Wickerman Festival and The Cowal Highland Games. [...]
Continue reading: Stem cells, face paints, and Highland shows
24 Oct 2013
David Willetts and Nick Dand
Nick Dand, a PhD student at King’s College London, explains his research developing tools to find the genetic mutations that cause rare diseases. This article was commended for the 2013 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
Finding a needle in a haystack is – presumably – not easy. But in theory, with enough time and a lot of patience most of us could probably manage it, especially if we cheated a bit (with a magnet?). So let’s make the problem harder. Now we’ve lost our needle in a haystack which already happens to contain hundreds or thousands of other needles, all subtly different in shape or size. Even if we can pull out all of the needles we’re stuck: how can we find our needle when they all look so similar?
Identifying the genetic mutations that cause rare diseases feels a lot like the “too many needles” problem.
Recent technological breakthroughs mean we can now read a person’s entire genetic code, the blueprint found in every cell that guides how our bodies develop and function. It is a sequence of three billion nucleotides (which can be A, C, T or G) and is organised into units called genes, each having a specific function. Most of the code is identical from person to person (that’s what makes us all humans) but a tiny fraction can vary (that’s what makes us different humans). [...]
Continue reading: Rare genetic disease: a haystack full of needles