Category Archives: Blog

The BSA helps students try their hand at science journalism

Last week, on the 7th of March 2017, the Manchester Branch of the British Science Association held its first science journalism workshop. This day-long event was part of our ongoing science journalism competition – an activity we hope will inspire our next generation of scientists and communicators. It was funded in part by generous grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the BSA alongside free venue hire from The University of Manchester.

Through this contest we intend to raise awareness of the pitfalls and complications associated with science journalism by offering the students firsthand experience of how academic research makes the journey from lab bench to lay-literature. Students were invited to join us among the impressive pillars and stained glass of Manchester University’s Sackville street building Entrance Hall where they were introduced to six academics working at the university.

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Students came to us from six schools across Greater Manchester and the surrounding area including: INTO Manchester, Loreto Sixth Form College, Oswestry School, Trafford College, Winstanley College and Xaverian Sixth Form College. Many of these schools had also been involved in our 2016 contest which took a slightly different form. In 2016 we matched students with academics working on their subject of interest and facilitated online and phone interviews between students and academics. As a whole we were amazed by the quality of articles produced by students entering our 2016 contest but sadly not all students found this to be a positive experience. As any researcher probably knows, pinning down academics can be a bit like herding cats, and some of our 2016 students found it very difficult to interview their assigned researcher. So, after a bit of head scratching we chose to re-design the contest for 2017 to include a workshop day where all students got the chance to meet and interview our participating academics.

Our morning and early afternoon sessions saw each researcher give a 35 minute whistle-stop tour of their own field of study with an extra five minutes for student questions. We kicked off proceedings with Dr Nick Weise, Public Engagement and Programs Manager and Researcher at the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology:

As both an active researcher and engagement manager it was Nick’s job to introduce the students to the ins and outs of how to transform complicated scientific research into something fun and accessible for readers with no academic background. Nick gave some great examples and used an activity to show how two shockingly different headlines could easily be generated from the same research.

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Nick was closely followed by Dr David Mills from the School of Chemistry. David explained how he investigates the use of lanthanide elements for the development of single molecule magnets – this type of work may lead us into a new era of tiny tech. Specially for the event David also 3D printed a molecular model of his element of choice Dysprosium which was passed around the students.

Following this we all took a well deserved break for tea and biscuits and, during this time, the students were free to wander around and chat with the event organisers and researchers. It was great to see that a fair number of students took this opportunity to talk to our volunteers about their paths into academia and their experiences of science in the media. I was asked a particularly challenging question about when research should and shouldn’t be reported in the media – which is a question both academics and journalist battle with regularly and so far doesn’t have a simple answer to. I talked about the dangers of incorrect reporting of health risks and how this is one area of research which must be reported very carefully.

After our break Ellena Badrick took over and gave a really interesting talk about her work exploring the links between diabetes and cancer. As our only biologist, her talk was very popular and I made sure to slip in a question about how she thinks health risks should be reported.

Ellena was followed by Dr Liam Marsh who spoke about his work on intelligent metal detectors for locating and disarming land mines. Liam gave a really compelling account of the humanitarian elements of this problem, which set the scene for his work beautifully.

Over lunch we chatted more with students and their teachers who all seemed to be enjoying the day. One student pointed out that he was expecting the event to be really formal but was happy that everyone was instead relaxed and happy to just chat. I hoped that this helped in some way to dispel the myth that science is all about serious stuffy academics in white lab coats quoting equations.
After lunch Dr Alex Theodosiou spoke to the group about his involvement in a large-scale project investigating the best way to dispose of radioactive graphite following decommissioning of a nuclear power plant. His work beautifully highlighted how scientists from a whole range of backgrounds can often work together on one large project.

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Our final speaker Sarah Crowther discussed how she uses samples of extraterrestrial materials, including samples from the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets to learn about the formation and history of the Solar System. She also brought along some beautiful meteorite samples which the students were encouraged to have a better look at during our interview sessions.

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Then came the hard part. For the competition the students are expected to write a short lay-article based on the research of only one of our researchers. Therefore we wanted to give students the chance to interview their chosen researcher but, since we had around forty students and only five researchers (Nick didn’t participate in this section of the day since he had not spoken specifically about his research) we also needed to make sure everyone had a chance to ask questions.

We decided that small groups were the best way forward so chose to seat each of our five researchers around a separate table with spaces for eight students. We thought it would be nice if every student had the opportunity to meet and talk to each researcher in turn, so decided to move our groups of students around to a new academic every fifteen minutes. Of course, however, by this point the students had had a long day and were pretty tired so many didn’t want to talk with everyone. I worry I came across as a bit of a buzz-kill as I tried to make sure everyone stuck to our enforced game of musical chairs around the researchers. But, even though a number of students chose to leave after they met their chosen researcher, we overheard some really interesting discussions and everyone seemed to really  enjoyed this part of the day.

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Taking into account the long sign up process for schools and speakers, creation of work packs for every student, funding applications and event organisation its been an intense few months for our volunteers and we still have judging to come. So we want to thank everyone for the time and effort that they put into organising this event. However, it has also been immensely rewarding and we’re really pleased with how everything panned out.

I can’t wait to start reading the students entries!



Understanding cosmetic testing in the UK.

If we were to ask you which of the following high street brands use animals to test the cosmetic products they sell in their UK stores (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots, The Body Shop, Lush or none of these); what would your answer be?

Many of us will have seen Lush’s bag which boldly expresses the store’s dedication towards the fight against animal testing but what about the other four?

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You may be surprised to learn that none of these high street brands currently use animals to test their cosmetic products. In fact it has been illegal to test cosmetic products or any of their ingredients on animals in the UK since 1998 and an EU-wide ban has been in place since 2013. This means that no cosmetic product sold anywhere in the EU should include new ingredients tested on animals. Although many ingredients will have been tested at some point in the past before these legislations came into play.

If you didn’t already know this don’t feel bad, a recent survey carried out by ‘Understanding Animal Research’ found that only 38% of respondents were aware of these legislations. And, advertising in many stores can perpetuate the belief that some UK cosmetics are still tested on animals. Specifically, products marketed as ‘cruelty free’ or ‘not tested on animals’ may not technically be examples of false advertising but they do perpetuate the incorrect belief that some product sold in UK stores are still tested on animals.

Wendy Jarrett, CEO of Understanding Animal Research, said:

“The proliferation of ‘Not tested on animals’ or ‘Cruelty-Free’ logos has led many to believe that other cosmetic products sold on the UK market are tested on animals – something which has not been the case for 18 years. While animals continue to play a small but key role in medical developments, the UK has successfully eliminated such testing for cosmetics and, more recently, household products.”

This is undoubtedly a huge step forward and we are also heartened to know that the UK government is currently working with a number of non-EU countries supporting them to move away from cosmetic animal testing towards non-animal alternatives.

So, the next time you are out shopping for cosmetics or household products you can shop with the confidence that none of the products you see on the shelves will be tested on animals!

Post by: Sarah Fox


How a little Christmas spirit can be good for you

Faced with a disappointing combination of mild wet weather, long working days and the frustrating realisation that Costa have changed their Black Forest Hot Chocolate recipe (spoiler alert it’s no where near as tasty); this year Christmas spirit has so far eluded me. But, this mild winter malaise did get me thinking. What causes seasonal nostalgia, what does it look like in your brain and does it serve any beneficial purpose? So please enjoy a bit of Brain Bank festive research as we search for the true spirit of Christmas.

It has been suggested that the key to Christmas spirit may be familiarity and a sense of nostalgia for times long gone. Indeed, what gets the festive juices flowing more than cheesy Christmas movies, twinkling lights and festive family gatherings – experiences we most likely all share and repeat year after year. Krystine Batcho, nostalgia expert and professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, thinks that this bittersweet sense of seasonal nostalgia really embodies the Christmas spirit and that this feeling may also hold some emotional benefit.

But what exactly is nostalgia?

There was a time when nostalgia was though of as a physical illness. This was exemplified by feelings of home sickness experienced by young soldiers serving away from their families for the first time, often culminating in varying physical symptoms including anorexia resulting from loss of appetite. However, we now appreciate that nostalgia is actually linked with a range of emotions, both positive and negative. One study suggests that the predominant profile of nostalgia is a mix of happiness and sentimentality but, it is also recognised that this can be tempered by the sadness of loss and yearnings for a different time. One thing that is pretty much agreed upon however is that the feeling of nostalgia is universal, cutting across cultures, historical periods and developmental stages – even a child can be nostalgic.

Krystine thinks that nostalgia can also be beneficial. Specifically, she suggests that it helps us to maintain a constant sense of identity in the face of large and often traumatic life changes. It provides us with a tangible link to our own personal past and helps us remember who we are. In fact nostalgia is thought to peak in early adulthood, a time when transition and change can become a big part of our lives (think marriage, college, new jobs!).

The holiday season in particular can evoke strong feelings of nostalgia due to repeated experiences shared year on year. This is especially true in regard to relationships. So many of our holiday experiences centre around interpersonal relationships, family gatherings, religious traditions and cultural customs. Think of the festive classic “Driving home for Christmas” and the nostalgic feelings it summons up regarding reuniting with loved ones for the festive season. In fact, this form of nostalgia can help decrease feelings of loneliness by helping people feel connected to family again, even when they are not physically present.

So what is happening in our brains when we experience festive nostalgia?

One study by Kentaro Oba, from the Department of Frontier Health Science, Division of Human Health Science, Graduate School of Tokyo Metropolitan University, shows a relationship between memory and reward systems in the brain, specifically in relation to childhood nostalgia. This study observes co-activation of both the hippocampal formation and ventral striatum during nostalgic experiences. The connection also appeared to be stronger in people who report feeling a strong sense of nostalgia. This suggests that hippocampal memory and ventral striatum reward systems may work together to produce the beneficial and rewarding feelings linked with nostalgia. The researchers suggest that memory retrieval via the hippocampus during nostalgia can trigger a cascade of reward processes including activity in the hippocampal-VTA (ventral tegmental area) loop and culminating in release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is therefore speculated that, based on the function of this loop, memory and dopaminergic reward during nostalgia may be involved in psychological resilience. Specifically nostalgia strengthens the association between an autobiographical memory and the feeling of reward. This cycle can induce feelings of positivity and may help those experiencing nostalgia to overcome adversity.

Finally, when it comes to the Christmas spirit one group of researchers from Denmark used functional magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint how festive imagery can affect the brain. Although only four people took part in this unusual study, the work suggests that festive feelings may be linked with activation of the frontal, parieto-occipital and subcortical brain regions.

Perhaps Christmas is all in the mind but this is proof enough for me that festive feelings are probably good for you – so pass me another mince pie I think E.T is on TV….


What the frack?: An exploration of hydraulic fracturing in the UK.

For many years I’ve been skirting the sidelines of the debate on hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), occasionally dipping in and out of articles but usually concluding that I don’t know enough to make an informed decision. However fracking has now come to me, placing itself firmly on my doorstep – so I’ve decided it’s about time I did my research!

I live in Bury, a region in the north of Manchester which, according to the amusingly named website ‘Frack Off’, sits within what is known as an oil exploration block. This being an area of land, typically 1000s of square kilometres in size, which has been ‘awarded’ to an oil drilling and exploration company by the government. Apparently the lucky exploration company with control over my home turf is Hutton Energy.


The reason my home county is such hot property for energy companies is because the ‘British Geological Survey Gas-In-Place Resources Assessment of Bowland Shale’ has suggested that it sits above a large amount of, possibly gas rich, shale rock. Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock formed by compression of mud (mineral particles and organic matter) over time. It is also incredibly common, forming over 35% of the world’s surface rock. Over millions of years shale becomes buried deep within the Earth and, when it reaches depths of over 2 kilometres, heat and pressure cause organic matter within the shale to release methane gas – it is this ‘natural gas’ which can be harvested to generate electricity for domestic use. The problem with shale gas is that, unlike conventional gas supplies (such as those harvested in the North Sea) which collect in large reservoirs, the methane in shale is trapped by the fine grain structure of the rock. It is only when shale rock is drilled and fractured that the gas is released and can be harvested. This process of fracturing shale rock to harvest methane gas has caused an enormous stir, with supporters on both sides of the debate campaigning ferociously.

But what are the debates for and against this process and how relevant are these to fracking in the UK?

To understand these arguments it is first important to know what hydraulic fracturing really entails and there is no doubt that the process sounds particularly invasive. For starters, shale gas exploration companies will drill large boreholes down into gas-bearing shale rock. These holes will stretch thousands of miles below the surface of the ground and, in many cases, will continue horizontally through the shale rock. These boreholes are then lined with steel and concrete for stability and to limit leakage of fracking-related materials into the surrounding land. Next, a perforating gun is used in the lower segments of the borehole to make a number of small holes in the concrete casing – these holes are concentrated in the parts of the pipe sitting within the shale rock. Finally, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure down the borehole and out of the small holes in the concrete piping. This high pressure water mix causes fractures to develop in the shale rock, while sand within the water lodges in these cracks ensuring that they remain open and porous. This process allows gas trapped within the shale to flow out of the rock and then travel back up through the borehole to the surface for harvesting.

Supporters of this process argue that fracking in the US has significantly boosted domestic oil production, driven down the cost of gas and created many job opportunities. Those in favour also suggest that fracking can generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal – but, be aware that this figure varies depending on sources and that some argue that the atmospheric pollution caused by fracking is actually no better than that of traditional coal extraction. The benefits here are attractive for the UK, especially since our North Sea gas fields are reaching the end of their lives, most of our nuclear plants are planned to close by 2023 and a third of our coal-fired power stations are set to close by 2016 to meet European air quality regulations. So, we are undoubtedly in need of an energy boost. However, it is interesting to note that oil and gas industrial representatives recently told ‘New Scientist’ that “ it would take at least 10 years for the UK to produce a meaningful amount of shale gas, making it a poor substitute for dwindling North Sea production in the short term”

So is fracking fit for purpose, especially considering that many academics agree that a move towards renewable sources of energy is preferable?

Those opposed to the process argue strongly that fracking introduces too many health and environmental concerns to be a viable and safe source of energy. Specifically, many are concerned that methane gas and fracking chemicals could travel upwards through natural fractures in the rock, polluting underground aquifers and further contributing to global warming. It is also suggested that leaks in pipelines could lead to further aquifer pollution. These concerns are certainly valid, however to date there have been very few peer reviewed articles published suggesting that chemicals and methane released by the fracking process have reached local aquifers. It is also argued that these risks can be significantly minimised by strict regulations and regular monitoring. For example, thorough geological surveys should be carried out prior to exploratory fracking to detect pre-existing fractures, pipelines should be strongly reinforced and regularly monitored and chemicals used in the fracking process should be assessed and approved by the environmental agency.

Many opponents to the process also raise concerns that fracking may trigger earthquakes. Again, to date there have been few proven links between fracking and earthquakes. However, one of the few instances where this has been the case was in 2011 when two small earthquakes struck Blackpool close to an exploratory fracking site. Experts suggest that these quakes were caused by lubricated rocks slipping along a small fault line. Cuadrilla, the company in charge of the Blackpool site, propose that they will now monitor seismic activity around all their fracking sites and, if small quakes begin to occur, they will reduce the flow of water into the borehole, or even pump it back out preventing bigger quakes.

Indeed, many of the environmental and health concerns raised against fracking seem to be manageable given stringent regulation and proper monitoring – something which the UK government claim to take very seriously.

In my view more research is still needed to explore the validity of existing environmental concerns while stringent regulations must also be put in place before going forward with further exploratory work. This all leads me to one big question: can we trust those involved in the process to ensure this happens?

On a personal level I’m still not convinced, there does seem to be a strong vested government interest in moving fracking forward – in some cases this is happening to the detriment of local councils and areas of natural beauty. In my mind urgency is the mother of mismanagement so, until I’m convinced that fracking in the UK will be properly managed, local communities will be consulted and engaged as part of the process and this will not be used as an excuse to slow down on development of more sustainable energy resources I think I will remain skeptical.

Post by: Sarah Fox, @FoxWoo84

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