Blogging: good or bad procrastination?

Okay, so I know I’m relatively new to the blogging world, but already I find myself loving it and continuously want to post and post and post…

Although I think it is a great way communicate ideas, opinions and funny facts, or just simply have a nosey at what everyone else is up to, I have been left thinking… is it a good or a bad distraction? For instance, I am currently meant to be starting a literature review for my PhD, however all I want to do is blog and write summary articles relating to current science news. At least the latter may actually help! 🙂

Let me backtrack a little so you’re up to date – I recently started writing articles for my old University newspaper, where I actually got a few articles published (shocked?! Me too!). They were only small articles, for example I did one on the development of breathalysers to detect Parkinson’s disease, but having them published is such a sense of achievement. This is a similar feeling I get when I post a new blog. It’s so great to see the views tallying up and having people I’ve never met before like my blog, or better yet, re-blog it! Knowing that people are reading my work and may like it or want to read more makes me feel proud and helps to boost my confidence – which is never a bad thing, despite what most people think!

So back to the requirements of my PhD… I have a deadline for Janurary, which may seem quite far away for now, but I am doing a PhD and that means I always have a lot going on. Nevertheless, it needs to be done and it is still important. But all I want to do right now is write about new science-related topics and make sure everyone knows about them. Being a newbie ‘SciCommer’ I am very much getting involved in wanting all audiences to understand about the science world and what kind of research is going on out there that could potentially help them one day. Or just attract their interest.

Even though blogging and writing articles is distracting me from my university work, is it really a bad thing?! I think not. Okay yes, I’m probably not spending as much time as I should be on my written projects, but I am fitting my writing around my lab work. This shows organisational and multi-tasking skillsgreat aspects to include on my CV. It also helps me to engage more with the news, keeping up to date with what is going on across the globe, a job I used to find quite difficult. What’s even better is that I am learning about all types of science, not just my own area of interest. I think this is imperative, as most jobs require a broad knowledge base and not just a specific understanding of a subject. Additionally, this allows me to develop and grow my intellect, adding to my scientific expertise. And last but not least, I am beginning to network and interact with fellow scientists, scientific communicators, students and lecturers, growing discussions and sharing ideas and opinions. I now find myself being more acquainted with different subjects in greater detail, enabling me to discuss these topics with co-workers, colleagues and lecturers, when previously I was nervous to do so as I felt inexperienced and that I lacked specific familiarity. I am also writing for my own selfish desires: because I enjoy it! And that can’t be a bad thing, surely?!



So taking all this into account, I think writing in an informal and ‘chatty’ manner, in contrast to the strict and awkward way in which we have to write to gain attention within University and the science world, is surprisingly helping my career in many ways. And even if it is classed as ‘procrastination’ in some people’s eyes, I believe it is good procrastination – disagree with me if you must!




Devon Smith

The University of Sheffield


The Dreaded PhD Suspension

The first year of my PhD was not dissimilar in many ways to most postgraduate students. I spent days on end ploughing through literature to gain an understanding of my topic, I produced a literature review and I experienced the multiple failures of research after spending a good seven months modifying my experimental approach. I am a keen sportsperson and played competitive football during my first year, as well as working every Saturday in a sports club for children and young adults with disabilities. On top of this, like most of us, I had a problem with saying no, and amongst other things, I decided to become an Academic Mentor and look after Undergraduate and Masters students in the lab.

As you can imagine it, was virtually impossible to keep this up and as my experiments now required observation 7 days a week…. I sadly decided to pack up my football boots! Towards the end of the first year the atmosphere amongst the postgrads took a nosedive, as we were approaching the dreaded PhD transfer. This entailed endless sleepless nights, as my transfer report was double the word limit and I was reluctant to remove any of it. After the transfer report came the VIVA and, I can say, I have never been so nervous in my life! Having said that, it went extremely well and I was given lots of suggestions, which I was keen to crack on with. At the same time my experiment was finally starting to work, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Success!

Another Monday morning came around and I got to university at 7.30am and I sat in the library for an hour, as I felt unwell. I went to the lab to check my experiments, but I knew something wasn’t right with me, and I was told by my lab manager to go home. After progressively getting worse on Tuesday I was taken to my doctors, and from then on everything was a blur. I was surrounded by doctors, injected in the buttock with Penicillin and rushed to hospital in an ambulance. When I arrived in A&E I was surrounded by so many doctors and nurses, and was told I was being treated for Meningitis. As a microbiologist it was the first time I felt knowing too much was not a good thing, and I thought I was going to die. I was placed in isolation and pumped with antivirals and antibacterial agents whilst my Doctor conducted a lumbar puncture. After laboratory analysis it was confirmed that I had viral meningitis, which was a relief to everyone – especially me. As I was lucky and only had viral meningitis, there was no treatment and I was given fluids, antiemetics (to prevent nausea) and pain relief and was warned of the intense recovery period. I was discharged a few days later.

After two weeks of being out of hospital, I received a call from my supervisor who suggested we suspend my PhD. I was inconsolable. I knew that suspending my PhD was almost inevitable, but I couldn’t help remember the blogs I’ve read stating that a suspension is a polite way of your supervisor telling you to get lost. What upset me the most was the length of time of my suspension, which was 3 months. In my head I had that I would be up and running within a month. But that was not the case at all. In fact, it has been the complete opposite.



Two months went by and I had made no significant improvement, so I went back to the back to the doctors who ran further tests. I was then told I was positive for Epstein-Barr virus, glandular fever and (if that wasn’t enough) I also had a urine infection. I was slowly sinking into a depressive state and I felt as though I would never feel well again. The recovery for glandular fever alone is up to a month, with fatigue lasting for up to seven months, so I certainly have a long way to go.

Asides from feeling continually ill for three months, not a day went by where I did not think about my PhD. I felt like my life had been put on hold and the world has gone passing by without me. I would see daily updates and advancements in my field of antibiotic resistance, and targets I had set myself (such as presenting at the SFAM September Conference) had been missed. I felt completely disconnected from the scientific world and my return to life as a researcher seemed further away than ever…

I am now approaching my return to the scientific world that I have felt disconnected from for the past three months. I have to say, I am slightly nervous. But, I have learnt that sometimes you cannot control what life throws at you, but having courage, strength and determination will allow you to overcome any obstacle you are faced with.


Lucky Cullen

Kingston University



News Round-up November 1st-7th

Bioscience news 1




Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Recently, the a fossil of a Ornithomimus dinosaur was found with preserved skin and feather structures, helping confirm the long-standing theory that some dinosaurs had feathers. The feather and skin patterns also help give insight into how these dinosaurs may have regulated their body temperatures.


Credit: J Csotonyi

Continuing with the fossil-related news, a new study proposed that limb-regeneration was ubiquitous in the ancestors of modern tetrapods. This means that this ability has likely been lost in most current tetrapod lineages. Keeping this evolutionary information in mind may lead to a better understanding of limb regeneration and why humans are not capable of this.

Limb regeneration

Antibiotic resistance is a problem in modern medicine, and one that threatens to undo all of the progress modern medicine has had regarding infectious disease. There are many different approaches to this problem, but a new approach harnessing currently used antibiotics and antibodies has proved very successful in rats, although it remains to be seen how successful it may be in humans.

Antibiotic Resistance

Credit: NIH/Wikimedia commons

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

Improving the sex lives of plants… and saving the world!!

Food security is defined as everyone having access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. This has been a concern for decades, and advances have been made toward reaching this goal. In the 1960s, the ‘Green Revolution’ saw grain production double in some countries thanks to new cultivars. Notably, this included dwarf wheat varieties developed by Norman Borlaug, who has been credited with saving one billion lives.

Once again, in 2015, we face an impending food crisis. Earth’s population has been booming at an unprecedented rate. In 2011, the Day of 7 billion was declared, and by 2050 we expect the Day of 10 billion. This will place a huge strain on agriculture. To have sufficient food, agricultural output needs to increase by approximately 60%. Currently, this output only increases at an average of 1.1% per year. And just to make it worse, climate change will bring a wave of issues all of its own!

So why are we struggling?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that can be produced within two years are still not permitted for human consumption in the EU, and so we are still largely reliant on traditional breeding methods. Developing crops this way can take decades. Why? It turns out that plants are not particularly good at recombining their genes; this is why we are interested in plant sex!

Specifically, we’re interested in meiosis: the production of gametes, during which inter-homolog recombination occurs, and genetic diversity is introduced. This shuffling of alleles is what the traditional breeding methods rely on. Yet our main food crops maize, rice, wheat, and barley have biological constraints on where these sites of recombination (crossovers) occur. In barley, for example, only the ends of the chromosomes recombine, leaving the gene-rich interstitial and proximal regions relatively untouched. This limits the genetic variation available to breeders.

We need to learn how to manipulate meiosis; we need to find key players in the recombination process, and work out if changing their role can allow us to harness all of the allelic variation available. The chromosome axis is a key area of current research, as it is proposed that where the axis bends when placed under torsional strain is what designates a crossover site. This is because crossovers cut straight through the chromosome axis in preparation for swapping that section of the chromosome with its homolog, therefore reducing tension in that area.

The questions we ask therefore relate to how we might be able to increase tension along the axis to induce the requirement for more crossovers. Related to this is the question of crossover interference: the phenomenon identified in 1914 that crossovers tend to form far away from each other due to ‘interference’. Can we manipulate how far the interference ‘signal’ spreads, allowing crossovers to form more closely together?

Agriculture is finally paying the price for years of selecting for homogeneity, and what we now require are tools to influence what genes we can introduce into new cultivars.

Plant sex is far more important than you might have thought!


Alice Darbyshire

The University of Birmingham


Can we make chicken limbs grow?

Most people only view chickens as a source of meat. A means to an end to make a nice, tasty stir fry or a heart-warming soup. However, over the past few years, I have been using them to understand more about the development of the muscles. I am interested in what controls and signals muscle development, essentially: can I grow limbs from basic tissue? If I succeed, such a technique could potentially be used in medicine to help amputees and people who suffer with muscle related diseases. What’s more, it also has potential uses in the food industry.

So why chickens? 

Much scientific research is carried out in models such as mice and rats, however for my research, this is not the case. My work uses chicken embryos. The use of chicken embryos poses fewer problems concerning animal welfare and early chick embryo development is very similar to that of other animals. They are so similar that at early stages it can be very difficult to tell the difference between chicken, human or reptile. Can you tell the difference? I use chicken eggs that are freshly laid and incubated until a certain stage of their growth. Because the embryos are sheltered in an egg, it makes them easy to handle, although if you drop one there is one big omelette on the floor…

Development of Muscles

The official term for muscle development is Myogenesis and it occurs during embryo development. Most of the muscles that form the main body and limbs originate from the mesoderm, one of the several types of tissue that can undergo differentiation. The process of differentiation is when a cell becomes defined to a particular tissue type (e.g. a muscle cell) and it beholds a specific job or function. Think of a student at university: their bachelor’s degree is very broad but is in a defined field, they then go on to do a masters learning about just one specific area. They can then go further, become more ‘defined’, and do a PhD.

Credit: Poultry CRC

Credit: Poultry CRC

During early development the mesoderm forms defined segments called somites. It is from these somites that muscle originates. Normal body (trunk) skeletal muscle forms due to various signals, however, development of the limb muscles uses a completely different set of signals. During limb development, young muscle cells (known as a myoblasts) that express a muscle marker known as Pax 3 move into the limb bud. This movement (or migration) only occurs at specific sites, just like bird migratory events only happen at certain times of the year. Once these young myoblasts have migrated they form two distinct muscle masses: the dorsal and ventral masses. Once these masses have formed, the myoblasts begin to differentiate and express specific markers of differentiated muscle, including Myf5 and MyoD. The muscles of the limb will then continue to grow and develop into the normal defined limbs that everyone recognises.

Why muscle development?

Muscle development provides an excellent model for developmental science. Up until now, research has focused on the regulation and development of somites, and the development of limbs is currently not understood. Nobody understands how limbs grow in such specific locations, therefore I aim to use muscle development in chicken embryos to shed light and understand the processes that regulate differentiation during my PhD project.


Helen Anderton

The University of Nottingham


When do you start saying no?

In my first year I said yes to everything. I began my PhD with the attitude that I would say yes to as many opportunities as I could, even if those opportunities scared me. Without knowing for sure what I want to do at the end of my PhD I felt (and was repeatedly told by the internet) that I had to acquire every skill, for every possible job, before I finished. Ok internet, challenge accepted. I got a position as a post-grad blogger for my University and eventually added my own personal blog to the mix. I maintained (and still do) my status as a Registered Scientist with the Royal Society of Biology, completing a minimum of 50 continuing professional development (CPD) points per year. I’ve attended and presented at conferences. I put myself forward as the PhD representative for my department’s Athena Swan working group. I became (and still am) a PhD tutor with the Brilliant Club. I demonstrate on several different undergraduate units within my department. I agreed to speak to the new intake of PhD students and share my experiences of PhD life so far. I take part in open days, doing outreach work both within the University and by going into schools. I made myself known as someone who’s willing to do these things, and as a result more of these opportunities came my way. I acquired a lot of very useful skills for my CV, the most important of these to me was the development of my writing and public speaking skills. Science communication is something I love and hope to pursue one day.

People started to ask how I managed to fit it all in, I don’t know I just made it work, and I enjoyed (and still enjoy) all the things I do. I’m not one of the magical people you see who seem to juggle everything beautifully, although thinking about it probably looks to other people like I have it all together. You might even think I am one of those people, and that just shows you that no one has it more together than you, you just think they do…



Earlier this year everything happened at the same time. My boyfriend and I bought our first house :), he had a knee operation :(, I was demonstrating for undergraduates and teaching two different Brilliant Club courses to two different age groups (they were short of a tutor and I stepped in to teach a maths course). I had to work a lot of Saturdays to keep up my lab work, and also had extra things to do at home as my boyfriend was on crutches. I kept going, and I managed to get it all done, but I decided then that I couldn’t keep saying yes to everything. My PhD and my work/life balance were suffering. Luckily with the summer coming up, everything naturally calmed down and I had a little room to re-group. Towards the end of the summer, as things began to pick back up, it was time to try saying no. I had a busy month in September with a conference, a presentation to give and I was also an invited speaker at an event as the result of my personal blog. The Brilliant Club didn’t have a Leicester (where I attend University) based school for me so I accepted a demonstrating opportunity with the University instead, but then a tutor dropped out. My first no was going to have to be to the Brilliant Club :(. It wasn’t easy, but I was professional and polite. My programme officer was understanding and appreciated the alternative offer I put forward of working with this school next term if no other tutor could be found. Basically I said no and they got it, they understood, and they didn’t chuck me out :).

Over the summer I was also asked by Devon and Stewart if I wanted to be a sub-admin on the BioSci PhD forum, I’d said I was interested earlier in the year but didn’t get round to applying before the deadline. I was flattered to be asked when a position came up and took some time to think it over. The chance to be involved with the forum was something I really wanted, but I also only wanted to do it well. It wasn’t something I wanted to half-arse. After talking it through with my boyfriend, we decided together that if I was going to do this something else would have to go. This was the start of my current “one-in, one-out” policy. Now, if I’m thinking about taking on something new, I assess it in the context of what I’m already doing. I said no to be a sub-admin, and Devon and Stewart couldn’t have been nicer about it. Instead they asked if I’d like to blog for them. This was a commitment I could fit in with what I already do, and here I am blogging away :). Saying no didn’t close a door for me, instead it opened the one next to it, the one that fit best with all my other open doors. Once again my decision to say no was respected and appreciated, and it lead to an opportunity I didn’t even know was out there.

Now I’ve learnt to say no without feeling (as) guilty, I have a better balance. At first I worried I was throwing away a lot of the hard work I’d put in early on, but experience has shown me that the relationships I’ve already built will, and do, continue to provide me with the chance to develop all the skills I hope to. If chances come your way I’d encourage you to take them, don’t say no just because you’re scared but please don’t feel guilty about turning some things down, it might even lead to something better.


Megan De Ste Croix

The University of Leicester


News Round-up October 19th-25th

Bioscience news 1





Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Ever wondered why cats have vertical pupils? A new publication suggests that animals’ pupil shapes really help them fit into their ecological niche. For example, grazing animals have horizontal pupils to allow them to see around them better, and the most interesting part is that even when they tilt their head, their pupils stay mostly horizontal!

Verticle pupils

New evidence suggests that life may have originated on Earth much earlier than we previously thought. If this is true, then life may develop much easier in the right conditions than we currently believe possible, so this raises questions about the probability of the prescence of life elsewhere in the universe.

Some geneticists from Johns Hopkins University got the chance to test a few things in zero-gravity. It seems that molecular biology is possible in these conditions, with the right equipment. A small sequencing run with a MinION was even completed!

Genetics in space

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up October 12th-18th

Bioscience news 1





Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

The hygiene hypothesis has been around for a while now. In order to develop a well-functioning immune system, children should be exposed to parasites, bacteria and viruses (both harmless and infectious) as they grow up. A recent study has discovered some evidence supporting this idea in mice. When young mice grew up in a sterile environment their gut microflora was less diverse, and their innate immunity (that is, their ability to fight off pathogens) was reduced in comparison to mice who were exposed to unsterile environments while growing up.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons Rama.

It is the belief (and hope) of many scientists that gene therapy will be the ‘gold standard’ of disease treatment. This week, it was announced that the world’s first trial of stem cell therapy will commence in the womb to alter the effects of brittle bone disease. Initial results have shown promise in fixing mutations in the gene required for producing collagen, with patients receiving follow-up boosters for 2 years after birth. Foetus at 20 weeks of age will be injected with stroll cells (connective tissue cells) containing the corrected, normal collagen-producing gene.

Stem Cell Therapy

Credit: New Scientist.

After analysis of many functional MRI images, researchers were able to identify individual participants in a study due to differences in their ‘neuronal fingerprint’. They also discovered that these patterns are associated with cognitive ability.

Neuronal fingerprint

There have been many studies in the past few years about how bad sitting is. Even if you exercise a lot, it is believed that extended periods of sitting can increase the risks of all kinds of (primarily) metabolic diseases. However, a comprehensive cohort study has now found no association between sitting behaviour and these disease outcomes. In health and epidemiology, cohort studies are seen as the gold standard, so it will be interesting to see if any more studies are conducted in this area…


Lately, there has been a bit of excitement in the hominid evolution field, and this article just adds to the interesting storybook of our origins. Scientists have presented new evidence of modern humans in China that predates any evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe. This potentially changes the human migration narrative and gives interesting insights into our past.

Credit: Nature.

Credit: Nature.

Gene therapy has long been discussed and explored as an avenue to cure certain diseases. A new paper brings hope to those suffering from glioma, a cancer that targets the protective cells of the nervous system. This paper focuses on using adenoviruses to specifically target glial cells, and to only express the desired gene(s) in those cells. This means these treatment vectors have two strict regulation points to prevent the therapy from wrecking havoc in healthy cells that do not need gene therapy.

Adenoviral therapies

For years scientists have wondered why bowel cancer is so hard to treat. This week it has become clear that bowel cancer is actually four separate cancers, with a mixture of similar genes that have influence on the behaviour of the cancer. With the variance of the genes, however, this has led to resistance towards certain treatments. It is now hoped that with these new findings will lead to the development of more precise and targeted treatments, which can be trialled to help treat bowel cancer.

Credit: Science Photo Library.

Credit: Science Photo Library.

Global climate change will likely result in a decrease in ocean biodiversity. This will impact the food-web, from small marine plankton to humans.

Credit: Julie Blommaert.

Credit: Julie Blommaert.

Who knew that bees also need a morning caffeine buzz? Well they do! Scientists have recently discovered that plants that provide bees with a dose of caffeine actually do it for their own benefit. Instead of delivering caffeine as a reward for spreading their pollen, as was once thought, the caffeine hit actually makes the bees honey production inefficient. Instead of producing honey, the bees go on the hunt for a caffeine fix, going back to the same plant in the hope of more caffeine. Instead they end up spreading more pollen, benefiting only the plant.

That morning buzzzzzz

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-Up October 5th-11th

Bioscience news 1

Hello, and welcome to the #bioscisews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Pitcher plants’ ant trap. Until recently, carnivorous plants fell into two classes, active and passive, based on how they ‘receive’ their prey. Venus fly traps are an example of ‘active’ carnivorous plants, while all pitcher plants were thought to be ‘passive’. However a species of pitcher plant has now been classified as a ‘free energy’ species, as it uses the force of raindrops hitting its unique lid, to fling ants into its pitcher for digestion.

ants crawling on a pitcher plant leaf

Image Source

Mammals flourish at Chernobyl. The human exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is acting as the perfect method of creating a virtually human free nature reserve, and a long-term study has found that mammals appear to be flourishing under these conditions.

Roe deer near Chernobyl nuclear power plant (c) Tatyana Deryabina

Image Source

Decline of the cactus? A global study has concluded that almost one third of cactus species are under threat, due to over harvesting, slow growth and small distribution range.

Carnegiea gigantea (Image: Craig Hilton-Taylor)

Image Source

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Stewart Barker                                                                                                                   The University of Sheffield                                                                                                     @Stewart_Barker