Lead: What do people know?

By Natalie Lamb, PhD Student at The University of Sheffield and Anglian Water, and chair of the Royal Society of Biology East Anglia branch

Most people in the UK are aware that lead is a problem. The presence of lead can have an adverse impact on mental development and may be a factor in behavioural problems. W
hen people in the UK think of the health hazards surrounding lead, they often think of paint or petrol, because these sources have been very publicised, both through official sources like the HSE and through the media. There have even been claims that removing lead from petrol has sparked a decline in crime! But I don’t think people often associate lead with water and in particular would not expect lead to be in water in the UK today.
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Returning to work after a career break? The four things you should know

By Dr Ruth Griffin, lecturer in biochemistry and genetics at Kingston University

Being a parent, I have come across many professionally accomplished full-time mums at school, yet so few have returned to their career. Particularly in science, there is a misconception that it is impossible to get back in if you’ve taken a career break, as the sector is very competitive. My advice is: if you are considering returning, please know that research today is suffering without you, and the contribution you can make is much needed.

When, out of the blue, I was struck with illness; I thought my career was over. Six years later, however, I returned to academia and I now work as a full time lecturer at Kingston University, where I run my own research group in medical molecular microbiology.

For those who are contemplating returning to a career in science, here are some of the things this experience has taught me:
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How can we adapt to climate change?

By Barney Slater AMRSB, BBSRC PhD student at University of Cambridge and policy intern at the Royal Society of Biology.

Global climate change is an increasing threat for the UK. Research shows an average temperature increase of almost 1C over the last 50 years in the UK, and climate projections predict that this could climb by 2.5-3C by 2100. In 2008, the Climate Change Act was passed, part of which requires the Government to carry out a Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), every 5 years. This takes recent research evidence and uses it to identify the most pressing risks to the UK made by climate change, along with a plan to prepare and adapt. The latest CCRA was published last month, highlighting six major risks to the UK, and setting out the Government’s plans to increase resilience.
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Here’s to Hypatia: the world’s first female superstar scientist

By Tom Ireland MRSB, editor of The Biologist and managing editor at the Royal Society of Biology.

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day for celebrating the contributions of women to scientific progress and for inspiring girls to consider careers in STEM subjects. It’s a day to celebrate the great female scientists of our time and centuries past: Mary Anning, Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall to name just a few in the biosciences.

Hypatia of Alexandria, sketch by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

But arguably the world’s first superstar female scientist lived and worked in fourth century Alexandria, then the great intellectual and cultural centre of the Byzantine Empire.

Hypatia (355-415 AD) was the first female mathematician whose work we know about. As well as being a charismatic lecturer and teacher, she was also an astronomer and philosopher – activities that were almost unheard of for a woman to be delving into in ancient Egypt. She invented equipment for scientific experiments, and became head of a famous school of philosophy. People would come from miles around to hear her speak.

She was basically the Brian Cox of the ancient world.

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Seven surprising sunfish facts

By Natasha Phillips, PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast studying the diet & behaviour of ocean sunfish.

Last summer Natasha spent two months studying ocean sunfish in Camogli, Italy, with the support of a Travel Grant from the Royal Society of Biology. Grants applications for 2017 are currently open.

Over the last two years I have seen hundreds of sunfish and these close encounters have given me plenty of opportunity to note a few things about their unusual behaviour. Here are the seven strangest things I have learned about sunfish so far:

Cheeks puffed out pre-grunt

 1. Sunfish are noisy! It may sound strange, but fish really can make noises (a useful communication tool in the marine environment as sound travels more easily through water than air). Our sunfish grumble (a lot!) in a disgruntled fashion, especially when we weigh them, (but then no-one likes having their weight read out loud I suppose?)

2. They can throw mucus a distance of several feet! I’m pretty sure this is an unintended consequence of being very mucus-y fish with powerful flapping fins, so if anyone else is planning on working with them, beware of flying gunk – it gets everywhere: clothes/arms/ears/hair etc. eugh. Read more »

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Survey finds fewer than 300 Scottish wildcats remain in Highlands

By Vicky Burns, Scottish Wildcat Action

Vicky previously blogged about Securing the future of Scottish Wildcats, here she updates us on SWA’s monitoring and protection work.

Image: Scottish Wildcat Action

Scottish wildcats are our only remaining native cat species, and they perform an important function in a healthy ecosystem. They are also part of our cultural heritage in Scotland, with some clan crests featuring the species. Wildcats in Scotland are near the brink of extinction, with a recent estimate based on a range-wide trail-camera survey putting the figure at around 100-300 left in the wild.

After extensive survey work using 347 trail cameras, Scottish Wildcat Action found at least 19 wildcats in the Scottish Highlands based on coat markings (also known as pelage scoring). With the help of 150 fantastic volunteers, the huge task of sorting approximately 200,000 images from the trail cameras used last winter/spring is now complete and the data is being analysed using capture-mark-recapture models. Somewhat less intensive survey work will continue but this vast bank of data is helping staff on the ground to target their conservation efforts. As well as wildcats, the trail cameras also showed where feral cats and hybrids are living wild. An extensive Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Return programme is currently underway, in a huge effort to prevent feral and obvious hybrid cats from breeding with wildcats and passing on their diseases. Read more »

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The Physics of Freezing Frogs

By Ellie Welch, science media researcher at STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source

Water is the most ubiquitous substance on the planet, not only covering 70% of the Earth’s surface but also being the most abundant substance found in living things. However, our understanding of water on the molecular level is still limited. Researchers are using a number of techniques, including neutron studies, to further understand the properties and dynamics of water.

Using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source in Oxfordshire, researchers from the University of Leeds have been looking at water at low temperatures, and its interaction with glycerol, nature’s answer to antifreeze. Glycerol is an example of a cryoprotectant molecule, which prevents damage occurring to cells, tissues, or other biological material when it is cooled to very low temperature for preservation (cryopreservation).
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Plant Health Studentships: opportunities for undergrads and providers

Dr Celia Knight FRSB, plant science education and employability consultant, shares her thoughts on undergraduate opportunities.

What does a summer studentship mean to an undergraduate?

When considering whether to undertake a summer research studentship, placement, internship or work experience, undergraduates might wonder:

  • Does applying for a research studentship mean you have to know you want to do a PhD?
  • If you are an intern, should you expect to be paid?
  • Do placements mean you do a year out or year abroad?
  • Does work experience mean you don’t want an academic career?

Sometimes the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ – but it doesn’t have to be! Read more »

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Can humans smell sex pheromones?

Dr Alfredo Sansone MRSB, research associate at University College London, introduces us to sex pheromones and scientists’ 40 year quest to discover if humans can smell them.

You might have heard about pheromones in the news or in some advertisements claiming that a perfume will make you irresistible, however, many people don’t know what pheromone means. The definition of pheromone dates back to 1930s, when they were first discovered in insects. At the time it was found that a molecule, or a mix of molecules, released by an individual can affect the behaviour of another individual of the same species, often triggering a sexual response. These molecules normally function via the sense of smell. In insects the effect of a pheromone can be very straightforward, and even different for the two sexes, meaning that the same molecule can inhibit mating behaviour in a male fly, but promote mating in a female. Read more »

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Helping urban agriculture take root

Sam Lane AMRSB looks at some of the technologies and policies that will help cities grow their own food.

What if I told you there was a way to meet growing demands for food security, reduce causes of climate change, shrink supply chains and improve public health? Well, some think that urban agriculture might just be the answer, and plant biologists are in a prime position to get involved.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with food security. London, a city of nearly eight million people, only has food stores for three to four days – if supply was disrupted- which is the worst of any European city according to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London. Across the country, malnutrition has risen by over 50% since 2010. As more of the world’s population continues on a trend of urbanisation, urban food security is a growing issue, and the impact of poor diets is a growing legacy of ill-health. Read more »

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