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UCL events news and reviews


Lunch Hour Lecture: Bones, mummies, tuberculosis and ancient DNA

By Ella Richards, on 18 March 2016

As World Tuberculosis Day approaches on 24 March, Dr Helen Donoghue (UCL Clinical Microbiology) ends this term’s series of Lunch Hour Lectures by looking back at 9,000 year old tuberculosis DNA.


MTB via Flickr

What is tuberculosis 

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) that spread via aerosol and primarily affects the lungs.

Although there are current health scares about antibiotic-resistant strains of TB, due to modern sanitation, vaccination programmes and antibiotics there have not been any major TB epidemics in the UK in the 21st century. However, it is currently estimated that one third of the world’s population is infected with various strains of MTB. These infections often pass under the radar because the majority of them are latent, meaning that the infected person does not have any symptoms of the disease.

TB is one of the world’s oldest diseases, in part due to this high level of latency. There are multiple strains of MTB, all associated with differing areas of the globe. What is striking about these strains is that people with TB generally carry the strain of MTB associated with their ethnic origin, despite their current location.

For Dr Donoghue, this is evidence that MTB has evolved with humans. She argued that in the Neolithic and Palaeolithic periods, when humans lived in small populations, pathogens that were highly infectious and killed their hosts quickly failed to survive as they would simply wipe out tribes. In contrast, MTB’s combination of high latency rates and virulence means that carriers transmit the disease before dying.

What’s more, evolving with humans has meant that there are numerous strains of extinct MTB, as well as extant MTB. The research conducted by Dr Donoghue and her team means that new methods are being perfected to analyse these extinct, ancient strains. (more…)

Lunch Hour Lecture: Ovarian cancer screening — the long journey

By Ella Richards, on 15 March 2016

Will effective screening for ovarian cancer, one of the most common cancers affecting women, ever become a reality?

A group of researchers started to reach for this goal more than 30 years ago. As Professor Usha Menon (UCL Institute for Women’s Health) explained in her Lunch Hour Lecture, determining a method of diagnosing early stage ovarian cancer is almost in touching distance.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is cancer of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, and it is the fifth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women in Europe.

Unfortunately most ovarian cancer patients do not have clear symptoms in the early stages of the disease, meaning that 55% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in stage III or IV, when the cancer is harder to treat.

Moreover, there is a 90% survival rate when ovarian cancer is diagnosed at stage I, however only a 5% to 20% survival rate for five years when diagnosed at stage III or IV. (more…)

Lunch Hour Lecture: Reproduction without sex — what does technology have to offer?

By Ella Richards, on 15 March 2016

Professor Joyce Harper’s (UCL Institute for Women’s Health) International Women’s Day Lunch Hour Lecture discussed the often taboo subject of scientific involvement in reproduction, why people choose to reproduce without sex and how science can solve reproductive issues.


Professor Joyce Harper

Why is there an increased focus on reproduction without sex?

Professor Harper was blunt: “Unfortunately, as women, we aren’t well designed. As you sit here, in this lecture theatre, you are becoming more and more infertile with every minute that slips by, and after 35 years your fertility decreases significantly. By 42, it is very difficult to get pregnant, by 45 it is almost impossible.”

“Evolution has not kept up with feminism.” Across the world, and especially in developed countries such as the UK, women are delaying having children until their 30s. Twenty-first century opportunities mean that women are busy doing other things in their 20s, such as travelling and enjoying their career, rather than settling down and having children at the age that their mothers or grandmothers did.

This means that when women try to get pregnant in their 30s they are often surprised by reproductive issues and they come to IVF clinics at an average age of 38. (more…)

Lunch Hour Lecture: Still Lives — Death, Desire and the portrait of the Old Master

By Ella Richards, on 4 March 2016

Dr Maria Loh (UCL History of Art) opened her Lunch Hour Lecture on Renaissance self-portraits with a very contemporary comment on self-presentation.

“Hair matters”

Speaking as Hillary Clinton campaigns to be the next President of the United States, Dr Loh quoted Clinton’s Yale University commencement speech from 2001: ”hair matters…Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world… Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

Dr Loh argued that Clinton’s words resonated more widely than we might realise. Showing the theatre the evolution of David Beckham’s hair and reminding us of the message that Britney Spears sent out when she shaved all of her hair off, Loh noted that the hairstyle of a Roman bust is often a key indicator of the period of the sculpture.

Renaissance self-portraits

Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556

Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556
via Wikimedia Commons

With this in mind, Loh presented her first old master: Sofonisba Anguissola.

Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the great portrait artists of the Renaissance period and Dr Loh argued that in an early self-portrait Anguissola sought to make her ambitions clear.

She stands with neatly parted hair holding a shield that declares “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted in her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona”, an explicit act of self-presentation that directs the onlooker’s interpretation of her image.

Anguissola’s desire to control her own image was a lifelong trait. When Anthony Van Dyck painted Anguissola in her 90s, she told him to not position the light in the portrait too high lest the “shadows in the wrinkles of old age should become too strong.” (more…)