X Close



UCL events news and reviews


UCL cohorts, biobanks and big data

By ucyow3c, on 29 March 2017


Written by Rob Davies, Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, UCL Institute of Education

What are the opportunities and challenges facing cohort and longitudinal studies? Do we need more biobanks or more extensive (and imaginative) use of existing ones? What more can we do to capitalise on administrative records and other forms of big data?

These were some of the questions discussed at UCL cohorts, biobanks and big data symposium, which brought together researchers from across UCL and further afield to showcase activity in this area.

CohortsNo other country in the world is tracking as many people and in such detail throughout their lives

Professor Dame Anne Johnson introduced the afternoon and how the cohort studies are a resource not just for the nation but for the world.  More than 2.2 million people in the UK are currently participating in population based cohort studies, with 15 of these hosted at UCL.

These include the oldest and newest cohort studies and CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium, which is charged with maximising their use, value and impact both at home and abroad.

Past, present and future: innovation in cohort studies

This first session began with Helen Pearson, author of The Life Project, who explained how a chance encounter with the MRC 1946 National Survey of Health and Development Cohort website, the largest study of human development in the world, led to five years researching and writing about the British cohort studies.

“The cohort studies have influenced and shaped policy on pregnancy, birth, schooling, adult education, foetal development, chronic conditions and ageing and touched the lives of everyone in the country today,” she said.

The ways in which cohort studies collect data from participants have changed over time, said Professor Alison Park, who discussed use of new technological advances, including wearable devices.

Professor Nishi Chaturvedi argued that to achieve precision medicine we need to pay more attention to the phenotype and the role cohorts can play in this.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 11.54.59Professor Ruth Gilbert described ADRC’s work on approaches to data linkage and the enormous value in administrative data, either in its own right or when linked to survey data.

Finally, Professor Caroline Sabin introduced the UK Collaborative HIV Cohort (UK CHIC) Study and explained the value of linking clinic and surveillance databases for HIV research.

Making the case for cohorts, biobanks and big data

In this ‘Question Time’ session speakers made the case for cohorts, biobanks and big data.

Cohorts are vital, nationally representative, scientific resources which enable us to understand the link between early life circumstances and life’s many and varied outcomes, argued Professor Alissa Goodman.

Professor Sir Rory Collins spoke in favour of large scale studies and biological repositories, pointing out the value of establishing prospective cohorts in different populations who have different types of diseases and risk factors.

TScreen Shot 2017-03-29 at 11.54.27he case for big data and potential for access to real time data was made by Professor Harry Hemingway in the context of the new UK health and biomedical informatics research institute, Health Data Research UK. This institute will, for the first time in the world, incorporate on a national scale the whole breadth of data science research aimed at improving human health.

Opportunities and challenges for investment in cohorts, biobanks and big data

Professor Graham Hart chaired the final session with some of the funders of major longitudinal and cohort studies.

Representatives from the MRC, ESRC, British Heart Foundation and Wellcome Trust emphasised how cohorts are hugely influential, a vital part of the national infrastructure and uniquely placed to study the interplay of factors in a population over time.

We heard about how the funding landscape has changed, with ever increasing pressures on budgets, and the need to bring cohorts together, citing CLOSER as an important initiative in this space.

Increasingly funders are working in partnership to fund these large investments. A recurring message was the value of talking to funders before submitting bids, the importance of an interdisciplinary approach and data access and discoverability.

Those interested in the use of new technologies can get a flavour of what’s on offer at two events organised by CLOSER in May.


UCL Connect Women in Leadership event

By ucyow3c, on 20 March 2017


By Sophie Moore, Office of the Vice-Provost (Development)

On 8 March, UCL Connect celebrated International Women’s Day with a Women in Leadership panel event exploring both the opportunities available to, and challenges faced by, women in the workforce.

Hosted by Professor Becky Francis, Director of the Institute of Education, the panel discussed key issues experienced by women on their paths to leadership roles.

There were contributions from a selection of highly successful UCL alumnae and supporters who shared advice, tips and comments from their diverse professional backgrounds, including former British Ambassador Georgina Butler, Caroline Ellis of Caroline Ellis & Associates and Director of the Precision Medicine Catapult, Professor Joanne Hackett.Women in leadership 1

With studies suggesting that women currently occupy less than 6% of leadership positions in the world’s top 500 corporations and, in the UK, earn on average 20% less than men, the event was a timely opportunity to discuss the factors that contribute to gender disparity in the workplace.

“While women are not a minority, their experience often is” explained UCL Anthropology graduate Caroline Ellis, who has made a career in tackling inequality and marginalisation, including as a former Senior Director of the charity Stonewall. “Women’s progression in the workplace is not simple; it’s a complex interaction of things.”

Indeed, while each of the panellists had experienced their own unique challenges on the road to success, the event shed light on a series of common experiences that had affected them.

The ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling of being fraudulent, or a lack of belief in your own skills and achievements was a familiar topic. “We are affected by different kinds of biases,” explained Ellis. “How we absorb all of these biases has a huge impact on the perceptions that we have of ourselves. We tend not to go for a job unless we fill all of the points on the specification and we tend not to negotiate as well, or take as many risks.”Women in leadership 3

Strategies the panel recommended for overcoming the ‘inner critic’ included recognising the significance in developing your skills, interests and personal relationships outside of work.

“I know that I’m good at lots of different things, which radiates through you when you’ve got people around who support you,” said Professor Hackett, who has spent 15 years working as scientist, strategist and entrepreneur. “If you can get people around you who can push you forward, as much as you’re pulling them with you, then it works.”

As one of only four female fast-streamers in the Foreign Office’s 1968 cohort of 22, UCL Laws graduate Georgina Butler has spent her entire career working in a field traditionally dominated by men. She said, “you’ve got to take control and be confident with who you are. It’s a question of deciding what you want and then fighting for it.”

Professor Francis asked the panel how much the lack of representation of women can be attributed to a lack of confidence amongst women, and how much it has to do with flaws in existing structures.

“For me it’s 50/50,” said Professor Hackett. “It’s our responsibility, but it’s also what people are expecting of us. In my former role at UCL, I managed relationships with 23 NHS trusts and 11 universities. Nine times out of ten, a chief executive would come into a meeting, look at me and say ‘I’d like some milk in my tea’ and I would be thinking ‘well, who is going to make that for them?’ It was partly my responsibility to make them aware that I was not there to make them tea – I was there because I was smart, good at my job and just as important to the room as they were – but, it was also my colleagues’ responsibility to inform them of those very same things.”

Ellis agreed and added that it’s important to get “allies” on board by helping other people to understand why gender parity is beneficial for all of us. “I wish that I had realised that my difference is actually a strength,” she reflected. “What it enables me to bring is a very different perspective to a conversation. It’s not necessarily a better idea or opinion, but diversity is really needed in every workplace.”

IMG_8020 2

Adding to this the panel discussed the obligation that they felt, as women in leadership roles, to step up and affect change for other women, too.

“You’re always in a leadership position in one way or another, because all of our shadows cast long,” explained Professor Hackett. “You don’t always realise who you affect, or who looks up to you as a way of being a leader.”

Professor Francis was keen to echo this. “It is important to recognise the onus of those of us who do have power and agency in our lives. The more we have women in positions of power who challenge existing cultures, the more other women will feel entitled and able to apply.”

UCL Connect

A thorn in the side: launch of the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health

By ucyow3c, on 6 March 2017


By Dr Geordan Shannon, UCL Institute for Global Health 

UCL is known for challenging the status quo. It was with this sentiment that the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health was officially launched on the 16th February 2017.

Led by Professor Sarah Hawkes, the centre will reach beyond academia to work with policy-makers and policy-influencers to address the complex relationship between gender and health.

A global community of change makers and thought leaders converged to discuss innovations in gender and global health research. The daylong event included keynotes, interactive panels, film screenings, Q&A sessions and a networking reception.


Images: Ilan Kelman ilankelman.org


The keynote panellists spoke about key challenges to gender and global health research, policy and action.

Rachel Jewkes, the Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, shared new directions in gender-based violence interventions and highlighted feminist approaches to resilience.

Benno de Keijzer, Professor of Health and Masculinities at Universidad Veracruzana and co-founder of the NGO Salud y Género, challenged the concept of hegemonic masculinity and how it relates to both men’s and women’s wellbeing.


Metabolism & Society: A Symposium on Food, Culture, and Metabolic Health at the UCL Institute of Child Health

By ucyow3c, on 1 March 2017


By Paola Garcia-Trevijano, UCL Biomedical Sciences

Metabolism’s impact on society is such that the two are in constant interaction.  With this in mind, the Symposium on Food, Culture and Metabolic Health by Metabolism and Society on 16 February brought together a group of academics from several departments in UCL and the Francis Crick Institute.

Complex problems like metabolic disease require interdisciplinary solutions, and fostering such interactions was the goal of this innovative symposium.

Professor Frances Brodsky, Director of the Division of Biosciences, opened the symposium together with Professor Geraint Rees, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences.Picture1

In addition to three keynote lectures, the day featured short talks followed by a panel focused on fostering potential interdisciplinary collaborations.

The symposium ended on a lighter note with Chris Shipton, a live illustrator, presenting the sketches he put together throughout the day.

At the close of the symposium, Professor David Price, Vice-Provost (Research), announced the creation of a new interdisciplinary Research Domain focused on food and metabolism.

Putting the balance back in diet: the nutritional geometry of metabolic disease

Professor Steve Simpson, academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre of the University of Sydney, showed that the tendency to stick to a constant protein intake contributes to over consumption in fats and carbohydrates, due to the introduction of ultra-processed foods.

A few solutions include intermittent fasting, protein appetite dampening drugs, and surprisingly, a diet low in protein and high in carbohydrates which, despite the associated weight gain, was shown to lead to the healthiest individuals.

Session 1 – Present: where are we now?

In the first session, Dr Paul Chadwick spoke on the importance of developing an efficient way of communicating with different populations affected by metabolic problems. He introduced the behaviour change wheel, which aims to provide a common approach.

Dr Joanne Santini, who presented her work on the effect of arsenic contaminated water on health and the human microbiome, identified the importance of behavioural counselling in preventing and dealing with arsenic poisoning as well as insulin resistance.

Professor Nishi Chaturvedi’s work has shown that different population characteristics suggest different causes behind insulin resistance, highlighting the importance of clinical treatment tailored to different populations.  In addition, linking research in insulin resistance and mitochondrial pathways to tumour research was deemed to be promising, with key connections between the work of Professor Michael Duchen and Dr Mariia Yuneva.

The taste of spoons and other inedible objects

Mark Miodownik, Director of the UCL Institute of Making, gave a keynote presentation on the way different materials influence the experience of eating: gold and chrome taste the most neutral, zinc the sweetest. All these features could be used to not only enhance our enjoyment of food but perhaps reduce the amounPicture2t of savoury, yet detrimental ingredients (e.g. sugar) that we over-indulge in.

Past: how did we get here?

This session focused on the past to look for guidance on how to shape the future to our benefit.

Evolution in terms of the metabolic network (Dr Markus Rasler) as well as in terms of our adaptation to diet throughout time (Professor Mark Thomas) were considered.

We can also learn from a shorter time frame by following obesity across generations (Professor Rebecca Hardy).

Professor Sue Hamilton discussed the idea of comparing our microbiome to that of the Easter Island population, which thrived with remarkable health and energy on very simple and restricted diets.  Dr Filipe Cabreiro presented his work on the gut microbiome, which the panel felt was an important part of metabolic health, and discussed ways this could be examined from ancient remains to modern humans.