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It’s (Still) a Mans World!

Kerry A Kite24 April 2019

Written by Rachel Pearson, 1st year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at GOS ICH, researching unmet healthcare needs among mothers involved in care proceedings. Outside of my PhD I enjoy getting out of London and climbing, biking and hiking (not all at the same time)

A few weeks ago it was International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and to raise awareness about issues that affect equality. International Women’s Day was born out of the early women’s rights movement of the 20th century and was eventually adopted by the UN in 1975. Celebrating this day each year helps to spark important discussions about gender-equality, from sexual harassment (in 2017, a YouGov study found that 52% of British women between 18-24 years had experienced sexual harassment in a public place in the last 5 years) to gender imbalance in the workplace (women hold only 10% of executive roles at FTSE 100 companies).

Working in UCL’s Faculty of Population Health Sciences, you may be forgiven for thinking that gender imbalance among UCL’s academic staff is a thing of the past (in fact, we have only two male researchers in our research group of more than 15). Indeed, go up UCL’s departmental hierarchy once more and you’ll find that over 50% of staff in UCL’s School of Life & Medical Sciences are women – so far so good. However, women only make up 37% of grade 9/10 posts in SLMS and just one glance at UCL’s descriptive analysis of the academic pipeline for female researchers in SLMS is enough to see that there is still work needed to combat barriers to career progression for female post-docs (the proportion of female academics drops by more than 50% from post-doc positions to professorships).

UCL Female Academic Pipeline

Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/sites/human-resources/files/kwi_april_2018_kwi_report_final.pdf

I’m a statistician by training so, to mark International Women’s Day, I attended an event held by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) – Women in Statistics: Past, Present and Future.

Dr Linda Wijlaars (a senior researcher from the Population, Policy and Practice programme here at ICH) kicked off the event with an engaging talk about Janet Lane-Claypon – the first person to attempt to correct observational data for confounding, to conduct a case-control study and to use a t-test in health research (the t-test was developed in 1908 by William Sealey Gosset, a chemist at Guinness, to compare batches of hops). Lane-Claypon was also one of the first people to hold both an MD and a PhD (making her a Dr-Dr) and used many novel statistical methods for the time such as survival analysis life tables and the Pearson’s correlation coefficient. Despite having studied an MSc in Medical Statistics, where I routinely heard the familiar names of Austin Bradford Hill and Richard Doll in epidemiology lectures (and one of our lecture theatres was named after John Snow), I had never heard of Janet Lane-Claypon’s work before meeting Dr Wijlaars (it’s particularly disappointing as we had lectures solely on case-control studies and confounding – the perfect opportunities to talk about the person who pioneered these concepts). You can learn more about Janet Lane-Claypon in Dr Wijlaars’ article for the society’s publication ‘Significance’ (https://www.statslife.org.uk/history-of-stats-science/462-can-you-name-a-female-statistician).

Left: Dr Janet Lane-Claypon. Right: Her landmark case-control (and multi-site) study in the field of breast cancer for the Ministry of Health (1926).

The next talk of the evening was given by Professor Deborah Ashby, the current RSS president. Prof Ashby is one of only four women who have held the title (despite the RSS being founded in 1834); she is also the chair of Medical Statistics and Clinical Trials at Imperial College London, the co-director of the Imperial Clinical Trials Unit and the deputy head of the Imperial School of Public Health. She highlighted that more men named David (and William… and probably a few others) have been RSS president, than women of any name. For the rest of her talk, Prof Ashby took us through her career as a statistician – from getting her undergraduate degree in mathematics to her appointment as the RSS president. Concurrent to her appointments at various universities, institutions and committees, she highlighted the blatant inequality among the recipients of many of the society’s awards (such as the Chambers Medal, the Bradford Hill Medal and the Barnett Award – each with only 20% of awards ever having gone to a woman) and among the society’s current fellows (<10% are women). The Guy Medal in Gold, the RSS award for “lifetime achievement” that has so far had 38 recipients, has never been awarded to a woman, and yet there is no lack of women with expertise in statistics and data science – nor in academia.

 

Former Royal Statistical Society presidents

The remainder of the event was spent discussing the future of women in statistics and data science. Several women gave short talks about their experiences working as a statistician and highlighted several groups that have been created to provide a peer support network for women in statistics and data science. Peer groups are a valuable way to network, spark new ideas and to share advice. Female-only peer groups can also provide a safe space to discuss gender discrimination and issues around equality in the workplace and can be a positive tool to narrowing gender gaps in senior leadership roles. However, women are not a homogeneous group and not all women experience the same obstacles in the workplace. It’s important that peer groups are intersectional and recognise that there are barriers associated with overlapping social identifiers such as race, age, disability, religion and sexuality that can be compounded by those related to gender. Effective peer groups work to boost confidence and, therefore, female-only peer groups can be a positive tool to support more women into senior roles. A few groups mentioned on the night include:

Some other groups that are worth a mention:

For anyone interested in seeing the talks for themselves, the event was filmed and can be found at https://youtu.be/NMAIvv-5z40).

Dr Giles Yeo “Why research matters and how to share it”

Kerry A Kite22 February 2019

Written by Emeline Rougeaux, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Emeline is an avid proponent of sustainable living and enjoys travelling and being outdoors.

Last month we had the pleasure of receiving Dr Giles Yeo, genetic endocrinologist, for a talk on Public Engagement here at ICH. You might know Dr Yeo from his appearances on BBC shows such as Trust Me, I’m A Doctor or Horizon. When he is not discussing the dirty truths behind clean eating or whether genes make you fat on screen, you can find him studying the brain control of body weight at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Yeo opened his presentation by stating that, as scientists, we have to engage with the media especially today. His research has revealed that humans have little choice with regards to obesity and that genetics have a big influence on our bodies’ weight and food behaviours. Do the public always believe him? Unfortunately, no. Yet, as said by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, whom Dr Yeo quotes, “when different experiments give you the same results, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So, why is there such a lack of faith in science from the public?
According to Dr Yeo, we often end up having to frame science against faith. Some scientists believe it is not about faith, but in reality, all of us have to rely on faith every day. He gives the example of trusting that our car brakes will work when we press on them, we trust that experts designed them and tested them so that other non-experts can use them with the belief that they will work when needed. Similarly, we trust that a plane will fly (using something other than magic). While as scientists we understand that scientific consensus is key, it takes a long time to obtain. We all know how long it can take to go from a research problem, to findings, and then on to a possible solution. The problem, according to Dr Yeo, is that humans are impatient and this creates a vacuum of knowledge, which gets filled with alternative facts.
As a result, we get the likes of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Eleanor Laura Davan Mills (Deliciously Ella). They sell ideas and products claiming certain health benefits, which although not supported by any scientific expertise or evidence, are gobbled up and regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of followers. Why do so many people believe what to others is so obviously false, Dr Yeo asks? According to him, it depends on who is saying it. When people with power or fame profess certain facts, it is difficult for the public to know who to believe. We should not, however, put these sorts of beliefs down to stupidity or ignorance, but should instead engage with these people and the public to discuss the evidence base. The best way to do this is through the media, and this is why we should engage with it when given the opportunity.
As scientists and researchers, we need to stand up for the truth. How we do this is important. Dr Yeo finds the perfect way to illustrate his point with one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (like me, it turns out he is, a fan).

How should we structure our message? How can we speak to non-experts via the media? How we frame the message is important. Below are Dr Yeo’s suggestions on how we can do this effectively:
• Why? How? What? are good ways to frame the message. Why are you doing what you are doing? How have you chosen to answer the question? What have you found out?
• This framing can actually be used in all sorts of settings (grant applications, social events, etc.), but the amount of information you provide will vary between these and is critical.
• Difficulty: the type of audience will determine the level of difficulty of engagement with ‘academic specialist’ being the least difficult to engage with and ‘the general public’ the most difficult.
• Simplicity does not equal wrong: when we simplify the information we have, we make sure it remains correct.
• The medium chosen for your message will determine how much editorial control you have. Ranging from complete to no editorial control we have: speaking, writing, social media, radio and TV. Simplifying the message yourself in advance, by preparing your how-why-what elevator pitch, will allow you to keep more control.

Scientists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work, particularly to wider audiences and the public. Dr Yeo has found that television is an effective way to do this. While not all of us will be following this route with our research, he believes many of us will at one point in our careers be subject to interviews or invited to speak on television. His advice is to be ready, and what better way to do this than to practice explaining your research as ‘an elevator pitch’. Being able to deliver your research in a succinct form and in layman’s terms is a skill that will help not only with public and social media interaction, but also with career networking and job interviews.
Television is one of many ways for a researcher to engage with the public. In addition to television, Dr Yeo also gives public lectures, uses social media (although he highlights this can be a useful tool or a curse) and occasionally writes articles in newspapers such as the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail. Attending a writing or journalism course during your PhD is great way to learn how to communicate your research in an accessible and compelling way, which may also help with grant writing and cover letters amongst other things.

In conclusion, we should all take part in public engagement. Not because our funders require it, or because it looks good on a CV, but to uphold the truth and better guide the public in a media sea of information. Preparation is key, so keep your elevator pitches ready because you never know when someone might stick a microphone in your face.

Also, a special thank you to Shikta Das, Caroline Fraser and Emma Butcher for organising the talk.

[All images are from Dr Giles Yeo’s presentation at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health on the 23rd of January 2019]

Talking science: my experience of speaking at TEDx

Emma J Butcher28 January 2019

Written by Laura Katus, PhD student and soon to be post-doc at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. In my free time I enjoy making music and colour-coding things . Tweeting @Laura_Katus.

A few months ago, an email popped up in my inbox, containing an invitation to give a TEDx talk. I quickly scanned it, the cursor of my mouse hovering over the ‘delete’ button, convinced that this could only be spam. However, reading more closely, I remembered meeting one of the organisers a few months earlier and chatting to her about my research.

As I’m sure is true for many scientists, I liked the idea of having done a TED talk in the past. However, in this fantasy TED talk world, all the painstaking and nerve-wrecking preparation had already happened. Plus, my future self would already be a well-established researcher with loads to say, rather than a student in the middle of thesis writing.

Ultimately, the offer turned out too tempting to resist, and I agreed to give the talk. As the weeks went by, my anxiety levels rose. The process of preparation was fortunately well-guided. The organisers checked in regularly and provided encouragements and guidance on the talk outline. Despite these useful nudges, it wasn’t until arriving at the venue on the event morning and seeing a big red carpet dot that it sank in that this was happening.

When my slot came up, I was glad I had decided to start out by talking about the topic that I most enjoy: the human brain. In the rest of my talk, I explained how I had come to do (and love!) my PhD research (to find out what I do, watch the talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkHY63rD_nc)

Reflecting back on the experience, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in TEDx. It was great to see speakers from all disciplines and chat to a receptive and lovely audience. Personally, the talk preparation provided just the right level of distraction from thesis writing, and it was encouraging to see other people appreciate the value in my research.

Bringing Cystic Fibrosis research back to the patients

Emma J Butcher29 November 2018

Written by Afroditi Avgerinou, 3rd year PhD student in the Francis Crick Institute/Institute of Child Health.

In September 2018, for the 3rd year in a row, the UK Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Trust organised the “CF’s got talent!” competition. This involved 5 young CF researchers presenting their work in layman’s terms to improve engagement with patients. I have been working on my PhD project, which is funded by the CF Trust, for 2 years and I was one of the five researchers that presented in the 2018 competition.

When I found out I had been selected to present in front of a few hundred people in a lecture theatre, and possibly thousands more online, I was terrified! At the same time, I felt honoured and a deep sense of responsibility. I did not want to let down people affected by CF, as they are putting their hope in researchers such as myself to deliver a cure. I also did not want to disappoint my supervisors or family and friends, who have been supporting me throughout my PhD.

For this reason, and because I had never delivered a public engagement talk before, I spent a whole month creating a presentation and perfecting my speech. Thankfully, the CF Trust arranged for me to share my ideas with a person with CF, who would tell me whether I had managed to get rid of the science jargon. During our two talks, she offered great help and feedback that allowed me to produce a presentation we were both satisfied with.

On the day of the presentation, my nerves returned. Even though my voice was a bit shaky, I was able to carry on and not forget my words, thanks to the number of times I had practised my talk.

During my presentation, I explained how in CF a mistake/mutation in the CFTR gene causes problems in the lung. For my project, I hope to show that the lung cells with the genetic mistake can become the solution and offer a cure for CF. To do this, I am using ex vivo gene therapy, which means gene therapy that happens outside the body. The first step of this approach is to take some of the diseased lung cells from the CF patient through nasal brushing. After this, the cells are kept in the lab and allowed to multiply. Next, a correction mechanism, called CRISPR/Cas9, is inserted into the cells, to correct the mistake in the CFTR gene. The corrected cells undergo quality control to check if they are safe and finally returned to the patient’s own lung where they will function as healthy cells and treat CF.

I felt I was successful in explaining my project to everyone in the lecture theatre. Later, I found out that many people had left very positive and kind comments on the Facebook live stream of my presentation. People watching from home also had the opportunity to vote for their favourite presentation. To my surprise, when the time came to announce the winner, my name was called. I was excited and very pleased with the result! The prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference (NACFC) 2019 in Nashville. There, I will communicate the results of my work to a wide audience.

Winning the competition gave recognition to my work and all my team’s efforts. I am thankful to the CF community for voting for me, but irrespective of the win, the whole experience was very rewarding. Working in the lab, it is easy to get lost in the experiments and science, forgetting the reason why you are doing them. Being able to connect with the people that benefit from your research is inspiring and helps you refocus when things get difficult. In return, by communicating your research to patients, you are giving them hope and a promise: that you will do your best to help them and their families live a life unlimited by CF.

The full facebook stream of the event is shown below:

Original link: https://www.facebook.com/cftrust/videos/532549270526241/

The three minute thesis (3MT) – a mountain drag-lift for PhD students

Emma J Butcher18 October 2018

Written by Jonathan Lambert

For most research students, including myself, writing a PhD thesis feels like trudging up a seemingly endless mountain. It is a lonely experience made more difficult because only three or four people may ever read our careful efforts. But I want to encourage you. Just imagine, for a moment, packaging up all your hard work into a three minute spoken presentation that conveys the big picture of your thesis to a potentially world-wide audience. The presentation would identify the value of your research in potentially improving human health and wellbeing, communicate your passion for the subject, and highlight the wider impact of your findings to society. Imagine how helpful that talk would be when meeting potential employers or completing grant applications, not to mention helping construct the final thesis. Then of course there is the buzz of using your presentation to share your work with family and friends in a way that is accessible to all. This could be the perfect opportunity to get excited about your work and help you feel like you’ve just found a lift to help you up the mountain.

Well, this is precisely the concept of the three minute thesis (3MT), developed by The University of Queensland, Australia, in 2008. The competition has grown in popularity and spread internationally to over 600 universities, including UCL. The Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH), UCL, held their first 3MT competition in 2016, at which I presented my project entitled “Less is More: the efficacy of gene therapy to treat Fabry Disease”. The slide developed to help communicate my thesis is shown below.

 

 

In my 3MT presentation, I discussed my research on Fabry disease, a genetic metabolic disorder primarily affecting the heart, brain and kidneys. The disease is caused by an enzyme deficiency in lysosomes, which are compartments within cells. Lysosomes may be conceptualised as a “wheelie bin”. I asked the audience to imagine the situation if a local waste removal company went permanently on strike: waste would accumulate in bins resulting in anxiety, illness and death to the local residents. On a cellular level, this situation is similar to Fabry disease. The enzyme deficiency, which results from specific gene mutations, leads to accumulation of waste in lysosomes and ultimately cell death. My research investigated whether gene therapy, which involves inserting a correct gene copy into patient cells using a virus vector, may be a good treatment.

I found that gene therapy produced a dose-dependent increase in enzyme activity in target cells. A low dose produced an enzyme equally efficient at breaking down waste as in healthy cells, but a high dose produced a significantly less efficient enzyme. In the talk, I put these results into the context of the waste removal company to help the audience appreciate the relevance of these findings; a low dose gene therapy may be thought of as a single workman, focused on his job and efficient at clearing waste from bins. A high dose delivery is like a team of workmen, distracted by arguing and talking with each other so that they can’t work efficiently. In other words, a lower dose of gene therapy may treat patients more efficiently than a high dose – “less may be more”. I concluded my talk with discussion of my on-going work, studying the potential of gene therapy to repair damage to the mitochondria, the “power supply” of the cell. The potential impact of this was highlighted by explaining that, if gene therapy could repair mitochondrial damage, this may be equivalent to giving back “cellular mojo” to enable cells to repair and save the lives of Fabry disease patients.

My presentation won the 2016 UCL Final and came runner-up in the 2016 Vitae 3MT UK National Final, held as part of the annual Vitae Career Researchers international conference. Participation in the 3MT competition not only improved my presentation and communication skills but inspired me in public engagement, teaching activities, and a successful grant application to the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at GOSICH that funded the final phase of my project.

So when you are next knee deep in PhD mountain snow, struggling to write your thesis, don’t panic. Get a clean sheet of paper, a cup of tea, and create a story-board of your project. Sign up for the next 3MT competition and get involved with public engagement activities. Like a mountain drag-lift, this process will help you to complete the climb and finish your thesis.