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What about the plants?! A merging of history and science

by YPU Admin on July 5, 2019, Comments. Tags: Bioscience, botany, history, HTSM, medicine, science, and technology

Introduction

My name is Jemma and I am a second year PhD student in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (HSTM).  I took a somewhat roundabout route to this subject area. After finishing my A-Levels, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study at university. I enjoyed both Biology and Chemistry so ended up applying for Biochemistry at the University of Manchester in 2012. With a number of the bioscience degrees at Manchester, there is the option to do them as a 4-year undergraduate rather than the standard 3 – with the additional year being spent working in industry. By the time my placement year came around I realised that, whilst I found the theory and topics fascinating, I hated lab-based research. As a result, I chose to spend a year working at the Manchester Museum’s herbarium – the botany department of the Museum. My project with them centred on a 19th century medical collection called the Materia Medica, which contains plants, animal and mineral products that used to be employed in the teaching of pharmacy at Owens College (later this became the University of Manchester). I became obsessed! I changed my degree for my final year to Biology with Science and Society, which is basically a Biology degree with HSTM modules, and did my final year dissertation on the domestic use of opium (the plant extract which morphine comes from) by women in the 19th century. HSTM has been a great way to combine my love of history and science.

After my undergraduate degree, I received a 1+3 studentship to do my Masters and PhD in HSTM at Manchester. My Masters dissertation returned to the Materia Medica collection as I compared pharmacy education in Manchester and London in the 19th century. In 2018 I started my PhD, looking at the place medicinal plants had in 20th century pharmacy.

In Depth…

Pharmaceuticals drugs today are often presented as being created intentionally – often synthetically by chemical processes – and somehow separate from traditional medicinal knowledge. However, many drugs still have a basis in herbal medicine. So how did this perception come about? Why do we view modern drugs as being divorced from traditional knowledge practices? My research therefore focuses on medicinal plants, specifically within the context of conventional pharmacy, during the 20th century. It examines how plants were used as well as perceived following the rise of synthetic pharmaceutical drugs to present a more complicated history of drugs than a simple forward progression from traditional herbal knowledge of the 19th century to modern, synthetically produced drugs of the late 20th.

I really enjoy my research, but I don’t spend all my time just doing the PhD. I am a strong supporter of academics not just doing research but also engaging people with their work. I therefore split my time between doing my PhD and other activities (though with the emphasis on my PhD of course). Along with being a Widening Participation Fellow, I am a Heritage Guide for the University and still volunteer at the Manchester Museum’s Herbarium. At the Museum, I often get involved with their events as well as designing activities myself (such as an activity on medicinal plants used by the Romans - https://blogs.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/pharmacy/2018/11/02/manchester-science-festival-2/). I am also a big fan of interdisciplinary collaboration, having worked with members of the pharmacy department as well as artists on public engagement activities. My current project is setting up a podcast series, called In Pursuit Of Plants, dedicated to sharing cross-disciplinary research on medicinal plants – from history to biophysics – with the public. Along with other PhD students, I even co-organise conferences to promote interdisciplinary connections amongst Masters and PhD students at the University of Manchester. Whilst it is important to balance these so they don’t detract from my research, doing things beyond the PhD is very rewarding and a great way to get others excited about the topic.

Going Further…

Links to the In Pursuit of Plants podcast series and website can be found via our twitter page: @IPOP_Podcast

History of Science, Technology and Medicine is such a diverse field, to find out more about the types of research conducted in our PhD group check out our website: https://chstmphdblog.wordpress.com/people/

For a look at some of the public engagement I have done, you can read this blog post (plus see the final video!) of a collaborative project with a creative from Reform Radio: https://chstmphdblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/12/mixlab-2018-a-public-engagement-experiement/

You can also follow me on twitter for more on my research (plus lots of photos from the Manchester Museum): https://twitter.com/PlantHistorian

For more on the Biology with Science and Society with Industrial/Professional Experience see: http://www.chstm.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/

 

Selfish species: game theory and the ecosystem

Introduction

I am studying for a PhD in Statistical Physics and Complex Systems at The University of Manchester. My research studies a system of many interacting species where the population of one species can facilitate or hinder the growth of another species. This relationship is determined by a specific interaction coefficient between the species. The interaction coefficients for the relationship between every pair of species are drawn randomly from a two-dimensional Gaussian distribution, and we use the parameters of this distribution to predict how the ecosystem behaves. We can then simulate these interacting species using a computer programme to check our predictions.


In Depth…

I studied Mathematics and Physics for my undergraduate degree at The University of Manchester. I chose this degree because I enjoy understanding how the world works, and appreciate how bizarre and counter-intuitive our reality is. I had a fascination for quantum mechanics and relativity, higher dimensions, and sub-atomic particles. I really enjoyed learning about these concepts as well as being introduced to many other fascinating ideas. I enjoyed the lecture style of teaching but I also developed my ability for independent learning, I became really good at managing my own time, and absorbing information at my own pace from reading textbooks and lecture notes. The most useful skill I learned during my degree was how to computer programme, I learned how use Matlab, C++, and Python, and I learned how to write codes for simulations, data analysis, solving complicated equations, and optimization algorithms. I decided to do a PhD after my undergraduate degree because I really enjoy self-study and programming, and I am further developing these skills with new challenges every day.

I became interested in population dynamics after reading "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, where he described behavioural evolution using ideas from Game Theory. He described how an animal’s behaviour, and the behaviours of the other animals it interacts with, would determine how successful the animal would be at surviving and passing on it genes. These successful behavioural strategies would dictate how the behaviour of the population as a whole would change over time, and evolve to an Evolutionary Stable Strategy which could be understood as stable Nash equilibria. During my degree I took the opportunity to study Game Theory further by writing my second year vacation essay on the topic. I researched many areas of Game Theory and went through a short online course. I discovered how it can be applied to statistical physics, in the Ising model for ferromagnets, and really enjoyed learning about how ideas from quantum mechanics could produce Quantum Game Theory, where a player could play multiple strategies at the same time. In my fourth year I undertook a project with my current PhD supervisor on a population of individuals who had the choice of two behavioural strategies to interact with. The population evolved by the number of individuals playing the more successful strategy increasing, but this model also considered the effect of time delay, such as a gestation period in nature. I really enjoyed my project with my supervisor and through this I continued onto a PhD with him.

Going Further…

Here is a link to my supervisor’s webpage, if you are interested in my research you could look at his publications:

https://www.theory.physics.manchester.ac.uk/~galla/

Here are links to the undergraduate Mathematics and Physics courses webpages:

http://www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/

https://www.physics.manchester.ac.uk/

If you are interested in game theory, here is a brief course:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZKErrvVMaY&list=PL76B0EB6DDFC42D02

If you are interested in “The Selfish Gene” here is a brief summary of the book, chapter 12 discusses game theory:

http://old.unipr.it/arpa/defi/econlaw/SELFISH%20GENE.pdf

and the full text can be downloaded here:

https://www.zuj.edu.jo/download/the-selfish-gene-r-dawkins-1976-ww-pdf/

 

Zombie-inspired experiments!

by YPU Admin on January 21, 2019, Comments. Tags: biology medicine and health, biomedical imaging, diabetes, immunology, and science

My name is Jason Chu, and I’m a second year PhD student in Biomedical Imaging. For years, I debated what kind of career I wanted to follow - police, architect, restauranteur. In the end, I finished my Advanced Highers (the Scottish equivalent of A Levels) in 2012, with a curiosity for science. I went on to study Immunology at the University of Glasgow. This decision was heavily influenced by my fascination of TV and film adaptations of zombie outbreaks, and how our body’s defence system would fight against pathogens. As part of my Immunology degree, I did a placement year in 2015 at GlaxoSmithKline where I took part in research to develop novel antibody technology.

In 2017, I started my PhD in Biomedical Imaging at the University of Manchester. Here, I use 3D PET imaging technology to understand how an immune cell called macrophages is involved healthy and diabetic wound healing.

In Depth

Diabetes is a growing problem across the world. With massive modern lifestyle changes in recent decades (diet, technology, work, and healthcare) it is expected to quadruple and affect over 340 million people by 2030. One of the associated complications is an impaired ability to heal wounds. This can lead to chronic wounds, unresolved infections and in worst case scenarios – lower limb amputations.

Poor treatment to this affliction is partly due to a lack of mechanistic understanding. This is where the scientists come in. It is believed that immune cells such as macrophages may not be working normally in those that have diabetes and so prevent wounds from healing as they should.

What do I investigate?

I want to understand how these macrophages behave in healthy wound healing, and compare it with diabetic wound healing. To do so, I am using established techniques and developing novel ways to image these cells. The old-fashioned way is to take small tissue samples of the wound, process it into wax, cut them into extremely thin slices and stain it for macrophages – to see how many there are and where they are.

The novel technique I am developing is to use PET imaging to visualise the macrophages in 3D and in real-time. Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is an imaging technique used to observe biochemical processes inside the body. This requires a radioactive tracer: an organic compound labelled with a radioactive element. The organic compound is a jigsaw piece that fits nicely with your biological target (e.g. macrophages), and the radioactive element is a beacon to make it easier to see. A small and safe amount of this radioactive tracer is injected into the subject and accumulates at biologically relevant sites of the body (e.g. macrophages). When they do so, they release a pair of gamma rays. The PET scanner detects these and reconstructs them into 3D images of where the radioactive tracer is in the body.

This allows us as scientists to gain a better understanding of where and how macrophages behave in the context of wound healing. This new information and the imaging technology we develop is a small and exciting puzzle piece in a bigger picture to help improve people’s lives.

Going Further

Find out more about diabetes and wound healing from these websites -

https://www.woundsource.com/blog/four-stages-wound-healing

Part of the reason I got involved in this project is because of my interest in imaging and photography, and here are some examples of this in the biological world - https://bscb.org/competitions-awardsgrants/image-competition/

https://www.rsb.org.uk/get-involved/rsb-competitions/photography-competition-2018

https://www.rms.org.uk/discover-engage/competitions-awards/rms-scientific-imaging-competition.html

To find out more about studying immunology in Manchester  - https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2019/10284/bsc-immunology/course-details/#course-profile

 

Working on a smarter future

by YPU Admin on September 7, 2017, Comments. Tags: Computer Science, PhD, Research, science, sensors, STEM, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Hashir Kiani and I am a PhD researcher at the School of Computer Science. My research is titled “Wireless Sensor Networks in Smart Grids”. I work on designing algorithms which can be used to make an electrical grid smarter by analysing the data collected from the grid through wireless sensors. These algorithms are used to detect faults in the grid and then employ appropriate measures to prevent those faults. The end goal of my research is to develop methods for a more efficient and smart electricity network.


Hashir

In Depth

I did my Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan. After my bachelor’s degree I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in Communications Engineering and Networks from the UK. The main motivation behind going for a PhD after the completion of my Master’s course was the worsening situation with respect to electricity generation and distribution in my home country, Pakistan. Pakistan is facing a huge shortage of electricity and people have to go without electricity for multiple hours each day. The situation worsens in the summers as demand for electricity peaks due to cooling requirements as temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius. According to a report by USAID, Pakistan has suffered a loss of 10% of its GDP due to power shortage. The long power outages have caused great distress to the public with people resorting to rioting on a number of occasions. The distribution losses are above 20% which is more than double the global average. Therefore if distribution losses are brought down close to the global average Pakistan can solve its energy crisis.

The main objective of my research on smart grid systems is to find ways to make the electrical grid more efficient and thus considerably reduce the distribution losses. My research is focused on using wireless sensor networks in order to monitor the electrical grid so that timely decisions can be made to increase the efficiency, reliability and robustness of the grid network. Therefore my research will be very helpful in solving the energy crisis Pakistan is currently facing. 

After completion of my PhD I have plans to work at a reputable engineering university of Pakistan as an academic and a researcher. One of my objectives would be to introduce a course on smart grid technologies at the MS level and develop interest among the students in this area. I will use the knowledge I gained during my research to form a research group responsible for doing high quality research in the field of smart grid systems. The research group would strive to work in partnership with national bodies and distribution companies to facilitate the transition towards a smart electrical grid which will not only be efficient but also cost effective as it will be able to detect electricity theft and thus prevent losses of millions of dollars each year. 

Going Further…

Further information about smart grid technologies can be found at the following links:

https://www.smartgrid.gov/  : A good resource on information about smart grid technologies

http://www.smartgrids.eu/ : Details the smart grid initiatives taken by the European Union

https://www.smartenergygb.org/en/smart-future/britains-smart-grid : A cool video showing Britain’s future version of smart grids

http://www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/mlo/ : A link to my research group (Machine learning) at the University of Manchester.


 

Work Experience Stories: From the Nuffield Foundation

by YPU Admin on October 1, 2015, Comments. Tags: Nuffield, placement, Research, science, STEM, UoM, and Work Experience

Introduction

Hi, my name is Jen Young and I am a 17 year old student studying A-level biology, chemistry, geography and maths and always knew my future lay in the field of science. Therefore, when I heard of an opportunity to undertake a research project through Nuffield Research Placements, I jumped at the opportunity. I was thrilled to find out I was starting my research placement at Manchester University’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility on the 20th of July.


I applied because I was thinking of studying biology or biochemistry at university so when this opportunity came
up; I had to grab it with both hands as it would give me valuable experience in a research-based environment. This type of career appealed to me and I felt it was appropriate to gain first-hand experience of the work they do there and the different projects going on. Finally, it would allow me to learn some practical skills, including how to use some of the lab equipment which would surely aid my UCAS application and show that I have valuable experience in my subject area.

 

In Depth

My project focused on determining how gamma radiation affected the digestion of feedstock, in this case a poor quality grass from the hills of Cumbria called scrow, and how the pretreatment may affect the yield of biogas from set amounts of grass silage and slurry. In order to identify an appropriate method, several preliminary trials were carried out to determine the best volume of inoculum and the mass of grass silage per 50ml vial. A few other trials were undergone to determine grinding time and “mashability” so the investigation was quite thorough.


This project was requested by Riever Renewables a major anaerobic digester development company which gave the research a real sense of importance and it showed that it was relevant to current science. The research could even be used for a future PhD or paper which could prove to be beneficial to renewable energy production in the UK.


My previous knowledge about the affect of radiation pretreatment on feedstock was limited as it hadn't really
been done before. The only familiarity I had with the project was the process of anaerobic digestion but even then I have gained a bounty of knowledge in the subject. With access to the ideas of the PhD students I can confidently say I know exactly how they work and after my research placement I can say that I am able to efficiently and accurately use equipment.


The experience far exceeded my expectations as I was trusted to use extremely expensive equipment and spent a
lot of my time working in a laboratory environment without supervision, which allowed me to gain plenty of experience while also being independent and figuring things out for myself. It was amazing to undertake scientific tasks while expanding my knowledge of the area. It really helped me understand what it is like to be a research scientist and it has given me an insight into the world of research. The experience has made me even more determined to apply for a place on a biological science course at university, mainly due to the confidence this placement gave me and the impression it gave me of a career as a research scientist.


On my placement, I had two supervisors, Andy and Laura. They assisted me throughout my project and gave me an insight into not only their work but their lives as researchers. Laura would always make sure that I had enough research to carry out so I was never bored and I understood exactly what the project entailed. Andy showed me the ropes and helped me throughout, showing me how to use the equipment, what research had been carried out so far and what his role was. It was a great opportunity to ask questions and learn about their field while also getting to know them as a person.


The experience taught me to use several different types of equipment safely and efficiently and how to draw
conclusions from data collected. My practical skills developed immensely and I now feel more confident when using the equipment having learned how to use much more advanced equipment during my placement than I would be expected to use at school.


On my project, I also had to write a report. This enabled me to work on my literacy skills and made me further understand the scientific concepts by having to explain it to others. Having never written a scientific report I was worried, especially as it was potentially being used as part of a paper but it turned out quite well and I was able to write a detailed report of my method and an analysis of my results drawing my own conclusions. Now I feel much more confident. This skill will prove to be very useful when I go to university or even in year 13 when I write essay answers.


This experience has made me realise that I would love to pursue a career in research specifically in human biology and thanks to their advice I know exactly what path I want to take. Even if this path doesn't work out I know many other ways to work in research and after my experience I can say that I would enjoy working there and I find it really interesting.

Going Further 

I encourage anyone thinking about a career in a STEM subject to apply for a Nuffield Research Placement. The skills are invaluable and simply not covered in school. It will benefit you greatly, especially when thinking of going to university. It is a great way to spend some of your summer holidays and it is an experience that not many people get this early in life. The opportunity will require work and perseverance but it is entirely worth it, not only through teaching you new skills but also through providing you with confidence in your abilities.

Find out more:

Nuffield Research Placement: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/nuffield-research-placements