Pondering Podocytes

by YPU Admin on June 19, 2014, Comments. Tags: biology, medicine, and Research


My name is James McCaffrey and I am doing a medical PhD. I went straight into medical school after finishing my A-levels, and graduated in 2007. I continued my training as a junior doctor in Manchester before deciding to specialise in paediatrics in 2009. After a few years of being a paediatric doctor, I became interested in children’s kidney disease and began a PhD at the University of Manchester in 2011.

My PhD focuses on a childhood kidney disease called ‘nephrotic syndrome.’ The medication we have for treating nephrotic syndrome only works for a proportion of children, and sometimes results in unwanted side effects. No one knows exactly how this medication works. By trying to understand more about the important actions the medication has in children with nephrotic syndrome, we may be able to develop more effective drugs with fewer side effects in the future.

In Depth

What is nephrotic syndrome?

One of the main functions of the kidney is to filter the blood, so unwanted substances can be removed from the body. However, it’s also vital that the kidney filter does not let important proteins and minerals leak through. An essential part of the kidney filter is a cell called the podocyte, which keeps blood proteins in the body, while letting substances harmful to the body pass through.

In nephrotic syndrome, the podocytes become damaged and the kidney filter becomes abnormally leaky, so these important blood proteins are lost from the body. These proteins help regulate where water is stored in the body and are needed to fight infection. When they are lost in nephrotic syndrome, children have a high risk of developing serious infections and water moves from the blood into various tissues so patients develop massive body swelling. 

How is nephrotic syndrome treated?

Children with nephrotic syndrome receive an 8 week course of a type of steroid called prednisolone (this is very different to the steroids body-builders use!). Some children respond very well to this treatment, the kidney filter returns to normal, and they never have the disease again. Some children respond well initially, but the disease comes back several times over a number of years. Unfortunately, some children do not respond to steroids at all, and more powerful medications are needed. The children who do not respond to steroids during their first treatment course sometimes have long term problems with their kidney.

Why is nephrotic syndrome important?

Approximately 200 new children develop nephrotic syndrome in the UK every year. As late as the 1950’s approximately half of children with nephrotic syndrome died (mostly from infections). Although today we have more effective treatments available, children taking steroids sometimes experience unwanted drug side effects such as weight gain, high blood pressure and acne. Children who do not respond to steroids have a high chance of developing long-term kidney problems, which may ultimately require kidney transplantation.

What do I investigate?

Although steroids have been used in nephrotic syndrome for many decades, no one knows exactly how they work! It’s also unclear why some children respond well to steroids, while others do not. I mainly work on podocytes grown in the laboratory and characterise their response when they are treated with steroids. This involves finding out what new proteins are made when podocytes are treated with steroids, and investigating whether any of these may be important in the response that the kidney filter has in children with nephrotic syndrome when they receive medication.

Steroids do a lot of things: some of them helpful to the kidney barrier, and some of them unhelpful (which is why children experience side effects). If we could understand more about the helpful actions that steroids have in nephrotic syndrome, we may eventually be able to make drugs that are effective for all children with nephrotic syndrome and also have fewer side effects.

Going Further

More information about nephrotic syndrome from a patient’s perspective can be found here (

Here’s a great website for finding out about all the kidney research happening in Manchester (

An explanation of other projects happening in my PhD supervisor’s laboratory can be found here (

Here are some PhD projects that doctors in the North West are currently working on (


Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre

by YPU Admin on June 6, 2014, Comments. Tags: race, Research, and resource centre

Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, Manchester Central Library

The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, part of the University of Manchester, is an open-access resource centre housing around 10,000 books and other materials, all on the themes of race, ethnicity and how they intersect with other areas of our lives. In March 2014, the Centre relocated to Central Library, which reopened after a 4 year, £48m refurbishment.

The Centre was the brainchild of Emeritus Professor Lou Kushnick OBE, a sociology and American studies lecturer for over 40 years at the University, who wanted his personal collection of books and other materials to remain as a discrete collection, and to be accessible to all. The Centre opened in 1999, and was named after Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, a teenager who was murdered in a racist playground attack in Manchester in 1986. Ahmed’s murder and the following inquiry led to changes in the ways that racist incidents were reported and dealt with in schools nationwide.

As well as a wide range of books examining the intersection of race and ethnicity with politics, culture, health, housing and many more , we also are home to a range of multicultural children’s books, and a number of special collections, containing primary and secondary source materials, oral histories, archival materials such as leaflets, pamphlets and photographs that make the centre one of the UK’s leading collections on race.

As a small library within a much larger one, we are able to offer the best of both worlds – the range of resources and space that a large library can offer, combined with the expertise and customer service that only a small library can offer.

We’d love for you to come and visit us, and students studying history, government and politics, sociology, and other humanities subjects will find our resources particularly useful for coursework and revision. You can find us on the lower ground floor of Central Library (called City Library) in St Peter’s Square, and you can find out more about us at our website, (including searching our catalogue of materials) here and here’s a little video made by University of Manchester students about us.


Philosophy: often misunderstood

by YPU Admin on May 23, 2014, Comments. Tags: Philosophy and Research


My name is Andy Routledge and I’m currently in my fourth and final year of a philosophy PhD at the University of Manchester. I tutor on undergraduate courses and work for the University as part of their Widening Participation project. 

In Depth

Philosophy is a hugely misunderstood subject. Many people think that it is just about ‘The meaning of life’, or that it is similar to religion, or that there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy. While philosophers probably share a large part of the blame for not explaining the subject very well, all of these views are mistaken.

As with science, philosophy has many different areas and looks at lots of different issues. What is common across these different areas of philosophy, though, is its interest in understanding some of the deepest and most puzzling questions – some of which other subjects may be unable to answer. Most subjects begin with a certain starting point: ideas or assumptions that they take for granted. Philosophy is in the business of looking closer at these basic ideas and assumptions and questioning them. What is the best way to understand them? And are the assumptions right?

Science, for example, tries to discover the different laws of nature – such as the way that tiny particles behave. When scientists notice that a particular kind of particle always seems to behave a certain way they might put forward a theory that says that it is a law of nature that a particle of that kind must behave that way. But this doesn’t tell us what a law of nature actually is. We know what a law is in our society. It’s a rule that has been written down somewhere that is enforced by the police and legal system. But what is it for something to be a law of nature? There’s no law book for the universe to follow, or particle-police. What makes a particle behave that way every time? Could the law just change one day? If not, why not? What stops it? When we start asking these questions we move from science into the philosophy of science. We begin to question the basic ideas and assumptions of science. We can do this for almost any subject area. Some might be directly to do with us and our lives but some – like this question in the philosophy of science – might not be. But what makes it philosophy is the fact that it involves looking at the most fundamental ideas in that area – the basic ideas that are otherwise taken for granted. Because philosophy examines some of the deepest and difficult questions, it is easy to get the impression that there is ‘no right answer’. But many philosophers would disagree with this. It’s not that there are no right answers; it’s just that they are very difficult to work out and progress takes time.

Philosophy also involves a particular way of doing things. Just as science has a certain method – using physical experiments to test a theory – philosophy has its own method. Philosophers use rational discussion to try and work out whether something makes sense or is correct. Philosophers give reasons. It is never enough to say that something is right ‘just because it is’ or because so-and-so says so. Philosophers try and give reasons for what they’re saying. Even if somebody doesn’t agree, they can then at least say why. They can say which bit they disagree with and their reason for that. And the discussion can progress. Philosophy involves a commitment to this way of doing things. Everything can potentially be challenged. For this reason, good philosophy needs a certain kind of mindset. It involves being independent and thinking for yourself – willing to question common or popular beliefs. You might need to point out something that is unpopular and controversial. It involves being critical whilst remaining open-minded – you shouldn’t accept something without good reason but you shouldn’t dismiss it either. And it needs a sense of curiosity - a desire to understand the world is the biggest motivator of all. It is curiosity that keeps you going even when people may not like the questions you’re asking and you may not yet fully understand them yourself.

But don’t worry if you don’t think you’re naturally like this. Many people develop these skills just by doing philosophy. So if you want to be that kind of person then philosophy is an incredibly useful pathway. You develop these skills by practice. Because philosophers share their ideas and discuss and debate them, the subject also equips people with the ability to communicate ideas, both in written and spoken forms. Being able to speak clearly and persuasively to others is one of the most important skills you can have. There is no area of life in which this isn’t useful.

In a future entry I will say more about the philosophy research that I am conducting at the University, the particular area of philosophy that I work in, and some of the challenges that I have faced.

Going Further…

You can learn about the University of Manchester’s philosophy department and the courses it offers here:

This website offers a range of interactive tests and activities to help you learn more about your own philosophical views:

This article explores some of the most famous philosophical thought experiments:

A popular philosophy magazine:

The two leading online philosophy encyclopaedias with a large number of articles on a range of subjects:

Career information:


Sensing Success

by YPU Admin on May 2, 2014, Comments. Tags: biosensors, nanoscience, particles, and Research


I’m Chloë and I’m currently studying a PhD in Nanoscience through the North West Nanoscience Doctoral Training Centre (NoWNano DTC) at The University of Manchester. My project is working on developing a Luminescent Biosensor. The biosensor consists of a nanoparticle and an enzyme, which can communicate with each other using light. The intensity of light of the biosensor changes in the presence of certain molecules and so can be used to detect diseases.

I love science and I’m passionate about getting more people interested in the subject. So in addition to my research I also work as a Widening Participation Fellow with The University of Manchester and have my own business ‘Science Party-cles’. These two things allow me to work with the public and help make science more accessible.

In Depth

Before coming to Manchester I was at Sheffield Hallam University where I completed a BSc (Hons) in Pharmaceutical Science. I also completed a placement year where I worked in a Pharmaceutical Company, which helped me gain industrial experience. In my final year at Sheffield Hallam I worked on a short research project developing gold nanoparticles which started to develop my interest in nanoscience.

Nanoscience/ nanotechnology is a big area of research at the moment. When you get down to the nanoscale (a nanometer is almost a million times smaller than the width of a human hair) the properties of materials change. People are trying to use these novel properties to create new and interesting applications such as gloves that allow us to walk up walls like Spiderman.

A biosensor is a device that is used for the detection of analytes (specific molecules of interest). They are really important tools for the detection and treatment of diseases. One of the most common examples is the blood glucose (a type of sugar) biosensor used by people with diabetes to check their blood sugar level. Depending on the value given by the biosensor diabetics know whether they need to increase or decrease their sugar intake. 

The biosensor I’m trying to develop consists of a nanoparticle and an enzyme. Enzymes are very specific and can detect really small amounts of molecules. Therefore, they are very sensitive and useful in biosensors. My nanoparticle and enzyme are both fluorescent and can give off light. This means they can communicate together by a process called Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET), where energy from the light of one molecule (my nanoparticle) is transferred to another molecule (my enzyme). In the presence of an analyte the energy transfer from the nanoparticle to the enzyme is altered and the intensity of the light changes. This change in light intensity can be monitored and allows for the detection of diseases.

While at Sheffield Hallam University I also got support from their Research and Innovation Office to help set up my own business: Science Party-cles. This business allows me to engage children and young people in science alongside my PhD and has helped me develop other skills which I wouldn’t be able to do just working in the lab.

Going Further

Find out how we can walk up walls like Spiderman in the news article here. The research was developed by researchers at The University of Manchester.

For a brief introduction to biosensors click here, but if you’re really interested here’s some in depth detail.

To find out more about the route I took you can look at the NoWNano DTC website here and my business website here. This is a good website to help you decided on what route you want to take.


From researcher to writer...

by YPU Admin on April 4, 2014, Comments. Tags: Neuroscience, PhD, and Research

As part of our Thinking Careers section, we explore the non-academic career options taken by those who have completed their PhDs. This week, Natasha Thomas talks about moving from a job in the laboratory to a career in medical communications.


My name is Natasha Thomas and I’m a Senior Medical Writer. I’ve always enjoyed learning, and was interested in pursuing a career in science when I completed my A-levels (although I had no idea what job I wanted to do at the time!). I studied Neuroscience at The University of Sheffield, and went on to complete a PhD in cardiovascular science at The University of Manchester. I was lucky enough to be offered a post-doctoral research job in the urology lab at Bond University in Australia, and stayed there for 18 months. Towards the end of my post doc I realised that I didn’t want to stay in research for the long term, and I started to look at careers in medical communications. When I moved back to the UK I started as an Associate (or trainee) Medical Writer, and progressed to a Medical Writer, and then to my current position as Senior Medical Writer.

Current job

I currently work for Fishawack Indicia Ltd, which is a medical communications agency ( The people that we work for are usually pharmaceutical companies. Medical writers get involved wherever there is new information available about a particular drug that doctors and researchers need to know about. The communication of new information about drugs is important, as it can help doctors to decide on the best way to treat a patient, and can lead to new ideas or developments for future medical research. No two days are the same, and there is a lot of variety on a day-to-day basis. I write up trials of drugs for publication in scientific journals, work on materials for presentation at conferences, and have meetings with doctors and researchers to talk about future publications. One of the reasons I enjoy my job is that I have the opportunity to learn about lots of different diseases and treatments; I’ve worked on drugs for asthma, HIV and Alzheimer’s disease, to name just a few. Some of the drugs I write about are still in development and are being tested as treatments. It’s exciting to think that one day these drugs might be available to treat and help people.

There is often the opportunity to travel as a medical writer, as speakers at conferences may need help checking their slides before their presentation, and writers often report back on what presentations were most interesting for people. I enjoy going to conferences and meeting new people, though the hours can often be long when you’re away on site.


Any kind of communication experience is good experience for being a medical writer. While I was a PhD student I wrote an article for the university newsletter, and a course I attended asked for people to write up a short review so I jumped at the chance. Creating presentations and posters for conferences, and finding different ways of explaining your work so that other people can understand are all good skills that can be used by a medical writer. This sort of practice is also useful for applying for jobs in medical communications. Most agencies ask you to complete a short writing test as part of the application process but this isn’t designed to be scary or to catch you out, it’s there so that you can show off your potential!

Going Further

When I was looking for jobs in medical communications one of the most useful websites I found was MedCommsNetworking. The website advertises jobs, but also provides details on careers days, workshops and courses, and has links to lots of other useful websites.  There is also a link to ‘A Day in the Life of MedComms’, which is where on a particular day, people in the medical communications industry send in articles or photos about what they’re up to. This provides a good insight in to what people in the industry really do on a day-to-day basis, and makes for interesting reading!