‘Living the meme’

My dear friend Emma was enjoying some zoology memes – such a thing does, in fact, exist – and with memories of the vivid descriptions with which I documented my plight during the sample processing for my dissertation, created me this.

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(“The lingering scent of the mud. That’s what got me. The way you said you could smell it on you for days.”)

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Star Wars is doing diversity right, and you might not even have noticed

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Today, after the release of the Rogue One trailer, I finally wrote a piece I’ve been wanting to for months. It’s about Star Wars, and diversity, and how you sometimes don’t even realise when the world looks… real. You can read it on The Edge‘s website, here.

I was very disappointed I couldn’t find a place to include this image, so here you go.

“I just want to hug all them, but I can’t.”

 

Spatial heterogeneity of dissertation research on the behaviour of an MSci student

This update comes from a little island of peace I’ve managed to grab in the middle of a whirlwind of mud-scented chaos, with that chaos being my dissertation. Which is running this week, in it’s (almost) entirety. It’s all very busy and tiring and muddy. Let’s review.

My diss is the ideal combination of my academic interests – benthic ecology, and ecosystem function and services. (I know, I know; I do a degree involving sharks and whales, and I end up loving me some mud). It’s an expansion on a hypothetical research proposal that I did for coursework in my second year – my supervisor, Martin, grabbed me and asked me if I wanted to do it as my actual thesis. The same applied to Pippa – Pippa Fitch – who I now have the great pleasure of calling my lab partner as we work together on twin projects, running side-by-side.

The title of my project, when asked to squeeze it into a little box on the official form, was ‘Spatial heterogeneity of nutrient resources on the burrowing behaviour and functioning of Nereis diversicolor’. This basically means, if you arrange the same amount of a food resource in different ways, a) will the worm burrow differently to get them and b) as a result of burrowing differently, will the worm have different sorts of effects on its environment, in terms of how it moves about and aerates the sediment and such. All very cool. Well, to me, at least.

Step one – once we were all settled back into term and we had been thoroughly risk assessed – was to get our tanks together. We had a fun little road trip to Hampshire Plastics in Portsmouth, who were very bemused by our request for 60 individual five to 15cm high perspex tubes. Then we glued their bases to the tubes, which was far more complicated than it sounds in addition to being part of a day far more surreal than I can adequately convey. Half the doors in the NOC don’t open unless you have the correct security clearance, and Pippa and I were needing to traipse around the building constantly even before we had to go out of our way to avoid these fun obstacles. We went from our lecture, to the lab. We went back up past our lecture room to find our supervisor. We went down to pick up the glue. We got our cores, we went out to the quayside. We tried to open the container. We couldn’t open the container. We brought the cores back inside. We opened the glue. We had to go find pipettes and stirrers for the glue, upstairs. We came back downstairs. We went outside again. We came inside again. We went outside again. We sat next to the bike sheds gluing cores together with the most pungent and fume-y solvent I have ever encountered.

My pedometer app says we walked 3.2km inside the NOC that day.

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After all that activity, the cores were left to soak in the sinks for a few days (to find out which ones were watertight, and remove as much of the truly evil smell from the glue that we could) while we had a little rest. But then, on a bright Monday morning, Rachel, Pippa and I met in the lab and began assembling all the things we’d need – collecting buckets, and bin bags to protect the car boots. We drove in the sunshine playing old school Now CDs, and reached our collection site at Hamble-le-Rice (which is lovely and yet further evidence that you can drive 10 minutes out of Southampton in any direction, and reach somewhere infinitely nicer than Southampton).

The weather was lovely, and we had to sit in the orange autumn sunshine waiting for the tide to go out. Then we got into our waders and started playing in the mud. I mostly stood (sunk) in one spot, and just grabbed handfuls of mud in a circumference around me to tease apart for worms. It’s really neat – you just sort of pull the handful apart, and it splits neatly along any burrows, plus there was one handful that really, really nicely showed increased oxygenation in the soul around the burrow. But I also I fell over on my arse a lot and recreated that time I attempted to jump my home town’s river in Year 10, failed spectacularly, and had to throw away the school uniform covered in mud up to my waist.

IMG_7816The day was ended with the manual sieving of a small person’s body weight in mud, and the two subsequent days dedicated to the similar but potentially worse task of washing and removing pinhead-sized Hydrobia snails from a giant bucket of seaweed.

(We ended up using about a handful of this, like, together. …Anyone want some seaweed?!)

After we put together a much desired timetable for this whole thing, I was up to scan my stuff first – working backward, this obviously meant I’d need to set up my sediment first, and when it’d settled the next day add my worms. I spent two days getting up obnoxiously early, for to get down to the NOC and assemble enriched and unenriched sediment into my different patterns. (You enrich the sediment by weighing out 3 grams of seaweed, then blending it. In, what it was revealed to us, is a household spice grinder. Aaaaah, science).

Assembled in the two lots of ten they’ll run in, over Saturday and Sunday these cores were delicately transported in the back of Pippa’s car  – with me spread eagle over the top – up to campus. (Avoiding Saints’ match traffic on the Sunday was a fun experience). The experiment is running out of a tiny little building we’ve been allowed to use; it’s got this giant submerged floor tank for testing acoustic engineering equipment, which is now colonised by at least one Hydrobia for which we accept no responsibility.

Something about the general appearance of the whole set up (which my mother deemed ‘not as high-tech as she had expected’), and how much we seemed to McGuyver various bits and pieces together, gave the experiment the general feeling of an episode of Mythbusters.

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Get a load of that science.

So, that’s been about it for my life of late – these days are so long that things that happened that morning genuinely feel like they happened three or four days ago. I exist in a perpetual cloud of vaguely scented air wherever I walk, and it’s constantly under my nails. I seem to always have good hair days, which is odd because I keep accidentally dipping the ends of it in tanks of mud. I keep forgetting lunch is a thing, and my upcoming coursework deadlines are sufficiently far away that I can just about justify the whole ‘not doing anything of an evening and crash into bed a 10:00pm’ thing. I basically stay up late enough to watch Downton and then go to bed.

And I bloody love it.

I’m really appreciating the affirmation that I am enjoying the scientific process. The investigation and the story, the physical embodiment of curiosity. Meeting and working with people. Trekking endlessly around your campus looking for stuff to stir glue with. It’s great, I adore it, and I think I want to do this forever.

Will the worms like their new homes? Will they do cool stuff? What are their names? All questions that will – hopefully – be answered soon.

I interviewed The Proclaimers, and they dedicated a song to me

This summer – August 13th, to be exact – something happened to me. Something that’s a strong contender, in fact, for the title of ‘best thing to ever happen to me’. Or maybe ‘best thing I’ve ever done’.

This summer, I met my heroes.

And I interviewed them.

Allow me to briefly set the scene. I am, for this year, Features Editor for the University of Southampton’s culture and entertainment magazine, The Edge. I’ve been writing for the publication for a few years but it was only now, emboldened by the responsibility of my committee position, that I dared to ask our Head of External Relations if she could maybe perhaps try and get an interview slot with Will Varley, a folk musician I love who was opening for my all-time favourite musical artist in concert this summer.

She said, “I can’t get Will Varley. But I can get you The Proclaimers, if you want.”

I don’t mean to be dramatic here when I say that the music of Charlie and Craig Reid has been a huge part of my life for just about as long as I can remember. They are my Glasweigan father and I’s thing; they are what I listen to when I need to cheer up; they are what I play when I’m blue; they are the most played artists and albums in my iTunes library by about 1,000 plays. I have seen them in concert four times now, with another one already lined up. The music of two Scottish twins – far, far beyond that single if excellent track that absolutely everyone knows – is one of the few constants in my life. I truly, utterly adore it; and them themselves.

I met them before their gig at Milton Keynes Theatre, which I was attending with my mother (who sat patiently in the Wetherspoons next door). I was shown backstage, to this little blue and white painted dressing room, and I shook hands with two of the most honest, genuine and kindhearted men that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

In our interview – which I implore you to read here, on The Edge website – we talked about everything from inspiration, to personal favourite songs, to advice they’d give to budding musicians.

Before and after the recording, we chatted about my studies, our shared love of Will Varley and how his political tone melds with their own, and who I was there with tonight. (I recorded the whole thing on my phone, which I had taken out of its case because I did not want to think about the Reid brothers judging my sparkly unicorn phone case every time I listened to my favourite song for, oh, the rest of my life. My phone was then cradled like a baby until I could get home and plug it in somewhere.)

The concert that followed tried hard to overshadow my evening already. Will Varley played wonderfully, and signed CDs in the break between opening and the main set – I was last in the queue as the bell was ringing, and my mum had to forcibly pull us away from reminiscing about his playing Southampton’s late Bent Brief on his 2014 Walking Tour (about 60 people packed into a tiny pub, and a girl burst on stage to throw up) to make sure we got upstairs in time.

The entire night was absolutely amazing. I was walking, breathing, just plain existing on cloud nine. Then a thing happened. Half way through the set, Craig said, “And we’d like to dedicate this song to Camilla. We’d like to say thanks for interviewing us before the show, she’s working hard at university and we wish her all the best.”

They played ‘Sean’. “I tell you now that grown men cry, and Irish girls are pretty.” I don’t know about grown men, I cried. I cry really easily, okay, and I think I deserve points for holding it together until then. I was in pieces. My mother was slapping the poor gentleman on her left saying, that’s her, that’s my daughter. But I couldn’t hear. In that moment everything fell into place and – again, not to sound cliche here – I really felt special. Like, special-special. Dramatic turning point in a movie special. Like I meant something.

If you know me, I’ve probably told you the Springsteen story (also known as, that time I sobbed for 5 minutes straight when he closed his Wembley show with an acoustic cover of my favourite song). I’ve told you ‘it felt like he was almost singing it for me’. I can tell you now – that feeling, and having a song actually sung for you? Wow.

IMG_6441(And – my mum got to feel it too. As Charlie walked me to the door after the interview ended, pictures were taken and we said goodbye – Charlie Reid! Actual real life Proclaimer Charlie Reid oh my good gosh – walked me to the door, he asked me to clarify who I was with tonight. So, amongst several other dedications and in one of the last songs of the night, ‘On My Way’ was played for “Camilla and her mum Colette”.)

Craig and Charlie Reid have spent nearly 30 years bringing the heart, soul and sound of Scotland to fans the world over. They’ve played countless shows and have sold millions of records. And they’ve also made a 21 year old girl cry tears of joy on the way home from their concert which, to me, is pretty great too.

Amsterdam, a minke whale, and the importance of citizen science

IMG_0943 Applications for ORCA’s Marine Mammal survey routes for this year just closed, and I applied for approximately all of them.

ORCA is a charity dedicated – so its tagline says – to ‘Looking Out For Whales and Dolphins’. What this means in practice is that trained members are able to piggy back, as it were, on ferries and cruises that cross the oceans in regular patterns at regular times. By carrying out marine mammal surveys from these ships with consistent methodologies they build a picture of cetacean species’ – at the very least relative – estimated populations, spatial and temporal ranges, and behaviours around boat activity.

I became a member after I took part in one of their training days December the year before last; once you’ve done so and paid up, you get the ability apply to take part in any of their UK or European survey trips. For free!

Last year I applied, and was lucky enough to be chosen for their Newcastle-Amsterdam route. Only two weeks before I jetted off to Malaysia I went up, visited some family, and then sailed the North Sea for two days. The journey takes a full day and night each way (in which we surveyed) and gave us the better part of five hours in Amsterdam (in which we went on holiday).

You have contact with your allocated team beforehand, organising who will bring the travel kettle and checking that everyone’s trains were arriving in on time, but when I eventually met them in person I could not have hoped for a better group of people to take me under their wing for my first survey. We got on brilliantly. Our fantastic team of ladies was headed by Marion, with Jenny and Bethany having both done a number of surveys between them; I was a proper newbie.

After meeting, in short order we were aboard our vessel the DFDS Princess Seaways, which acts as both transport ferry and mini-cruise, wherein people can do what we were doing as self-contained holiday (this meant that we got to enjoy the provided onboard entertainment when we allowed ourselves a drink in the bar on the second night, who I recall a few of our number finding rather dishy).

The surveying itself is pretty intense. You are constantly scanning the horizon, alternating between the wide field of view afforded by your eyes and the magnification of the binoculars, the later being pretty mycg your only hope of spotting a porpoise. If you do make a sighting, everyone has to be alerted and people scramble to their battle stations, grabbing data off instruments, using the sighting board to take a bearing, and making as many notes as to behaviour and movement as you possibly can.

Though you rotate effort positions (half an hour starboard, scribe, half an hour port, rest) you are on effort as long as the sun is up, and weather and sea conditions remain suitable that you won’t be missing any small cetaceans between big waves. This gave us approximately ten hours sighting time a day, meaning we became both very familiar with and very fond of the bridge. IMG_0947 Ferry bridges are rather plush, all dark wood and gold edging. The contrast of incredibly high tech equipment (which we used only to check the time, and hence were probably underutilising) with the chart tables was incredibly charming, and Captain Jasper Bern gave us a very warm welcome and didn’t seem to mind us sharing he and his crew’s tea and coffee supplies too much.

I did like taking my breaks outside, though. For obvious reasons. I can’t quite explain how breathtaking a towering offshore wind farm is from the middle of it.

As an aside, Amsterdam itself won my heart. It felt like a combination of Venice and the Shire, if such a thing were to exist, and I am desperate to go back. We wandered the twisting streets, went on canal boat tour, drank coffee, and got caught in a torrential downpour while buying fresh bread and smoked cheese from one of the city’s many markets.

IMG_0914 IMG_0886 IMG_0897 IMG_0922 Then we got back on the boat, and surveyed all the way back home.

You can read the official report of our survey on the ORCA website, but it was an amazing experience to say the least. I personally sighted five of the harbour porpoises that made our survey record, and though I was on rest and the official sighting technically went to Marion, I got to watch a minke whale do a long roll at the surface before taking a dive. There were also a plethora of sea birds which would ride the air currents around the ship, our favourites of which were gannets; if you spot one diving, it’s a good place to keep you binoculars trained since any number of dolphins or porpoises might be cashing in on a shoal of fish.

ORCA is only one organisation that utilises everyday volunteers with a marine interest to help collect sighting data. Another is SeaWatch, the freely available public data of which Jess and I handled at length for our project in Malaysia, and which has driven me to think a lot on this topic of late.

SeaWatch takes sighting data, but in a far less quality controlled manner than ORCA. In fact, it is almost entirely unquantitative. The sightings are sent in by regular members of the public who’ve spotted a whale or dolphin while out and about. Even if someone makes the same route to walk their dog each and every morning, that doesn’t exactly constitute a regular survey transect. Estimating populations from surveys are all about a constant search effort in certain spot over a given time, augmented with other known information, such as the regularity with which the animals need to breathe. You don’t exactly get that with a lot of volunteer data – it’s more like, ’10 past 2, Dave saw a dolphin near the lighthouse’.

But that is not to say this data is not useful, not by any means. Some of the SeaWatch data does have very good temporal coverage, particularly for the South West, where regular whale watching cruise trips record the exact time and location of every sighting made. That’s essentially a 12 hour dedicated marine mammal survey, each and every day.

What’s more, studying the data really does reveal some unexpected things. Assuming that laypeople are identifying these species correctly – which is, unfortunately, a fairly significant assumption – then these data really do have the potential to inform what we understand about the distribution patterns of species around our coast. One of Jess and I’s most interesting take homes from our time in Malaysia and playing with their database is that, though the South China sea has a far greater species richness than anything closer to home, the regularity with which they see most of them is pretty low. A two-day survey with ORCA almost always sees the species the North Sea has to offer. Out of the packet of information on 50 species we got prior to a week on the boat in Malaysia, we saw one.

All of this is negligible, however, when you consider one thing. That the people doing this whale watching, this surveying, are just everyday people. People who are thinking keenly about not just the existence of whales and dolphins in our waters, but whether they are maintaing healthy populations. That conservation is more than simply an animal’s presence. Even if it is only for a free trip, people who otherwise might be barely interested in cetacean sightings are given the opportunity to see first hand exactly the kinds of creatures that need monitoring and protecting. It’s hard to remain indifferent to a cause when you see it up close. Citizen sighting schemes increase public awareness, in a very involved way.

Some peer-reviewed literature actively encourages them for that very reason, especially as, in this case, the data collected revealed previously unknown seasonal dynamics in a Sardinian basking shark population. Casual, low-cost science can produce valid findings, findings that can go on to help manage and conserve populations.

Though the ability of data collected by volunteers to inform real scientific study is unquestioned, it is also entirely reasonable to say that the greatest strength of ORCA, SeaWatch, and all those projects like them is that they have the capacity to increase public awareness, and bring investment of not simply money, but time, effort and enthusiasm into the monitoring and conservation of the whale and dolphins that live around the UK.

I’ll send you a postcard from Amsterdam.

Chocolate improves your memory, but only in insane quantities

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“Challenge accepted”, right?

Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. The verdict come from a study published in Nature Neuroscience in November 2014, which saw volunteers ingest increased quantities of flavanols; chemicals which naturally occur in cocoa, red wine and teas.

The positive effect of tea containing these and related chemicals has been long extolled, and though there have been no proven benefits to human health, studies have shown that ageing mice fed on plant-derived flavanol rich diets have enhanced physiological processes and elevated brain activity, improving blood flow to the brain in addition to boosting memory retention. This small study aimed to investigate whether the same applies to larger mammals, us humans.

18 volunteers consumed supplements of only 10 milligrams of flavanols each day across two weeks, while across the same time period another 19 consumed 900 milligrams of flavanols. The dose was delivered in two drinks per day, mixed with water or milk, in addition to a regime of aerobic exercise.

At the end of the three month study, both of the improvements reported in the study involving mice were investigated. All the volunteers underwent MRI scans, which revealed that those taking the higher dose of flavanols had 20% higher blood flow rates to a given region of the brain than those in the other group.

Further, flavanols appear to have improved volunteer’s memories. Both before and after the trail, all 37 people were asked to complete a memory test involving identifying abstract shapes they’ve already been shown from a selection twice the size. The high dose group, on average, reacted to each shape 630 milliseconds faster than the low dose group.

These results confirm what we already know – that ingestion of cocoa flavanols improves vasodialation and blood flow to both the peripheries of the body and the brain, which it does so by acting on the synthesis and degradation of vital nitric oxide compounds. In 2014, the European Food Safety Authority even approved the ability for cocoa products containing over 200 milligrams of flavanols to claim they “maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”. Some flavanols, eliciting this improved blood flow, have even been linked to reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. The changes seen in this study, however, have even more exciting implications.

The region of increased blood flow, the dentate gyrus, has been previously linked to age-related memory loss, and it is suggested that increasing reaction times in memory based tasks has the potential to give older people elements of brain function that they possessed decades ago.

Sadly though, increasing your consumption of regular chocolate cannot bring you these benefits.

Not only – to quote Scott Small, one of the study’s authors – would you have to consume a volume of chocolate so large as to be damaging to your health to obtain these benefits, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet has further warnings. An editorial from 2007 actively discouraged against increasing your intake of dark chocolate even slightly above the normal, because of the trade off with increased fat, sugar and calories, as well as the possibility that any flavanols may have been removed anyway, to reduce bitterness.

Authors in the field seem to be keenly aware of the emotionally charged debated and self-professed slight hilarity that surrounds investigating the health benefits of chocolate, especially in the context of media excitement at the prospect – searching for “Is chocolate good for you?” will bring you over 200 million results.

Answers to that question so far seem positive, with the potential to improve countless lives. Investigation into exact the length and magnitude of the effects that flavanols have is still needed, as well as the reminder that, sadly, you likely can’t use these benefits to justify that extra Twix, either.

Pride in science

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This post was first published in the collaborative SUSU LGBTWessex Scene and The Edge magazine, produced for LGBT History Month 2015.

Science and the LGBT community cannot be said to have always had the most simple relationship; reflecting contemporary attitudes, the field has not always been on the right side of history.

Though it’s illegality was abolished in the UK in 1967, psychological study continued to define homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973. This view had been steadily changing in parallel with the larger LGBT rights movement, with Alfred Kinsey’s research in the 1950s showing that the spectrum of human sexuality was more diverse and normal than ever before thought. Following that, Havelock Ellis’ 1963 research suggested that while homosexuality did make you clearly different, its only psychological ill effects arose from people repressing their normal sex behaviour.

In the modern day, as ever, science loves to quantify. Studies have been carried out, taking a global census of attitudes to homosexuality. In 2013 the Pew Research Centre posed a simple question: “Should society accept homosexuality?”. Britain was the sixth most positive country on the list, with 76% of people answering ‘Yes’, and with increases of 10-20% in positive responses from South Korea, the United States and Canada in the past seven years, attitudes can be conclusively said to be changing for the better.

But what is it like to be part of both the LGBT and scientific communities today?

In science, and often academia as a whole, you are judged first and foremost on the quality of the research you produce. This can in theory be a blessing; that it is a field where it is not your personal qualities which are the most interesting thing about you, but rather your work. Where scientists are just scientists, and their gender identity and sexual orientation is irrelevant.

But this invisibility is not wholly good. It could even be considered damaging, when a lack of communication makes academia an uncomfortable place for minorities, and the field is not so much accepting, as running on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

This is why role models are so important. As in the sporting world, where the LGBT community is a largely invisible minority, prominent athletes coming out can touch lives; Tom Daley’s coming out in December 2013 went hand-in-hand with his Olympic achievements, aiming to inspire younger generations into becoming confident, happy sportsmen and women.

University of York chemistry professor David Smith asks, “Does it matter that I am a gay scientist? It certainly doesn’t make me a better or worse scientist, but I believe it matters that people know.” He makes the choice to actively talk about his sexuality, on both Twitter and in his professional biography. He has even drawn inspiration for some of his research from his husband’s health problems, developing new chemical alternatives to blood thinning drugs with the potential to save lives.

In this way, there has been huge effort to get people within the scientific community talking about these issues, with organisations including the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (a self-confessed mouthful, which also goes by NOGLSTOP, pronounced something like “nah-goal-step”’) offering networking and support.

However, perhaps the most important reason why we should try to avoid thinking that nothing except an academic’s scientific output matters is that it undervalues us as individuals.

Science and technology, perhaps more than any, is an increasingly global field. Researchers work in teams both within their own institutions and across the globe, interacting with diverse scientists with come up with novel ideas and concepts. In our modern world nothing is insular, let alone discoveries and technologies with the potential to affect everyone. We cannot allow outdated prejudice to prevent their development.

If we care only about the results of science, and not those who do it, we are at risk of forgetting that scientific innovations affect us all, and that they have the ability to bring us closer together than ever before.

Science, for all of its facts and figures, is carried out by people.