With the buzz of the Rio 2016 Olympics still in the air and the hype for the Paralympics building, plenty of us have been inspired to get off the sofa and try something new. For me that meant a trip to the National Cycling Centre here in Manchester for my first taste of track cycling. There’s nothing like hurtling around a velodrome at high speed on a bike with no brakes to get your pulse racing! I’d definitely recommend giving it a go if you enjoy a sweaty adrenaline kick. But as I’m sure many amateur athletes are finding, following in the footsteps of Olympic greats comes with physical payback.
Between the hard work pedaling and my unflinching grip on the bike’s handlebars, I was pretty sore the day after my velodrome adventure. My first reaction was to reach for the ibuprofen, but that may not be as helpful as I hoped. Why? We’re back to the usual culprit: the immune system.
Which headline is more likely to grab your attention?
‘Viruses ‘more dangerous in the morning”
‘Sleep cycle time of infection affects the growth of viruses in mice and cells’
Even as a scientist I’m more likely to follow a link from the first line. Snappy headlines do an important job, they capture our interest, but they don’t always give us the full story. This is the start of a regular post looking at the science behind an some of the eye catching headlines. To be clear, I’m not criticising the science reporting in these pieces. The original article for this week’s headline explains the study it is based on and possible consequences clearly and reasonably. Catchy headlines have their place drawing our attention to interesting research. This is just a chance to take a deeper look at the science surrounding the words of the headline, and a fun check on whether you should be rushing to change your day to day habits. So on to this week’s headline…
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the amazing Blue Dot festival at Jodrell Bank. It was an inspiring meeting of art and scientific ideas, with talks, music and activities. For me it wasn’t all play, I was there as a volunteer for the British Society for Immunology (BSI), hoping to get the festival crowds engaged in some citizen science.
Citizen science means involving members of the public in collecting data and carrying out research. Working together on such a large scale to solve a problem can have fantastic results. Our problem: why are more and more people suffering from seasonal allergies like hay fever?
Nobody likes being ill at work. Waking up with a fever, many of us would just take the day off. But what if your work happens to be 220 miles above the earth’s surface, and you live there too? This is the reality for astronauts at the International Space Station. Space flight affects the human body in many different ways, from loss of muscle and bone mass on long journeys to motion sickness, and it looks like it affects the immune system too. The team of astronauts which returned from the International Space Station this week, including British astronaut Tim Peake, brought with them data and samples which could help us understand this effect.
Imagine you are stepping outside on a beautiful summer’s day, you admire the blue skies and take a deep breath in. Before you’ve even had a chance to put on your sunglasses, your nose is streaming, your eyes are itching, sneezes follow one after the other. What’s going on?
With even Manchester enjoying three (pretty much) solid days of sunshine it seems like summer has arrived, but for some this is a mixed blessing. An estimated 1 in 5 people in the UK suffer from hay fever (1), also called seasonal allergic rhinitis. In these people an allergic reaction to pollen can cause itchy eyes, blocked or runny noses and sneezing. In more severe cases, pollen allergies even trigger asthma attacks. If you are one of these unlucky people, I’m afraid your immune system is to blame. Allergies are caused by an immune reaction to something relatively harmless. The good news is that understanding how this works has helped provide some relief to those itchy noses, and may even reveal a cure for some allergies.
In a few short months I will be standing on a wooden box shouting about immunology to anyone lucky enough to walk past me. Don’t worry, I’m not carefully planning a mid-PhD breakdown, I’m taking part in Soapbox Science. Soapbox Science puts female scientists on a platform for an hour, speaker’s corner style, to talk about their work. It’s about getting successful female scientists out there to challenge stereotypes and inspire the next generation. It’s also a great opportunity to engage the unsuspecting public with research on a Saturday afternoon. From a single event in London 5 years ago, Soapbox has grown to events across the country. This year there will even be a Soapbox event in Australia. I’ll be taking part in the Manchester event on 23rd July.
It takes a good reason to get me out of bed before 9 am on a Saturday morning. Luckily science is a great reason, and getting a chance to share science, even better. This weekend our research centre joined other scientists from Manchester at the Body Experience at Manchester Museum. The whole museum was turned in to the human body for a family day, complete with real kidneys and pieces of brain to see and touch (I recommend before lunch, not afterwards!) and plenty of games and activities explaining parts of our body. We represented the immune system, challenging visitors to identify good and bad bacteria, hit a flu target with Velcro antibodies and find the infected ducks in our pond. The duck pond was dreamt up by one of the postdocs in ourlab as a way to explain how your natural killer cells identify infected cells to target. We’ve used it at quite a few public engagement events and the bright yellow ducks never fail to draw interest. Of course some of the younger children just want to play with the ducks, but with older children, or parents of children just playing, I had some great conversations about the immune system. From the entertaining to the reminders of why research matters, here’s a few of my conversations over ducks.
Happy International Women’s Day! In honour of the day I’d like to tell you a bit about one of my favourite female scientists, an inspiring immunologist called Polly Matzinger.
I first learned about Polly Matzinger in a sleepy afternoon immunology lecture in my second year of university. Just as my attention was beginning to drift I was pulled back to the room by an unusual phrase to hear in an immunology lecture: ‘Playboy bunny’. The lecturer was talking about Polly Matzinger. She originally studied music at university and went on to a series of odd jobs including working as a cocktail waitress and a stint as a playboy bunny. It when she was working as a waitress near the University of California in Davis that she met a young professor who, sparked by an insightful question from Matzinger, embarked on a 9 month campaign bringing her scientific papers and encouraging her to study further. She eventually did, gaining a bachelor’s degree and a PhD. Dr. Matzinger has said that she owes that man her life (1).
Your immune cells are part of a powerful and complex coordinated system. You could think of it like a shiny new smartphone, all the pieces working together to respond when required. If your smartphone developed a fault and kept ringing or buzzing, refusing to turn off, what would you do?
Autoimmune diseases are caused by your immune system reacting when it shouldn’t. Cells and proteins that would normally be seen as safe are instead viewed as dangerous invaders, and attacked and destroyed. This leads to problems like type 1 diabetes, caused by your immune system attacking the cells which make insulin and keep blood sugar steady , multiple sclerosis, caused by attacks on nerve cells leading to muscle weakness, or rheumatoid arthritis, where misplaced inflammation causes joint pain and swelling.
Where are all the quarks? Am I what I eat? What has the large hadron collider done for me? I learned the answer to all these questions and more competing in Fame Lab UK this month. Fame Lab is an international science communication competition which challenges participants to present a Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths concept in an entertaining way in just three minutes. Piece of cake right? In early February I went along to a workshop at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry to find out more.