Sunday, 19 June 2016

Love at first sight: Why I fell in love with Gladstone's Library

Sleeping with books. This is how I first learned about Gladstone’s Library

Being a bookworm I could not miss the opportunity to visit such a wonderful place. I went for a Glimpse tour of the Reading Rooms: 15 minutes of bliss where I was allowed not only to look around but also to take books off the shelves!

The collections include mostly books about the Humanities, like Religion, Politics, Literature, and History. I was amazed to see the Bible in so many different languages. 

Gladstone’s very own books are also part of the collection. Most interesting to me was to find that some of his books were about Religion and Science. I even discovered three volumes of Charles Darwin’s Letters!

I would have loved to have more time to browse the collection and keep unlocking its secrets. Maybe one day…

A few days later, a letter came in the post thanking me for my donation. Tiny details like these are also part of what makes this place so special. Thank you Katharine Easterby for this.


The perfect atmosphere for writing and reading. Whether you are a bookworm or not, this is a place not to be missed.



An interactive 360 degree view from outside Gladstone's Library. Click, drag and explore!

Hearing from the experts in Ovarian Cancer

On Tuesday I attended the “Ask the experts conference organised by Target Ovarian Cancer.


Topics covered:

  •     Familial risk of ovarian cancer
  •     Improvements in diagnosis of ovarian cancer
  •     Advances in surgery
  •     Targeted treatments
  •     Public policy
  •     The role of a Research Advocate
  •     Living well with ovarian cancer
  •     The Target Ovarian Cancer Research Programme

I learned a lot form all the talks, however, I found the following sessions particularly interesting:


LIVING WELL WITH OVARIAN CANCER

According to PennyBrohn UK this is not rocket science. There are very easy things you can do to boost your immune system and live better, whether you suffer from cancer or not:
     
  •    Exercise regularly
  •    Manage your levels of stress
  •    Do activities you enjoy
  •    Keep a healthy diet


Below is a picture of the ideal Penny Brohn’s healthy eating plate. Note its particular features:
              
  •   Variety and colour              

  •   Natural whole foods              

  •   Plant based with some animal products              

  •   Herbs & spices





THE ROLE OF A RESEARCH ADVOCATE

Justin Champagne talked to us about Target Ovarian Cancer’s Research Advocates

This scheme relies on volunteers with a non-medical background and a connection with ovarian cancer who advice on research and “translate” it into plain English. Some of the activities of a research advocate are:

  •      Review research grant applications: help to shortlist the best candidates by becoming “lay reviewers”, and see the outputs of successfully funded projects at universities like Oxford and Cambridge.

  •      Review projects: make sure projects are commented in lay terms. For example the ROCkeTS (Refining Ovarian Cancer Test Accuracy Scores) project led by the University of Birmingham, intended to improve diagnosis of ovarian cancer.



The last part of this conference was about Target Ovarian Cancer’s RESEARCH PROGRAMME highlighting some of the projects they fund. The topics were absolutely fascinating but the presentations were not at all tailored for the general public.

I felt really sad when this lady turned to me and said “I didn’t understand anything”. It was not surprising when during one of the talks one member of the audience actually interrupted the speaker to say “I don’t understand what you mean by overexpression“.  

I am a scientist, and during some of these talks I felt like I was in a scientific conference! The slides showed figures that would belong in a science paper with terminology that non-scientists would not understand.

I know how challenging it is to translate research into plain English, but PLEASE, make an effort! How frustrating it must be for people connected with cancer when they go to events like this, hoping to learn about the new treatments and leaving baffled and confused.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to urge all the SCIENTISTS out there to DROP THE JARGON!





USEFUL LINKS

Participate in The BRCA protect Research Clinic. This programme, run by UCL, is trying to overcome the need of surgery by finding new ways of preventing breast and ovarian cancer.


Find if you have increased cancer risk in your family with the Cancer Genetics app developed by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. 


Record your symptoms with the Target Ovarian Cancer Symptoms diary app.

Take part in the Target Ovarian Cancer Pathfinder 2016survey, campaigning for increased awareness, higher survival and better funding for ovarian cancer. Open for women with ovarian cancer, clinical nurses caring for women with ovarian cancer, and family and friends of women with ovarian cancer.

Visit the Penny Brohn UK website to get information about their services and courses.

Read Justin’s blog post to find out what being a Research Advocate is like and how you can become one.



Thursday, 25 February 2016

A successful Crowdfunding campaign

“Suddenly the wealth is not concentrated anymore. Suddenly the society becomes more powerful”

Inspiring words from Emanuela Vartolomei, founder and CEO of All Street, the first company to help individuals with Crowdfunding.


          


I was curious to know what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign. So here are Emanuela’s tips:


Time
You must set aside time for your crowdfunding enterprise. Preparation should take about three months, then one or two months to run the campaign.

TEAM

Have a good core team is a must.  You have to get on board collaborators who can bring the skills you lack, for example, someone to do the social media work, someone to deal with the legal aspects, etc.


BUDGET

Have a realistic budget in place, including the salary for your core team. It takes a minimum of £10,000 to support a campaign. Bear in mind that you need to bring 30% of the funds before starting.


SOCIAL MEDIA

You need a sound social media marketing plan. An AMAZING VIDEO is KEY if you want to succeed, and so is the CONSTANT UPDATING of information via Twitter and other channels.


And last but not least...

get a crowd!

You need to build an initial group of supporters (like family and friends) who have to be there before the launch. Ideally, you need to reach at least 10,000 people even if it isn’t direct reach. This is where social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. come in handy.



If all that sounds like a hassle, why bother?

It is a very good springboard for the company because people will know you. You’ll acquire clients and partners, and you’ll be known to investors. 


Have a look at some of the crowdfunding platforms:







Hey scientists, you might find this publication very useful:  A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding


Friday, 14 August 2015

Swapping skirts for trousers: the price for a trip around the world

It is 1766. A French expedition has been sent to circumnavigate the globe. In a world dominated by men, a rumour starts spreading . . . There is a WOMAN on board!




While I was doing research for my previous post, I came across this article talking about the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. I found it really interesting and decided to look for more information about that. It turned out that a book had already been written: The discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley.

Jeanne Baret was born in France in 1740 and came from a working class family. This is the first striking fact about her: In those times, how come someone who came from low origins ended up in a trip around the world?

Research about Jeanne’s life places her as an “herb woman”, someone who collected plants and used them for medicinal purposes. This is how she was supposed to have met the man who made her voyage possible: Philibert Commerson, a botanist who lived around the same area. In her book, Ridley imagines their meeting during one of the collecting trips.

The story tells us that Jeanne became Commerson’s lover and moved to his place after his wife passed away. This is the second striking fact about Jeanne: Why would someone with a high status would need a woman like her? It is quite obvious that this must have been due to her great knowledge of plants.

At the time, trips around the world were the way to claim new lands. The French organised such a trip in 1766. The purpose of the trip was to expand their territory and their scientific knowledge by collecting new specimens. Commerson was invited to join as the expedition’s botanist and took an assistant with him. I’m sure you can now guess who the assistant was. The third striking fact about Jeanne: How did a woman manage to join such an expedition? It was banned and unthinkable! So Jeanne’s clever idea was to dress as a man and play the part of Commerson’s assistant.

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was in charge of the expedition comprising about 300 men and two ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile. A handful of journals lived to tell the story of what happened during the voyage, that’s how we know about Jeanne’s disguise and what she did during the trip.




I’m sure you are wondering, how was it possible that not one single man realised that Jeanne was a woman? The most popular story is that Jeanne’s cover was revealed during their stay in Tahiti. That must have been about 18 months after the journey started. It is said that the natives were the ones who realised that she was a girl the moment she set foot on the island. This came as a surprise to everyone on board, especially to Bougainville.

This story is not really believable. It is thought that Bougainville made it up to avoid conflict due to laws banning women from those journeys. He, like Commerson, must have recognised Jeanne’s potential to make their botanising expedition a success. Not wanting to get rid of her, he had to come up with a story. Here we have the fourth striking fact: thanks to her knowledge and dedication, Jeanne was allowed to stay through the whole expedition.

We can tell by the surviving accounts that Jeanne had been very brave and worked extremely hard to collect the specimens. She ventured into the most dangerous lands, climbed steep hills and sharp rocks, always carrying her botanising equipment, which included an incredibly heavy field press.

They went to places like Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and through the Strait of Magellan in South America; Tahiti, New Britain and New Ireland in The Pacific. The final stop was the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. 

The expedition left for France in 1768, however, Jeanne and Commerson stayed behind. They decided to go to Madagascar to increase their collection, which amounted to more than 6000 pieces! This is now displayed at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Commerson died in Mauritius and Jeanne married a soldier called Jean Dubernat. They came back to France until 1775, where she lived till the age of 67.


Two of the most popular discoveries of this expedition were:






  • The bougainvillea (Bougainvillea brasiliensis), discovered in Rio de Janeiro and named after Bougainville.









  • Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus comersonii) (link and figure), which they spotted while crossing the Strait of Magellan.













None of the new specimens were named after Jeanne. However, it is said that while in Madagascar Commerson did name a plant after her. The genus was called Baretia, and according to Commerson it comprised three species: Baretia bonafidia, Baretia oppotisiva, and Baretia heterophylla. The plants have different shapes and sizes of leaves, hinting at the dubious identity of Jeanne while they were at sea. There are now about 50 species belonging to this genus, which was sadly renamed to Turraea.


Up until 2012 there were no varieties named after Jeanne. Then a group in the USA decided that it was time to commemorate her success: Solanum baretiae is a new species of Solanum. This genus is one of the largest and commercially important on earth and includes the tomato, potato and eggplant. Solanum baretiae grows at high altitudes (about 1900 to 3000 m) mostly in the south of Ecuador and north of Peru, and like Commerson’s Baretia, its leaves are variable.



At last Jeanne’s name has been honoured, a happy ending to the story of a remarkable woman.


References:




Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Chasing dreams and butterflies

Imagine a Lady in the 1600s chasing and collecting butterflies… People around her thought she was mad.

 “Lady of the Butterflies”, the novel by Fiona Mountain, tells the story of  Lady Eleanor Glanville, butterfly enthusiast, and the search for HER butterfly.




To start with, I’ll tell you a bit about some of the characters who play a very important part of the story:



A pharmacist and insect collector, he was the first person to give butterflies English names. He corresponded with Eleanor, and used her observations and specimens in his famous illustrated catalogue of British insects “Gazophylacium naturae & artis”.




Famous for his work on insect anatomy and his publication “The Natural History of Insects”, Jan did more than dissecting only insects: He designed the frog nerve-muscle preparation. With this, he disproved the theory that nerve movement happened because of “animal spirits”, and opened up a way to understand nerve function. Basically, all we know now about nerves happened because of this man and his frogs. Amazing!





A famous physician during his time, and even President of the Royal Society, he was also a passionate collector of plants and animals.

In 1687 he travelled to Jamaica to find medicinal plants. During his time there, he bought vast quantities of Peruvian bark, then known as Jesuits’ powder, to bring back to Britain. This powder is the source of quinine, the drug used to treat malaria

But that is not all, while in Jamaica, he came across the drink made from cocoa beans (chocolate). He worked on a recipe to mix it with milk and sugar, inventing milk chocolate. Eventually he sold his recipe to the Cadbury brothers and we know the rest of the story. Thanks Sir Hans from us chocoholics!

His obsession with collections drove him to buy as many as became available. For example, he acquired James Petiver’s in 1718, which included the correspondence with Eleanor. Sir Hans offered to sell his collections to the nation after his death. When this happened in 1753, his collections included 5,439 insects and over 12,000 samples of plant material among many other objects. This collection was part of the foundation of the British Museum, which is now the Natural History Museum.



So what happened to Eleanor?

Sadly, Eleanor was not able to spread her wings as much as she would have liked to. But even then, despite what people thought, she managed to gather important information which she shared with James Petiver. Eleanor’s work lives today as part of the collections in the Natural History Museum.


And what about her butterfly?

Eleanor did find her butterfly. It was named after her because she was the first person to catch it: the Glanville fritillary (Melitaea cinxia). Despite being one of the rarest, we can still find it on the Isle of Wight. It would be so sad to let it disappear!


Monday, 1 June 2015

Leonora in the tower

Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen is amazing, but even more astounding is the story behind it.

It is the fifth castle to be built in the same area. You can read more about the previous castles and why they disappeared here .


The Palace has a section underground where you can see the ruins of the first (Absalon’s Castle) and second (Copenhagen Castle) castles. Among the ruins of the second castle, stand the remains of what was once called The Blue Tower.

Like in the story of Rapunzel, a remarkable woman spent almost 22 years imprisoned in this tower: Leonora Christina Ulfeldt. She was the daughter of Christian IV of Denmark and was taken to prison only because she was the wife of a traitor.


I was curious to know more about her, so I read her memoirs which she wrote after her imprisonment. Her notes include a small autobiography where she recounts how at 21 she learned Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and English, and how she translated books from Spanish and from French. She also talks about her marriage to Corfitz Ulfeldt, relating how soon afterwards, she paid for his debts with her jewellery.

When she was taken prisoner, she was put in a cell that was known as The Dark Church. She describes the horrible stench and the food and drink as “bitter bread and bitter gall”.  After a while she was moved up to a cleaner cell where she spent most of her imprisonment. She honours God for her strength and even acknowledges her suffering for “having loved a virtuous husband” and for “not having abandoned him in misfortune”.


She relates how she had no unemployed hours: she read the Bible, embroidered, and even taught one of the maids how to read. Not only brave but also creative, she figured that by mixing clay with beer she could make portraits, jugs and vases. 

And she even recorded two observations which she thought fit for a naturalist:
She discovered “a kind of caterpillar which brings forth small living grubs like itself” and that “a flea gives birth to a fully formed flea”.

Leonora Christina is now in my list of heroines; I love how her bravery, patience, and creativity got her through those 22 years.


Reference:

Friday, 1 May 2015

Of Vikings, Ships and Combs

What I loved the most about Oslo was the Viking Ship Museum. I had never seen a Viking ship in real life. They are absolutely amazing.


I was impressed by their size, but what I found truly interesting was that the Vikings buried their dead in those ships. I cannot imagine how it must have been to inter such enormous things. The dead were buried together with utensils and jewellery in the case of women, tools and weapons in the case of men. There were also remains of dogs and horses, as well as food and drink in some of the graves. It reminded me a bit of what they did in Egypt. It is obvious that the way the bodies were placed surrounded by all those objects had a special meaning. The literature suggests a belief in life after death.


One of the objects found in the graves that drew my attention was the comb. Searching for information, I found this book by Steven P. Ashby. Steven tries to “see” how the Vikings lived by analysing the making and use of combs. Combs played a very important role in Viking life, they were made of antlers from red deer, reindeer or elk.

The book takes you through the stages of comb-making and use. It analyses questions like how the Vikings got the rough materials, how they manufactured the combs and if they sold them or gave them as gifts. It also touches on themes like the uses of combs, for example, whether they were used for grooming or as ornaments, if they were a symbol of status, and why they were found in the graves. After reading it, I realised that my conception of the Vikings was completely wrong. For one thing, they paid great attention to their hair!


When in Oslo visit The Viking Ship museum, a MUST SEE.

References:

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Royal horses

During my holiday in Copenhagen I went to Christiansborg Palace and visited the Royal Stables. There I saw the most beautiful white horses!




Kladrubers come from the Czech Republic. They were bred during the 17th Century to be used for ceremonial tasks, like pulling carriages. They can be grey or black. The ones I saw were mostly white with a few grey freckles. A curious fact is that they are born dark and turn white when they reach 6 or 7 years of age.

The grey population is rather small. So I was very sad when I read that they are an endangered breed. Luckily, conservation programmes have been established to deal with problems like loss of genetic variability due to inbreeding. However, they are also threatened by cancer and viral infections.




Like  humans, horses suffer from skin cancer. Kladrubers in particular are prone to this disease. Part of the conservation programmes include studies to find genetic markers related to predisposition and resistance to melanoma.  

Kladrubers are also victims of infection by Equine herpesviruses. In particular, Equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1) affects the respiratory tract and causes abortions in pregnant mares. Fortunately , we now have vaccines which prevent the spreading of the virus.




I hope that thanks to the conservation programmes, these horses will not be considered an endangered breed in the near future.



Visit the Royal Stables if you go to Copenhagen!



References:


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Crazy about bamboo

As part of my visit to Mexico City (see my post about the aquarium) I also went to the zoo. 

Chapultepec Zoo is amazing because it is in the middle of the city. Entrance is free and you only have to pay to visit some of the attractions like the butterfly or reptile houses.

The purpose of my visit was to see the pandas. I went straight away to their enclosure and saw a female called Xin Xin. I was impressed at the amount of bamboo she was having for breakfast. Then I wondered what the nutritional properties of bamboo were, and whether humans could also eat it.


Searching the literature, I found this amazing review by a group in India. Here are some of the facts I found most interesting:

Where to find bamboo:

There are more than 1250 species of bamboo distributed in the world. In particular, around 1000 of these species are found in Asia. For example, China and India are two of the main countries that produce bamboo.


Food products:

People around the world have been consuming bamboo shoots for generations. They have used it for sustenance and in medicinal preparations.

Not all species are edible. However, this has not stopped the production of commercially available pickles, powders, juices and even beer.


Nutritional composition:

Bamboo shoots are highly nutritious. They contain protein, carbohydrates, vitamins like B1 and B6, and minerals like potassium and the antioxidant selenium. On top of that, they have low fat and high fibre content.


Toxicity:

Bamboo shoots sound like a dream food. But there’s a dark side to them: Raw shoots contain cyanide. Eating cyanide regularly, at doses that are not lethal, can affect reproduction and cause thyroid problems. 

Severe cyanide poisoning can cause a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, head and stomach pains, diarrhoea, convulsions, and even death.

To avoid intoxication, the shoots have to be processed by methods like boiling, soaking, drying, and fermentation.


Medicinal properties:

Some communities around the world use bamboo paste to treat fungal infections and to heal wounds.  They also boil the shoots to make a soup which they use to treat stomach ulcers.

There aren't many scientific studies regarding the medicinal properties of bamboo shoots. Some studies in rats suggest that it might be good at lowering levels of cholesterol. Indeed, research in this area has a long way to go.




To finish this post on a good note, I’d like to share this article discussing the use of bamboo to make tiles. Wonderful!


References:

Friday, 20 February 2015

Finding Dory in Mexico

A marine paradise underneath Mexico City: Inbursa Aquarium.

I enjoyed visiting this place so much. Four underground levels where you can see over 15,000 varieties from 300 species! Not easy when Mexico City is quite far from the sea.

I saw sharks, manta rays, penguins, and other fish I had never seen before. However, my younger self wanted to find Dory. I was not the only one though. All these kids were also wondering where Dory was. After looking through many fish tanks, we finally spotted her!




I did not have a clue what kind of fish Dory was. Something I learned from my visit was that Dory (Paracanthurus hepatus) is a surgeonfish. They have other names like the regal tang or blue tang.

One thing I love about Dory is her colours. What makes Dory have such a beautiful blue body with a black stripe and a yellow tail?

Dory’s blue colour is due to the reflection of blue wavelengths from the surface of her body. If you zoom in on the surface, you will find cells called iridophores, which in turn contain tiny crystals that reflect the light. These crystals are called reflective platelets.

Apart from blue, Dory has a yellow tail and a black stripe. The colour in these cases is not due to reflective platelets but to the presence of cells that make pigments: Xanthophores make the yellow and melanophores make the black.




Colours in animals help them to adapt to their environment. For example, they can change colour to match the background and hide from predators, or they can display their colours to attract a partner. So how can animals change their colours?


Colour changing is known as physiological colour change. It happens when the pigments inside the cells move. For example, the melanophores contain the black pigment called melanin. If melanin is properly distributed within the cells, the skin colour is black, but when melanin aggregates the skin turns paler. In the case of iridophores, which don’t have any pigments, the reflective platelets change their angles to reflect the light in another way.

Wow, isn't Dory amazing?


Oh! And don't forget to visit the aquarium if you go to Mexico City.You’ll love it!


References: