We Need to Talk About SciComm

Life as a Scientist, Women In Science

Last week was certainly A Week for science communication, in more ways than one. On the one, positive, exciting hand last week was Brain Awareness Week, and – if you’re in the UK – national Science Week (and we also managed to squeeze in Pi Day on the 14th of March, and National Sleep Day). On the other, less positive hand, the week also saw feathers ruffled in the online science community by an op-ed article published in high-profile journal Science, which slated women who use Instagram to communicate their research. But more on that later.


For me, Brain Awareness Week was a non-stop fest of getting out of the lab and taking my work out and about to the public. First stop was a trip to a girls’ school in Slough, having been invited to speak at a science careers fair they were holding. This was a great experience: I was thoroughly grilled and put through my paces with a series of quick-fire, speed dating-esque question sessions, to give the pupils a chance to find out what it’s like to be a scientist and what it takes to get there.

Careers Fair.jpg

Right after this, it was straight back to London to head to the Francis Crick Institute, who were hosting their second evening ‘Late’ event: Deconstructing Patterns. Like other museum ‘Late’ events, such as those at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, this gave members of the public a chance to come and have fun with science after-hours for free. As one of their Science Buskers, I was wandering around the event, roping (literally!) attendees into all kinds of hands-on science games: from a rope escape puzzle simulating how chromosomes line up and are divided between replicating cells; to ‘Mystery Object’ – where participants are invited to pull a mystery lab object out of a bag (including tubes of live fruit flies!) and guess what it’s for.

Finally, on Friday I headed to a village primary school in Buckinghamshire to give an assembly to round off their science week activities. In this I introduced the kids to the tiny-but-mighty fruitfly: Drosophila melanogaster, which we work with in our lab. After getting them to guess from a photo of me what my job was (brief false start where one kid thought I ‘baked cakes’, because of my white coat!) we chatted about where fruitflies come from and their lifecycle. This of course required that we enact the stages of this (complete with paper-maché fruit fly head and wings for one lucky volunteer). I also discovered that there is little that 7-year-old kids find more hilarious than gleefully wrapping their head teacher in bubble wrap to turn her into a fly pupa!

So, now that I’ve finally had a chance to take a breather, let’s talk about why Science’s article has been such a slap in the face for many involved in science communication, and especially women. In a nutshell, the article was one woman’s opinion as to why she doesn’t use Instagram to communicate her research. She argued that women who use Instagram to reach out to a wider audience with their work and research do so because they are forced to by gender inequality in science as a male-dominated profession. This is unfair because ‘time spent on Instagram is time away from research and this affects women more than men’.

Firstly, the writer is completely entitled to their opinion, and the article could have been a very interesting critique on gender inequality in science. However, instead it was a poorly written rant which focused on holding up one particular member of the SciComm community, Science Sam (Samantha Yammine) as a critical example that bordered on a personal attack. It’s main argument relied on unnecessarily shaming her for portraying her femininity alongside her science in her Instagram posts. The writer criticized that the majority of science communication on social media consists of ‘pretty selfies, fun videos, and microscope images captioned with accessible language and cute emojis’, which, they claim, portrays a narrow subset of femininity.

article screenshot

This article was disappointing to read because it supports the stereotype that women in science have been battling since we were first allowed into labs: any femininity you display makes you less likely to be taken seriously. That you’re somehow painting a distracting layer over a lack of scientific ability and brains with lipstick and a pretty dress. Or that you were only graciously hired by a man because you’re deemed conventionally ‘attractive’, not because you’re intelligent and a good scientist. Essentially, Legally Blonde but with lab coats. More than that, it’s saddening that instead of offering solutions to the problems they criticized or stepping up to fill the gap in the Instagram science community they cited (what about the women in science who didn’t like make-up and ‘pretty selfies’?) the female writer instead decided to tear down another woman working hard to be a visible female role model in science. If the writer of the Science article had taken a moment to do some research, instead of picking one woman as an example, she would have seen that female scientists sharing their experiences on social media are a diverse bunch. There are plenty of us demonstrating that every kind of woman can be successful in the lab – not just advocating the message that (shockingly!) yes you can like makeup and still be a badass scientist.

Yes, there is an underlying motivation to increase the visibility of women in science for future generations and demystify science as a career. To spread the message to young girls that a scientist does not look like an old, white-haired man in a lab coat, but in fact looks just like them. I wish I had had the opportunity to discuss the nitty-gritty of what being a scientist involves with an actual scientist when I was in school. From my experience, careers information generally leaves you with the impression that scientists work in labs, wear lab-coats and generally spend their time looking thoughtfully at coloured liquids in test tubes far too complicated for you to possibly understand. ‘I didn’t even know brain science was something you could do as a job!’ was a comment I heard repeatedly from the girls I spoke to last week. And this is one of the reasons why I make time to take my research out of the lab and beyond the research community.

Besides this, given the response of the online science communication community (check out #scientistswhoselfie, #whyiscicomm on any social media) it’s painfully obvious that this article has missed the simple point of why so many of us – who happen to be women – use online platforms to share our research with the world. It’s not because we are ‘forced’ to by gender inequality (although we are all extremely tired and fed up of it, yes). First and foremost: we love doing it!

Using my own personal experiences, the reason why I love sharing my science – especially with all you  non-scientists out there, and especially with children – is because it’s fun. We want to share the exciting work we do, and not only that but it’s incredibly motivating to talk to others and see them get interested and excited about what you do! Plus like many, I do it as well as my research – and, honestly, rather than jeopardising it, it makes me better at my job. As I told many of the girls at their careers fair: there is no point in doing incredible research unless you can communicate and tell the world about it!


Nothing to see here, just a wee fruit fly talking about science.

Ultimately, our emojis and pretty microscope images make our work accessible and relatable to the many outside of science who are actually curious about what we do. And they represent the passion and excitement that drives why so many scientists share their work through social media, and beyond. If having a late-night craft session after a day crammed with research, and goofing around in a paper-maché fruit fly head – for absolutely no payment other than ‘because it’s fun’ – isn’t a prime example of this I don’t know what is. It’s certainly not a look that’s going to make me look pretty on Instagram.

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  • Got a question? If there’s a burning subject you’d like to see discussed on Train of Brain in future posts, leave a comment and let me know.

Who Run the (Science) World?

Women In Science

Hot on the heels (or whatever damn shoes you do your best work in) of last month’s International Women & Girls in Science Day, today is International Women’s Day! What I have to say is nothing new. Dip into social media today and you’ll encounter a roar of positive voices, of which mine is just one. But, if enough of us keep on saying this, maybe one day it’ll finally – finally – get through.

No girl or woman should ever feel that any particular path in life is off limits because of her gender. I may not have known it aged-4, tea-cosy on head, but for me, my path was science – one so notoriously entrenched in old-straight-white-male-ism it has its own separate women’s movement. I was personally fortunate enough that I grew up in an environment surrounded by people that taught me that, if I worked hard and tried my best, nothing was closed off to me. I’m also incredibly fortunate enough still, that now that I’ve got here, wiped my feet, taken my shoes off and made myself at home and said ‘yes, I would like to science please’ – I have yet to experience adversity or negativity specifically because I’m a woman…as far as I’m aware of. But just because I haven’t experienced this directly doesn’t mean there aren’t a multitude of implicit, subtle attitudes against them that women in science encounter regularly, which they may not even notice.

We need this day. We need it as a reminder that change still needs to happen. Let’s start with the more obvious. At one extreme of the scale, there are girls who need this day because even wanting to go to school, let alone wanting to be a scientist, is an act of defiance that could get them killed. We need this day because women are still being paid less than men in the same jobs, fighting a pay gap which, at the current rate of improvement, will take over 100 years to close.

And then, at the other end of the scale, in science we need this day for more subtle, implicit reasons that come from being in an environment dominated by men. For every time an emotionally insecure male colleague does not take you seriously intellectually, because you had the audacity to cry once when that experiment didn’t work for the fifth time and the work was piled high with no end in sight. For every time your opinion feels like it counts for less, that you’re seen as less committed because today you chose to wear a dress and take five minutes extra to do your make-up. For every time when you’ve spoken up in a meeting, argued your point about an experiment result with a male colleague who does not agree – and know that it’ll probably have earned you a muttered reputation for being a ‘bitch’ or ‘intense’, when if it were the other way around, they’d have been commended for being ‘assertive’ and ‘insightful’. Every woman like me, who has enjoyed a positive experience in science so far, knows a female colleague with a ‘horror story’ about a male academic who was manipulative, exploitative, crossed personal boundaries, women who have quit positions knowing their accusations won’t be taken seriously. We need this day because, on my floor of the building I work in, the research staff is dominated by amazing women but there is not a single female lab leader. If I had £1 for every female colleague I’ve heard say they’re uncertain they’ll stay in science after their PhD…I could almost make a dent in my student loan.

As a litmus test (what can I say, I can’t resist an experiment) when I’m working in schools or with children I often ask them to draw me a scientist, and it gives me a mushy feeling of hope for the future every time I see a girl draw themselves in that lab coat, or a boy who draws me, as opposed to an Einstein-esque character. I firmly believe that being the change you want to see is one of the best ways forward, which is why next week – which also just happens to be British Science Week –  I’ll be visiting two schools inviting children to hit me with their burning questions about what it’s like to be a scientist. Past experience tells me to expect some corkers. (‘Do fruitflies poo?’, ‘Does a scientist always have to lick their experiment potions?’ and ‘Does brain smell like ham?’ are some of my previous favourites which will be pretty tough to beat, if I’m honest.) Aside from the comedy value, sharing what we do and inspiring the next generation of future women in science is one of the most empowering things we can do. What better way to make sure there are more incredible women in science in the future than by going out there and finding them yourself?

Not only is today a day to make the need for change heard and how much further we have to go, but it’s also a day to reflect and celebrate how far we’ve come. So to all celebrating today, Happy International Women’s Day! To all the incredible scientists who also just happen to be women: keep doing you! All we ask for is equality, and until we get it: we need this day.

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Curing Alzheimer’s Disease: Piece of Cake?

Neuroscience in the Media

Train of Brain is back! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Harry Potter’s nose-less arch nemesis, the regenerating tail of a salamander, flatulence from last night’s questionable curry…alright, you get it. After an extended hiatus, Train of Brain has been revived with a fresh new format. If only real brains could do the same so easily.

Unlike many other types of cell in your body which are born, grow and die at a realtively rapid rate – where new cells replace dead ones – we have an incredibly limited capacity to regenerate the cells in our brains. There are only two niche areas of your full-grown adult brain which have the capability to produce brand new cells: the subgranular zone of the hippocampus (the area of your brain associated with memory) and the subventricular zone. The majority of your neurons have been with you from birth and will last until the end of your life. This means that, these days, it is entirely reasonable for 80, 90 – even 100-year-old individual neurons to exist! For perspective, compare this to the lifespan of a single skin cell, which lasts a matter of weeks, or a red blood cell which usually is good for around 100 days. And neurons aren’t just sitting around up there idly procrastinating for all those decades: they are high-functioning power-houses constantly working to keep running the 24/7, nonstop show that is you. Throughout your whole life. If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is!

Humans are the only animals that naturally (i.e. outside of a lab) get neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Age is one of the number one risk factors: simply getting older puts you more at risk, with the exception of rarer cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s, such as that depicted in the film Still Alice. So, as we live longer lives, are we simply pushing our neurons past their use-by dates? Are we living beyond the means of our brains? And, looking to the future, a more fascinating question is: how (if at all) will our brains evolve to match our increased life expectancy?

Alzheimer’s was first described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906, so you might well ask what scientists have been doing all this time? Why haven’t we cured Alzheimer’s yet? Well, perhaps one logical way to treat diseases where neurons die would be to replace dead cells with healthy new ones – and indeed, much research has been done and continues to investigate the use of neural stem cells as a treatment for diseases like this. There are many reasons why, although exciting, this kind of idea might actually be difficult to carry out safely and effectively as a treatment. Not only is any kind of brain surgery to administer replacement cells invasive and associated with its own risk, but scientists are still making progress when it comes to even understanding how the healthy brain controls the growth and replication of its cells, and decides what cells to make and when.

Another option is to try and figure out what’s going wrong in brain cells themselves, and causes them to die in the first place. This is the area of research which my own work falls into. Usually, your brain cells are capable of whipping up the proteins they need to function no problem, by reading instructions supplied by your DNA and making any later alterations where necessary. However, a common theme across many neurodegenerative diseases is that some proteins – which particular ones varies between diseases – end up clumping together as ‘aggregates’ in various locations inside neurons.

Think of a healthy brain as the Star Baker in Bake Off who whips up a perfect cake and delivers it to the judges without even breaking a sweat, versus the one who, come the technical challenge, has no idea what’s going on. They throw everything into the bowl and, one oven-side breakdown later, produce a clump of ingredients that could possibly be called cake but looks nothing like what everyone else made. And to top it off they’re so flustered that they manage to deposit their baking catastrophe at the back of the tent in completely the wrong place.

Bake-off disaster

Usually, your brain cells carry out procedures to break down proteins and other cell bits-and-bobs they don’t need, so that they can recycle them to use later, but for some reason these don’t always appear to be effective in neurodegenerative diseases. Either neurons become overloaded with the diseased protein clumps and they just can’t get rid of them quick enough, or perhaps the disease itself has caused other proteins to go wrong that would normally help in this process – which scenario is the case, or whether it’s both is still something researchers, including me, are trying to understand.

Recently a study in Journal of Experimental Medicine by Riqiang Yan and colleagues investigated an enzyme called BACE1. BACE1 is involved in the normal production of a protein in neurons called amyloid beta (Aβ), which, in Alzheimer’s disease builds up in neurons and is a characteristic feature of the disease. Potential drugs which reduce the activity of BACE1 have already been investigated and developed, however there is a downside to stopping BACE1 from doing its job too much: it’s also involved in other processes that ensure neurons and other cells in the brain are able to function properly. So, in this study, instead of simply turning off BACE1 in mice with Aβ build-up, the researchers genetically designed their mice so that they could gradually reduce the activity of BACE1 as the mice got older. They found that they managed to ‘reverse’ the build-up of harmful Aβ and saw an improvement in the brain function and cognitive ability of the mice, suggesting that perhaps this method avoided negatively impacting the other important jobs that BACE1 is needed for in neurons. It sounds like a promising study, however research like this is often evaluated in the media in a way that is, I think, often unhelpful in terms of communicating what a particular study contributes to Alzheimer’s research as a whole. For example, phrases such as ‘reverses Alzheimer’s’ when applied to a study like this, even in a well-written article with the disclaimer that it is in mice, should be carefully considered.

The most a study like this can claim to demonstrate is that the researchers managed to successfully reverse build-up of Aβ…in mice genetically designed to mimic the abnormal Aβ build-up we see in human Alzheimer’s. If you wanted to play the meanest of devil’s advocates, you could argue all this shows is that researchers managed to reverse the effect of a neat genetic tool they’d designed in a nice, neatly defined set of mice. Alzheimer’s in the human brain is much less compartmentalized. While Aβ accumulation in the brain is an important feature of Alzheimer’s, it is most certainly not the only feature. For example, other proteins such as tau, are also well known to go wrong and accumulate abnormally as a feature of Alzheimer’s. And what about other types of cell in the brain besides neurons? For example, astrocytes, which are known to become reactive in response to neurodegenerative disease and potentially harmful to neurons around them. In addition, it’s also worth considering how much we can meaningfully compare the brain of a 6-10 month old mouse (as in this study) with the brain of an 80-year-old human.

disaster cake

In short, it’s not to say that interesting studies like this aren’t crucial when it comes to advancing our understanding of how diseases such as Alzheimer’s work, to a point where we might be able to treat them. But it’s important to remember that work like this fits into the whole human picture, and represents only one isolated way of looking at one particular piece of the puzzle. Had he lived 100 extra years or so, would Alois Alzheimer himself have had this all done-and-dusted, with time to spare perfecting his eclairs to secure eternal Bake Off glory on the side – who knows! But to come back to question of ‘why haven’t we cured Alzheimer’s yet?’ If anything is clear, it’s that the more research reveals crumbs of information, the more it tells us that Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases like it are more chocolate soufflé than Victorian sponge: complicated!

  • I have to ask…‘does my blog look big in this?’ I would love some feedback on Train of Brain’s shiny new look – leave a comment below with your thoughts!
  • Can’t wait until the new blog post? Jump on board! Train of Brain is now on Instagram and Twitter  – follow for more regular snapshots of lab life and interesting science snippets I’ve found across the interwebs. (Plus, you’ll be the first to know when the next blog post is fresh out the oven 😉 )
  • Got a question? If there’s a burning subject you’d like to see discussed on Train of Brain in future posts, leave a comment and let me know.