Guest Blog by Jade Lambert: Choosing your next steps as a Healthcare Scientist – Why an integrated biology masters may be the right choice

Blog Post Introduction from Dr Claire Walker  

Whilst @Girlymicro is taking a well-earned break buying all her Christmas presents in New York, I’ve been loaned this wonderful platform to discuss all sorts of important matters in science and education.  

Recently I’ve been speaking a lot with students of all levels about different opportunities they have in the University environment. Things have changed a lot since my day, it’s not just a BSc then a PhD if you like research. There are so many exciting pathways for students in biological and biomedical sciences to follow, but it can become a bit of a quagmire trying to work out exactly which path you might want to take. I often start the conversation with students describing my own experiences at university and how I came to be in my current role, but increasingly I feel that they are now out of date and just aren’t relevant in the modern system.  

It can feel overwhelming when you look at the decisions you have to make when starting university – do you take an iBMS accredited course, should you do a placement in industry or the NHS or maybe a year abroad, how about a Masters by Research degree, and what the heck is an MBio? Where are the best resources and who should you ask? Dusty old lecturers like myself will be able to tell you about the content of the courses, and all about our love of research. But we aren’t going to be able to tell you what doing a placement feels like, if it’s worth spending the money on an MRes or how to choose the right undergraduate course for you. To that end, I have asked some of my most engaging and eloquent students who are completing all sorts of different degree pathways to give us all some insight into what we can gain from the university experience in 2022 rather than, let’s be kind and say, my experiences which were more than a little while ago. And with that I’m going to hand over to reins to their expert hands.  

My life as an MBio student by Jade Lambert

Since I was a child, I have always obsessed with medical programmes such as 24 hours in A&E. I found the investigative work that goes into diagnosing a patient so cool. When the programmes got a bit gory, like all these programmes tend to do, I would be fixed to the TV, fascinated by the doctor’s knowledge to save their patients. Despite growing up as quite shy person, I’ve always had a passion to helping people and making the world a better place.

I’ve always been interested in doing a science degree, the problem was picking what science degree, I wanted to do them all. At around the age of 16 I was set on doing a degree in biochemistry, until I discovered my dislike for chemistry. So, it was back to the drawing board, until I discovered biomedical science. It was like something in finally me clicked, a degree which brought my love for medicine and hands on laboratory experience all together. Then I was onto my next problem, choosing a university. This problem was a lot easier to solve, as there are only certain universities in the UK which provide an IBMS accredited course. To later register as a biomedical scientist, an accredited biomedical science degree is needed.

I landed myself applying for an integrated masters (MBio) in biomedical science at the University of Lincoln. The course is quite unique in the way that it is a 4-year undergraduate course, but the final year is a masters, MBio ‘research’ year. Explaining to people that I’m doing a masters, which isn’t a masters, but kind of is a masters has been entertaining. I am currently at the start of my MBio final year, and so far, I’ve really being enjoying it. The past 3 years of the course have been heavily focussed on learning the ins and outs of biomedical science, which gives you the knowledge to complete research in later years. As this year consists solely of research skills and my project, I have felt much more scientific freedom to read around the subject, instead of focussing on multiple modules at a time.

The originally end goal of my degree was to become a biomedical scientist for the NHS, so I was not going to do the MBio, and instead take a placement year out. However, after starting my degree I discovered my love for research, so doing the MBio year was a must for me. The MBio to me seems to be the perfect steppingstone degree to developing a researcher. My third-year project involved doing a study which the answer was already known. However, for my MBio project all the research is novel, giving a real insight to the world of research.

My new end goal of my degree is to become a Clinical Acientist in embryology, through the Science Training Programme. The possibility of doing a PhD as a clinical scientist also really excites me. This degree has not expanded my knowledge of biomedical science but has helped me find an area I really find interesting. I would really recommend the MBio to anyone wanting a career in the life sciences, it has not only advanced my knowledge in the subject but developed me into a scientist.  

All opinions on the blog are my own

Guest Blog from Daniel Nash: Placements make the world go round – why placements are so important for HCS students

Blog Post Introduction from Dr Claire Walker  

Whilst @Girlymicro is taking a well-earned break buying all her Christmas presents in New York, I’ve been loaned this wonderful platform to discuss all sorts of important matters in science and education.  

Recently I’ve been speaking a lot with students of all levels about different opportunities they have in the University environment. Things have changed a lot since my day, it’s not just a BSc then a PhD if you like research. There are so many exciting pathways for students in biological and biomedical sciences to follow, but it can become a bit of a quagmire trying to work out exactly which path you might want to take. I often start the conversation with students describing my own experiences at university and how I came to be in my current role, but increasingly I feel that they are now out of date and just aren’t relevant in the modern system.  

It can feel overwhelming when you look at the decisions you have to make when starting university – do you take an iBMS accredited course, should you do a placement in industry or the NHS or maybe a year abroad, how about a Masters by Research degree, and what the heck is an MBio? Where are the best resources and who should you ask? Dusty old lecturers like myself will be able to tell you about the content of the courses, and all about our love of research. But we aren’t going to be able to tell you what doing a placement feels like, if it’s worth spending the money on an MRes or how to choose the right undergraduate course for you. To that end, I have asked some of my most engaging and eloquent students who are completing all sorts of different degree pathways to give us all some insight into what we can gain from the university experience in 2022 rather than, let’s be kind and say, my experiences which were more than a little while ago. And with that I’m going to hand over to reins to their expert hands.  

Blog post from Daniel Nash

Who am I to write a blog post about placements?

As a Biomedical Science student on an accredited Biomedical Science course, the obvious path for me was to get myself onto a placement year working in an NHS laboratory to complete my portfolio and finish my degree ready to slot into a lab and begin helping patients. However, throughout my degree I felt this was not the path I wished to take and began feeling research was better suited to who I am. A placement is, I think, regarded as one of the best from to gain experience and improve employability while remaining a student and with all the perks that brings. And so, while looking into my options for getting into research positions and postgraduate degrees, I decided a placement year in another area would be a good idea.

My application process didn’t go amazingly, I don’t mind admitting, but given the competitive nature of placements, I’m still happy I got where I am. I was rejected from every single place I applied except for here, many on the grounds that from my biomed background, I didn’t have the specific skills demonstrated for the labs I applied to. So what placement did I get?

My Placement

I am working as a lab based analysist at Reckitt, specifically working on the Nurofen team, where I work in a lab to investigate and run tests on products across the Nurofen brand range. I have been working here for 2 months as I write this and have to say I have had mixed experiences so far. I know after this short amount of time that working in industry is not for me, but I also appreciate all the things it has and will teach me. The equipment I get to use, the analytical & investigatory techniques I will learn to use, and the independence and team working skills I will develop. All will be invaluable to be as I come out of uni looking for opportunities.

This placement was always going to be a learning curve, disregarding the skills I would learn, coming from Biomedical Science my chemistry knowledge was limited, and yet I landed smack bang in the middle of an analytical chemistry lab for complex drug formulations that I’m learning all the chemistry, toxicology, molecular interactions, analytical techniques, and terminology for. I alluded to before that this wasn’t even my first choice of placement and fighting through all the admin of a drug company at the same time made motivating myself to embrace the role harder than it should have been. but I have to give credit to my supervisor, Chander, for changing my mentality on this. We have weekly one to ones where he really emphasised the importance of using this year to learn take on new challenges and understand what I am doing. It shifted my mindset to try and look around the aspects I didn’t enjoy, and find what I could learn from it.

This is now my focus for the year to learn the skills & chemistry, understand the scientific method, and how the pharmaceutical industry works, better than I did before. Some would argue I should have thought this prior to embarking on a placement but being truthful, I think most people applying for placements know this to a degree but hadn’t internalised it like myself, (or at least need reminding of it when it gets tough as I did).

Aside from the academics

My placement was slightly unique in that there is a large cohort of around 20 students working across teams at the Reckitt R&D site, and so-far good friendships have forged, they have been great people to rely on through the chaotic onboarding stages. and we a  placement group will work together on charity events, workshops and the all-important pubs nights throughout the year. I hope these friendships stand the test of time.

I’ve played with toxic chemicals, taken part in development of the newest yet to release medications going, and met some really great people all in the sub 3 months I’ve been here. I have to recommend a placement year or summer long, to anyone in a STEM field or beyond. You can’t beat the experience and growth possibilities it provides.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Claire Walker: The Power of Yes – Why it’s important to spend the weekends doing Science Outreach, and taking up catering as a hobby

Dr Walker is a paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci), education (PgCert) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln.

Those of you who know me know I have a serious problem saying no to any outreach activity, even when it falls well outside the very tiny limits of my comfort zone. My science family have persuaded me to run schools’ days, science clubs for toddlers, blog posts and even the odd science stand-up comedy night. It’s not that I am an extrovert, quite the opposite is true, I am the quintessential laboratory nerd. I like analysing data, planning experiments and some quiet time with my beloved flow cytometer. However, I know the power of outreach and I only need look to the inspirational scientists who came before me, and took the time to speak with me when I was young, to justify pushing myself outside the comfort of my lab and into the spotlight again.  And to be clear. I really love my lab.

So during the summer break my good friend, colleague and mentor @girlymicro picked up the phone and asked how I felt about coming to help support a ‘little event’ she had planned. As I’ve said before, one of the most charming features of @girlmicro is that she rarely recognises what a big deal she is, nor indeed that what she considers a ‘little event’ is most peoples idea of a very BIG deal. Now @girlymicro knows all my weak spots. She knows I love a bit of outreach, she knows I love working with children, she knows I love the drama of the theatre and, more than all this, she knows I absolutely adore baking and harbour an intensely secret desire to be a professional pâtissier one day. ‘It’ll be a wonderful day’, she said, ‘an intimate event celebrating healthcare scientists – you wouldn’t mind baking a cake or two would you?’. I had already said yes and was thinking about recipes when it occurred to me, I hadn’t asked about the venue or numbers, or really anything at all.

Of course, the event was the Bloomsbury Festival(!) and a couple of cakes was a free afternoon tea for all comers. For those of you who don’t know, and perhaps didn’t attend, the Bloomsbury Festival is an annual celebration of the area’s creativity which each year presents an inspiring programme of culture, arts, science, literature, performance, discussion and debate. It is, by anybody’s estimation, a very big deal. And what a wonderful day we had.

The inimitable Nichola Baldwin of Project Nosocomial lead us through three really outstanding performances. Remember, Remember – the amazing *true* story of how three healthcare scientists set out to foil the gun powder plot with help from 9-year-old Princess Elizabeth. For me, this show always delights. The children, and adults, in the audience loved it fuelled by their complementary @girlymicro branded cupcakes. Nichola and @Girlymicro showcased a new play – ‘All opinions are my own’, a powerful performance based on this very blog. I can say truthfully there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We laugh, we cried, we had a marvellous afternoon tea, and we used voguing to demonstrate the importance of the T zone in appropriate mask wearing. Finally, when the heavens opened and we were sure no one would brave the rain to come to our last session, Nichola and @Girlymicro closed the day with a performance of ‘Mrs X and Me: What is AMR and What can we do about it?’. Despite the rain, the superb actors and healthcare scientists performed to a full house and everyone left truly understanding the looming health crisis of antimicrobial resistance and how we can all play a role in preventing it.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate the incredible work Elaine does in science outreach and communication than an afternoon of theatre celebrating healthcare scientists with tea and cake. And now I have my Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering certificates – I might even be persuaded to run another one.

Filmed content linked to the Nosocomial Project can be found here on the Rise of the Resistance YouTube channel.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog: Claire and Sam take over the Environment Network

Today is the Environment Network 2022 event: The Role of Surfaces and Surface Decontamination in Managing healthcare association infection (HCAI) and as @Girlymicro is busy running the show she has tagged in her willing PhD student Sam Watkin, and regular contributor Dr Claire Walker to live blog this event. Let’s get started #EN2022.

What Is the Environment Network?

The Environment Network works to support people in clinical, engineering and scientific roles who are interested in environmental infection control

Do you want to know more about what to do with your water screening and air sampling results?  Are you keen to understand the evidence behind equipment cleaning and the role of the environment in healthcare associated infection?

Then welcome to the Environment Network!  This is a network for people in clinical/scientific/engineering roles within the NHS and other associated organisations who are interested in the role of environmental infection prevention and control in preventing infection. 

The aim of the network is to support infection prevention and control professionals involved in commissioning, environmental audit, water, air and surface testing within their Trusts.  By working together we can share best practice between Trusts; as well as circulating the latest evidence and discussing personal experiences. 

We are so excited to be live blogging the wonderful EN conference this year. Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green BEM opens the conference setting the scene for a wonderful day of networking, learning and discussions with our clinical, industry and academic colleagues. We’ve all come here today create a friendly network of experts. Because sometimes we all need to phone a friend at 4.30 on a Friday when everything is going wrong, and this is the perfect opportunity to grab every experts number.

Morning Presentation Session

The esteemed Professor Jean-Yves Maillard from Cardiff University leads us through his thoughts on options for surface clean and surface decontamination. This topic is very much at the forefront of our minds in the EN, and whilst there has been huge progress in hand hygiene (thanks COVID!), Prof Maillard’s fascinating talk demonstrates how many factors have to be considered to really make a surface ‘safe’. There are so many variables to consider; what product to use, how effective a product is, what factors impact on that efficacy and unique multifaceted challenges we face in this field particularly when it comes to training and developing best practice across healthcare specialisms.

He raised a very interesting and important point when thinking abut surface decontamination – how do you define a “safe” surface? Let’s talk about norovirus – when we consider that it takes 10 virus particles make you sick and there are one billion virus particles per gram of vomit or faeces – you best hope your cleaning strategy works or the whole cruise ship (or worse hospital ward) is going down. The difference between looking clean and being safe is shown, just because it looks shiny doesn’t mean that you can eat your dinner off it!

As we come to discussing decontamination chemicals, the focus turns to compliance with surface decontamination protocols which are essential in maintaining environmental decontamination efficacy. Prof Maillard raised fascinating points on how products are used and why this matters. Different delivery methods, such as spray, foam or pre-wetted wipes, have significant impacts on the efficacy of compounds and their proper use is often hard to consistently achieve.

Further complicating the issue, different microbes have different susceptibilities to different decontamination agents. Wipes that can remove a Gram-negative pathogen can do very little against a Gram-positive. We know that some key pathogenic organisms like Clostridioides difficile require higher levels of disinfection compared to others, but other pathogens often have different requirements to each other. Multidrug resistant organisms can often be resistant to quaternary ammonium compounds meaning you may be able to clean off antibiotic-sensitive Klebsiella, but the drug-resistant ones could remain. Similarly, despite some company claims to the contrary alcohol gel does nothing against C.difficile spores.

Prof Maillard detailed just how important this is by describing some shocking cases of where cleaning has gone wrong. The use of inappropriate compound concentrations and a lack of consistent training on new products can have truly terrifying consequences in the hospital environment. In untrained hands, cleaning can actually make the situation worse not better, for example poor cleaning with can spread viruses around a patients room rather than remove them. We all have so much to learn from not taking detail for granted and how basic precautions like ‘one wipe, one direction, bin it‘ can prevent healthcare associated infections.

As the talk comes to a close we ask can we trust claims of residual activity of decontamination products? Does it really leave a surface ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ for 48 hours? Do these products really work as well as companies or their representatives claim? Prof Maillard says we really can’t trust everything we read. A disinfectant used improperly can select for microorganisms resistant to that product. This highlights not only the importance of choosing the right disinfectant compound, but on using it correctly too. With pandemics in the press, it’s more important than ever that we have an open dialog and solid evidence base for what we use, how we use it and when to use it to create safe environments for both patients and staff.

In our second presentation of the day Karren Staniforth from UKHSA explains the role of novel decontamination techniques in healthcare

It’s important to acknowledge that in decontamination, one box does not fit all. A high risk patient post chemotherapy has very different requirements to a healthy adult popping to the GP to ask for a repeat prescription. Furthermore, we know can’t sterilize everything. It simply doesn’t work that way, so we need to be decontaminating to an appropriate level for the site. If we can avoid high-level sterilization we should as they are expensive, potentially damaging to the site and generally involve harmful chemicals. So how do we manage surfaces categorized as ‘low risk’? For those of us who aren’t so familiar with disinfection in the low risk setting this means something that comes into contact with intact skin. A huge number of different products are available but today Karren is are talking about UV light, and gases and vapours – why we might want to use them and how we might automate these systems.

Karren raises an important issue that automated decontamination techniques don’t remove human error, particularly as they generally require humans to set them up. We still need manual cleaning of rooms when using these, so they very much are there to support environmental cleaning and decontamination, not to replace manual decontamination. However, there are some incredible advantages to an automated system – not least that they are highly reproducible thus much easier to audit and, with proper calibration, should be highly precise and accurate.

Karren tells us why it is so important to use and understand what disinfectant efficacy really tells us, and why it is crucial to be sceptical and to question the manufacturers claims about their products. She details a fascinating history of working in infection prevention and control, and the journey from cleaned rooms actually causing MORE infections to introducing novel technologies and strategies that are proven efficacious. Her talk is peppered with wonderful real world experience of infection, prevention and control. Simple strategies like removal of felt notice boards from wards also had a huge impact in improving cleaning strategies to rid geriatric wards of C.difficile. As a member of the EN steering group (Claire), I am heartened to hear how sharing our stories can improve real world patient care.

Karren closes her talk with some fascinating points about cleaning frequency rather than specificity. We really need to thing about exactly what we are trying to achieve in each setting, and often a bespoke mixed-approach will be what fits the bill.

Post Coffee Talk Session

Claire has been let loose on her own now – with Sam giving his presentation next.

Revived by our coffee we move onto the much anticipated talk by our pal Sam who, with the knowledgeable Helen Rickard, is guiding us through monitoring microbial surface loads – how we should approach it in healthcare and some key findings from their exciting work. Monitoring let us pick up presence and movement of clinically relevant microorganisms in the hospital setting promoting surveillance and targeted treatment programs. This is done routinely in hospitals, but can be stepped up after an outbreak or when transmission is unexpected.

Sam gives us a step by step guide to the different samples and how you might process them to identify the microbial population present. His data demonstrate how important continual sampling is – just counts of microbial species are a snap shot of the situation, and when repeated sampling is done microbial persistence is revealed telling the whole story.

Helen Rickard walks us through why sink surfaces are so important in HCAI. Sinks are the perfect environment for microbes to thrive, and the presence of running water disperses and aerosolises bacteria. They are also often very close to patients. Helen is interested in the impact the patients will have on sink surfaces. Her exciting preliminary data reveals that numbers of organisms detected on sinks double when patients inhabit wards, and numbers of human commensals massively increase. We’re already excited for Helen to come back and tell us more when she is further along into her project.

Dr Marco-Felipe King from the University of Leeds is up next, telling us all about how one can model the impact of surface decontamination. Dr King’s work links airborne and surface contamination, looking at the impact of ventilation on surface contamination, and then transmission onto human fingers. We watch an incredible computer generated model depicting how viruses spread across a ward onto surfaces challenging the myth that viral particles don’t deposit on surfaces. Dr King’s enthusiasm for understanding microbial recontamination of surfaces (why microbial loads sometime increase after cleaning) is infectious. He showed several delightfully complicated formula to model these (and explained them very well!). In Dr King’s own words, “something funny is going on” with the data, which inspired lively discussion amongst all the delegates. He showed how much relative humidity matters for transferring organisms to hands when surfaces are touched – basically proving you should never lick your fingers when on the tube.

Dr Lena Ciric from University College London brings our morning session to a close with a fascinating talk all about the importance of surface loads, and how they differ in healthcare and the community.

Dr Ciric kicked her talk off by discussing the challenges of achieving low surface loadings in the healthcare setting, explaining that while we want microbially clean surfaces in hospital, we have evolved to live with microbes. She highlighted how few guidelines actually exist for surface loading levels, and the challenge this presents to standardisation. Dr Ciric’s data looked at colony forming units collected from a range of locations – hospital wards, the FA cup final, the Brits and even the Tube – to understand what a safe level of microorganisms on surfaces should be. Safe to say we are never touching a surface on the tube again. But it’s not simply a case of how much of something is there, we need to understand what microbial species are present. Her data on presence of SARS-CoV-2 presence showed that colony forming units (CFU) didn’t reflect how much SARS CoV-2 RNA was present on the tube, so whilst the CFU guidelines are interesting more work needs to be done. Really highlighting the importance of, in Dr Ciric’s own worlds, ‘you’ll find what you go looking for’!

Reflections on Surfaces

What an absolutely brilliant, informative and lively morning. It’s difficult to condense such a varied and thoughtful set of presentations into a few take home messages.

  • The importance of moving past the marketing – we really need to question how good products are, validate them for use and develop sound guidelines.
  • Human factors are hugely important – without proper training even the best tools are not helpful
  • The overall takeaway for the transfer of organisms to people’s hands: “it depends”

TLDR: @girlymicro let Claire and Sam loose on her blog, who had lots of fun but she should definitely have provided a word count.

All opinion on this blog is my own

Guest Blog from Francis Yongblah: What does it mean to march with Pride and why is it still so important?

I count myself super fortunate to be able to share with you a guest blog this week from Francis Yongblah, Higher Specialist Scientific Trainee and Laboratory Manager at GOSH. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know how passionately I feel about being seen for our whole selves and so it is really special to me to share Francis talking about the importance of Pride in enabling individuals to feel seen and accepted. I hope by sharing this to celebrate Pride month it will help share his important message even further.

“2-4-6-8 – science doesn’t discriminate, 4-3-2-1 – Science is for everyone” – 13 years later, finally getting to be the true me.

A bit about me before…….

I had come out as gay when I was 20 years old at university when I was studying Biomedical Science. I had only at that point come out to my friends. I was terrified to come out to my family, particular coming from an Asian culture and background where being gay was not a common thing. After graduating from university I had got my first job as a trainee Biomedical Scientist.

A few months into my new role I was quite friendly with my colleagues. We all went to lunch one day, and I remember being asked “so do you have a girlfriend” I had responded “no”. The next question was “what’s your type”. At this point I felt my insides turn out as I felt so nervous and anxious to say that I was gay. I was so worried I would be judged and people would not treat me the same as before. Eventually I was able to speak and mutter the words “well I’m gay and interested in guys” at this point my colleagues said “cool, what kind of guys do you like” I felt so at ease and it was so nice to feel that I could be me. Not all experiences I have had in the work place have always been so positive. Although some of my colleagues knew about me, not everyone else did.

A few weeks later, I remember being in the lab when I heard one of the MLA’s talking with another colleague about someone in another department. She had said “hey….I did not realise that guy was a pufta” I started shaking in anger but also in fear as I didn’t want to be judged or labelled in my work place. We spend most of our lives at work and I want to feel safe and comfortable and most of all, be able to be me. I was still young and decided I’m not going to say anything. Reflecting back I regret that decision and wish now I had gone over and said something.

Another negative memory that will always be with me was when I was at a retirement meal for a colleague. Drinks were flowing and everyone was in good spirits. Everyone was free and had taken their work hats off to be themselves. It was near the end of the meal that a colleague had come over to me, put their hand on my shoulder and said “In future, you might not want to laugh like a little girl”. At first I was in complete shock about this, what were they trying to say? Don’t be me? Don’t be gay? That incident really shook me up and made me always feel that I had to have two separate hats. My work hat and my personal hat.

When I was at work I would never disclose anything to my colleagues about my personal life unless I was particularly close with people.

One question that gets asked is “Do we need Pride?” my response…..YES!

The examples I’ve given show that there needs to be support for the LGBTQ+ community so that people can be themselves.

10 years later……We grow!

Getting older you definitely learn and become wiser. I feel that reflecting back on myself I have become more confident and the experiences I have had have not only shaped my character but also given me perspective and allowed me to have that emotional intelligence that is required to understand people and be able to share the same perspective. I’ve since got involve in promoting equality by attending London Pride. I was so proud when my hospital organisation marched for the first time. I felt proud and felt I could be me. It was at this point I was thinking about my professional body “The Institute of Biomedical Science” and getting them to march. I got in contact with the Communications team who thought that this was a great idea and were so supportive. I worked hard to get the application in and low and behold we were successful and obtained a place in the Pride in London march 2021. Unfortunately this was cancelled due to COVID but we were then given the opportunity to march in July 2022.

The build up to this was exciting and heart warming. The IBMS team worked hard to help support the event by coming up with lab coats that we could wear, stickers and little fuzz bugs that we could hand out to the crowd.

It’s time for the healthcare scientists to March!

I was so excited to be marching. My fellow scientists all got ready, dawning on our white lab coats with a rainbow coloured IBMS logo. Everyone looked amazing. We all got ready to march. I remember feeling so anxious at this point. Once we had started to march the adrenaline was going and I started to feel so excited. Seeing the crowd cheer and yell. At this point I felt the need to lead the group and so took to the front of the march.

We were all working to try and come up with a phrase to yell as we marched and then our amazing IBMS communication lead – Matt, came up with the phrase

“2-4-6-8 Science doesn’t discriminate. 4-3-2-1, Science Is for everyone”

I was yelling this at the top of my lungs as it was so loud with the crowd cheering. Our amazing group echoed this. We also yelled “NHS, NHS” and “IBMS, IBMS”

Everyone participated and really integrated with the crowd. Handing out fuzzy bugs and stickers. The irony is that I was at a Pride event and I felt such pride and proud of having my profession represent myself and many other LGBTQ+ individuals and show that within our profession Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is key and that everyone needs to be represented and be proud of who they are. That they are able to be themselves in their workplace.

For the first time in my career as a Scientist, I felt that I was myself and able to be proud to say that I am a Gay healthcare scientist and I am proud of who I am. That my personal characteristics should not hold me back from reaching my full potential. This event will mean more to me as a scientist than anyone would ever know and as we got to the end of the march, I started to well up and cry. I felt amazing but for the first time ever, I really felt that I was me. As I said before, we spend most of our lives at work. I feel I’ve broken that barrier of having to be 2 separate people, the Scientist and the Gay Asian guy to now just being me. I hope that this is just the start of things to come. What has been most inspiring is to see how other IBMS branches and regions have now joined in and organising marches too. I look forward to seeing the pictures from their events and it’s such a good feeling to know that nationally, diversity, equality and inclusion is becoming a key part of being a healthcare scientist.  

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog from Anthony De Souza: From lab to educator, finding a new direction

Continuing the Girlymicro theme of raising awareness of roles outside the laboratory to Celebrate National Pathology Week 2022 today we have the inspiring Anthony De Souza sharing his journey from bench scientist to Practice Educator. I’ve already written about why I think it’s so important that Healthcare Scientists think of themselves as educators (see blog here) but Ant puts this into practice and talks about how he became a Practice Educator and why these roles are so important.

I was a geeky kid and was pretty obsessed with astronomy, pathology and nature. I was an avid reader and loved to immerse myself in my mother’s nursing textbooks! I mean, I used to peruse the BNF for fun and at church book sales I wanted medical textbooks.

In my teens I pondered whether to become a marine biologist, a science teacher, a dietician or scientist. After looking through four heaving A4 binders of job descriptions in our school careers corner I settled on Biomedical Scientist, more specifically in Microbiology.

It was a career that allowed me to immerse myself in the medical world without being too close to the patient, something which I thought I may struggle with. My first taste of Microbiology at A-Level was a lesson on bacterial culture which involved bacterial streaking. From this point microbiology sparked an interest that I knew would always be there. After completing my IBMS accredited degree I was very lucky to get a trainee band 5 position in my local micro lab closer to home!

As time went on, I developed within Microbiology spanning a ten-year period. I realised that some of the most enjoyable parts of my role were when I taught or trained others, especially if they shared the same excitement I did. In every job I had I always ended up being known as a good teacher, and knew I wanted to get more involved, but being a teacher full time didn’t appeal to me.

As an experienced band six I started to feel frustrated, felt like I had peaked within my current role and needed something to fundamentally change. It was at this point that I seriously considered leaving the NHS and using my transferable skills in a different place. I’ve always felt confident in my abilities to work in different settings and environments with different people, I just needed the opportunity. That’s when I was encouraged to apply for a job as a part time practice educator in our hospital. Up until this point, I had only ever heard of this role in a nursing context.

‘Most things feel impossible till it’s done’ – Nelson Mandela

During the application for this part time role, I had full on imposter syndrome and was talking myself out of applying. One of the biggest self-imposed barriers was feeling like I was leaving behind certainty and proven experience for a role in which I would need to build and grow within. I had gotten to the point where work felt comfortable, my knowledge and skills were developed for my role, and I felt confident in that. The thought of moving to an area outside of my core experience base was pretty terrifying but I knew I had to do it! I decided to apply and was successful in the interview!

Some of the key purposes of the role are outlined below:

  • Work to support learning and education and support specific workstreams, in my case this was Healthcare Science.
  • Create and maintain positive learning environments
  • Facilitating induction, education and continuing professional development
  • Encourage practice development, support service improvement
  • Promote high standards of care and act as a role model for others
  • Work multi-professionally, as needed

After being used to working in a small team within the lab my new role involved an even bigger and more diverse team. This exposed me to a greater appreciation for the work of other health professionals and the hospital as a whole.

At first, I found the job challenging; learning new names, getting to know the team, my place within it, learning new acronyms during meetings and adjusting to the different styles of communication. Some of my work involved supporting healthcare science learners, acting as a point of contact to raise issues, signposting relevant training & education and supporting outreach and engagement activities. As my role grew and developed, I was able to work more multi-professionally, increasing the visibility of our hidden workforce and even teaching nurses about healthcare science.

As a practice educator a PG Cert in Practice Education is essential to learn about educational theories and how this relates to designing learning for the learner. Whilst I may have been acting on natural instinct before gaining this qualification, the education and evidence-based practice approach to back up teaching has been important in the role.

This role could suit a range of individuals but ultimately this would suit someone who wants to make a difference, is passionate about education and training, has the ability to communicate well, work effectively with others and enjoys working both alone and with different teams. The job often involves taking yourself out of your comfort zone and identifying opportunities to share and develop learning.

Whilst I have now left the lab and am working full time as a practice educator, I still do look back fondly on my lab days and Microbiology. I love checking in on the lab and looking at exciting agar plates and learning about exciting cases, and who knows maybe one day I’ll go back for now though I am fully committed to this new direction. Just because I’ve left the lab, doesn’t mean its left me….

Follow Ant on Twitter @ADSMicro to find out more

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog Dr Claire Walker: The Clinical Academic Path – From the Lab to the Lectern 

To help us celebrate National Pathology Week the ever inspiring Dr Claire Walker has written a blog post to follow on from the talk she gave at HCSEd22 (videos to follow on YouTube). Healthcare Scientists work across the NHS and increasingly within academia, and so it’s important that we acknowledge the wide variety of roles that are open to us.

Dr Walker is a paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci), education (PgCert) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln.

The Clinical Academic Path – From the Lab to the Lectern 

What can we learn from clinical academic scientists during a conference about co-production? Turns out, given a platform to shout loudly enough, rather a lot. 

Minding the Gap 

What steps did I take to move from the clinical laboratory to an academic position? Well, I did what any clinical scientist worth their salt who’s been through the transition from CPA to UKAS would do, I performed a gap analysis. Yes, I really am that person. I looked at job adverts for senior clinical scientists and senior lecturers looking for key similarities and points of difference. To my delight I found that we had far more in common than that which divides us. Yes, there are a few key extras like the commitment to completing a teaching qualification and learning exciting new quality systems but where better to learn a new skill than a university filled with professional educators? The similarities in the roles didn’t genuinely surprise me but it did confirm what I had hoped to be true. If we are to educate and, hopefully, inspire the next generation of healthcare scientist then universities are looking to recruit leaders who’ve been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.  

Clinical Academic Purgatory 

In a recent lecture on roles in the NHS, a student asked me where I currently sit. I pointed to the training pathway for healthcare scientists at point 4 – the Clinical Academic Career. ‘Ah I see’ they replied, “you’re in Clinical Academic Purgatory whilst you have your kids, you’ll go back to your real job eventually”. Well that stung a bit! But it’s a valid point, I think that the move to a teaching role in a university is often seen as a bit of a soft option. Nicer hours that running your own lab with a better work life balance, just don’t mention the marking! It’s not completely wrong either, the chance to spend my evenings and weekends with my partner and children even when drowning in marking is a huge perk.  

However, I view this move as more that a pause on my way to a consultant gig. I think that this collaboration offers us an incredibly important opportunity, the chance to share our stories. When I reflect on my many years in both universities and hospitals, the moments I remember are not learning the details of the complement cascade or T cell receptor VDJ recombination (though of course both are very useful) but the stories told by my mentors, colleagues and leaders that made me want to become the scientist I am today. To my mind, we have a responsibility to those who are following on from us. Through collaboration with our academic institutions, we can help perform this essential service to our profession.  

As a clinical scientist turned lecturer, I’ve spent a good deal of my career bouncing between the laboratory and the lectern but I have often found that never the twain shall meet. I think it’s time we change that.  

TLDR: What do we want? Co-Production! When do we want it? At the start of the next academic year. It is nearly summer after all. 

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Katy Heaney: Pathology: hidden service or hiding? Lets stop being shy

This weeks guest blog is written by the ever talented Katy Heaney. The blog includes the first announcement of some super top secret work that Katy and #PathologyROAR have been undertaking linked to the #IValueLabStaff and #PathologyROAR recruitment videos. Keep your eyes peeled and followed the hashtags for me information from Wednesday 9th February. I for one (Girlymicro that is) cannot wait to finally find out what they’ve been working on.

Katy is a Consultant Clinical Scientist working for Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, part of the Berkshire and Surrey Pathology Services network. Currently part-time seconded to the UKHSA working as the Point of care workflow lead for Operational Supplies. She has a passion for science communication, patient focused pathology testing, baking and painting.

A cup of tea in bed on a Sunday was a rarity for me in 2020. It had been a hard year for my Point of care testing (POCT) pathology service and there didn’t seem to be any let up ahead. Recruitment had been like a revolving door – as fast as we interviewed, people moved on and there didn’t seem to be any HCPC registered pathology staff not already employed.

As I meandered through my social media on a Sunday morning I found posts advertising recruitment in other healthcare fields but with a significant lack of inclusion of pathology.

My burnt-out brain, reflected on my teams, and the monumental national pathology effort in maintaining current pathology services as well as implementing and ramping up Covid-19 testing. I reached out to the pathology Twitter community to sing our own praises; how could we have been forgotten?

But internally I wonder; Are we really the hidden service, are we hiding, or are we shy?

In my career I have enjoyed being involved in National Pathology Week events reaching out beyond our laboratory doors to sing our praises and explain our science. The Royal College of Pathologists have a fantastic web page now of day in a life for pathology, example career pathways and events that take place for all ages. I was also lucky enough to be part of the Lab Tests Online UK team when we released the free app of the website; we held an app launch event and invited anyone we could think of to join us in celebrating pathology. Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies’ celebrity doctors joining us was a big highlight!

The Pathology Cake; designed and produced by scientist trainees at the LabTestsOnline UK App launch event. Note: all stock was expired and saved from bin for use on this “art”

Being a POCT specialist – I don’t spend a lot of time behind lab doors, far more walking the clinical floors to see how my kit is working or helping non-lab healthcare staff use the kit for their patients. I spend a lot of time explaining pathology to non-laboratory staff. I have always advocated that science communication is a skill in itself. It takes practice and thought; we cannot expect our most fabulous researchers or complex method specialists to also be able to explain to a member of the public what pathology is without working on how to translate our science jargon and considering understandable words.

We are under-resourced and small in comparison to many other healthcare staff groups. Finding the time to advocate and advertise pathology is hard to fit into the day job. The events organised by our professional bodies give us focus, but in recent years they have been stunted by service pressure.

We have jobs available; but seem to fail to reach the target audience

Recruitment for us is a long term process; when someone joins us we invest our time and energy in their learning and development. Finding the right individuals is important for us. Doing so at pace is even harder.

A real smack in the chops recognition last year for me was – I am no longer our target demographic! In a big birthday year myself, I recognise I am trying to recruit a younger generation who use different media. They have different career goals and the things that attracted me to pathology won’t necessarily be attractive to them.

Pathology in the media is VERY different from reality. The cringe worthy moments when medical drama surgeons decide to go run a pathology test to diagnose the rarest of diseases isn’t reality! The timelines of a drama episode don’t tolerate the timeline for a complex diagnostic pathology test and certainly not the staff that it takes to achieve it. Our real-life healthcare system regretfully doesn’t either; my own GP tells me my routine pathology test will take 5 days, while I internally sigh knowing it will be done by the following morning, but my overworked/overwhelmed GP surgery won’t be able to review and report it back to me to match the service we provide in pathology.

Media portrayal of the lab; Nope, nope, nope.

The pandemic gave the smallest of glimpse into the world of pathology. PCR, lateral flow tests, and antibody levels being discussed in the news every night, but not enough spotlight was given to the 1000s of pathology staff it took to stand up NHS testing of patients. In my non-work social groups the jaw dropping shock of real life of pathology pressure on staff and service.

 If a blood transfusion laboratory stops running, an A&E will be closed to new patients: we are critical for so much more than Covid-19 testing. There is still a lot of public ignorance on pathology. I use the word here in this blog but know that for many it describes testing the dead or forensics. We are so much more.

So what is the reality of pathology?

A team of highly skilled, dedicated and evidence focused healthcare scientists. We employ those with degrees and those without, we train our own and do our own research and development. Most of our work is on the living; their blood, urine, poop, saliva; samples supplied for investigation. Some of our tests take seconds and some take weeks. IT and technology is a big part of our day. Every sample comes from a patient and everything we do is driven toward providing a better service that helps make better and quicker decisions. We are a fascinating workforce; the diversity of pathology is incredible. We are comprised of 17 different disciplines looking at every aspect of the human (and animal) body, and whether it is working and doing what it is meant to do. The tests you have heard of; glucose, urine pregnancy tests, iron, biopsies, smear tests, Covid-19 PCRs…..and 1000s more that you haven’t.

We have so many different entry points from national training programmes like the Scientist Training Programme, local trainee Biomedical Scientist trainee positions and all the support roles we require for pathology services to run; administration, stores, transport and reception support. There is a role for so many; not just the young generation I refer to earlier, but those looking for a change, a swerve in career or even a few shifts working as part of a team.

There is no denying, we need to grow more healthcare scientists. Our numbers are small, it takes time to gain experience and knowledge, and our workloads expand year on year. 1000s of students do Biomedical science degrees but not enough of these come to pathology for their career. If you are a student considering a career in pathology; consider attending the IBMS Student congress event https://congress.ibms.org/student-congress.html for talks on careers, CV writing, placements and meet the staff working in our services.

What did I do about it?

Well that Sunday morning cuppa sparked a group of us working in pathology to recognise our common goal – the desire to roar about pathology and express how much we value lab staff. We wanted that message to get out there; to students, to influencers, to anyone looking for a career change. And we wanted to do so with real-life examples of those who work in pathology to showcase the passion for their work.

On Wednesday 9th February at 8pm we will be showcasing our #IValueLabStaff videos of real pathology staff; wearing their real-life lab coat or at their desk, talking about what they love about their jobs. Join us for the #PathologyROAR and celebrate with us.

All opinion on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Nicola Baldwin: Where Is Everybody? Patient and public involvement in the time of pandemic

This week we are lucky enough to have a wonderful guest blog from Nicola Baldwin. Nicola is a playwright and scriptwriter, Royal Literary Fund fellow and a Visiting Fellow at UCL, and co-director of The Nosocomial Project with Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green.

https://www.nicolabaldwin.work/

https://www.nosocomial.online/

Where Is Everybody? Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in the time of pandemic

As a regular reader and devoted fan of Girlymicro’s excellent blog, writing a guest post is exciting and daunting. The project I’m going to consider was a collaboration with Girlymicro, Sue Lee, and – as you’ll hear – many other people. But these reflections are my own.

In February 2020, I stood in front of assembled Healthcare Scientists and researchers at the Precision AMR launch as PPI Coordinator, and enthused over the workshops, discussions, and Festival of public events which would be available to the 25+ research teams participating in this initiative. Within a month, the UK entered lockdown, universities closed to all but Covid research, public buildings lay empty. PPE no longer represented ‘public and patient engagement’ but preventing human contact and keeping yourself and your patients alive. But our project’s funding was time-limited, its purpose was important, and the genuine need to communicate and raise awareness of AMR central to its aims.

Thus began a two-year adventure in the strange new world of PPPI – Pandemic Public and Patient Involvement.

Defining the challenge

After a 4-month hiatus in which seed-funding application deadline and start date were paused, it was time to review our PPI strategy, factoring in the following changes:

  • No face to face workshops
  • No patient groups
  • No contact at all with patients
  • No science fairs, school visits, open days or usual channels for PPI
  • No public spaces or performance venues
  • Many research teams couldn’t start their projects owing to labs, personnel or priorities being reallocated

On top of which…

  • No one wants to hear about another looming global health crisis during a pandemic

During the delayed start, I began trialling our ‘message’ on AMR informally with friends and contacts who were – like me – non-scientists. I discovered that – like me – none of them understood what AMR was. Explaining antimicrobial resistance enough to discuss it, was a 2 or 3 stage process something like this….

Friend:               I’m pretty sure I’m not antibiotic resistant. I hardly ever take antibiotics

Me:                     It’s not that you become resistant, it’s the bacteria themselves

Friend:               The bacteria? Are you sure?

Me (nodding):                The bugs that cause infection after you have a tooth out, or an operation, become resistant to the antimicrobials prescribed to treat them

Friend:               Ok, so from now on, I won’t take antimicrobials, just regular antibiotics

Me:                     They’re the same. And bugs learn to resist them over time.

Friend:               So if I have a tooth out, or an operation in future…?

Me:                     It might take a longer to find a treatment that works, or in a worst case –

Friend: (interrupting)                 THAT’S TERRIBLE! HOW COME NOBODY TOLD US!

Our PPI strategy needed to enable this conversation, over and over, for each new person to absorb what AMR is, and what it might mean for them before any other targeted messaging about antibiotic stewardship or behaviour change could happen.

This forced me to rethink what PPI means. Involving patients and public in research should be more than a tick-box exercise or add-on. It’s about encouraging public and patients to invest time understanding your processes and objectives. When scientists take part in public open days and fairs, they don’t just demonstrate experiments, they demonstrate enthusiasm; talking about their work, inviting participation, sharing ideas – all of which engages patients and public to invest time in understanding.

I’m a playwright. When I began this PPI project, I was an inaugural Creative Fellow at UCL exploring how drama could build new audiences for academic research. There’s a misconception that as a playwright, your medium is words; really, your medium is the audience. Someone once described it as ‘cooking the room’. Every action, every line of dialogue, every kiss, secret or betrayal, every silent pause or heartfelt song is there to raise or lower the emotional temperature in the room and effect a response in the audience; to involve them, make them care.

SOCK THE PUPPET

Designing a strategy

Given the obstacles outlined about, we needed a PPI strategy which could:

  • Be received remotely
  • Be engaging enough to spark conversations around AMR without us being present
  • Provide a PPI legacy that would have value after the project
  • Encourage and equip researchers to create their own digital PPI

We decided to focus on short films. We commissioned actors, writers and filmmakers with an interest in Healthcare Science and encouraged collaborations between scientists working on AMR with artists who could involve the public emotionally. Some of these artists were, or had been, patients potentially impacted by AMR.

And we discovered that, having been forced to micro-manage our overall PPI strategy, we could be more …strategic, by commissioning artists and film makers with knowledge and experience of areas such as migration and migrant health, homelessness, negotiating the health system as a mother without a UK support network, practical experience of working with puppets, or Under 5s. We started the artist films first to encourage researchers to make films, and to relieve the PPI pressure on Healthcare Scientists and researchers who were facing increased clinical or academic workloads during the pandemic.

Over time, another aim was added to the PPI strategy:

  • To actively support researchers, by offering regular contact time

The drop-ins were small, tending to attract only 1- 5 people, but the researchers who went on to not only make short thesis films but present work in person and/ or perform in the festival, all came through these sessions. In hindsight we should have started these sooner.

LA BIOTIQUE

Sue Lee and I ran a weekly lunchtime drop-in session on zoom for any Precision AMR researchers to discuss their PPI, their micro-thesis films, or talk about their projects. This reminded us that the benefits of conversation and involvement which PPI enables, work both ways. Taking part in a science fair or going on a school visit, reminds Healthcare Scientists why they loved this stuff in the first place. Enthusiasm is rekindled. PPI involves you more closely with your research.

Reviewing our results

Looking back almost 2 years, we did everything we promised, albeit in radically different ways. In fact, we did rather more than we originally intended.  We hosted a series of live public engagement events, screenings and discussions in not one, but two, festivals:

  • Rise of the Resistance 1, June 2021, online
  • Rise of the Resistance 2, September 2021, livestreamed from Bloomsbury Theatre
  • 4 Workshops for Seed Project Awardees on PPI training
  • 12 films by artists, 13 films by scientists, 4 zoom debates, three Q&As, a filmed tour and numerous zoom conversations and related video clips
  • 500 people engaged directly with festival events online or in person 
  • PPI participants reported significant changes in their understanding of AMR  
  • Requests for Rise of the Resistance links and AMR content received from Hospital Trusts, charities, schools and nurseries for staff, patients, and pupils, including timetabled activities for 2022 

My personal highlights? Our interactive AMR puppet show for Under 5s, Sock The Puppet performed by Stephanie Houtman (‘Peppa’ from Peppa Pig Live) receiving videos and photos from children of their Sock puppets, or them explaining AMR; Peter Clements’ incredible drag creation / film Klebsiella – both hilarious and 100% scientifically accurate; Rahila Gupta’s La Biotique, an aria from Puccini’s opera La Boheme which updated Mimi from a seamstress in 1830s Paris dying of incurable TB, to a migrant textile worker in the streets of London’s East End in 2022. Each appealed to different audiences and drew them into the AMR conversation. What Is AMR and What Can We Do About It? a show interweaving dramatic scenes, monologues, and Precision AMR research presentations, performed by a combined company of scientists and actors, succeeded in both raising awareness of AMR, and involving audiences in understanding new research – using gold nano-particles, targeted testing, combatting bacteria in hospital showers – which Precision AMR was supporting.

KLEBSIELLA

In Conclusion…?

Having got to the end of the last two years, we are only at the beginning – of a longer conversation with public and patients on AMR, and a global research and stewardship response. Undertaking PPI during a pandemic has made me understand what PPI really is. And how it takes time, planning, effort and commitment on all sides to make involvement happen. It is hard work.

Healthcare Scientists wanting to add a PPI component to their project for the first time really benefit from individual support throughout the process. Public engagement and PPI employ a distinct set of skills for planning and delivery, but ‘cooking the room’ has many similarities with doing an experiment. PPI – especially in a pandemic – asks much of us, but in return offers new insights, new contacts, increased confidence, a sense of personal achievement, and occasionally, amazement at what everyone has achieved.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog from Sam Watkin: Starting a PhD in a Pandemic

The wonderful Sam Watkin has volunteered to do a blog post for me this week. He has the dubious fortune of being one of my PhD students and has only known working for me during a global pandemic. He volunteered to share his experience of what this has meant for him and his learning.

I remember on the 4th of January 2021, sitting down at my desk in my bedroom, excited for the first day starting my PhD. I had got a new pad of paper and a fresh set of pens and highlighters. I turned on my laptop, opened my emails and pulled up a paper from the reading list I had been sent a few weeks prior. After about 6 hours of reading and making notes, I turned off my laptop and watched ‘A New Life in the Sun’ on Channel 4.

I had known for a while before being accepted to do a PhD that this was the path I wanted to go down. What I didn’t know was that I would start it remotely in my childhood bedroom. Overall, it felt rather anticlimactic. By this point though, I was pretty used to anticlimactic events. I had written and submitted my master’s thesis, done my masters viva and attended a virtual graduation all from this same desk, mostly wearing pajamas. So, starting my PhD had a similar feeling to it, a sense of “well, that was that I guess”.

From what I had heard from people already deep in their PhD journeys, the beginning few months were mostly spent reading and getting to grips with the subject area. I suppose, looking back on it, the lockdown that was in place at the beginning of 2021 helped with that a fair bit. All there really was to do was read around the subject area… and watch daytime TV. Not that it was a chore to do this (the reading, not watching telly) – it is a subject area I am really interested in and passionate about.

As time went on though, there was a growing feeling of missing out on the “PhD experience”. It wasn’t until around May 2021 that I actually met my supervisors face-to-face, and didn’t meet everyone in the research group till a few weeks after that. It felt as though the social aspect of it had been in slow-motion, never mind the feeling I can only really sum up as “Oh my god I’m almost 6 months in and haven’t picked up a pipette yet!”. Once I was able to start in the lab, the rules in place to make sure it was safe for us all to work in meant that work was, at times, painfully slow. All in all, while I was able to make progress, everything felt slower, more drawn out and more frustrating than I would have thought it would be.

If it isn’t obvious, I sometimes feel pressure to be overly-productive. This is something that I’m fairly sure is common among PhD students – especially as there was a whole lecture series put on about how to manage PhD pressure and workload. I’m horribly paraphrasing it, but the gist of it all was “you’re all good enough, stop stressing!”. I’ve got to give credit to my supervisors though – throughout all of this they have reassured me that this is all fairly normal to feel at the beginning of a PhD and, even with the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, I am making good progress.

While I think it is fair to say the pandemic has made starting a PhD very… different, to how it would have been otherwise, it hasn’t all been stress and doom. A few other people started PhD’s in our research group a few months before me, meaning we all have been going through this “Pandemic PhD” rollercoaster at more-or-less the same pace. Having this shared experience, with all its very unique challenges, has for certain made us closer as a group. At the very least, it has shown us all that we aren’t alone in going through this process, with all the additional stresses and strains a pandemic brings to the first year of a doctorate.

Aside from the work itself, starting this PhD has had some amazingly positive aspects to it. It has afforded me the chance to learn so much more than I thought I could about a subject I am fascinated by, pick up new skills, speak in a theatre production and present my own work at conferences. I was also able to move to London, then move straight back out of London (not enough countryside for me) and meet some of the most interesting and clever people I have ever met. While starting a PhD in a pandemic has presented many challenges, most of which I never expected to come across, the experience has been overall a really rewarding and enjoyable one, and I am looking forward to the next few years of it. Famous last words…

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Book Review by Dr Julie Winnard: How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners Lee

Dr Julie Winnard works flexibly with clients to identify and deliver their sustainability projects, from creating resilient strategies, business cases or innovation plans, to reporting and targets for transport energy and carbon. Finding practical and appropriate ways to deliver real-world improvements in carbon emissions, other environmental impacts or risk and opportunity management.

Profile photo of Julie Winnard

Dream has been poorly recently so appealed for science-related guest reviews. “How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything” from 2009 I find very interesting and useful, and just post COP26 kinda topical.

Guest Book Review –  Dr Julie Winnard

I’m a engineer-turned-sustainability consultant, and over the past ten years quite a lot of what I do has been encouraging all kinds of business people to educate themselves about carbon emissions; what matters, and what they needn’t worry about too much. With the aim of getting them to focus on the bigger stuff that they can reduce. I mostly read fiction in my own time, but I do like a good readable bit of non-fiction, especially one that distils a whole bunch of new science in a way that lets me educate myself, and that I usefully might be able to direct other people towards. This is definitely one of those.

I was sold on this book in the original intro when Mike Berners Lee (yes, son of that guy who invented the internet) -also a sustainability professional- commented he’d become fed up with CEOs angsting about how to dry their hands (the different methods of towel, paper towel and air-dryer aren’t as far apart in CO2 terms as you might expect) yet getting on planes every few days- waaay worse. Like, 10g compared to 1 tonne worse. So, he wrote the book to help people develop “carbon literacy”; basically an instinct for what matters in terms of what to change. The memorable title comes from the fact that if you’re green, you might worry about shipping bananas round the planet. Spoiler alert- not a huge issue, but having a blowout Christmas? Yes, big.

See the source image

The book is not so much a narrative story but a sort of directory, starting at the smallest stuff like bananas and working up to the biggies like flying. Berners-Lee doesn’t go into lots of mathsy detail often, just gives you the main facts and a bit of explanation for each item, sometimes with an interesting anecdote about his own journey of change. Doing carbon footprints is complex, so all you really need to know is clever people did stuff with data and spreadsheets and science. If you want to know more, there are extensive notes at the back of the first edition, and doubtless the new one from 2020.

This book helped me calibrate my own greening efforts, and I use it to show clients that there are easy-to-use references out there, when they want to change for the better. Until recently I would explain that although the exact footprints change as, say, electricity grids get greener, the rough order of impacts doesn’t move that much so the original book was still a good reference. And now I know there’s an updated one with new footprints and new things in, I can’t wait to find out about Bitcoin and hopefully, avocados!

Image result for sustainability

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Book Review by Dr Claire Walker: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Girlymicro is currently laid up with shingles and despite having tried to negotiate with the virus, it appears they have not been able to come to terms in order for her to be able to be well enough to blog. The ever inspiring Dr Walker has leapt into the breach to ensure that you are not forced to spend a week without science based entertainment. She is, as ever, wonderful.

Guest Book Review –  Dr Claire Walker

Paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered clinical scientist in immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a senior lecturer in immunology at University of Lincoln.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. A genre bending thriller about female power and a fun take on the premise of asexual reproduction.

Judging a book by its cover?

What draws you to pick up a new book? In my limited time post baby two, I look at a few one line reviews on my Amazon account and hope for the best. Girl One By Sara Flannery Murphy caught my attention for being described as ‘Orphan Black meets Margret Atwood’. One of my favourite pseudo-scientific TV shows and my favourite speculative fiction author? Sold.

The Story


In Girl One Murphy focuses on a group of women who are the subject of a fertility experiment in rural America. She tells the story of the nine ‘miracle babies’ born without male DNA, the result of ‘virgin birth’, or to use the scientific term, parthenogenesis. The premise of the book is that a massive leap forward was made in reproductive science in the 1970s allowing human parthenogenesis. The actual process of human parthenogenesis is shrouded in mystery and lost with the untimely death of the rather shady scientist and would be father figure, Dr Joseph Bellinger. The progeny of the experiment scatter after this event and try to live normal lives away from zealots who target them for being against the natural order of things. The unexpected disappearance of her mother leads the first of these children, Girl One, on a road trip of discovery unlocking the secrets of their origins.

The Science

This is a science blog, so let’s put the superpowers and 1970s feminist manifesto to one-side for a moment. In the natural world, parthenogenesis is business as usual for some species of plants, insects, lizards and, most recently documented, California Condors. But what about humans? Has Murphy taken speculative fiction a step too far?


Until relatively recently, it was believed that parthenogenesis in humans never produced viable embryos. Human parthenogenesis itself is not actually such a rare event. The spontaneous activation of a woman’s egg without the presence of sperm is well documented. Unfortunately, this process results in the development of an ovarian teratoma. These tumours present as anatomically disorganised structures that have been documented to contain hair, limbs and even teeth. 

In his review On human parthenogenesis Dr Gabriel de Carli, discusses the serendipitous discovery of chimeric human parthenotes, or in plain English, children who have two cell lineages in their bodies – the closest thing to human parthenogenesis identified thus far. These children have cells that are the result of the normal fertilisation process, and cells that are the result of human parthenogenesis that have fused together. The first child, described in 1995, was a little boy whose white blood cells were shown to contain no Y chromosome whilst the other cells of his body were genetically male. The X chromosomes in the boy’s white blood cells were shown to be identical to each other, and both were derived from his mother revealing their origin to be from a ‘virgin birth’ event. So, whilst incredibly rare, we now know a form of parthenogenesis is possible, and more importantly, viable in humans.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Dr de Carli believes that rare cases of full human parthenogenesis occur and pass unnoticed. In fact, he thinks that as we enter the era of whole genome sequencing of all new babies, we are on the cusp of identifying these individuals. Only time will tell if they have the superpowers described in Girl One.

TLDR: A superhero take on 1970s feminism with a pinch of dystopian gender politics and smattering of not-quite-totally-fictional science. Not at all bad.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog Dr Claire Walker: From academia to the bench, and back again. An immunologists journey.

Whilst Girlymicro is away trying to find some of this work life balance people keep talking about, the charming and wonderful Claire has stepped into the breach to keep you informed and amused.  Isn’t she lovely!?

Blog By Dr Claire Walker

Paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln. 

From the Bench

More than a few years back I took my good friend Kip Heath for a drink and told her that I’d decided to undertake a post graduate certificate in clinical and professional education. Her response was something along the lines of, whilst choking on her drink and laughing at me, ‘but you hate education and training, you only like research, who on earth got you to agree to this one?’ And based on my backstory she wasn’t totally wrong. I’d always felt that healthcare scientists fell into one of two groups when it came to training and education. The first had the best possible training, adored their mentors, and want to share their wealth of knowledge. The second group viewed training as a rite of passage, had every corner knocked off on the way up and want everyone to suffer for their art just as they have. Historically, I had fallen firmly into the second camp. My gruelling but formative experience had, in my humble opinion, made me an excellent and extremely driven clinical scientist who didn’t need any spoon feeding or hand holding thank you very much.

So, who had got me to agree to this? The one and only GirlyMicro. GirlyMicro has the delightful quality of not always recognising what a huge deal she is in the world of pathology, so when she stopped me in a corridor at work and said, ‘I’ve picked up some funding for a PgCert, is education your bag? Fancy applying?’. I, of course, responded with ‘yes please, thank you for noticing me and I will jump through literally any hoop to make this happen’. Then left the conversation, head in hands wondering exactly what I had let myself in for.

Drinking the Kool Aid

So off I went to study education theory and practice. To begin with I told myself this was all about improving my section of the laboratory. Each senior scientist in a department runs their own bench; a set of scientific tests staffed by a selection of junior staff members and trainees. I ran the research and development bench. In my opinion, this is the most exciting work done in a clinical laboratory but I have to confess my trainees at that time rarely shared my enthusiasm. But that couldn’t have possibly had anything to do with my diffident approach to training, could it?

With each lecture, I found myself struggling to justify my approach (or lack thereof) and why I had resisted this for so long? Why wouldn’t I want to learn techniques to disseminate information well, why couldn’t I improve my communication skills, and why was I so resistant to helping our students become the very best healthcare scientists they could be? With the benefits of hindsight, I had bought in to a toxic culture based on exceptionalism and prestige. Why was I expecting every junior member of staff to learn exactly the same way I had? Could I not see that there were far less painful routes to success available to them? And that we might lose fewer trainees if I paid a little attention to this? I put theory into practice, and within months my bench was full of happy and appreciated staff members. I found myself reflecting daily on just how important educating our next generation of healthcare scientists was, and why this needs to be done properly. Why we shouldn’t be putting our trainees through some trial by fire if we expect our profession to survive the oncoming storm of privatisation, pandemics, and real time pay cuts, to name but a few challenges. It transpires that by nurturing our talented students we only improve all our positions. 

And Back to Academia

A fortuitous turn of events in my personal life put me in a position move from my senior scientist gig to a senior lecturing gig. Not the best year for it thanks to the pandemic. But surrounded by inspiring new colleagues I have jumped feet first into educating our next generation of registered healthcare scientists on a fabulous accredited Biomedical Science course, even if I do say so myself. 

As healthcare scientists, we are forever dipping in and out of education be it through engaging in our undergraduate degrees, Masters courses, PhDs, specialist portfolios, equivalence portfolios and fellowship exams (to name but a few!). Let’s take the time to share our knowledge. GirlyMicro has been telling me for years that we must lift others to lift ourselves. What do you know? Turns out she was right all along. 

TLDR. Those who can, teach. 

A note to my friend Kip – Who’s laughing now? Congratulations on your PgCert in Health Professions Education awarded with Merit this year! Welcome to the cult. 

Guest Blog by Kip Heath: Awards: Why nominate others?

Girlymicro is away with a family emergency and has asked me to come and talk to you about one of my more eclectic work skills:

I am very good at award nominations.

In fact, despite spending 99% of my life feeling utterly unqualified – I would even say that I am the most successful nominator that I know.

That’s a bold statement, so come on – prove it.

Since January 2020 my nominations have successfully led to the following:

Most recently I went on a nominating spree for the 2021 Pathology Power List and ended up with half my work team featuring on the final list of 75 inspirational pathologists globally. I might be biased, but I know that I have an incredible work team and I am thrilled to see them recognised.

I find it more than a little entertaining that the only award I wasn’t able to nominate a winner for in 2020 was the award that required you to self-nominate. It seems I am much better at supporting others than I am at supporting myself.

So why do you do this?

As trite and cliché as it might be, I do believe that you should be the change you want to see in the world. Once, not long after I’d started a new job I was sitting in my manager’s office and they asked how things were going. It wasn’t a bad job but I had felt that people were very quick to tell you what you were doing wrong but no-one was ever positive when something went right.

This feedback didn’t go down particularly well and I was told I couldn’t expect a pat on the back just for doing my job. I decided then and there that this wasn’t the type of work culture that I was prepared to work in.

I looked around for ways I could make staff feel appreciated and ended up nominating someone in the department for the Trust staff appreciation awards every month. Not long after I left I heard that someone had continued nominating staff in the department. I can’t change the world but maybe I can adjust the culture of one department.

That’s very sweet, but why is it worth finding time to do this?

This won’t necessarily apply to all fields but for professions in the NHS awards can be incredibly useful. Awards can be used to improve CVs and give staff a greater chance of career progression, they raise the profile of both the individual and the profession, they can help support grant applications as they demonstrate a track record of success. Some awards even come with a cash prize and the advantages of that seem fairly self-explanatory.

Of course, none of this explains why I choose to nominate others as it isn’t me winning the awards. (Although Girlymicro nominated me for the Trust Education Award in 2020 which I am smug to report is sitting on a shelf in my office).

My awards shelf. (I’m a Scientist is an event you win by engaging with students so they vote for you. In my case by talking about football.)

I have found that nominating others has given me a number of benefits.

  • There’s the warm fuzzy feeling when someone you respect succeeds.
  • It helps you develop your own communication skills which is helpful for your CV and interview techniques.
  • It teaches you to complete applications and matching criteria (also known as: learning to read the question)
  • Award ceremonies are incredibly helpful for networking. This is a highly underrated skill in my profession, I’ve watched lots of people disregard or miss the point of it. Turning up to an event as the person who has put the winner on stage is a very good conversation point!
  • In the days before COVID-19 award ceremonies often took place in a nice hotel with a free meal and alcohol for those that drink. I’m the daughter of an accountant and Yorkshireman and so am not physically capable of turning down a free meal.

So I would encourage you to go out and start nominating! Support others in your field and help create a more positive work atmosphere in what has been a very stressful year for most of us.

So how do you write award winning nominations?

My top tips for nominating may be completely at odds to others, but these are things that have worked for me.

  • Find the right award to apply for. You can write the best nomination they’ve ever read but it won’t work if the person/work/project is ineligible.
  • In scientific awards numbers are good. If you have a project that has evidence of success this is really helpful. For patient and public involvement / engagement work – this is another reason to make sure you build in evaluations.
  • If there are criteria published, make sure you follow them! Seems simple, but I refer you to the ‘read the question’ point I made earlier.
  • You’re not going to win everything so consider whether you’d prefer to target your awards or flood the nominations. (At our last Trust staff awards I singlehandedly wrote 2.5% of the nominations. Which helped me produce three finalists and one winner).
  • Are you the right person to nominate? When I submitted the nomination for Girlymicro’s BEM I was aware that the UK Government isn’t really interested in me. They want to see organisational support. So my nomination form was signed by our Trust Chief Executive, Medical Director, the Association of Clinical Biochemists and the Chief Scientific Officer’s team. This sounds like a big ask, but Girlymicro’s BEM raised the profile of all of these organisations and so they were happy to support.
  • SAVE YOUR FORMS. A number of awards require you to fill out an online form and you will never see the nomination again. This is incredibly frustrating when you want to nominate the same person / work in multiple areas.

This sounds simple enough, where do I go from here?

Honestly, if I can do this then anyone can. And there are several awards currently open to have a go at.

And that’s everything from me. If you enjoyed my ramblings then feel free to check me out on Twitter (@miceheath) Hopefully you will be back to your regularly scheduled Girlymicro posts soon!

Guest Blog from Francis Yongblah, Kip Heath and Anthony De Souza: Healthcare Scientists Celebrating Pride Month and why Visibility is still so Important!

It’s the end of Pride Month 2021, but that doesn’t mean that the fight for equality has ended. Healthcare scientists that are part of the LGBT+ community talk about why representation is important to them.

Francis Yongblah, Microbiology Laboratory Manager and HSST Trainee.

As a Gay, Asian Healthcare Scientist, representation of the LGBTQ+ community in Healthcare science is crucial to me. I have been a Healthcare Scientist for just over 12 years and in that time I have experienced and been exposed to homophobia and prejudice in the laboratory workplace. Although these incidents were very early in my career, these scenarios have always stayed in my mind and something that I have never forgotten. Early on in my career, I felt that I had to hide who I was as an individual and could not actually be me for fear of being judged or treated unfairly. These scenarios made me worry that, because of my characteristics of being a gay man, my professional development and career would have been hindered. No healthcare scientist should feel like this, and it’s important for everyone to recognise the attributes and contribution that a diverse workforce can bring to a service, team and the positive impact it can have on patient outcomes.

I have worked hard as an LGBTQ+ Scientist in order to ensure that my career has been able to develop and I can go as far as I am able to and not to be held back by my sexuality. I feel it key to have representation for the healthcare scientist workforce in order to be able to recognise how key it is to have a diverse workforce, as well as recognising that there are LGBTQ+ Healthcare Scientists within the workforce. We’ve now come a long way from when my career had just started out and I feel proud to have my organisation and the NHS represent and support LGBTQ+ Healthcare Scientists. There has also recently been a lot of support from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBMS) to promote the LGBTQ+ Healthcare Scientists in our workforce.,

Kip Heath, Deputy Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist and Science Communicator

For me, it’s essential that we foster a workplace environment (and, indeed, a society) in which people are accepted regardless of their gender or sexuality. I’m a queer woman married to a cis heterosexual man. He’s a wonderful and supportive individual and the only person I could imagine taking on the world with. But, to that outside world, we are a standard heterosexual couple. On the one hand, that can be an advantage as I can hide my sexuality fairly easily. However, there have been workplaces that I’ve not felt comfortable or accepted as myself. But I have found that my identity can be easily erased, even by other members of the LGBT+ community.

Now I work in leadership positions where I need to provide support across the healthcare science workforce. My boss talks about the importance of bringing your authentic self to work and leading by example. Our workforce is hugely diverse and it’s important that we demonstrate that. I want to make sure that LGBT+ healthcare scientists in our Trust never feel like they need to hide themselves at work and that there are people that they can open up to if they have any issues. In my role as a science communicator, I raise awareness of healthcare science careers to students and show them that the profession is open to LGBT+ scientists, and that their sexuality is not a barrier to progression.

Anthony De Souza, Practice educator for HCS, HEI lecturer & LGBT+ Forum co-chair

Representation is important to me because, when I grew up, there was no one in my life or on TV that was like me. This added to a feeling of invisibility and isolation, making me feel like I didn’t matter and that there was no place for me in society. I’ve been lucky enough to feel safe enough at work to be myself these days, but everyone’s situation within an organisation will differ.

We know that diversity equates to strength but what are we doing to create an inclusive space for scientists? Science is a diverse and ever changing space where a variety of perspectives yields better conversations, we need an environment that actively supports that. We also need to recognise that much of the discrimination individuals may face happens before they’ve even accepted a job offer, this could be binary choices on demographic questions or uniformity of interview panels.

To be our best at work we have to commit our energy and focus for the good of patients’. We can only do this if we don’t have to constantly edit how we act to fit a pre-defined notion of ‘normal’, react in real time to how we’re perceived or routinely have to deflect micro-aggressions. 

Shining a light on excellence throughout the workforce of scientists from different gender identities, sexual orientation, disability, age or race is important for visibility. We need role models that we can relate to and learn from. This also challenges the wider communities’ pre conceived notions of what a professional usually looks, sounds and acts like.

Today you are you, that is truer than true.

There is no one alive, who is youer than you

– Dr Seuss

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Claire Walker: My top three reasons for picking Immunology

Whilst Girlymicro is away, trying to desperately find some of this work life balance people keep talking about, the charming and wonderful Claire has stepped into the breach to keep you informed and amused. Isn’t she lovely!?

Blog By Dr Claire Walker

Paid-up member of the Dream Team since 2013 (as discussed in a previous post, in her personal life most people call Girlymicro Dream), token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln.

Followers of this blog will have seen the wonderful Dream and Kip performing stand-up comedy and encountered the light-hearted hashtag #immunologysucks, typical microbiologist thinking! As the Dream Team’s token immunologist, I feel there has to be some defence of my chosen specialism. So here I weigh in on why I chose immunology, and why you might like to consider it too.

My Top Three Reasons for picking Immunology – the King of Science

  1. It’s New, New things are Cool.

Immunology is the new kid on the block of pathology disciplines. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to collaborate with all sorts of people. From geneticists and genetic counsellors during my PhD looking for new immunological diseases, to major clinical cancer trials companies and gene therapy scientists during my sojourn at a major children’s hospital, and even with the occasional microbiologist who wants some obscure cytokine readout for a study (I’m looking at you Dream!). Everyone loves collaborating with immunologists because we get the really good machines, and we aren’t afraid to use them.

2. It’s an Adventure, Adventures are Exciting.

If you’re interested in reading a science blog, you’ll have a fairly clear idea that the immune system are the cells of the body that protect us from disease. Immunologists develop our knowledge of how this works. But think about it for a moment. It is a hugely complex system that needs to understand what to kill, and when, and when to turn itself off. Humans need to be able to eat food without attacking it, and leave friendly bacteria and our own cells well alone. When the immune system falls out of balance the immunologist needs to understand how, why and what we can do to treat people. As the wonderful Dr Daniel Davis describes it, building our understanding of the immune system as ‘a painstaking, game changing scientific adventure’.

3. We’re the Future, and the Future is Awesome.

Antibiotics are in trouble. Cancer isn’t always treatable. Viral disease can shut down the whole of society. Scientists are turning to clinical immunologists for the answer. We can create artificial antibodies to treat previously untreatable diseases, we can re-program the immune system to attack and kill cancerous cells and vaccines can be rapidly produced to save millions of lives. Manipulating the immune system to treat and prevent disease not only saves lives of patients today, but has revolutionised how we approach problems in medicine.

The Bottom Line

There are so many fascinating specialisms within the world of pathology that making a decision early in your career can feel overwhelming. Immunology has just got so much to offer – who wouldn’t want a piece of that action?

TLDR. #Immunologyrocks

All opinions in this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Claire Walker: Did you hear the one about the Consultant Microbiologist who Hosted a Digital Festival?

Whilst Girlymicro is away trying to find some of this work life balance people keep talking about, the charming and wonderful Claire has stepped into the breach to keep you informed and amused. Isn’t she lovely!?

Blog By Dr Claire Walker

Paid-up member of the Dream Team since 2013 (as discussed in a previous post, in her personal life most people call Girlymicro Dream), token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln.

Did you hear the one about the Consultant Microbiologist who Hosted a Digital Festival

of Science collaborating with Artists, Musicians and even Comedians?

She was a Woman of Many Cultures

That’s right! I am, of course, talking about The Rise of the Resistance festival, the greatest scientific communications event since Jonathon Van Tam’s daily Covid briefing. Someone please buy that man a clicker (JVT, if you’re reading this, hit me up I have a spare for you).

More seriously, if the constant stream of scientific content in the media over the last 15 months has taught me anything it is that scientists are not always the best communicators. We have to ask ourselves why this essential skill is being overlooked by our profession.  Is it because our subject matter is so complex? Or is it because we’ve never taken the time to learn, practice and apply these skills?

I’ve spent more than a decade developing a detailed understanding of how clinical testing works but only shared my findings with other healthcare professionals, and rarely outside my own discipline. The importance of clinical testing is now taking centre stage and, because of the pandemic, I am finding myself butting heads with every armchair expert who believes they know more about my specialty than me. I’ve been frustrated by this, but now I think it’s my own fault. I’ve spent too much time hiding in the lab and not enough time shouting from the rooftops about just how vital, influential and downright amazing our healthcare scientists are. It’s time for me to put down the pipette and pick up a microphone.

Pathologists as Comedians – are we Having A Laugh?

I decided to jump on the first opportunity to come my way. And that was the offer to participate in Stand-up for Science, a live comedy gig as the closing act of the Rise of the Resistance festival. My first thought was that stand-up comedy is about a million miles from my comfort zone. However, I was fortunate to receive the excellent training of professional scientific comedian Dr Steve X Cross. With this new knowledge and the support of my fellow scientific comedians, Dr Cloutman-Green and Kip Heath, I wrote my set.

The training taught me that worlds of science and comedy are not so far removed as you might think. My job as both a scientist and an educator is to find the best method of communicating complex ideas to a varied audience, and I spend much of my time giving presentations to large, mostly awake, crowds. 

Fortunately, the gig itself was all delivered from the comfort of my home office. For those of you who didn’t manage to watch live (including my lovely husband who was juggling the children) I’ve attached the link here. I felt that the gig itself was brilliant, a wonderful experience to meet funny and passionate individuals from across the pathology disciplines. We covered everything; from classic urologist finger up the bum humour, to carefully constructed gags about our doctorates, to fishing samples out of a bin at the Brit Awards.

There are a lot of great stories for healthcare scientists to tell, and rarely have I had a day in the clinical lab without finding something to laugh about. Much like learning how to design an experiment, or program the flow cytometer, communication is an essential skill for healthcare scientists. And why should it be dry and boring? Why not throw in a joke or two? We aren’t going to win friends or influence people by mansplaining our work or dismissing it as too complex for the lay person to understand.

Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility as scientists to get out of the lab and make ourselves heard. Getting the right test for the right person at the right time, the mantra of the clinical scientist, is essential. Spreading understanding of clinical testing and of vaccination will save lives. Today.

TLDR: Scientists, even microbiologists, are people too. And some of us are downright hilarious.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Steve Cross: The Science of Space

By Steve Cross www.clevermakefunny.com

Do you know what everyone in space is scared of? It’s not lasers (we’ve got shields) or fire (we’ll just get a droid to put it out) or even fifth-dimensional beings (they can be defeated by being witty or saying their name backwards). No. It’s torpedoes. Well, in Star Wars and Star Trek it is. I don’t know about Battlestar Galactus or Paddington 5 or Expansys or whatever it is that you like. I only know the classics.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Torpedoes come in two types. Star Wars has proton torpedoes (if you fire one into a sewer it ignites all the old poop and makes it destroy the whole base) and Star Trek has photon torpedoes (these are often fired as a “full spread” which implies there are roasties, Yorkshire puddings and possibly pigs in blankets on the side).

But how scary are they?

Science can tell us.

A proton, as anyone who listened for 5 seconds in GCSE science knows, is a hydrogen ion. Basic boring old hydrogen is a single proton with a single electron floating around it. Take the electron away and you’ve got protons. Do you know what’s really rich in protons? Acid. Even a really weak acid has trillions* of spare protons in it.

Canonically we don’t know whether Star Wars torpedoes have a warhead of lemon juice, vinegar or possibly even Viakal. Sadly there are no scenes of brave flight technicians precisely measuring teaspoonfuls of Diet Coke into primed torpedoes. What we do know is that the torpedoes would definitely get the limescale off their targets with their rich proton loads. Star Destroyers probably shine like chrome after a good old space battle.

We can only speculate about how the first Death Star was destroyed. Did it have a core made of millions of tons of sodium, just waiting to recreate the most exciting moment of A-Level chemistry but at grand scale? Only Darth Vader knows. And he can’t tell us because he isn’t real.

Over in the Star Trek universe we’re all wearing our uniforms that are apparently solely designed to make cosplaying unsexy, and we’ve tried shooting the enemies with phasers (the first time I used the guitar pedal of the same name I was sorely disappointed). It didn’t work. It usually doesn’t. Phasers only exist to provide a moment of tension by not working. So it’s time to up the stakes. We will unleash the fearsome photon torpedoes!

In tedious-science-explanation land, a photon is the smallest possible unit of electromagnetic energy. It is the basic unit of light. Photons move pretty fast, in fact they move at the speed of light. That’s why it’s called that. Physicists are pretty literal. That’s how they came up with units like “Light-year (ly)f” and “Earth mass (M⊕)”.

It’s easy to blast your enemy with literally trillions* of photons; Just point a torch at them. Is this the payload of the fearsome photon torpedo? We know they’re big enough to fit a dead Vulcan in, ears and all (from the second movie) so they could hold some serious lighting. “Priming photon torpedoes” presumably means turning on all of the torches in each one by hand. Although, if all those torches had poorly-made lithium batteries and it got a bit warm, the photon torpedo might make a perfect incendiary bomb.

Is anyone else not scared? I’m not scared.

*It might be more. I refuse to do the maths.

APPENDIX

A dismissal of the other forms of Star Trek torpedo, most of which only appear in one episode of Voyager when the writers were desperate because, against all the odds, Deep Space Nine was eating their lunch. It turns out we just wanted to see someone drink silently at a bar while Worf seduced every female character on a space station. Who knew?

fusion torpedo – This is what is known in normal human history as a thermonuclear or H Bomb. This is scary shit. It was also invented in the 1950s which suggests other cultures should have come up with a way of blocking it by now.

photonic torpedo – A more-sciencey-sounding version of a photon torpedo, presumably.

plasma torpedo – I’m assuming this is full of ionised superheated gas, not human blood with the cells removed. I’m not sure how scary that would be to anyone except a vegetarian. Less threatening than a fusion torpedo either way.

quantum torpedo – the smallest possible unit of torpedo

spatial torpedo – a torpedo that is used in outer space? Or that occupies some physical space? It doesn’t seem that scary. Or well named.

transphasic torpedo – I’m not sure why anyone would want to add phasers (which don’t work, ever) to a torpedo?

gravimetric torpedo – Uh oh look out this torpedo has mass!

NB from Girlymicro. If you’d like to submit a guest book review or guest blog drop me a line on the links on the right of the page

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Claire Walker: A clinical immunologist’s thoughts on lateral flow antibody testing for SARS CoV2

By Dr Claire Walker

Paid-up member of the Dream Team since 2013 (as discussed in a previous post, in her personal life most people call her Girlymicro Dream), token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln.

A clinical immunologist’s thoughts on lateral flow antibody testing – this post follows on from Dr Dream’s awesome post on testing for the virus – concerns my thoughts on COVID-19 antibody testing by lateral flow technologies.

‘The LEDs on the top of the box turned on, one red, one green, beginning to flash in an alternating patter. The flashing slowed and finally stopped as the red light went out, leaving the green. Still clean.’

‘Feed’ by Mira Grant 2010 (see Newsflesh book review for some more on the series)

Whilst some days it might feel like the end of the world during the COVID19 Pandemic, we aren’t quite living through the zombie dystopian vision of the future described in Mira Grant’s Feedback trilogy. However, much like in the world envisioned in Feed, point of care testing has become part of many people’s lives. A friend recently received a lateral flow anti-SARS CoV-2 antibody test and sent me his result saying, “turns out I never had it, 80-90% confident”. It sounds like quite good odds, doesn’t it? If you happen to like gambling, and someone told you to bet on a horse with an 80-90% chance of winning, it’d be tempting to have a flutter. But when it comes to clinical testing, a 1 in 5 chance that that result is inaccurate is far less appealing.

What are the tests?

Antibody tests, unlike testing for the virus itself, detect the antibodies produced by our immune systems in response to infection. To envisage a lateral flow test, think about a pregnancy test. Instead of urine, a few drops of blood from a finger prick are mixed with a solution and applied to the device.

You then wait 10-15 minutes and the results can be read in the result window (image 2). There are many different versions of these tests out there, but the underlying principle is much the same. If you have the antibodies in your blood sample, they bind to viral proteins attached to gold particles. This forms an antibody-antigen-gold-particle complex which can be seen as the positive test line.

How good are the tests?

‘Confident’ isn’t a term we like to use in clinical science: we like the terms ‘sensitive’ and ‘specific’. We also like to use statistics to describe the sensitivity and specificity of a test. In the case of COVID-19, the sensitivity of the test is the proportion of people with COVID-19 that have a positive blood test. A test which is 100% sensitive means that all individuals with COVID-19 are correctly identified as having the disease. Conversely, specificity is the proportion of individuals without COVID that have a negative blood test. A test that is 100% specific means that all healthy individuals are correctly identified as not having COVID-19. It’s pretty hard for any clinical test to be this wonderful, but we are trying to get as close to this ideal as possible. The MHRA recommends these tests have a sensitivity of >98% and specificity of >98% (1). To date, none of the lateral flow assays to detect antibodies have met these criteria.

What are we using them for?

Testing for antibodies isn’t the same as testing for virus. A positive result means you were likely infected with COVID-19 in the past. This result should not be used to diagnose a current COVID-19 infection because it can take 1-3 weeks after infection for your body to make antibodies. We aren’t sure how long these antibodies are going to stick around either. Some viruses are very memorable to the immune system. Unfortunately, coronaviruses are pretty forgettable, and the ‘immunological memory’ – the antibodies against the SARS CoV-2 virus – may disappear in a matter of months. In the case of my friend, who took his antibody test in October to find out if he had COVID-19 in February, that negative result doesn’t mean very much.

This test only tells you that you’ve made antibodies to the virus, not how many are there and if they can stop reinfection. We don’t know if these antibodies are protective or if that makes you immune to the virus. You can also test positive for the virus and positive for antibodies at the same time, meaning you are still infectious. Best not to use the result to decide whether or not to visit Grandma.

The Bottom Line

Whilst I don’t love these tests for individual use, they are useful. By monitoring the prevalence of antibodies against SARS CoV-2 at a population level, we get a snapshot of what is happening in the country in the moment the test is taken. It tells us something about the antibody status of a community of individuals, helping to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic at a population level and more data will hopefully help immunologists better understand what on earth is going on with the immune response to this virus.

TLDR. Lateral flow tests for antibodies are best left for community studies and aren’t going to let you know if you had COVID-19 in January. You’ll just have to keep wondering.

Reference

  1. MHRA. Target product profile antibody tests to help determine if people have immunity to SARS-CoV-2, 2020. Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/883897/Target_Product_Profile_antibody_tests_to_help_determine_if_people_have_immunity_to_SARS-CoV-2_Version_2.pdf

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