Friday, 28 February 2014

Name the Biologist

There's a clue in the picture besides the person himself!

I'll do the answer to the last installment over the weekend but if you're desperate I can provide the name now. It was Koichi Tanaka. The reason i selected him was because he was the pioneeer for developing mass spectrometry for biological macromolecules. A technique that has been inde forspensible my recent work 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

BBC Horizon - the power of the placebo

This season of Horizon has been a really strong one and "the power of the placebo" was no exception. The show not only established that the placebo effect works but that it can have genuine physiological effects. Fortunately they don't go into how a sugar cube has some kind of quantum channelling effect where it transports your mind to the memory of a pain-free life but rather how our brains respond to being fooled into thinking the placebo has a physiological effect.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Science exhibit plug

For those who are London-based and not actually involved in the event here's a great opportunity to meet some biologists in the flesh and get an insight into what they do for a living at the science museum.

There's an exhibit on Ageing, how Electron Microscopes are used and a silent disco (hopefully featuring songs that mention science) to name but a few. There certainly seems to be something for everyone.

So if you have the time - try and check out the Bio-revolution night at the Science Museum. I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Schadenfreude for Scientists

Had a bad day at work? Angry at another grant being rejected? Well, you could always cheer yourself up at the expense of fellow scientists by checking to see who's made the latest paper retraction. There's a website dedicated to it called Retraction Watch.
Enjoy - unless your name is on it.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Name the Biologist

This Biologist is famous for developing a much-used technique in today's labs.

Bragging rights for the first correct answer!

As for the last installment, that was

Pacual Jordan. While he wasn't technically a biologist he was a well respected (at the time) pioneer of Quantum Physics. He was also one of the earliest proponents of the concept of Quantum Biology. Unfortunately Pascul was also a proud member of the Nazi party and this unsurprisingly led to his isolation from the physics community. It also meant that Quantum Physics was largely forgotten due to the fact he was the theories champion. It just goes to show that society and personality can often be more powerful than scientific ideas.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Two days and counting to get a program installed on my computer.

Bristol University takes its computer safety seriously - some might say (eg me) too seriously. I wanted to align some protein sequences to see how similar they are and to do so there's a free piece of software that can be downloaded and installed. Usually it requires a click on "install" after download and within a minute the program is ready to use. Not so at Bristol University - I have to fill out a request for the IT team to grant me permission to click on "install". Two days later and nothing has been done - I'm not holding my breath that it'll be done by tomorrow either.
So thanks to a stupid system I'm going to lose a week wherein I could have done the piece of work instantly. Nice set-up there.

Fortunately a colleague who left has the program on his computer and as it is next to mine I'm using it. Otherwise this would have been a farce.

EDIT: On the quiet I've heard there's a relatively simple work around that I will test tomorrow. I won't say what it is for fear the IT gnomes find out and see fit to make life more difficult by blocking it.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Padawan Training

Imagine a Jedi wearing a lab coat instead of his cloak with their little padawan by their side (with ponytail).

That's sort of what I'm up to at the moment supervising a student's undergrad project. Whenever my PI mentions supervising students in the office I try and avoid eye-contact. Not entirely sure why but my knee-jerk reaction is it'll take me twice as long to do something I could do on my own. The odd thing is that when I do supervise students I wind up really enjoying it.

How come? Maybe I've been lucky in that the students I've worked with have so far* being competent and interested in their project. Most times I actually get them to do experiments while I do something else meaning I get twice as much done and that initial investment pays off.
I think that their interest is the key factor in why I ultimately enjoy supervising.  When I'm caught up in the day-to-day experiments  I tend to  forget that what I'm doing is still interesting and dare i say occasionally fun. When I have a "captive" audience doing experiments with me for the first time I'm reminded of how things work in experiments. A maxi-prep is usually pretty dull but when you explain what's happening at each stage and what you're ultimately achieving it's not so bad. When you explain how you get a fluorescent tagged protein into a cell-line I can't help but think  "this is a clever technique" (obviously not my own invention).

So it does require a bit more effort but it is a nice change of pace to have a student around. Let's hope I haven't jinxed things and that the current one doesn't go all Anakin on me - contaminating everything he touches and laying waste to my little empire.

*need to keep the current one honest!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Jim Al-Khalili - Quantum Biology Seminar

I've been a big fan of Jim Al-Khalili's for a while now. I think it was his TV series on the history of chemistry ("Chemistry: a volatile history) that "ignited" my interest in him and I've been a fan since. I like to think of him as "the thinking man's Brian Cox" which isn't meant to be insulting to Cox, as he goes for a much broader and younger audience but Jim's presentations are usually a lot more detailed and devoid of phrases like "stuff" and when he says "billions" he means it rather than it meaning "lots".

Anyway the University of Bristol invited him to give his seminar on quantum biology. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss and I turned up 30 minutes early, eager to get a good seat at a full capacity talk.

As usual the talk was expertly delivered at a level that suited a university audience consisting of chemists, physicists and biologists. I think I found the history of the field the most interesting in the sense it can be traced back almost a hundred years which was news to me. A really interesting observation was how a champion and pioneer of the field, Pascual Jordan, essentially destroyed it by being an avid supporter and member of the Nazi party. Just goes to show how politics and society can have a profound effect on the advancement of science.

If I was being honest I'd say the meat of the talk discussing the potential examples of quantum biology in nature wasn't as impressive as the things he usually discusses. I think that's just because as a biologist I'm already aware and familiar with the examples he gave. I'm much more impressed when he's talking about pure physics but I guess that's just because the unfamiliar is more exciting to me. I'm sure there are physicists out there who find the biology just as fascinating.

One thing I did appreciate though was that he discussed some of his own research and it was nice to see he is still active in science outside of communicating it. It was also fun to see him get some in depth questions/grilling from quantum chemists in the audience and to see him defend his ideas. I'd have liked to pick his brains a bit more about his biological approach as I got the impression he was treating DNA as a molecule that existed in a vacuum whereas in life things get a lot more complicated (polymerases may auto- correct or the bulkier hydrogen atoms may be mutagenic through their increase in size alone). That said his basic idea of seeing whether DNA mutations can occur through quantum tunnelling is still interesting - even if biology itself may muddy these effects in vivo.

In conclusion it wasn't my favourite talk/presentation by Jim it was still an enjoyable hour and excellently delivered. He's still one of the best science communicators out there though and it was exciting to get a glimpse at Jim-the researcher for once. Well worth a look if he's giving the talk anywhere near you in the coming months.

UPDATE: It seems a few of you would like some examples of this Quantum Biology of which I speak. I forgot you weren't all at the seminar. Here are some links to get you started. If you want actual research papers you can probably pubmed it with the terms listed. Not all of these are excepted as fact yet but they are becoming very popular theories.

European Robin migrates via quantum entanglement
Quantum Theory of smell 
Superposition in Photosynthesis
Quantum tunneling in enzymatic reactions

and here are a few links that act as good introductions or reviews of Quantum Biology.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Control Freak

The BBC has been on a roll  showing some experiments on TV of late - I'll try and cover Horizon's "fat vs sugar" . I stumbled across an even better example yesterday. The show is called "Inside the animal mind" by presenter Chris Packham  (who i still remember as the "really wild road show" presenter from decades ago). I was watching it mainly because i was curious as to see how animals view the world differently - something they achieve quite well. What I wasn't expecting was for them to be conducting experiments and actually explaining the concept of experimental controls.

I'll list a couple of examples

  • When testing whether a wolf or dog has a different hierarchy for responding to visual or olfactory stimuli - they had an experiment where food was present in two cups first then followed up with an experiment where the food was only in one cup. They also conceded the wolf used wasn't truly wild.

  • When testing whether strong magnets deter sharks (due to their magnetic sense) they placed tuna in the centre of a circle of strong magnets. In case the sharks were just apprehensive of black circles they had a circle of bricks (identical in appearance to the magnets) with tuna in the centre. These two circles were side by side - while the sharks repeatedly took tuna from the control circle, they never never took tuna from the magnetic circle.
There were several other neat little experiments where controls were mentioned or limitations clearly pointed out. They also liked to point out that n numbers are vital. The more times you conduct an experiment the more accurate the results become.

Basically my inner control freak was very happy with this show. There appears to be at least one additional episode so I look forward to seeing more experiments.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Name the Biologist

I only found out about this guy after attending a lecture this week. He's an interesting character in that his political views actually set back a field in Biology by half a century!

And for those who can cast their minds back a few months - here's the answer to the previous installment.

It was Matthew Meselsohn and Werner Arber for their development of restriction enzymes (although they are famous for quite a lot of things) which are an essential tool for any biologist wanting to clone pieces of DNA into various useful vectors. I'd have a lot less GFP tagged proteins if not for them.