Blog Archive

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Routine but not Mundane

I've not posted a blog post for days! I've been away for the Easter weekend but that's not much of an excuse; I had plenty of time waiting around in the airport or wherever that I could have used to make a post or two. So it's time I set out a solid structure to when I post things, not only to make things a bit more formal and professional but also to stop me procrastinating and leaving everything until tomorrow, then the next day, then the next...

I'm also going to be making more use of my YouTube account! I'll be doing a weekly vlog made of short clips from each day. Hopefully it will help me gain confidence in speaking, something I'm really bad for. Plus in a few years, having a nice record of everything I get up to will be nice for me!
I also want to do a monthly (Or twice monthly) short video, more scientific or instructional/educational, starting by talking about my favourite subject; Friendly Bacteria!

Here's the routine then:

Wednesday - Blog post published at 12pm BST

Saturday - Blog post published at 12pm BST

Sunday - The week's vlog, posted by 6pm BST

This isn't too packed in the week, but is still pretty regular and will hopefully be easy to stick to.
I'm going to schedule this for a 12pm upload tomorrow then! (As it's Tuesday today)

Have a lovely week!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Chill-out weekend; rockpooling!

I've been really ill for way too long now, but I'm coming out of it! (Fingers crossed) I'm still taking it easy though. Yesterday was really nice out, if a little hazy, so we went for a walk along the beach. The tide was still quite far out so a lot of the rocky reefs were exposed, full of little rock-pools. It was slippery underfoot, with high risk of dipping a foot into the freezing sea (or falling and hitting jagged rocks I guess) but it was worth it; I spotted a spot of pinkish-cream among the black rocks and dark seaweed. I made my way over to it, knelt down to get a closer look and saw that it was a limpet detached from its rock, with the fleshy part facing upwards. It was dead, but the whole Lion King-style circle of life thing was happening right before me; two black spiralled shells (either sea-snails or some sort of whelk, or so I thought) were moving in to feed on the limpet's body. I thought this was cool, so stayed to watch. But to my surprise, little legs emerged from one of the shells, followed by clawed arms and two tiny eye-stalks! It was a little Hermit Crab!

The dead limpet (blue) and the hermit crab (purple). I couldn't tell if the shell on the dead limpet was another crab or just a sea snail. There were other hermit crabs nearby though so I'm thinking a crab.

I was really excited by this development, so I called the others over to have a look (and lend me a phone to take pictures!). The water was freezing but I scooped him up to have a closer look for a second or two. As I expected, he went full-defensive mode and retreated inside his borrowed shell, waving his cute little claws menacingly at me through the opening. I didn't want to disturb him too much though so I popped him back down right where I got him from. He spent thirty seconds or so peering up at me suspiciously, but when he was satisfied that I wouldn't pick him up again he went straight back to chomping limpet.

"Put me down, mammal! I've got a busy day ahead!"

The tide was slowly making its way towards us so we went back up onto the promenade, but it was great to see nature happening right on my doorstep! I love how pretty much anywhere you look in the world, you will find little ecosystems full of fascinating organisms!

Monday, 14 March 2016

ExoMars; Liftoff!

A mission to Mars has launched today, called ExoMars. It's aiming to look for evidence of micro-organisms, which is really exciting!

It'll be doing this by looking at methane on Mars; methane breaks down in sunlight so why is it there? It's either being produced by some kind of chemical reaction between rocks and water, or by biological processes. Most methane on Earth is biological, often created by methanogenic archaea or bacteria, which are found all over the place; the bottom of the sea, deep down in the rocks of the Earth's crust, and even in rumen of cattle. Everyone knows cow burps are bad for the environment, but it's not the cows making the methane; it's bacteria!

So why do bacteria make methane? What's in it for them? They make methane by reducing carbon dioxide with hydrogen. This enables the cell to produce ATP, the same thing all cells (from bacterial to human cells) use to provide energy for all the chemical reactions they need to do. So instead of using oxygen like us (or like anaerobic bacteria) they use CO2 and make methane!

Could they be found on Mars? Yes! The conditions there would definitely support species like those found here on Earth (but obviously evolved for Martian conditions rather than Earth's), especially the extremophilic archaea and rock-dwelling organisms. If they are found there, it will create more exciting questions like are they related to life on Earth? Or did they come from a separate origin of life? Whatever happens, it will lead to really interesting missions and science in the years and decades to come. It's a really exciting time to be alive! (And to be a microbiologist!) I'll be spending the next few years eagerly awaiting the results of this mission! Good Luck team ExoMars!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Murmuration of Starlings (and flu-based incapacitation)

I had all sorts of blog and video related plans for this weekend buuuut I came down with the 'flu so have spent it in bed (apart from a trip to the orchestra, that was awesome).

This video is one I took on thursday evening down on the beach! It's of a massive flock of starlings, I've never seen it so big! They always fly around over Aberystwyth, and before sunset do these huge murmurations over the pier before flying under there to roost for the night. It's a gorgeous sight to see, especially on a day like thursday when the sunset is beautiful too!

I'm coming back out of this illness now so will hopefully be back to blogging and stuff soon. Plus I have plans for little videos about things which is exciting!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

International Women's Day; Female Scientists (especially Dr Kathleen Carpenter)

Last night I attended a talk on a pioneer of freshwater ecology, Dr Kathleen Carpenter (Given by Dr Catherine Duigan). I was primarily interested in the freshwater ecology bit going into the lecture, but was absolutely fascinated by the whole scope of the lecture. I'm so used to hearing about the scientific life of the famous scientists that it was both refreshing and extremely interesting to hear about the more personal side of her research. Not just what samples she took and what she found, but how social constrictions on things like what she could wear impacted on her science; collecting aquatic samples gets a whole lot more challenging when you're wearing a full-length dress (I imagine. I've never tried, myself). Hearing about how Dr Carpenter rose up in spite of the male-centred environment to become really one of the defining figures (and key founders) in her field, and the phenomenal successes she achieved right from when she was a PhD student ("Just like me!" I thought) through to being a really well-thought-of professor of international renown, was hugely, hugely inspirational.

If you want to learn more, head over to this FreshWaterBlog post to read all about Kathleen Carpenter from Dr Duigan herself!

Today is International Women's Day, and the talk last night was part of my university's week-long program of events celebrating it, in particular Women in Academia (especially STEM fields). I've been really lucky across my academic career in terms of meeting and working with some excellent female scientists. My work placement supervisor, undergraduate personal tutor and my current PhD supervisor are all female, and all really powerful scientific figures in their own right. I know that I'm not really ordinary in that respect, as many fields and research groups are very male-dominated, but it is still strange for me to think of cases like Kathleen Carpenter's life where her being a woman made things more difficult professionally. However, me finding things strange doesn't make them go away, nor does it diminish them; women are still pretty massively under-represented in academic circles. For instance, I learnt recently that at my institution (Aberystwyth University), there are more Professors called 'Michael' on the staff than the total number of female Professors. No matter which way you look at it, that's not equal, that's not 'fair'. I don't know about a lot of aspects of life, but I do know science; and I can truthfully say that in my experience there is no aspect of scientific research where one gender is 'better' than the other, so the fact that things are so unbalanced in general definitely shows that it's a situation that can be amended rather than being some 'fact of life'.

How's that going to happen? I think that motivation is a big factor, motivation to go down the path of an academic, of a scientist. And hearing talks like last night's, talks by influential female scientists about other influential female scientists, definitely help motivate people. I myself definitely felt deeply inspired by Kathleen Carpenter's story, and I'm sure that with the efforts of Dr Duigan and others like her, more and more people can be inspired by the important tales of Dr Carpenter and others just like her. I'm really glad that International Women's Day brought this talk into my life.

Happy International Women's Day! (Both remaining minutes of it, I left this a bit late. Oops!)

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Night Sky on the Epynt

I'm visiting my folks for the weekend, and took advantage of the weirdly non-cloudy weather tonight to drive off into the middle of Wales to a scenic overlook on the edge of The Epynt, a massive MoD training place (we mere civvies are allowed on the footpaths and roads around the edge) with no streetlights anywhere. It was really dark, and kind of a spooky drive with sheep-eyes reflecting the headlights from the bushes and the odd band of soldiers on exercise or whatever looming out of the darkness, but good grief it was more than worth it. There was no moon, only a few distant lights on in various farmhouses, and the smallest amount of cloud cover Wales has ever seen. Conditions were absolutely perfect for stargazing.

For Valentine's day I was given a really cool little book giving a month-by-month guide to the stars and planets and stuff. The only problem was, the visibility was so good that it was hard to see the regular constellations among all the little background-stars normally invisible behind all the light pollution! We could make out a whole load of different ones though, Leo, Orion, Canis Major, the Pleiades, and The big shiny Jupiter! (To name but a few! Seriously, there were all the stars, it was breathtaking)

My girlfriend said "I thought I'd seen the stars before. I hadn't!" I don't think it could be said more perfectly.

Go see it, find some remote dark spot, wrap up warm (warmer than I  did, I still can't really feel my feet) and sit out there soaking it all in. All we did was drive for a bit then stand by the car looking at the sky, but it was definitely one of the best things I've ever done. I'll definitely be doing it again soon!

No, I don't have a picture, my camera wasn't charged and my phone wouldn't have come close to doing it justice. I don't think any picture can. Go see it. Go on. Off you go.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

World Book Day: Bacterionomicon

Today's World Book Day! To celebrate, I thought I'd write about my favourite bacteria-related book. It's not a textbook or medical guide, but the absolutely fantastic 'Bacterionomicon', produced by NerdcoreMedical.

What is it? It sounds like some kind of old-school medieval magical bestiary for Bacteria!

... Yep. That's pretty much what it is. And it's glorious.

The Bacterionomicon describes 40-odd species of pathogens as if they were fantastical beasts in a magical land called Soma, and the apothecaries of the healing blade (representing antibiotics). The descriptions are dramatic and exciting, but still actually really accurate medically too! There are different areas of Soma that represent parts of the body (like the 'Faecal Inlet'... lovely), and in the bestiary it says where each monster lives.

Listeria monocytogenes (I didn't make this, the authors of the book did! All credit goes to NerdcoreMedical. If I'm not allowed to have this picture here I'm happy to take it down)

It's not just fun to read, (or say out loud for that matter... Bacterionomicon...mmmm) the illustrations are beautiful to look at. Take a look at the one for Listeria monocytogenes, the one I blogged about the other day. It looks fearsome! The whole book is just packed with fantastic drawings.

There's also an awesome-looking card game called 'Healing Blade: Defenders of Soma' in the works that goes with it that I can't wait to try! It's not out yet but as soon as pay-day comes around I'll be pre-ordering a copy!

I don't know what else to say about it, I'm no book-reviewer, but if you like bacteria and are pretty nerdy, (i.e. someone like me!) then I'd definitely recommend it!

Don't just take my word for it, here are links for you to peruse:

(I'm not affiliated with NerdcoreMedical in any way, I just think they're totally awesome)

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Buttery Listeria

Tesco have recalled a load of their butter today, after they found listeria in some. But what's listeria? Should we be worried? And why is 'chocolate chip and maple syrup butter' a thing?

Listeria is a bacteria (that's why I'm talking about it!)  called Listeria monocytogenes. It's important (and worth worrying about/recalling weirdly flavoured butter over) for two key reasons: firstly, it loves the cold. This bug can happily grow in your fridge! Stopping bacteria grow is the whole point of fridges so listeria just makes a mockery of that. If it's growing, the number of bacteria goes up and up increasing the chances of getting ill if you eat it. So how ill does it make you? It normally just causes flu-like symptoms (in fact, there's a high chance you've had it but thought it was just the flu) but the second key reason it's important is a secondary effect: listeria can cause miscarriage. This is the reason you're supposed to avoid dairy stuff when pregnant (especially un-pasteurised cheeses like that fancy smelly french one you've got tucked away in the fridge). It does that to animals too; if a breeding herd of cows get fed contaminated food, they all get ill at once resulting in an 'abortion storm', which is pretty high up on my list of horrible phrases (right beside de-gloving accident) and obviously results in farmers losing animals and money, not to mention how it affects the poor cows.

I don't want to freak you out or make you stop eating cheese or whatever though (unless you're pregnant). All dairy food is tested constantly for all sorts of bacteria, and the tests for listeria are some of the most important. Any tiny amount of listeria in any product is always treated really seriously: while Tesco are losing out on the apparently lucrative flavoured-butter profits, the alternative is much, much worse. As a result of this, even when there's a scare like today's one you're pretty safe. Yes, listeria is one to avoid, but don't let the thought of it ruin your day!

It's not all bad though; listeria is being used in experiments looking at using it to treat cancer! It's really clever: normally our immune system recognises cancer cells as being our own cells, so leave them alone. But these researchers are modifying listeria cells to show markers for the cancer cells as well as their own (and to make them not cause disease obviously). When introduced to the body, the immune system looks at these modified listeria and starts associating them with the cancer cells. So the immune system starts thinking the cancer cells are listeria, and attacks them! Re-wiring the person's immune system to fight the cancer from within. This is still very much in the experimental phase, but it's a really exciting idea that I think is pretty promising! Plus it's a way that bacteria are being used for good (you can't get much more 'good' than fighting cancer) which I'm really enthused by and passionate about.

Edgar the Friendly Bacteria

I wanted to set up a profile picture to use with this blog, the YouTube channel and the Twitter page (which I'm still setting up, watch this space!) So I sat down last night and drew something for it. I wanted a bacteria, but not a scary gribbly one like in so many stock cartoons. I also wanted to keep it sciency so put him in a lab coat! I thought three eyes, in the layout of the biohazard symbol, would be weird enough to suit a bacteria but drew them to be cute(ish) and nice-looking so he still has a warm, friendly feel.
I initially drew it just with pencil on a spare bit of paper, then scanned it in with my phone. I use GIMP for image editing, and turned it from pencil lines to black outlines. From there, I played around with colour gradients and patterns and stuff, leading to the finished little avatar I'm using now!
I find it really fun just messing around drawing things. Once various things arrive from Mr Amazon, I'll incorporate that into some videos I'm planning! Exciting.