Tag Archives: Research

Lucy’s Third Year Blog

Well hello again, and hello for the final time!

I’m very sad to say that this is my last blog; so much has happened this year and it’s absolutely flown by! Despite all the horror stories that you hear about the stress of third year, it’s actually been my favourite yet, for both my course and for my life in Manchester. I’ve met so many great new people since September, and I’m absolutely gutted that most of them will be graduating and leaving Manchester in a couple of months. Not me though – I’m sticking around for my Masters project!

The last ever night together with the senior ambassador family, featuring our beloved Professor Liz Sheffield

The last ever night together with the senior ambassador family, featuring our beloved Professor Liz Sheffield

I’ve spent a big portion of this year carefully planning my big research project, so it’s crazy to think that I’ll actually be starting it in just a few months. I’ve settled on one of the two projects that I planned (not an easy choice when you really want to do both); I’ll be looking at “the effect of interleukin 27 on the metabolic profile of CD4+ T cells during Plasmodium yoelii infection”. Sound exciting? No? It sounds pretty awful actually doesn’t it? Let me explain.

A T cell-fie with my favourite immune cell

A T cell-fie with my favourite immune cell

In simple terms, I’m going to try to find out how one of the many signalling molecules in your immune system (IL-27) controls your immune response against malaria infection (caused by Plasmodium parasites). We know that this signalling molecule can down regulate the aggressive immune response (involving T cells) that your body mounts against malaria, but we don’t know how it does it. Everyone has heard of how devastating and deadly malaria is, yet the fatal damage caused by malaria is actually due to the way your immune system responds to the parasite. When infected with the malaria parasite, your body must mount an aggressive inflammatory response in order to clear the parasite from your blood. However, if this response is not switched off, it can cause fatal self-harm to your own tissues. If we can try to work out how the body can switch off this response, we might be able to better treat malaria in the future, reducing the associated mortality and morbidity caused by it. Sound better? I hope so! I cannot wait to get going with my project and spend a whole year carrying out in-depth and worthwhile research, focussing on something that I’m fascinated by. If parasites aren’t your thing, don’t worry; the faculty has hundreds of different labs working on pretty much any field of Biology you can think of, and with the MSci programme, you can choose which of these you’d like to work in!

In my last blog I told you about the MSci Experimental Skills Module. This was a really intense month of lab and field work as part of a small group, followed by a lab report, a group scientific poster and a poster presentation. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful. It was a lot of work in a very short space of time and we were working right up until exams, but it gave us a great chance to develop our essential research skills for next year. I’ve received some really positive and encouraging feedback on my work, so at least it was all worth it! I even managed to talk about microscopic nematodes (I swear I can relate ANYTHING to parasitology). Have a look at my previous blog if you’d like to know more about the project.

My last piece of coursework for third year featuring one of my many thousands of microscopic nematodes!

My last piece of coursework for third year featuring one of my many thousands of microscopic nematodes!

Right now though, I’m writing this blog to distract myself from the fact I’m halfway through my 5 essay and problem-based exams! I really like the units that I’ve chosen this year, so I’m at least finding the revision interesting. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that exams are horrible. Although, I can find some solace in the fact that these are my LAST EVER EXAMS! Even though I have one year left at university, my fourth and final year just involves an enormous write up at the end, but no exams. I sat my first two exams this week and I think they went okay. By the time this has been posted, I’ll have finished my exams; now that’s a beautiful thought. If you have any exams at the moment, I wish you the best of luck! Don’t stress too much – it’ll be over before you know it!

I might have had 4 coursework deadlines and 5 exams in the past 6 weeks, but don’t think for one second that that’s stopped me from having fun! Oh no, we can’t have that! This month I jumped out of a plane with my housemate, raising over £1000 for charity – and I didn’t die! Sadly, I didn’t manage to get any action shots with my face flapping around as I plummeted towards the earth. I’d rather you didn’t see that anyway. I’ve also recently been to two music gigs in Manchester, one at the Manchester Academy at the Students’ Union to watch Kygo, and one at the Manchester Arena to see Busted (yes, I’m a loser but my 9 year old self just couldn’t pass on the opportunity); both were amazing! I’ve had a couple of BBQs; one with the senior ambassador and admissions team at Professor Liz Sheffield’s house, and the second in 28 degree heat with my housemates, my best friend, and her puppy (yes, 28 degrees in Manchester).

Not to mention, there’s plenty going on after exams. All of the final/third years sit the same final exam, so we all finish together. It’s a morning exam so we’ve decided to head into town afterwards and have a big brunch with lots of prosecco, then we’re heading to my friend’s to carry on the celebrations, and then back into town again. We’re definitely going to need it! The week after that we have the Life Sciences ball at the Midland Hotel; it’s themed “The Oscar’s”, so I’ve bought a ridiculously extravagant dress for it. Then, the day after that it’s Pangea, a huge festival held at the Students’ Union at the end of each semester, which is attended by thousands. Every Pangaea has a different fancy dress theme; the theme this time in “Carnival”, so I’ll be spending lots of time in the run up covered in glue, sequins and feathers whilst I try to make myself an outfit that the girls of Rio de Janeiro would be proud of. Although, I’ll probably end up looking more like a sparkly peacock that’s been in a fight. The week after that I’ll be jetting off to Barcelona for even more fun with my oldest course friends. Exams don’t seem quite so bad when you’ve got all that to look forward to.

Well, that’s about all I have for you this time. Thank you to my loyal readers for taking the time to hear about my life this year (that’s if I even have any loyal readers?! I don’t know). I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings! Writing this blog has really made me realise more than ever just how amazing both the city of Manchester, and the University’s Faculty of Life Sciences are. I’m so proud to be a student here, and I can’t wait to see what my final year brings.

Ciao for now,

Lucy

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Rachel’s First Year Blog

Hey guys!

I literally can’t believe that the end of first year is in sight! Time is just flying by and I’m greatly stressed because my six exams are just around the corner. It certainly didn’t help that last week’s revision had to be put on hold, as Wednesday was the deadline for our Lab Reports that accompanied this semester’s set of labs. Tuesday night was certainly a late one filled with frantic texting in the group chats!!  My report was on an experiment that involved extracting DNA from our cheek cells, finding out our genotype for the taste receptor TAS2R38, and researching how this affects the flavors we can detect. This means labs are DONE until the exam!! It felt so good to finish the practical side of them. After many celebratory jumps down the corridor, my tutorial group and a few others went to Big Hands (a pub opposite the Stopford Building – the main building for life sciences lectures and practicals) for some drinks in the sun. I say the word ‘sun’ lightly; we were slightly freezing to death on the roof terrace but hey, at least we tried!!

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The weather has actually been AMAZING these last few days. It reached 26 degrees, which for Manchester is incredible! The slightest bit of sun sees the student world descend to every inch of grass they can find on campus. The little ice cream vans that pop up by Stopford really make the walks home in the heat more bearable, as does the fact that Lidl is so close to Whitworth Park for impromptu picnics in the sun! The other day, me and a few life scientists did exactly that for a few hours. We were actually working on an entry for this cool competition the Faculty of Life Sciences was running, where you had to make a film about a famous scientist who went to The University of Manchester. We chose to make an animated film about Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker; a scientist who studied the life cycle of the seaweed Porphyra laciniata.  Her research went on to save Japanese coastal communities from starving, after typhoons destroyed their seaweed plantations, so she really was an inspirational figure!

My procrastination level also hit the roof the other day when me and Jaina went… skiing?! Admittedly this WAS a bad idea to do two days before my Lab Report was due (but hey, I got it in on time!!) and it was such a fun two hours at an indoor ski centre called Chill Factore, next to the Trafford Centre. I’d never skied before and I didn’t fall over once, so I was very proud of that!! In fact, over these past few weeks I feel like I’ve done many activities to improve my balancing ability: My friend Rachel and I went to the Northern Quarter for cocktails, which involved many hours balancing in our heels! – And another week the rock-climbers and I decided to go to a roller disco after a climbing session. After several face-plants and spectacular falls, it made for such a fun evening, and nicely added to the bruises we’d already sustained from climbing. It was actually free; one of the many activities the university had organized as part of an exam period De-stress Day.

Speaking of cool things that I have been able to attend as a result of the university, I went to a seriously mind-blowing lecture organized by the Faculty of Life Sciences Society about CRISPR – a new gene editing technique, led by Professor Matthew Cobb, one of my lecturers from first semester. It’s pretty complex, but stay tuned, because this is going to revolutionize science!! For more information, you can listen to a BBC Radio 4 show he did about it here.

Anyway, aside from several fajita nights, Northern Quarter catch–ups, climbing sessions, and a night out with Rach to Revolution in Deansgate Locks, there have also been meetings with our new Programme Directors. Because… I officially became a Biologist!! It’s made me greatly excited about second year too because I really want to do a field course to somewhere amazing like Costa Rica. You might remember me saying from my last blog post that I had to pick a specialization, given that Life Sciences is only a one year course. It’s sad that we’re all splitting up, but given that I’m living with two of them next year, it’s not too bad! We’re also planning to go on a tutorial Black Milk outing after our final academic tutor session, which will be cute!

I also had my final three lectures today. It was sad, but the day was made special by 25 degree weather, the fact that I officially got my first job at Starbucks (FREE DRINKS YAY), and the spontaneous appearance of a Ferris Wheel outside Uni Place!! Only in Manchester, eh?

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Already I’m looking forward to the after exam celebrations. We’re going to the Life Sciences Ball, which is actually on the night of my last exam; so it will be a much needed celebration!! It’s Oscars themed and will be complete with a three-course meal and photo booth, so should be amazing!!  The next night is the last Pangaea festival of the academic year. It’s carnival themed, and my flat-mates and I are already thinking about costumes – flower-crowns, tie-dye clothing, and lots of glitter are on the cards!

Well, this is my last blog post I’m writing for this year. I’ve enjoyed blogging so much! I love writing and it’s so nice to look back and remember what I did over the year. It’s been a fun, hectic, stressful and simply the most amazing year!! You don’t realise how much you will learn at university until you get here: whether it’s the confidence to try new things and meet new people, surviving away from home, to realizing how the science you learn in your textbooks actually translates into real life… Not to mention how to make the choice between more sleep, and the 9am lectures you paid £9,000 for!! 😉 It’s been a whirlwind of an adventure though, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

And to all those picking Manchester as their first choice (the right choice that is!), see you next year!!

Rachel xxx

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope’s Placement Year Blog

Hi Life Sciences Student Blog Readers!

I’m Hope, a Biochemistry with Italian undergraduate. Everyone always asks the same question when I tell them what I study – Why would anyone ever mix science and languages?! Aren’t you just making life 10 times harder for yourself? I never quite knew how to answer (apart from that I kind of liked biology, chemistry and Italian at school so mixed them together and came out with Biochemistry with Italian!) and I’m not going to lie, I was sceptical myself. Now, after two years of juggling the two, I have finally been able to put them together during my placement year, and I have realised exactly why I chose to study a life science with a modern language, and why it was one of the best choices I ever made.

My lab pass (makes me feel super important)

My lab pass (makes me feel super important)

I’m currently on placement in Florence, Italy and have spent the past 7 months working in a cancer research lab in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Biomedical Sciences at the University of Florence.

At the beginning, probably like many of you, I wasn’t sure how a modern language placement would differ from a normal industrial placement. However, apart from being able to do your placement, and therefore live, in an exotic country for a year, the placement aspect is pretty similar. I’m working as part of a small and diverse research group carrying out a project on oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer cells and their resistance to aromatase inhibitors (a type of endocrine therapy). The most exciting part of my work here is to be carrying out research that has never been done before, and therefore no one knows exactly what the outcome will be! I was even lucky enough to get acknowledgements in 2 published papers for my contribution within my first 6 months in the lab. This was super rewarding and, believe me, it makes university work way more exciting when you see your own name when reading an article on PubMed!

Day to day work in the lab is pretty laid back. Generally, I can come and go as I please, so long as I get all my work done and make good progress with my placement, which often means getting in super early in the morning because I’ve had nightmares about my cells dying – they really have become like my pets! But it also means taking coffee breaks every 30 minutes and being told to ‘leave early and enjoy the sun’ on a Friday lunch time – so I can’t really complain!

Enjoying my afternoons like a true Italian - gelato, pizza and coffee!

Enjoying my afternoons like a true Italian – gelato, pizza and coffee!

 

Queen of the cells 2016

Queen of the cells 2016

However, it’s not all about eating pizza in the sunshine, of course there is a lot of hard work involved too! I spend about half my time in the lab taking care of my cells, treating them with various drugs, and carrying out hundreds of experiments on them. Although it didn’t seem like it at first, after a few months of working in the lab, the experiments really do become like second nature. The other half of the time is spent, ultimately, scratching our heads. Researching, reading, discussing, researching some more. But this is the most exciting part, no one has done this research before, no one can say for sure what will happen or why. And that’s the reason I have come out of this year fuelled with a passion for research, motivated to work towards a career in cancer research.

 

 

 

Without a doubt my main worry was how in the world I would manage to work in a research lab IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Especially as in second year I struggled to understand labs in my own language. But, believe me, I was pleasantly surprised. Although I’m the only English person in the lab, I’m actually in some senses at an advantage to everyone else, as English is the language of science. I therefore find myself spending a lot of my free time, whilst waiting for a gel to run or for a centrifugation to finish, translating words, explaining grammar rules, correcting papers ready for submission, or most often, explaining just why we drink so much tea in England. This is something I really enjoy, and not only has it given me the great experience in scientific writing, it also gives me the opportunity to ask a million questions on Italian words, phrases, grammar, etc. And, here we are, 7 months later, and I find myself thinking and even sometimes dreaming in Italian. To say a placement abroad is the best thing you could possibly do for both your lab/scientific and language skills is definitely an understatement.

But amazing language skills and lab experience are not the only benefits of studying a ‘with a Modern Language’ degree. On top of all that you get the absolute pleasure of living in an amazing, beautiful city like Florence for a year. Excuse the over-enthusiasm, but I’m well and truly in love with the place. Of course I’m biased, everyone says that about their placement location, but seriously, look how beautiful it is!

Just a few snaps of my favourite city in the world!

Just a few snaps of my favourite city in the world!

Not only do you get the experience of living in a different country, speaking a different language, and embracing the daily life of a completely new culture, you get the opportunity to meet awesome people not only native of your host country but from all over the world. In the space of the past 7 months I have eaten the best paella I have ever tasted (made by my Spanish roommate), learnt a bunch of super important German words (hay bale = Heuballen, kitchen roll = Küchenrolle…) on a roadtrip across Italy with 3 Germans, watched (and triumphed in) England vs. Italy at the amazing Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and cooked a proper British Sunday Roast for 40 foreigners, to name but a few! Not to mention the amazing trips I’ve had the opportunity to go on. My favourite one was for sure spending an exam/deadline free Easter visiting friends in the amazing city of Munich, most of all for the delicious German beer and sausages.

My first time in Germany with friends from all over the world

My first time in Germany with friends from all over the world

So, overall, it’s been a pretty amazing year. I’ve become fluent in Italian to the point where I dream in it, become skilful enough in the lab to the point that I think of my cells as pets, made friends for life from all over the world who I have already planned visits to see when I return to Manchester, spent every weekend discovering places everyone dreams of travelling to, as well as ones I never knew existed, and above all developed both academically and personally, developing skills and qualities that will help me for the rest of my life. I can’t believe that in a few months’ time it’ll all be over and I’ll be back looking longingly out of a university library window longing for the land of pizza, pasta and red wine…

So if you are considering doing a modern language placement, I have two words for you: do it! (Oh, and you now know the (very long winded) answer to everyone’s ‘why do a science and a language’ question).

Thanks for reading!  And good luck with your university or placement applications, or whatever else it might be.

Hope

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FLS research 2016

The academic year 2015-16 is drawing closer to an end, and it’s been another great year for the Faculty. We thought it would be nice to have a reminder of some of the research that has come out of the Faculty this year so far. After all, what better year is there to do it than 2016? – When Manchester is named European City of Science. From all the positive research outcomes of the Faculty this year, it’s certain that this has helped Manchester live up to this name!

2016 started off with a paper published by FLS scientists which showed that there are genetic variants in offspring that can affect the quality of maternal behaviour. The trials for this study consisted of mice families with genetically variable mothers and genetically uniform offspring, and vice versa.

Dr Reinmar Hager, the senior author on the paper, told us how this research is unique:

“The aim was to identify genes that are expressed in offspring but influence the way mothers behave. Normally you try to identify genes that influence how you, and not others, behave. These genes act as indirect genetic effects. Previous research has shown that offspring can manipulate their parents’ behaviour, however, here we identify for the first particular genes with such effects.”

 

Mice

Photo: Locke et al (2015). ‘Genetic studies of body mass index yield new insights for obesity biology’. Nature, 518 (7538), 197-206.

It was found that variation in offspring genotype on chromosome 7 and chromosome 5 affects maternal behaviour, which in turn influences offspring development and fitness. It was also observed that offspring growth during the second week is affected by a locus on maternal chromosome, where the B6 allele increases the trait value – so individuals with the maternal phenotype B6 are genetically predisposed to give better quality care. Conversely however, genetic variation among mothers was found to influence offspring development independent of offspring genotype.

David Ashbrook from FLS was also involved in the research. He commented on the significance of these findings and their implications for the future:

“We identified genes which can now be studied in more detail, and shown that specific genotypes may be co-adapted to benefit both parties, e.g. genotypes which predispose to mothers who provide more care also predispose to offspring who beg less. We also demonstrate a method to investigate the genetic effects of social environment, which can now be used to examine adult phenotypes and associated reproductive success.”

Research of this kind is always interesting and useful to us as it can be applied to all social species, including humans. Identifying parent-offspring interactions is the first step in being able to understand the pathways involved with these, and how they are modified by our environment (social and physical).

Leading on from the idea of how the environment can influence our lives, a study involving FLS Professor Andrew Loudon was published later on in the month, showing the importance of having a circadian body clock that matches the rotational speed of the Earth. Scientists within our faculty are well recognised and respected as valuable experts in their research areas. For example, it is clear that the research conducted by Professor Andrew Loundon during his time in the Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester, has meant that he has become a reputable source to comment on other research in the same field. This is seen in a recent BBC article about making flu vaccinations more effective by administering them in the morning. Here, researchers from The University of Manchester, Prof Loudon one of them, were asked to comment on the idea of using the body clock to make healthcare procedures more successful due to it being done at a most appropriate time for the body’s natural rhythm. So not only do we do great research in the Faculty of Life Sciences, but we are an authority on what makes other research great too!

Similarly, this was also seen in in the discussion of CRISPR, a new gene editing technology that can explore organisms at an unprecedented scale of precision. CRISPR has taken the world of biological sciences by storm, and has enormous application in holding the capability to modify the human germline. Although this discovery was not directly from the Faculty, Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, was asked by the BBC to host a show on radio 4 to educate the public about the technology, and the implications and ethical issues it raises for the future. Again, examples like this just demonstrate how other well respected and popular sources value and trust the expertise of scientists in our Faculty!

Other great research from the faculty in January includes:

From early this year, the ZIKA outbreak spread through the Americas and the Pacific – and with it brought the panic associated with the virus and a need for prevention. Scientists at The University of Manchester responded to this by stating that a vaccine is to be developed here. So not only has this year been a great year in terms of research outcomes, but also research prospects! This is just one example of how scientists in the Faculty of Life Sciences are committed to helping people. This dedication to science is something that we as a faculty are very proud of at the University of Manchester, as it can have a hugely positive impact on people’s lives.zika

Another topic in science that has an impact on the way we live is climate change. A major challenge currently facing the world is how to mitigate this. Scientists have suggested many ways of dealing with climate change, but one that has been widely discussed is increasing the amount of carbon sequestered, or stored, in soil. The reasoning behind this is that soil is one of the world’s largest pools of carbon, so by increasing its size further, we should be able to draw down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate change.

A study involving Professor Richard Bardgett from the Faculty of Life Sciences consisted of sampling soils across the UK. It was found that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, which cover around a third of the UK land surface. This represents a huge amount of carbon that is helping to curb climate change. It was also found that 60% of this carbon is deep in the soil, hidden from past national carbon inventories. Another surprising finding was that carbon stored in grasslands, is sensitive to the way land has been farmed, and that decades of intensive grassland farming, involving high rates of fertilizer use and livestock grazing, have caused valuable soil carbon stocks to decline-  the largest soil carbon stocks beneath grasslands had been farmed at intermediate levels of intensity, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. Carbon stocks were about 10% higher in these grasslands than in the more intensively managed grasslands.

grasslands

Professor Richard Bardgett commented on these findings:

“These findings are important for two reasons. First, they show that much more carbon is stored in grasslands that previously thought, and second, they suggest that the amount of carbon in our grasslands could be increased by managing them in a less intensive way. Not only could this help in meeting our future global carbon targets, but also it could bring benefits for biodiversity conservation”

Other great research from the faculty in February includes:

It seems like 2016 has also brought with it the rise of digital technology in scientific research! During a visit from Life Sciences Minister George Freeman, a new home to the heath eResearch centre was opened at The University of Manchester, making us a hub for some of the world’s best digital and health research in the North of England! This is supported by a current experiment going on in the Faculty. With hay fever season quickly approaching, scientists from The University of Manchester are inviting people to get involved with one of the biggest experiments they have ever conducted to help understand why the frequency of allergies is increasing.

Currently 1 in 4 people have an allergy, a ratio that was not as high in previous years and is still on the rise – however the exact reason for this increase is currently unknown. A team of scientists, including some from The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, have launched an app called #BritainBreathing.  This aims to achieve a better understanding of seasonal allergies by tracking how symptoms change over time and learn about your allergy triggers. Then, by teaming the data from #BritainBreathing with other sources of publicly available weather and pollution data, it will enable us to understand the patterns and causes of seasonal allergies.

One of the key traits of this experiment is science designed with citizens as partners, meaning that it is a collaboration between the scientists developing the app and allergy sufferers. Dr Sheena Cruickshank, Senior Lecturer in Immunology commented on this aspect of the project:

“We have involved the public from the outset with this project in order to not only consult about it but also to co-design the features of the app to ensure it is useful to the allergy community”

Dr Lamiece Hassan from the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, is also involved with the project. She said:

“I don’t [have an allergy] myself yet, I say that because allergies are on the rise. Based on current projections, in 10 years over half of us will have an allergy. Digital technology is part of our everyday lives now and that brings huge opportunities for gathering data on a mass-scale for researchers like me.“

Other great research from the faculty in March includes:

In more recent FLS news, researchers have used a technique developed by Dr Michael Buckley from the Faculty of Life Sciences, called Zooarchaelogy by Mass Spectometry (ZooMS), to identify human traces from a Neanderthal bone in fragments located in Russia. Dr Buckley developed the method during his PhD, when he realised how difficult it is to identify between fragmentary animal bones. ZooMS works by fingerprinting collagen, an abundant protein in bone that survives for millions of years. This is done by extracting collagen into solution and using an enzyme to cut at particular amino acids, which then produces a set of protein fragments that are specific to particular animals. These are then analysed using a mass spectrometer to measure the sizes of the fragments.

Dr Buckley from the Faculty of Life Sciences told us about how ZooMS can be used:

“My recent developments at Manchester have been to upscale the methodology to make it work with thousands or even tens of thousands of samples, a very useful development whether hunting for human remains like a needle in a haystack, or evaluating palaeobiodiversity through time”

He continued to tell us about his involvement in the study:

 “When I was screening through the batch of hundreds of samples and I spotted the hominin signature I was incredibly excited, as it was the first time that my method had been used to find such ancient human remains, and I am confident that it won’t be the last time.

“This finding continues to add to our knowledge of Neanderthal evolution, and potentially to our own interactions with them. As a method it could really revolutionize our picture of human evolution through the practical aspect of helping find much more material to obtain further genetic information from, such as ancient DNA.”

Well what an impressive year for the Faculty so far – and it’s only May! Aside from this, a number of members in the faculty have been rewarded for their research efforts, which recognises just how important and well-recognised the research conducted here is. Faculty experts continue to inspire us by the quality of research at The University of Manchester, making us proud to be a part of the Faculty of Life Sciences.

For recent updates in life sciences news, please visit:  https://lsmanchesterblog.wordpress.com/ 

 

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Declan’s Placement Year Blog

Hi guys, my name is Declan and I am a Pharmacology student at The University of Manchester. I’m writing this post to give everybody back home, prospective placement students in particular, a bit of a description of my placement with The MRC Unit in The Gambia. Here, I’m undertaking an immunology-based project examining the potential for Gambians to exhibit protective immunity to Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB). I’ve been working here for around eight months now, and haven’t seen rain in about six! Anyways, I’ll try to give you all a rundown of what’s involved in a placement year with The MRC, what it’s like working in an international lab / in the field of immunology and what life is like in The Gambia.

We all received our offer letters sometime during revision for 2nd semester exams, so to say it all came as a bit overwhelming would be an understatement. After meeting my future housemates, Rowan and Claire, the university helped us with organizing all of our vaccinations and other medical preparations for travelling abroad to The Gambia in July 2015. When we left it was difficult for anybody to predict exactly how we would find the experience. We had very little idea what The MRC, or the country, would be like, but students from previous years spoke very highly of it and were happy to lessen our apprehensions. On arrival, everything was laid out for us, and we soon settled into a lovely house on-site for the three of us. Within a few weeks, training sessions were completed and we were ready to begin work for our projects!

Myself, Claire and Rowan

Myself, Claire and Rowan

The prospect of travelling to work on a disease as well-characterised as TB at a renowned research station was overwhelming – How could I catch up with centuries of research and somehow contribute to it?! However, I’ve found that once you get working on a project where you’re focusing all your attention on one subject (as I’m certainly doing here), it really helps you to digest the information and make real progress. My work is almost entirely concerned with my own project. It’s very rare that I’m required to devote time to any other work than my own, and I’m given a great degree of autonomy in the way I choose to work, which I adore – I couldn’t really ask for more. Work hours are about 8 hours per day, with a half day on Fridays, and a fair few public holidays. Anyways, I can try to describe what I do in my time in the lab here for anyone who’s interested:

Samples are taken from Gambians living with individuals with active pulmonary TB. This is conducted by the TB Immunology department’s sample collection team, who we’re always welcome to join on trips to various regions of The Gambia. These samples are used for a bunch of different projects in our department, but mine are concerned with comparing those who contract, with those who don’t contract, latent TB disease. The idea with this is to see what differences there are in the individuals’ innate immune systems that protect them from initial TB infection, before an adaptive immune response is even primed. The project is divided into three main lab phases. Firstly, I carry out assays for interferon γ, a routine protocol in our lab. This diagnoses whether a patient has latent TB infection. After this, I carried out a similar type of assay (multiplex cytokine assays, for anybody interested) looking at levels of a load of other cytokines, all implicated in TB in some way. Finally, we run flow cytometry experiments using isolated white blood cellsrozen in liquid nitrogen – super cool). This means we get to compare cytokine levels, then cell populations, then the cytokine production from those cells. It all sounds a bit complicated… It kind of is. Flow cytometry is a super complicated technique and hugely valuable if you want to work in immunology, or just want to show in your CV that you’re competent at difficult lab techniques.

The amount of data that we’ve generated has already been immense – it’s no wonder so many students end up publishing quality research papers at the end of their time here. An important thing I’d say about working in the field of immunology is that it all comes down to the analysis. You can spend weeks/months running samples without even seeing a hint of a trend, then it all comes together when you compare all of your data. I have amassed so much data that I could decide to analyse it in one of a thousand different ways. It sounds incredibly geeky, and maybe it is, but there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing months of data collection go into stats analysis and seeing something significant come out of the other side.

There’s so much more to draw from the experience of living and working here that I think I’ll struggle to write it all down. I think that working internationally really helps you to gain a sense of independence which is hugely beneficial to your confidence, vastly impacting your ability to work well as an individual. Also, it’s worth considering the importance of being able to work in a team of people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. At The MRC, everybody speaks English to varying degrees, but you’ll regularly hear people speaking French, Dutch, German, Wolof, Mandinka, Fula, Krio, Ibo, and a range of other languages depending on who’s in town at the time! It’s a really exciting educational experience for anybody who likes to learn about new languages and cultures. I’ve definitely been able to develop my communication skills during my time here, as I have taken the opportunity to learn some Wolof, a very useful local language in this part of The Gambia, and in a lot of West Africa in general. I couldn’t recommend this enough as it opens up so many more opportunities to explore. With MRC sites all over the country and plenty of other friends travelling around on weekends and holidays, there’s no shortage of hidden gems to visit where it’s possible to get a true “Gambian Experience” (cringe) in less touristy parts of the country.

Kuntakinteh

Kuntakinteh

Sandy beaches stretching on for miles are about a 5 minute walk away from The MRC. We’re spoilt for wildlife, really – it’s possible to pose for photos with crocodiles in the sacred pools at Bakau, go bird-watching on the river from Tendaba or Lamin and watch the hippos from Basse town. You can take a 20-minute bike ride to the see the Senegambia monkey park, though I haven’t done this, since you can oftentimes wait in The MRC for the local monkey families to come and steal the oranges growing in the garden (cute!). If you’re feeling adventurous, a short journey north into Senegal takes you to safari parks featuring lions, giraffes, rhinos and a host of other wildlife. On that note, Senegal offers numerous great short trips outside of work. We visited Dindefelo Falls (awesome), plan to attend the St. Louis jazz festival, and know plenty of other people who have travelled into other areas of Senegal, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

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Another fantastic thing about working in The Gambia is the tiny size of the country. This gives you so many opportunities to meet people who you would never get to meet working in other countries. During our time here, we’ve hung out with numerous US Marine and Peace Corps, spent a lot of time with students from all over Europe, working not just in The MRC, but at clinics, hospitals and other organisations all around the country. If you’re lucky, you may get the opportunity to meet the ambassadors for the US and the UK – they’re actually pretty sound to have a cup of tea with. Basically, I’d say to any prospective applicants for projects based here, don’t be worried about being away from your friends in Manchester. There’s a pretty cool bunch of people here, people who I’m sure I’m going to miss just as much when I return to England as I’ve been missing all my university friends for the last eight months.

To summarise, working in The Gambia is pretty sweet. If I could pick anywhere to start getting an idea of what full-time research work is like, I’d certainly choose it to be somewhere sunny, with ample opportunities to relax away from work. This place certainly seems to provide that. In short, I almost don’t want to come back!

Thanks for reading, and if anybody wants to contact me to ask about placement years, The MRC, immunological research or The Gambia, feel free to drop me a message at declan.manning@student.manchester.ac.uk. I’ll always try to respond as quickly as possible!

Declan.

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British Science Week 2016 (Day 5)

Hello! I’m Lucy, a first year Biology with Science and Society student at The University of Manchester.

The brilliance of biology is that it is underpinning to all elements of life; this ranges from the micro world of bacteria and viruses, to the macro level of climate and nutrition cycles. Everything can be explained in the language of biology. This is made very clear in our first year laboratory practicals! It is an amazing feeling to carry out procedures in the lab and understand what is happening because of your biological knowledge. The laboratory is where biological theory comes to life!

As part of the “Introduction to Experimental Biology” module, we are able to practice and develop our laboratory skills. I particularly enjoyed the “Manipulation of DNA” practical. This experiment involved working with E. coli, exploiting multiple natural biological processes in order to confer antibiotic resistance.

We first manipulated the bacteria through a process called transformation. This involved using a plasmid, as a vector. This is a special piece of genetically engineered circular DNA that contains the desired genes to be inserted into an organism.  Our pGLO plasmid contained the gene for Ampicillin resistance, and also a gene called the Green Florescent Protein (GFP). The GFP gene exhibits bioluminescence and was used to indicate if the transformation had been successful. It was an awesome feeling, to examine the transformed E. coli under UV light, and watch it glow green, knowing that the experiment worked. I had successfully made some bacteria antibiotic resistant!

Next, we exploited the process of bacterial conjugation, which is the transfer of genetic material from one bacterium to another via special structures called pili. During this experiment, we investigated the efficiency of E. coli to transfer genetic material in different conditions, using a liquid culture and solid surface. This was so that we could identify the type of pili that the E. coli contained! We transferred the bacteria onto agar plates that contained different types of antibiotic and left them to grow. We then counted the number of bacterial colonies (you needed a sharp eye for this!) in order to identify if antibiotic resistance had been transferred.

colonies

Counting E.coli colonies on agar plates!

This practical enabled me to practise highly useful skills in the field of biology, such a Gel Electrophoresis and pipette handling (which isn’t as simple as it sounds; it definitely has a certain knack to it!). You spend a lot of time reading about these things when studying so it feels good to “put a face to a name” sort of thing.

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I also found the laboratory practical very relevant to modern day society.With increasing interest in the field of genetically modified crops and the growing issue of antibiotic resistance, I felt like I was acquiring key skills and knowledge in order for me to progress in the scientific community and be a part in resolving these very real issues. I can’t wait for my next lab session!

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading our experiments this week for British Science Week 🙂

Lucy

For more insight into general first year as a first year student at The University of Manchester, watch our ‘A week in the life of a first year student’ series on the Manchester Life Scientists YouTube:

 

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British Science Week 2016 (Day 4)

Hi! I’m Margarida and I study Neuroscience at The University of Manchester. Like most 2nd year students in 2nd semester, I am doing a Research Skills Module.

As part of the Neuroscience RSM, we get to do a practical with Nitrous Oxide! Nitrous Oxide is also known as ‘Laughing Gas’, and is used as an analgesic and anaesthetic. It is one of the safest anaesthetics known, with rapid and completely reversible effects. In high concentrations it is used in dentistry and in lower concentrations during childbirth. In this practical we all got to be subjects and also observers. As subjects, we had to breathe either oxygen or one of two low concentration mixtures of nitrous oxide and oxygen. From this, we hoped to increase the subjects’ pain threshold and lower results in cognitive tests. To test this, we measured pain threshold by amount of time that the subject could hold their hand in cold water. There were some interesting effects! However like in all experiments, some of the results we obtained were not exactly what we expected. For example, one subject had a particularly unusual response to the Nitrous Oxide – he didn’t want to keep his hands in the cold water, but wanted to draw butterflies instead.

Another practical that sticks in my mind was also during the Neuroscience RSM, where we got to stain mice brain slices to detect different sensory pathways (where neurons that do certain things are placed in the brain). We stained a number of different neurons in the mouse brains, including ones which sense glucose levels in the blood, one that releases a hormone when the animal is dehydrated, and a photoreceptive neuron.  These neurons connect areas of the brain involved in circadian rhythms (internal clocks that control when to sleep, eat, reproduce). All of the types of staining we used were different; one stained the nuclei of the neurons, other the synapses and the third stain turned blue! It was amazing to be able to get a look at some real brains and actually see the neurons that we have learnt so much about in lectures.

I have realised that the more time I spend in the lab, the more interested I become in research procedure and results. It’s nice to be able to apply what we’re learning in lectures to things we can then go and look at in the lab. I am sad to say that I’ve completed all my labs for this academic year, but I can’t wait to do further lab work next year!

Margarida Trigo

(2nd year MNeuroscience student)

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British Science Week 2016 (Day 2)

Hey everyone!

For those of you who don’t already know, Manchester is the European City of Science this year, so it’s pretty apt that one of the experiments that really stuck in my mind here at university was all about Manchester!

My second year Research Skills Module (RSM) in Urban Biodiversity and Conservation was all about investigating the surprisingly wide array of biodiversity found within Manchester. We spent the first two weeks exploring different aquatic and terrestrial systems around the city, learning about the different techniques environmental consultants and field biologists use on a daily basis.

The joggers and dog walkers definitely gave us a few funny looks as a herd of students turned up in Platt Fields Park in our waders, carrying nets and buckets; and every day we were out one of the locals would come up and ask what us odd looking bunch were up to. One particularly memorable moment (though perhaps for the wrong reasons!) came from our trip to Salford Quays, where the weather took a turn for the worse, even by Manchester’s standards. Suffice to say, some gale force winds had me extremely close to being blown head first into the Manchester Ship Canal, an experience I’m glad I avoided!

After examining the effects of historical pollution for the first two weeks, control shifted to us for the second two. We were given the freedom to choose any site we wished in Manchester to go and investigate, carry out a habitat survey, and then devise a conservation strategy for that area. For the first time in our degree we were given complete and utter control of an experiment, and it gave a real taste of what working as a scientist full time would be like.

Our group decided to survey nearby Stretford Meadows, and fortunately this time the weather decided to take pity on us, with some of the sunniest days that year. We looked at the range of biodiversity there, both plant and animals, and when it came to collecting samples my friends were greatly amused by me running round a field with a giant net in my efforts to catch some butterflies; it’s a lot more difficult that you would think!

We carried out a whole range of activities on our site, many of which people wouldn’t associate with biologists. These ranged from researching the history of the site over the past century, to getting in touch with local rangers to find out about the site management. We catalogued the different plant and animal species we’d found on site, and it gave me a huge amount of respect for taxonomists, as it’s certainly not an easy job! We then presented our findings and discussed how we would go about managing the site in order to conserve the biodiversity.

It was definitely one of the most memorable months I had at university. It was really nice to interact with members of the public away from campus and to discuss what we were doing, and it was really interesting to explore other sides of science that we don’t normally get to, such as environmental law. All in all it was a fantastic experience, and definitely confirmed I’m someone who enjoys being out there in the field and not cooped up in a lab all day!

Happy Science Week, and best of luck with summer exams!

Sean

For more information about the Urban Biodiversity field course in Manchester, please visit: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/undergraduate/teachingandlearning/fieldcourses/urbanbiodiversity/ 

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Lucy’s Third Year Blog

Hello again,

Exams are finally over and I honestly couldn’t be happier. Things get pretty intense in third year and the exams are harder than ever before. Luckily I really enjoy the units I’ve chosen this year and I’m getting stuck into the topics that I’m most interested in. I spent pretty much the whole of January revising, so my life has been a little uneventful since my last post. I sat three exams in total: ‘Advanced Immunology’, ‘The Evolution of Genes, Genomes and Systems’ and ‘Biotic Interactions’. Generally, I feel happy about the questions that came up, so hopefully it will all be worth it (I get my results in a month or so).  If you sat any exams in the past month I hope they went well for you! In the meantime, I’m spending some time recovering from the intense few weeks I’ve just had.

Just one glass for me!

Just one glass for me!

I finished my last exam about a week ago on the same day as my other housemates. The possibilities were endless; I’d forgotten what freedom was like! What to do first?! Eat? Sleep? Drink? Go out? My housemates and I made plans to go to the Northern Quarter to watch a free live jazz band at a cocktail bar.  However, being the unorganised and slightly exhausted people we were, we didn’t even manage to get ourselves ready until around 11pm. Nevertheless, we had a great night and ended up ordering food and having drinks at the house – it was lovely!

I didn’t get to see very much of my family over Christmas since I was so engrossed in my revision, so last weekend I went home for a surprise visit. It was so lovely to see everyone and we went out for a much needed Sunday lunch at the pub! This isn’t just any pub though, they serve the most spectacular cakes you can imagine and I brought a couple of slices back to Manchester with me. I have a soft spot for cake and so to not miss out on delicious deserts whilst I’m in Manchester, I’ve sniffed out another amazing cake shop in the Northern Quarter where they are possibly even tastier than the ones at home. Funnily enough, it’s actually called ‘Home Sweet Home’!

I love cake!

I love cake!

Yesterday I met up with my best friend after a long month apart. I know her from school back home but she lives in Manchester too now. Despite the rather windy weather we decided to go somewhere for a walk. We’re both used to living by the beach where we can go walking, and although Manchester has pretty much everything you could ever need, it doesn’t have a beach (we’ll let it off). However, we took a short drive to the edge of Manchester where we found a beautiful reservoir surrounded by hills. It was surprisingly close to the city yet it felt like we were a million miles away from anywhere or anyone. I love living in Manchester for so many reasons but one of the best reasons is that, if I ever want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, there are so many parks and pretty places to discover nearby.

Exploring the other side of Manchester

Exploring the other side of Manchester

Brushing up on Malaria pathology (with cake - or course!)

Brushing up on Malaria pathology (with cake – of course!)

I don’t have any lectures this week as final year students now get a week between exams and semester 2 to get a head start on their final year projects. Luckily I’m not a final year, so this week is a pretty chilled one for me. I am however getting stuck into my next Masters project proposal. You might remember me saying last semester that I had to design two research projects for my fourth year, one of which I would pursue as my masters project. I really enjoyed my last one where I designed a project which looked at the immune response to whipworm in the intestine. My research on this even came in handy as extra reading during exams! My second project proposal is going to stick with the theme of parasites and is focussed on the pathology of malaria. I really don’t know in any detail what I’m going to do yet but I have my first meeting with my supervisor this week to discuss possibilities. I’m really excited about this one as malaria is a disease that I’m fascinated by and that is really close to my heart. The MSci programme has given me the freedom to pursue my interest in parasitology and self-arrange two projects that I’m really passionate about. In fact, I’m going to find it very hard to pick just one at the end of this year.

It’s great to have this week off uni, but I’m actually very excited for my lecture units this semester! I’ll be taking ‘Bioethics’ which I think will be a really nice change from what I’m used to as it’s very interactive and we’ll be debating lots of controversial topics based on science and biomedicine. I’m also taking ‘Immune Response and Disease’ along with ‘Advanced Parasitology’. I will definitely be in my element with parasitology!

This week I’ve spoiled myself a little. I have booked to go to Barcelona with some of my course friends in the Easter break to visit another one of our Biology friends who is currently living there as part of his industrial/modern language year. He sounds like he’s having an amazing time out there working in a zoology lab and we couldn’t pass on the perfect excuse for a quick getaway. I’ve also booked to go to Brussels a couple of weeks after that with some other friends from home. I’m quite a savvy traveller so it’s all worked out pretty cheap (for what it is), although I need to stop booking flights willy-nilly and actually try to save some of my money  for once.

I’m getting very excited for the rest of this year; it’s already shaping up to be a good one! Hopefully I’ll have even more to tell you next time!

Ciao for now!

Lucy

 

 

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Rachel’s First Year Blog

Hi guys!

Just thought I’d introduce myself! My name is Rachel; I’m studying Life Sciences with Industrial Experience and I’m a first year student here at The University of Manchester! I’ve officially been here for a bit over a month now and it’s ridiculous how much it feels like home! As in, I called my flat “home” the other day and experienced genuine guilt… but it really is! I was pretty anxious about making friends at uni but I needn’t have worried. It is physically amazing how fast you get to know people: from using Facebook to track down and talk to flatmates beforehand, meeting a ridiculous number of people on your course and in societies… you’ll always be met with a handshake or hug (or ridicule at the “Geordie language” I use in my case) as everyone is in the same boat!

I’m actually currently writing this blog post on the notes page of my iPhone in Oslo airport!! There’s a bit of a story… sooo my friend and I did a Jailbreak for RAG – the charity fundraising branch of the Student Union! The challenge was to get as far away from the university as possible without spending a penny in 30 hours; so we would have to rely on begging in the street, donations and free stuff. And after four free buses, a lovely conductor who got us on a train to Edinburgh, some very generous Scottish people and living off about three hours sleep over the two nights we slept in two different airports, we made it to Norway!!! … and then realized we had no food, warm clothes or a place to stay. It was a hilarious adventure though! And we managed to fundraise a lot of money for Breast Cancer Care; being the fourth furthest away team out of the nineteen taking part. It’s just one example of the many opportunities The University of Manchester gives you; the chance to be independent and try new things!

Me and my Jailbreak partner before the 30 hours commenced!

Me and my Jailbreak partner before the 30 hours commenced!

We hitch-hiked to Norway!

We hitch-hiked to Norway!

Living away from home has definitely been a new experience! It was scary at first but you come to love your flat and it really is your second home. We’ve even started planning our Christmas decorations! I was lucky in that I was given my first choice accommodation (we have double beds and en suites so feeling very grateful!!) but the worst thing is the chores… I’ve never been more grateful for the free Nandos and no washing up when my parents came to visit!

But there’s been so much to do around the uni and in Manchester itself; whether it was dressing up for the Neverland Festival for Pangaea, getting chased by zombies during Zombie Takeover or feeling very Harry Potter-like when looking around the beautiful John Ryland’s Library; you always discover new things to see and do! The other week some friends and I did a Café Crawl in the Northern Quarter of Manchester (a lot of cake was consumed and it was awesome). It’s just the quirkiest place. There were café’s with umbrella’s and fairy lights on the ceiling, and one that was simultaneously a bookshop, forest and type-writer-try-out place… so beautiful!

Ready for the Neverland themed Pangaea

Ready for the Neverland themed Pangaea

Cafe crawl girls

Cafe crawl girls in the Northern Quarter

I have also been involved with some of the societies here. There are SO many! So much so that every week you discover new ones: a friend I made when going for my scuba-dive told me ‘Extreme Picnicking’ existed (like wow?!), and the other day we discovered the horrific screams in Whitworth Park were due to many people charging at each other with wooden swords – I think it was the Medieval Re-enactment society?!

Although I’ve enjoyed playing in the Wind Band and learning how to tackle my Quidditch friends (YES – QUIDDITCH EXISTS and it’s full of Harry Potter awesomeness!!) – my favourite society so far has been Mountaineering. One weekend we visited a place in the Peak District that had one of THE best outdoor crags for climbing and bouldering I’d ever seen – so many cliffs and amazing scrambles when you topped out – literal climbing heaven. And everyone is so lovely; it’s so easy to make friends with people who have a common interest in the same thing! We’ve already organised a climbing meal and have gone to the Athletics Union social dressed as bats. I go bouldering at Rockover Bouldering Centre on Mondays and belaying at Manchester Climbing Centre on Wednesdays that is stunning – it’s in an old converted church so you can climb really high routes, and then go bouldering in the cosy alcoves in the rafters.

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Dressed at Bats for the AU social!

The Life Sciences course has been awesome so far; the other week was our first Labs session and we got to work with all these micropipettes (honestly, firing the tip from the pipette into a bucket is the most satisfying thing!!) to investigate properties of our blood and saliva. Plus, our ‘Genes, Evolution and Development’ lecture the other day was just UNREAL. We all came in and our lecturer said that if we’d printed out the slides yesterday evening they were wrong, because there’d been a new discovery overnight: in a cave in China, archaeologists had uncovered 47 human teeth that were 100,000 years old, showing that our ancestors left Africa in two waves; earlier than the known movement 60,000 years ago. How cool is that?! It was one of those inspiring moments when you can really see we are getting taught THE most up-to-date scientific research, and also that there are many things we still don’t know.

Well, I now have to say goodbye because we need to establish how we’re getting out of Norway and back to England… thank goodness it’s Reading Week! Until next time!! 😀

Rachel

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