Tuesday 24 December 2013

Christmas Geekery

Posted by Peter Tennant

'Do scientists get days off at Christmas?'

So asked school pupil Avril Kings during a recent run of the online engagement event I'm a Scientist Get me out of here. Like most things that have nothing to do with my PhD, it got me thinking.

Most scientists, thank goodness, wouldn't dream of working on Christmas day. That's just silly. Christmas is for over-eating, trashy TV, and drunken arguments about the 'true meaning of Christmas'. Besides, as much as we scientists may consider our work to be absolutely life-changingly vital; the outside world can usually afford to wait a few weeks - or decades. Even for those with no choice (i.e. those poor Biologists who have to feed their cells), coming into work on Christmas day isn't made very easy. Most UK Universities shut down between Christmas and New Year, so don't expect a nice greeting. Or heating, for that matter. 

Do geeks get days off at Christmas
But is 'not working' the same as having a 'day off'? Or are we all, to some extent, trapped in our ways of thinking? Do public health practitioners, for example, start Christmas with a bowl of fruit, before having salad for lunch, going for a brisk 30 minute stroll, and finishing with no more than two small glasses of wine in the evening? My own scientific training is tyrannically apparent (or so I'm told) when I cook the Christmas dinner, which I like to organise with laboratory-like precision. And I'm not just talking about my need to weigh-out every ingredient to the last gram. Nope. For me, every good Christmas dinner has a Gantt diagram. In theory, this is supposed to reduce the risk of project slippage (where the meal overruns and 'ruins Christmas'). In practice I'm always outwitted by the roast potatoes.

OK, so I may be confusing being a scientist with being a geek. With so few scientists in the public eye, it's probably not very helpful for me to just trot out the same tired stereotypes (which, by the way, have been excellently satired in this valentine's guide on, 'how to woo a scientist'). Since the abysmal Science: It's a girl thing video, the ScienceGrrl movement has made great strides showing that, contrary to popular belief, science is not exclusively populated by geeky men. More recently, scientists were also central to Twitter-sensation #OverlyHonestMethods, which not only helped to reveal the people under the lab coats, but was also one of the funniest things on the internet.

Which is all very nice, but - scientist or otherwise - I am a geek. And this Christmas, I have some fantastic geekery for you. In the form of another Twitter movement called #XmasSongsAsPapers. The idea was simple (if indeed, there was an idea) - try to make a Christmas song (either the title or content) sound like the title of an academic article. The result: a fantastic collection of mini brain-teasers that makes for an excellent Christmas quiz. Merry Christmas everyone! 

TWEET-TEASERS (answers below):

1) Awareness of Major Christian Festivals Among Populations of Sub-Saharan Africa, by B. Geldof and M. Ure (by @pingulette) – incidentally, this is the tweet that kicked it all off.

2) Ostracisation of an Infant with Congenital Scarlet-Nose: A case-study in a population of flying reindeer (by @Peter_Tennant)

3) Briggs,R. 'Hypothermia and nocturnal levitation hallucination in young boys. A phenomenological study' (by @HeatherTricky)

4) MacGowan & MacColl (1987) Alcohol in domestic disputes: an ethnography of Irish economic migrants in New York City bars (by @sadieboniface)

5) Michael & Ridgeley: Previous cardiac transplant rejection associated with increased donation specifications one year on (by @BroniaArnott)

6) Trapp et al. Rhythmic Repetition and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A Case Study of One Boy and his Drum (by @pwhybrow)

7) Favourably regarded, unelected feudal overlord observes cold & clear climatic conditions facilitate biofuel collection (by @DrJPritchard)

8) Gardner D. (1944) “Orthodontics as the facilitator to the individual perceptions of contentment” (by @FuturesSarah)

9) Rea, C. (2007) Use of sedentary modes for seasonal commuting: an ecological momentary assessment of subjective well being (by @BroniaArnott)

10) Impact on childhood perception of family structure following inadvertent witness of suspected maternal infidelity (by @gingerly_onward)

11) Carey, M. (1994) Comparative perceived satisfaction of singular romantic attachment during the festive period (by @dr_know)

12) Cole (1946). Dry heat instigates pericarp rupture and increasing endosperm palatability in the true nut Castanea sativa (by @Aristolochia)

13) Lords-a-leaping: Dismantling hereditary nobility and privilege to demonstrate duodecimal number systems (by @CSUFoE_Research)

14) Sedentary travel using a novel 'one-horse-open-sleigh' is associated with an increase in self-reported well-being (by @Peter_Tennant)

And finally, the picture round:

15) Fig. 1 (Gruber & Mohr, 1818) (by @mc_hankins)

1) Do They Know it's Christmas?
2) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
3) I'm Walking in the Air
4) Fairytale of New York
5) Last Christmas (I Gave You My Heart)
6) The Little Drummer Boy
7) Good King Wenceslas
8) All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth
9) Driving Home for Christmas
10) I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus
11) All I Want for Christmas is You
12) The Christmas Song (Chestnut's Roasting on an Open Fire)
13) The Twelve Days of Christmas
14) Jingle Bells
15) Silent Night

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Forgive me father for I have sinned…

Posted by Louis Goffe

Although I am not a man of faith I have been shouldering some of my wife’s catholic guilt for a while and I have chosen the church of the Fuse blog to repent my sins. My shame for which I deeply wish to apologise for is that I was a fattist. I don’t mean this as a glib remark, I feel genuinely remorseful and embarrassed.

As with many –isms their spread is the result of mistruths and manipulation. On a search for the aetiology of my own previous held prejudicial views I realised that they were born out of a combined biblical belief in “the energy balance” and “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie”. The zeal to which many of us hold these two principals up as beyond reproach has blinded us to the wealth of research into the role of leptin, insulin and satiety in response to each of the macronutrients, the thermic effect of food and the overwhelming influence of our genetics in our predisposition to gaining weight. As a result the failure of this regulatory process is not blamed rightly on the foods we eat but the twin sins of greed and sloth.

I have always been thin, but instead of viewing this fortune as the luck of the genetic hand that I was dealt I smugly believed that it was down to my excellent constitution. But arrogance is the preserve of the misinformed and I was content in my protective shield of ignorance and happy to vilify those overweight as lacking in that intangible latent variable of ‘will power’.

This shift of focus from a physiological to a behavioural discipline has not only resulted in a generally accepted persecution, and in many cases resultant self-loathing in overweight individuals, but it also plays into the hands of the food companies that got us there in the first place. A blatant disregard for some quality science has led us down the path of poor food regulation and as a result we have become addicted to the most toxic dietary substance, that of sugar and we are left fighting an almost unwinnable battle.

The saccharine fortified tentacles of these confectionary and soft drinks companies have become entwined in all aspects of our lives to the point in which we cannot untangle. They are promoted by the world’s biggest stars, i.e. the most powerful role-models, to the young and easily influenced. We‘ve allowed them to sponsor school programmes and our national game although “there’s no nutritional need or benefit that comes from eating added sugar”. And how do they get away with this crime? Because we have all colluded behind the excuse that they can be enjoyed “as part of a calorie controlled/balanced diet”. This shows a total disregard to both their addictive properties and the resultant metabolic response.

These companies are smart. They haven’t just been one small step ahead of us but one giant leap. They were acutely aware of physiologist John Yudkin’s work linking sugar consumption to heart disease and started a campaign not only to discredit him but also crucially buy them time. The intervening years have bought these companies great wealth and substantial lobbying power. But finally, it seems that the sweet tide is starting to turn and there is greater acceptance that sugar is the silent assassin in our diets. Unfortunately our love of their products runs deep, this combined with their formidable defence force has meant that any meaningful change will be incredibly difficult, as demonstrated by the New York soda ban. Therefore to win this war over the health of our hearts we must present a strong, clear message to win over people’s minds.

As much as the prejudices are born out of an oversimplification the excuse for a fix are blamed on an over-complication. Many a toothless smile would have beamed across the boardroom of Sugary Drinks Ltd. on the release of the Foresight obesity systems map. As this incomprehensible, impenetrable and unvalidated model was held up as highlighting the innumerable potential pathways to obesity. So instead of being the Ace of Spades in the most wanted list they quietly disappear into the ether as one minion amongst millions. As a result there are now too many competing interests in the quest to tackle the obesity epidemic and we have to filter the wheat from the chaff, or more appropriately the raw sugar from the harvested cane. There should be an increased focus on the metabolic effects of the macronutrients so that we have the full backing of the scientific community when we next have these companies backed into a corner so that we are able to disarm them of their twin-barrelled attack of ‘calories’ and ‘complexity’.

A further symptom of our collective inability to target the sugar-daddies is the perpetuation of the futile debate of whether obesity should be classified as a disease. All this does is to further stigmatise those that are suffering. Now whatever your personal opinion the clear fact remains that those of us that are clinically defined as obese are significantly at greater risk to a huge number of illnesses many of which are fatal. But instead of showing compassion a quick glance to the magazine rack would imply that we are happier in the role of Mr Nasty on a real-world talent show judged exclusively on weight status.

The sensation of hunger is paramount to our survival, but there is a catastrophic failure of our current diet to satiate and provide the appropriate nutrition for a sustainable lifestyle. But instead of pointing the finger at the food, the individual and their supposed ‘weak will’ has become the object of our ire. The shocking fact is not that one third of all adults are obese but how some still remain thin in an environment so predisposed to making us fat.

Feelings of distain towards the obese might provide you with some fleeting sense of misplaced superiority but crucially they contribute nothing to the solution. Chastising the victim of any given disease is never the basis to formulate effective public health policy. Ridiculing those of us that are overweight will not reverse the trend but just serve to elevate the level of infighting while those pumping the noxious substances into our bodies continue laughing all the way to the bank.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

I am not a Doctor: Part 2

Posted by Heather Yoeli

Shortly before this blog’s summer campervan trip, Jean wrote about her experience of not being a doctor. She is and she isn’t a doctor. Jean is a doctor in that she graduated from the MBBS course at medical school with a string of stellar accolades, and she is also a doctor in that she has an epidemiological PhD in something I don’t quite understand. However, Jean is not a doctor in the practicing medical sense of doctor that you’d go to see with a worrying cough or a sore toe – and that’s the sort of doctor members of the public tend to think of when they hear the term ‘doctor’, which is where things get complicated. I’m not a doctor either, though not in any sense of the term – my pre-public health degrees are in Religious Studies and Creative Writing, my PhD is still two years from completion, and the only people who call me Dr Yoeli are the endless PPI insurance call centre operatives who think they’re speaking to my husband. Nevertheless, it’s often the case when I try to members of the public what I do within Fuse that people assume that I am a medically-qualified and practicing doctor, and sometimes the case that I’m asked for advice on the basis of this assumption, too. I always feel that I’m disappointing people by telling them I can’t help. But really, most of us in Fuse would tell you that they couldn’t help, either. I thought I’d write this blogpost to explain why not.

1. We study public health, not illness. We try to make populations healthier, not sick people better. There are many fine lines and commonalities and contested territories between public health and medicine. However, we won’t necessarily know much, if anything, about the illness you’re describing. Although we may be able to explain why and how you should stop smoking to lessen your chances of getting lung cancer, we probably won’t know enough about cancer itself to be able to comment on whether your father-in-law is receiving the appropriate chemotherapy regime for his stage and grade of tumour. So given that we know there are others more qualified to answer the question than ourselves, we’ll probably advise you to contact one of the relevant charities or advocacy groups with helplines dedicated to supporting and informing carers.

2. We do academic work, not clinical practice. We deal with people as research participants rather than as patients – and many of us deal with statistics or qualitative data rather than with people at all. As Hippocrates wrote, being a doctor requires not only knowing about illnesses but about patients. Although we may know that the blood glucose reading of Nmmol/l you got from borrowing your neighbour’s monitor is abnormally high and almost inevitably indicative of diabetes, we probably won’t have enough awareness of your personal medical history or sufficient experience of others presenting with similar blood glucose levels to know how likely you are to suddenly fall into a coma. So given that we probably know that untreated diabetes can be extremely serious and sometimes fatal, we will almost inevitably simply advise you to seek immediate medical help from a practicing clinical doctor.

3. Doctors are insured for giving medical advice; we’re not. Medical doctors in clinical practice are indemnified by specialist medico-legal practitioners which underwrite the risk of them giving incorrect advice or doing harmful things to patients. So if you sue a doctor for giving your father-in-law the wrong chemotherapy drug or for erroneously reassuring you that you don’t have diabetes, the doctor’s insurers will pay. If you were to sue us for offering dodgy advice, our university’s insurers would not pay. And because our university’s insurers would not pay, our universities would immediately fire us for the very grossest of gross misconduct, probably at rather massive cost to our career standing. So given that we know that we won’t necessarily be able to offer you good advice, and given that we could face catastrophic consequences for offering you bad advice, we tend not to offer any advice at all.

Most people in Fuse wont offer medical advice, because they don't want to get sued...
This three-point explanation aside, however, there’s a lot of theory about when, why and how ‘lay referral networks’ function to determine the circumstances people might or might not seek medical advice for a particular illness or symptoms. My anecdotal impression is that some people do seem to gain some validation or comfort from having academics tell them that they’re really not able to provide the medical advice requested. Has anyone ever studied the phenomenon or role that academics might play within this process? I would be interested to know.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

How to choose a PhD topic

Posted by Heather Yoeli

A few of us were discussing recently how and why we had chosen the PhD topic we did.

Firstly, you won’t necessarily have the opportunity to choose. Increasingly, PhD studentships from the major research councils and other funding bodies are being advertised with fairly tightly-defined research questions and with methodologies already pre-determined. These studentships tend to suit both students seeking a clear assignment and those already confident of the area and approach with which they want to work.

Secondly, you might not necessarily want to choose. Some prospective PhD students may not necessarily know precisely what they want to study but are keen to work with a specific supervisor and therefore ask or allow their prospective supervisor to determine their topic. Within most areas of academia, the person by whom you’ve been supervised can count as much as or even more than your PhD topic or institution itself. It may be helpful to your career aspirations to decide in whose reflected glory you’d hope to bask.

Thirdly, your discipline or subject area may have an obvious current ‘issue’ which will make your work more timely/popular/publishable/trendy. In public health, these ‘issues’ tend to be determined by government policy ‘directives’ and ‘agendas’, which are determined by wider political and social trends and can be hard to predict in advance. If you’re looking for a PhD topic which will be the significant ‘issue’ on your submission date in three or four years time, you might benefit from a daddy who in the highest echelons of the power in determining such things... or alternatively, a crystal ball.

Fourthly, you might have something in which you have a very personal and passionate interest and therefore wish to study. There’s a prevailing view within academia that we should all be ‘detached’ and ‘objective’ and therefore not too emotionally invested in our topic, so by deciding entirely to ‘do your own thing’ you may risk being seen as a bit odd, but equally, it’s hard to remain focused and motivated if you don’t have a certain level of geeky fascination for what you’re studying. Academics have a time-honoured reputation for being somewhat eccentric, and with enough charismatic charm you can work that to your advantage. However, in today’s difficult economic times, you may have to find your own funding.

Most often, I think, people come to their PhD topics by a mixture of all of the above strategies. I applied for and was awarded a Fuse studentship which was very clearly about public health in marginalised communities, but have worked with successive supervision teams to develop a research approach of interest both to them and to myself. For me, this has worked well, and five years later I’m still every bit as interested in the subject as I initially ever was.

Many of my colleagues, though, have had very different paths. Many have come to their PhD topics through very novel routes or for fascinating reasons; many have started with one topic or approach and changed their thinking quite radically.

So, how did others come to be doing the PhD they are doing, or planning, or did...?