Tuesday 27 January 2015

You’ve lost that curry feeling: smell, memory and food research

Posted by Duika Burges-Watson

Grant Achatz, a survivor of head and neck cancer and one of the world’s most adventurous chefs, serves a dish in his Chicago restaurant Alinea that frequently makes people cry. Why would pheasant with shallots, cider and burning oak leaves do this and why should we care about some zizzy restaurant food? The principle is based on a neurological fact – our olfactory system is linked directly to the amygdala-hippocampus complex – the ‘substrate of emotional memory’ (Herz 2004, Soudry et al 2011). Research shows that autobiographical memories evoked by odour are significantly more emotional than those recalled with visual cues. It is sometimes called the Proust phenomenon – after a literary anecdote involving a Madeline biscuit and the recall of a powerful childhood memory. In Achatz’s restaurant, burning oak leaves are not eaten - they take you straight to the excitement of autumn.

Pheasant with shallots, cider and burning oak leaves

In the Fuse-led NIHR/RFPB-funded head and neck cancer ‘Resources for Living’ project, we have been running food play workshops to explore the potential of modern cooking techniques and ideas to improve survivors' eating and experience of food . In our workshop next week we are talking curry – it’s what many survivors have told us they miss the most.
As one of our survivors said:

The first meal I ever had with my husband was a curry. I had never been to an Indian restaurant until he took me in the early eighties. I couldn't believe the aroma the flavours and textures. He said he'd never seen anyone so small eat so much. I was hooked!

I used to hate it when people ordered their own curry and rice and put it all on their plate and didn't share. I liked to try a bit of everything to experience all the different tastes and textures. However I didn't like anything too hot and spicy. I found that too much heat from spice destroyed the rich flavours. So a Madras or anything hotter just seemed to lose taste.

The only thing I can eat now in an Indian restaurant is a bit of poppadum. It's a killer, watching my husband and daughter getting stuck in to a really delicious curry on the curry mile and me sitting with a glass of water. Help!

We will be using knowledge about food and memory, clever cooking skills and some of what social science can offer on food and eating, to create, and explore, a curry experience that cancer survivors can participate in. Curry is, after all, more than about the physical experience of eating. It’s where many Brits get to feel Britishness (speaking here as an Australian we do something similar with South East Asian food). We socialise around take-outs and eat-ins. Curry is also pretty intensely flavoursome, spicy and exciting to eat.

We knew when we started the ‘Resources for Living’ work that our research would have resonance beyond this patient group - head and neck cancer survivors have problems with chewing, swallowing, sore mouths, throat narrowing and damage, taste alterations, smell function decline and more (in various combinations) so their experiences are particularly relevant to understanding how we can cope with altered eating difficulties (think loss of taste and smell in ageing, neurological damage etc). But even for so called ‘normal’ eaters there is interest here. For starters (excuse the pun), do people with ‘normal’ eating habits talk about the relationship between food and emotion, food and thinking? This could be a component of food literacy, particularly in the context of modern manufacturing processes where odours can be created at will. Just think of the experience of supermarket shopping near the bakery section. Does the emotional trickery of circulating the odour of baking bread get you to buy more high fat/salt/sugar foods that you don’t need?

As people age, altered taste sensation can lead to all manner of new habits around food – how might the experience of smell be employed to re-engage those that have lost interest in food? Another example: taste disturbance amongst smokers is well documented; why don’t we employ food therapy to increase desire for a more flavoursome smoke-free life?

Remembering an odour memory yet? Perhaps not, but next time you are transported to a sweet childhood memory, perhaps you’ll notice the smell of it.

Thursday 22 January 2015

ESRC vision includes plans to promote bold new approaches to knowledge exchange

Posted by Mandy Cheetham
An ESRC grant writing workshop last week organised by Durham University gave us some insight into the ESRC's vision and priorities for 2015 / 2016.

In a helpful overview, Sally Johnson at Durham Research Office, summarised the plans, which include a continued focus on excellent research, quality, timeliness, value for money and potential impact, both in and outside academia. ESRC’s vision is to support ‘transformative’ research, pioneer methodological and theoretical innovation, extend partnerships in priority areas and deliver new, more effective approaches to knowledge exchange. And you don’t have to be a senior academic to submit, as fresh ideas from Early Career Researchers are encouraged. Proposals which include international collaboration are particularly welcomed. There’s more guidance available on the ESRC website.

We heard about a range of current ESRC funding opportunities, including the Transformative Research call which encourages novel developments of social science enquiry, and supports research activity that entails an element of risk (closing date 19th Feb 2015).

Information about all the ESRC funding streams is available here on the ESRC website.  If you’re not sure whether and how your plans fit, you can email remit queries to: esrcremit@esrc.ac.uk
Drawing on their experiences of ESRC grant writing Emma Flynn and Peter Tymms from Durham University shared some of their reflections on lessons learned. Thanks for their permission to share these top tips;
  • Take your time, plan ahead and identify the appropriate funding stream for your proposal. 
  • Identify stakeholders and possible co-applicants with interest and expertise. Engage them early on in the development of the research.
  • Look at other people’s successful grant applications, if available.
  • Turn up at public meetings and events organised by the funding board.
  • Start small and build up towards larger grants over time. Be realistic.
  • Apply for seed corn funding from your University to start to build a track record. Make step changes into new and different areas.
  • Write clearly, avoid jargon. Think about content, structure, headings and format. Put yourself in the position of the reviewer.
  • State clearly why you, why this research, why now, why this university?
  • Seek comments from those with a track record from the relevant funder. 
  • Read, re-read, revise, revise and revise again.
  • Think about who to suggest as reviewers. Build in time to approach them and seek permission before you submit the application. Send them a draft outline copy of the proposal for comment.
  • Learn from reviewers comments, even when (perhaps especially when) they are critical. Rejections are common and everyone gets them. Treat them as a learning experiences. Don’t take them personally, reviewers are not perfect, and keep trying.
  • Accept constructive feedback in a positive spirit. Work from it. Be persistent.

There’s helpful guidance on the ESRC website too about how to write a good research grant proposal.

Good luck!

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Feeling welcome, getting lost and being my own woman: My first week as a Professor

Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birch

On Monday last week I was asked to introduce myself to a room full of fellow new starters at Teesside University. For the first time, officially I said: ‘I’m Dorothy Newbury-Birch, Professor of Alcohol and Public Health Research’. WOW!!
Making the news
I remember when I started my last post as a Senior Research Associate at Newcastle University, seven and a half years ago and I was asked to do a presentation to introduce myself to the department and my very clever (I thought anyway) title was ‘I’m a criminologist let me into here’. I’ve been thinking about that presentation a lot over the last few days – not least because I am going to give a professorial inaugural lecture on the 26th January (have you booked yet?). What it has made me realise is that unlike when I have started jobs in the past this one is different.

You know that feeling you have in the first week you start a new job? The feeling of not fitting in; being afraid that people are going to realise you don’t know what you are doing? That feeling of wondering what you are supposed to be doing? That feeling you have that says, please let me in, please accept me which I think is what I was asking in my presentation all those years ago.
My new office
Well I’ve been in post for a week and for the first time in my career I feel that I have fit in from day one; that I do know what I’m doing (well mostly!) and that I am in the perfect place in my career, my institute and my life. I’ve been wondering why that is? Of course it’s because I have been made to feel so included and welcome in my new department. It's also because I was lucky enough to have a colleague come with me at the same time so we were able to share the asking of questions, and spend an hour driving around Middlesbrough looking for a car-park that we had been assigned and laughing so much about not being able to find it. But it's more than all this, it's about knowing that the time is right for me to lead the work I want to lead, to develop my own team to lead work that makes a difference to society. I’m also lucky to have told by my line manager that ‘I am my own woman’ in this job. What does that mean? Well for me, it means that I can spend some time working out a plan for my research and developing a team of likeminded people. I want to be moving forward, to interact with the people who can help me do this and I know that I will be supported to do this.

I can only see good things ahead. I will let you know in a couple of months how it is going and remember if you are at Teesside come and say hello – I’d tell you where I’m based but I keep getting lost!

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Fuse Duck and Rachel’s Day Of (health policy related) Fun

Posted by Rachel Stocker

During the final year of my PhD (2014) I was very lucky to gain funding for a three month fellowship at the Houses of Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). POST is an office of both Houses of Parliament, providing independent and balanced analysis of public policy issues that have a basis in science and technology. POST recruits around 20 fellows per year, funded by a range of funding bodies including the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the British Psychological Society (BPS), etc, to research and write a four page briefing ‘POSTnote’ on a science/technology related subject. The POSTnote itself gives a concise, unbiased overview of information, highlighting key areas for parliamentarians to consider when policy is being made. It’s (genuinely) a great opportunity to see how health policy actually works within parliament and the angle which parliamentarians take on health subjects rather than the angle researchers might take. Plus you get to wander round the parliamentary estate (as it’s called), eat in the subsidised restaurants, chill out next to Churchill… and… yeah!

I applied to work on the topic of end of life care, and as it happens, end of life care is high on the policy agenda at the moment. I wrote my POSTnote – which can be found here – between April and July 2014. Most POST fellows actually live in London for the three month period – which is fabulous – but as I’m pretty much set up here in the North East, with a husband, mortgage, and four babies cats, I couldn’t really swan off down to London. Luckily I could conduct nearly all of the required research and interviews from home, with a little bit of travel to London every so often to conduct interviews – most of the ‘big names’ live in London or nearby (sad but true) – and catch up with my supervisor at the POST offices.

Rachel and Fuse Duck at Queen's Campus, Durham University
So what does this have to do with Fuse Duck, I hear a chorus of voices ask? ……… well, Fuse Duck and I recently had a fabulous research policy day out (is this a thing?). He accompanied me to an event held at Portcullis House, run by POST, on my POSTnote. The event itself was titled ‘Palliative and End of Life Care’ and was a seminar, with several peers, MPs, researchers, and other interested individuals.

However when I say accompanied… Fuse Duck did not actually accompany me into the event. Despite having lugged him on a train from Darlington to London King’s Cross, then on two tubes across London to Westminster (he’s a bit portly and was shoved into my little suitcase on wheels), the security staff at Parliament deemed poor Fuse Duck to pose too much of a security risk in a parliamentary building. He had to sit in his bag at the security desk, next to the x-ray machine, and wait for me.

Who knew a lovingly hand knitted duck would pose such a threat to the inner workings of our parliamentary system? He didn’t seem too fussed luckily – although I could swear I saw an evil twinkle in his eye before we set off…

POST fellowships are open to those in the second or third year of their PhD (and some are open to post-docs), more information can be found here.

Thursday 1 January 2015

52 weeks in public health research, part 52

Posted by Emma Foster, Amelia Lake, Lorraine McSweeney and Mark Welford

So this is it, we have reached the final week of our 52 week public health picture project. But what insights has it provided into the everyday lives of public health researchers? Find out in a blog post coming soon. A big thank you to all those who contributed their images.

Happy New Year!

Posted by Emma Foster: Not a New Year resolution as a) it seems silly to start the day after a big party and b) now is when I have a bit more time to exercise... So starting tomorrow this cross trainer is going to be getting much more use....and not just for drying clothes!

Posted by Amelia Lake: Less of a resolution more of an ambition! No more trainers on the bike - it's time to look like a pro... and possibly get a few knocks and bruises in the process!

Posted by Lorraine McSweeney: I recently attended a graduation ceremony at Newcastle University to receive my doctorate award. For the first time in the congregation history the PhD titles were announced during the ceremony; mine being 'Prevention of obesity: exploring strategies for intervention in preschool'. The ceremony was attended by my supervisor and Fuse Director Ashley Adamson. Also in attendance that day was television journalist and newsreader Angela Rippon who received an honorary degree for her charity work in dementia.

Posted by Mark Welford: Fundraisers braving the North Sea to earn money for their favourite charity in the Annual Boxing Day dip. A bit of physical activity after the Christmas day indulgence and the beginning of a New Year's resolution?