From Professor Steve Busby - University of Birmingham Intranet

No. 237 - January 2015
In this edition of The Mole we have a report from one of our undergraduate students on her
experience of supporting an outreach session and a round up of school news. As always, all
contributions and feedback gratefully received. Simon Levermore (Editor)
From Professor Steve Busby
Welcome to the first “Mole” of 2015. I trust that, whatever your beliefs or preferences, you
all enjoyed the Christmas and New Year break, and that 2015 will be a good year for each
of us, and for the School. I guess the highlights of Christmas for me were spending time
with my newly-born first grandchild, reading Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927”,
and going to the IMI Christmas Party. I will buy a beer to the first person who can tell me
which is the odd one out of these three activities and why, but, not before February, since I
am off alcoholic beverages for the month of January.
Prof Steve Busby
As you know, the School is in good shape on all fronts, and the icing on the cake, just
before the break, was the excellent REF result that you can read about on the School Website. However,
as with life, the environment is changing all the time, and past success is no guarantee for the future. So
we have some big challenges in 2015, including hitting our UG admissions targets, improving our NSS
scores, recruiting new staff, meeting our grant capture target, and finding resource to fund the various
building improvements that are becoming essential. For more details, come along to the School Meeting on
Wednesday 21st.
One of the best things in 2014 has been the lively creative scientific ambience all around the School, in
seminars, hallways, labs and coffee rooms. Can I plead with you all to maintain this, since, at the end of the
day, we are driven by the ideas that we generate, either individually, together, or with outside collaborators.
And, believe me, you don’t find this ambience in every School at our University, so please hang on to it, rub
it off onto our students, continue to engage, and who knows what will emerge. Finally, let me finish with a
plug for Robin May and Helen Cooper, who will be giving their Inaugural Lectures on 19 Feb and 18 March,
respectively. Remember these lectures are for all, and the idea is that the new Professor expounds the subject
that they profess, to the University, in a comprehensible and academically convincing way. So please make a
note in your diary and come along.
STOP PRESS: The monthly figures for grant capture just pinged into my inbox. Happy to tell you that
December 2014 was a record month for Biosciences. This was mostly due to MRC Phenomics Centre money
captured by Rick Dunn and Mark Viant but also there were big contributions from Saverio Brogna, Yun Fan
and Tim Dafforn.
Well done!
What has the government ever done for small business?
Professor Tim Dafforn has been named in a recent list of the ‘10 things government
did for small business in 2014’. Tim, of course, was appointed as an Entrepreneur in
Residence by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS).
See the list of 10 things... here
Prof Tim Dafforn
‘omics’ sabbatical visit
Charles Brockhouse, from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, is spending a sabbatical year in the
Environmental Genomics unit as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor. Charles (shown here during a collecting
trip in the Galapagos Islands) leads the Simulium Genomics Project, which is funded by the NIH to sequence
9 species of blackfly, including most of the important vectors of onchocerciasis. He is working with John
Colbourne on developing the blackfly genome as an environmental genomics system for lotic (flowing water)
habitats, paralleling work on the Daphnia genome.
His lab works on a variety of aspects of blackfly genetics and “omics”, including the
characterization of larval silk proteins and cloning of the silk genes, genetic structure
of blackfly populations, sex-determination, and applications of the Simulium genome
to onchocerciasis control.
While the biting activity of adult female blackflies pose a serious health and wellbeing risk to humans and
Prof Charles Brockhurst
agricultural animals, the larvae
Simulium larvae
(shown below) are efficient filter
feeders, serving as keystone species in lotic systems.
The medical/economic and ecological importance of
blackflies has driven interest in blackfly taxonomic
and ecology, and motivated the funding for one of the
largest NIH funded insect genome projects. Charles
will be with the Environmental Genomics unit until
next August, and will happily try to convert anyone to
the use of Simulium as a model system.
BBSRC partnership awards for Biosciences academics
Dr Scott Hayward’s lab has been awarded a BBSRC industrial CASE partnership with
(Prof. Jon Sadler in GEES is Co-supervisor)
Title of proposal: Food security through insect dormancy management: using molecular
physiology to
optimise commercial rearing of a key UK pollinator.
Dr Scott Hayward
Background: Commercial pollinators are crucial to UK food security. Osmia rufa (red
mason bee), is a key pollinator but commercial provision is limited. Mass-culturing
requires us to understand how to manipulate the period of obligatory dormancy (diapause). Diapause can
be a major bottleneck, but also has great utility for long-term stockpiling. Understanding what processes
regulate diapause, and how to switch them on and off, will allow us to control when bees can be made
available to farmers for pollination.
The core objectives:
1. Establish culturing system to provide disease free O. rufa year round.
2. Characterise the molecular and physiological processes that underpin diapause, to help identify targets
for diapause termination and enhancing long-term storage.
3. Compare the diapause characteristics and performance of O. rufa populations from different latitudes to
determine benefits/need for regional stocks.
Dr Rick Dunn has also been awarded an iCASE partnership with co-supervisor: Prof.
Helen Cooper
Title: The metabolomic study of healthy ageing applying dried blood and urine spot
Background and project: The lifespan of the UK population is increasing at a greater rate
than healthspan, providing longer periods of ill health in later life and the associated
Dr Rick Dunn
economic strain on the NHS. There is a necessity to improve the healthy ageing of the UK
population. The role of sedentary behaviour vs. exercise is being shown to have a strong
influence on the healthy ageing-metabolism axis; exercise is a positive lifestyle intervention available to all.
Metabolic changes can be studied applying non-targeted metabolomic analysis of thousands of metabolites.
In these studies, biofluid samples are collected in a specialised centre which requires the subject to travel
and expert staff and instruments to collect and process the samples; this process is costly and inefficient.
However, sample collection away from specialised centres will reduce sample collection costs and allow
longitudinal studies to be performed cheaply and at minimal inconvenience to the subjects. The collection of
dried blood or urine spots (DBS/DUS) away from specialised centres followed by metabolomic analysis offers
a simple and robust solution. These devices are currently applied for targeted metabolite assays and we wish
to develop this technology for non-targeted metabolomic studies of healthy ageing.
Challinor award
One of Scott Hayward’s PhD students, Matthew Everatt, was awarded the University of Birmingham
“Challinor Award” for best PhD thesis in 2014. This award is named after Dr S W Challinor, a former
member of staff from the Department of Biochemistry, who retired in 1966.
EMBO Education Workshop
Frank Michelangeli organised, chaired and gave a lecture at the FEBS EMBO 2014
congress in Paris in September (attended by over 2500 people).
Frank ran the education workshop entitled: What skills and knowledge are required to
improve molecular life science education?
The talk highlighted the findings from several recent reports on education and graduatelevel employability skills by major multinational employers and pharmaceutical
Dr Frank Michelangeli
industries. These findings appear to highlight that these employers are concerned by
lack of a number of skills that they would require of their graduate employees. The
areas of concern included lack of practical abilities as well as detailed subject-specific knowledge, and more
importantly transferable skills, such as numeracy, communication skills, team working and problem-solving
skills. To address this lack of skills and knowledge, Frank described how in the UK a number of learned
societies with input from these employers were involved in defining key criteria that should be incorporated
within degree programmes through accreditation processes.
Returning Professional Placement Students
On the 15th of October, the returning (Year 4) Professional Placement students delivered a series of
fascinating talks on their year-long placement projects, in a lively session attended by both staff (assessing)
and students. We are always grateful to the tutors who come along to the talks to support their placement
tutees. As well as presenting scientific and commercial data, most students shared some of their experiences
of working for their host companies with the Year 1 and 2 students in the audience interested in undertaking
a placement. From this year onwards, we will be asking colleagues within the School to act as “Academic
Supervisors” for the research projects performed on placement, in collaboration with the industrial and
commerial partners hosting our students - a fantastic opportunity to create and develop research connections
with companies. In 2015-16 the PP Programme becomes a 4-year MSci qualification.
Trigonometry and catapults: not all scientists wear white coats
Harriet Shelley ,second year Bioscience student
“Do you guys have any survival training?” is a question that I had never been asked as an undergraduate,
until, I supported a team of Biosciences researchers and academics with a sixth-form
outreach session at the British Science Festival in September. I won the opportunity to
support the session as part of a Careers Network competition and was very excited to
take part due to my interest in science communication and research.
The workshop revolved around the students packing a kit bag for a day in the field,
focusing on three scenarios: researching bonobo cognitive abilities in zoos using
enrichment devices; orangutan locomotion in the Sumatran rainforest and recording
African carnivore behaviour. This exposed me to techniques in field biology that I
had not been aware of, such as using catapults to hang calibration frames, and the
involvement of trigonometry in research into orangutan locomotion was definitely
Harriet Shelley
My role in the workshop was partly to give advice to the students about continuing their education and
potential future careers; I shared my experience of volunteering, and recommended this as something that is
open to young people without advanced qualifications. This followed the general careers theme of the festival.
A further role I undertook was to advise the students on which items to take to the field. Guiding them to
the correct choices without directly telling them the answer was a style I had to adapt to. I also found that
explaining in this way helped my understanding of why the equipment was useful.
Taking part in an outreach program, as opposed to
communicating science to an adult audience, was a new
experience. It quickly became clear that I would need to be
adaptable as different students engaged with different aspects
and rigid plans did not work with groups of different sizes. The
preoccupation with the perceived dangers of field biology –
“Do you have a no man left behind policy? Like if one of you
lost a leg to a lion or something” – also reflected the interests
of the teenage audience!
I really appreciated the insight into research that I gained
from this experience. Learning about the varied projects of
Outreach materials
those I was working with was fascinating and I was able to
fully appreciate how the activity in the department extended beyond the undergraduate teaching I normally
experience. Talking to PhD students helped me to identify the next steps I need to take in my career, showing
the variety of postgraduate qualifications available and the different routes to take.
I found it especially rewarding to hear positive feedback from students such as “I only thought of medicine
or dentistry before, this makes you realise how many different fields there are”. I feel that this opportunity to
learn more about research and to experience a different form of science communication will be invaluable for
my future career.
This experience confirmed to me the importance of becoming involved with the Careers Network. I am
now using my extracurricular activities to complete the Personal Skills Award, run by the Careers Network.
I also attended a conference on ‘Communicating Science’ in November, involving speakers from academia,
university outreach, medical communications, broadcasting and scientific sales. This helped me to reflect
on how the communication skills I developed during the outreach programme could be adapted to use in a
future career. Since the festival I have thought more about my social media presence, creating and continually
updating a LinkedIn profile.
Ultimately, this experience has helped me to reflect on my future career through the insight into research
and communicating science it provided. It has also helped me to develop new skills by presenting to a
different audience, sixth form students. I would like to thank the Careers Network and the workshop team for
organising this opportunity.
Harriet supported the workshop session ‘Not all scientists wear lab coats’ designed and organised by Dr Julia
Myatt; Miss Nardie Hanson and Miss Emily Saunders from the School of Biosciences.
Biosciences Seminars
As always, the list of forthcoming events and seminars is available on the School of Biosciences website - and
there is a full list of forthcoming seminars as well as available seminar slots on the school Intranet pages.
MDS Seminar: Missing sex chromosome, gonadal transformation and sex bias: The intricacies
of zebrafish sex
Professor Laszlo Orban, PhD, Senior Principal Investigator, Reproductive genomics group,
TEMASEK Life Sciences Laboratory and National University of Singapore
13th February, 2015, 1pm, Stanley Barnes Room
Host: Ferenc Mueller, [email protected], tel 42895
Prof Laszlo Orban
Forthcoming Lectures
Can we see Evolution in real time using Bacterial models?
Dr Pete Lund, Reader in Molecular Microbiology, School of Biosciences
26/01/2015 at 18:00 (17:30 for refreshments)
The Avon Room, top floor of University Centre Building (R23 on the campus map)
Bacterial Intelligence: an introduction to our Invisible neighbours
Professor Steve Busby, Professor of Biochemistry and Head of School of Biosciences
09/02/2015 at 18:00 (17:30 for refreshments)
The Avon Room, top floor of University Centre Building (R23 on the campus map)
The Human Zoo: the battle between Hosts and Pathogens
Professor Robin May, Lister Fellow and Professor in Infectious Diseases, School of Biosciences
16/03/2015 at 18:00 (17:30 for refreshments)
The Avon Room, top floor of University Centre Building (R23 on the campus map)
Caption competition (just for fun)
Any suggestion of a caption for this! Send any captions to Simon Levermore at s.[email protected]
From issue 236 of The Mole - (Jim again, and his funny tern)
Thanks to Jeff Cole for
“The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon.
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side…”
Ref: Shakespeare, W.