So what have I done today to make me feel proud?

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A good question…

Today I have worked my socks off on the dratted REF. A whole day has flown by in a whirl of editing, reformatting, tweaking, hard thinking, chasing evidence, updating spreadsheets, databases and submission systems. Sad to admit, it was quite good fun and yes! I do feel proud! The beast is almost there, just one last thing to write (waiting on somebody else to do their bit) and then I can feel like it is finished.

Of course I felt like it was almost finished a few weeks ago, but then some more of my “responsibilities” were explained to me. No doubt there are more waiting to leap out on me.

Thank goodness it is Friday.

Calling all former UoN students!

I am hoping that this post will be picked up by former graduates of our Nutrition degrees at Nottingham. 

We are collecting case studies to show the range of different jobs which our graduates go on to do. We hope this will raise current students’ awareness of different job opportunities and help them identify ways of strengthening their employability. It will also help prospective students understand the different routes which the degree may lead to. As a successful graduate of UoN Nutritional Sciences, we’d love to include you as a case study. The following headings are provided as a guide, but please include what you think has been most important. A picture of yourself to show alongside the case study would also be appreciated. We will be using the material on our website, course and marketing materials. Keep it concise and feel free to write in your own style – the primary audience is current and prospective students.

 Suggested aspects to include:

What is your current role?

What route have you taken since graduating (including PG education/research, other temporary roles, jobs, placements etc)?

What do you think has been key in helping you secure your current role?

What are your top tips for current students, to help them improve their employability?

Please feel free to forward this on to any of your fellow graduates who you think would be happy to help. Many thanks for your contribution!

If you want to contribute a case study, either email me at Simon.Langley-Evans@nottingham.ac.uk, or Sarah.McMullen@nottingham.ac.uk.

Support from the Revere Charitable Trust

Over the last two years we have been very fortunate to be financially supported by the Revere Charitable Trust, who have given two separate donations to the group, worth £50000. The Revere Charitable Trust makes donations to a range of causes including a hospice, a disabled children’s trust, asthma and cancer research, international and national medical organisations, youth groups, environmental and cultural projects and animal welfare groups.
 
Our good fortune has made two lines of research possible. Most recently funding has enabled us to recruit a PhD student to work on the MAGIC project. MAGIC is a new cohort study of pregnant women in Nottingham. It aims to follow the women from mid-gestation to 1 year postpartum in order to investigate the factors which determine postpartum weight retention. This is a significant public health issue as pregnancy is a period where women are vulnerable to weight gain, contributing to risks in later pregnancy and to increased risk of overweight and obesity as they age. MAGIC has been recruiting since the spring of 2013 and is now into the postnatal follow-up phase.
 
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Our initial funding from the Revere Trust enabled us to establish a new suite of physiology equipment for the lab in 2011. At the centre of this is a wire myography system (pictured). This equipment has the ability to measure the contraction and relaxation of minute blood vessels. By passing wires which are thinner than a human hair through isolated arteries, we can suspend blood vessels between clamps mounted onto pressure transducers. These send signals to data collection modules which record tension on the blood vessels dozens of times per second. We can then look at the responses of the vessels to a variety of drugs and hormones.  We are currently using the equipment to examine the effects of feeding low protein diets to rats and mice during pregnancy, upon the arterial function of their offspring. This work is informing our understanding of the processes which make the foetal period a stage when humans are vulnerable to effects of a poor diet upon their cardiovascular health.

Bethan Clifford, a postgraduate student in our unit, has been using the equipment extensively. She has demonstrated that the mesenteric arteries and aorta isolated from animals whose mothers were protein restricted in pregnancy are functionally different to vessels from the offspring of unrestricted animals. Bethan presented some of her initial findings to the Fetal and Neonatal Physiological Society meeting in Utrecht in July 2012. 

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In addition to the myography equipment, we purchased an organ bath system. This works on a similar principle and allows us to measure the contraction of much larger pieces of tissue such as uterine muscle. This currently contributes to Sarah McMullen and Matt Elmes research investigating how pregnant women’s fat intake effects length of labour and the risk of poor pregnancy outcomes, such as caesarean section.

 

Little improvements

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When I started this blog my intention was to make it a research showcase and present all of the latest developments from the lab. Depressingly research is taking a bit of a backseat at the moment, largely due to my involvement in other things and so I have no exciting new information to share or publications to announce (although in theory there could be 7 new papers in the offing shortly).

Those who know me well will know that the last few months have been “trying” for various reasons both within and beyond my control. However, I am now firmly back in “the zone” and hellbent on world domination (or in my more modest moments, just doing my job to the best of my ability). One of the things that has for a long time contributed to a general draining of my enthusiasm is the fact that I occupy one of the crappiest offices in what is undoubtedly the crappiest building in the University (it was tempting to say Universe, but that might have been stretching the point). North Laboratory, as it is inspiringly entitled is one of the older buildings on the Sutton Bonington Campus and, sadly, as the rest of the campus has been regenerated and developed, has been left untouched. Whilst our labs are well-equipped and teaching areas have been kept up to date and very much fit for purpose, the staff of North Lab have to live with windows that don’t function properly, inadequate toilet provision, horrific extremes of temperature and a leaky roof.

Within this poor sick building surrounded by glowing excellence and innovative architecture, I occupy the glory of room 57. 57, like many of the offices is a conversion from laboratory space, with a lab area being subdivided into several smaller rooms. Like the other conversions 57 benefits from some of the “special features” of North Lab. There is no sound-proofing incorporated into the stud walls, making even the act of breathing audible to my neighbours. In fact, the wall between 57a and 57 does not actually go all the way across the room and a finger can be comfortably inserted into the gap between the rooms.

Well, anyway, I digress. Like all of the University facilities North Lab is wonderful and it is my own poor use of the space that causes my problems. Privacy is over-rated and possibly counterproductive (open plan offices are the norm for many university departments elsewhere). So as part of my fresh start and more positive approach to life, I have had a bit of a break from REF to rearrange my office. A big shift of the furniture means that I no longer overlook the ladies lavs all day and I can actually stay hidden around a corner so that undesirables won’t spot me. I now have a handsomely large meeting area and even a houseplant to keep me company.

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Next on my list will be a sofa, drinks cabinet, maybe a small fridge and a massage table I think.

As some famous bod once said, research is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Well, in my current role the focus is all on that 1% bit. I have other people to do the perspiring for me these days. Inspiration requires an inspirational environment and inspiration people. I count myself fortunate to have known many of the latter and to have a great network of collaborators and colleagues. Having worked in other places I can place my hand on heart and say that SB is a great environment. There is very little that we want but can’t have here- research facilities are superb. It would just put the icing on the cake though if I could have quiet space to think without boiling in the summer and shivering in the winter.

Draining my energy- life with the REF

As any of my colleagues will tell you, I am not one for moaning (ha ha) about the oddities of working in the university environment. For people working outside academia the view of what we actually do here is probably very distorted. Current and former students are probably of the belief that academics teach for 20 weeks of the year and spend the rest of their time on holiday. Others will have their view shaped by TV detective series and perceive academic to spend their time “thinking” in wood panelled Oxbridge office suites, in between long pub lunches, dalliances with attractive students of the opposite sex, spying for the Commies and occasionally committing murder most foul.

The truth is of course very different and the view among some of my colleagues is that the academic life is becoming something of a vocation in which we commit to long hours of chasing paper, ticking boxes and having to respond to undergraduate enquiries at any time, day and night (I did actually pick up an email about a dissertation problem on Christmas Day last year- and yes, sadly, I answered it). The big regret for many of us is that these things are pulling us away from the reason why we became university academics- our research. Research is the bit which excites us, pulls us out of bed in the morning, sends us on field trips and conferences via economy class airlines to grotty hotels in far flung parts of the world. It is also the thing the the university values most and wants us to do more of. 

Success for the individual in research requires only a little short of full-time attention. Ideas have to be generated, flashes of inspiration (usually in the bath) captured, pilot data collected, networks formed, opportunities spotted, etc. The realisation is setting in among bioscientists that a golden age of research funding has slipped by and times are getting harder. Competition for research grants is tougher than ever and who you know is becoming as important as what you know. 

For me, the big drain on my ability to play this research game over the last two years or so is the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF is the new version of the Research Assessment Exercise which takes place in the UK roughly every five years. The aim is to examine the quality of research that takes place in the universities and then use the outcomes to determine how public money is allocated to universities over the next five years so that the better research groups receive the lions share of the kitty so to speak (too many feline references there). REF, having been originally touted as a light touch version of the exercise that would make more use of a range of easily available metrics, is bigger and more complicated than anything that has ever gone before.

For my sins, or at least for my lamentable lack of ability to decline invitations to take on “special” roles, I am coordinating the REF submission for two Schools at the university. There is of course no pressure in this other than the fact that approx. £25 million is at stake for us, along with the reputation of the university for excellence (we were top of some league tables for our disciplines in 2008 and heading south from there is not going to bring a smile to anyone’s face). I think that I said I was not going to moan about this, so I won’t… Let’s just say that the process has been an entertaining mixture of herding cats, pulling teeth, wading through treacle, swimming in sewage and applying live electrodes to some of the more sensitive parts of my anatomy. Preparing the REF submission has required us to assess and score the quality of well over 1000 research papers produced by the 150 academics in our “unit of assessment”, produce a document that succinctly describes and provides evidence for the excellence of our research environment and a set of a dozen or so case studies that describe the Impact of our work. Impact is the new buzz word that describes how the research that we do (using public money) benefits people outside the academic sector (for example improving the health of the nation, boosting business, enriching society). At the start of this process I don’t think we really understood what Impact means, so this has been a major challenge in terms of REF preparation. Hours and hours and hours of my life have been invested in this and I just hope it all works out. The results are released in December 2014, at which time I will either open the champagne or open the envelope containing my P45! 

So REF has swallowed my life for a couple of years, but the end is in sight. The submission goes off in late November, but internally we are “locking down” systems much sooner, so just a few more weeks lie between me and the post-REF period. I still have work to do, so better stop writing this soon. REF3a and the insertion of evidence of follow-through beckons for today.

The good news is that at the end of this I will have a period of study leave. This means that I will not be doing any teaching or teaching-related activities between Jan and Sept 2014. Fingers crossed that I can slip back into my research seamlessly…

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And farewell…

This is a little late as the main event happened several weeks ago now. My dear friend and close collaborator Sarah McMullen is to leave the University to take on a new role at the National Childbirth Trust in the New Year. This is a fantastic move for Sarah and I am very envious of the opportunity for a fresh start in a new world and I wish her every happiness. I shall miss her greatly here and now have a lot to think about in terms of my future research plans.