Paper accepted (ish)

Just had news that we have had a paper accepted subject to minor revision by PlosOne. The revisions look fairly superficial, so it should be in the bag.

Altobelli G, Bogdarina I, Stupka E, Clark AJC, Langley-Evans SC. Genome-wide methylation and gene expression changes in newborn rats following maternal protein restriction and reversal by folic acid. 

It’s great- read it when it comes out!


Of Black Dogs and hairy lips

So the month of November is nearly upon us and for the last few years this has evolved into Movember, a UK based event whereby men grow moustaches in order to highlight and fundraise around issues concerning men’s health. As a serious academic sort of person with a deep mistrust of men with moustaches, I have held aloof from such silliness, but this year I thought ‘why not?’. I am therefore embarking on the cultivation of some unsightly facial hair and will almost certainly be encouraged to make it look ridiculous (some mention of colouring occurred just now). It is also a lot less demanding than running marathons, parachute jumping and other associated tomfoolery. Physical activity just isn’t my thing. Sitting still just growing hair has always been one of my skills.

The cause I will be raising money for over the next month is the mental health charity Mind. This is not of course male specific in its’ activities, but it is pretty well-established that men are far more likely to commit suicide and far less likely to discuss their mental health issues and seek help. Over the years I have seen many friends and family members grappling with depression and in the last year or so have seen three tragic suicides in our local university and village community. 

One of the biggest problems associated with depression and other mental health problems is the stigma they carry. Very few people will stand up, stick their head above the parapet and say that they have a problem, especially if they are a man. It is one of the big taboos. Well, I myself have suffered from depression for a few years now (shock horror! taboo broken! disability disclosed!). My black dog visits me on a regular basis and demands that I give it attention. I am able to cope with this (take it for a walk, but never feed it) and manage my problems to the extent that I can get on with a normal life, be productive, make a good contribution to the world and just occasionally be insufferably grumpy. At worst I get the desperate need to run away to somewhere remote to start a new life, and thankfully never feel the need to hurt myself or physically withdraw from the world. Not everyone is quite so fortunate and so my ridiculous hairy lip will be grown for their benefit.

If you would like to donate to a great cause, please visit my fundraising page at Just Giving.

How to escape from tyranny?

How to escape from tyranny?

In 1993 I sent my first ever email. I think it was something profound along the lines of “Is that you?” sent to my brother John, having made a guess at what his email address was. Excited by the new approach to communication, I went back to my then supervisor, extolling the virtues of email and trying to convince him that this was ‘the Future’.

The Future is now here and email is the bane of my life and intrudes any time, any place. I was on annual leave at the end of last week, but through the wonders of the iPhone was able to respond to an urgent message from the toilets of the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. Other holidays have seen me standing up to my knees in seawater trying to get a signal. At these points I realise that this isn’t living but is a form of slavery to the machine.

On a typical day I reckon I receive around 80 emails (once the junk and spam has been filtered out). These are probably 30% circulars and general rubbish, 25% points of information requiring no response, 20% asking me to do things that other people would be better suited to do instead, 15% stuff requiring action and 10% chitchat. I think I probably spend 2 hours or so during each day and about the same out of working hours keeping it all under control.

I want to cut this down and do my bit by sending less email to other people. Crumbs- I may even start using the phone (another dreadful instrument of slavery in my view), or (perish the thought) actually going to speak to the person in the office next-door instead of sending an email! In the past I have subjected myself to a rule whereby I don’t allow myself to look at email other than in certain periods of the day. That boosts productivity but doesn’t reduce the burden.

Something has to change. If anyone has any useful suggestions, I am all ears.

Publications progress

As my REF responsibilities draw to a close (slowly but surely) I have been able to make some progress on publications. There are four new papers in the pipeline, all at different stages of the peer review process. The latest progress though is that a paper submitted to Genes and Nutrition just a few weeks ago has already come back from review, with a set of comments that I feel sure we can address without too much difficulty. I have also written a review article for the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. Although that is ‘my’ journal it still has to go through peer-review and the very close inspection of our Reviews Editor. It will be a bit embarrassing if an invited review for the journal which I edit gets rejected! The other two are collaborative papers, one with Peter Voigt (about to resubmit second revision) and the other with colleagues in London and Milan (first revision under review). These are important papers that could underpin some new research projects for next year.

There are also serious rumblings now about publishing the second edition of my book. The publishers Wiley have commissioned some book reviews to give some guidance on where to focus changes and then it’s off we go. The first edition took me about a year to write and I think the second edition will be about 6 months of effort. Apparently I no longer have to do stuff like drawing my own diagrams and making the index as these things will be done professionally. That’s a relief and I can focus on updating the material. There may even be a cover that reflects the cover, instead of the current spirographic nonsense.

On a different line, I had a chuckle over an article in the Times this morning. Apparently (shock horror!!!) Universities have been prioritising getting research grants over teaching!!! And… it has been going on for years! No way! Who would have thought it? This little article was complemented by a letter by a Prof from somewhere or other (can’t remember name or affiliation) that made some excellent observations about the shift in priorities from well-reasoned long-term research projects towards a short-term focus on just getting the research funding. It was spot on. The thing that frustrates me most at the moment is that nobody in the University seems to really care about the research outcomes anymore. Staff are not rewarded for their achievements in the lab, they are rewarded for feeding the bean-counters and bringing in the money. Research money and the overheads it brings is now essential to pay the bills and the pursuit of knowledge has dropped by the wayside.

Reaching out

I was having a really grotty day yesterday. I am on a mission to give up caffeine (doctors orders) and rather than doing it gradually I have gone cold turkey. I didn’t really expect any symptoms and so was horrified by my fuzzy aching head, extreme tiredness, painful eyes, grumpiness and extreme craving for chocolate. All of this was not aided by some of the last minute noises off regarding our REF submission, which I felt I had put safely to bed, only to find that there is a lot of internal admin left to do.

Then out of the blue came an invitation to be one of the scientists involved with the November event for I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here! This is a fantastic outreach event that brings together active scientists with students in secondary schools. The students pose questions for the scientists to answer, some of which is done through online chat sessions over the fortnight. As the students get to vote for their favourite scientist in their zone, I am going to have to prove that I have the X Factor and if I win, then there is a £500 prize that I can use to launch another outreach event (I intend to target local schools with science equipment).

I vaguely remember putting in an application to take part in this a couple of months ago having seen an advert on Twitter, but then it slipped my mind. I’m hoping it will be a lot of fun- perhaps something other (younger and more photogenic) colleagues might take on.

So come 11th November, I will be in the ‘Iodine Zone’ competing with Susan, Rachel and Dilwar for the hearts of the nation’s youth! You should be able to follow my progress online and also look at my profile which includes my “interview”. The questions are searching-

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Who is your favourite singer or band?

What’s your favourite food?

What is the most fun thing you’ve done?

What did you want to be after you left school?

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

What was your favourite subject at school?

What’s the best thing you’ve done as a scientist?

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? – be honest!

Tell us a joke.


Who said statistics is boring?

Who said statistics is boring?

This is one of a brilliant set of You Tube videos which explain statistical concepts through the medium of dance. Teaching statistics is a chore that I only recently escaped (although the impending departure of my colleague Sarah may knock the ball back into my court) and was never easy. The concepts, which are so crucial for understanding research, are not easy to communicate in an interesting manner. Is this the answer? Should I be donning a tutu?

I’s crossed and T’s dotted…

Well, that’s the end of a long haul. I just made the final edits to my REF documents and laid them to rest in the UoN Document Repository, ready for upload to the REF submission system. I feel pretty satisfied with what has been achieved, but I really never want to have to read them again. The last round of editing was really most profound (not), and involved the removal of a stray hyphen, the word ‘at’ and the insertion of the word ‘diverse’. 

December 2014 awaits. When the results are published will I be taking the blame on behalf of my colleagues or sharing the credit?