That was the year that was

And so we come to late December and that point where the changing of the calendar causes us to stop, ponder and pontificate about the events of the previous 365 days. For me this is a potentially dangerous moment, where the descent into introspection, especially in public, could result in melancholy and feelings of under-achievement. I am not someone who flees from danger, however, preferring instead to engage with it head on, giving the source of the danger a damn good thrashing if necessary.

 
The professional doings of 2013, then from the Langley-Evans perspective…
 
How do we measure success from an academic point of view (this will not necessarily be the official view of the University where other ‘metrics’ may also be applied)? Well for me the big three have to be 1) Did I publish some papers?; 2) Did I obtain any grant money? and 3) Did I do anything that helped enhance the careers of other people? On point 2) I have to confess that the answer is a miserable ‘no’, but this I will not dwell upon as this pushes me tottering to the Precipice of Self-doubt, on the Cliffs of Self-destruction that lie on the upper slopes of Mount Crap. Point 1), is a resounding ‘yes’. Lots of papers were published with the Langley-Evans moniker upon their title page and to be honest, some of them were actually very good. Point 3) went well too, we had new people join the group, and hopefully that is a first step on a grand and positive change of career for Sarah E, Bashair and Lujain (our new PhD students). Sam Ware completed her long voyage to her PhD. In addition to all of this I spent a lot of time mentoring colleagues, helping some make decisions about applications for promotion, about applications for jobs elsewhere and about their longer-term development as academics. I really enjoyed that and rate those activities as the most satisfying and potentially useful things I did this year.
 
Alongside all of that I did a few other things. I taught a full academic year which included the first runs of the new MSc Nutritional Sciences. I took part in I’m a Scientist (did I mention that I won?). There were some useful exchanges with collaborators in various parts of the world, especially Milan. I became editor in chief of a journal for the first time and embarked on a programme of change there that I would love to duplicate in other parts of my professional life. I finally understood the point of social media (the point is that there is no point). There was a lot more circulation through parts of the University that I don’t normally interact with. I made lots and lots of plans for what I will do with my sabbatical in 2014. And a little thing called REF got completed.
 
Now that the year is coming to an end I look back on it with a degree of fondness, a little amazement that it was as productive as it was, and also a healthy measure of relief. Things were a bit hairy in the summer as I seriously contemplated jacking it all in and taking my services elsewhere. Some colleagues have done just that. In the end the opportunity I was chasing took itself away and so I didn’t have to make a decision, but nonetheless I had gone through the options, weighed up the risks and benefits, a process of self-analysis that made me go more than just a bit crazy for a while. And coming out of the other side I feel stronger and more positive, champing at the bit to tackle the things that annoy me about my job and make them better. Most importantly of all I remembered that work is a means to an end. Real life things are far more important. 
 
2014 will be brilliant (maybe).

Review article accepted

My review entitled ‘Nutrition in early life and the programming of adult disease: a review‘, has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. I am pretty pleased with it as a review as it goes beyond my usual oeuvre concerning fetal nutrition and later consequences, to embrace effects of infant nutrition (including weaning). 

The abstract is below and the whole article should be available on the journal Early View site in February:

Fetal development and infancy are life stages that are characterized by rapid growth, development and maturation of organs and systems. Variation in the quality or quantity of nutrients consumed by mothers during pregnancy, or infants during the first year of life can exert permanent and powerful effects upon developing tissues. These effects are termed “programming” and represent an important risk factor for non-communicable diseases of adulthood, including the metabolic syndrome and coronary heart disease. This narrative review will provide an overview of the evidence-base which shows that indicators of nutritional deficit in pregnancy are associated with greater risk of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular mortality. There is also a limited evidence-base that suggests some relationship between breastfeeding and the timing and type of foods used in weaning, and disease in later life. Many of the associations reported between indicators of early growth and adult disease appear to interact with specific genotypes. This supports the idea that programming is one of several cumulative influences upon health and disease acting across the lifespan.

Experimental studies have provided important clues to the mechanisms which link nutritional challenges in early life to disease in adulthood. It is suggested that nutritional programming is a product of altered expression of genes that regulate the cell cycle, resulting in effective remodelling of tissue structure and functionality. The observation that traits programmed by nutritional exposures in fetal life can be transmitted to further generations adds weight the argument that heritable epigenetic modifications play a critical role in nutritional programming.  

Contractually obliged to write

Well, that’s it. I am committed. I have just signed the contract to deliver the second edition of my book by March 2015. That’s an easy deadline to hit, but nonetheless is a deadline and deadlines mean pressure.

The new edition promises to be very different to the first. There will be a new title (Nutrition, Health and Disease: A Lifespan Approach), greatly expanded opening chapter to include more on research methods, a doubling of the number of figures, colour (!) and a huge amount of online support material.

 

All of the OCD elements of book writing are lined up too. I have a new fountain pen, shed loads of ink, a fine hard-backed notebook and have almost made the endless music selection (almost but not quite).

Graduation day

Graduation day

Today was winter graduation day at the University. One of  my jobs as Deputy Head of School was to award the prizes to students across a wide range of MSc courses and, of course, say a few words of wisdom and prompt a little more clapping on top of the hour of solid applause during the ceremony. I can’t pretend it is a duty that I find easy but I am very happy to take part.
Graduation ceremonies are an important part of the academic cycle. It is a bit of theatre I suppose, where we the academics play our part in our robes and show our appreciation of the achievements of our students. It is a day of celebration and a rite of passage for them. I enjoy watching the students cross the stage and seeing the clear pride in some of the faces. I feel pride too- some of our students breeze through their degrees but others go about it the hard way. Those who go on the difficult journey are the ones I remember the most and an extra clap is often in order.
I’ve done it a few times myself now as a student and have always enjoyed it and had a good celebration with family. The value was rather poignantly demonstrated today when a father took to the stage to receive his son’s posthumous PhD. It is a huge shame that not all of my academic colleagues take a morning out to go along to the ceremony. There are regular attenders, occasional attenders and a cohort that never go. The latter group need someone to have a bit of ‘a word’ I think. If the Vice Chancellor can find the time, then what’s their excuse?
This year saw the first class of MSc Nutritional Sciences students graduate and it was great to see that several of our international students had made it to the ceremony. The MSc was originally my baby- a course that I started on the road to reality about 3 years ago, so I take particular satisfaction from having our first class graduate and an even bigger group already at the end of their first semester of study.
Pictured are myself, Sarah Iqbal and Prof Steve Harding (Picture by Mike Beard)

Good luck Sarah McMullen!

Good luck Sarah McMullen!

Today we say goodbye to Sarah McMullen who is leaving the academic life to take up a post with the National Childbirth Trust. This is a great new opportunity for Sarah and a tremendous change of lifestyle and career. I am really excited for her, but I feel so sad that she is going. This is a glum day.

Sarah joined us at Nottingham as a postdoc with me on a British Heart Foundation project. That work went really well and generated some good papers and on the back of this Sarah secured first of all a Hypertension Trust Fellowship and then her lectureship here at Nottingham. Working together we have brought in a lot of research grant funding and have published 20 papers, some of which have attracted really high citations and are pretty important contributions to our field. On top of that there have been countless conference abstracts and a few book chapters. It has been a fantastically successful partnership. The time that I have worked with Sarah has been a real peak in my own career and I will never forget the great science brainstorms that we have had together, the highs of our grant successes and the horrible troughs of seeing some of our good ideas not being funded.

We have had a lot of fun together too (the picture is us at the legendary Casablanca Club in Budapest), travelling the world to various scientific meetings, meeting up with collaborators, grumbling at airports. Sarah has been an absolutely fantastic colleague in all respects and over the last 10 years she has helped me to make a lot of decisions about the direction of my own career and provided support when times were hard. She is incredibly wise, thoughtful, calming, intelligent, witty, caring, engaged, reliable… etc. Think of all the best adjectives you could apply to a work colleague and put them next to Sarah’s name. I am going to miss her hugely.

Best of luck Sarah!