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3 scientists who struggled, to inspire you

I’ve previously posted on Instagram about my journey as a scientist and how it wasn’t (and still isn’t) smooth sailing. Sometimes we look at others, seeing them do important things and think surely I could never achieve that. I used to think that being an exceptional scientist meant that you had an aptitude for science and possessed talents that the average person simply did not. I’ve since come to understand that obstacles are part of the scientific process, which is often not highlighted in published articles. I’ve had discussions with my scientist friends on how much we’d all benefit if we focused on telling our struggle stories as much as we focus on the final product! How much would younger scientists benefit knowing that there isn’t much else that sets us apart from Albert Einstein, Marie Curie or Elon Musk for that matter?

I was inspired to write this post after reading this paper, that speaks about humanizing scientists, sharing the struggles that came with their discoveries, therefore making them more relatable and increasing motivation to learn amongst learners.

So here are two scientists and an engineer, their achievements, and their struggles…

1. Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Achievements

  • First woman to receive a Ph.D. from a French university.
  • First woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris.
  • Curie and her husband Pierre Curie discovered polonium and radium and the further development of X-rays.
  • First woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person to win the award twice for achievements in two distinct scientific fields (physics and chemistry).

Intellectual struggles

I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy. ~Marie Curie

  • Curie and her husband slaved away in a shack they called their lab.
  • She struggled for more than three years to isolate a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride. She never succeeded in isolating polonium, which has a half-life of only 138 days.

Life struggles

  • Her mother died when she was only four years old.
  • Her father struggled to support the family as a teacher.
  • She joined an underground, unofficial university due to living in a sexist era
  • She suffered xenophobia in the workplace (being Polish and competing in a male-dominated French university).
  • Curie had an affair with her husband’s former student, physicist Paul Langevin. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to dissuade Marie from going to Stockholm so that the King would not shake hands with an adulteress. She replied that she would attend because she thought that the prize was given for her scientific work, not for her personal life.

2. Nikola Tesla

Tesla-bulb

Achievements

  • He was a polyglot, speaking eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.
  • He designed the modern alternating current electricity supply system.
  • Developed a steam-powered reciprocating electricity generator.
  • Invented the Tesla coil, an electrical resonant transformer coil, used in early radios.
  • Developed a remote controlled boat, which he tried to sell to the U.S military, with little success.

Intellectual struggles

“We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.”~ Nikola Tesla

  • In 1895 Tesla’s lab caught fire, setting back ongoing projects, destroying a collection of early notes and research material, models, and demonstration pieces.
  • Tesla moved to Colorado, theorizing that the earth was an excellent conductor of electricity. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to prove his hypothesis and transmit a current.
  • In 1901, Tesla built a lab in New York; the Wardenclyffe Tower was meant to be the first broadcasting system in the world. His previous employer, Westinghouse, confiscated the large equipment from his lab for nonpayment of loans.The U.S. government later demolished the tower.

Life struggles

  • Tesla was a workaholic with erratic sleeping patterns, professors at the university warned his father that these habits were killing him.
  • Eventually, he dropped out of university, became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.
  • By 1912, Tesla was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and was potentially a high-functioning autistic.

3. Elon Musk

Elon_Musk_2015

Achievements

  • Musk is an innovator, engineer and entrepreneur behind various successful companies, including: SpaceX, Tesla Inc, OpenAi, and Neuralink.
  • He was the co-founder of Zip2; and founder of X.com, which later became Paypal.
  • He is working on a space transportation system to colonize Mars.
  • He has an estimated net worth of $16.1 billion, making him the 80th-wealthiest person in the world.

Intellectual struggles

“Failure is an option here. If you are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” ~Elon Musk

  • In 1995, at age 24, Musk moved to California to begin a Ph.D. at Stanford University but left the program after two days to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations.

Life struggles

  • Musk was bullied throughout his childhood, once landing in hospital after being severely beaten.
  • He struggled with adolescent depression.
  • He married Justine Wilson in 2000. In 2002, their first son died at 10 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They had five additional sons together, twins and triplets before getting a divorce.
  • Musk married actress Talulah Riley, their relationship ultimately ended in divorce in 2016.

In humanizing these scientists, we are able to see that just like us, they had obstacles to overcome. If it weren’t for their tenacity, they would not have achieved their goals. Has this post helped revise your perceptions and beliefs about scientists? Let me know what you think 🙂

Featured image by Sidney Perry on Unsplash

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6 tips you need to know to rock the 3-Minute Thesis competition

The 3-Minute Thesis competition has been sweeping through universities globally, in an attempt to get postgraduate students to explain their thesis in 3 minutes with only one static slide! I am currently preparing for the 2017 competition at our university and I scoured the web to compile the following tips and tricks.

  1. Start with why the research needs to be done.

    Side-step the thesis statement, think about why you would bother spending 3+ years exploring this topic? Why is it important to you but how might it be important to the broader community? Focus on one issue, the aspect of your research that made you get into science in the first place. These reasons will probably interest others too. Sit down and think about how your research is changing, not everyone’s lives, but changing the world in a small way. The audience can then relate to your research in a new way that helps them shed light on why what you’re doing is vital.

  2. Hitch your thesis onto an ongoing community concern

    Try to get a helicopter view of the problem. Are you solving health care, education issues etc? Connect your research with the bigger picture? Also, what’s in it for you? Work self-interest reasons into the pitch. What could we build with your research in the future?

  3. Tell a story related to your research

    A well-chosen story can warm up the driest topic. What’s the most unexpected thing you found out in your research? Make the audience get emotionally involved.

  4. Try to make the abstract complete

    Numbers come alive when you give real world comparisons (as long as a rugby field instead of metres). Make use of metaphor and other verbal illustrations to simplify a complex idea.

  5. Jargon is the kryptonite of science communication

    Jargon is an effective way to stop people listening almost immediately, and you want the audience to be enthralled throughout your 3 minutes. It doesn’t mean that you must assume that the audience is idiots, either. Rather think that you’re explaining a scientific concept to a friend who is not a scientist.

  6. Don’t neglect the visual component of your research

    You want to make sure that the 3 minutes that you have are as exciting or informative as possible. Don’t have a pretty picture for nothing, make sure that it is helping you explain what you’re doing in a way that your words can’t. You can include diagrams, funny pictures, and illustrations to help the audience understand that what you’re doing is really interesting. Don’t fade out the images or cross out the corners to make the images more interesting. Use a simple grid and simple fonts. Or you can find one image, a key image.

Bonus tip: Let it go

Speak like you’re having a conversation with the audience, not ‘giving a formal speech’. Get up on the stage – and forget the inner dialogue, make sure that in that moment you rely on all the practice that you’ve done. Enjoy the experience – imagine the situation beforehand, imagine the audience, close your eyes and pretend that you are starting for the first time.

Wish me luck! I’ll let you all know the outcome!

*Edit: I came second in the PhD category- YAY!

Featured image by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

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Slaying the dragon: Practical tips to overcome anxiety

Have you ever felt like the world was passing you by? Like you’re rooted to the pavement whilst everyone around you is going on with their daily lives, laughing, progressing… And you…? Well, you’re just stuck in this hazy fog of negativity, playing a horrible version of stuck in the mud where nobody comes to free you. This is me on most days, I would say I am going through one of the darkest times of my life. I am in the third year of my PhD and I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off due to maintenance!

It’s no secret, an overwhelming amount of PhD candidates suffer from anxiety to the point where it’s considered almost normal. I decided this was no way for me to be living my life and when I finally got around to seeing a therapist, one of the things she asked me to do was to list my symptoms. I told her I was easily irritated, wasn’t sleeping well, had sharp stomach pains, felt paralysed by my workload, I was unable to focus (at this point she was furiously scribbling down but still I continued listing symptoms). Easy tasks felt so difficult, so I end up procrastinating. I felt like everyone around me was working harder than me and I had a constant fear of failure. If you also identified with this list, you’re definitely not alone. It’s tough but I continually realise I am tougher, these are some ways I’ve been dealing with anxiety and maybe you’ll find them helpful too.

Achieve something

On bad days, even simple things like making your bed and taking a shower are achievements. Make a to-do list, starting with small tasks. Tidy up your desk, clean your house, do some gardening. It’s such a good feeling checking tasks off. Then make bigger to-do lists, break up work-related tasks into mini tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the work you still need to complete.

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time

Find a side hustle/ project or just do something different for a change. 2Take breaks, whether short breaks in the day or longer breaks away from work. Read, do a craft or whatever else you enjoy. It’s been proven we actually get bored with our surroundings and need a change of scenery to stay focused.

I declare face mask Sundays!

Dress up or down if you’d like, the point is to dress for yourself. Dress the way you’d like to feel. I tried for the longest time to dress like the people around me, but the truth is, I never was a sneakers-and-jeans kind of girl! Make face mask Sundays a thing. Sip on some tea, fix those wayward brows (just me?) and spend 20 minutes taking care of yourself.

Find your tribe and stick with them

Avoid the people who trigger your anxiety. For me, that means working at night and on weekends. Spend time with people who are calm and good for you, share what is troubling you. It’s much easier when you don’t have to shoulder the burden by yourself. You might also be able to brainstorm solutions, whether it’s the experiment that’s just not working out or venting about the colleague who doesn’t shut up (again, just me?)!

Mind over matter?

People experience anxiety differently. I personally don’t feel as present in my everyday life when my anxiety levels are high. So my first tip is to become more mindful, be present in whatever you’re doing, engage your senses to further ground you. Taste every bite of your food, look at the sunset. Practice gratitude. It’s simple, you are far more privileged than what it seems when you’re going through an anxiety attack. Have your truths that you repeat to yourself. For me, these are: this is just a Wednesday (whatever day it is), this is a tiny lab in the middle of South Africa (where I’m based), and this situation doesn’t define me. Remind yourself of your achievements thus far. I have a poster hung up at my workspace from a conference I recently attended as well as a trophy that I won for speaking at a faculty forum. It’s a reminder to me that I am capable of solving problems even though at this moment it feels like I can’t. Listen to motivational talks on YouTube, I am almost embarrassed to admit I do this but hey, it gets me pumped while I’m setting up an experiment! Put up inspirational quotes at your workspace, if that’s your thing. I often post motivational quotes on my Instagram as a mantra to keep in mind for the day. Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen? Very often I have to shake myself out of overthinking and I ask myself, “Am I going to die from this?”. The answer is always no (insert eye roll emoji here). And I instantly calm down.3

This isn’t just all in your mind but your mind is a powerful tool against anxiety. You can have the most positive change if you change your mindset towards difficult situations. Everyone experiences varying levels of anxiety and others around you might be better equipped at dealing with (or hiding) it. Anxiety does not define you, it is only a small part of your life. Let go of the self-doubt and worry. You’ve got through difficult situations in the past, you have it in you to overcome this as well!

These are my practical tips, feel free to share yours as well.


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Can proper nutrition prevent infection by HPV?

I held a Q & A session on my Instagram and have only had a chance now to write up some of the posts (#friyay). I thought this was such an interesting question:

“Hi there! I just saw that your research is on HPV. Interesting timing for me because a friend was just saying this morning that HPV can be prevented with proper nutrition. I was only able to do a quick Google search and could not find any credible sources discussing this. I was wondering if you could comment on any link between nutrition and HPV? Or perhaps you could point me to some studies on this topic?”

My first response to this was er… no. Sure, nutrition does play a part in maintaining a healthy immune system, but unless there’s a specific compound in food that’s been found to have high antiviral activity, I doubt that eating healthily alone prevents infection by human papillomavirus (HPV). But instead of completely writing it off, I thought I’d do a little digging around on the interwebs. But first, a little background…

Background on HPV

Only a handful of the approximately 200 types of HPV cause cancer – that is cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. The rest normally cause warts, also known as papillomas or they have no effect. HPV is responsible for causing cancer in more than half a million people a year worldwide. So infection by high-risk HPV types that cause cancer is extremely common and is easily transmitted to skin cells that are susceptible to infection by direct physical contact. However, only a small proportion of these infections will progress to cancer and most people are able to clear the infection. It’s not known why some infections are benign and others cause cancer, but we think it might have to do with small variations in the genes of these common viruses.

Moving on to the crux of the matter…

Could eating a healthy diet really prevent infection by HPV?

A study suggested that increasing dietary intake of lutein/zeaxanthin (found in kale, basil, lettuce and broccoli), β-cryptoxanthin (found in orange rind, papaya, egg yolk, butter and apples) and vitamin C (peppers, guava, kale, kiwi, broccoli and strawberries) appear to be associated with reduced risk of persistence of type-specific HPV infection. Persistence of HPV is a strong determinant of risk of cervical cancer. Eating papaya, a major source of dietary carotenoids was also associated with reduced risk of persistent infection. Another study also indicated that antioxidant vitamins (mainly α-carotene, β-carotene, and vitamins E and C) might be beneficial in reducing the risk of invasive cervical cancer.

The science behind the claim

In recent years you might have heard about something called free radicals if you paid attention to those wrinkle-blasting moisturiser commercials.

Free radicals are created by oxidation in the body during normal metabolic processes or even in the fight against bacteria and viruses. Simply put, they’re basic molecules with an electron missing that causes it to be unstable. In an effort to stabilise itself, they steal an electron from other chemical structures in the body. These chemical structures that have had an electron stolen become free radical themselves, thus starting a whole chain reaction that might disrupt a living cell. This is the basis behind ageing, hence the claims behind anti-wrinkle creams being able to mop up free radicals!

What do free radicals and fruit salads have to do with cervical cancer?

Antioxidant vitamins found in healthy foods may prevent free-radical damage to DNA as they are able to neutralise these free radicals and enhance the immune system [1, 5], linking back to my initial thoughts on this subject.jeffrey-deng-749

The bottom line, I’m still not overly convinced that eating your veggies will prevent infection by HPV because there aren’t specific antiviral compounds in fruit and vegetables that will clear the virus (or definitely not in high enough concentrations). What it will do, however, is help in maintaining a healthy immune system that may assist your body to clear the infection. Persistence of HPV is necessary for cancer to develop. HPV infection is however completely preventable if you are vaccinated before exposure. Want to know about vaccination? Leave me a comment 🙂

More information:
1. McCullough, M. L. & Giovannucci, E. L. Diet and cancer prevention. Oncogene 23, 6349–6364, 10.1038/sj.onc.12077161207716 (2004).
2. Stebbing, J. & Hart, C. A. Antioxidants and cancer. Lancet Oncol 12, 996, 10.1016/S1470-2045(11)70282-0S1470-2045(11)70282-0 (2011).

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10 (more) things about me

I recently shared 10 things about me on my Instagram and thought, why not share even more? Saves time on Insta-stalking 😉 So here goes…

  1. I’m short (1.47 m of fun-sized goodness) – somebody once told me I could be classified as a pygmy. #rude
  2. Water is my favourite drink- I’m a cheap date!
  3. I suffer from anxiety; if you’ve ever had to pull yourself out of an anxiety attack- big ups to you.
  4. I’d love to have an event planning business one day.
  5. I have a fear of birds.
  6. Linked to the previous fact, I thought I could get over my ornithophobia by doing a Masters project on a parrot virus. It made my phobia worse.
  7. My car is small (like me), so we named him Tyrion (also #rude?).
  8. Most people love rain, but it just makes me unproductive and sad.
  9. I like the smell of jasmine on a warm summer evening and the crisp morning air in Spring.
  10. My favourite colour is duck egg blue.

What fact from the list above surprised you the most?

Let me know what you thought in the comments below! And if you have a list of fun facts most people don’t know about you, feel free to share. I’d love to read your answers.


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The star-shaped polymer causing deadly bacteria to commit suicide

Never have I ever…

a) taken antibiotics while being treated for “the flu”.

b) asked the doctor for antibiotics, when there was no need for it.

c) failed to complete the full length of prescription of antibiotics.

d) used antibacterial soaps.

Here’s a spin on the well-known drinking game! If you are guilty of the above, you might have inadvertently contributed to the increase in antimicrobial resistance. Continue reading “The star-shaped polymer causing deadly bacteria to commit suicide”

On Being Kind in Academia

This is such a good article! PhD life is so tough, surrounding yourself with positive people makes it somewhat easier. We need an organisational culture change! Be the change you wish to see in the world.

PhD Life

Funding is scarce, jobs are few and competition is fierce, but can’t we all just be friends? Probably not, but it we won’t hurt if try to be kind, on the contrary…

A terrifying place called ‘Academia’?

I have been in the academia for a while now and have the experience of studying in two culturally quite different education systems, as well taking part in some international and cross-cultural academic programmes and projects. Over the time, I have had the opportunity to meet many remarkably nice and warm people, and to enjoy a genuinely friendly and encouraging atmosphere. Sadly, I got familiar with the other side as well – academics being bitter, resentful and overtly hostile to each other. Although I suppose this is the case with every other professional niche as well, I feel that is particularly necessary to address it in relation to PhD studies. Reading articles about…

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Oral sex, Michael Douglas and head and neck cancer

Now this one’s sure to get the tongues wagging! Prudey Patty’s be warned Speak no evil These seemingly unrelated topics all have one thing in common;  a sexually transmitted virus.

Michael Douglas most notoriously cited oral sex as the cause of his throat cancer debacle, much to the embarrassment of his wife Catherine Zeta Jones. The virus he scapegoated was human papillomavirus or HPV.  Douglas has since‘fessed up, stating that he actually had tongue cancer due to smoking and drinking!

Nevertheless, most of us will become infected with HPV at some point but will luckily clear the infection. HPV is responsible for a range of troublesome maladies, ranging from warts on your hands and feet, or genitals and on the more serious end of the spectrum, cancer! So what is it about HPV that causes certain individuals to eventually develop cancer? To answer that question, we’d have to take a journey back in time, to when the link was first made between HPV and cervical cancer.

The father of HPV research

Harald_zur_Hausen-press_conference_Dec_06th,_2008-8
Harald zur Hausen, German virologist who discovered the link between HPV and cervical cancer. Photo cred: Prolineserver

In the 50s and 60s scientists observed that cervical cancer was more common amongst prostitutes and married women, and virtually non-existent in nuns. The thinking at the time was, if cancer itself was not contagious, there was  probably a  sinister sexually transmittable virus at work. In the 70’s, Dr Harald zur Hausen, after going against the current thinking at the time in the cervical cancer field and not finding bands that make him dance many failed attempts, was able to positively link HPV to cervical cancer [1]. Since then, HPV has been implicated in other anogenital cancers and in a subset of head and neck cancers. It is now known that there are almost 200 different HPV types that are classified according to the likelihood to cause cancer; as low risk (most common types HPV 6, 11) or high risk (HPV 16, 18) or probable cancer causing (HPV 26, 53). In 2008, Dr zur Hausen was one of three virologists to receive the Nobel prize in Physiology & Medicine [1].

From #goodtimes to head and neck cancer…

Oral sex has been given a bad rap, as it is the means by which the virus gets to the head and neck region. It is thought that heterosexual men are more likely to contract head and neck cancer than women as HPV is more commonly found in cervical than penile tissue [2]. HPV is highly specific when it comes to the types of cells it infects. When a virus is not able to properly support infection, it may lead to the development of cancer. In the case of tumours in the head and neck region, HPV is capable of infecting epithelial cells in the tonsils, although these cells are not preferable. Cancer is then a result of HPV not being able to complete its life cycle [3].

How does HPV cause cancer?

Time to get to the nitty gritty- how exactly is a virus capable of causing cancer?! Papillomaviruses are considered to be small due to their approximately 8000 bp, doublestranded DNA genomes.

Prototype map
The genome of a high risk type, HPV31.

The primary viral proteins that are responsible for causing mayhem and misery are the E6, E7 and E5 proteins (refer to genome map above). These viral cancer causing proteins act by overcoming human tumour suppressor proteins. Specifically, the E6 protein induces degradation of a human protein, P53. P53 is involved in controlling cell cycling and inducing processes that allow DNA to be repaired [2]. The E7 protein binds and inactivates another human tumour suppressor gene, pRB, leading to cell-cycle disruption and cancer [2]. The E5 gene isn’t an innocent bystander in all of this, but helps the other two in causing cancer. HPV infections can be cleared, however, HPV can be quite sneaky and hides from the immune system [3].

Should you care?

HPV chronicles

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide and causes over 300 000 deaths [2]. In South Africa, no data is available for HPV associated head and neck cancer! By 2020, HPV will have caused more head and neck than cervical cancer cases, showing that we need to further investigate the viral mechanisms behind this disease.


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10 tips to nail a journal club presentation

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In this age where information is available at our fingertips, often in 140 characters or less, it is difficult to grab and keep a person’s attention. The supervisor who’s tapping their foot, browsing through their phone while you fumble through a presentation needs a reason to care about what you have to say.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve been running around, putting in your samples to PCR when your lab mate reminds you that it’s your turn to present at this week’s journal club! It completely slipped your mind!

Take your journal club presentation from cringeworthy to celebrated with these simple tips.

 

  1. Bank articles

    Keep a folder of articles that you find interesting during the year. You’ll be glad you did so when life in the lab gets overwhelming.

  2. Choose a current article

    To keep abreast of current research, choose an article that was published within the last six months at least. Give your audience a reason to attend your presentation and an opportunity to learn something new.

  3. Subscribe to science news sites

    Science news sites deliver bite-sized content for light lunchtime reading. You can keep up with exciting and innovative research without spending time scouring articles. You can always find the original published article cited in this news article to present to your journal club.

  4. Go outside your field

    Step outside your research comfort zone! Present on work conducted slightly out of your research field to expand your general knowledge.

  5. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

    Start your preparation in advance, to give yourself adequate time to familiarise yourself with the topic or new techniques. When the time comes for you to present, you will feel at ease knowing that you’ve put in the time.

  6. Get permission from your audience

    At the start of your presentation, ask questions that create dissonance in your audience’s mind to stir their curiosity. It is only then that you will have their permission to explain a new concept.

  7. Build an idea using metaphors

    Bring ideas to life using everyday analogies and metaphors. Make sure there is a golden thread running through your talk linking back to these original ideas.

  8. Less is more

    Deconstruct one major idea and give yourself enough time to explain it in depth. Present only the most important results. Clarify terms that may be unfamiliar to the audience and avoid jargon if presenting to a diverse audience.

  9. Create pretty slides

    Pretty is powerful when it comes to presentations! Text heavy slides make the brain rely more on the language side, leaving the audience overwhelmed. Rather use a single sentence with a powerful image. This will also limit you from reading from the slide, which can be sleep-inducing tedious! Relabel figures so headings are legible and use animated blocks to highlight sections within hieroglyphic-like tables.

  10. Execution!

    You’ve spent some time preparing for this presentation, make sure you deliver it with confidence! What’s the point in wasting not only your time but the audience’s as well and nobody leaves having learned something.

Finally, you’ve nailed your presentation if the audience can answer the following [1]:

  • What the research problem was?
  • The main piece of data to support the research findings.
  • Whether the authors were successful in answering their research questions.
What are your tips on nailing a journal club presentation? Leave me a comment, let’s have a discussion!

 

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