16 Dec 2014

Feeling festive with Rudolph the sneezing reindeer

IGH's Science Communication Officer Nicola Frost on 'educating, engaging and entertaining' at our 2014 Christmas Science Lecture for primary schools. 

The IGH Science Christmas Lecture team
Early last year I was chatting to a scientist from our Institute who had an idea he'd been bouncing around his head for a while, but not yet made happen. The idea was simple; a fun, interactive Christmas lecture aimed at children to engage them in the science of germs and infectious disease. Over a coffee, we threw around some ideas and a plan was formed! So back in December 2013 Dr Alan Radford hosted his first ‘Rudolph the Sneezing Reindeer’ lecture. It was such a success that we decided to run it again this year specifically for primary schools.

We advertised to schools across Merseyside

The University of Liverpool's Victoria Gallery and Museum offers great accessibility and is impressively grand and historic so was perfect for our venue. The Leggate Lecture Theatre, where we held the lecture, definitely has the wow factor and is a great setting for educational events. So with a venue and date of Tuesday 9 December confirmed, we pulled together a team of seven volunteers from across the Institute, including PhD students, researchers and professional services staff interested in developing their public engagement skills, to help deliver the event. Dr Radford also persuaded his colleague Dr Phil Jones to play the part of Santa and PhD student Maria Afonso to play Rudolph our sneezing reindeer! It’s quite a tough task ensuring activities for schools are appropriately educational, engaging and entertaining so a lot of time was spend working on the lecture content and the festive script by the team, and tying it in with the Key Stage 2 Science Curriculum on micro-organisms. At the same time, the presenting team also had to lose any inhibitions and be prepared to have a bit of fun and entertain the audience - a bit different to the normal science day jobs they're used to! 

Making sure that our our programme of outreach events is properly funded is an important part of my job, and I work with scientists to help them secure public engagement grants from various societies and organisations. Even so, a small amount of money usually needs go a long way so you need to be a bit creative with your ideas. In this case we actually managed to borrow a few key items, including a reindeer fancy dress costume and a life-sized anatomical model of a torso! Our target audience for this event was primary school pupils, so I worked with the University’s Educational Opportunities team and MerseySTEM who helped promote the event to local schools. I also contacted local Home Education Groups and schools and teachers who we have previously worked with. The lecture was free for schools and we had a great response and managed to fill up the places quite quickly! 

Messy, fun and extremely interactive!

After a lot of hard work from everyone involved, the event went really well, with highlights including pupils unravelling 40 toilet rolls at once to help them visualise the size of viruses (messy but fun!), a game of antibody ‘tag’ and a special ‘infectious’ version of Jingle Bells performed by our guitar-wielding Santa! We had over 130 pupils, teachers, home-schooled children and their guardians attend the lecture which we were really pleased with. The formal feedback we received has also been really positive and we will use this to evaluate the success of the event and decide how we can make our offer even better for next year.

Top tips for outreach events

  • Be clear on your aims and objectives – what exactly to you want to achieve and why? How will you measure whether you’ve been successful? 
  • Know your audience – be clear who you are aiming your event at and ensure the content is targeted appropriately 
  • Work in partnership – this would have been a lot harder to do without support from the Educational Opportunities team and others 
  • Make your budget work as hard as possible for you – try and borrow items that you are unlikely to use again in the future, and shop around for good deals on consumable items.
Nicola Frost is the Science Communication and Public Engagement Officer for the Institute of Infection and Global Health.
Find out more about the Institute's public engagement programme on our website.

28 Nov 2014

The important legacy of the 'man who couldn't get AIDS'


Ahead of World Aids Day on 1 December we are republishing this great piece written last year by IGH virologist Prof Bill Paxton.

All scientists have that moment when an idea is initiated or when things come together and a project flourishes. One such moment for me came at a Keystone scientific meeting in South Carolina in 1994.
It was here that I first met Gregg Consalves, an AIDS activist with Treatment Action Group (TAG) based in New York. I explained I was setting up a study of individuals who had been heavily exposed to HIV for many years but who hadn’t been infected. Gregg got involved and within a week I had my first recruit: Steve Crohn. Steve became the focal point of our research over the following years.
We found that Steve had CD4 cells that were resistant to HIV infection and he carried a genetic alteration that was responsible. Even though we exposed his blood to 3,000 times the amount of HIV normally needed to infect a cell, he never became infected. It was a revelation – soon we realised what we had found.
CD4 cells are the lymphocytes of the immune system that HIV usually infects and destroys. Steve helped us to identify a key molecule called CCR5 that the virus requires to enter lymphocytes. Sadly Steve passed away in August this year when he committed suicide at the age of 66.
He had described his own exposure to the AIDS epidemic in war terminology. I certainly would not like to conclude that Steve’s death stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder or what’s otherwise known as “survivor’s guilt”, but it certainly shouldn’t be ignored within the HIV/AIDS community. He was always heartened to have contributed to the “fight” against AIDS and in helping provide a pivotal piece of the jigsaw that saw Maraviroc, a CCR5 blocking antiretroviral drug, being brought quickly to the market.

The AIDS fallout

Steve wasn’t the only one for whom the impact of AIDS had unexpectedly taken its toll. One of the prominent activists in the early days in New York was Spencer Cox. He devised the first trial protocols for the testing of protease inhibitors, which proved to be the drugs that changed the face of HIV treatment and the pandemic in general.
For the first time, the people “on the front line” – the subject of a new film, How to Survive a Plague – were at the table influencing the decisions. I was shocked to learn through the New York Times in December 2012 that Spencer himself had died after he stopped taking his life-saving medications and had succumbed to pneumonia brought about by HIV. Why would the person who fought for these drugs cause his own death?
Another reported case has been that of Gabe Torres, the first director of the St Vincent’s Hospital AIDS programme in New York’s West Village, one of the death centres in the city which at the peak of the epidemic was losing a third of its patients each day. After years of fighting, the introduction of HIV drugs meant he had less to fight. In order to (in his own words) “celebrate living”, Gabe turned to recreational drugs, became infected with HIV and lost his license to practice medicine.
Of course, these may be isolated incidents. But what these individuals went through can’t be ignored. And we owe it to them to figure out what the fallout has been from a world where AIDS was a likely death sentence and many lost friends and loved ones. And to keep on with their early fight for treatment and prevention.

HIV still has the power to surprise

Although HIV research and the virus' impact on the immune system has come a long way, not all HIV vaccine trials have been successful. One was prematurely halted because the vaccine was actually associated with a higher risk of infection when compared to the placebo.
The mechanism resulting in higher transmissions is not known, but given that HIV infects immune cells, it’s likely due to the immune activation that the vaccine stimulated. This is exactly what a vaccine is meant to do, but rather than induce a protective response, the activated immune cells were rendered more prone to infection with HIV. Not all HIV vaccines tested to date have demonstrated this enhancing effect but clearly, individuals in such trials need to be carefully monitored.
We recently published a study that suggested that neutralising antibodies against HIV are a magnitude higher in mothers who transmit the virus to their infants while in the womb than those who don’t.
But these are the same antibody responses that we all want to see induced in HIV-1 vaccine recipients. So this might mean that a vaccinated mother is actually at higher risk of transmitting the virus to her unborn child than if she wasn’t vaccinated. Getting this wrong could have immense psychological implications.
Similarly there has been much talk concerning “HIV functional cures” where therapy intensification or early treatment may mean that an individual can come off of their drugs. Here great care has to be taken not to provide false hope for HIV-infected individuals. Eradication is an extremely active and exciting area of HIV research and needs testing.
One recent study suggested that HIV reservoirs, the pool of inactive HIV virus that lay dormant in the body, may be much larger than believed, further highlighting the big challenges ahead.

William A Paxton, University of Liverpool
The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

8 Oct 2014

Researcher mobility...minus the scooter

Being a scientist can open the door to a whole host of amazing travel opportunities. Jo Fothergill fondly reflects on her time working in Canada, and encourages more researchers to do the same!

I’ve always secretly fancied living abroad. In my mind, the scenario goes like this; the sun is beating down on Parisian walkways (cue music). There I am with oversized sunglasses and handbag confidently striding down the street, completely fluent in another language and at ease on the foreign soil. It’s all very glamorous...and clearly all in my head.

Science can give you amazing opportunities to see the world. Ask anyone senior and they will agree that working abroad can also help to give you a competitive edge. Even the British Council states that mobile researchers that work in different labs tend to be more productive. With that in mind, a few years ago I decided to apply for some funding to work in a lab in Quebec, Canada during my post doc at Liverpool. I was successful and after the initial excitement comes the reality that you have agreed to travel, live and work alone in a different country albeit only for a short while. I remember being apprehensive and nervous but, with a new suitcase in tow, I waved goodbye to my boyfriend (now husband) and jetted off. Three flights later, I arrived in Quebec City in the French speaking part of Canada. At the airport, I was met by a senior post doc from the lab and all apprehension began to disappear. I was made to feel so welcome. They settled me in in my studio accommodation and left me to deal with my jet lag

My first experience of maple syrup in Canada. 
They spread it onto snow and then roll it onto a stick.

In the lab the next day, I began work learning a new cloning method in order to knockout genes from notoriously difficult clinical isolates of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteria can cause a wide range of infections including infections in the lungs, burns and wounds, eyes and urinary tract. I was hosted by Professor Roger Levesque at Université Laval Рrenowned for his work on P. aeruginosa, models of infection and sequencing. At first, everything seems different and yet eventually you realise that most labs work in a very similar way. Although I do now know that DNA in French is ADN.
A very cold morning at Université Laval campus

Before going I was warned by some that in North America I would be worked to the bone – long hours and no holidays. However, I found the hours to be roughly the same with the work largely dictating what is needed (unfortunately bacteria don’t always adhere to 9-5 working hours). At weekends, I was taken sight-seeing and invited for meals.  Quebec City is a beautiful city in Eastern Canada. Situated on the Saint Lawrence river, it has a very European feel. I was there in Autumn-Winter so I got to witness the Canadian maples leaves turn red, drop off and freeze in the time I was there. The experience was amazing and really made me think about how I could try to enhance anyone that visits me in the lab in future.

Irena made me feel so welcome on the trip.

In short, I made some friends for life, strengthened collaborations and learnt a new technique. I can’t really deny that there were times when I felt a bit lonely and really wished that my French was better (with the help of Michael Thomas, one day it will be) but I would recommend the experience to anyone. I had a fabulous time and Quebec City will always hold a special place in my heart. I hope to return someday.

My advice to anyone thinking about doing this is to be proactive and give it a go. Here are some funding streams that might help:

Dr Jo Fothergill is a microbiologist and Tenure-Track Fellow at the Institute of Infection and Global Health.
Follow her @JoJofoth

2 Sept 2014

Publish or perish? But always with impact

There's more to judging impact than the size of your impact factor, argues Nicola Beesley.

We’re all told our research must have impact, and as a veterinary researcher early in my career this is something that already plays on my mind. But how is the impact of research measured? Are these measures fair?

When considering academic impact (rather than economic or societal), publications are often used as a measure of success - and the higher the journal’s impact factor the better, right? I for one am not so sure.

Bigger isn’t always better

When choosing where to submit papers for publication, I have found that impact factor plays some part in your decision, but I feel picking a journal where a paper will be read by the appropriate audience is equally as important. For example, most vets in clinical practice tend to read veterinary specific journals, e.g. The Veterinary Record (2012 impact factor 1.803 compared to Nature’s 38.597). Even with the advent of open access journals, from personal experience, these are rarely read in veterinary practice. 

Let’s consider how impact factors are calculated. In any given year, the impact factor of a journal is the average number of citations received per paper published in that journal during the previous two years. So an impact factor of 1 means that on average articles published up to two years ago have been cited once. Or does it?
In 2005 a self-evaluation by Nature [1] discovered that 25% of papers contributed to 89% of its impact factor for 2003. And in 2004 the majority of Nature's papers received fewer than 20 citations. Clearly some papers will be cited numerous times: including publications of genomes, new experimental techniques and software programs. Do these outliers make a difference? Perhaps not, they may just cause a “blip” in the impact factor of a journal for a year or two.  A further evaluation of a sample of 100 journals (including physical, chemical, biological, earth sciences and engineering journals) found an r2 value of 0.94 between impact factor and five-year median (i.e. a measure that is robust to outliers) of citations [2].

It’s worth also remembering, that retracted papers still contribute to impact factors [3]. Indeed, I can see why examples of poor or controversial research might be cited to emphasise the value of one’s own research.  
The 2005 Nature self-evaluation further revealed a difference in citation rates between disciplines with papers relating to cancer and molecular and cell biology cited far more than those relating to physics, for example. This probably extends to sub-disciplines as well. 
Finally, it’s interesting to note that when “independent” parties have tried to replicate impact factors, they have found discrepancies between their values and the published values [4].

Proceed with caution

The European Association of Science Editors released a statement relating to impact factors in 2007 and recommends that they are used:
only – and cautiously – for measuring and comparing the influence of entire journals….not for the assessment of researchers or research programmes' [5]
Eugene Garfield, who first mentioned the idea of an impact factor in 1955, discusses many of the issues I’ve talked about in an article from 2006 [6]. None of his arguments particularly convince me that the positives of impact factors outweigh the negatives (but you may feel differently!) In his conclusion he quotes Hoeffel who states that:
impact factor is not a perfect tool to measure the quality of articles, but there is nothing better, and it has the advantage of already being in existence and is therefore a good technique for scientific evaluation [7].
This statement doesn’t really fit with the philosophy I have as a scientist – surely we should be striving towards alternatives. Alternative citation measures which can be used to rank scientists against each other include h-index, m-index, and the g-index. Indeed these are just a few examples, but as a report by the Joint Committee on Quantitative Assessment of Research discusses these too are by no means perfect [8].

Wider impact

There are, of course, other impacts research can have apart from publication. The University of Liverpool is one of only a handful of veterinary schools in the UK and the majority of teaching is given by staff involved in cutting edge research. This means that new graduates (105 this summer) go out into practice armed with up-to-date knowledge. There is a steep learning curve for new graduates, but many “older” vets appreciate them as a source of new knowledge.
Vet students also carry out research with us, or work in the various diagnostic laboratories and animal hospitals during their extramural studies (EMS). Veterinary surgeons in practice come back to the University for CPD and postgraduate qualifications. We also actively engage with the public to talk about our research, such as as food safety outreach events and art exhibitions.

Indeed, the new(ish) concept of “Altmetrics” uses other measures, not just citation counts, to measure impact. These include number of views and downloads of articles, discussion in the news or on social media, and recommendations of the articles to others [9]. Perhaps these, or a variation of these, will be a better way of measuring all the different ways research can have impact.
This is by no means an exhaustive review of the papers and opinions that exist on impact. However, in true scientific spirit, I am optimistic that my research will be judged not only on the impact factor of the journal it is (hopefully!) published in, but also the alternative means I have at my disposable to generate IMPACT.
Nicola Beesley graduated from the University of Liverpool with a degree in Veterinary Science and a Masters in Veterinary Parasitology. After a couple of years working as a veterinary surgeon in small animal practice, the lure of research got the better of her, and she returned to Liverpool where she is now studying for a PhD. Her research concentrates on the population genetics of liver fluke (www.liv.ac.uk/liver-fluke), a parasite that is increasingly causing disease of welfare and economic important in sheep and cattle in the UK.
[1] Editorial (2005) Not-so-deep impact. Nature 435, 1003 – 1004
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