15 Dec 2015

The Naked Scientist

Riccardo Ressa from St. Mary’s College recently attended the Sutcliffe Kerr lecture by Cambridge University's Dr Chris Smith, who presents BBC radio's '5 live Science' programme and hosts the Naked Scientists Podcast. Here he reports on his experience.

Science can be very confusing. With its long words and complicated theories, at first glance it seems that it is not for everyone. That is where Dr Chris Smith comes into play - you may know him as the presenter of the weekly podcast ‘The Naked Scientists’. He excels in making science appeal to the masses through some experiments wacky enough to make anyone pay attention, yet some so simple they can be replicated with ease at home. Thanks to an event supported by the Walton Centre, as well as the University of Liverpool Institute of Infection and Global Health, Dr Smith was able to share some of his wonderfully wacky investigates.  

For example, if you tied two pieces of string to an oven shelf, wrapped the strings around your fingers, put your fingers in your ear and got someone to strike the oven shelf, the ringing noise would be much deeper than it would have been by just striking the shelf. With this simple experiment that can be done by anyone, Dr Smith was able to demonstrate that sound waves travel differently through air than through a solid.

Another simple demonstration that can be done without too much hassle at home is to create a microscope powerful enough to see the outline of tiny creatures in water. This doesn’t require expensive lab equipment or an expansive setup; all that is needed is a laser pointer (the red one on the back of those pointer pens works pretty well), and a drop of water from your nearest pond or even pot-hole in the road. By suspending a drop of water from a syringe or even a piece of string, and shining the laser through it onto a white background will reveal little shadows that zip around on their own accord.

However, not all of the experiments can be replicated at home. The ability to launch your self into the air from just a fart is something children have been discussing and laughing about for years, admittedly the thought of that also had a room full of teachers and sixth formers in stitches for minutes! This question was not just plucked out of thin air, it was a genuine question that someone wrote to The Naked Scientists show, and the researchers duly oblige; after all, there’s no such thing as a bad question. After extensive research, which included how much a fart actually weighed, it turns out that you would need to fart at 17,000 km/s in order to gain lift-off. Unfortunately, the amount of beans needed to achieve this was not calculated!

One experiment that could be replicated at home, but would require a lot of effort and a serious sweet tooth is to make your own chocolate teapot. Now, despite the saying ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’, it turns out that if you make the teapot thick enough, (around 2cm or thicker), it will withstand the heat for one pot of tea!

Not all of the Naked Scientists experiments are serious, in-fact most have a comedic aspect to them, yet all of them leave you wanting to know more, as well as inspiring you to ask more questions.

Riccardo Ressa

Year 12 Student

St. Mary’s College


9 Dec 2015

Update: Ebola convalescent plasma study in Sierra Leone

Dr Calum Semple is a Senior Lecturer & Consultant Respiratory Paediatrician at the Institute of Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool, and is a member of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections.

Around the country Ebola Medals are being received by British Volunteers, Armed Services staff and Research Teams who contributed to the Ebola Response in West Africa. Ebola is no longer in the daily news. But Ebola has not left West Africa. There is a cluster of at least three cases in Liberia, which was previously declared free of Ebola transmission on 3 September 2015. In Liberia in October a sixteen year old girl presented to health services after being unwell for several days in the Bombali district of Sierra Leone. She deteriorated rapidly and died overnight. This in an area that had been free of Ebola for 160 days. Guinea had continued to have cases at least through to 18th November.

Plasma donor

There have been only a few trials of therapeutic interventions for Ebola Virus Disease. The challenges of conducting trials in this context meant some research groups chose designs that relied upon historic controls, were not blinded or used a predefined outcome.  These decisions have been criticised in various editorials but I doubt these critics could do better.  I observed the best and worst of behaviour by researchers. There were a few good examples of co-operation between research groups, sharing protocols, outcome measures and even data. Yet the presence of one particular drug study in Sierra Leone caused a inexplicable perturbation in the usual pathway of admissions of ebola patients away from their closest Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) to the ETU running that drug study, starving two other trails of patients. Some research teams worked on a basis of training and mentoring local investigators and left a legacy of improved capacity and facilities. Others just collect data, samples and left without a care.

I am optimistic that the Ebola crisis is nearly over. The studies of Convalescent Plasma that I am involved in (Ebola_Tx in Guinea and Ebola_CP in Sierra Leone) are winding up. Our study in Guinea is closed and we hope the first results will be published soon. For that study we have been careful to disclose the result to the local authorities and policy makers in advance of publication to avoid any surprises and manage expectations. In Sierra Leone we remain open to recruit in the event of resurgence and have capacity to mobilise the plasma under trial conditions to any willing ETU. Our trial team including transfusion technicians took part in a dry run of the Rapid Deployment Isolation Facility in partnership with the UK MoD. We brought frozen saline up from Freetown to Benguela Hastings in cold chain and mocked up the administration of plasma.

In Guinea and Liberia, convalescent plasma was produced using a specially converted bus that contained the aphoresis machines and a small laboratory. In Sierra Leone we chose instead to refurbish the existing blood bank at the Connaught Hospital Freetown, install apheresis and UV transillumination and provide a plasma freezer. All this equipment was required anyway. It made no sense to bring this kit in for the study and not install it for ongoing use. The refurbishment of the blood bank was extensive. Wooden bench tops with cracked formica tops were torn out and replaced with stainless steel. Air conditioning with redundancy to allow for breakdown and serving was installed. The steps leading up the blood bank were retiled with non-slip surfaces, and a lick of paint was added. Finally we rewired the building and installed a massive lead acid battery uninterrupted power supply. 

The investment at the blood bank has already proved worthwhile. Freetown suffered a devastating flash flood in September. 1,000 houses were damaged, 3,000 people were displaced and unofficial reports claim about 40 bodies were recovered from the water. The Connaught Hospital was caught directly hit by the torrent. The operating theatres were flooded and mains and generator power was lost. The Blood Bank fridges and freezers remained under power preserving the precious blood, frozen plasma and our research samples.

We don’t expect the trial in Sierra Leone to recruit to power, but we will complete the characterisation of the donors and continue to support the Safe Blood Service Sierra Leone.

I’d like to express my gratitude to the Clinical Team at The 34th Regiment Military Hospital Freetown, The Transfusion team at the Blood Bank Freetown, the Project Managers Gerry McCann and Lewis Matthews, and Clinical Leads Dr Christine Cole and Dr Janet Scott (IGH).

Dr Calum Semple

24 Nov 2015

65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Conference

IGH researcher Jo Fothergill tells us about her experience spending time with 65 Nobel Laureates.

Lecture given by Nobel Laureate Hamilton O Smith
Lecture given by Nobel Laureate Hamilton O Smith

I never considered that I would ever be in a room with one Nobel Laureate. Yet in a small Bavarian town, I found myself in a room with 65 of them. This was an unusual conference. Not like one I’ve ever been to before. The meeting speakers were comprised of Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics and Physiology/Medicine. The delegates were 650 young scientists from around the globe.

Earlier on this year, I was lucky enough to be nominated by the Institute of Infection and Global Health and then the University to attend this meeting. I was then selected by the Royal Society and supported by the Vallee Foundation to attend the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Conference. The selection process was a long one but worth it.

There was a lot of advice for young researchers in my position. A key theme from many of the Nobel laureates was to identify your goal and focus on this throughout your scientific career. A healthy disregard for accepted wisdom, a little faith and an enjoyment of gambling was advice given by J Michael Bishop. The career path (or lack thereof) facing young scientists is clearly an issue worldwide. It was heartening to hear that many of the Nobel Laureates were sympathetic to this issue whilst recognising that academia has a birth control issue, producing many scientists that cannot all be supported within academia. As a scientist there is pressure to produce publications in high impact factor journals however it was pointed out that the impact factor was designed as a tool for librarians to determine how to spend their limited budget and not to measure academic contribution.

Throughout the week there were many lectures that grabbed and inspired me – too many to list them all but I would like to highlight a few. I particularly enjoyed the Antimicrobials Masterclass that I attended. The quality of the talks by young scientists was incredibly high and the discussions around these were both stimulating and informative. For me, one of the talks in particular was of direct relevance to my work. I learnt a lot from the short talk given on AhR and I hope to incorporate this thinking into some of my future research.

Harald zur Hausen gave a really interesting lecture on associations between milk and meat consumption and certain cancers. During the lecture he discussed cancers as zoonoses and potential infectious agents. As a microbiologist, this was particularly relevant to me. The idea that infection could occur early in life either leading to latent infection or potentially changes that over time lead to the development of some cancers is an idea that is well established within virology but really in its infancy in bacteriology.

Richard Roberts gave a rousing lecture on “A crime against humanity” focused on genetically modified organisms and their potential impact in developing countries. His impassioned speech was convincing and the discussions around this area (from both sides) were informative. His argument that there is nothing inherently dangerous about the GMO method is one that is hard to rebuke.

From my own background in molecular microbiology I really enjoyed the lecture by Hamilton O Smith on reducing genetic functions of a bacterial cell down to the lowest number of genes possible. This led to his team generating an artificial chromosome of approximately 450 genes. This is very different to the bacteria I work on which harbours 5-6000 genes.

Robin Warren described his journey changing the world view of Helicobacter and on disbelieving reviewers he stated “If you’ve got something really new, there are no peers to review it”. The story of Helicobacter is one that I have been very familiar with and have worked on as an undergraduate. It was fascinating to see this through his eyes and the belief that he had in the face of the disbelief of others.

Ada Yonath was a real inspiration, both as a character and a scientist. She is a strong female role model and yet appears to have maintained humility, enthusiasm and a family life. Her work, based around the ribosome but now moving into using this knowledge to inform antibiotic drug design was stimulating. This is such an important area of research and it was great to see that the Nobel Laureates continue to tackle the big questions in science.

Although many of the lectures I have described have some relevance to my specific area of research, I believe a real strength of this conference is its interdisciplinarity. I have never attended a physics conference before and yet, through the gifted communication skills of some of the Laureates, feel I understand more about these areas than ever before. The lectures allowed me to view the more unfamiliar fields of physics and chemistry through the eyes of the Nobel Laureates rather than my own uninformed eyes. However, it was not only the Nobel Laureates who inspired me during the week. I got to meet so many young scientists from around the world in a variety of different fields. Before the conference, I was not even aware of such fields as theoretical chemistry. Hearing young scientist succinctly describe their work so far and hopes/plans for the future helped me to clarify my own goals and aims too.

Luckily, there was a bit of time to relax and a few of us were taken out for a sailing trip by some locals on the lake. Everyone was so friendly and clearly enjoyed the return of the conference each year. I am so grateful for this opportunity and for the support I was given. I would encourage everyone to apply to attend this conference and given the opportunity again, would jump at the chance. If I’m honest as to the overall highlight of the week, I would have to say that it was the personal touch of having lunch (organised by the Vallee Foundation) with esteemed Nobel Laureates – getting to discuss on a one-on-one basis with them my work and being inspired by their energy.

You can find out more about Jo Fothergill and her research here.

27 Aug 2015

Summer School at IGH

In July we hosted our very first Science Summer School for a group of seven local pupils aged 16-19. This was a pilot project supported by the Wellcome Trust's Institutional Strategic Support Fund. Our aim was to provide a structured week-long work experience programme for STEM students through a mix of meetings, talks and practical experiences across all three of our Institute locations. Matthew Davies from St Edward's College took part and here he tells us about his week.

IGH Science Summer School - class of 2015!
This summer I took part in the Institute of Infection and Global Health's Summer Science School with several other students interested in biology and chemistry. It took place from Monday to Friday and included a variety of activities every day. After introducing ourselves and getting to know each other on the Monday, the activities started on the Tuesday.We were split up into groups and in the morning, we started with Western blotting and in the afternoon, cell counting. The majority of the week was spent in the institute's Ronald Ross building but on Wednesday, some of us went to the IC2 building and some went to the Leahurst campus. I went to the IC2 and what a fun, jam-packed day this was! While we were there, we learned about why there was a snail culture room, looked at some rhino worms under a microscope and watched a diagnostic test for worms in rabbits! On Thursday, we returned to the Ronald Ross building. After a demonstration of the ELISA test in the morning, we extracted DNA from Pseudomonas bacteria in the afternoon. This was the most exciting and interesting part of the week! Finally, on Friday, in our groups we gave presentations on what each of us did during the week. Overall, I thought the week was extremely fun and gave me a valuable insight into some of the techniques regularly used in laboratories. Also, I found the regular meetings with PhD students very helpful too. Thank you to everyone involved for such a great week!

Matthew Davies 

12 Aug 2015

How to get the most out of veterinary work experience

A-level student Miles Huglin tells us about his week of veterinary work experience here with us at the University of Liverpool.

Anyone hoping to get anywhere in the veterinary world needs work placements. Sites for animal care vary massively, from vet practices to slaughter houses, and to ensure you’re up for the job, it’s necessary to visit as many of these as possible.  That’s why teachers, parents and lecturers stress the importance of work experience so much to students from such a young age – the sooner you start, the better it looks on your CV. But what does that mean?

No matter how impressive it might be on paper, absent-mindedly staring in the direction of a bunch of adults doing their jobs isn’t gaining experience; it’s wasting it. And as an A level student myself, I know many of us are guilty of this. A week at University of Liverpool's School of Veterinary Science and Institute of Infection and Global Health, however, has taught me how much more valuable these opportunities can be, and how to make the most of every second you get; it’s not only about building your CV, it’s about learning how the network behind veterinary medicine works, and how you can be a part of it.

A dog being assessed at the small animal teaching hospital

Taking your pet to the vet, you meet a receptionist and a practitioner. Volunteering there, you meet the nurses and students, clean out the cages and think you’ve seen it all. But where do those blood samples go? Where do the results come from? How have the surgical and medical procedures you watch been developed? These are easy questions to overlook while making tea and glancing at the clock every minute until lunch, but why not ask?

While working at my local vet in Hatfield, I saw animal samples being taken sent off and witnessed decisions being made based on the test results that came back. It never once occurred to me that somewhere in the country it was someone’s job to sift through the skin tags, blood and faeces to obtain these vital data;  Paul Gilmore, of Test-a-Pet diagnostics, talked me through how the company analyses samples, ranging from tortoise toes from Birmingham to rabbit droppings from London. While I was with him, a dog’s blood was being tested for Lyme disease, with the owner of this animal somewhere else in the country having no idea where this small sample of their beloved pet was; this simple fact was what made me realise just how much of this medical process goes on in the background.

Lyme disease, as I discovered, is caused by a type of bacteria of the ‘borelia’ genus, closely related to the species which was being studied by my next lecturer at Liverpool, Dr Nick Evans (one of the single most enthusiastic scientists I have ever met). This researcher was investigating Bovine Digital Dermatitis – a problem affecting the back legs of cows and sheep which lowers their milk yields and fertility. Having identified the bacterium he believed to be the cause, Nick was looking into how the disease is spread (from calf hoof to calf hoof), and effective solutions: medications and drugs are all potentially viable, but simply raising awareness seemed to him the most important factor. He told me that many farmers clip their cows’ hooves to prevent the spread without even disinfecting their clippers between cattle, and 90% of these tools were found to be contaminated with the treponema which causes the disease! As with any disease investigation, however, a major hurdle in this research was posed by the fundamental basis of proving that the bacterium in question caused the disease, so that farmers would listen. It’s fascinating to think that your pet’s infection was once a non-diagnosable enigma with no known cause, until someone like Nick did something about it.

Dr Nick Evans
Dr Nick Evans
With this thought I was brought to technicians Catherine Hartley and Jenna Dawson, who were growing cow hoof tissue in culture and planning on introducing Nick’s treponemal bacteria to analyse the results. To prove his hypothesis, they hoped to observe a pathogenic response from the bacteria, and if this occurred then the testing could be progressed to cows themselves; the closer to the animals you do your research, the more conclusive the results tend to be, but the team wanted an indication of the likelihood of positive results before they moved to live cattle trials.

Staff working in a laboratory
In the lab
I was astounded. All this work was to make a tiny bit of progress in the understanding of one disease, but with scientists around the country investigating and developing cures for so many others we are gaining a better understanding of a huge number of the diseases affecting our animals every year; I was only catching a tiny glimpse of this in the hours I spent learning about this one cattle disease.

Much of this might be difficult to relate to, but what stands out is clear: opportunities in the veterinary world are endless. With a rapidly growing human population to feed and so many diseases like Ebola and Avian Flu being identified as zoonotic (spreading from animals to humans), research into our animals’ diseases is more important than ever. And why stop there? A degree in veterinary medicine not only lends itself to a practical career, but also to one in scientific research and experimentation. At a university like Liverpool, the diseases facing us today are being fought by scientists, doctors and vets working hand in hand.

I went to Liverpool hoping to see veterinary students at work, and left with my eyes opened to all the possibilities that follow; sitting back, watching surgeries and keeping questions to myself simply wasn’t an option, and I can’t keep the experience to myself. The network of scientific minds behind every prescription, every operation and every routine practised by vets around the country is much more extensive than we can ever comprehend.

So, given the opportunity to scratch the surface of such a limitlessly fascinating scientific world, why bother doing veterinary work experience if all you’re learning to do is make the perfect cup of tea?

Miles HuglinMiles Huglin is an A-level student from Hertfordshire who spent a week at the University of Liverpool on a work experience placement earlier this year. For more information about work experience opportunities at the University please visit www.liv.ac.uk/working/jobvacancies/workexperience

10 Aug 2015

When we understand how HIV replicates despite drug therapy, then we can stop it

Anna Maria Geretti, University of Liverpool
The last two decades has seen great advances in the treatment of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Therapy can now be tailored to the patient, ensuring patients’ bodies can tolerate it and making the drugs extremely effective.

Those diagnosed with HIV before the virus has caused significant damage to their immune system can now expect to live long and healthy lives, similar even to those of people without the infection. This is simply an amazing success story for modern medicine. So what’s stopping us from eradicating the virus altogether?

HIV infects white blood cells called CD4 T-lymphocytes, important immune cells that protect the body against infections and cancers. Without treatment, HIV makes new copies of itself within each infected cell – new viruses that then leave the CD4 cells and infect new cells, starting the process over again. Eventually the loss of CD4 cells and damage to the immune defences are so severe that disease develops.

Treatment stops HIV production within the CD4 cells, preventing damage to the immune system and further progression of the disease. This works very well – provided the anti-HIV drugs are continuously present in the body. This means medication must be taken regularly and without missing doses for therapy to remain successful.

From left to right: a red blood cell, a platelet and a T-lymphocyte, pictured using a scanning electron micrograph. NCI-Frederick

HIV is a stealthy opponent

A preferable solution would be to eradicate HIV and cure the infection once and for all. However current HIV therapy, while remarkably successful in stopping virus production, cannot cure the infection and must therefore be carried out throughout a patient’s life. For those who are diagnosed with HIV in their thirties, this currently means around 40 years of uninterrupted daily therapy.
We have long understood that during treatment the HIV virus hides inside the CD4 T-lymphocytes, by inserting, or “integrating”, its own genetic information into the DNA of the CD4 cells. The integrated virus is invisible to both drugs and immune defences, and as soon as therapy is interrupted it fuels new virus production.

Research, such as my recent study, shows that the integrated HIV “reservoir” in the CD4 cells doesn’t diminish during treatment – even over a period of 14 years.

Why is the HIV reservoir so stable, even when the virus isn’t replicating itself during therapy and any integrated virus is expected to die with the host CD4 cell when it dies naturally? Understanding this is key to finding a cure for HIV.

How does HIV survive therapy?

We are making progress. The mechanism is relatively simple: whenever something stimulates the CD4 cells to multiply, any integrated HIV will also be split across the new cells with the rest of the cell DNA, a sort of silent HIV growth that does not require the cells to actually produce and release new viruses. So whenever a CD4 cell multiplies to produce more cells, it copies itself and the HIV at the same time, automatically incorporating the HIV at the birth of the new cell.

My research provides more evidence for this view, by showing that the amount of integrated HIV in CD4 cells is not a product of active virus replication. Instead, it’s associated with the body’s natural immune response, which stimulates CD4 T-lymphocytes to multiply – carrying the virus with them.

Finding a cure

In recent years there have been serious efforts from academia and pharmaceutical companies to find a way to eradicate HIV infection. One strategy is to stimulate immune cells in such a way that they are better able to fight the virus. However this study’s findings cast doubts on this strategy: stimulating the immune system may simply cause CD4 T-lymphocytes to multiply, expanding the virus reservoir as they do so.

Other strategies appear more promising: they aim to gently stimulate CD4 cells in such a way that active HIV production is started, so that the virus is recognised by both the drugs and the body’s natural immune responses, or perhaps by infusion of antibodies, and is killed off. This “kick and kill” strategy is currently being tested both in the laboratory and in clinical trials, and initial results are encouraging.

HIV is a clever virus, and clever strategies will be required to eradicate it – but recent research findings offer hope that a HIV cure may one day be possible.

The Conversation
Anna Maria Geretti is Professor of Virology & Infectious Diseases at University of Liverpool.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

24 Jul 2015

The battle against viral hepatitis

It's World Hepatitis Day on 28 July and IGH's Professor Anna Maria Geretti has written a blog about the battle against viral hepatitis in sub-Saharan Africa for the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

World Hepatitis Day is both a chance to celebrate the progress made in sub-Saharan Africa and an opportunity to focus on the action now needed to reverse the increasing tide of disease.
Read the full blog here.

30 Jun 2015

Supporting the Ebola crisis in Sierre Leone was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life

PhD student Raquel Medialdea Carrera has just returned from Makeni, Sierre Leone where she spent five weeks volunteering at a Public Health England Ebola Treatment Centre. Here she tells us all about her experience.

Almost a year and a half since the first case of Ebola in West Africa and this lethal virus has taken the lives of more than 11,000 people and infected almost 27,500. However, over the last few months the number of Ebola deaths has been decreasing. May 2015 saw the lowest number of new cases since the beginning of the outbreak with less than 100 new cases in Guinea and Sierra Leone reported. Local efforts, together with an extensive international collaboration, have managed to bring the spread of Ebola under control.

For five weeks during April and May this year, I volunteered to work in a diagnostic unit at an Ebola Treatment Centre in one of the most affected areas of Sierra Leone. Being able to help during the worst Ebola outbreak in history has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences I have ever had.

One of my colleagues wearing the full personal protective equipment in the Red Zone of the Ebola Treatment Centre.
Working in the centre represented an intense and challenging task. We had to deal with oppressive heat (sometimes the temperature in the laboratory was over 37ÂșC!), stressful high containment work, strict protocols, the continuous use of irritant disinfectants that impregnated every inch of our skin and wearing special personal protective equipment (PPE). Working in the diagnostic unit was an enormous pressure as we knew that every single blood tube or swab sample we were cautiously handling could contain thousands of Ebola viruses that could potentially infect any of us if a problem with our PPE or the protocol occurred. However, our pre-deployment training by Public Health England was excellent, the facilities were surprisingly well-equipped and my colleagues were splendid professionals; all of which made the extensive working hours feel enjoyable and rewarding. In addition, the local and international workers who helped run the centre did an incredible job and made it a privilege to be part of such a good team.

Working in the isolator inactivating Ebola virus in the Public Health England Laboratory in the Ebola Treatment Centre of Makeni (Sierra Leone)
A key moment during my time at the centre was witnessing the number of new Ebola cases reduce to zero in our district. I was also there when last Ebola survivors from our centre were released. After that, the workload was still immense as new suspected patients continued to arrive every day. Moreover, we were analysing between 20 and 80 samples daily from individuals who had died in the community in order to confirm that the cause of death was not Ebola. The diagnosis of Ebola is based on a “simple” qPCR test - What might seem like a straightforward procedure in our laboratories here in Liverpool was a complex task with added dimensions in a high containment laboratory in Sierra Leone.

During my deployment I had the chance to witness a wide range of unique experiences. For example, every time an Ebola patient was recovered in our treatment centre, an enormous joyful celebration took place. All the workers would join together dancing and singing with the survivor who was then considered a hero. Survivors also left a brightly coloured hand print on a wall at the centre as part of the celebrations.

Joyful celebrations for a recovered patient
Survivor hand prints
Survivors are considered heroes
On some of my days off, I helped the Centre's group of psychologists (the psychosocial team). This team were in charge of the psychological support given to the Ebola patients, as well as to their families. Every survivor that leaves the hospital receives a diploma certifying that they are free of Ebola together with new clothes and hygiene products. This is because most of their clothes and belongings would have been burnt to avoid the spread of Ebola. The psychosocial team was also in charge of the wellbeing of the survivors and assisting them in cases of family rejection or post-infection sequelae. Many survivors have had psychological conditions and stress, and additional physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, vision impairment and joint pain.

Visiting the SOS orphanage in Makeni was another incredible experience. Children have been among the most vulnerable population group during the outbreak. Orphans and child survivors had faced abandonment and stigmatisation in their communities. In this orphanage they embraced child Ebola survivors who had lost all their family. They gave them the opportunity to grow up as part of a family in a joyful, loving environment. I also visited some schools but was very disappointed to discover that a teacher in Sierra Leone only earns around £35 per month and has 60 to 120 pupils per class. For more than 8 months schools were closed as a measure to control the spread of Ebola. UNICEF estimates that this has affected more than 5 million children in West Africa and that many have not been able to return due to lack of resources in their families.

Some of the children in the SOS Orphanage in Makeni

One of the most shocking experiences was visiting the cemetery for Ebola victims in my town, Makeni. I could only describe it as an immense disheartening field crammed with graves. There were no gravestones, only some succinct insignias saying the name and age of the deceased.

The Ebola cemetery in Makeni
During my period volunteering in Sierra Leone I had thousands of really good experiences. However, some other were not that pleasant. For example, six days after my arrival I started developing fever (more than 39°C), headache, joint pain, fatigue… all the symptoms of many common infections in West Africa - including Ebola! The doctors decided to isolate me in a room and I was in strict quarantine as a precaution to avoid putting anyone else at risk. Even the doctors would not enter my room and would leave the medicines by my door. Luckily, the first symptoms appeared after only a few days in West Africa and the chances of my illness of being Ebola were very low (as the incubation period is on average 8 days). Finally, on the fourth day, the fever dropped down and I recovered very quickly.

It is very hard to summarise so many experiences in just a few paragraphs, but if you are considering helping in a health humanitarian crisis, I would strongly encourage you. It gave me an amazing opportunity to learn and embrace an incredible culture. Sierra Leone is a beautiful country and the locals were all respectful, brilliant and cheerful people. Indeed, even though my mission there was to help the local efforts, I feel they have thanked me much more with their gratitude, hospitality, hope and positivity.

Hopefully, this incredible local and international collaborative effort will put an end to the worst humanitarian health crisis in recent history. The reduction in the number of new Ebola cases is very encouraging, however, we cannot stop being vigilant until we reach zero. Undoubtedly, we need to keep doing research, keep supporting the survivors, keep following all the contacts of every new Ebola case and help rebuild a society that has been impoverished and decimated. We need to keep fighting against Ebola until every country in West Africa has been declared Ebola Free.

Sign in the streets of Makeni 

Raquel Medialdea Carrera is an MRes-PhD Student in the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the Institute of Infection and Global Health.

2 Jun 2015

Mastering my research destiny

After her undergraduate degree Jessica Irving wasn't sure what step to take next. She chose to join our Clinical Sciences Master of Research (MRes) programme and hasn't looked back since!

When deciding what route to take following my undergraduate degree, and with no PhD studentship secured, I was torn between the reliability of a taught Masters (MSc) course or the relatively unknown Masters by Research (MRes). After weighing up the two options I decided an MRes was a great opportunity for me to develop my skills and gain valuable research experience before diving head-on into the three years of a PhD.

Research laboratory at the Institute of Infection and Global Health [Photo by Joel Redman]
I decided to choose the Clinical Sciences MRes course at the University of Liverpool as it offered the chance to complete three research projects throughout the year – more than enough time for me to decide where my key interests and future lay. My course is made up of a mix of intercalating clinicians, scientists and vets which has brought a varied perspective to our group. I have found everyone is driven to learn and keen to get involved in university life - you would be surprised by how many cheese and wine events the course organisers arrange!

The opportunity to work within three professional and successful research groups throughout the year has given me a plethora of research skills, knowledge and lab techniques that I would have been unable to develop during a taught MSc. I have worked with next generation sequencing, phylogenetics, PCR, proteomics, tissue culture and assay development and ELISAs. I was also lucky enough to be able to take part in some work at the University of Cardiff designing an in-house ELISA with a professor specialising in monoclonal antibodies.

 I chose to work at three different sites over the year, which provided experience of how different labs work and allowed me to meet a variety of supervisors, however it did mean moving every three months! In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it any differently. I have been fortunate enough that all the supervisors I have worked under have been incredibly patient, supportive, and committed to ensuring I develop a wide range of technical skills.

The MRes course has been rewarding but, as with most experiences, you get out what you put in. I based my three project choices on my interests and the lab skills I wanted to develop. If you are reading this as a future student, don’t be afraid to ask around if there isn’t a project outlined that you want, or there is a particular supervisor you would like to work with. I actually managed to organise my second project after I made enquiries about an area I was interested in and got put in touch with relevant academics.

In order to benefit the most from the course, my advice would be to make sure you plan and organise your time well, as the workload is high at some points. In addition, make sure you network, attend seminars and conferences, and get involved in some of the outreach activities the institutes have to offer! I have been lucky to meet a huge range of academic staff, postgraduate researchers and PhD students who have all helped and advised me throughout the last year. I have made useful contacts which would not have been possible without a course like this, where you are interacting on a day-to-day basis with key members of the university institutes. My experience on the course has helped me determine what I want to do with my future, and I am currently applying for PhD studentships.

Jessica Irving is a postgraduate student on the Clinical Sciences MRes course which is led by the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease and the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool.

14 May 2015

Marie blogs for Meningitis Now

Dr Marie Yang is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health and is working on developing an improved vaccine for pneumococcal meningitis as part of a project funded by the charity Meningitis Now.

Marie was recently invited to write a series of short blogs for the charity in which she describes why she wanted to get involved in academic research, how she started in meningitis research, what her research entails and why it is important.

The links to her four blog posts are below and are well worth checking out!

Meet the researcher

My road to the pneumococcus and meningitis 

Laboratory life dull? Not a bit of it

Why is our research important?

Marie is part of the Bacterial Pathogenicity and Host Pathogen Interactions Research Group, led by Professor Aras Kadioglu, at the University of Liverpool. Visit the group's website to find out more about their work.

1 May 2015

Media training? Don't feel chicken about it!

Working with the media can be a fast and effective way for researchers to share their work with large audiences. Judy Bettridge reports on how she honed her skills and gained confidence at a recent media training workshop.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I started my working life as a vet in a small animal clinic. I was used to the fact that people constantly wanted things to happen, well... immediately. My entire working day could be rearranged at a moment’s notice. Planning anything beyond the next hour or so was often pointless, as new things were constantly added to the day’s to-do list. The variety made it interesting, and the fast-paced nature of the work meant you couldn’t spend very long on any one problem.  Making the transition to research meant getting used to very different timescales. I’ve now spent more than four years on the same problem – thinking about chickens, sampling chickens, writing about chickens and talking to people about chickens. Part of the reason it took so long is that there are actually far more complexities surrounding chickens and their diseases than I ever imagined, and so it took time to collect all the information and build the models that get the story right. As a scientist, I want to make sure I have thoroughly tested all my assumptions and have confidence in the data before throwing our darling project into the lion’s den of peer-review. (Also, I had to write a thesis, so no wonder it’s taken a while!) Anyway, the point I’m making is that, apart from the four-year submission deadline, the chickens and I have been left to work at pretty much our own pace. We have a complex story that nicely fills a few hundred pages of thesis, and will hopefully form the basis of a few more good publications.

But what happens when my slow-moving world of chicken research meets the fast-paced world of journalism? I went on one of BBSRC’s Media Training Workshops to find out...

The one-day course was organised by BBSRC’s press officers, with tutoring provided by experienced journalists through a mixture of talks and practical sessions. Held in London, it was attended by 12 researchers from as far afield as Aberdeen and Norfolk. Attendees were from a range of fields and everything from PhD students to senior lecturers, but all of us were pretty well complete novices when it came to having had any dealings with the media. The day started with an introduction into how journalists operate – what their priorities are, how to get them interested in your work and how to make it accessible to them. We then got to have a go at writing our own press releases, putting some of their tips into practice. Feedback was given on these later in the day, with journalists explaining how they would write the first line of these articles to draw readers in, and highlighting some of the science jargon that might not be understandable to readers.

Jargon-busting was also a feature of the next practical – preparing for interviews. Working in small groups, we then had to face mock radio interviews with local and national radio journalists (on the condition that you weren’t allowed to start any of your sentences with “So...” and you weren’t allowed to comment that you hated the sound of your own voice!)  Interviews were played back and we were given feedback and allowed to comment on each others’ performance. A second interview, after lunch, gave us the chance to work on any issues that had come up in the course of the morning and try out any new techniques that we wanted to have a go at. Both the journalists that we worked with were incredibly friendly and not at all aggressive in their questioning style (unless, of course, you wanted them to be!) They also gave us tips on how to deal with questions that might be controversial, or leading away from the main message you want to deliver.

Surveying chickens in Ethiopia

For me personally, the biggest challenge was how to condense the complexities surrounding the chicken disease story into neat little soundbites. When I know how much uncertainty and contingencies are contained within my results, and how far away this is from translating into practical outcomes, it was surprisingly difficult to come across as positive and confident when I could only give a tiny part of the story. Also, having worked in a multidisciplinary project, it was very easy to stray into discussing areas outside my speciality, where again it was very difficult to appear confident, not knowing all the detail. However, having the chance to do a second interview was great, and I came out of the second one feeling much more in control of the discussion and felt I gave a better “performance” second time around. Also, getting the human and personal sides of the work across was much easier with a bit of practice, and went down really well with the journalists.

Discussing our research with local farmers
So, in deference to what I learned, what are the three key messages I want to get across here?
1)    Preparation is everything. Know the key messages you want to get out there and think about the audience you are trying to reach – how will they understand your research?
2)    Think of novel places you could put your research. One of my interviewers remarked that she could see the chickens going down well on Radio 4’s “Women’s Hour”!
3)    Use the resources available. Both the University and BBSRC have dedicated media teams to help you identify opportunities and reach new audiences. If your work becomes topical, that’s the time to get it out there, not just when you get a new paper or a grant.

So... would I be prepared to engage with the media after attending this course? With my positive and confident performer’s hat on, then I have to say yes, I would! Perhaps journalists have more immediate deadlines, but from the more laid-back perspective of a chicken researcher, why not have something prepared well in advance and look for the opportunities to tell people about it?

Dr Judy Bettridge is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health currently working on the Chickens Health for Development (CH4D) research project.
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