Category: Guest posts

COVID-19 vaccine diaries: part two, safety first

Justine is a participant in Imperial’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial – here she discusses how the trial is progressing. 


“Am I immune?” “Could I be immune?”

These are questions that have been unavoidably circling in my head ever since I received an experimental coronavirus vaccine as part of a clinical trial led by Imperial College London. 

Every time I exercise, take public transport, do my weekly food shop, socialise with those close to me, I’ve been trying to quash this invisible shield that part of my brain believes might be there, shrugging off any potential encounters with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

I didn’t enter this trial so that I’d get a free pass to behave irresponsibly in the midst of a pandemic, which is frighteningly rearing its ugly head again in my home country. I always knew that immunity was never a certainty, having never been tested in human beings before. I was more confident that it wasn’t a dangerous thing for me to do, and certain that it was a good thing to do. 

And by participating, I have certainly helped to prove both of these latter points. I’ve had two shots of the vaccine, which works by instructing my cells to make fragments of the coronavirus, thereby prompting my immune system to react and, hopefully, keep a protective memory of the threat. I’ve had no side effects at all; not even a sore arm. The devil on my shoulder sort of wished for even a little redness where the needle went in, that I could wear proudly as a mark of my contribution to research.  (more…)

COVID-19 vaccine diaries: part one, my first dose

Justine is taking part in Imperial’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial – here she shares her experience of receiving the first dose.


It’s a strange feeling that as I write this, the cells in my arm are reading a message that scientists planted there just hours ago. 

That message – a strip of genetic code – contains the recipe for making part of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. This is the ‘spike’ protein that the virus uses to lock on to cells and invade them. The hope is that by telling my cells to churn out this molecule, my immune system will launch an effective and lasting response that could make me immune to the coronavirus. 

That’s the theory, anyway; we won’t know whether this experimental vaccine works until scientists have carried out rigorous clinical studies and gathered enough data to be confident of how safe and effective it is. And today I was part of that clinical research. 

I’m one of 120 people who have so far been selected to take part in one of the earliest phases of a clinical trial that’s testing Imperial’s newly-developed coronavirus vaccine. As soon as I spotted that the trial was recruiting participants, I immediately slotted my details into the online form to express my interest in joining, and eagerly awaited a response. (more…)

Masks and health: from the 19th century to COVID-19

Historian of medicine Dr Jennifer Wallis explores some of the parallels between 19th-century health concerns and the current pandemic, and introduces us to one of her favourite Victorian objects.


I spent most of Sunday afternoon sewing face masks out of old t-shirts, pretty inexpertly and with more than a few pricked fingers. In a recent article for the BMJ, Professor Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues argue for the precautionary principle when it comes to mask-wearing during the COVID-19 crisis. They argue that ‘we have little to lose and potentially something to gain’ from wearing masks. A quick Google search for news items about masks yields a constantly growing number of results and questions: Who should be wearing masks and where? What should masks be made of? Can/should masks be fashion items? (more…)

One small grant can kick-start a big career

DPUK grant

Originally published on the Dementia Researcher Blog, Luke Whiley, an analytical chemist by training, reminds researchers to look out for opportunities in the small stuff. He tells the story of how a relatively small grant has taken him far in his career in dementia research – to the other side of the world in fact!


If you’d told me this time last year that I would be setting up my own research lab the other side of the world, there’s absolutely no way I would have believed you. But it’s true! I’m sitting here writing this looking out on to the Indian Ocean, having just had my first Christmas down under in Perth – even trying to keep up a stereotypical Aussie Christmas with a beer and BBQ on the beach on Christmas day!  It is an example of just how far a research career in science can take you.

I have always been interested in science, but back in my school days I had no idea just how many twists and turns my career would take and how many opportunities would present themselves. Sometimes these were big, involved decisions – a move out of or into academia, for example, but sometimes these start pretty small. That’s all my DPUK-funded course was at first – a small opportunity I noticed one day. (more…)

Working with HIV/AIDS patients was the highlight of my clinical career


Originally published on the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust blog, Professor Jonathan Weber, Dean of our Faculty of Medicine, shares the story of his career working with people affected by HIV/AIDS.


In April 1982, I was a young doctor with an interest in infectious diseases when my mentor, Professor Philip Marsden, mentioned a new disease he’d seen in New York, which was affecting young gay men and had all the hallmarks of a sexually transmitted infection. He suggested it would be interesting to look for this new disease in London and he thought St Mary’s Hospital might be a good starting point. So in August 1982, I joined Dr Willie Harris’ Praed St Clinic, looking at the immune system of gay men who visited the clinic, guided by immunologist Professor Tony Pinching and virologist Professor Don Jeffries.

Early observations

I was fortunate to be able to work on my research full-time from early 1983, thanks to a fellowship  from the Wellcome Trust; I had gathered a cohort of 400 gay men at the clinic and examined their immune systems. What my colleagues and I discovered was that all the men in the cohort had abnormal immune systems; they all had a low number of CD4+ T-lymphocytes and low CD4:CD8 T-cell ratios. They also had enlarged lymph nodes in their necks, armpits and groin, which is usually a sign that the body is trying to fight an infection. These observations led us to believe that all the patients in this cohort had an early manifestation of AIDS; it was a chilling insight into the scale of the unfolding AIDS epidemic. (more…)

Poor diversity, poor design: the truth about inclusive research and why it matters

inclusive research

Madina Wane reflects on the value of creating an inclusive research culture where everyone in society can feel they can participate and benefit from STEM.


The modern seat belt is a simple but extremely effective innovation that has been saving lives since the 1960s. It is estimated to reduce the risk of death by up to 50% and with over 1 million road traffic deaths per year globally, the seat belt is clearly an important development. With such an impact it is easy to neglect scrutiny of this technology, but we must ask the question: are we all equally protected?

When crash test dummies first became required in the 1960s, US regulators wanted manufacturers to use two types – one based on male physical proportions, and one based on female proportions. However, after several years, regulators conceded and manufacturers were able to use just one dummy, reflecting the ‘average’ male. 50 years on and the consequences of this are clear. A study in 2011, from the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics, determined that female drivers were 47% more likely to suffer severe injuries compared to their male counterparts. Many studies have also highlighted the increased incidence of whiplash in female drivers. 

Although the use of female dummies has since been adopted, these are simply smaller versions of male dummies, not accounting for anatomical differences between the sexes. In addition, the female dummy is based on proportions of the smallest 5% of females, rather than the average. To add even more pitfalls, the ‘female’ dummies are still not used to the same extent as their male counterparts, with male dummies predominantly used in the driver’s seat and female dummies more often used in the passenger seat. (more…)

Why we need to protect children from junk food, alcohol and gambling ads

Dr Tim Chambers explains the damaging effects of marketing of unhealthy commodities on children’s health and what we can do to tackle the problem.


Unhealthy commodities such as junk food, alcohol, and gambling are leading causes of non-communicable diseases, mental illness, injury, and many social harms. The collective global health burden of diet– and alcohol-related diseases is estimated at five million deaths each year.  But what is the role of marketing of these unhealthy commodities in driving their growing consumption?

Unhealthy commodities marketing through the eyes of a child

Children’s exposure to unhealthy commodities marketing, regardless of the product, has an adverse impact on their health. For example, junk food marketing shapes children’s dietary preferences and alcohol marketing is positively associated with earlier onset drinking and the likelihood of engaging in hazardous drinking. Children are particularly susceptible to marketing as they are unable to fully comprehend the biases inherent in ads. But with the unprecedented access and engagement with different media, how much marketing for unhealthy commodities are children actually seeing on a daily basis? (more…)

What is neurodiversity and why STEM organisations should embrace it

Siena with Sally Phillips at Shine a Light Awards 2019

Siena Castellon, a 16-year-old award-winning autism advocate, makes the case for why diversity should be expanded to include neurodiversity.


Most universities have embraced diversity. They recognise that having students and faculty with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives leads to increased creativity, innovation and productivity. However, most universities, focus their diversity initiatives on race, ethnicity and gender. Universities also prioritise initiatives that aim to improve social mobility, which is why many of the STEM work placements or summer school programs are only available to students from low-income families. Although it is important to address the under-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic students (BME), women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is just as important to include people who are neurodivergent – a minority group that is often forgotten. (more…)

Grandfather of allergy: Dr William Frankland, the 106-year-old doctor

Dr William (Bill) Frankland, aged 106, has helped transform our understanding of allergies during his long career in medicine. A pioneer in the field, Dr Frankland popularised the pollen count to help clinicians and patients understand what triggers their seasonal allergies. Originally published on the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust blog and reproduced here with permission, he reflects on his career and working for the NHS for 70 years. 


People often ask me, how is it that I’ve lived until 106. All I can say is I’ve come close to death so many times but somehow I’ve always managed to miss it and that’s why I’m still here.

I was born in 1912, six weeks early. My identical twin brother and I weighed three pounds one ounce each but we both survived – he died in 1995, at age 83. As an early baby, that’s the first time I survived against the odds.

I first encountered hay fever when I was a child. I grew up in the Lake District where my brother and I spent our summers helping a local farmer with his hay. One day, I told my brother my eyes were itchy and I couldn’t go on. “You’re feeble,” he said. It took me 30 years before I realised I had a real problem with summer hay fever and about 90 years to grow out of that allergy.

(more…)

Outpacing outbreaks: how we’re making cheaper vaccines, faster

Dr Cleo Kontoravdi and Dr Zoltán Kis

When outbreaks emerge, speeding up vaccine development could be the difference between life and death. In this post, Dr Zoltán Kis provides an insight into how Imperial’s chemical engineers are making speedy vaccines a reality.


The worst Ebola epidemic in history swept across West Africa between 2014 to 2016, claiming 11,300 lives. This major outbreak was closely followed by the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic in Latin America. Preventing future epidemics is more important than ever and developing new vaccines are an essential weapon in fighting disease outbreaks. However, with the average vaccine development lasting 10 years, this is not comparable to the speed and frequency of outbreaks which can cause calamity in a matter of months. (more…)