Category: Science

How should we teach the fact that science is messy?

Susan Howitt and Anna Wilson have just published a very interesting opinion piece in the scientific journal EMBO Reports. It’s well worth reading.

Their piece is an update of a famous talk by Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who asked the question: “Is the scientific paper a fraud?” — which is also well worth reading.

In actual fact the EMBO Reports piece is not much of an update because, as Howitt and Wilson observe, the sanitised version of science presented in scientific papers that Medawar complained of is still what usually gets published. As a result, students rarely get an insight into how science is really done: with much mess and failure along the way.

Guest Post: A Year in Industry, by Lee Sewell

Rather than spending three straight years slogging away at my BSc, I decided to trade in the pen for the pipette and take the opportunity to spend a year in industry. This was a 12-month placement at British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Hopefully this blog-post will make you consider a research-based placement year.

I get the feeling that many undergraduates question the idea of taking a year out altogether; after all you still only get a BSc for what is an extra year of your life. Well, simply put, I think you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t jump on the opportunity to explore research in the life sciences.

What I did on my Year in Industry/Research Placement

A guest post from Rui Gao sharing her impressions from a year out working at the Institute for Cancer Research

As part of my degree, I undertook a placement year between my second and final years. I thoroughly enjoyed my placement experience and highly recommend other students who are thinking seriously about pursuing postgraduate studies to do the same. My year at the Institute of Cancer Research allowed me to gain countless experiences and insights not necessarily attainable by just attending lectures and practicals.

As someone who had always been considering postgraduate studies, the year in industry/research programme was an excellent fit for me because in many ways, the placement was a “test run” which allowed me to determine if a postgraduate degree was the right choice for me.

How to read the scientific literature

What do you make of scientific papers?

First year students may yet to have read one in depth but second and third years should be getting to grips with what is the primary mode of communication of scientific research.

They can seem daunting, especially at first. For a start there are thousands of journals out there and it can be difficult to get a measure of the differences between them. Which is better — Nature or Science? The EMBO Journal or the Journal of Biological Chemistry? How do you find out?

As an undergraduate student, you may feel that you are in no position to criticise the contents of a paper that has obviously been written by an ‘expert’.

Publish and be praised

Congratulations are due to Dominic Swift, a biology student who has not only just graduated, but also become a published author.

Dominic’s account of his research into the effects of logging on primate populations, which was performed during the Uganda field-trip on the Tropical Biology course, has now appeared in Bioscience Horizons.

His supervisor, Prof Vincent Savolainen, is justifiably proud of Dominic’s work — as are we all.

If any other students have succeeded in publishing their results, please do let us know.

DDT (not DTT) – good or bad?

In a lecture on Protein Science to 2nd year Biochemists the other day, I mentioned the reducing agent DTT — dithiothreitol — and pointed out that it should not be confused with DDT, a chemical that used to be used to control mosquito populations. Though effective, it was taken out of service because of toxic effects on other species.

Coincidentally, DDT features in science writer Brian Clegg’s latest podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Have a listen (it’s only about 7 min) to learn something about how biochemistry can have an impact on biology.

Final Year Lab Project Poster Session

There was definitely a buzz in the room as the final year lab project students gathered to present and assess their mini-posters.

Not only was there a tremendous variety of project work on display…

…but there was also a great range of styles. Some more successful that others? That was for the students to decide; each had 5 posters to assess and there will be £20 Amazon vouchers for the best ones.

Hopefully all the final years in attendance saw something to take their fancy — or perhaps even to stimulate a new idea.

I was so excited my hands were shaking.

The controversial importance of failure

There is a very interesting article in the Times Higher Education magazine today on the knotty subject of failure — something that anyone who wishes to succeed will inevitably encounter.

To quote just one small snippet:

“It’s entirely understandable; parents want their children to succeed. Unfortunately, they may be ensuring just the opposite. As Tough notes, protecting students from experiencing failure also prevents them from gaining the self-confidence that comes from overcoming it. There are no safe routes to success. If we want to prepare our students for life’s inevitable slings and arrows, then, for their own sake, we must let them fail.”

But the whole piece is well worth reading.