CHECK YOUR BOOBS

PSA – CHECK YOUR BOOBS*

*or pecs – this involves everyone! Checking your boobs/pecs regularly might just save your life! 

THE FACTS:

  • 1 in 8 women will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetime.
  • Around 400 men are diagnosed every year.
  • Breast cancer is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women under 40
  • Every year in the UK, around 5,000 women under the age of 45 are diagnosed with breast cancer.

I don’t mean to bring you down with the facts and figures but it’s really important to be aware of your body no matter what age or sex. Its also super important to remember that it can happen to anyone and it’s not just hereditary! This isn’t to scaremonger you, it’s to bring awareness. 

Let’s talk about inherited vs acquired DNA mutations:
Normal breast tissue cells can become cancerous through mutations in the DNA. Genes are made up of DNA and some genes give “instructions” for how our cells function. So when DNA becomes mutated, this can lead to gene mutations that alter cell function.

Some DNA mutations can be inherited (passed down from your parents). This kind of mutation means that the mutations are present in all of your cells when you are born and some of these mutations may increase risk of certain cancers. For example, breast cancer can be hereditary due to a mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. In normal cells these genes help to make proteins that repair damaged DNA but when mutated they can lead to abnormal cell growth.

Whereas acquired DNA mutations are exactly that, it means that the mutation(s) take place in the breast cells during a person’s life rather than being inherited. If 2020 has taught us anything it’s to really get clued up on our health!

So let’s repeat after me:

I promise to check my boobs/pecs regularly

I promise to know what’s normal for me

I promise to look and feel

I promise to check my collarbone and armpits

I promise to if in doubt get it checked out 

I promise to get clued up on the signs of breast cancer 

Information gathered from coppafeel.org please go check out their amazing website with loads of info about how you can check your boobs/pecs & you can even get text reminders every month for free!

Thanks so much for reading this post, I hope you enjoyed it.

See you in the next one,

Beth x

The importance of cervical screenings

Here in the UK, if you’re 25 or over and have a cervix you should be invited to have a cervical screening test by your GP. If for whatever reason you fit the criteria but are not invited you must speak to your GP to make an appointment, it could save your life. 

The topic of cervical screenings can be an uncomfortable conversation with many people choosing not to attend their appointments due to fear, embarrassment or risk of pain, among many other reasons (and we need to change that)!

What is the test?
During the screening a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and tested for any abnormalities like those caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) that have the potential to become cancerous over time. The point of this test is to prevent any abnormalities becoming cancerous. Finding these changes early allows for further monitoring and/or treatment so they don’t have the opportunity to become cancerous! 

What is HPV?
HPV is the name of a common group of viruses. HPV primarily affects the skin and there are more than 100 types of HPV. It’s so common that most people will get some type of HPV in their lifetime. Many types of HPV affect the mouth, throat or genital area. The only way to test for HPV is through cervical screenings which is why these screenings are so important. 

A common misconception about this test is that it is a test for cancer, when it’s actually a test to prevent cancer. Seeing the word cancer does put the fear in people but to put it in perspective out of every 100 people with cervixes, 94 people will have a normal result. For most people with an abnormal result, they’re invited for further screenings to monitor the virus. Most HPV infections don’t cause any problems and can be cleared by the body within 2 years. It’s the early catching and monitoring that makes all the difference! 

Remember, even if you’ve had the vaccination for HPV you still need to attend your cervical screening. It’s really important to know what the test is for, what the results mean and why it’s important to attend your appointment. The more we talk about these things, the easier it becomes. Let’s encourage each other to attend these important appointments, and create a generation where we can prevent cervical cancer and save lives! 

Further information can be found at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/ & https://www.axappphealthcare.co.uk/why-is-cervical-screening-important/ 

Thanks so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed this post.

Let me know your thoughts on cervical screenings!

Beth x

August Favourites

Goodbye August, hello September! Where has the time gone?! I don’t know whether it’s because I’m still in an academic environment but I always like to reflect and check in when it comes to September. Since we’re now coming to the end of summer here in the UK, I thought I’d do a round up of all my favourite things throughout August, for us to try and get to know each other a little better. Enjoy!

TV shows
Over the month of August, Zach and I finished The US Office, while it took me a few seasons to get into it I really enjoyed once I was hooked. Sometimes you’ve just gotta warm to the characters and tap into the style of comedy to enjoy it. We’ve recently started watching Game of Thrones, I’ve already seen it but Zach hasn’t so we’re powering through. He seems to enjoy it so far which is good. I’m excited to re-watch it because I’ll have forgotten so much and it will be nice to get a fresh perspective on it. We also watch some YouTube series such as Good Mythical Morning and Corridor Crew, they’re short and easy to watch. Something to defo wind down to after a long day. As for my own personal watches, I’m on season 3 of Dear White People, I’m very invested and I will admit to binging it! And, I’ve just sold my soul and started watching Selling Sunset, I tried to resist but the reality TV Gods lured me in. I’m enjoying it so far, and again it’s an easy watch! What are your fave TV shows at the min?

Film
We’ve not watched many films at home recently, we’ve been hardcore into the TV shows (as you can see above) but since the cinemas have re-opened we’ve treated ourselves to some cinema dates. The cinemas are showing loads of old films as this years release schedules has changed due to COVID. We saw The Matrix first for its 20 year anniversary, oh boy, it’s even better on the big screen. It’s such a clever film and so amazingly shot! I’ve never seen it in cinema as I was too young when it came out but watching it on the big screen, how its supposed to be seen, is really something else. I highly recommend if you get the chance! We next saw Pulp Fiction (two days after The Matrix, we definitely missed the cinema). I have to admit, I’ve only seen Pulp Fiction once and that was only last year. Again, just like with The Matrix, it really was a great experience on the big screen. You notice things you never noticed before, and I throughly enjoyed it. I think we want to go see TENET next, Christopher Nolan’s new release. If it’s anything like Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy, it’ll be a good’un. Have any of you been to the cinema yet? If so, what have you seen?

Beauty
I like my skincare & make-up and to be honest, it doesn’t change much but I’ll give you the lowdown seeing as though it is my first favourites post. Let’s start with skincare, my favourite exfoliating scrub at the moment (and probs forever) has to be The Body Shop Seaweed Pore-Cleansing Exfoliator, it’s not too rough and foams nicely while leaving you feeling refreshed and exfoliated. I also love their Camomile Gentle Eye make-up Remover, I’ve found that since using this my eye lashes feel much healthier. Since lockdown, I’ve become somewhat of a bath covert, I never really got on board with baths, I was definitely a shower person but now I’m all here for a bath these days! Some of the bath products I’ve been using are the Abracadabra bubble stick and the Rocket Science bath bomb both from Lush – they smell and feel lovely. Moving onto make-up, again quite minimal and unlikely to change anytime soon, I’ve been using Boy Brow by Glossier and oh boy (brow) it’s amazing. Easy to use, keeps the brows in place all day and a little goes a long way. Another I’ve been using from Glossier is their Lash Slick, I’ve been on the hunt for a cruelty free mascara and I think this might be the one (for now). And lastly, I’ve been really enjoying Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue, it’s a tinted moisturiser that leaves your skin feeling and looking amazing, it’s even SPF 30 which for a pale girl like me, is great!

Food
Since lockdown has started ease here in the UK we’ve been eating out at some really lovely places in Leeds. We’ve gone to Doner Summer a few times now and oh wow it’s soooo good. It’s vegan junk food and it’s so tasty, they do take out or dine in and if you live in Leeds or York be sure to check them out, it will not disappoint! I highly recommend the Classic Fried Chick’n or the Korean BBQ Teller Tray. We’ve also been trying HelloFresh so tha I can try to get more confident at cooking. I’ve been enjoying it so far, I’ll be honest everything tastes great and some recipes are really easy to follow but some are a little confusing so I have made some of my own changes to some of the recipes. My favourite recipes so far are the Pork Ragu, the Peanut Butter Lentil Curry & the Teriyaki Tofu. What are you favourite foods at the moment?

Book(s)
I’ve been working my way through The Book Thief, I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s set in Germany during the WWII, I think it’s uniquely written and a very interesting story. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t already read it, but I definitely recommend giving it a read. I really want to read more so I’m trying to make time for at home reading. What are you currently reading?

Podcasts
I really enjoy listening to podcasts, I think depending on which ones they can be super informative and sometimes really relaxing to listen to. My current favourite is Might Delete Later with sisters, Stevie and Gina Martin. Stevie is a writer and comedian, while Gina is known for campaigning and successfully changing the law about up-skirting here in the England. I met Gina one of her book events and she’s awesome, an absolute force to be reckoned with and gives me major faith in humanity. Their podcast is about social media, which is something I’m fascinated about. They both have different views and opinions on social media and chat to guests about their relationship with social media. It’s so good, the guests they have are brilliant, and the energy both Stevie and Gina bring to the podcast is amazing. I highly recommend listening to this if you haven’t already, it’s funny, super insightful and gets you thinking about your own social media habits. What podcast’s are you listening to right now? 

Music
I have to admit, I’m not down with the kids when it comes to music (I’m aware I sound 85), I tend to listen to the same things a lot, on repeat. You can find me mixing between Florence + The Machine, Lady Gaga & Lizzo. However, I’ve been trying to somewhat mix it up recently and I’ve been really enjoying the Easy 00’s playlist on Spotify, the 00’s had some cracking tunes and it takes me back to my school days! Another one I’ve been having on repeat is Watermelon Sugar by Harry Styles (I’m aware I’m late the party but I arrived and I’m loving it). And lastly, it wouldn’t be a Beth Webb favourites without a Lady Gaga song, I’ve been listening to Rain On Me by Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande A LOT (I think Zach might actually be sick of it haha). What are your fave tunes at the moment?

Accounts
Lastly, here are some great accounts that I love following, be sure to check them out:

What accounts do you love following right now?

This turned out a bit longer than I expected, I hope you managed to stay with me until the end! I hope this gives you more of an insight into me as a person and the kind of things I like. Let me know some of your favourites at the moment, I’d love to hear to from you. 

Thanks for reading!

Beth x

Getting ready for uni?

Whether it’s your first time at uni, you’re heading back for another year or you’re started a post-graduate degree this September, here are some tips and advice after being in uni for approx. 7 years (wow that’s scary) that will help you get prepared. I know things are a little different this year (thanks COVID) with a lot of teaching being online this year but that doesn’t mean these tips and tricks don’t still apply.

Get organised
Once you get your timetable, get organised. Add your all your lectures to an online calendar (whichever you prefer). Plan study time, rest time, party time (ok you don’t necessarily have to plan this, but it’s good to know when’s good for you). Plan your week ahead of time, this way you’re more likely to stick to your plan. If you have a job, make sure your shifts are also in your calendar so you know what free time you’re working with for study and downtime. With post-grad research this is a little harder, it’s more like a full time job but I tend to plan 9-5, Mon-Fri but this can change. It’s great to have a plan but don’t plan to the point where you can’t be flexible, if this year has taught us anything it’s that things do change and we need to be able to adapt. 

Background reading/read review articles
Reviews are great summaries from the experts themselves, they can be broad or as in-depth as you like and are usually a good place to start when learning something new. This is more aimed at those studying post-grad degrees but hey if you’re feeling it in undergrad go for it! If you know who your lecturers are then it might be a good place to start reading some of their reviews to gain an understanding of their research and what you’re most likely going to be studying. 

Storage & note taking method
This is entirely personal, but whatever you choose make sure you stick to it. I used to print my lectures out and make hand written notes on the lectures as I went, this really helped me take in the info. After the lecture I’d write up my notes in a notebook for each module, so all my notes were in one place or each module. For me the act of handwriting really stuck in my brain but in some ways I wish I’d done this electronically for flexibility with adding new notes and storage for when it came to revision. 

Hobbies/societies
Having hobbies outside your course is really important for work-life balance, starting this at uni will help you when it comes to sticking to a work-life balance after uni. If you already have hobbies that you love, see if your uni has a society or club for it and sign up. Even if you don’t have something in mind just yet, I’d still check out the different societies and clubs, most of them do taster sessions and you can just try a new one until you find one you like. If there isn’t a society or club of your fave hobbies you can always set one up. I did this when I was at uni, this self-proclaimed Harry Potter nerd, set up the Quidditch Society (yes you heard that right) at my uni and it was great. We even won society of the year!! And, if clubs or societies just aren’t your thing, try to make time for downtime, whether that’s reading a book, baking, knitting, you name it. 

Budget
At uni it’s most likely the first time you’ve been 100% in control of your money. With great power comes great responsibility. Don’t blow it! Whether you get the full loan and grant, you work or you get money from family it’s super important to know how to budget. This will make things a lot easier and it doesn’t mean you have to be “tight”. You can still have fun on a budget and believe me it will help you later on when it comes to rent and bills in the real world (post-uni life struggles). So work out what you’ll have for the year, when you’ll receive payments and set yourself a budget for each week. 

Plan for when you’re just not feeling it
University is a rollercoaster, it can be the greatest yet most challenging times of your life. And believe me we’ve all been there, being away from home can suck and you miss your friends and family so it’s important to have a plan for when you’re not feeling 100%. Having a plan in place for when you just can’t be arsed is really important for getting you out of the funk. I found that planning meals with my housemates, regularly checking in with the important people in my life and focusing on the good stuff really help me gain any motivation I’d been lacking. We’re only human and we’re bound to have some tough days now and then so it’s important to prepare for those before they even happen.

Enjoy it
Yes university is hard work and you’re there to get your degree but it’s also full experience so please enjoy it! You’ll meet some amazing people that just might turn out to be your life long friends, I know I did. You’ll have an amazing time, good luck!!

Let me know, are you excited for uni this September?

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this post!

Beth x

When we won Society of the Year!

Poster for our Potter Pub Quiz

Returning to the labs

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from PexelsIt’s been a few weeks since starting our phased return to the labs here at Leeds. I’m very fortunate to be part of the early phase of returning. I’ve been very eager to get back in the lab, I definitely missed the lab during lockdown but I was also pretty nervous about heading back. It’s been over 4 months since I last picked up a pipette and ran a western blot, among many other lab activities. I was apprehensive about all the changes and generally just being around more people. I’d kind of gotten used to my own little bubble of people during lockdown it almost seems weird to venture out of that.

Of course, things were different, there’s about 40 of us as opposed to over 100 people in the building. The 40 of us are staggered over two days throughout the week so there aren’t many people in at any one time. It’s very quiet, almost too quiet. In some ways, it’s super peaceful and you can crack on with what you’re doing but the temptation to chat to people while passing in the corridor is quite high but unfortunately, that’s not allowed. Our uni is following a strict 2-metre rule which, to be honest, I’m quite happy about, I know that makes things a little harder in terms of logistics and space but it’s certainly much safer, and I feel much better about it. We also have to wear masks in the lab, which at first I wasn’t too pleased about with being someone who’s hearing impaired but actually, it’s really not that bad and because there’s not much chatting going on it’s really not a problem. Just to be clear I’m not anti-mask under any circumstances but sometimes I just struggle to hear people, that’s all. 

Again, I’ve been pretty lucky in the sense that my supervisor has his own little lab which I essentially had to myself in the two days I was in. It was nice, I had the radio on, didn’t have to wear a mask and I wasn’t at risk of being in anyone’s way. But I do have to say I miss my work colleagues! 

Typically I rely heavily on blood donations to do any work but unfortunately, we’re unable to take blood at the moment so what can I possibly do in the lab you say? Well, I have to seriously thank past Beth for batching Western Blot samples and creating an inventory. So I’m spending most of my time working through Western Blot samples.

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What are Western Blots?
Western Blots are used to detect specific protein molecules among a mixture of proteins within cells or tissue. In my case, the cells I’m using are platelets which are cells of the blood. I’m blotting for particular phosphorylation events within platelets.

The method:
SDS-PAGE (electrophoresis) which is where we separate the proteins based on size. The blue stuff is called Laemmli buffer and that’s what we use to lyse (pop) our cells and to make their charge negative. The samples are run across a gel, with proteins migrating towards the positive electrode. Smaller proteins travel further & faster whereas larger proteins travel less & slower. After the gel process, we then transfer the proteins to a membrane that allows us to probe using antibodies for specific proteins.

What are phosphorylation events?
Phosphorylation is a reversible process where enzymes called phosphatases remove phosphate groups from proteins. Phosphorylation is essentially a molecular switch which can modify the activity of a protein. In my case, I’m looking at inhibitory phosphorylation events that aid platelet inhibition.

Like most biology PhD students, I have a love-hate relationship with Western Blots. There are a lot of steps involved and you’re only as good as your antibody as my supervisor so frequently says. At the moment I’m just super happy about being back in the labs!

I have to say I was definitely pretty rusty, I used the wrong pipette first thing (I used a p200 instead of p20 – which is quite different!). And, my blots didn’t turn out very well. I think it’s a combination of being a bit rusty and new imaging software. I’m not being too hard on myself, yes it is a bit annoying as I tend to be the self-proclaimed “blot queen” but let’s be real, it’s been a long time since I last did one so no hard feelings. I’ll try again next week! 

I’d love to know if you’re back in the labs yet? If so, what experiments are you doing? Do you like Western Blots? What’s your favourite experiment?

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post!

Stay safe,

Beth x

COVID-19 & Platelets

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I’m sure you’re overwhelmed with the amount of information out there about the current coronavirus outbreak but while it can be overwhelming, it’s really great to see the work that scientists are doing to tackle this outbreak. Having information that’s readily available to the general public is great and helps to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. I truly believe that our work as scientists should be translatable to the public!

I recently read a really interesting article about COVID-19 and platelets. As you’re probably aware by now that my PhD project involves studying platelet inhibitory signalling pathways in the context of cardiovascular disease, so I have a vested interest in all things platelet biology. I’d never really considered the effect that infection could have on our platelets and what that means for platelet function…until now. 

concept-of-covid-19-in-red-background-4031867

The SARS-CoV-2 is the infection responsible for the 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic. The current coronavirus is from a family of coronaviruses, where some strains cause “common cold” symptoms while others cause SARS and MERS which are much more serious diseases.

A recent study by Manne, et al (2020) found that thrombotic complications were common in COVID-19 patients. Thrombotic complications can contribute to organ failure and mortality, particularly among those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure.

Thrombotic complications refer to thrombosis which is the formation of an unwanted blood clot, known as a thrombus, within a blood vessel. The blood clot formed then prevents blood from flowing normally through the circulatory system, leading to potential heart attacks, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or stroke. 

How do platelets fit into this?

Under normal circumstances, platelets, which are cells of the blood, become active and aggregate upon vascular injury and along with coagulation factors, cause the formation of a blood clot. In this case, this is haemostasis as the blood clot formed is to protect us from bleeding out. For blood clots to occur platelets have to be involved somehow! 

However, it has been shown through RNA sequencing that in patients with COVID-19, the SARS-CoV-2 infection can alter platelet gene expression and functional responses. These changes to platelet gene expression and function were found to increase the risk of thrombosis in COVID-19 patients. 

The platelets in COVID-19 patients were hypereactive compared to controls. In resting platelets from COVID-19 patients, there was an increase in P-selectin expression. P-selectin is an important marker for activation and becomes expressed on the surface during platelet activation. 

They also found that these changes altered how platelets interact with cells of the immune system such as neutrophils, monocytes and T-cells. They found that circulating platelet-immune cell aggregates were significantly elevated in COVID-19 patients compared to controls. This could potentially contribute to inflammation of the respiratory tract which can result in lung injury. The platelets in COVID-19 patients were also found to aggregate faster and show increased spreading on both fibrinogen and collagen. 

Authors suggest that this increase in platelet activation and aggregation could be due to increased MAPK pathway activation and thromboxane (TxA2) generation. MAPK signalling pathway in platelets plays an important role in platelet granule secretion. Platelet granule secretion is a key step during platelet activation. During activation, platelets release many things including thromboxane which typically recruits platelets to the site of injury and amplifies activation.

Interestingly, this altered gene expression and function, however, was not due to SARS-CoV-2 binding to platelets.  The SARS-CoV-2 binding receptor (ACE-2) did not appear to be present in platelets of COVID-19 patients or healthy controls.

To summarise, the SARS-CoV-2 infection is associated with platelet hypereactivity which may contribute to the pathophysiology of COVID-19 through increased platelet-platelet and platelet-leukocyte interactions, which could account for the many complications found in COVID-19 patients.

The authors do go on to say that platelet counts, mean platelet volume (MPV), and markers for platelet activation did not correlate with markers of inflammation in COVID-19 patients, to which they suggest that platelets are not the main driving force here. Other blood cells and soluble coagulation factors can also mediate inflammatory, immune and thrombotic responses that may result in injury.

There’s still so much that we don’t know but information like this can help us understand some more of the complexities of COVID-19 and the complications that can occur in COVID-19 patients. Earlier studies (Zhang et al., 2020, Xu et al., 2020) suggested a link between low platelet count and COVID-19 disease severity however this study showed no such link. 

I hope you enjoyed this post. 

Stay safe & thanks for reading! 

Beth x

COVID-19 & Platelets

References:

MANNE, B. K., DENORME, F., MIDDLETON, E. A., PORTIER, I., ROWLEY, J. W., STUBBEN, C. J., PETREY, A. C., TOLLEY, N. D., GUO, L., CODY, M. J., WEYRICH, A. S., YOST, C. C., RONDINA, M. T. & CAMPBELL, R. A. 2020. Platelet Gene Expression and Function in COVID-19 Patients. Blood. https://doi.org/10.1182/blood.2020007214

XU, P., ZHOU, Q. & XU, J. 2020. Mechanism of thrombocytopenia in COVID-19 patients. Annals of Hematology, 99, 1205-1208. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7156897/

ZHANG, Y., ZENG, X., JIAO, Y., LI, Z., LIU, Q., YE, J. & YANG, M. 2020. Mechanisms involved in the development of thrombocytopenia in patients with COVID-19. Thrombosis research, 193, 110-115. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7274097/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200630125129.htm

My PhD application journey…

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels
I’m halfway through my 2nd year of my PhD which sounds mad, I never thought I’d ever end up doing a PhD. I recently gave a STEM Ambassador career talk to a group of A-level biology students and I thought I’d share my PhD application journey with you all. I have to say my PhD journey is not the most conventional but it worked for me and hopefully, it can work for you too. 

I really enjoyed biology and chemistry at school and college and wanted to get involved in some kind of research that would help people but I wasn’t entirely sure what. To my surprise, A-levels were a lot harder than anticipated and it wasn’t for lack of trying, I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped and didn’t get into my first choice university. At the time I thought it was the end of the world but in actual fact, it wasn’t and was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. I went through clearing on results day and managed to secure a place to study Biochemistry (BSc) at the University of Huddersfield. I really enjoyed my time at university, I made life long friends, gained much more confidence in my academic abilities and had really good fun. As part of my degree, I undertook my placement year at the University of Leeds working on a drug discovery project in relation to thrombosis and it was then when I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD. I got the bug for academic research and I had the opportunity to get involved with different projects. I’d never even considered a PhD until my placement year which was my 3rd year of university, I enjoyed the work and I loved being in the lab.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I got back to uni for my final year I undertook a research project in cancer biology, I really enjoyed this project and it confirmed my desired to want to do a PhD. I had a great supervisor and was working with a great group of people! Towards the end of my final year I applied to so many PhDs I lost count, and I also got offered a research assistant position in the lab where I did my placement year, with a view of doing a PhD in the future. I made it to the final stages of interviews for a PhD at St. James’ in Leeds but unfortunately was unsuccessful. I’m ok with knowing that the person that got the PhD over me had a Master’s and I did not, so to make it to the final stages is pretty good in my opinion. PhD programmes are exceptionally competitive! I decided to accept the research assistant position and I moved to Leeds.

After a year of being a research assistant I still really wanted to do a PhD but unfortunately, the group I was working in didn’t have any funding for me to pursue a PhD. I’d lost the focus and passion for the current work and I told myself I’d give it a year before applying for PhDs. I was open and honest with my supervisor at the time about my decision to apply for PhDs elsewhere. I learnt so much during my time as a research assistant and I also got the opportunity to present my work at a conference. This experience was invaluable and I wouldn’t change a thing. I think there is a lot to be said about working before jumping straight into a PhD. I was very lucky as I was still able to keep my research assistant position while applying for PhD programmes. I was scared and conflicted, I had my life in Leeds, and I was for the most part happy here. I wanted a change but nothing too radical, then I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do. Did I want to do a PhD because it was naturally the next step? Or did I want to do a PhD in an area I was truly passionate about?

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Anyway, I applied for the 4-year PhD programmes to give me the chance to find something new I was passionate about (probably not the best reason). The downside of these 4-year PhD programmes is that they are super competitive and the people you’re up against typically have Master’s degrees. I know I didn’t want to do a masters, I thrived in the lab and I hated written exams. Plus, they’re expensive and I wasn’t in the position to do so. I believe I have enough work experience to match a Master’s, and this is what I highlighted in my applications. I got rejected by most, the University of Edinburgh gave some really good feedback unlike the others and I made it the interview stage for the University of Bristol. In the midst of applying for PhDs, I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that I was already working in a research institute with a big focus on cardiovascular research, which I was heavily interested in. I sought out to go to talks and seminars by PIs at the institute and I went to one particular talk by a professor in the department I was currently working in. I really enjoyed his talk and in that moment I thought ‘I want to speak to this person’. I plucked up the courage to speak to him, I introduced myself, told him I enjoyed his talk and his research. I spoke about my current situation and that I wanted to do a PhD in cardiovascular research. He was very open and happy to help me, despite me looking bright red and pretty flustered as I was so nervous about speaking to him. He told me to keep applying and he’ll have a look to see what he can do. I was essentially networking without even realising. 

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

I must have made an impression because about a month or so later I got offered a fully-funded PhD with him to start in January 2019. I immediately accepted and it was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t have have to move, it was in a subject area I was interested in and I have relevant work experience. I felt so ready for this PhD, more so than ever! 

The hardest part was telling my boss at the time. Thankfully it went ok and she was very understanding which is all I could ask for. I felt extremely guilting but at the same time, I had made her aware that I was applying for PhD programmes. I was ready for a change and this was it. We work in the same building and still catch up from time to time which is nice. I gained a lot from my time working in that group and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

I’m so pleased I plucked up the courage to speak to my current supervisor. I’m really enjoying my PhD project and I’m happy that it worked out well. Nothing is perfect but this PhD project is right for me, from the subject to the group, right through to the supervision and not a lot of people can say that. It’s certainly not the most conventional way of getting onto a PhD programme but I do firmly believe speaking to PIs and showing them who you are will get you to where you want to be. Most PIs are happy to help young enthusiastic scientists, it means they have people that are passionate about the science they want to continue. Speaking to a PI that I’ve never spoken to before was scary but also really good experience for the future, it’s good networking experience and it landed me in this great position I’m in now. 

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to know why I chose to do a PhD in cardiovascular disease go check out my blog post about it here and if you want to know more about my PhD project check out this post (link).

How did you get onto your PhD programme? Did you speak to your PI first? Did you just apply? Let me know – there is no right or wrong way you’ve got to do what works for you! 

Thank you for reading.

Stay safe,

Beth x

 

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My PhD project…

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As you’ll find with a lot of research, certain projects can be confidential, particularly if it is novel or has a novel technique/model involved.  That’s the case with my project, I’m unable to discuss data and findings until it’s published so I’m going to give a general background of my PhD project. 

In my ‘About Me’ section, I mentioned that my PhD project is in the field of platelet biology in the context of cardiovascular disease. So what do I mean by that?

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What are platelets?
Platelets are small enucleate cells in the blood. What I mean by anucleate is that these cells do not contain a nucleus, and the cells’ nucleus typically contains DNA and coordinates the activity of the cell.

Why am I interested in platelets?
Platelets are critical cells in the blood and are very important in haemostasis. Haemostasis is the body’s response to blood vessel injury and bleeding. We need platelets so we don’t “bleed out” as it were. When platelets recognise the site of injury (e.g. when you cut yourself) they become active. Upon activation, they aggregate (clump together) and along with blood clotting enzymes, form a meshwork that makes creates a blood clot to stop bleeding. 

To put into context, you know when you cut yourself and before the wound has closed, the blood feels “sticky” that’s due to the platelets clumping together along with the clotting factors. 

Overall platelets work well and stop us from bleeding when necessary but in certain situations, such as cardiovascular disease, platelets can become spontaneously active and cause havoc on the cardiovascular system leading to thrombotic events such as myocardial infarction (heart attacks), deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or stroke.

In circulation under normal conditions platelets are inactive. There are important inhibitory mechanisms in place that maintain platelets in resting-state while allowing platelets to still become active when appropriate. In the platelet biology field we tend to talk about this being a balance between activation and inhibition, this constant opposition allows for our platelets to work optimally.

That’s where my PhD project comes in, I’m researching the inhibitory mechanisms in platelets to understand specific platelet functions and the changes during and leading up to cardiovascular events. If you want to know ‘my why’ go check out my blog post Why I’m doing a PhD in Cardiovascular disease

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this post about my PhD project. As much as I’d love to go into great depths I wanted to explain my project in a way for everyone to understand, us scientists can sometimes use too much jargon and certain aspects of my project are novel meaning that I am unable to disclose certain information until the data is published. 

Let me know about what science topics you’re interested in and if you’re doing a research project tell me about your project, I’d love to hear it. 

Thank you for reading.

Stay safe,

Beth x

Tinnitus Tuesdays: ‘Zoom Fatigue’

It’s week 8 of lockdown here in the UK and that’s meant that a lot of us are working from home and now more than ever we are using video calling for pretty much everything. While video calling is a great use of tech and allows us to see those we cannot physically be with, the constant video calling for work meetings and social events has made me feel absolutely exhausted. 

You’ve probably seen ‘Zoom fatigue’ as a common feature in articles and across social media, let’s be clear here, Zoom is not the only culprit so it’s not totally fair that it gets the bad rap. This video call fatigue is common for pretty much every video calling platform out there, but what does this all mean?

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A really interesting article in Quartz likened this ‘Zoom fatigue’ to something that the deaf and hard of hearing community battle with on a day-to-day basis (prior to lockdown and this constant use of video calling). As someone that suffers from a hearing impairment (tinnitus and hearing loss) and is now encountering multiple video calls a week whether work or social, I’m feeling super drained and it’s not because I don’t enjoy the social interaction it’s just really hard work!

This increased occurrence of video calling is exhausting and is similar to how deaf and hearing-impaired people never stop working to process sounds and translate what has been said throughout the day. 

Let’s talk about why video calls are so draining in general.

Video calls force us to focus more intently on the conversations in order to absorb the information, and because we’re on camera it gives us this feeling of always having to be “switched on”, anything and everything can be distracting in a video call setting. 

The way we process information from a video call is what makes it tiring. We have to show we’re paying attention by looking at the camera which in normal circumstances (unless you rely on lip-reading) you wouldn’t typically be staring directly at someones face. This constant gaze makes us tired, in physical meetings/social interactions you’d use peripheral vision and in video meetings it can be pretty obvious when someone is not paying attention. Throw in the increased screen time, this makes our eyes tired and can add to the exhaustion. 

Seeing ourselves on camera is also an added stress, not only is it super distracting but it can make us more conscious of how we look, more so than before. If you think about it, it’s totally understandable, it’s not like we sit in front of mirrors (if we can help it) in meetings and social interactions, it’s weird, distracting and likely to increase anxiety.

Another contributor is the lack of non-visual cues, that we’re normally so used to, this can lead to people talking at once, then awkwardly pausing waiting for someone to speak. It makes for very awkward conversations and throw in “speaker mode”, where the video calling platform enlarges the video of whoever is speaking, which can be confusing when multiple people speak at once. This can also be accidental if people don’t mute their mics, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to video meetings and even more to process in order to absorb the information. 

This has also been termed ‘concentration fatigue’ by audiologists and researchers, this means that this fatigue is a result of a measurable increase in listening effort, which is something very common in the deaf and hearing-impaired community. If you are not hearing impaired in any way, it’s likely the first time you’re feeling this. Add in external noises and audio feedback, it can be very difficult to communicate and it means you have to do a lot of work to piece conversations together, and after a couple of hours, you’re exhausted. This is what the deaf and hearing-impaired community deal with regularly. 

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Video calls & tinnitus:

Having to deal with these frustrations in normal situations daily can be tiring at times, but adding in this increased use of video calling it’s meant that I’ve been totally wiped out after an hour meeting (let alone two hours). I feel like I’m having to work even harder to understand what’s been said, I usually rely on lip-reading and it’s not always possible in a video like setting. It can be quite stressful when there’s janky audio, time delays and poor video quality. I also really struggle to get the sound just right without aggravating my tinnitus. I’ve had to stop wearing headphones during video meetings, I’ve found this aggravates my tinnitus quite a bit. Everyone’s devices have different mics and different sound systems so it can be challenging to get the volume level just right for everyone.

I’ve put together a video call wish list of things that I think could improve the video call experience (a girl can dream, right?), whether you’re hearing impaired or not:

  • Better volume adjustments. The ability to adjust the volume for each individual rather than just adjusting the volume on your device. This would really help to keep the sound consistent, meaning for me that my tinnitus would get less aggravated. 
  • Realtime subtitles for those who need it. Some companies do provide this at an added cost but it’s something I wish was more integrated into the video calling services.
  • Reduced video delays. While this is likely due to each person’s internet speed, I’d love it if it was more consistent (like a said, wish list).
  • The ability to see all videos. This isn’t a problem for Zoom but some video calling platforms only allow a certain number of video users at once. 

Moving forward, how can you combat video fatigue:

  • Take regular breaks. If a meeting is knocking on to its second hour, request a break. Look away from the screen for a bit, stretch your legs, drink some water etc.
  • Avoid multi-tasking. Stop switching between tasks, it can be so easy just to check an email or respond to a text. Turn off notifications during your meetings, after all you wouldn’t do this in a physical meeting.
  • Reduce onscreen stimuli. If you don’t need to view everyone on camera, then switch it to “speaker mode”. You can always give yourself a visual break while still being “present” in the meeting by moving or minimising your window whilst still hearing audio (though this may not be applicable for those who are hearing impaired).
  • Make virtual socials opt-in. This is really important, while it’s so great to have the social interactions and we do need them, make them optional. Sometimes if you’ve just had too many video calls in one week, you really can’t bare another. Allow people to take some time off video calling.
  • Switch to a phone call or email (where possible). Just because we have these great tools we don’t have to use them for everything, sometimes a simple email or phone call will suffice. We don’t need to switch everything to video call, just because it’s available to us.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you’re feeling this video call fatigue, you’re not alone. Hopefully, this has given you some insight into why you’re feeling this way and how to move forward. If you’re hearing-impaired, I’d love to know how you’re navigating this? For those that have tinnitus, has video calling affected you and your tinnitus? Let me know.

Thank you for reading.

Stay safe,

Beth x

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