WOMEN IN SCIENCE: RITA LEVI MONTALCINI

By Margarita Segovia-Roldán

Again, every 11th of February, we are happy to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is a day created in order to achieve full and equal access to, and participation in science for women and girls. Thanks to this day, we can also recognise the value that scientific women bring to science and the society and help to make their careers more visible. However, we still have a long way to go to bring them the recognition they deserve. By celebrating this international day, we showcase to society the important scientific work that women contribute to.

The scientific community often uses Ada Lovelace as an icon for women in science and technology. However, there are plenty of others we can name. For instance, Rita Levi-Montalcini.

Ritalevimontalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian scientist honoured for her work in neurobiology. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986) jointly with her colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of the nerve growth factor (NGF). From 2001 until her death, she also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life. This honour was given due to her significant scientific contributions. On the 22 April 2009, she reached the age of 100 and at the time of her death, she was the oldest living Nobel laureate.

Rita’s father (a mathematician and electrical engineer) was against his daughter attending university as it would interfere with her future roles as wife and mother. On the other hand, Rita’s mother encouraged her to talk with her father about her intention to study medicine. At age 20, Levi-Montalcini decided that she wanted a life different from the one imagined for every Victorian woman; she wanted to go to medical school and study to be a doctor (Biography: “In Praise of Imperfection”). Finally, she started her career in Turin in 1930, where she became enamoured with the process of neurogenesis. Even as a Jewish woman and scientist in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, Levi-Montalcini was determined to continue her research. Her perseverance made her build a little laboratory in her own bedroom and she sent research manuscripts to Belgium to be published; publishing was impossible for her due to World War II. Rita finally split her job between the USA and Italy developing her research as a Full Professor in 1958 to 1977 at Washington University and in her second lab in Rome (1962).

A key discovery she made during her time in the United States was developing an in-vitro culture technique to grow neurons in a dish. With Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini discovered that peripheral tissues secrete a factor that directly influences neuronal survival in mammals. Their discovery was published in 1960, and they termed the substance “nerve growth factor,” or NGF. NGF was only the first of an entire class of chemotactic factors (neurotrophins) which promote the growth and survival of specific subsets of neurons, amongst other functions. As the field of molecular neuroscience progressed, it became evident that neurotrophins also have roles in the adult brain. They both received the Nobel prize highlighting the importance of their work, and the immeasurable effects it has had on other multiple fields of scientific research.

We can now understand how Rita Levi-Montalcini’s perseverance and passion for science made her one of the most important women in science from the 20th century leading her to become an inspiration for many other scientists all over the world. That way we can say that she is a wonderful example of the role of women in science during the past few centuries. We need to keep on making scientific women more visible. This way we recognise their hard work and the contributions they make to science, just as Rita did.

 

About the Author

Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is a neuroscientist and electrophysiologist who studied biology at the University of Seville (Spain). She has developed her scientific career in the UK through her work at University College London (UCL) and the University of Sheffield. She is passionate about science communication and is involved with the British Science Association (BSA) Sheffield branch (where she was also one of its founder members). She is also involved in the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), where she develops different public engagement activities as #CineScience and she collaborates on the #SRUKBlog.

 

 

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BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, BELIEVE IN YOUR SCIENCE. HAPPY #AdaLovelaceDay

2000px-Ada_Lovelace.svg

Looking back through history, we see the wide range of advances in different scientific fields. However, these days there is still a very important point in science and technology that didn’t advance at the same speed and is one that we cannot afford to miss: I am talking about the recognition of the scientific work of many women researchers through science History. It is crucial to remember the role of these women and that is the reason why the scientific community choose Ada Lovelace as a symbol of the important role of women in science. Every year, on the second Tuesday of October, Ada Lovelace’s day is celebrated as an international celebration of women in science and technology. However, who was Ada Lovelace and why did she became the image that represents scientific women?

Ada Gordon (who later became Countess of Lovelace) was the only legitimate child of the writer Lord Byron. She was the first scientist to recognise the full potential of a “computing machine”. Thus she became the first computer programmer in history. Her mother gave her a strict childhood education of logical thinking, science and mathematics. Ada became fascinated with mechanisms and designing different types of machines, embracing that way the British Industrial Revolution. In 1833, Ada Lovelace helped develop a device called The Analytical Engine with Charles Babbage – “the father of computers”.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

We can say that was the beginning of a crucial and important period in science, as that engine was the early predecessor of the modern computer! So now you start to get an idea of the crucial role that Ada Lovelace had in science and technology.

In 1842, she expanded these ideas on the use of machines through the manipulation of symbols; translating an article by Luigi Menabrea on the engine and adding an elaborate set of notes (entitled Notes). ‘Notes’ was the most elaborate and complete set of information which many experts consider to be the first computer program- that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Nowadays, because of her research on this topic she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer” as well as the inspiration behind (the well-known) Alan Turing’s work on first computer design around the 1940’s.

Ada died at the age of 36. However, as we can see, Ada was – and still is – an inspiration for many people, and for many women who want to pursue their careers in science. Her passion and vision for technology have made her a powerful symbol. She must be a clear example for many of us working in different scientific fields. She could be a key inspiration to make us understand we need to believe in ourselves and believe in our research. Of course, society still must change its perspective of female scientists and the role they deserve. But let’s start by thinking we can achieve what we want. Let’s be grateful to those who came before us, let’s recognise their hard work and let’s keep on fighting for our future and the future for other female scientists. Never forget your commitment to improve the system that has led to so many more opportunities for women in science today, and will lead to in the future.

About the Author
Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is an neuroscientist and electrophysiologist who studied biology at the University of Seville (Spain). She has developed her scientific career in the UK through her work at the University College London (UCL) and the University of Sheffield. She is passionate about science communication and is involved with the British Science Association (BSA) Sheffield branch (where she is also one of its founder members). She is also involved in the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), where she develops different public engagement activities as #CineScience and she collaborates on the #SRUKBlog.

The Buzz about Bees

Pollination is the fertilisation of plants through transfer of pollen. Without pollination, plants would not be able to reproduce, and would quickly die out. It is a crucial process that most living things rely on, wholly or partially. Humans, for example, would be left with very little to farm and eat if all pollination were to cease.

Pollen transfer can be abiotic or biotic. The former refers to non-living mechanisms of transport, such as wind or rain. Biotic pollination is much more common, and occurs when insects, birds, bats (and other mammals like monkeys and squirrels) transfer pollen between plants.

With almost 20,000 known species, bees are perhaps one of the most recognisable and well-known pollinator insects. Studies estimate that one third of commercial crops are either entirely or partially pollinated by (and thus dependent on) bees. These include some of our most loved and economically important produce like broccoli, bell peppers, onions, beans, apples, cherries, peaches, strawberries, coffee, cotton and almonds. This was perfectly illustrated in the activity stand ‘What Happens When Bees Go Extinct?’ as part of the Food for the Future event hosted by the Sheffield British Science Association for the Sheffield Food Festival back in May.

Of the approximate 785 species that pollinate crop plants, the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the single most important one. Its wide dispersion and high populace mean that it pollinates the most crops of all species. Domesticated and kept by humans for around 5,000 years, records of beekeeping exist on the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments. This species is the most common of all seven honey bee species in the genus Apis, and is found on all continents bar Antarctica. This extreme distribution of A. mellifera around the globe is largely due to human activity. For example, migrants from Europe introduced the bee to North America in the 1600s.

Picture BeesThe Western honey bee, Apis mellifera

Despite its widespread range, the population of the Western honey bee has dramatically declined in the last decade or so. Research from Pennsylvania State University found that North American populations have been hit hard, as have the populations in several European countries such as Spain, France and Greece. From 2007-2013, it has been estimated that roughly ten million hives were lost. Given the bees’ significance to agriculture and local ecosystems, this is a worrying development for farmers and environmentalists alike. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the leading cause of this decline.

CCD has existed throughout history in all regions where honey bees are domesticated, but has recently intensified. The disorder occurs when most or all of the worker bees in a hive disappear leaving only the queen bee, several nurses, and immature bees or larvae behind. Food supplies are usually plentiful. However, with an insufficient workforce, this supply simply cannot be maintained. Causes of CCD are unknown, though there are many factors thought to have some influence. Disease, pesticide use, a lack of genetic diversity, and migratory beekeeping are all potential contributors to CCD and bee death.

The parasitic mite Varroa destructor is perhaps the biggest pest to honeybees. The mite feeds on the blood of adult bees and pupae, and transmits diseases such as deformed wing virus. This virus leads to the exile or death of many bees within a hive. The mites are hard to get rid of and have very high reproductive rates so protecting bees can be quite difficult once mites attach. Fortunately, there are several ongoing studies looking into how to deal with the mites, so there may be hope for affected hives in the future.

Picture 1BeesVarroa mite on a honey bee

Neonicotinoids (the family of pesticides now the subject of bans heavy regulation and debates) have been shown to negatively affect honey bee hives and contribute to CCD. Queen bees exposed to neonicotinoids had a 60% survival rate compared to 80% of control queens as a recent 2015 study found. Another study concluded that honey bee immune systems are compromised by neonicotinoids making them more susceptible to diseases. In tandem with parasitic mites, this may affect hives even more. It is important to note, however, that there are still knowledge gaps regarding this subject. Research as to how, why and to what extent the pesticides affect A. mellifera is still ongoing.

Luckily, the plight of the honey bee (and other bee species whose populations are falling) has been covered extensively by the media in recent years and many people are trying to help the situation. A veritable fountain of information on how we can help save the bees has sprung up. From the Royal Horticultural Society to the RSPB, there are plenty of articles detailing which plants are best for bees, how to provide shelter and how to revive tired bees. What is also positive is the number of companies invested in helping bees too; from the National Trust to well-known supermarkets. Wildflower seeds (which you can get from Grow Wild UK) are very accessible and can easily be planted for a bee-friendly spot in the garden or window box.

There is hope for the bees yet, but it will take the concern, kindness and help of all of us all if we want the population of these buzzy pollinators to climb again.

About the Author
Helen Alford is an MSc Science Communication and BSc Biological Sciences graduate having studied at the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham. She has got a particular interest in microbiology, immunology, mycology, and how they often overlap! She is passionate about science communication and is involved with a local radio show focused on science and technology (https://web.sheffieldlive.org/shows/the-live-science-radio-show/)

Made to order organs, mere fantasy or indisputable reality?

By Abdullah Iqbal

Will we one day be able to end all organ donor lists?

It sounds like a dream that we can produce organs but it may eventually be possible due to research in regenerative medicine and 3D printing. We may one day be able to produce organs for our individual needs.

Organ
Some of the organs that can be produced from stem cells-
Image credits – dreamstime.com

The organ supply is currently a major problem with 20 people dying every day in America waiting for an organ. But these organs could, in fact, be produced from our own skin. Scientists do this by first adding certain substances called transcription factors to a sample of our skin cells which reprograms them  into stem cells. Because these organs are produced from our own cells our body’s immune system which protects us from foreign invaders will not destroy the transplanted organ.

You might be thinking, why all this hassle just to produce some stem cells? However, stem cells are very special because they have two abilities which make them immensely important. One being self- renewal; the ability to divide and produce more stem cells, and proliferation; the ability to be able to divide into other cell types.

With these stem cells, scientists are trying to produce organs for transplantation. However the complexity of an organ means that there has not been successful transplantation. For example, the heart has seven different cell types and to ensure it functions  it must be developed in an environment which mimics that of the human body. But at present, we do not fully understand what controls an organs’ formation.

Another major problem is that stem cells produced from our own cells (which are called induced pluripotent stem cells [iPSC]) have a higher chance of becoming cancerous. The exact reason for this is still not fully understood and this problem must be eliminated before we can transplant organs generated from stem cells into a patient.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a bright side as we are getting closer to our goal. In 2015 researchers at the University of California, Berkeley generated ‘mini-hearts’ which even beat like a normal heart and have micro-chambers for blood storage. In the same year, scientists at the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh produced the first mini-livers using a 3D printer. These advancements will allow scientists to gain a better understanding of the necessary process that occurs to produce organs and therefore bring us one step closer to our goal of making organs.

The relatively new process of 3D printing will help us get there and hopefully allow us to produce organs on a whim. Imagine having your own made to order organ. You would not have to worry about the donor list. They would just take a small sample of your cells and generate the organ you require – after many complex procedures, of course. These organs are produced using 3D printers and bio-ink.

Bio-ink is a material which mimics the extracellular environment (outside environment) of the organ in question and instead of going on paper the bio-ink is placed layer by layer onto a microgel to ensure the organ keeps its shape. After the organ is produced it must be incubated to allow the cells to mature and so produce a functioning organ.

We are slowly going to achieve our goal of producing organs, but the question is what social and economic ramifications it will cause. Will only the rich be able to use them? Should people who damage their own organs such as smokers and excessive drinkers be allowed to have an organ transplant, when the money could be used to save other people? Will it change social norms, allowing people to become more ignorable to the damage they cause to their organs because they can just be replaced?

I will leave you to ponder these questions and to come to your own decisions.

References

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2017) Organ Donor Statistics [online]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. [Viewed 2nd February 2018]. Available from: https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html

National Institutes of Health (2018) Stem Cell Basics 1 [online]. National Institutes of Health. [Viewed 4th February]. Available from: https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm

Daily Mail (2015) The tiny beating heart grown from STEM CELLS – and scientists say other organs could be on the way [online]. Daily Mail [Viewed 1ST February 2018]. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3162819/The-tiny-beating-heart-grown-STEM-CELLS-scientists-say-organs-way.html

PubMed.gov (2015) Bioprinting of human pluripotent stem cells and their directed differentiation into hepatocyte-like cells for the generation of mini-livers in 3D [online] PubMed.gov [Viewed 3rd February]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26486521

How stuff works (2018) How Bioprinting Works [online]. How stuff works [Viewed 2nd February]. Available From: https://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/modern-technology/3-d-bioprinting.htm

About the Author

I am a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield studying a Biomedical Science Degree. I am deeply interested in the use of stem cells because this is a field of science which hopefully one day I will conduct research in. Therefore, writing a blog post will allow me to further my own understanding of scientific topics and help inform other people about the amazing research currently occurring worldwide to alleviate suffering. Furthermore by informing people of research it will give them hope that there will eventually be a cure for whatever they are suffering from.

LinkedIn: – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/

Email: abdullahiqbal90@googlemail.com

Email me if you have any queries

 

CineScience III: Jason Becker and ALS; from basic research to general public

Jason Becker

 

 

 

 

 

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating disease considered the most common adult onset motor neuronal disorder. Sadly, this disease affects many patients around the world (1 to 3 patients per 100,000 people). These patients develop muscle weakness due to the progressive death of motor neurons (the cells responsible to connect muscles and central nervous system). In addition to the escalating failure of the neuromuscular system, the disease also may alter cognitive function and personality features. All these symptoms finally lead into the paralysis of several systems in the human body and, eventually, to death.

It is very hard to see how ALS can affect people from young age, typically from 30 or even younger ones. That was exactly the case of Jason Becker, an extraordinary guitarist diagnosed with ALS at the age of 19. He is the main character -or rather the hero- of Jason Becker: not dead yet), the documentary we watched in the III CineScience event held in October 2017 in Sheffield (South Yorkshire) . I use here the word “hero” because he had the proper behaviour of one. To the hard diagnosis, add the lack of information about the disease (in the 90’s). However, despite all the adversities, he found the way to transform his own life as an ALS-patient in a battle to raise awareness about the disease; an absolute triumph. [Read more on the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK website]

By Dr Margarita Segovia Roldán, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield. SRUK Yorkshire Constituency.