The One Where We Give Thanks

I’m going to change tack today. I am going to talk about how amazing and world killing women are. Especially women in STEM roles (for those of you unfamiliar, this means the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

I attended an event last week focussing on, and highlighting women in STEM positions. The panel included four amazing women who relayed their experiences to a crowd of enthusiastic young scientists of women and men. These women have all established incredibly successful careers in science whilst also being mothers, partners, friends, and daughters.

Whilst all coming from different backgrounds these women all share a passion and drive for science and a curiosity for the unknown. They all highlighted times in their careers where they have felt undervalued or dismissed, possibly because they are women.

But one thing I would like to highlight is these women all said that they would not be where they are today, or be as successful as they are, if it was not for an amazing support network behind them.

Having a supportive family was important, but even more crucial is having a partner who is your number one fan.

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I’m not trying to say we, as well-equipped, driven women can’t achieve amazing things by ourselves, but having the support and reassurance that ‘someone’s got your back’ in life can be a very powerful tool.

Whether it’s a career in astrophysics, writing a tough research grant, or just trying to get that bowl of spaghetti to taste good for Sunday dinner; when someone’s there, by your side cheering you on, you really do feel like a world killer!

So here’s thanks, to all the people in our lives who support and nurture us, no matter what the outcomes or complications of our careers (and lives) may be.

Thanks cheer squad.

L.

The One With Our T Cells

T cells. The name makes these little guys sound quite simple, but T cells are incredibly intelligent and important for fighting disease.

T cells make up a very important part of our immune system. More specifically, T cells are a certain type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. Other types of lymphocytes are B cells and natural killer cells (very cool name! I will cover these guys another time).

All of the blood cells in our body originate from our bone marrow, which essentially gives birth to and coordinates the sending of stem cells (baby, underdeveloped cells) to other areas of the body. These other areas of the body then help foster the development of these baby cells into specialised adult cells. For example, T cells are called T cells because they turn into adult cells in our thymus, which is right next to our heart.

There are many different types of T cells, but most can be categorised into killer T cells (how cool!) and helper T cells (below). Killer T cells are exactly like they sound, they can kills foreign objects (or pathogens in science speak) that enter our body.

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(picture https://pixabay.com/)

The way they find these is also pretty cool, they swim around our bodies and scan our cells to see if there are any pathogens inside our cells, and if there is they destroy these cells. Helper T cells play important roles in our immune response, such as developing a memory that they’ve seen that pathogen before (by producing antibodies).

Most of our T cells are part of what is called our adaptive immune system, which is responsible for developing immunity to specific pathogens when they enter the body. Think of this as like a specialisation, one T cell becomes a specialist in its pathogen, knowing what it looks like, why it’s not part of our body, and what to do about it when the it encounters that pathogen and how to tell other T cells what to do.

One of the amazing things about T cells is how they can tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy (e.g. cancerous) cells within our body. T cells can read the signals on the outside surface of the cell and determine if the cell is healthy or not. If the T cell thinks the cell is unhealthy then it activates a pathway which ultimately leads to inflammation and destroys the unhealthy cell.

Unfortunately, sometimes T cells can become susceptible to a cancer called T-cell lymphoma. More broadly, lymphoma is a group of blood cancers that can develop from white blood cells, lymphocytes (mentioned earlier). T-cell lymphoma accounts for about 15% of all blood caners and there are a number of different subtypes of T-cell lymphomas, which usually cause people to present to their doctor with symptoms similar to the flu.

Fortunately, research is amazing, and there are some great researchers who have discovered a way to utilise T cells to fight cancer. There is a technique called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) T cells (big words, but let’s focus on what it actually is!), which gives T cells the power to fight certain cancers. They achieve this by attaching an antibody (or signal) of a specific cancer to the T cells outer surface, so then the T cell will hopefully search for and find those cancerous cells and destroy them. In this process the T cell will also employ other T cells to help it out, hopefully overpowering the cancer.

This is just a mere speck of what T cells can do, so if you’d like to know more about T cells there is a great webpage called the Beginners Guide to T cells – http://www.tcells.org/beginners/tcells/, well worth a look.

Until next time.

L.

 

The One With Bacteria

Bacteria. It doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Most of us would avoid anything with bacteria in it or on it wouldn’t we? But bacteria are amazing, and in some cases incredibly helpful little organisms.

What exactly is bacteria? Firstly, they are very small, only made up of one cell. However, these bacterial cells aredifferent to the cells that make up you and me. They don’t have a nucleus, all of their genetic material (deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA) is floating around inside the cell, whereas our DNA is enclosed within the cell nucleus. Think of this like an egg – in humans our DNA is locked up in theegg yolk of our cells (nucleus); but for bacteria, there is no yolk, just the egg white, which is where the bacteria’s DNA is located.

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Bacteria are everywhere – in about 1 gram of soil more than 40 million bacteria can be found – 40 million!!! That’s in just 1 gram of soil, so imagine how many there are in the whole world?!

Bacteria were most likely to first living things on Earth. And you know what? Bacteria are immortal – that is until the area they live is sterilised. So, in comparison to human cells, which have a plan for when the cell will die (although if this process is disrupted it can lead to disease), bacteria cells will live indefinitely until they come into contact with some form of sterilisation, such as bleach. However, in saying that, this view is slowly changing with the more we understand about bacteria, that they might actually use programmed cell death like human cells.

Bacteria can consume organic chemicals (either dead or alive) as nutrition; however, some bacteria are also incredibly clever, they can use photosynthesis (remember school science class?! This is making food utilising sunlight) to create their own nutrition.

A few bacteria give all bacteria a bad name, when people hear the word bacteria they think it must be bad. But in fact, bacteria exists all around us, and if it did not exist then life as we know it probably wouldn’t exist.

I won’t go into every type of bacteria, but let’s take azospirillum for example. This bacteria lives near the roots of mostly tropical grasses. It uses the nutrients emitted by the tropical grasses and turns these into nitrogen, helping to promote plant growth.

Another bacteria, acetobacter, is important for converting ethanol to vinegar.

A more commonly known bacteria, Escherichia coli, is one of the most common bacteria types in every person’s gastrointestinal tract. It’s usually not pathogenic (causes disease); however, it can sometimes lead to urinary tract infections and diarrhea.

You’ve probably also heard of lactobacillus, which are common in pickles, sauerkraut, and yoghurt, and are great for your gut health.

Listeria is probably another bacteria you’ve heard of; it can be quite dangerous, especially if consumed by pregnant women. What is more interesting is that listeria can survive in refrigerated temperatures, which is unusual for most bacteria – take note of those used by dates!

These are just a mere few of the many bacteria types that we know about.

So, hopefully you might understand a little more about bacteria, and how most of the time they are incredibly useful and amazing little organisms!

L.

The One With The Introduction

I’m going to come right out and say it, I’m no good at talking about myself. There, I said it! Scientists are asked to talk about themselves all the time, whether it be at a conference, networking events, in a lab meeting, or at the dinner table with friends. It’s something I have always found hard and have effectively learnt how to deflect the conversation away from me!

But, in a world where self-promotion gets the money and fame (think big Government grants), deflecting attention from myself gets me nowhere, you could almost say negative notoriety. So, as much as I don’t like it, I’ve had to learn to talk about myself, even if it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

I thought I’d be incredibly ingenious and start a novel thing they call a blog. You see blogs are THE new thing, I like to think of myself as a blog pioneer, because as far as I can tell I’m pretty much the first science blogger on the internet (! – slight exaggeration I know).

But more seriously, when I first started writing this very blog post I hadn’t quite realised how much I enjoy writing creatively. You see, I’ve had 15 years of my educators and fellow science peers telling me NOT to write creatively. That’s just not the done thing in science, you have to write empirically and sound intellectual while doing it.

And don’t get me wrong, I love science writing, and value it’s place in science communication; however, I think that to make science (and all of its awesomeness) more reachable and relatable we (as scientists) need to broaden our ideas of what science communication is. It’s not all journal articles and conferences, it’s telling my husband, my family, and my next door neighbour what I did at work today and to hopefully get them excited about science as much as I am.

So that’s why I’m here, and you’re there, reading about my love of science.

L.

@woman_science