‘I would not be a teenager again if you paid me.’ If this statement perhaps sounds familiar, it is with good reason.
When people reflect on their teenage years it is not always in the fondest context. Along the journey from childhood to teenager, and then finally, onto adulthood, the brain changes in a lot of ways. Known as the control centre of the human body, the brain is responsible for our thoughts, actions and how we function in general.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have been working to understand this pivotal developmental period and a new animation from Oxford Sparks, the University’s popular digital science portal, has shone a light on this project. The animation offers a glimpse inside the teenage mind, and highlights the team's efforts to understand these developmental changes, and how much they influence peoples' behaviours during this time.
During this time three key changes take place, that combined, go some way to explaining the rollercoaster of emotions experienced during adolescence:
- Development slows down in the parts of the brain that control our attention span, impulsive behaviours and the ability to both resist distraction and make decisions;
- Increased development and functional ability in the areas of the brain that control people's 'gut reactions', such as emotions, appetite and mood;
- The communication ('cross-talk') between these parts of the brain becomes increasingly efficient.
In terms of brain development, adolescence represents a ‘perfect storm’ for teenagers, which explains some of the highs and lows associated with the period. These include, the pitfalls of taking more risks and increased social anxiety or, on a more positive note, the desire to try new things and have more experiences.
View the video within the context of your own teenage years here:
As Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry, a mother of two and one of Oxford University’s most successful entrepreneurs, developing both the spinout companies MuOx and OxStem, Professor Angela Russell wears many hats. She met with ScienceBlog to discuss the progress of women in science in the 21st century, her journey from academia to a successful business woman and her advice to anyone following in her footsteps.
What does your work in Organic Chemistry involve?
I run an academic research group aiming to develop new drugs to treat devastating degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart failure. The technologies we develop are helping us to answer fundamental clinical questions and understand how different substances affect regeneration processes in the human body. Our work is incredibly rewarding and has the potential to positively impact millions of peoples’ lives.
Has becoming an entrepreneur always been a goal for you?
I always thought I would be a pure academic scientist, so the business side of things was totally unexpected. Often when you make a scientific discovery the most exciting part of the project is seeing it applied, but it easy to become removed from the development process in academia, and, it got me thinking why not just do it myself?
How did your journey into science commercialisation evolve?
I have co-founded two successful Biotech companies and both evolved quite organically. Mentorship has been key. Professor Steve Davies in particular has been a huge influence on my career and a co-founder of both MuOx and OxStem. As an entrepreneur himself, he has always encouraged me down the road of the commercialisation of science.
How did you go about commercialising your research and developing a spinout company?
MuOx (Muscle Oxford) built on a longstanding collaboration with Professor Dame Kay Davies, looking for a new treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Our original findings had led to the formation of VASTOx (now Summit Therapeutics plc) who developed the drug ezutromid into clinical trials. We wanted to discover new drugs that could improve on ezutromid’s effectiveness and went back to designing new substances that took the original research to the next level; MuOx.
Often with spinout development selling your product can be a real challenge, but our ongoing relationship with Summit meant they bought us very quickly. The company was spun out in 2012 and bought for five million pounds, by Summit in 2013. We continue to run an extremely important collaborative research programme with Summit developing these new drugs for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
The technologies we develop are helping us to understand how different substances affect regeneration processes in the human body. Our work is incredibly rewarding and has the potential to positively impact millions of peoples’ lives.
What was the biggest learning curve from the development?
Building a strong case for product development that can be easily communicated to anyone - scientists, investors and general public alike is not easy. But if you don’t get it right, you won’t get the investment. As scientists, we get used to talking to each other in scientific code, but it’s just jargon to anyone else. People can’t support or engage with something they don’t understand, so I had to learn quickly how to communicate to people with varying science knowledge, like patients and the general public. You have to build an exciting case and believe in it yourself: ‘not only is this exciting science, but we can deliver on it and change people’s lives.’ If you don’t believe in your product why should anyone else?
How did OxStem evolve?
MuOx proved that we could translate science effectively, and it gave me the confidence to go for it on a big scale with Oxstem, which was effectively MuOx 2.0. It is exactly the same premise, a company developing drugs to treat diseases. But where MuOx focused specifically on muscle degenerative disease, OxStem aims to develop a platform to treat any degenerative or age-related disease.
Was building the company very different the second time around?
Oxstem isn’t a single company, it is an umbrella company, and we spinout successful daughter subsidiaries, each with a different disease focus – four so far. As an academic research development, it has been hard and time consuming to communicate the value of this structure to university stakeholders. We had to outline the structural benefits and challenges, such as how the model could work within existing financial structures, management of intellectual property and so on. It took a long time, but we achieved our goal, and in May 2016 we hit our £17 million target needed to get the company off the ground.
What was the biggest challenge you faced setting up a spinout?
Getting people to believe in your idea in the early stages is really difficult, particularly with funders. Investment is essential to progressing opportunities from lab experiments, to something that will be of benefit to patients in the long run. It takes a lot of time and patience and you have to be up front with people, making sure that they understand what they are getting into. Yes it is a lucrative investment opportunity, but there are risks.
What advice would you give to someone looking to commercialise their research?
Identify a clear market need for your product, make a clear development plan and a list of reasons why you are the only one that can deliver on it. That is the way to be successful. Being actively involved in progressing your research is so rewarding. If you truly believe in your idea, this is the route for you.
Generally getting government or charity funding for discovery science is straight forward, but doing so for an idea that you want to translate into a research led, spin-out is not so easy; dubbed the “valley of death”. You have to have proof of concept, and show that your idea is going to work.
What projects are you currently working on?
The bulk of my work focuses on the development of new drugs to tackle degenerative and age-related diseases. For instance in collaboration with Professor Francis Szele we are looking at treating diseases like Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions and how symptoms can be reversed. A disease like Alzheimer’s is characterised by the progressive loss of neurones in the brain, and we are working to develop a regenerative treatment that will replenish these neurones, reversing the symptoms of the condition in the process. It will make a tremendous difference to people’s lives. If all goes to plan, we will be ready to run a clinical trial in the next three to five years.
You have to build an exciting case for your product, and believe in it yourself. If you don’t believe in it why should anyone else?
Has being a woman in science posed any specific challenges for you?
I have never been discouraged or made to feel that I can’t achieve things because I am a woman. Nor have I ever felt it was an advantage either. I think that is really important. We can’t solve gender bias against women, by deflecting it to men. We have to create an environment where it is better for everybody. I am heavily involved in the Athena SWAN Charter, self-assessment process, and it’s not about creating more opportunities for women, but for everybody, and achieving equality across the board.
How do you think these opportunities can be created?
I think we have to change the working culture, and focus more on valuing people for what they contribute, not how long a day they work. In the past there was a more blinkered view that a brutally long working day was the only way to succeed, which made managing a family and a career almost impossible, but that is changing.
We can’t solve gender bias by deflecting it to men. We have to build an environment that is better for everybody. Not just creating more opportunities for women, but achieving equality across the board.
What motivated you to become a scientist?
My dad was always supportive of my ambitions. When I was 14 he told me ‘you’ll never be happy with a desk job.’ He was right. I’ve always been driven by a desire to carry out research for the betterment of human health. Chemistry was a subject I absolutely loved at school and saw as fundamental to all science because it underpins and impacts so many other disciplines, including medicine.
What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in STEM?
The decisions that you make at the beginning of your career are important, and can impact your whole future, so try and think long term wherever possible. Everyone makes mistakes, but recognising when you aren’t on the right track and correcting it quickly makes it easier to stay on course. I came to Oxford to study Biochemistry, but realised quickly that it wasn’t for me. Two weeks before my first year exams I told my tutor I wanted to change to Chemistry. I flipped straight into the second year of a Chemistry degree, and almost gave my tutor a heart attack, but it was exactly the right decision for me.
If you hadn’t been a scientist what was your plan B?
I would have been a chef. I actually think chemists and chefs have a lot in common. They experiment with flavour combinations and we scientists cook up drugs that we want to use for clinical use. There is nothing more rewarding than cooking a nice dinner and watching your children tuck in.
In a guest blog, Dr Oliver van Hecke, DPhil student in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences and Oxfordshire GP, explains why genetics may determine whether someone experiences multiple chronic diseases.
Chronic pain, depression and heart disease are three of the commonest causes of disability, and are becoming more prevalent in the population. Increasingly, some people will suffer from one or several of these long-term health problems in their lifetime, which is known as multimorbidity, but why? Is this simply down to bad luck or could there be an underlying cause, perhaps due to a shared familial risk, and/or genetic factors?
While we know that age, gender, social circumstances and lifestyle increase someone’s vulnerability to multiple causes of disability, research has now revealed that genetics can indeed play a role in determining whether someone experiences multiple chronic illnesses.
The new study, which we were involved with along with colleagues at the University of Dundee and Kings College, London, examined two major existing population cohorts (Generation Scotland and TwinsUK), for the likelihood of chronic pain, depression and heart disease co-occurring in both individuals and in their siblings. We found that people who had one of these illnesses were much more likely to have one or both of the other illnesses.
Interestingly, we identified a sibling link – the brothers or sisters of people with one of these illnesses were much more likely to have one of the other illnesses too, even after allowing for known social and demographic factors. For example, siblings of people with heart disease were twice as likely to have chronic pain, while siblings of those with depression were twice as likely to suffer from heart disease.
Using the twins data, we were able to show that genetics contributed to the co-occurrence of chronic widespread pain and heart disease in twins, in addition to important environmental contributions.
The finding that genes likely play a key role in determining whether someone experiences multiple chronic illnesses provides researchers new avenues to explore the underlying biological mechanisms between different conditions. Of course, as both a researcher and a clinician I realise it will always be important to address the social and demographic factors that cause disability and comorbidity, such as deprivation for example. However this new insight into the shared genetics of comorbidities may enable us to recognise these conditions earlier in the community. This would, in turn, allow us to focus on preventative therapies for these patients by targeting the underlying causes (such as stress or health inequalities) rather than the visible symptoms of the condition itself.
The full study, ‘Chronic pain, depression and cardiovascular disease linked through a shared genetic predisposition: Analysis of a family-based cohort and twin study,’ can be read in the journal PLOS ONE.
As part of our Women in Science series, ScienceBlog meets Professor Tamsin Mather, a volcanologist in the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. She discusses her professional journey to date, including recent work with the education initiative Votes for Schools, and why science is the best game around.
What is a typical day in the life of a volcanologist like?
Volcanology is incredibly varied, so there is no typical day. Some days I am out in the field, gathering samples from volcanoes and others I’ll be in the lab, giving lectures, or out in the community, encouraging people to take an interest in science.
What has your professional highlight been to date?
There have been lots, but one of the most exciting was finding fixed nitrogen in volcanic plumes in Nicaragua.
All living things need nitrogen to survive. Although Earth’s atmosphere is mainly made up of nitrogen, its atoms are very tightly bonded into molecules, so we can’t use it. To do so, you need something to trigger their separation. For example, when lightning strikes, the heat prompts atmospheric nitrogen to react with oxygen, forming nitrogen oxides or “fixed nitrogen”. We discovered that above lava lakes, volcanic heat can have the same effect.
Volcanology is incredibly varied. Some days I am out in the field, gathering samples from volcanoes and others I’ll be in the lab, giving lectures, or out in the community, encouraging people to take an interest in science.
Why was the discovery so interesting?
The research shows how volcanoes have played a role in the evolution of the planet and the emergence and development of life.
But that particular trip looms large in my memory because we were robbed while getting the data. I remember it vividly, we had waited all day at the crater edge for the plume to settle, but the sun set before we had a chance to take our measurements. We went back to the national park early the next day, before the security guards arrived, and got robbed at gun point. In retrospect we should have known better, but excitement got the better of us. A terrifying experience but thankfully no one got hurt. We didn’t even get great data that day in the end.
How did you come to specialise in volcanology?
By mistake. When applying for my PhD I put ocean chemistry as my first choice, but I was stumped for my second choice, so browsed the list of topics and the atmospheric chemistry of volcanic plumes stood out to me. I got more and more excited as I read about it, and ended up switching it from my second to first choice. I haven’t looked back.
Do you think being a woman in science holds any particular challenges?
The statistics bear it out - we are still in the minority. There are lots more women in more junior levels now and that will filter through eventually. I definitely would have appreciated more visible female scientist role models when I was younger, but I think the perception of science as a male pursuit is eroding.
For instance, I used to love Space LEGO, but there wasn’t much diversity in the astronaut characters that came with the kits then. Now, my primary school age daughter loves it too, and the kits are much more diverse. I even have the all-female Research Institute kit in my office. The landscape has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but there is still more to be done.
There isn’t just one solution. Whether in relation to gender or ethnic diversity in science, it is a multi-component problem. If someone is the only woman or ethnic minority in their group, they may feel there is no future role for them. There are so many influencing factors in this situation and they are not all easily articulated or solved.
Science is the best game around. You could be building bridges, curing a disease, developing new apps or climbing a volcano – the world is your oyster. I get paid to discover new things about our planet every day, how cool is that?!
What do you think can be done to encourage more diversity in science?
One of the key challenges for women in academia is the transition from PhD student, to post doc level and on to permanent faculty member. Often at that stage scientists have to relocate frequently. Some of my female contemporaries found this difficult and wanted more stability. Maybe they wanted to be close to a partner, or were thinking about having children. That is not an easy problem to solve and it can be difficult for men too.
There are things that can be done to make this journey easier. Programmes that provide flexible working patterns for outstanding scientists, like the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship scheme, work well, for instance.
What are you working on at the moment?
We are studying the volcanoes of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia. Little is known about the history of these volcanoes and how often they erupt. But by measuring the layers of ash that have deposited around them, we can learn more about past and present volcanic activity. It’s possible these volcanoes could be used as energy sources in the future and we are investigating their potential for geothermal development.
How did you get started in science?
I always found it fun and really wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was seven I had an ear operation which killed that dream.
How did you come to be involved in Votes for Schools, the education initiative supporting children to have informed opinions?
It’s a great way to get young people thinking critically about the difference between opinions and facts. We have to empower young people and make sure they realise why having a voice matters. It is important to have an informed opinion, no matter your age. I was asked to join the Votes for Schools team, visiting Packmoor Ormiston Academy to talk about being a female scientist and to launch the primary school version of the scheme.
How did the children respond to your question, ‘Do we need more female scientists and engineers?’
The majority (61%) felt that there were not enough female scientists. The statistics of under-representation, arguments about diverse teams performing better, and the importance of engaging the whole of society in science were key here. Those that responded no, felt women have the right to choose what they want to be, a scientist or otherwise. Cultural background came into play as well, with some saying that women should stay at home.
What were your main takeaways from working with the initiative?
Questions like ‘do you ever work on metamorphic as well as igneous rock?’ really surprised me, and the enthusiasm of staff and children alike was fantastic. They really understood the issues and were not afraid to express their opinions. Technology is so central to our lives now, compared to when I was at school. Smart phones and computer games have become key to how we socialise and have fun. Science and technology are certainly not just for geeks anymore!
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in STEM?
Do it! It’s the best game around. There are so many doors that a career in STEM opens for you. You could be building bridges, curing a disease, developing new computer games or apps or climbing a volcano – the world is your oyster. I get paid to discover new things about our planet every day, how cool is that?!
Although women in science continue to be underrepresented at the highest level, things are slowly changing. In a complex but changing culture, many have built highly successful, rewarding careers, carving out a niche for themselves as a role model to budding scientists, regardless of gender.
In honour of the forthcoming International Women’s Day (March 8th 2017), over the next few weeks, ScienceBlog will be turning the spotlight on some of the diverse and accomplished women of Oxford. Women who, in influencing and changing the world around them with their work, are inspiring a new generation of young people to follow in their footsteps.
Bushra AlAhmadi is a DPhil student in the Department of Computer Science, specialising in cyber security. In 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Google Anita Borg scholarship for women in technology and co-founded the community outreach initiative, InspireHer. The initiative aims to build on young girls’ interest in computer science, by engaging both parent and child with a fun and interactive coding workshop.
How did you come to choose computer science as your field of expertise?
I had a head full of ideas and naturally really enjoyed computer programming; building something from scratch and teaching it to do things. Being able to make something do what you want is both useful and powerful – and that is all coding is. People are just starting to realise that as a skill, it can be useful in lots of areas - not only science areas like engineering, robotics, website development and computing, but also business, law and even retail. It has allowed me to work in multiple fields: programming, security, network security and now cyber security. The freedom of variety to do what you want is really appealing.
What are you currently working on?
My research involves designing malware detection systems, specifically in Software Defined Networks (SDN). Day to day, it involves a lot of coding and testing, trying to find ways to detect and prevent malware. At the moment I am working with external security operation centres' (SOCs) and analysts to understand how they detect malicious activities on the network.
What do you find most challenging about being a woman in science?
As a Saudi Arabian, who completed her master’s degree in California and now lives here in Oxford, I think being a woman in science depends on where you are. Saudi Arabia is actually the place where I feel least aware that I am a 'woman in science'. My university, King Saud University, is divided into single sex campuses, and we actually have an equal number of female and male students studying computer science, if not more. There are around 1,000 female computing undergraduates as well as Master's and PhD students, so we don’t see ourselves as female scientists, just scientists. But, both in the USA and UK, I was always aware of being a minority in my field. Often you are the only woman in your study group.
We need more women and ethnic minorities working in tech, so don’t be afraid to apply just because you are different. In my case it has only been an asset.
In the early stages of my pregnancy, I didn’t want people to think I was less capable of doing my work, so didn’t tell anyone at first and became quite isolated and homesick. But, when I did tell my tutors, the support I got from the university was great, and made me wish I had done so sooner. Everyone from my supervisors to the administrators, went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Female professors are still a minority at Oxford, but they openly talk about their experiences as women. It’s so important to have relatable role models who talk about motherhood, rather than hiding it away like it is wrong, or that in doing so they are making excuses.
When I attended my first seminar after having my son, I was really nervous. My professor pulled me aside and said: 'if you need to bring your child to a lecture or a meeting, just do it – I have.' It instantly put me at ease and made me realise, it didn’t matter. She was a mum too, like lots of other female scientists. They do not let it hold them back, so I never have either. As a woman and an international student, you feel very welcome and safe here. With everything happening in the world at the moment, I feel very lucky to be here.
What accomplishments are you most proud of to date?
Winning a place on the Google Women Techmakers Scholars Programme, which was formerly known as the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship Programme (offering financial support to people studying computer science at under graduate or graduate level) was a great honour. On a personal level, doing a PhD while pregnant and having my son in my first year of study is something I am very proud of.
What led you to set up InspireHer?
Female professors are still a minority at Oxford, but they openly talk about their experiences as women. It’s so important to have relatable role models who talk about motherhood, rather than hiding it away like it is wrong, or that in doing so they are making excuse.
As part of my scholarship we were asked to come up with outreach ideas and as a mum, I wanted to engage parents as well, so that they can support and encourage their child’s interest in computer science.
InspireHer is a programme for young girls, who with their parents can become inspired through coding. Through the programme, I often meet parents who think that exposure to technology is bad for their child's development. There are lots of computer and smart tech games that can help children with their maths and science skills development.
Programmes like SCRATCH encourage children to create their own stories, animations and videos.
What can be done to encourage more young girls to choose a career in STEM?
Research suggests that if we want to see more women working in the STEM sciences, we have to engage them at an early age. Having a parent to help and guide them helps feed a child’s interest and boost their confidence. If parents do not understand or value computer science, then their children are not likely to either.
Strong, encouraging role models are really important, especially for younger children (under five) who would not know where to look for coding activities on their own. I am very proud to be a woman in science. There are some great female computer scientists, but to stay that way, we need a new generation to follow suit and a generation after that and after that. Workshops like InspireHer allow young girls to build on their interest in computing, practice activities and then decide for themselves if it is the right career for them.
How can schools better support children interested in science?
Some of the girls attending InspireHer events say they love science, but find school boring. Coding is an interactive and fun way to learn as it is multi-disciplinary and a good skill to develop, whatever field you decide to go into. Teachers could use the robotic ball exercise to make maths and science lessons more hands on. We use it a lot at InspireHer events and the children respond well to it. They learn to code and control the ball, coordinating its movements by using drag, drop and pause options. The game encourages the same step by step approach and problem-solving skills as playing with LEGO or building blocks.
What are your goals for the future?
I am participating in the first Saudi Arabian Cyber Security Contest, which in light of the recent cyber-attacks on Saudi Arabia, is a big deal in my country. Twenty finalists were chosen out of 500 entrants.
When I complete my scholarship in 2018, I will return to Saudi Arabia and teach coding to undergraduates. I am also preparing to launch my own cyber security consultancy business, which I hope will support government and private organisations to develop and build their cyber security capabilities.
What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in computer science?
Believe in yourself and you can make a great impact in any field, especially tech and computing. Don’t be afraid to take the lead, firsts only happen because someone makes them happen. When I started at King Saud University, the only student society was for male law students, (there was nothing for women). I started the first IT Society for Women, organising coding workshops and tech talks. I’ve also been involved with Oxford Women in Computer Science since I arrived at the University in 2014, and was President of the group from 2015 - 2016. We organised the second Oxbridge women in computer science conference, bringing together female researchers from Oxford and Cambridge. Of all the sciences, computing really benefits from and needs diversity. We need more women and ethnic minorities working in tech, so don’t be afraid to apply just because you are different. In my case it has only been an asset.
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