Oxford Science Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Science Blog

Image credit: Carlyn Samuel

‘I’m passionate about what I do’ is arguably one of the most hollow, overused expressions in the CV writing handbook. For an increasing amount of people who clock-watch their way through a 9-5 existence, rarely getting the results or satisfaction that they are hoping for, having a passion for your work is more of a pipe dream than a tangible reality. Particularly for those further along the career path, who often convince themselves that they are either too old to succeed or that it is too late to try.

For the first 15 years of her professional life, Carlyn Samuel was one of these people. Having built a successful PR career,  it was only when she put the brakes on and took some time for herself, that, at the age of 38, she made the decision to take a Master’s degree in Conservation Science and start over. Eight years later, she has never looked back and is now a research coordinator at Oxford’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS). She talks to ScienceBlog about why making a major career transition later in life was the best decision she ever made, and how she has used her communications expertise to make research more accessible to the wider public through Soapbox Science.

What triggered your decision to change career?
I spent 15 years of my working life in PR for the printing industry – not exactly the most eco-friendly world. The lack of fulfilment bothered me, but never enough to actually do anything about it. A three month sabbatical exploring the Amazon Rainforest turned out to be life-changing. Few people know this, but substantive parts of the Amazon are owned by the fuel industry. In one area I visited it shocked me to see the region divided up into plots. Instead of town names each bore the name of a multinational oil company. But I came across one community that was completely independent. Despite extreme pressure they had refused to sell out to big business, and they had started an eco-lodge. It struck me that if they could stand up and save their little piece of the jungle, I could do my part to protect our wonderful planet.

So, at 38 I decided to go for it, and applied for a master’s degree in Conservation Science at Imperial College London, which is where I met EJ Miller-Gulland, (Tasso Laventis Professor of Biodiversity in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.) She offered me a job after I graduated and I have been working for her ever since.

What does your role in the ICCS group involve?
I’m lucky that I get to work on a number of different projects in one job. From trying to change the discourse in conservation through our Conservation Optimism movement, to protecting endangered antelopes with the Saiga Conservation Alliance. This involves travelling to central Asia a lot and working with rural, low income communities. Most have challenging lifestyles, with temperatures ranging from 40 degrees celsius in the summer to -30  in the winters, often with no running water and limited electricity. It reminds me to count my blessings and appreciate how lucky I am to live where I live, and be able to help people and biodiversity in some small way.

What do you enjoy most about conservation research?
I love the multi-dimensional nature of our work. Conservation isn’t just about saving specific species, it is about understanding the whole eco-system, the importance it has to local communities on many different levels - be it cultural, spiritual or economic - and the demands being placed on it by different stakeholders. Then understanding how to best work with people most affected by any conservation decision, as well as other groups and experts to safeguard both that biodiversity and people’s wellbeing.

Image credit: ShutterstockThe ICCS runs a number of projects including the Saiga Conservation Alliance, protecting the endangered antelopes of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. Image credit: Shutterstock

How do you go about this?

A successful project often considers the big picture, so is tackled by an interdisciplinary team.

One ICCS project involves tackling the illegal wildlife trade, bringing together inspirational colleagues across the University that you wouldn’t normally interact with. For example, we are working with the Oxford Internet Institute to understand the trade’s digital footprint and the role of the dark web. To address the problem we’re utilising theory and methods from public health, economics, psychology, ecology and sociology. I never would have imagined that a career in conservation would involve so many different skill sets.

Have there been any stand-out highlights for you so far?
The Conservation Optimism movement is brilliant. Thanks to things like Blue Planet, ocean conservation is an issue that seems to have finally captured public attention. The summit I helped to arrange last year brought people of different ages and backgrounds together, from all around the world.

Young people are so internet savvy and enthusiastic, it was really inspiring to sit and listen to what they are doing to conserve nature. They are able to tap into so many new funding streams because people want to support local, youth-driven programmes. We had conservationists with over 40 years’ experience eagerly engaging with the next generation of conservationists, wanting to learn from them and vice versa. It was great see that knowledge exchange in action. When we set up the initiative we wanted to create a hub for people to share ideas and connect with each other, which is really taking off. And now there are smaller Conservation Optimism events springing up across the world as a result.

What are the biggest challenges in your work?
It can be hard to get funding for conservation if the project doesn’t involve charismatic megafauna in Africa – and particularly if you work in ex-Soviet countries, as we do. For us, £5k is a tonne of money that we can do so much with. We can run a saiga awareness programme across multiple schools, in several countries! Or fund a womens’ embroidery initiative in Uzbekistan to empower women.

Publicity definitely helps though - recent coverage around saiga deaths has triggered a peak in interest in conservation-related issues. We are getting there, we just have to sustain that momentum.

What has your experience been as a women starting a career in science later in life?
Coming in at Master’s degree level there were more women on my course than men, which was a welcome surprise, and we’ve continued to support each other’s careers ever since. I have been fortunate to have strong female role models and mentors like EJ, so have never felt unsupported. For me the challenge was learning how to study after all this time, and learning my way around a new field.

For various reasons it is difficult to get women to consider taking-up scientific careers. I looked into this a little more and discovered that at school, girls are more likely to rate science as their favourite subject, and out-perform boys at GCSE, A-level and degree-level. Even so, STEMM subjects have been found to account for only 35% of the HE qualifications achieved by women. Notably, women account for only 15% of UK science professors and are woefully underrepresented when it comes to key positions within STEMM-based careers in the UK.

I think there is a constant bias, particularly for women who return to work after having children. Unconscious questions like ‘is she still going to be as focused on her work?’ Men who become fathers are rarely judged in this way. 

The way the media biases perceptions does nothing to help change the dialogue. Headlines about ‘female pilots/doctors/scientists’ drive me mad. She’s not a female pilot, she’s a pilot.

Image credit: ShutterstockCarlyn also works on Conservation Optimism, the global initiative dedicated to sharing optimistic stories about conservation and inspiring people all over the world to do their part to protect the planet. Image credit: Shutterstock

How did you come to be involved in Soapbox Science?
I stumbled across it in London and just thought it was such a great way of getting science out there and showing people that women in science are not freaks – they’re real people who can be very approachable.

It works on different levels, first to get young women more engaged in science, and secondly, to challenge our academics to communicate their research in a more accessible way, it also does a great job of boosting their profiles and careers.

Young girls who might be passing and have never thought of science as an option for them get to see how fun it can be - it’s not just about the highbrow science. We have had a few situations where children have approached the speakers afterwards to thank them for being so brave and inspiring. If you just inspire one person, that’s all it takes.

What do you like most about the initiative?
There are so many incredible women here but trying to get them not only to talk about their work, but to a general audience, can be a challenge. They are so nervous, but once they get up on the soapbox they are running on adrenalin. It isn’t just good for their science but for their CV and their confidence. It can lead to jobs in science communications and increased research funding. I love seeing them excel.
What do you think can be done to encourage more young people to get into science?

School curriculums need to make the real world connections clearer to make learning more interesting and relevant.

It’s often said that if you are bad at maths or science you can’t work in a science-led field, but I don’t agree. You can still offer a lot, but there needs to be a route in for these people too. We need to teach young women that you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to work in ‘traditional’ scientific environments. I recently spoke with a fantastic drone pilot working on a rigorously scientific ocean conservation project. She isn’t a scientist but the project would have been impossible without her.

What are you looking forward to this year?
I run our biodiversity fellowship programme, which is a great two-way learning experience. It allows three people a year to come and work with ICCS for a term, fully funded. When the programme first launched we had about 50 applicants but now it is so popular, that we have over 300.

We recently had a vet with us from Uganda who works on gorilla conservation. She noticed that local people, with limited access to basic health and other social services were passing diseases to the gorillas, so she developed a public health programme. Integrating human, animal and ecosystem health together is a new field in conservation and gaining traction. Coming into the office is like getting my batteries recharged with inspiration.


Aspirin crystals

Professor Guy Thwaites, Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam, explains the discovery of yet another use for one of the most ubiquitous and ancient of drugs – aspirin.

Tuberculous meningitis is the most lethal form of tuberculosis (TB), killing or disabling around half of all sufferers despite the best available treatment. Aspirin is a commonly available over-the-counter medication that prevents blood clotting and helps reduce and resolve inflammation. Our research team in Vietnam wondered whether this ancient drug might help increase survival rates from TB meningitis by reducing brain inflammation and preventing the disease from blocking blood vessels in the brain that cause parts of the brain to die (commonly called ‘stroke’).

With funding from the Wellcome Trust, UK, we investigated whether the addition of aspirin at low (81mg/day) or high (1000mg/day) dose, or placebo, to the first 60 days of current standard TB meningitis treatment (anti-TB drugs and steroids) was safe and reduced new strokes or death from this severe disease.

Dr. Guy Thwaites - Director OUCRU-VNDr. Guy Thwaites - Director OUCRU-VN
When we analysed all 120 patients who entered the trial we found that both aspirin doses were safe and both doses were associated with a reductions in new brain infarctions and death in the first 60 days of treatment, although these reductions could have occurred by chance. However, when we just looked at the 92 patients in our study that definitely had TB meningitis, with TB bacteria either seen or grown from brain fluid, there was a substantial reduction in stroke and death by 60 days. This was especially apparent in those given the high (1000mg) dose of aspirin: 34.4% of patients treated with placebo died or suffered stroke, whereas only 10.7% who received the high (1000mg) dose of aspirin suffered these complications. The benefit was still apparent for those who received the lower dose of aspirin – but less dramatic, with 14.8% suffering stroke or death.

To understand how aspirin might work in TB meningitis treatment we took brain fluid from the trial participants before and after 60 days of treatment and measured an array of substances known to be linked to inflammation and aspirin’s treatment effects. When we compared 81mg with 1000mg of aspirin we found that 1000mg was associated with much lower concentrations of thromboxane A2, which would inhibit the blood’s ability to clot and may help prevent stroke. We also found higher concentrations of molecules called ‘protectins’ which help the body resolve inflammation. These findings are especially interesting as they may indicate new ways to treat TB meningitis and other forms of TB, and they support the trial’s clinical findings that aspirin 1000mg/day may reduce the risk of stroke and increase survival rates in patients.

The next step will be larger trials in children and adults, including those co-infected with HIV, to confirm our results. But it seems TB meningitis may be added to the long list of life-threatening conditions that benefit from a daily aspirin dose, including stroke, heart attacks, and the prevention of colorectal cancer.

While aspirin was developed as a drug in the form we now recognise in the 19th century, the active compounds occur naturally in willow bark and other plants, and humans have been using it in its natural form for thousands of years. There is evidence of ancient Egyptians using willow bark as a medicine, and the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the benefits of willow bark and willow leaves to relieve pain and fevers. Nowadays, aspirin should be used in consultation with a doctor to minimize any side-effects. However, this study has shown more evidence that aspirin is indeed a remarkable drug.

The full paper, ‘A randomised double blind placebo controlled phase 2 trial of adjunctive aspirin for tuberculous meningitis in HIV-uninfected adults’, can be read in the journal eLife Sciences.


An Oxford research project mapping all the hillforts across England and Ireland, has been lauded by industry leaders at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference, Austin, Texas, as one of the best examples of multidisciplinary research in the UK.

Selected as the only Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project to be presented at the AAAS Conference, the atlas was built in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and the support of citizen scientists across the country. The survey was five years in the making and includes information on all of the hillforts in Britain and Ireland – 4,147 in total, collated into a publicly accessible website. 

The AAAS Conference attracts more than 8000 delegates from broad ranging fields including academic science, government policy and more general interests.

Professor Gary Lock, co-principal investigator on the project and Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Oxford University and John Pouncett, also of The School of Archaeology, Oxford University, attended the event alongside Professor Ian Ralston co-principal investigator and Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University, to demonstrate the atlas to attendees who also included school age children and their parents.

Professor Lock said, ‘To be chosen as the single project to represent the AHRC at the AAAS is an incredible honour that verifies the importance of our work and shows the leading position of archaeology within international humanities and scientific research.'

The unique resource provides free access to information about world-famous sites as well as many previously little-known hillforts, helping ramblers, cyclists, naturalists, and history enthusiasts discover them and the landscapes around them.

Mostly built during the Iron Age, the oldest hillforts date back to around 1,500BC and the most recent to around 700AD. Hillforts played a pivotal role in more than 2,000 years of ancient living and served various functions, such as defence and communal gathering spaces, while other uses have yet to be fully understood.

Terry O’Connor, Communications Director at the Science and Technology Facilities Council and lead for the UKRI AAAS campaign said: ‘We selected the Hillforts Atlas exhibit as an excellent example of the best of UK multidisciplinary research – combining archaeology, remote sensing, citizen science and other techniques to provide not only a new research tool but an exciting way of engaging the public with research. The team of Gary, Ian and John were fabulous ambassadors for the project, their science and their universities.’

Mike Collins, Head of Communications at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: 'The Hillfort Atlas project was the ideal fit for the AAAS conference in Texas as it showcases brilliantly the use of technology to tell the story of hillforts across the UK and Ireland. The Atlas was one of the public engagement hits of 2017 with hundreds of thousands of people visiting the website and an amazing reaction in the media and through social media. It's been a great example of how years of hard research work can pay dividends and get the public excited about the history of where they live or a place that they love to go on holiday too.'

Since its launch in June 2017 the Atlas website has been a tremendous success with the general public, students, academics and a range of environmental specialists. The site is still being developed with new functionality and analytical capabilities to be added.

Fort finder: An atlas of the hillforts of Britain and Ireland:

Protein structure

Proteins in cells underpin many of our most important functions, from muscle contraction to breaking down food. In a new study published in the journal Science, researchers from the universities of Oxford and Massachusetts explore how these proteins assemble into the 'complexes' that allow them to perform their specific tasks. Two of the paper's authors, Professor Justin Benesch from Oxford's Department of Chemistry and Dr Georg Hochberg, formerly of Oxford and now of the University of Chicago, discuss the study's findings. 

What are proteins, and what role do they play within organisms?

Proteins are the biochemical workhorses of cells. They make muscles contract, break down food, replicate genetic material, and underlie our senses. To perform these important functions, most proteins assemble into so-called complexes. A complex consists of several individual proteins chains that associate in a precise and stable geometrical arrangement.

What did we previously know about how proteins assemble and interact? What didn't we know?

Protein complexes are incredibly specific. Each cell contains thousands of different proteins, each of which is only part of a small number of complexes. So proteins have to be able to recognise their assembly partners with incredible fidelity, excluding from their assemblies the vast majority of other proteins. In general, proteins that interact to form a complex have three-dimensional structures that fit together tightly, with surfaces that display a high degree of shape and charge complementarity – that is, they fit together in both shape and with charges attracting rather than repelling each other.

But somehow many proteins also exclude other proteins from their complexes that have very similar shapes compared to their proper interaction partners. This happens because new protein complexes are often created by evolution through gene duplication, a kind of copy-paste mechanism in which two initially identical copies of a single ancestral complex are produced. Because their three-dimensional structures will be identical at first, the two copies initially always co-assemble into a complex together. But in many cases, they gradually 'forget' how to do this, and eventually only form two separate complexes – one containing only protein chains from the first copy, the other only chains from the second copy. Why proteins become selective in their assembly like this, as well as how they achieve it structurally, was completely unknown.

What did this research find?

We first found, by looking at many proteins from a variety of organisms, that proteins avoid co-assembling with the majority of their gene duplication copies and that this allows the two copies to carry out different biochemical functions. This means that 'forgetting' how to co-assemble with their gene duplication relatives is a key step in the evolution of novel biochemical functions.

We then worked out exactly how selective assembly is achieved structurally between two small heat-shock plant proteins that were created by gene duplication. Small heat-shock proteins protect other proteins from the dangerous effects of heat stress. Both proteins we studied assemble into complexes with only their own protein chains, but do co-assemble into complexes containing both kinds of chains.

To our great surprise, the two proteins had near-identical structures, with no clear sign of an absence of shape or charge complementarity that would prevent them from co-assembling. Instead, we found that evolution achieved selectivity in the most economical fashion, modifying only a minimal number contacts between the proteins, and exploiting very subtle differences in the way the two proteins deform as they assemble into their specific complexes. We could also show theoretically that such selectivity should be easier to achieve for complexes containing fewer protein chains, and that this has left a measurable imprint in the number of chains selective complexes actually contain in nature.

This was a highly collaborative piece of work, between biophysical chemists in Oxford and plant scientists at the University of Massachusetts, and required us to use a broad range of methods, from theoretical statistical mechanics, to computer simulations and experiments to determine the molecular structure of the proteins, to functional investigations on pea leaves.

What are the implications of this research?

Our results imply that a major rethink of the determinants of molecular selectivity in proteins is required, away from simple shape and charge complementarity. In addition, our data has demonstrated the selectivity in assembly of small heat-shock proteins is an important part of their function, and may give us new opportunities in developing more thermally resistant plants.

Why does it take so long to see a GP?

Dr Kamal R. Mahtani, an Oxfordshire based GP and deputy director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, discusses the pressures on GPs and the factors affecting patient waiting times.

Over 50 million people in England are cared for by the NHS and at least 90% have their first NHS contact with a GP. However, getting to see a GP is increasingly becoming more of a challenge. The latest NHS patient survey showed that about one in five patients had to wait one week or more before they could see or speak to someone at their GP surgery. Ominously, the British Medical Association have added that patients should expect current waiting times to “rocket”. The Royal College of General Practitioners now estimate that by 2022 there will be over 100 million incidents of a patient waiting a week or more to see a GP or practice nurse. 

This is bad news for patients. Longer waiting times mean that fewer patients will be seen and - for those that do get an appointment - severe constraints on the time that a GP can devote to each appointment.

So what is driving these pressures? One obvious reason is that patient demand has increased substantially. A recent analysis, published in The Lancet, and led by a team at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, examined over 100 million NHS primary care consultations. The analysis showed that between 2007 and 2014 there were significant increases in both the numbers of consultations being requested by patients and the lengths of the consultations; the system, the researchers suggested, was reaching a “saturation point”.

Along with increasing demands to see GPs, the complexity of patients’ problems has also increased. A 10-year study of more than 15,000 people in England, aged over 50, showed a 10% rise in the number of patients who have two or more long-term conditions, so-called “multimorbidity”. NHS England has suggested that this is currently the greatest challenge facing the NHS, a challenge largely being managed by GPs. Patients who live longer, but with more health problems, also face the potential problem of polypharmacy, the use of multiple medications, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. A 15-year study of over 300,000 patients in Scotland showed a doubling in the number of individuals who were taking five or more medicines. Avoiding the harms that medicines can cause, while maintaining their potential benefits by optimising their use, is a challenge faced by every GP every day, and one that can rarely be managed during a typical 10-minute consultation.

With rising demands and clinical complexity, the number of UK GPs continues to fall, a trend that, unless adequately addressed, appears likely to continue. A 2015 survey of over 1000 GPs showed that 82% intended to reduce direct clinical work within the next five years, citing work-related pressures, the changing nature of the job, and stress as contributing factors. A King’s Fund report has emphasised other problems contributing to the current pressures facing GPs: high levels of deprivation, a decline in self-management of minor illnesses, higher expectations, particularly of new services, and a fall in general practice funding.

If these pressures continue to mount, patients will suffer more than just longer waiting times. The Royal College of General Practitioners has suggested that the growing GP workload may affect patient safety. Empirical evidence suggests that this may already be happening. In a survey conducted by the British Medical Association, 93% of GP respondents reported that their workload had had negative effects on patient care.

Depending on what you read, the UK National Health Service is either one of the best health care systems in the world or one of the worst. Nevertheless, when the NHS was founded in 1948, “the most civilised achievement of modern Government” according to Nye Bevan, egalitarian implementation of the best standards of health care was expected to lead to reduced demands. The opposite has happened. The NHS has been hugely successful and is widely admired, but few will deny that it is suffering from its own success. For that success to be maintained, the factors that are harming it must be recognised and remedied. Given the number of patients served by general practice, this should be an obvious priority.