Monday, 28 September 2015

Phytochemical Society of North America - Poster award

Written by Okiemute Rosa Johnson-Ajinwo, ISTM PhD student.

Okiemute Rosa Johnson-Ajinwo receiving her award.
It all began in December 2014, when I was taking stock of my research work for the year and planning what my thesis would look like. I had submitted my skeleton thesis to my Lead supervisor, Dr Wen-wu Li and my co-supervisor, Dr Alan Richardson. Then a thought flashed into my mind, “could you attend a conference in North America, where there is so much research on-going in your field of interest (Phytochemistry).”

In January 2015, I stumbled upon The Phytochemical Society of North America, (PSNA) online. What caught my attention was that this society had a lot of distinguished scholars in my field as its long-standing members. The membership for a student is $20 and for a non-student member is $40 annually, which I thought were very affordable and commendable.

The venue of the conference, Illinois, was equally important. Notable achievements of the university include an outstanding record of 22 Noble Prize Winners, the World’s largest public library and the Blue Waters and the petaflop supercomputer: capable of 13 quadrillion calculations/second. This sparked up my interest for participation, but the next hurdle was how to fund this activity!

Together with Dr Li, we considered several options for funding and most importantly putting forth an application for the KPA Bursary. I applied for the highly coveted KPA Bursary and my application was successful. Having secured funding, I sent in two abstracts, titled: “Design, Synthesis, Drug-Likeness and Anti-Ovarian Cancer Activity of Thymoquinone Analogues” (accepted as a poster presentation) and “Anti-Malarial activities of Margaritaria discoidea and other Nigerian Medicinal plants” (accepted as an oral presentation).

The conference was well-organized, and had participants from Canada, the United States, Mexico and parts of Asia, Europe and South America. The meeting featured about 85 posters, fifteen key speakers, 1 Elsevier award speaker and three Neish award speakers. During the award ceremony, a notable scholar, Prof. Richard Nixon, was awarded, the Pioneer award for 2015. I won the PSNA Best Poster Award and the Frank and Mark Loewus Travel Award.

Unlike other meetings I have attended, where the poster judges simply browse through the posters and then make their decisions in private, this meeting specifically allocated 1hr: 30mins to interview the presenters of the posters. I was asked various questions about my research, the extent of work carried out by myself for the presentation, future plans, intentions for patent and professional aspirations.

This meeting afforded me the opportunity to interact with other professionals in my field outside the UK. Also I established some important networks and got some valuable contacts and inputs for my present research and continued professional development.

A highlight of the presentations made was the astounding presentation by Lloyds Sumner, of NOBLE Foundation, “Large-scale, computational and empirical UHPLC-MS-SPE-NMR annotation of plant metabolomes”. Following up from the meeting was an invitation to write a review in a peer-reviewed journal. Dr. Li and I have titled the proposed work; “Review of the Chemistry and Anti-Malarial activity of the plant family Euphorbiaceae”.

Monday, 21 September 2015

ISTM Women in Engineering: Professor Divya Maitreyi Chari

For this month's ISTM Women in Engineering post, I was delighted to talk to Professor Divya Chari. I first got to know Prof. Chari as the lead of the INSPIRE programme, an Academy of Medical Sciences/Wellcome Trust-funded programme designed to enable medical students to engage with academic research. This is just one of her many roles, that include Theme Lead of the Neuroscience Research Group in ISTM, and Director of Internationalization for the School of Medicine.

You work in Neural Tissue Engineering. What does that mean?

Neural tissue engineering is a relatively new field and a sub-branch of the wider field of Tissue Engineering. It applies engineering principles to develop better materials, devices and cell therapies for the repair of neurological injury and disease, and to enhance the function of neural tissue.

What do you do day-to-day?

I run a laboratory that primarily works on developing methods for better cell therapies for use in neurological injury. For example, new ways to genetically engineer neural transplant cells to augment their repair capacity and protected cell delivery systems for enhanced transplant survival. We are currently very excited to be working on a project to develop an implantable system to deliver a population of cells called olfactory ensheathing cells, to sites of spinal cord injury in dogs. We are working closely with veterinary surgeons in Bristol and the United States to develop the project, and the chances of being able to implant these into dogs that have naturally incurred spinal injuries is high. I enjoy the highly translational and practical elements of the job.

However, my work is also particularly interesting because I concurrently hold major roles at the School of Medicine, particularly in the development of research opportunities for medical students. I was recently appointed Director of Internationalisation for the medical school, and have been developing partnership opportunities in Brazil. I personally want a diverse job with multiple challenges that involves travel, so I feel uniquely privileged to have one that allows me to visit a hospital in a small Brazilian town in the morning, and write a stem cell paper in the afternoon. And pays me to do it!

Researchers in Prof. Chari's lab. Clockwise from top left: Jackie Tickle (PhD student), Arwa Al Shakli (PhD student, Iraqi MOHESR Scheme), Chris Adams and Dr Stuart Jenkins (both: former PhD students and EPSRC E-TERM fellows)

How did you become a Professor in Neural Tissue Engineering?

I have a PhD in Developmental Neurobiology and my postdoctoral work was in the area of neural transplantation in situations where the insulating sheath around nerve cells is destroyed (diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis). I won a scholarship to come from India to England, for my PhD in Oxford. Once I finished I moved to Cambridge University and held a Multiple Sclerosis Society Junior fellowship there from 2003. By the end, I was very tired and stressed with the uncertainty of contract research positions, so focused hard on securing a lectureship. Keele had a new medical school and was looking for researchers in my area so it was a good fit. It was also one of the institutions at the forefront of Tissue Engineering, and gave me the chance to interact with chemists and engineers. This suddenly gave me lots of new ideas for my own work, and I have really enjoyed developing a highly multidisciplinary and translational programme of work for neural transplantation. However, I don’t have any engineering training as such, I have taught myself as I have gone along, and met lots of people in the Physical Sciences who were kind enough to explain things to me from scratch. I would like to do a Masters in Biomedical Engineering, the problem is finding the time.

I don’t think I have faced any direct discrimination or major challenges being a woman in science. I made the conscious decision not to have children, which has meant that I do face fewer challenges day to day trying to reconcile work and home life. I think the biggest issue is lack of mentorship for women in traditionally male-dominated fields. This can lead to women suffering from a lack of confidence and a bit of an ‘outsider’ complex. I myself have felt on occasion that I was excluded from male cliques where opportunities were made available to men at my stage, but not me. However, there is a huge push to support women in STEM subjects at the moment, and the scientific community is more aware than ever of the challenges women face, so I personally can’t complain.

What advice would you give a girl considering a career in engineering?

I think I would give her the same advice I give any young person: find your passion and follow your heart. A career in science is a long and hard slog, where you will inevitably face many challenges and setbacks, so you really have to want to go down this path. I sought a lot of advice at the early stages, and some of it was helpful, but after a while there were so many contradictory opinions and views that it created too much conflict in my mind. So in the end, I ignored a lot of conventional advice and expectations, and tried to make my own way. It has been very hard and stressful at times, but I would not change anything, as I have had a fantastic time setting up my own lab and helping develop the new medical school. The key piece of advice I would give female scientists though, is to stop thinking of themselves as ‘women in science’, focus on being the best and most innovative researcher they can be, and compete accordingly. Things usually fall into place after this.

Monday, 14 September 2015

International advances in tissue engineered cartilage: a BBSRC-funded research visit to Columbia University, New York City, USA

Writen by Dr James Henstock

Dr James Hestock
My BBSRC-funded postdoctoral research project in ISTM has allowed me huge scope to pursue my interest in the role of mechanical stimuli in tissue regeneration and to investigate how physical activity is instrumental in maintaining bone and joint health.

A major focus of my research is to grow replacement bone and cartilage in the lab which can be transplanted back into patients as functional tissue – a process that may be set to revolutionise the treatment of osteoarthritis over the next decade. In this research, healthy cells are taken from a patient as a biopsy and cultured in a biomaterial hydrogel in the lab before being returned as viable ‘tissue engineered’ cartilage to the surgeon for repairing the degenerated joint.

This process is a complex biological and engineering challenge, and has been shown to be strongly influenced by the effects of mechanical stimulation on the cultured cells. If the tissue grown in the lab senses exercise the cells react by forming an enhanced biological structure (a complex mix of proteins and polysaccharides) that gives cartilage its strength and natural resilience. A leading expert in this field is Professor Clark T. Hung at Columbia University in New York, and I was eager to talk to Clark and learn some of his techniques for engineering lab-grown cartilage. 

Clark T. Hung’s Cellular Engineering Laboratory group at Columbia University, New York City 

BBSRC-funded researchers are eligible to apply for small travel awards that allow for short periods of research or study overseas (the International Scientific Interchange Scheme), and so I successfully applied for funding to visit Columbia University in Manhattan. During the three months I studied in Clark’s lab I learned a number of new techniques for generating and analysing lab-grown cartilage - skills which I have transferred back to the UK and used to conduct novel research combining the expertise and technology from both institutions.

My experience of working at Columbia University was incredible, and in addition to study and research I was able to explore New York and experience living in this amazing city. Following my initial visit, I fully intend to apply for a larger independent research grant to pursue a transatlantic programme of joint research.

Alma Mater and the Butler Library, Columbia University campus

International collaboration is now a fundamental principle in research, with academics participating in a global arena for sharing experience and generating novel ideas. I am extremely grateful to the BBSRC for funding this visit, and for their continuing support of postdoctoral researchers in developing transferrable skills and sustained career development. BBSRC also have a Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel which has a LinkedIn group that I’d recommend all BBSRC-funded postdocs to actively participate in. As postdoctoral progression becomes ever more competitive, knowing about travel, funding and training opportunities is hugely important in maximising career potential.

I would also like to thank Professor Alicia El Haj, my supervisor at Keele for supporting me in this research visit, and Clark’s research team at Columbia for including me in their lab group. Please feel free to contact me by email, and also visit the lab group webpages for more interesting articles about our research.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Double bursary success for ISTM medical intercalator

ISTM's Alex Delaney awardedtwo prestigious bursaries
Medical student, Alex Delaney, who will commence an intercalated research degree with Professor Divya Chari, ISTM in September 2015, has been awarded two prestigious intercalated bursaries totaling £10K from the Comparative Clinical Science Foundation and Wolfson Foundation (Royal College of Physicians). The project will be conducted in collaboration with veterinary neurosurgeon Dr Nicolas Granger at the Bristol School of Veterinary Sciences. The goal is to establish a protected, implantable system within jelly-like substances called 'hydrogels', to deliver important canine transplant cells (called olfactory ensheathing cells) into sites of naturally occurring spinal cord injury in dogs. The project was highly commended and Alex said " I am delighted and grateful for these awards to support my intercalation year, which will allow me to gain valuable experience/skills benefitting my future aspiration to become a clinical academic".