The wonderland of academic research @Aberystwyth University

There is nothing more exciting in the world of academic research than elucidating the answers for our investigations and further disseminate that particular knowledge. As researchers, we have all been participating to events, symposiums and international conferences and we often been given the opportunity to claim our 15 minutes of fame via the means of a presentation of our projects. There is no need to be shy, we all know that we enjoy it and deep inside feel famous; at the end of the day these events are our Oscars or International Music Awards and if we didn’t end up being nervous and have a panic attack half-way through the talk when realising the audience is bigger than 1000 people we take a step further to establish collaborations and contacts on a global scale.

All that being said, let’s have an imagination exercise and honestly, I hope you will experience the same level of frustration like I do sometimes. Given your results are absolutely breath-taking people will start to approach you to find out more and it usually goes something like that:

“Hi, really interesting work, well done. I am Professor Xavier (fictional) from Harvard School of Sciences.
(automatically you want to re-introduce yourself getting over the raised blood pressure and anxiety levels because you want to represent properly your university and supervisors)
Hello, my name is Adrian (acting surprised even if Prof Xavier has been your supreme idol and you know everything about him). I come from Aberystwyth University.
He will always bluntly reply: Abery….sssst….what?
You imagined he never heard about our lovely coastal rural town in Wales or about the university so you start giving a whole geographical description putting yourself back on his map by which point you notice that he is completely oblivious about the existence of this place as well as confused, thinking this university must be concentrated on agricultural research, etc. and how come you research that topic there?”

As the conversation progresses he is prouder and prouder of your work and you as an individual and the institution itself. Personally, I think the take-away message is to be proud of what you did, where you did it and how you revolutionised that particular field. Indeed, sometimes we might feel that we travelled to the end of the world and Aberystwyth is about 3.5 hours away from everywhere but when we got accepted to study here we definitely been offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Myself, I moved here when I started my degree and I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity of a masters or doctorate. And here we are 7 years later I am still here enjoying my work and stepping further every day towards what I consider my dream career. I met some lovely people here that are genuinely ready to help you, the competition is constructive and the environment is well tailored and facilitated for your research. I have been attending events ranging from non-formal to formal knowledge disseminating activities and I am always pleasantly surprised about the quality of our research in IBERS, thoroughness and approached topics. It is a friendly environment to perform our investigations and Institute wise we are definitely punching above our weight in delivering good quality and innovative research that is recognised world-wide.

Adrian Mironas

Social Media Scientific Collaborations?

My only foray into social media during my scientific career has been limited to one platform involving the use of 140 characters at a time. I use no other social media platforms. Since I joined in 2014 I have gradually engaged to greater extent. During this time I’ve found the small snippets of information displayed before my eyes to be a highly suitable source to binge on science news. Of course this has required me to be selective about the people or groups that I follow not to be swamped by general news from the masses. To this end, my news feed features all of those things I find exciting or interesting around science, with the occasional fun thing thrown in. On a daily basis I read new findings from the fields of biochemistry, protein science and, of course, parasitology. Admittedly, I confess the majority of my feeds are related to the later topic, with my screen regularly filled with amazing images and video snippets of parasitic worms and the cool things that they do.
As I have posted new research coming out of my research group around the biochemistry and molecular biology of parasitic worms it is highly addictive to see other social media users interacting with these instant updates of research. Whether it is an update on the role of a glutathione transferase (GST) or an insight into the fatty acid binding protein family I am continually excited to both promote our research and simultaneously interact with scientists across the world. One of the best aspects of this is that the scientists are from all stages of their careers from undergraduates through to established and highly respected Profs. A second confession of this blog is that a lot of scientists I follow are established collaborators and there may be the suggestion that we are self-promoting our work to one another. This aside, it is great bringing new science to the world (or at least the 400 followers I have) and seeing the progress of others – especially satisfying interacting with undergraduates succeeding with their first protein gels or postgraduates uploading SDS-PAGE ‘Gel-fies’.
However, I had never thought of social media as a platform to establish new connections and collaborations…until today. After being delighted with image after image of wriggling Parascaris parasites (worms of horses that are approximately 15-20 cm in length) I was compelled to contact the owner of these worms…a fellow wormer based across the pond in the USA. I have a particular passion to collect some Parascaris to provide one of my PhD students some samples to extract their GSTs and compare with related worms. This fellow worm guru was one of those people you follow in case something interesting pops up on their feed…and sure enough. It did! I have since established formal communications/collaborations and will be waiting on a shipment of worms to arrive in the post. What a nice gift for my PhD student! The wonders of establishing social media collaborations…

Post by Dr. Russ Morphew

Distractions and procrastination.

Distractions and procrastination.
There are lots of things to be embraced about being a Principal Investigator in Higher Education. You are free to direct your own research, you can be creative when devising your teaching sessions, and you can indulge your curiosity and passions, for example through public-engagement or immersing oneself in the literature.
But everyone knows that there is also the less enjoyable side to academic life – marking, ticking off marking criteria, providing student feedback, filling in marks moderation forms, attending exam boards – in general, the auditing and administration of mark-awarding.
These are things that need to be done to keep the external examiners happy, but they seem to have little obvious direct impact on the education of students.
And although ‘important’, they are tedious. So tedious that many, including myself, would succumb to any temptation to procrastinate during marking season.

At the best of times I love a good dataset to pore over – they usually jump right to the top of my ‘to do’ pile. But it’s heart-breaking when they arrive during marking season, when I’m most prone to distraction and procrastination, and yet subject to tight deadlines to get the mark-awarding paperwork completed.
So why do all the best datasets arrive during that marking season?
This marking season I’ve received ten genomes of novel bacterial isolates, the results of antimicrobial activity assays for 25 novel compounds, and a large set of transcriptome analyses, all of which need urgent analysis.
It’s like being a modern Tantalus, desperate to reach up to open those spreadsheets of insight and start analysing, while the chains of administration keep you grounded with moderation forms and marksheets.
So instead, I do neither and write a blog post.

Post by Dave Whitworth

But what does it mean?!?


But what does it mean?!?

During practical-based modules, I often ask undergraduates to start their practical reports with a statement of their hypothesis. This usually throws them into a mild panic, as class practicals are primarily about generating data rather than proving/disproving a hypothesis and they cannot easily negotiate that apparent disparity.

The relationship between data-generating and hypothesis-driven research is a troubled one. Twenty years ago, a loud and often-heard cry of the experimentalist after a ‘big data’ or ’-omics’ talk was ‘but what IS the hypothesis?’. Testing a hypothesis was the mantra of every bench scientist, and even today some funding agencies and scientific publishers still insist on placing hypotheses front and centre of all submissions.

But what was the hypothesis being tested when the E. coli genome was sequenced? Should we look down our noses disapprovingly at the humble genome, denigrated as a mere ‘fishing trip’, or ‘stamp collection’, because of its lack of a noble hypothesis? Do we emulate my poor undergraduates and struggle valiantly to find a hidden rationale behind the data-collecting exercise and justify its existence? Or should we celebrate the diversity, abundance and scale of the datasets that we can now generate, with or without accompanying hypothesis?

We can’t all be the ones to discover the next cure for cancer, or the novel antibiotic to which there is no possibility of resistance. However, we can all contribute resources to aid those explorers in their search. Those resources can be new knowledge, acquired through the steadfast testing of hypotheses, or they can be collections of datasets, alongside the tools and knowhow to interrogate those data.
The genome is the ultimate blueprint of an organism’s biology, however we have barely begun learning how to look inside a genome, and from its sequence deduce salient features of the host’s biology. Hypothesis-led experimentation is one way to improve our understanding of the sequence/function relationship, and now increasingly we find ourselves testing hypotheses that have themselves come directly from big datasets.

In essence, big datasets are trying to tell us everything we want to know, but to get there we need to find out what questions to ask, for which they are the answer.

Post by Dr. Dave Whitworth.