So who is she then?

Well, here we are at the end of our promised series of “The Materials Scientist, Who is She?” workshops. Before I give you the answer to our eternal question, first let me tell you what worked well with the logistics: We proposed three different dates and let the colleagues choose which to attend; this was a good plan because there was a natural mix of technical expertise and personalities and it kept the discussion groups to a manageable size. We set a strict time limit (2.5 hours) for each session so that the end was always in sight. And we had a good espresso machine in the discussion room.

Beforehand I attended a “Facilitating meetings and workshops” training course and I practiced some of my new tricks on my colleagues. My favorite turned out to be the “silent sticky note” technique, in which everyone writes down ideas on sticky notes which are then stuck to the wall and rearranged in silence by the team before any discussion is allowed. This approach was absolute torment for some of us who almost exploded with the desire to start arguing immediately, but certainly gave the quieter participants more of a voice than usual. Here’s an example of the ideas that got organized into a “Structure – Properties – Processing” block.

We structured the discussion around “Knowledge” — all the stuff that a materials scientist should know, “Soft skills” — the useful bits needed for survival in a professional environment, and “Practical skils” — labs, equipment and so on, all the while keeping in mind the question “What will we require for admission to our MS program in 2030?” We generated many new ideas (and reinforced many old ones) and even one of my more ornery colleagues declared the process to be not a complete waste of his time. All in all rather positive.

So positive that the piles of cheerfully colored sticky notes crammed full of creative ideas became high. Very high. We decided to make an executive summary which was eleven pages long. In small font. We agreed not to panic. And slowly, over the course of a few meetings of the core project team a structure started to emerge…

Now we find ourselves grouped into three “themes” which we are fleshing out into detailed profiles:

  1. Designing of Materials: Given a bunch of atoms, how does their arrangement determine the properties of a material.
  2. How do we characterize and model materials?
  3. Designing with Materials: Given a particular application, how do we choose or make the appropriate material?

Not rocket science I guess, but someone else gets to design that curriculum…

Were there any surprises? Well, we held a dedicated workshop for our students hoping they would be more innovative without the constraint of us old folks being around, but they were actually the most conservative, with their suggestions largely reflecting our current curriculum. Perhaps we should not be surprised by that though — certainly when I was an undergraduate I thought that our Professors had some kind of profound perspective that was determining what we were learning and why. A big surprise though was the almost complete convergence regarding what the defining aspects of our field are, with all of us basically agreeing with each other on the core aspects. And that, as any veteran of faculty meetings will agree, is a truly remarkable outcome.

Posted in Education, Materials Science | 3 Comments

On Project Management

Like many academics I am woefully untrained for many aspects of my job. My route to my position, which I think is a fairly common trajectory, was to spend much of my life learning how to solve other people’s science problems, then to go on to find that I have a knack for generating interesting problems of my own. This led to my very nice Professorship where I spend much of my time teaching, training young researchers, coordinating, motivating, assessing and advising, traveling, talking, writing, and — as this blog has been reporting — developing undergraduate curricula.

For most of my tasks I manage to muddle along quite effectively, but after a few scary nightmares in which Day 1 of our new curriculum arrives and we have missed something really fundamental (in one middle-of-the-night panic attack we had forgotten to recruit any students) I realized it was time for some professional help.

This is a good time for me to introduce the superb Studies team that we have in the Materials Department at ETH so as to give you an idea of the human resources that we have available for our curriculum revision: Andrea is the Studies Coordinator and takes care of everything to do with regulations, coordination with the Rector’s office, formal processes and so on. Sara is our Educational Developer in charge of the entire pedagogical side. Martin coordinates all our lab-based and practical courses and we are ably supported by Christina in administration. Not everyone is full time so we are about 2.7 humans in total and we are recruiting for an extra 0.5 to support us during the curriculum revision process.

After catching me gazing in horror at an Excel spreadsheet during a team meeting, Andrea and Sara had the excellent idea that we should hire a Management Coach. They were anyway keen on some formal management training for their own professional development, and a coach could provide us with that as well as shepherd us through our process in a consultant role. Brilliant! We contacted ETH Human Resources who directed us to Bachmann Coaching and Consulting because of their experience working in an academic environment. Christian Bachmann agreed to get started with a one-day workshop for the core project team.

So, Sara and Andrea, three of my faculty colleagues, one colleague from the ETH Teaching Development office and myself sat down for a crash course in project management. Christian did a superb job of cramming the theory and practical essentials that we will need to survive the process, with every example and exercise geared directly to the needs of our project. This one day investment of our time probably saved us weeks of ineffectiveness as well as many sleepless nights. By sometime around mid-morning, though, I started to wonder if I would make it to lunchtime let alone the end of the day as I reinforced my suspicion that management pedagogy is really not my thing. I mean really really not.

But now we understand our goals and objectives, our stakeholders and our various roles and tasks. We’ve developed a “Project Agreement” to clarify who does what and when and why, decided on our next steps, and even taken a few of them. I would strongly recommend this tactic for a project of this size if you don’t have project management experience.

It’s also good for ending nightmares.

Posted in Education, Materials Science | Comments Off on On Project Management

Eternal Questions

My first tentative toe-dip into the Blogosphere turned out to be less scary than I imagined: No abusive messages or trolls, a little bit of enthusiasm via Twitter, email and the “Responses” section on the blog, and even an encouraging “Pingback” (thank you Hortense), which was certainly a new concept to me. Perhaps the most interesting response, however, came from my husband whose breakfast-time german-irregular-verbs memorization I interrupted by placing a printout of my blog pointedly next to his birchermuesli. “You can’t call What is Materials Science? an eternal question”, he said after a few minutes’ perusal, “It hasn’t been around long enough”.

Now for the sake of domestic harmony, I do have to admit he has something of a point. The first academic Materials Science departments started to emerge from Classical Metallurgy or Ceramics departments only around 60 years ago, prompted in part by US fears of Soviet supremacy in the Cold War. According to the Northwestern University Materials Science and Engineering Department’s web page, they were the first Department of Materials Science to be established (in 1958) in the world, with other institutions in the US and Europe following soon after. For a detailed history of the development of Materials Science and Engineering as a teaching discipline, I found this article by Clive Ferguson very informative.

But in terms of Materials Science as an activity, I would argue that I am on safe ground, since questions about the science of materials have occupied us, maybe not quite for eternity, but at least since the start of human consciousness. In fact, from the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, to today’s Silicon Age, every major advance in human civilization has been driven by a fundamental development in Materials Science, so much so that we even name our historical eras after the materials that dominated at the time. Without the early materials scientists who figured out processing techniques for natural materials such as stone, tools for grinding or cutting would not have been developed and there would have been no Neolithic Revolution. And whoever worked out the smelting process to extract metals from their ores (a truly remarkable development, since it needs a temperature above the melting point of the metal and a reducing atmosphere!) ushered in the Bronze Age with its establishment of cities and the beginnings of craft and trade. Through the Iron Age and ultimately culminating in the industrial revolution, metallurgists rightly held a highly respected place in society; my personal favourite is the responsibility borne by the “Anvil Priesthood” blacksmiths of Gretna Green, charged with marrying young couples who eloped to Scotland to escape the confines of the 1753 English Marriage Act.

Now we have moved on to the Silicon Age, with silicon-based transistors forming the core of the microelectronics that enable much of our modern way of life. And we have grown accustomed to tremendous ongoing improvements in silicon devices driving the “Moore’s Law” exponential increase in their capabilities that allows ever more automation and convenience in our everyday activities. We know, however, that we are starting to run into fundamental physical limits, set by the size of the individual silicon atoms, that will prevent ongoing miniaturization of silicon-based devices. We know that to continue the march of human progress, we will soon be forced to develop new device paradigms based on entirely new materials; to figure out the next step beyond the Silicon Age.

So the Materials Scientists that we are educating today will be charged with defining the next era of human civilization, and we are charged with training them in how to do that. That’s quite a challenging task! But at least these days we have another profession taking care of the wedding ceremonies…

(You can watch a video version of these thoughts combined with a mildly political diversity manifesto (and see me very very nervous) here.)

Posted in Education, Materials Science | 2 Comments

The Materials Scientist in 2030, Who is She?

Whenever I ask one of my Physics Department colleagues what it means to be a Physicist, while she might not be able to give me a straightforward answer, she usually has a very clear picture in her head of who she is professionally and why. Likewise, Chemists and Biologists, or Mechanical and Civil Engineers, rarely have issues with their sense of identity. We Materials Scientists, on the other hand, repeatedly ask ourselves the question “What is Materials Science?”. Are we even a science at all, when many Materials Science Departments actually sit in Engineering Faculties? (At my former institution, UC Santa Barbara, we carefully called ourselves the “Materials Department” to side-step this issue).

To an outsider this existential angst might seem like so much professional naval gazing, especially when Time Magazine declared Materials Science the lowest stress profession.  But to an educator, charged with shaping the next generation of professional Materials Scientists it acquires a fundamental importance. What skills should a graduate of a leading Materials Science program take with them into the world. What do they need to be able to do and what should they know.

This blog documents our efforts in the Department of Materials Science at ETH Zürich to find the answer to this eternal question and to implement a new curriculum based on what we discover. Maybe we will never find the answer. But we’re convinced that our search for it will generate creative new ideas that will enhance student learning. And help our students develop into professional Materials Scientists with the best possible skill set for launching their careers in today’s rapidly evolving work environment. I hope that you will enjoy reading about our process and that both our mis-steps (hopefully not too large or too many) and successes (hopefully resounding and numerous) will help you in your own insititutions.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is entirely my blatant one-sided view and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of ETH or any of my colleagues. Since I obviously can’t say that any resemblance to real people is accidental, instead I will try to be nice and hope that no-one sues me. All (preferably constructive) feedback gratefully and enthusiastically received.

So what did we do so far? Well, we agreed that while our curriculum is fabulous (of course) it is time for a shake-up before we start to feel out of date. We decided that we will plan ahead and try to identify the skill-set that our graduates will need in 2030, and that we will aim for Autumn 2020 as the start-date for our new program. I proposed “BS2020” for our project title but my colleagues vetoed it. Darn. But I have to agree that our final choice “The Materials Scientist in 2030, who is she?” is a bit more stylish. Oh, and we had a friend with design skills help us make this snazzy logo:

Our first concrete step has been a day-long retreat to walk through our current curriculum, in which we presented the learning goals of our classes to each other in the chronological order that we impose them on our students. We had two goals for the day: First to make sure that we all know what our students learn and when, and second to identify redundancies so as to make space for introducing new things. We succeeded with the first task, and I think we all found it very useful, even though it took a bit of a long time; our students really learn a lot of stuff! But it’s safe to say that we failed resoundingly with the second objective, in spite of what I thought was a rather cunning approach: Since I was sure no-one would willingly give up any of their own content, we made worksheets for each class so that the colleagues could suggest omissions from classes that were not their own. Kind of like those reality (?) TV shows in which the least popular people get voted off islands. I’m not sure if the colleagues didn’t get the concept or are just too nice, but we all loved everyone’s existing content and had helpful ideas for possible additions. But we didn’t find anything that wasn’t terribly important, nothing that we could let go. Hmmmm.

On the bright side, I guess we all ended the day feeling that our colleagues highly appreciate our teaching and maybe we now even like each other a bit more. Not a bad starting point from which to embark on the intensely collaborative project of a major curriculum revision.

So what next? Well, we learned that “making space” for changes in an existing curriculum is hard. So we decided to take the opposite approach — let’s imagine that we are starting completely from scratch and think about what we want to include.  Next time I will tell you about our series of small-group workshops on “The Materials Scientist, Who is She?” — what are the competencies we want our students to acquire? —  and “Curriculum Redesign” — what kinds of learning modules might be most effective for teaching which skills? Stay tuned…

Posted in Education, Materials Science | 3 Comments

Blogging; totally worth a go

This is my first post to Occam’s Irregulars and when I was planning out what I wanted to write, I though that I needed something that was going to have a splash and get plenty of clicks. But that sounded hard and possibly requiring of either talent or some kind of Buzzfeed-esq list format. So instead, I’m going for the much easier option of increasing the competition to the point where I can claim that the 10 views I get is totally understandable what with all those new science blogs that just started up.ErrantScience.comI’ve been blogging now for 2 years, pretty solidly. I think I’ve only missed my weekly schedule once or twice, and even then I think it was because I managed to lock myself out by forgetting my password. I blog because I enjoy it and hopefully, that passion shows through in more than just my insane update schedule. Reading other bloggers such as Hapsci’s Notes, Deathsplanation, and There’s a Spider In The Bath, their posts always read like passionate treatise – either on something in the media for which they have expertise, or simply their own research. If you look at all the posts I’ve linked, it doesn’t feel like an exercise in ‘putting something up for something’s sake’.

But I had no idea I would actually be that passionate about doing it before I started. I started blogging for a variety of reasons, but “because it sounds fun” was actually a pretty long way down the list. And it wasn’t something that just instantly clicked in. I wasn’t 100 words in to my first post and suddenly had an eureka moment, leaning back and saying “gadzooks, this is a ripping good laugh!”. It’s something I realised after a few weeks – that I was looking forward to writing my blog posts, and even more, looking forward to talking to people online about it.

I should be clear though – I’m not suggesting that everyone is made to have a go at blogging. One of the many, many things I’m meant to be doing right now is working on my PGCert qualification. As part of that course, the class were very strongly encouraged to all start blogs to chronicle our journey through a part-time short course we do 5 days of work on. Some of my peers did create blogs and without exception, they all stopped shortly after their first few posts. Similarly, a friend on a non-science MSc was told that as part of her coursework she (in a group) has to start and run a blog for a year. As you might expect, most of the posts fit squarely in the mould “because it was due” and are about as insightful and inspiring as you’d expect from mandatory MSc coursework that is ungraded.

Blogging, like all outreach, is really only successful when the person doing it has a drive and a passion to do it. Not everyone starts with a burning desire to stand up and shout about their work but most of us have no idea if we will ever have that passion. All I’d suggest is – go try it. Set up a blog on WordPress or tumblr; start tweeting more; share photos of your experiments on Instagram. If you find it rewarding, then keep doing it! If you don’t, then at the very least you’ve added your voice/social media to explaining your science a little better.

But whatever you end up doing, please tell me about it – I love hearing about other people’s research and I’m always happy to give someone starting out a bit of help getting noticed.

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Some words when one is speechless

The current use of “no words” in its semaphoric online sense seems to date back to five or ten years ago. To you, there may seem to be a great difference between five and ten years ago. To me, two days ago brought me fourteen years into the past, and all of us towards another future. From this perspective, there are no words to describe it, yet.

A small light, reflected and diffracted.In November, 2001, I had been admitted to the Hopital Georges Pompidou, the new hospital which had made our neighborhood a mess of construction work and traffic jams, for the life-threatening peritonitis that set in after my appendix burst. It took a while to figure out what had happened and I nearly did die; no one was responsible for the whole experience, though I blamed various aspects of it on individuals, and had others to thank for saving my life.

Two days ago, in November, 2015, fifty or sixty wounded victims were admitted through the same Georges Pompidou emergency room doors. No one is responsible for the whole experience, but there are both murderers and heroes who figure in each one of their stories. There are so many stories, and so little sense to make of it all.

In November 2001, I hadn’t yet realized that I was in the throes of a severe depression. I had been morally devastated by the import of the destruction unleashed in my homeland on September 11th, 2001. When I reached my Paris apartment with my baby and preschooler and allowed myself to finally turn on the television that day, I sank to my knees. My baby didn’t understand what she was seeing, but my preschooler, who only knew that his mother was overwhelmed and distressed, cried with me. I turned off the television then to better love the living, but it went on again, later, as did the radio, and the Internet connection, by modem still at the time, with endless comparisons of shock and people checking in with one another and the increasingly belated discoveries of who had died, who had been injured, by how many degrees of separation.

Recovering from surgery, from that first experience of mourning so close to the realization of my mortality, from the concern that the AZF chemical factory explosion later in September was yet another efficacious precursor to war against civilians, from anticipating our baby’s third operation for her congenital malformation, I finally broke down in front of the television that the women who shared my room insisted on keeping turned on. American Airlines 587 had crashed in New York, killing 265 people at once. It wasn’t a terrorist attack, but a tragedy nonetheless. The surgeon came to see me, then sent a hospital psychiatrist. I recovered from it all, except the underlying sensory processing sensitivity. I have lived and loved for many more years, have helped and mourned many more people, and done things I would never have imagined possible.

Is this a political, a personal, a philosophical essay? I don’t know. Like so many of my fellow citizens, I feel like I suddenly don’t know so much about all of my convictions at the moment, and even less about theirs. There are many differences between how devastated I was again, in January of this year, in the face of another attack on civilians in Paris, and how functional I can be, now. Depression having been part of it, but not all. I had commiserated only the day before with my Lebanese colleague here in Marseille, whose husband still in Beirut was saddened like all other residents, on how one must continue, go to school and work as usual, conscious of how tenuous the ties keeping our loved ones at hand can be.

It was in the southern working-class suburbs, she said. He never goes there. We then exchanged platitudes about how any of us in lab could have been driving home after a dinner with friends, after a rehearsal, after keeping watch over an experiment. in the same tunnel where the revenge shooting broke out here between rival gangs in a high-speed chase early last Tuesday morning.

All I know is that this commenter’s quotation of Albert Camus yesterday in Le Monde resonates loudly in my head. I couldn’t find an online English translation of the  preamble to ACTUELLES III. Chroniques algériennes, 1939-1958, so any imprecisions are my fault alone.

S’il est vrai qu’en histoire, du moins, les valeurs, qu’elles soient celles de la nation ou de l’humanité, ne survivent pas sans qu’on ait combattu pour elles, le combat (ni la force) ne suffit pas à les justifier. Il faut encore que lui-même soit justifié, et éclairé, par ces valeurs. Se battre pour sa vérité et veiller à ne pas la tuer des armes mêmes dont on la défend, à ce double prix les mots reprennent leur sens vivant. Sachant cela, le rôle de l’intellectuel est de discerner, selon ses moyens, dans chaque camp, les limites respectives de la force et de la justice. Il est donc d’éclairer les définitions pour désintoxiquer les esprits et apaiser les fanatismes, même à contre-courant.

If it is true that throughout history, values, be they of the nation or of humanity overall, cannot survive without fighting for them, then the combat and the force expended are not enough to justify them. The combat itself must be justified and illuminated by those values. Words take on their true living value by the double price of fighting for one’s truth all while taking care not to kill it with the same weapons used to defend it. Aware of that, the intellectual’s role is to distinguish as best as she can, on each side, the respective limits of force and justice. That role furthermore is to clarify the definitions of these values, in order to bring sobriety to the intoxicated and to calm their impulses toward fanaticism, even if this goes against the grain.

  • Albert Camus, 1958

Yes, it is a call to arms. But to arms truly compatible with the values of a civilization that can encourage biomedical research into rare disorders. To paraphrase Kamran Abbasi, let science be a weapon of peace. Let all our decisions be thoughtful. Let us not forget the past, recent or distant, while struggling to find the words that will describe the future we promise to ensure.

Posted in Guest posts, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

500 dead bumblebees – the chemical blitz of modern farming

Globe thistle

Earlier this year, Sheila Horne was walking at Hacton Parkway, a public park and conservation area in Havering, East London. April is normally a good time to see insects in their prime so she was very surprised to find many dead and dying bees near the path. She alerted local naturalist, Tony Gunton who identified the insects as bumblebee queens from three species, red-tailed, buff-tailed and common carder. This was not a minor incident, there were as many as 500 bees affected.

Chemical analysis of the dead bees

Natural England was appointed to investigate the insect deaths and samples of dead bees were sent to FERA in York for analysis. The results were released in August and showed that the bees were contaminated with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and two fungicides, flusilazole and epoxiconazole. Imidacloprid can be very poisonous to bees and bumblebees are more susceptible to this chemical than honeybees. Imidacloprid is currently subject to a two year partial ban for some agricultural uses in the EU. Neither fungicide on its own is especially toxic to bees although flusilazole was phased out this October because of its high toxicity to fish and because of other potential toxic effects.

A nearby field of oil seed rape as the source of the chemicals?

The chemical analysis raises two questions. Where did the bumblebees pick up these chemicals? Were these chemicals responsible for the bee deaths?

Neither question can be answered definitively but as so many dying bees were found together in one place, it seems likely that the source of the poisoning was close by. Hacton Parkway lies alongside arable farmland and at the time of the poisoning some of the land was planted with flowering oil seed rape, so it is a reasonable conclusion that the bees had been feeding there. Because of the chemical analysis, it was initially assumed that the crop had been planted using seed treated with imidacloprid ahead of the ban and that the imidacloprid had killed the bees. Natural England have recently concluded their investigation and found that in fact the seed used to plant the crop had been treated with another neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam. Neither imidacloprid nor epoxiconazole had been used on the crop and the last spraying with flusilazole was in November 2013. Analysis of the dead bees for thiamethoxam failed to detect any of the chemical but this could have been due to losses before the analysis.

What killed the bees?

So, why did these bees die? Because there are so many unanswered questions we cannot be sure. The dead bees were contaminated with imidacloprid but the oil seed rape crop was not the source. We can only assume that the bees fed elsewhere on imidacloprid-treated crops and were flying with this chemical in their systems. It is known that at typical field concentrations, imidacloprid does not kill bumblebees.

There is also the question of how the bees were exposed to the two fungicides if the oil seed rape had not been sprayed with these chemicals during the flowering season. As with the imidacloprid, we have to assume that the bees were exposed elsewhere. It is possible that the fungicides weakened the bees or made them more susceptible to the neonicotinoids. There is some evidence for such interactions for other insecticide/fungicide pairings.

Because the bees died close to the treated crop, the focus of lethality has to be on the thiamethoxam, now known to have been used on the oil seed rape. Although thiamethoxam is indeed an insecticide, there is evidence from one lab-based study and another field study (albeit lacking controls) that, at field-realistic concentrations, thiamethoxam is not lethal to bumblebees. I find it unlikely, therefore, that thiamethoxam alone killed the bees, providing the farmer followed safety guidelines.

We shall never know what actually happened at Hacton Parkway but my best guess is that these bees were flying with the three chemicals in their system and encountered the thiamethoxam-treated oil seed rape. When they fed from it, they picked up the additional neonicotinoid. Two neonicotinoids, with perhaps synergistic effects of the fungicides, were too much and they died.

The investigation is now closed!

The investigation is now closed and it will be impossible to resolve the many questions raised by this incident, which is a pity. Despite this uncertainty, the results of the chemical analysis stand. These bees died with three chemicals in their bodies: one neonicotinoid and two fungicides. They were also exposed to a second neonicotinoid. This was no laboratory experiment; this reflects what is happening around us when these chemicals are used. Have a look at this report to see more evidence of the widespread use of chemicals in UK farming. Our agricultural practices have led to this chemical blitz and the result is the deaths of important pollinators. How often is this occurring on a lower level but not being noticed or reported?

Artichoke and bumblebee

I should like to thank Tony Gunton (local naturalist) and Helen Duggan (Press Officer, Health and Safety Executive) for sharing information about this incident.

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Why a talented researcher – but a naive saleswoman – had to resort to #crowdfunding

I went and wrote, go ahead, launch the campaign – unprepared, at the end of July. That said, we ARE going to succeed in raising the money we so desperately need to make concrete things happen in our lab: registering the very many families who have been willing to participate in this research for years now, and processing their biological samples to discover the answers to those questions that just keep coming.

Why do some children with congenital melanocytic nevi (CMN) die of cancer or brain malfunctions? That’s the big one. Far too many of them – and we as yet have no idea what distinguishes their CMN from the other kids who continue to live with the difficult social stigma of looking sometimes very different. A survey and registry, but above all, the biological specimens and comparing their characteristics to our animal models, will help us understand. Our lab is collecting them, but I need personnel to really make it happen.

Therapies might already be on their way because of recent findings as to what genes can be mutated and in what tissues. However, we still don’t know how these genes work during development or how the hyperactive proteins they encode might be counteracted safely. Our research is designed to answer these questions.

The first genes identified were the same ones often mutated in adult-onset melanoma, only before birth and without sun exposure. CMN kids mostly don’t have melanoma – except for those who then do develop melanoma. A vastly greater proportion than among children without CMN. I am aware of two children in the world fighting their CMN-related melanoma as I write you, and those are just the ones I know. It is heartbreaking.

You would think that governments would recognize the potential impact of rare disease research in a condition affecting kids from birth, for understanding and treating a common adult cancer. It’s exceedingly difficult anywhere in the world, to get so-called public funding for a condition that affects a tiny percentage of the population and their caregivers

Therefore, I turn directly to the public. You. Please back this project. Show the world that the number of people affected with a difficult rare condition should not be part of the cost-benefit analysis for worthwhile research.

Look how beautiful people with CMN are! (If you follow this link, click the little boy on the stairs, for a beautiful photo campaign sponsored by Nevus Outreach, Inc. in the U.S.)

My major motivation – one of those lovely teens with CMN is my daughter. Another motivation – another one of those lovely teens had a piece of her brain removed a few years ago, to control her CMN-related epilepsy by removing the pigmented area. Another motivation – any of those lovely teens sometimes feels uncomfortably different from everyone around her, and that’s outside of spending time in the hospital, which they all have.

Look soon for a video introduction to my research group, and interests, and perhaps some more motivations.

Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Disturbing the natural order – the case of neonicotinoid insecticides and farmland birds

Apus apus 01.jpg

A swift


One of my favourite nature writers is Mark Cocker who has the ability to capture a scene or an idea in a few hundred words. Despite his immense knowledge he never loses his sense of awe and with clever use of metaphor, his descriptions of nature leap in to life.

Here is Cocker writing about the interdependence of birds and insects:
“…… that vast efflorescence of insect life is integral to spring. After all, those swifts newly screaming over our village and the chorus that greets us at first light are little more than arthropods processed by avian digestive systems”.

Another favourite nature writer, Kenneth Allsop wrote, nearly fifty years ago, also about bird/insect interdependence. He took the example of a pair of dunnocks in the breeding season who consume more than 1000 insects each day just to maintain their chicks. Many of those insects, he pointed out, will be garden pests, “worth bearing in mind when irritated by bird damage to the green peas and apple buds”.

Despite this obvious dependence of bird life on insects, we still dump insecticides on to our gardens, parks and farmland with little real thought about the long term consequences.

One class of insecticide that has recently attracted scrutiny is the neonicotinoids. The neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s and are now very widely used to kill insect pests on a broad range of crops. In the UK, for example, a large proportion of the oil seed rape is grown using seed treated with neonicotinoids. One of the advantages of the neonicotinoids is their selectivity for invertebrates; in principle they have low toxicity towards vertebrates. There has, however, been increasing concern about effects of the neonicotinoids on non-target insects such as bees and the accumulation of the chemicals in soil and water courses with more general effects on invertebrates.

New worries about the neonicotinoids surfaced last week in a paper published in Nature by Hallmann and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands. The Dutch group investigated whether these chemicals might be affecting the numbers of farmland birds indirectly by reducing the numbers of insects that these birds depend upon especially in the breeding season.

They took advantage of long-term monitoring schemes in the Netherlands to compare the average concentrations of one neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) in surface water between 2003 and 2009 with bird population trends over the same period. The comparison was made in different regions across the entire country and focussed on 15 species of common farmland bird that depend on invertebrates during the breeding season.

Yellow wagtail.jpg

Yellow wagtail (one of the farmland birds suffering a decline)


The comparison showed that in regions where concentrations of imidacloprid in surface water were higher, population growth rates of these insectivorous birds were lower or negative. Although superficially this suggests that imidacloprid has caused the decline in bird numbers, we first need to rule out alternative explanations for the apparent association.

Hallmann and colleagues consider two possible alternatives: first, the apparent effect of imidacloprid might actually reflect an ongoing decline in bird numbers that predated the introduction of this insecticide; second, the apparent imidacloprid effect might actually reflect changes in land use linked to agricultural intensification. They eliminate both of these alternatives.

Another possible confounding factor that the authors seem to have ignored is the effect of other pesticides. The Netherlands is a very intensively farmed country with more than 60% of land under cultivation. Many different chemicals are used to control pests including imidacloprid. It seems likely that areas with high imidacloprid use will be associated with high usage of other chemicals. Another Dutch group has analysed the large numbers of chemicals present in Dutch agriculture and shown that, in some regions, concentrations of imidacloprid are high enough to kill invertebrates but levels of other chemicals also exceed toxic doses. So, it could be imidacloprid that is leading to the decline in farmland birds or it could be a generally toxic environment. Either way, the conclusion is bleak and ought to make us reflect on the way we are producing our food.

Although the effects of imidacloprid described in this paper are open to interpretation, the evidence against the neonicotinoids continues to accumulate and some authors believe they are having widespread deleterious effects on the natural environment. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian last week, called for a complete ban on the use of these insecticides.

The Center for Food Safety, a US-based non profit organisation, recently took a different approach to the neonicotinoid problem by asking how much the insecticides actually increase crop yield. Analysing 19 published studies, they found either inconsistent or no evidence that neonicotinoids increase yield. So, astonishingly, dumping neonicotinoids on farm crops has little discernable effect on productivity. Have we all been conned by the agrochemical companies?


[picture credits: “Apus apus 01” by Paweł Kuźniar (Jojo_1, Jojo) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Yellow wagtail” by Andreas TrepteOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.]

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The Flying Squad*

An imposing, white-painted beehive stood in the middle of the room. Emblazoned across the front in large black letters was one word – POLICE.

The police keep bees?

But why?

On a nearby wall was a screen showing a short documentary film: “Policing Genes” by Thomas Thwaites. The film featured police beekeeper, Mark Machan, from the Metropolitan Police Genetic Surveillance Unit. Machan manages 43 beehives around south London and part of Kent. He collects pollen from bees returning to their hives. The pollen is analysed to see if people are growing GM crops and infringing intellectual property; also whether they are cultivating illicit substances. Machan takes advantage of the bees’ “waggle dance” to locate the source of the pollen. Bees returning to the hive perform this dance to communicate the location of rich forage to their nest mates. Machan analyses these waggle dances to infer the location so that officers can be sent to suburban gardens growing unlicensed GM plants. The advantage of using bees is that they can go anywhere, they don’t need a warrant. They save human time and money.

It sounded plausible and I must admit that, for a short time, I believed the story, but this was an art gallery and I should have been more circumspect.

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The poster advertising the Apiculture exhibition


I was visiting the recent exhibition “Apiculture: Bees and the Art of Pollination” at the University of Plymouth which showed how artists have responded to the problems faced by bees. The exhibition was curated by Amy Shelton as part of the Honeyscribe project which explores the relationship between bee health, human health, the environment and the arts. Her exhibition brought together the work of ten internationally known artists many of whom also work with scientists.

Once I realised that I was being taken for a ride, I could see that the police beehive and this film might be warning about of the perils of a culture where overexploitation of wildlife and infringement of personal freedom were commonplace.

I was made to think again, however, when I read a recent paper from the Apiculture Group at Sussex University. Dr Margaret Couvillon and colleagues had been interested to find out whether so-called agri-environment schemes really were effective. Major changes in farming have occurred since the middle of the 20th century leading to the loss of habitat for wildlife and the increased use of chemicals. European Union agri-environment schemes are designed to provide practical support to farmers to protect valuable and threatened landscape and to encourage them to adopt practices that support wildlife. Different levels of “stewardship” exist corresponding to different levels of support for the environment. Payments amounting to £400 million a year are made to farmers in England for these schemes but outcomes are often unclear.

In this new study, Couvillon and colleagues have used foraging honeybees to act as assessors of landscape quality to see if agri-environment schemes actually do deliver.

Honeybees depend for their survival on the availability of abundant forage in the form of flowers so they are continually assessing the “quality” of the surrounding environment. Worker bees returning to the hive perform the “waggle dance” to communicate to their nest mates the location of the most profitable foraging locations. The waggle dance encodes information about the distance and direction of the preferred forage and if this “language” could be decoded then honeybees could be used to monitor the quality of the landscape.

The Sussex group have done just that. By analysing the bees’ waggle dances, they can “eavesdrop” on honeybee workers when they express their foraging preferences for different types of landscape. Three hives situated at the University of Sussex were studied over two flowering seasons. The bees foraged over a mixed landscape consisting of urban land, rural land receiving no environmental support and rural land receiving different levels of agri-environment support. Couvillon and colleagues decoded waggle dances from 5484 worker bees and found considerable variation in foraging preference for different parts of the landscape. Rural land supported by agri-environment schemes was visited more often by the bees whereas urban land, rural land not receiving agri-environment support and, surprisingly, rural land under organic stewardship were visited less often.

The bees expressed their strongest preference for rural land under higher level stewardship including local nature reserves. These schemes provide the greatest support for the environment and may encourage growth of forage-rich wild flowers. Money spent on higher level stewardship schemes and nature reserves may, therefore, be helping to support bees and other important pollinators whose habitat has been degraded by changes in farming practices during the 20th century.

In contrast, the bees expressed their lowest preference for rural land under organic entry level stewardship. Although this scheme does provide support for the environment and the land is farmed using organic principles, the practices used to establish the land may prevent nectar-rich plants from flowering. This unexpected observation should make organic farmers reflect on the methods they are using.

This is a fascinating study illustrating how the language of the honeybee waggle dance is used to communicate information about the health of the surrounding landscape to the hive community. Couvillon and colleagues have shown that by translating the bee language they can also access this information and, potentially, use it as an important tool to inform policy for supporting wildlife.

At the end of the paper, Couvillon and colleagues emphasise how, with their analysis, honeybees can be used to survey landscape health and they can do this more cheaply, more effectively and more quickly than humans could ever do – a surprising echo of the words used by the “police beekeeper”.

*The Flying Squad is a branch of the UK police specialising in the investigation of commercial armed robberies. They were immortalised in the TV series, The Sweeney.

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