Last year I gave a shameless plug for the Mill Hill Essays that I produce each year. Here is another plug, for the latest collection – Mill Hill Essays 2011-12. The printed booklets have been distributed (free to libraries and other deserving homes) and I have put all the essays online. Here is a quick summary of this year’s offering: six essays, seven mini-book reviews and two historical notes.
Ed is a postdoc in our Neurophysiology Division where he works on sensory processing and neuronal connectivity. He has written a very readable explanation of the mechanics of our olfactory system. This system is interesting in its own right (how can we recognise such an enormous range of different smells?) but is also interesting to neuroscientists as it has some features that mark it out from other sensory systems.
Vitamin D: a natural wonder drug we’re all avoiding? by Anna K Coussens
Anna is another postdoc, this time in the Division of Mycobacterial Research, where she worked the effect of vitamin D on tuberculosis. Vitamin D has been much in the news recently. Her essay explains what vitamin D is, why it is important in several different systems, and how much of it we need. As an addendum to this essay I wrote ”Vitamin D – historical note” which briefly tells the story of the race to characterise and isolate vitamin D about 80 years ago. A couple of years ago, while looking for information about chemistry at NIMR, I found a fascinating document in our archives that was a written account of the events leading to the isolation of vitamin D at NIMR, plus a collection of correspondence between the main protagonists at NIMR and in Germany. Someone should really write up this history in more detail.
This essay provides a grand overview of immune system functioning and an explanation of immune signatures and how they can be used as fingerprints of disease. The fingerprints, comprising records of the levels of hundreds of immune molecules, can also track diseases through different stages and the response to drug therapy. Anne O’Garra is the head of our Division of Immunoregulation. She is an immunologist working in the field of tuberculosis, and has championed the use of immune signatures in TB infection.
A key for every lock in the universe – the Blind Locksmith ? – Benedict Seddon
Immunology is a complex subject that can be difficult to explain and not many are brave enough to try – there are no popular science books written on immunology. Ben Seddon is an immunologist who works on mechanisms that control some of the key immune cells. He has written an explanation of how antibodies work and where they come from. It is a remarkable story.
The mechanics of nanomedicine – Tania Saxl
This year’s guest author comes from the London Centre for Nanotechnology. Tania catalogues a number of technologies and tools at he nano level that are useful in biomedicine and biomedical research.
The NIMR Human Biology Essay Competition attracts around 100 entries each year from local schools. Year 12 students are invited to choose from a list of half a dozen preset topics and write a 1,000-word essay. The winning essay has the chance of being published in the Mill Hill Essays. This year’s winner sums up the pros and cons of genetic screening.
And finally there is another historical note from me, this one about Griff Pugh, exercise physiology and the Olympics. Griff Pugh was an NIMR physiologist who was most famous for his involvement in the 1953 Everest expedition, but he also made a contribution to the 1968 British Olympic effort. The Olympics in that year were held in Mexico City, and there was some concern that the altitude might affect the the performance and health of the athletes. Pugh did some field work in advance of the Olympics and studied the performance and physiology of athletes at high altitude, making some recommendations for the GB team.
As last year the Essays conclude with a series of short book reviews by Institute staff. The selection covers quite a range, from prize-winning popular science books like The Emperor of all maladies and Bad science to books on epigenetics, Max Perutz, evolution, and DIY biology as well as a rather fine novel by a certain H.G. of this parish. You will find a few reviews written by me in this section.
- Book review: Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives
- Book review: Bad science
- Book review: By the sea
- Book review: The Emperor of all maladies
- Book review: Max Perutz and the secret of life
- Book review: The 10,000 year explosion: how civilisation accelerated human evolution
- Book review: Biopunk: kitchen-counter scientists hack the software of life