March for Science

London, Saturday April 22nd 2017

The weather is changeable as I leave the flat in the late morning. Sunny spells – dazzling my eyes clad in contact lenses – are abruptly overtaken by the English drizzle that leaves me damp and puzzled because the sun has already regained its prominence. I’m on the Westbound Piccadilly line wearing a Cancer Research UK t-shirt that reads, “I’m a researcher fighting cancer”, and I can’t tell whether I’m getting more looks than is usual on the Tube. I alight at South Kensington to meet a friend of mine, the bubbleologist Li Shen. (And yes, that is now a technical term. Li, who has a degree in mathematics, is a PhD student studying the physics of bubbles, which has far-reaching implications: from the amount of bubbles generated by different types of beer to the undesired foaming of lubricants used in oil extraction.) But we’re not just here to catch up, although it is conveniently close to his lab/office at Imperial College. No, we’re here to join the March for Science. [All of the following images were taken either by Li or by me.]

science march banner.jpg

According to the BBC, “thousands of people” joined the march, the first of its kind taking place on the annual Earth Day and organised around the world. I think the event probably got part of its boost from the Women’s Marches that took place on January 21st, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Certainly, the protesters on both occasions had much in common.

destroy the patriarchy, not the planet

One of the most notable differences between the two events, however, was that this second protest was certainly smaller and also much quieter. I suppose it’s true that scientists – and yes, the marchers were mainly scientists and their relatives, partners and close friends – are a little bit shy and socially awkward. Amongst the stewards, one was trying to get the following chant off the ground, with little success, “Scientists are good at generating questions, not so good at slogans”…

french embassy

Here’s a blurry Li in the foreground, with a sharp French embassy in the background. Walking by I couldn’t help but send what’s known as a “Stoßgebet” in German to the high heavens; roughly translates as a quick (secular) prayer. For now we can breathe a brief sigh of relief after the first round of the presidential elections. Hopefully Europe, science and European Research Council funding will be able to continue to prosper.

knowledge trumps ignorance

Speaking of Trump, the March for Science event emanated from Washington DC, where it started as a protest against fake news, alternative facts and a world in which experts are regarded as worthy of derision. Honestly, as with the Women’s March, I don’t know and can’t tell how much impact marches like these actually have in politics, but as a start there was significant media coverage. Even Buzzfeed compiled its list of top banners and slogans (some scientists do have a sense of humour). My personal favourite was this one, of course.

big brains

I do know that within three months I went to two marches, the first two of my life. Ideally, I won’t have to go to any more and will be able to spend my Saturdays in the lab, where a diligent PhD student should be (and where I know some of my colleagues were). Lastly, let’s give reason, described by Wikipedia as being “the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information”, a big thumbs up.


Worm vs worms

Two days ago I found myself in a similar situation to that which triggered the beginning of this blog: a friend of mine at university has nominated me to complete the worm vs. worms challenge. I attempted to take a picture of myself cloaked/draped in a duvet, but I failed quite miserably (who knew a selfie would be impossible when covered from head to foot in artificial down?) The challenge was started at the first Polygeia conference, which is documented here:

Polygeia is a “Cambridge-based organisation designed to empower students to research and write policy on global health issues”. The worm vs. worms challenge is meant to spark a wave of donations to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI; this video is quite graphic at some points, so you might want to sit down before you watch it):

Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is the cause of death of approximately 280,000 people every year. Compared to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), for example, which affects one to two people per 100,000, schistosomiasis and other related parasite infections are extremely prevalent. The morbidity associated with schistosomiasis is even greater: an estimated 240 million people are infected worldwide. [These data were retrieved from here.]

Compared to the ALS ice-bucket challenge, the SCI makes it a lot more transparent what the donated money is used for (and has the great advantage of not wasting about ten litres of clean water). For example, their website outlines the steps they take to deliver praziquantel and albendazole to children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The drugs, praziquantel (which is not approved for use in humans in the UK) and albendazole, are themselves cheap. Additionally, the WHO provides praziquantel “free of charge to high-disease burden countries in sub-Saharan Africa, through a donation from Merck Serono”. Therefore the main role of SCI is to facilitate the efficient delivery of the drugs to the “right” places.

The SCI was established in 2002 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Programme and is affiliated with Imperial College London. To me personally, the affiliation with a reputable university increases my trust in the initiative (but maybe this is a biased and misled viewpoint).

Lastly, the treatment and reduction of helminth diseases is bound to have large global social/political/economic implications, but my knowledge of possible outcomes and effects is minimal and other people certainly have more informed opinions about this. What is clear, however, is that whereas to us here (in the the “developed” world) ALS is a much scarier disease than schistosomiasis, to people infected with helminths ALS is completely irrelevant because they will probably die before the onset of symptoms of the neurodegenerative disorder. Yes, my friends, my family and relatives and I are more likely to get ALS than schistosomiasis, but that is an insufficient reason not to donate to SCI.

This is where you can donate if you would like to: Schistosomiasis Control Initiative at Imperial College London.