New Scientist Live

This weekend the ExCeL centre in London hosted an event called New Scientist Live, which was aimed at the general public and invited speakers across various fields, including Brain & Body, Technology, Earth and Cosmos. Additionally, there were stands and interactive stations run by various scientific institutions from across the UK and Europe, including The Francis Crick Institute, the Royal Society of Biology and the European Space Agency, to name a few.

But, to be honest, I was already sold when I saw the giant bacterium (precise species is still a matter of debate; could be E. coli) hanging from the ceiling:


Apart from this excellent demonstration of how cool cells are I want to write about two highlights.

  1. The talk by Molly Crockett on “What makes us moral?”
    Molly Crockett has a lab at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford (but will be moving to Yale next year) where she and her research group study the neuroscience of “morality”. Dr Crockett’s talk was all-round excellent: from the clarity of her speaking, to the information on the slides, the science simplified enough to be understandable, yet retaining the references on the slides so that one can look up the original research (Crockett et al., 2014 and 2015, both open access!). The main finding of the 2014 paper was that people tend to be “hyperaltruistic”: when deciding whether to inflict painful electric shocks to oneself or another anonymous human being, the person deciding needed to be offered/paid more money to hurt another person. People also decided more slowly when the effects were to be felt by the other person rather than oneself. Importantly, and Dr Crockett emphasised this in her talk, these studies were conducted with real people and real electric shocks so that the results from their experiments might give us information about real life situations, as opposed to hypothetical ethical dilemmas. Possibly one of the most famous of these dilemmas is one in which a person needs to decide whether to save five people by actively sacrificing one, or to passively let five people die:moral-dilemmaIn the 2015 paper the authors then go on to test whether various drugs  – the antidepressant Citalopram, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor and Levodopa, a dopamine precursor – can alter this moral decision making. Interestingly, the antidepressant reduced the overall number of electric shocks the deciders were giving out, both to themselves and to others. The hyperaltruism was preserved since deciders still gave fewer shocks to the receivers for the same amount of money. Levodopa, on the other hand abolished this hyperaltruistic effect:


    Bar charts showing the effects of citalopram and levodopa on harm aversion – copied directly from Crockett et al., 2015

    Obviously the talk and the papers go into much more detail, especially with the statistics used to evaluate these admittedly small effects. Lastly, it’s important to note that, as Dr Crockett pointed out, none of this means that researchers are working on, or should be working on, developing a “morality drug”…

  2. The science magazine Nautilus published by the MIT Press.
    Nautilus starts where the New Scientist stops, namely, where things get really interesting. To me, the New Scientist poses similar questions to the ones I might ask, but often fails to really answer them or provide a satisfactory explanation as to why there is no answer (yet). When I do read its articles they often leave me with more questions than before, which, of course, isn’t a bad thing. However, after reading a few articles of Nautilus it seems that this magazine is more thought-provoking: the articles are longer and maybe more on the creative side, but retain the references at the end, and the style of writing is more enjoyable to me. For instance, an article called “The Wisdom of the Aging Brain” by Anil Ananthaswamy discusses the possibility that there are neural circuits, or certain regions of the brain, that, with training and age, allow us to become wiser.
    So if any of my few readers is feeling particularly generous today then why not consider getting me the Sep/Oct edition…?


Crockett MJ, Kurth-Nelson Z, Siegel JZ, Dayan P, Dolan RJ (2014) Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 17320-17325

Crockett Molly J, Siegel Jenifer Z, Kurth-Nelson Z, Ousdal Olga T, Story G, Frieband C, Grosse-Rueskamp Johanna M, Dayan P, Dolan Raymond J (2015) Dissociable Effects of Serotonin and Dopamine on the Valuation of Harm in Moral Decision Making. Current Biology 25: 1852-1859


PhD interviews – Round 2


The time difference between Vienna and London is only an hour, but still I had to make sure at least three times that I had really converted 10.15 (GMT) into the appropriate time here “on the continent”. The picture above is of the Leonard Wolfson Experimental Neurology Centre in London; it is part of UCL and closely affiliated with the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

The PhD interview I was invited to attend for the Wolfson Centre had to be conducted via Skype since I had already flown home, and it was a significantly different experience from the first interviews I had had two weeks previously.

Firstly, the interview panel this time consisted of five group leaders (compared to four), including Nicholas Wood, the professor who runs the programme, Anthony Schapira, the head of the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, and Linda Greensmith, a professor of neuroscience who researches motor neuron disorders. Secondly, since the Skype connection was not perfect it was extremely difficult to see all of them at once, let alone discern their facial expressions. I certainly did not manage to make them laugh once during the 15-minute grilling. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, there was no paper we had to read beforehand or any presentation we needed to give. This, combined with the fact that I know almost nothing about neuroscience, caused me to be a lot less sure of my abilities. Fourthly, some of the questions they asked were really quite hard. Apart from the more obvious, “Why do you want to join this programme?”, there was also, “What do you think is the role of industry in science?”. To answer the latter question I rambled on a bit about pharmaceutical companies and cancer combination therapies, which is probably not what they really wanted to hear. And then there was also, “What do you consider the most important advancement in biology in the last ten years?”. Luckily, this is something I had thought about during the course of exam preparations in previous years, and so I answered “fluorescent proteins” with quite some confidence and then went on to say that I didn’t think I’d recently read a molecular/cell biology paper that did not utilise fluorescent proteins. Lastly, they understandably also wanted to know what field of neuroscience/neurodegenerative disease research I was particularly interested in. Given that I have never taken a dedicated neuroscience course this was particularly tricky to answer. Thankfully, a lot of the group leaders’ research at UCL focuses on various aspects of mitochondrial (dys)function and so I tried to argue that it would be interesting to find out more about the differences and similarities between mitochondrial functions in various neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Don’t ask me how, but I managed to convince them to let me visit the institute in January so that we can have a proper conversation and more in-depth discussion of the available research projects.

To end on a festive and fluorescent note, here is a picture (taken from the website of Roger Tsien’s lab) of glowing bacteria producing red and green proteins – merry Christmas!

IMAGE - Wreath 2001