Springer Nature work experience

In the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, life is usually linear. And if that’s true, and at least for simplicity’s sake let’s assume it is, then I’ve been linearly doused in good fortune, which I’ve supplemented with a sprinkling of common sense. The story starts, as we all know, with the fusion of two cells becoming one, but because this is a blog and not my memoirs, I’ll start in the summer of 2014, when my body numbered dozens of trillions of cells.

I was doing an undergraduate research programme at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where I was introduced, for the first time, to career opportunities outside academia. It was, in the beginning, a faint knocking at the door of my consciousness and gradually, by the end of the summer, a migraine of future possibilities: scientific editing and publishing. That’s when I started my blog and a year later began working for eLife. Next thing I knew I was doing a PhD at the Francis Crick Institute. Then it turned out that the PhD programme offers third-year students the opportunity of a work placement in a science-related field.

So the obvious questions were: would I be suited to becoming an editor? Would I enjoy the job? And the answers might lie only several rail tracks across from the Crick, at Springer Nature, on the other side of King’s Cross/St. Pancras.

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I spent (only) one week with the cancer team at Nature Communications, the “open access, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to publishing high-quality research in all areas of the biological, physical, chemical and Earth sciences. Papers published by the journal aim to represent important advances of significance to specialists within each field.”

My main aim, slightly less ambitious maybe, was to find out what a scientific editor does, exactly. All the team members were generous with their time and I got to participate in daily life: I read and assessed the novelty of freshly submitted manuscripts; I collated and integrated reports from reviewers to form a basis for a decision to the authors; I saw what happens when a paper gets accepted (a lot of copy editing and admin); and I attended a couple of team meetings where the editors discussed particularly tricky manuscripts. I loved most about these activities that, at the heart of it all, was always the science, and that there was always something new to read and learn and critically assess.

In addition to “normal scientific editors”, there are also reviews editors. This species of editor commissions reviews from experts in a given field, chases them to actually do the writing and then, often extensively, edits the review.

I also got the chance to speak to the publishers of the Nature research journals. Broadly speaking they need to make sure that the journals operate according to viable business models, but also steer the overall direction of the journals. For example, only this year Springer Nature launched several new journals, including Communications Biology and Communications Physics, which will fill the gap between Nature Communications and Scientific Reports, a journal that requires findings to be technically sounds but not necessarily novel. Publishers also build new platforms to collate, for example, research related to cancer into a new collection, or contextualise content related to the sustainable development goals.

A single week can never be a true representation of life as an editor, especially because I got to talk to so many different people and gain a glimpse into several parts of the whole company. So I’d like to say thank you to everyone for taking the time to talk to me and answer my questions!

Lastly, if this (also) sounds like your dream job, then why not sign up to the “talent pool” and upload your CV and cover letter?

 

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The halfway mark

A few days ago someone called me a “senior PhD student”. And I know it’s true. I’m just over two years, or halfway, through the official funding length of my PhD. “Official” because a lot of students in my lab end up staying for longer to publish a paper, or sometimes two. So I thought it would be a good time to take stock, take a moment to re-evaluate my life choices while trying not to fall into that abyss labelled “existential crisis”.

First, let me say this: doing a PhD is hard. Harder than you imagine it will be, even after countless people have told you that it will be challenging or difficult. It’s hard in ways I hadn’t foreseen. It tries my patience – with people, with inanimate objects, with biology itself – on a daily basis. It makes me do tasks I don’t particularly enjoy (e.g. repetitive pipetting) but that need to be done in order to accomplish those I do. (I realise that this applies to a lot of different jobs.) At the same time, especially on an intellectual level, I find it less challenging, less stimulating than I had expected or hoped for. A lot of time and energy are used to concentrate on practicalities, which leaves less of the brain’s random access memory for really thinking about science.

But it’s not only frustrating, not only bad. I have learnt a lot in the last two years. Practical skills in the lab, of course, including how to clean up centrifuges after almost breaking them, how to plan and execute experiments that take days if not weeks to complete, how to always set up experiments whose results can neatly be presented in figures, including using all the proper controls. Doing a PhD is also teaching me how to deal with the feeling of not having finished or completed something (the work never ends) as well as juggling the (natural?) highs and lows, the alternating sensations of shining confidence and utter dejection, that accompany work. [I’m pretty sure the levels of emotion elicited by work are more extreme than those caused by hormones.] Oh and then of course all the new theoretical knowledge in the forms of attending talks and conferences, as well as reading papers. Isn’t it pretty cool, for example, that using a modified version of CRISPR/Cas9 it’s now possible to precisely edit certain DNA base pairs (rather than making a cut in the DNA and hoping for the best; Gaudelli et al, 2017)? Or that reading about cancer stem cells during my degree has turned into me actually doing some of those types experiments?

Another thing that takes getting used to is that progress is slow. Improvement and success can’t simply be measured by essay feedback and exam results. It takes more effort to see and appreciate how far we, as PhD students, have come from our even humbler beginnings as school and university students. As proof of this let me show you the evolution of a scientist:

science evolution

Above: At the summer science camp of the Vienna Open Lab; Below: As a PhD student at The Francis Crick Institute

In addition to acquiring a better haircut I’ve also increased my skills when it comes to processing and taking immunofluorescence images on a fancy microscope. The Zeiss software installed on our microscopes is called Zen, which is ironic when I lose my cool after it crashes repeatedly. (The software we use to acquire data on our flow cytometers is called Diva, which is much more apt.)

IF evolution

Above: a mouse embryonic fibroblast, taken with lots of help at the MFPL in Vienna; Below: Zen screenshot of mouse pancreatic cancer tissue, taken at The Crick

The halfway mark also coincides with considerable change in our lab: several senior PhD students and post-docs are leaving for other positions (academic or as MBA students) and there are two new PhD students, one of whom is also a clinical fellow (who happens to read the London Review of Books!). This makes me one of the more seasoned members of the lab and I think it’s a good opportunity to make sure I take more responsibility, try to be more innovative, as well as being generous with my time to help others, as others were when I started.

There are several things I will focus on in the near future to make sure I don’t lose motivation: attending more conferences (such as the international PhD student cancer conference in Berlin earlier this year); focussing on one avenue of my research project more and more, really going to the depth of one small problem; going to more lectures; making more time to think; reminding myself regularly of the progress I’ve already made.


References:

Gaudelli NM, Komor AC, Rees HA, Packer MS, Badran AH, Bryson DI, Liu DR (2017) Programmable base editing of A•T to G•C in genomic DNA without DNA cleavage. Nature advance online publication

Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2016

I remember, a couple of years ago, seeing an advert by the Medical Research Council (MRC) for a science writing competition and subsequently being bitterly disappointed when I found out it was only for PhD students. Luckily, it’s an annual competition and even more fortunately, The Francis Crick Institute is partly funded by the MRC so that I was eligible to enter.

Now – spoiler alert – before this post ends with an absolute anti-climax, I’ll tell you straight away that I didn’t win. However, I enjoyed answering the question why my research matters in the 800-word essayNot all cancer cells are equal“. The judges used three main criteria to evaluate the essays: 1) Does the essay convincingly explain why the research matters? 2) Is it easy to understand for a public audience? 3) Is the essay well written?

Although I didn’t win, I was shortlisted together with thirteen other entrants and got to attend a science writing masterclass led by Jon Copley, the co-founder of SciConnect, a company that provides science communication training to scientists. The News and Features producer at the MRC was live-tweeting from this course – how cool is that?

The class was really helpful. For instance, I learnt that when writing short to medium length articles (up to 1000 words maximum) the most common structure is the “inverted triangle”. The most important information goes first, i.e. my research matters because it may lead to the development of new anti-cancer drugs. This is different from a research article because there the discussion and conclusion are arguably the most important and come last. I think most essays, including mine, had introductions that were too long. Another handy tip was to think about when/at what age I last shared a class with my target audience. For these essays we could probably assume that interested readers would have had a science education until GCSE level – so we were supposed to write in a way that a fifteen year old might understand.

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Inverted triangle essay structure for short to medium length articles – copied directly from Wikipedia

When I looked around the room during the writing class – and you might notice it in the photo – I realised that everyone else was probably British and definitely white. At first I was a little bit confused by this since, surely, there is no correlation between skin colour and English writing skills; of last year’s six Man Booker Prize nominees only two were white. But it all made sense when I looked up the MRC’s PhD student funding policy: students need to be eligible to reside in the UK without restrictions and therefore this skews the demographic. [Why higher education in the UK is not more widely accessed is a whole different kettle of fish.]

all-shortlisters

The fourteen shortlisters together with two of the judges, Chris van Tulleken and Donald Brydon, and Robin Perutz, the son of Max Perutz – image copied directly from the MRC website

To round off the day we were all invited to the ceremony at the Royal Institution that evening. In addition to the actual prize-giving, both Donald Drydon, chairman of the MRC, and Robin Perutz, Max Perutz’s son, gave good speeches. The former emphasised that science communication with the public is more important than ever for securing support and funding, since Brexit probably means there will be less money from the government.

Your ability to explain your science allows us, as a country, to carry on being curious. – Donald Brydon

Robin Perutz told a story, also very topical, about how his father and mother met due to an organisation called the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL, founded in 1933), which had the mandate of supporting refugee scientists in the UK. Among others, the SPSL helped sixteen future Nobel Prize winners, among which were Max Perutz, Max Born and Hans Krebs. Other prominent academics included Nikolaus Pevsner and Karl Popper. Robin Perutz, currently a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of York, explained that his lab is taking/has taken in a scientist from Syria who is being funded by the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara). And it turns out that Cara is none other than SPSL under a new name.

Lastly, we received a copy of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Who can say no to a book. Overall, from the actual essay writing to the writing class and the ceremony this was an enjoyable experience, which I would highly recommend. Thanks to all the judges and the MRC staff who organised the award. Congratulations to the winners and other almost winners!

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Now that I think about it, I’ve actually already written a few things relating to Max Perutz, including about his biography, his optimism in research and a symposium in honour of his 100th birthday. It seems I’m quite the fan.

Not all cancer cells are equal

This is the essay I submitted to the Max Perutz Writing Award 2016.

Look at yourself in the nearest mirror and, if you aren’t too squeamish, visualise the inside of your body. It’s obvious that not all your cells are the same. We are made of many different tissues that perform different tasks: skin cells protect us from the environment, white blood cells defend us against infections, nerve cells allow us to move and think. Cancer – the uncontrolled growth of cells – can arise from virtually any type of tissue. We hear about new treatments for skin cancers, about raising money for childhood leukaemias, about inoperable brain tumours. We know that there are different types of cancer.

But an individual tumour in a tissue is also complex. Researchers realised decades ago that, like our healthy bodies, tumours aren’t simply lumps of identical cells; that within each tumour there are different cell types. For instance, some tumour cells divide indefinitely to keep the cancer alive, others invade into surrounding tissue and spread to other sites of the body, while yet others stimulate blood vessels to grow. Some cancer cells even combine several of these properties.

In our laboratory we study the pancreas, an organ of the digestive system, which aids digestion and controls metabolism throughout the body by secreting hormones such as insulin. In particular, we investigate variations among cell types in the most common kind of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC for short). PDACs are among the most deadly cancers with only about three per cent of patients diagnosed with PDAC in the UK surviving for longer than five years. One of the reasons for this gruelling statistic is that PDACs are often diagnosed late, when the cancer cells have already spread to and wreaked havoc in other internal organs. Previously, several labs, including ours, noticed that some PDAC cells are more aggressive than others, more capable of re-growing new tumours from scratch. Now, we aim to understand what makes the more aggressive PDAC cells different from the rest of the cancer cells and how they contribute to the deadliness of this cancer. With that knowledge in hand, the broader aim will be to find anti-cancer drugs to target and kill the most dangerous cells that lie at the heart of PDAC.

A previous PhD student in our lab discovered that the more aggressive PDAC cells make and display large amounts of a certain protein – let’s call it protein X – on their cell surfaces. We say that the more aggressive cells are “marked” by protein X. This realisation was my gateway into finding out exactly how these two cell types, the more and less aggressive cells, differ.

First, I wanted to know whether protein X not only marks the more aggressive cells but whether it is directly responsible for making those cells more dangerous. Therefore I experimentally reduced or elevated the levels of protein X in PDAC cells we grow in the lab. Then I assessed whether the PDAC cells grew more or fewer, larger or smaller “organoids”, miniature replicas of pancreatic tumours. Astonishingly, the cancer cells actually grew less well when I removed most of protein X, or they divided and proliferated much more when they had more of protein X. This is a good indication that, in future, drugs might be delivered directly to protein X to eliminate the aggressive cells or convert them into tamer cells.

In the meantime, I am on the lookout for other characteristics that might distinguish between the more and less aggressive cells. From one of my experiments I have data hinting that the two cell types might in fact have different physical properties. However, until I’ve repeated these experiments I can’t be certain that this difference in appearance contributes to the more aggressive cells’ behaviour. But it is thinkable, for example, that the more aggressive cells can attach to other cells or blood vessels more easily, aiding their movement to the lungs or liver. These secondary tumours, also known as metastases, are the tumours that PDAC patients usually die from. Next, I need to determine whether there is a direct connection between protein X and the variations among the physical properties of the PDAC cells.

We really want to pin down the differences between the more and less aggressive cells so that hopefully researchers and pharmaceutical companies will be able to design and develop more effective drugs to tackle PDAC. In a few years, once we know more precisely what protein X is doing in the more aggressive cells, our findings might matter a great deal to patients. For the moment I am simply trying to find out more about how PDAC cells work and I know that can sound theoretical. However, I am certain that knowing why and how some cancer cells, clearly, are more equal than others will help patients in the future.

 

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:

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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:

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    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…?

References:

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