Adam in Action on BBC Science in Action

BBC Radio has a very long tradition of airing a weekly round-up of the world’s science news via the BBC World Service. Science in Action, as the programme is now called, has been running in one guise or another since the 1950s and with the advent of digital radio and the internet it now reaches millions of radio and podcast listeners around the globe. Since the start of February I have been presenting Science in Action and I thought I’d share a typical week with you.

The programme first airs on Thursday evenings at 2030GMT and is available to download after the first transmission. The week starts on Friday when the producer and I begin to look through lists of papers being released in the upcoming week. These papers are embargoed until a specific date, which means we can’t transmit anything about them before that date. At this stage we’re looking for anything really “big” – a story that is, ideally, embargoed until the following Wednesday or Thursday and has a chance of being our lead story. On a good week we’ll have one or even two of these by the end of Friday, but it doesn’t always work out like that. I’ve already learnt that my producer Fi has a brilliant eye for a good story!

We’ll keep looking over the weekend, but it’s not until Monday morning when things really start to happen in earnest. More journals will have published embargoed papers by then so we have more to choose from. By lunchtime, and via various emails, we should have identified two or three stories that will form the spine of the programme and then it’s a case of lining up interviews for the Wednesday. Contributors will usually have to go to a studio where they are based unless they live in or near London. We will then conduct the interview “down the line”, meaning that I’ll ask the questions from a studio in London and they’ll answer from their studio (wherever in the world that might be), with broadcast quality recording to capture what we say. Sometimes we have to do what is called a simulrec, where I’m being recorded in a studio but the contributor is hearing me over a phone line and recording their answers, typically on a phone. They can then email us the MP3; needless to say this is something of a last resort option. Because our contributors come from all over the world it can be a serious juggling act for the producer and the team to get studios at both ends booked for the right time – a contributor in LA doesn’t want to be talking to us at 4am but likewise we don’t want to be recording the interview at 8pm!

Tuesday is a chance for us to map out a few interviews via email to get a rough idea of questions and the general direction we’ll take, although we still won’t have a clear idea of the order in which we’ll cover them. At the end of Tuesday, I download all the papers and interview sheets in preparation for Wednesday.

Wednesday morning starts at 7am with a trip to New Broadcasting House in London from my house in rural Gloucestershire…so it’s a bus, train and tube ride. The upside of the journey though is that there’s plenty of time to read and research the items we are covering and to make notes for the forthcoming interviews. I’m fielding University emails, doing some marking and a bit of admin too so it does mean having to juggle a few different things. Coffee is definitely required!

Science in Action covers any and every type of science so I could find myself reading papers on chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, in fact pretty much anything scientific. In the week I am writing this we covered the high pressure chemistry of helium, the climate and history of liquid water on Mars, the use of bacteria to convert carbon dioxide to ethanol and the science of treating phobias with subliminal images. For any interview it is always sensible to be as well informed as you can be about the topic, so I’ll try to read all the papers and background information I can – it really helps to have an organised producer!

By the time I get to the BBC, I’m feeling reasonably well prepared but at this stage, even with a lot of phone calls and emails from the production team, we still only really have a few contributors lined up for some pretty tight studio slots. There is nothing concrete yet and plenty of things can go wrong! Given that, it’s a big relief when we get the first interview recorded. We’ll be doing three or four interviews plus a “chatty bit” where we have studio guests, so it’s a pretty much non-stop from 11am until around 530pm, or later if we have some contributors from the west coast of the USA. I’ll try to keep my questions in as a sensible order as possible to avoid too much editing and the producer can put together a rough cut of each interview as we go along. By the end of the day, if all has gone well, we could have all, or all but one, of the “slots” in the programme recorded.

By the end of Wednesday we should have a plan for the running order and most of the audio is in either a “rough cut” form or has been tidied up by technicians and is ready to broadcast. But, at this stage, we still don’t have a script for me! On Thursday, I’ll have to write the script that will introduce the programme, link the material together and end the programme, as well introduce the podcast and write the trailers that go out before the programme airs. All in, that’s about 1000 or so words to write in a couple of hours that will broadcast across the world, so a fair bit of deadline pressure! As I walk back to my (very small) hotel room in Paddington I will be thinking of how I can link the items together and perhaps developing a theme for the programme. Of course, a beer or two on the walk back helps the process along…

Thursday is another reasonably early start. I like to walk in London when I can, rather than use the tube, so as long as it’s not raining too hard I’ll walk the 2 miles to the studio and be pondering the script as I go. By the time I arrive I have enough of an idea that I can sit down and write most of the script in one hit, with a good first draft appearing by 11am. We may also have to record another interview in that time. I’ll bounce the script around a bit with producer Fi, trim it for length, or pad it out if it looks a bit short, and I’ll run through and make sure my trails (“coming up next”) and billboard (a longer trail with a clip) are spot-on for length (17 seconds and 29 seconds, exactly!). I am tinkering with the script right up until 2pm, at which point we’ll print it and head to the studio to record it. The programme itself is put together by a studio engineer as we go along so that by the time I leave the studio it is more-or-less ready to air. Sometimes this can mean re-recording parts of the script to make them a little longer or shorter and that can be quite a fiddly process – trying to change a 30 second segment of script to 32 seconds or 28 seconds is not just a case of talking at a different pace! Adding in or taking out words can change the meaning and have knock-on effects so it’s better to get it right first time…

Once I’m done it’s literally a run to the tube at Oxford Circus to try to get the 1536 from Paddington back to Gloucester. Getting that train means I get to see my daughters before they go to bed, otherwise it can turn into a bit of a late one. Thanks to the joys of laptops and internet I can use the 2 hours heading home to catch up on Uni work from the day, or, as is the case here, do a little writing. Oh, and of course I’m always keeping an eye out for stories for the next week’s programme!

Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication. Adam’s first stint presenting Science in Action runs until the end of April.  

 

Mollie Courtney – animal biologist and international athlete!

The University of Gloucestershire is a great place to study biosciences, especially if you’re into sport. Here, one of our first year student writes about combining her sporting success with academic studies…

I have been involved in athletics since the age of 9, since when I’ve been competing for Cheltenham & County Harriers for Hurdles and High-jump. I also compete at international level, running for GB juniors for hurdles 5 times, and for England 5 times as well. This year I was fortunate enough to accompany the GB junior team to Bydgoszcz in Poland to compete in the Under 20 World Championships. I am currently ranked the 5th fastest U20 of all time in GB over 60m Hurdles and 100m Hurdles. Throughout athletics i have achieved over 10 international and national medals, including 2 consecutive national titles.

One of my main influences in choosing The University of Gloucestershire was to allow me to continue and further my athletic training. I’ve remained living at home and still train under my coach at the Prince of Wales Stadium in Cheltenham, near Francis Close Hall Campus, also as part of the uni athletics team. I also train at the University gym facilities and have full use of the Strength & Conditioning Suite at Oxstalls Campus to assist in my training.

I am also a Scholar Athlete at the University, meaning they have supported me in many ways in funding and use of facilities. The University also supports me as Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme athlete, involving a medical scheme, funding and lifestyle assistance. My timetable in Biosciences has allowed me to create a flexible timetable to allow me to train and fit in work. The University’s campuses allow me to train, attend lectures and work on site every day, a great combination.

Mollie Courtney, BSc Animal Biology student

Lucy on life at UoG and winning the OUP ‘Achievement in Biosciences’ prize

Lucy Murrell

I cannot believe that my three years studying BSc Biology at UoG are over! My time here has been exhilarating, full of ups and downs but with the help of the lecturers, staff and fellow students I feel I have developed beyond belief, both as a scientist and potential employee. Looking back to the very first time I visited the University in March 2013, it would have been hard to imagine myself standing where I am now. The prospect of coming to University, living away from home and studying at a much higher academic level was daunting, but at every step there has been so much support and guidance from moving into halls, to handing in that first assignment to the relief of handing in my dissertation just a few short months ago.

Choosing Biology as a subject to study was always something I had hoped to do. There is such a broad range of topics to study which gives you a much deeper understanding of the environment and ecology around you and the necessity for management from a microscopic to global scale. With second year came the option to start to choose the direction that you individually wanted to take your studies with a range of modules to choose from. By far my favourite module and something that I will consider not only a highlight of my university experience, but also a life changing experience was the field course to South Africa. Gaining the perspective of game management and all the challenges that reserve managers face with poaching from such experts has changed my views on conservation and management forever, and is a great talking point in interviews!

Other modules that I have found particularly enjoyable and beneficial from a skills development view have included second year Ecological Impact Assessment and management, GIS, equine biology and third year advanced scientific skills, microbial biotechnology and of course completing a dissertation. Through my university time I feel I have developed a range of transferable skills and those assignments which focus on industry skills particularly will highlight you from the rest of the crowd at interviews. I feel that I can now confidently conduct a broad range of research and scientific investigation, write reports to a professional standard as well as deliver presentations to a range of audiences, something I never thought that I would ever be able to do! The skills learnt on my degree course also gave me the confidence and knowledge needed to run the UoG first aid society as president for two years and volunteer for St John Ambulance throughout my university time. These skills have helped me to obtain my dream of securing a position to develop a deeper understanding of medicine with a job working for London Ambulance Service. I hope to spend a few years training with them and then potentially go on to further study to do a Masters in Biology and Medicine.

I recently found out that I was nominated for the Oxford University Press ‘Achievement in Biosciences’ prize as well as finding out I successfully graduated with a first class degree. This really feels like the pinnacle of my time at university and makes me so grateful for all support and guidance that I have received from all the staff and students that has enabled me to achieve so much.  Thank you to everyone who has given their time and knowledge to help me through the three most challenging but most rewarding years of my life!

Lucy Murrell, BSc (Hons) Biology 2016

To find out more about our courses, visit www.glos.ac.uk/sciences

Rachel Tapping: our prize-winning #UnexpectedScientist

Rachel Tapping

Rachel at work on her dissertation

At UGlosBioscience, our dissertation projects are the capstone of our degrees and the chance to do your own original science project, with support from our academics and technicians. Here, one of our disseration students writes about some fringe benefits of working on her project…!

Doing a microbiology dissertation has required me to spend countless hours in the lab over the last two semesters. Whilst I love microbiology lab work, I can’t deny that it is a nice change to get out of the lab now and then to do something completely different. I had just such an opportunity recently thanks to a competition on Instagram!

Last November Defence Science and Technology Laboratories asked for people to upload scientific selfies captioned ‘#UnexpectedScientist’ to be in with a chance of visiting their explosives facility at Fort Halstead, Kent. Given how much time I spend in the lab, it was all too easy for me to snap a shot of myself working on my dissertation research. Several weeks after posting my #UnexpectedScientist selfie, I was contacted by DSTL with their congratulations on being one of the selected winners of the competition. So, on 11th February I found myself at the Fort Halstead facility with my fellow winners.

We were taken to one of the onsite explosives ranges where we were given a demonstration of various explosions and detonations (which are, I now know, not the same thing!). Then the opportunity arose for one of our number to press the button on the final explosive; it was to be whoever answered the technician’s questions first. Unfortunately my lack of knowledge when it comes to physics meant that I was not the person with their finger on the detonator, though I was still a front row spectator to some truly amazing pyrotechnics!

Next we were given a challenge. We were taken to a room where a dummy ‘bomb’ sat in a box and various planks of wood, lengths of rope and pulleys awaited us. Our task was to create a system that could lift the ‘bomb’ from its box and safely deposit it into another. We could use any of the materials that were set out and the only stipulation was that we must operate our system from the other side of the room. After a couple of failed attempts and copious amounts of duct tape we finally succeeded in moving the ‘bomb’.

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The challenge… to move a dummy ‘bomb’

Our last stop was back outside to see the ‘Wheelbarrow’, a bomb disposal robot capable of being operated remotely or by handheld controls. Though not the most awe inspiring of names, the machinery itself was amazing and we were told all about its use in the field. We were given the chance to operate the Wheelbarrow for ourselves and I will admit that it took me a while to work out the controls, but I soon got the hang of it and the technicians were in some danger of being run over.

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‘The Wheelbarrow’

All too soon my visit had come to an end and it was time to leave the facility. DSTL and the staff I met at Fort Halstead had given me the most fantastic and unique experience that will stay with me for a long time to come. Though, given my ineptitude for ‘bomb’ removal and reckless Wheelbarrow driving, I don’t think I’ll be leaving microbiology for bomb disposal any time soon!

Rachel Tapping, BSc Animal Biology final year student

Students raise funds for rhinos

Field courses are a highlight of our degree courses. Here, three of our final year students write about their 2015 trip to South Africa and some fundraising by @UoGBioSociety. The 2016 trip leaves on Saturday 7 May, and you can keep in touch via the Twitter hashtag #UoGMankwe

Recently we held a fundraiser in the campus bar, raising £471.13 for Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in South Africa. Mankwe is situated in North West Province, with around 48 species of large mammal, 400 species of bird, as well as species of reptile, small mammal and insects. For more information have a look on their website. In October 2014 Mankwe was hit badly by poachers, losing 2 adult rhino and one full-term calf, and then their bull rhino shortly after. One of the adult rhinos that died left a young calf who survived for nearly a year before she died. We visited Mankwe in May 2015 and spent nearly 2 weeks there. While we were there we experienced first-hand the daily challenges that staff face when trying to protect the rhino. Mankwe is one of the destinations for the second year residential field course, and UGlosBioscience students have been raising money for them for the last 3 years.

 

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The 2015 UGlosBioscience group

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Jimbo: one of the Mankwe calves born since the poaching

 

Brad and SJ spent 4 days of our visit studying rhino behaviour and got to appreciate each one individually and see how important they are to the ecosystem. While Ellie studied large mammal movements in response to heat sources.

Three of the rhino at Mankwe

As part of our event we had a raffle with over £200 of prizes donated from local retailers, live music, cake sale, bug eating contest, bug holding contest, as well as other events.

UoG Unplugged Society playing the event

Bug-eating contest!

The money will be going out to Mankwe this May and will be used to help the anti-poaching unit. Since we visited them there has been many births, as such they need extra money to protect them.

We want to thank everyone who donated money and prizes. If anyone would like to donate there is still time, please email s1302809@connect.glos.ac.uk

Many thanks,

Sarah-Jane Smith, Brad Bignell and Ellie Woolway.

Final year Biology/Animal Biology students

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Tom’s PhD at The Pirbright Institute

  
My name is Tom, I graduated from the University of Gloucestershire in 2014, with a degree in Biology. I have since been lucky enough to gain a PhD Studentship with The Pirbright Institute and DSTL on a project studying the role of genomic structure on the ability of viruses to adapt.

The Pirbright Institute is a world leading centre of diagnostics, surveillance and research of virus disease which infect livestock and which can be passed from animals to humans. The bulk of my PhD will be in the making of a number of RNA viruses in which the genomic sequences are changed while still encoding the same protein. These synonymous mutations will allow the role of translational kinetics on the co-translational folding and modification of the proteins to be assessed. As there may be an adaptive mechanism to control the rate of translation at specific points along the RNA virus genome, facilitating co-translational modification, and this may represent a constraint on the variability which a RNA virus can acquire.I would not have this exciting opportunity to work at Pirbright and DSTL if I had not studied an undergraduate degree at the University of Gloucestershire. From the outset I really enjoyed the breadth of the course offered by UoG. Although the course may seem heavy on the big stuff, and I really enjoyed the content on ecology, animal behaviour, natural history and phylogeny, my interest developed in the small stuff, molecular and microbiology. The flexibility in the course allowed me to choose from a number of modules which were much more heavily microbiology based. I was fortunate enough to work on projects which Anne Goodenough, Bethan Stallwood and Sally Rogers had undertaken, another advantage when I was looking for a position after my degree. These included studying the microbial load of pied flycatchers and the methylation of cytosine residues in a possible CpG island in the promoter region of a gene analogous to B-NK, again in pied flycatchers. Both projects nicely linked the large scale ecology, which I found to be very interesting, with molecular biology which I found to be more and more fascinating. All of these modules and projects gave me plenty of core skills which are required if you want to go on to a more lab based, micro career, and have proven to be invaluable. During my time at UoG I was also lucky enough to gain a period of work experience with an alumnus at Public Health England, again this gave me the opportunity to develop skills as well as to see the day to day running of a lab and the diagnostic assays and the experiments which are carried within them. This has proven to be one of the most beneficial opportunities from my time at UoG.
To those that wish to pursue a career in microbiology, or any career, my advice would be… 

Take every opportunity that is presented to you and be proactive in finding opportunities. Ask about the possibility of placements anywhere that is relevant to the career that you want to pursue. Get involved in any projects that you would enjoy or provides you with the relevant skills. Although, if it is a career in microbiology you want to follow, not being proficient at these skills should not put you off applying for PhDs as training is provided to develop all of the required skills. It is the awareness of what the skills entail and a keen work ethic that is most required. As well as the academic work and the development of relevant practical skills, it is important to enjoy yourself and to develop a broad set of interests, this will help you greatly in interviews and once you have the PhD (or job) it will be invaluable in searching for a postdoc (gaining promotion or looking for another challenge).

If there is a job, PhD or Masters that you are interested in, apply for it, apply for everything that interests you. Use interviews as an opportunity to see if you would enjoy working with those that are interviewing you just as much as they are looking for the correct person for the job. It is a two way thing, it isn’t just you who has to impress. Also, do not think that you have to take the first position that is offered to you, make sure you take the position that you will enjoy the most.

Most of all, push yourself to get the best degree possible, all the staff at UoG are incredibly accessible and approachable, more so than at any other university, use this. Not only will you gain a good degree, you will also have a much more enjoyable time and it is the good degree and your proactive time at uni that will stand out most when talking to possible employers.

Tom Nicholson, BSc (Hons) Biology

Analysing owl pellets from Skomer Island

As part of our third year Avian Biology module, students analysed owl pellets from Skomer Island, South Wales. The pellets had been kindly collected in Autumn 2015
by the island wardens and given to Matt Wood.
In most cases, these were from a barn owl Tyto alba, apparently roosting in a disused chimney, which gave the pellets (and the lab!) a rather pleasant smoky smell. In common with many birds of prey, owls often consume whole prey items such as mice, voles and shrews and then regurgitate the indigestible parts of their meal, including hair and bones. By soaking a pellet and carefully pulling it apart, it is possible to identify the prey. The different mammal species are best identified by their lower jaw bones. Although small mammals are most common, it is possible to find birds, bats, amphibians and insect remains too. 
  Of the 15 barn owl pellets analysed, 14 contained field vole Microtus agrestis exclusively. In most cases this would not be unusual as it is one of the owls’ favourite foods. In this case, though, it was quite a surprising result… because there are no field voles on Skomer! This is good evidence that the barn owls were roosting on Skomer and foraging on the mainland, perhaps with only opportunistic hunting on the island itself. This agrees with previous analysis of Short-Eared Owls Asio flammeus by Skomer’s wardens (http://skomerisland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/winter-leaves-its-mark.html) and also previous dissertation projects by University of Gloucestershire students Emily Compton and Elle Daley on Short-Eared and Little Owls Athene noctua (stay tuned for their paper… in review!): Skomer’s owls range widely to forage off the island. Of the barn owl pellets, only one contained a mammal species actually resident on Skomer: a wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus.

 
The 16th pellet was from a Short-Eared Owl, and held perhaps the biggest surprise seabird remains. Based on the size of the bone, the shape of the leg bones, and the feathers in the pellet, this is likely to be one of the many Manx shearwaters Puffinus puffinus found on Skomer, and more evidence of opportunistic hunting.  

This just shows the value of owl pellets: fascinating insights can be made into science and natural history questions, all within a module-based lab practical!

Anne Goodenough, Reader in Applied Ecology

Matt Wood, Senior Lecturer in Biosciences