Historical cohorts: shedding light on today’s birth practices

A few weeks ago my colleagues and I published a paper in the BMJ Open on mode of delivery at birth and the metabolic syndrome in adulthood. Like many research papers, a bigger research story lies behind the 3500 words of the classic ‘scientific’ paper.

Initially we were interested in the works that were showing links between: a) mode of delivery and obesity; b) microbiota in the gut and obesity; c) mode of delivery and microbiota in the gut. These three associations have been linked into a biologically plausible hypothesis explaining the exponential rise in obesity and metabolic diseases in countries with elevated rates of caesarean births.

The research story here is that vaginal births expose babies to the vaginal flora, which initiates the bacterial colonization of their gut. This, by consequence favours the development of their immune/ inflammatory systems for their given environment. Babies who are born by caesarean section and therefore who are not exposed to the vaginal flora are likely to have a delayed/ different development of their immune/ inflammatory systems which has been linked with higher rates of obesity. Read More…

Galvanizing cultural constructs: childhoods

Not long ago in a research meeting, there was some discussion around how to define phases of life to facilitate quantitative analyses. As far as the medical and biological researchers were concerned, this was a no-brainer. To them, terms like infancy – early childhood – adolescence were obviously determined by biologically defined developmental phases. You won’t be surprised to hear that the social scientists did not agree.

The subject of childhood, and the nature of relationships between adults and children have struck me as particularly galvanizing cultural notions. The unquestioned assumptions created by these cultural constructs affect how research is carried out, the hypotheses scientists are willing and likely to explore, and public policies set in place.

One example I have observed relates to the different assumptions about early child education in France and Britain. In France, there is a strong emphasis on infants and very young children being sent as early as possible to a child care setting, like a crèche or childminder. Furthermore, the French education system has a well developed nationwide public kindergarten program, where children start school at the age of three, and sometimes even earlier. In conversation, certainly among the white middle class, exposing children to these institutions is considered to be of great benefit to their socialisation and important for optimal child development. By contrast, in the UK, the idea of sending a three year old to school and then to after-school care from 8am till 6pm (completely ‘normal’ in France) is greeted with horror by the white middle class. Instead, the home and the nurturing familial contact with a parent (inevitably a mother) is seen as the best environment for small children, and for as long as possible. It seems important to start involving children in group activities but just a little at a time. These differences are highlighted by the policies in each country. In France, child care is heavily subsidised, with a network of crèches and childminders endorsed and supervised by the local authority, and a school curriculum from the age of three. In the UK, nurseries are often privately run, with some subsidies, and many children will have only attended part-time child care until school starts at around four to five years of age. Read More…

Childhood and gender stereotyping

Michelle Kelly-Irving:

Post By Jess Day

Originally posted on Chwarae Teg Blog:

Guest blog by Jess Day, Let Toys Be Toys campaign:

Gender stereotyping starts young. So if you want to challenge it, where better to start than toys?

I took and tweeted this photo in Next, Cardiff, in December 2012, infuriated to find that every single toy, from plastic jungle animals to dinosaurs, torches to pocket fans, was prominently labelled ‘Boys’ Stuff’. On the box.


The opposite unit was loaded with pink toiletries.

It turned out I wasn’t the only parent that Christmas who’d finally had enough of the tired old stereotypes being pushed at my kids by the toy industry. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign came together online, and grew quickly, tapping into a growing sense of frustration among many parents and educators at the casual sexism of labelling toys as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’.

Toys – what’s the big deal?

These labels, and the assumptions they…

View original 1,326 more words

The HeLa cell line: embodiment and scientific facts

All the HeLa cells used in biological research all over the world since the 50s stemmed from one sample of cells collected from one woman in 1951. That fact totally stumped me when I heard it a couple of months ago. 

The book “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is a fascinating and painful read. I had absolutely no idea that an African-American woman in her 30s from a very modest social background in Baltimore, dying of cervical cancer, was the source photoof the first human cell line. The name ‘HeLa’ stands for her name: Henrietta Laks, and the cell line has led to countless biomedical advances.

Nor did I know that cells could be ‘immortal’….

The story of the HeLa cells leaves you questioning the emergence of scientific ‘facts’ like that of an immortal cell line. What are the consequences of using tissue collected from one person as the basis for an overarching scientific model? Can these issues be hashed-out by using concepts from lifecourse epidemiology?

Read More…

The F-word in academia: Moving beyond individual choices


Feminism. Not a rude word. To be equal on the basis of gender. As someone clever said, “it is the radical notion that women are people”.

Sorry to say it folks – but gender inequalities don’t just go away by avoiding explicit sexism. I’m afraid implicit sexism structured into everyday mundane activities prevails.

There are more women than ever obtaining undergraduate or postgraduate degrees – but when it comes to moving up further through academia, institutional sexism is pervasive. To avoid accusations of being anecdotal (and the tired eye-rolling we feminists are accustomed to), let’s start with a few statistics from two recently published studies.

Read More…

Writing as freedom

“Why do you blog?” a question I hear often since I started up. The bottom line answer to that is quite simple: because I can.

If a caged-bird finds the door of its cage left open, why would it not fly out? There are many reasons to explain why the bird may not fly free and another obvious reason why it would: because it can.

Writing offers freedom. Freedom of thought, of expression, of connection. Posting your writing on a blog gives that freedom increased potential. It’s about taking that offer of freedom and flying out the open door. Suddenly your possibilities are vast, you have a voice, and you can go where ever you chose, and say whatever you want.  Read More…

Top posts from Notes from the research frontier

Happy New Year to all visitors and followers!

I’m having a break from posting this week. Instead, here’s a list of the top ten most visited posts since starting out in 2013 (I won’t share the stats to avoid embarrassment in the blogging world!):

1. I am a disposable academic

2. The global imperialism of English: impacts on science and knowledge

3. Where would Plato publish today?

4. Why journal impact factors are bad for science

5. Walking the line: the art of interdisciplinary research

6. A modest proposal: to rethink how and why cancer occurs

7. Curiosity, creativity, and aesthetics: The bridges between science and art

8. Essai sur le don: Altrusim in research

9. How to respond to reviewers’ comments

10. Should we guilt-trip the public?

I would love to have some more guest bloggers in 2014. If you have something to say related to research, science or academia in 500-1 000 words then get in touch!

Walking the line: the art of interdisciplinary research

When I talk about interdisciplinary research to people who  are not accustomed to it, I like to borrow the story David Foster Wallace opened his commencement speech with in 2005 to Kenyon College:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”


[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’

David Foster Wallace, 2005 goldfish

If you have not heard his speech I urge you to do that now, it is brilliant, and unmissable . The speech is about life, about how we chose to think and live. It is about being aware of the things around us that disappear into daily mundanities. It is about choosing how to think, react and behave.

So, why use it in reference to interdisciplinary research? Because I think interdisciplinary research is a micro-metaphor for life. We need to step into interdisciplinary work prepared to embrace difference, and most importantly, with an awareness of the disciplinary waters we swim in every day. We need to be aware of our own inherent assumptions and driving concepts, and be prepared to pause that background noise long enough to hear other disciplines. In the end, that same prerequisite is needed to enjoy happy relationships and lead a peaceful and interesting life. Read More…

Gender segregation, student protests: academia in a tailspin

Academia seems like an oppressive place at the moment.

Astronomical tuition fees exclude many from university studies, or impose decades of debt. Working conditions for staff are increasingly abysmal, permanent jobs are an endangered species. The profit-making neoliberal framework behind these changes has lead to the stealth privatisation of UK universities, impoverished contracts and pay for academics over the last 14 years.graduation

But in the last few weeks a few more astonishing events surrounding our learned institutions have sprung into the news.

Read More…

Translations: What academics say and what they really mean

This original translation table by CD Graham Jr published in Metal Progress 71, 75 (1957) remains timeless…

Translations 4

It has long been known that. . . . I haven’t bothered to look up the original reference
. . . of great theoretical and practical importance . . . interesting to me
While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to these questions . . . The experiments didn’t work out, but I figured I could at least get a publication out of it
The W-Pb system was chosen as especially suitable to show the predicted behaviour. . . . The fellow in the next lab had some already made up
High-purity . . .
Very high purity . . .
Extremely high purity . . .
Super-purity . . .
Spectroscopically pure . . .
Composition unknown except for the exaggerated claims of the supplier
A fiducial reference line . . . A scratch
Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study . . . The results on the others didn’t make sense and were ignored
. . . accidentally strained during mounting . . . dropped on the floor
. . . handled with extreme care throughout the experiments . . . not dropped on the floor
Typical results are shown . . . The best results are shown
Although some detail has been lost in reproduction, it is clear from the original micrograph that . . . It is impossible to tell from the micrograph
Presumably at longer times . . . I didn’t take time to find out
The agreement with the predicted curve is excellent fair
good poor
satisfactory doubtful
fair imaginary
. . as good as could be expected non-existent
These results will be reported at a later date I might possibly get around to this sometime
The most reliable values are those of Jones He was a student of mine
It is suggested that . . .
It is believed that . . .
It may be that . . .
I think
It is generally believed that . . . A couple of other guys think so too
It might be argued that . . . I have such a good answer to this objection that I shall now raise it
It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding . . . I don’t understand it
Unfortunately, a quantitative theory to account for these effects has not been formulated Neither does anybody else
Correct within an order of magnitude Wrong
It is to be hoped that this work will stimulate further work in the field This paper isn’t very good, but neither are any of the others in this miserable subject
Thanks are due to Joe Glotz for assistance with the experiments and to John Doe for valuable discussions Glotz did the work and Doe explained what it meant
Art Attack

Discovering art in everything

Molecules and that...

The thoughts and observations of a bioscience student

Marbles in a Jar

Many voices; one conversation.

glass jars & photographs

interior design notes from the desk of rin simpson

We The Humanities

The companion blog to the rotation curation Twitter account

The Paris Review Blog

Written Word Inspired by The Paris Review and The Paris Review Daily

Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Business Bullshit, Corporate Crap and other stuff from the World of Work


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers

%d bloggers like this: