An open letter to the voting people of Britain

Dear voting Brits,

As researchers, Europe brings us together, offers us opportunities for funding, opening-up data, sharing ideas and collaborating. Science and research will suffer if we get divided up, separated by local bureaucracies. Leaving the EU will smash apart some scientific collaborations, reduce our cross national funding and slow down scientific progress.

To even contemplate leaving the European Union is astonishing to me. Growing-up and living in Europe I was proud to exist during a better time in history than the one my parents, or grandparents had known as kids. I could move from one member state to another freely, I felt connected to all the European Union cultures, languages and identities. I was a European citizen above and beyond any nationality. Not only that, but we were taught at school about one of the founding principles of the European project: to avoid wars from breaking out between member states. This all seemed like the seedlings of a better world – one in which we could really start to cultivate something worthwhile.

Now, I have kids of my own, and it doesn’t matter if they are British, Irish or French, because they are Europeans and can be all of these in one. As well as valuing openness, the European Union is a strong supporter of local European cultures and traditions which sometimes get lost in national identities. If anything, Europe helps us feel more connected to our communities and regions.

All this seems to be forgotten in this divisive referendum debate. The thing I find hardest to understand is how closing yourselves down and shutting us out is going to achieve anything. Only by working together can we push back extremism, redress inequalities and find solutions to global problems. To shut yourselves away is negative, inward-looking, and exclusive.

You are better with us and we are better with you. So vote to remain, to be part of something that is bigger and better than anything one nation can offer, and together build on the things we had already started.


Yours sincerely,

A lifelong citizen of Europe



Epigenetics and public health: the good, the bad and the ugly


Epigenetics stands among many sets of biological mechanisms that may be useful to researchers working in public health.  It may be specifically interesting because:

  • It is a set of upstream intracellular biological mechanisms that may be environmentally driven
  • It affects gene expression
  • It potentially affects many downstream biological systems
  • It may offer plausible explanations about why genetics appears to explain so little about health & disease
  • It may be heritable (‘environmental’ intergenerational transmissions)
  • It may be reversible (interventions?)

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is fashionable in epidemiology, and the vocabulary surrounding it is now passing into popular culture. I have seen it mentioned in self-help pamphlets and advice on general health to the public.

Here is a definition of epigenetics we used in a paper:

Epigenetics refers to any information heritable during cell division other than the DNA sequence itself (Feinberg 2007). McGowan and Szyf (2010) have used the following definition ‘‘the combination of mechanisms that confer long-term programming to genes and could bring about a change in gene function without changing gene sequence’’ (McGowan and Szyf 2010). The most well-established epigenetic methylation modification has been observed whereby a methyl group is added to DNA. Methylation of critical regulatory regions affects gene expression, hypermethylation is usually associated with the silencing of genes whereas hypomethylation with gene activation. This alteration can be stable, and long-term but also reversible due to the existence of DNA demethylases. Epigenetic processes are therefore essential for understanding gene function and expression (Hochberg et al. 2011).

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Adverse childhood conditions and physiological strain in adulthood: A study using the 1958 British birth cohort study

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photo by J. Irving

We have been studying the long shadow cast by early childhood stress and trauma on health across the lifecourse for a several years now. Much of the literature on this subject points towards multiple pathways potentially linking early life stress to health in adulthood. Our latest paper attempts to explore these pathways in more detail. We wanted to examine the plausibility of a biological link between early life stress and physiological strain on multiple systems – a sort of ‘predisease state’. To do this we used a measure of Allostatic Load which was initially conceptualized by Bruce McEwen and Teresa Seeman in the 1990s.

What is Allostatic Load?

Our environment is highly variable and requires the constant adaptation of our physiological systems in order for us to exist. This physiological adaptation process has been called allostasis (Sterling 1988). Chronic exposures to social or psychosocial stressors are associated with prolonged activation of allostatic systems. This may lead to an allostatic overload with potentially detrimental health consequences. Allostatic load is therefore the price paid by the body over time for adapting to challenges.  Continue reading

My change of heart about open access journals… we can do better

I have changed my mind about open access journals recently, and simultaneously confirmed that I am a naive optimist.

The open access movement is unfortunately prone to the cynical profit-driven culture of the publishing world – which open access activists deplore. I fear that we are still far from an ideal open access model.

Research, especially if it is publicly funded, should be openly accessible to all who want to use it. As a philosophy, open access knowledge contributes to a better environment for researchers. It is simply a more constructive and interactive approach to knowledge production. It is pro-scientific and pro-knowledge to want to share findings and discuss them openly. Much of research in academia is carried out by an elite, within elite organizations who have access to restricted knowledge, and thus a lot of power. That power can lead to preventing some research and knowledge from entering into the elite system – so ultimately researchers and the public lose out.

I always think about the policy-maker or researcher working on a shoestring somewhere remote, with no comfy university library or easy wifi connection – and with no subscription to journals. Open-access publications are especially important for those people out on the frontiers.

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Academic meetings: what are they good for?

This is my cross-cultural take on academic meetings based on years of participant observation. The cultural differences in the nature and purpose of academic meetings in France versus the UK are often a source of puzzlement and frustration for visitors in both settings. I describe here a generic form of academic meeting typically experienced in the French academic world. Obviously a number of different types exist.

The pre-meetingboring-meeting-consensus

The purpose of the meeting will be discussed between relevant actors (determined by formal/ informal hierarchy) beforehand, in one-to-one conversations, or perhaps in a small group setting. This is a sort of lobbying phase where the desired outcomes of the meeting are pleaded for, and allegiances are sought. At this point many of the meeting related decisions are actually made.


The meeting will only start when ‘relevant’ people have arrived. These are the hierarchically senior people – even if their presence is irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting. The meeting will be delayed until they show up, or until it is discovered that they are not coming.

Conferences are special. More often than not in France they are opened by a minor political figure, like a mayor or a senior administrator of an institute or university. These people will be late, and will usually give a generic speech that is off-topic. All the subsequent scientific speakers, often pre-selected by peer review, have to make-up the lost time.

The chair

Meeting chairs are not usually predetermined, except for at conferences. If no one has been appointed as chair, some assertive person present from the senior staff will lead the meeting. Often, they will not know what the timing of the meeting or seminar is, and how much time to give to the speaker or to the discussion.


This is an essential feature of academic meetings, often found in thermos flasks that have been sitting on a table for an undetermined amount of time. The coffee usually tastes of brown crayon (to quote David Foster Wallace). If you’re in luck there might be an expresso machine available for a more aromatic experience.

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Great conferences and why they’re so important to researchers

Last month I attended an inspiring academic event that was put together and organised by PhD students and early career researchers. It was the Frontiers in Population Health 2014 conference in London funded by the ESRC and organised by students from UCL including: Gemma Archer, Joshua Bell, Bianca Serwinski and Ahmed Elhakeem. The event was also supported by UCL researchers Noriko Cable and Anne McMunn from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Healthfrontiers pop health 2014

What struck me most about the conference was that at no point did I find myself bored. Usually, when you attend academic conferences you expect to see some great presentations and to hear about work you would otherwise miss – but you also expect to spend some time feeling a bit sleepy or bored by a few sessions – sneaking off to refuel on coffee to stay awake – or using the time to sort through your to-do list… But here that did not happen.

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Research & budgets: why is it so bloody hard?

This may seem a rather un-titillating subject matter. But I cannot be alone in being utterly baffled, bamboozled and flummoxed by the way budgets are calculated and managed in research. one million dollars

Some questions that come screaming to mind:


-Why do we never get the amount we actually calculated?

I discovered that institutions have hidden undisclosed fees, so as well as the % you always factor into your calculations, they cream some more off project budgets here and there, so you never get the full amount. This means, very basically, that our research budgets are always underfunded. No, I have not mistakenly asked for too little on ALL my projects – I just didn’t know about these extra hidden fees. In terms of salaries, this means you may only get a 10 month contract instead of the 12 month one you requested.


-Why do we have to spend money unnecessarily by some artificial deadline?

In all the institutions I’ve worked in there comes a time each year when the same call goes out: The spending deadline is approaching! So find stuff to spend money on – no matter how needless – otherwise we will lose the cash forever… As well as leading to ridiculous behaviour, this is inefficient and wasteful. Why can’t we have more time and spend more wisely? And anyway, where does the money go (I asked and no one knows)?


-Why is there no flexibility factored into project timing?

Hurray, your project’s been funded! So now all participants must drop everything they’ve been doing previously and start this new project that may never have been funded at all… The contracts and budgets must start spending straight away, and if you ask for any extra time (because, maybe someone had to finish-up their contract, or move from another country) a long administrative rigmarole awaits you.


-Why can we not have a capped rolling discretionary fund?

Can researchers not accumulate some small amount of cash in their name that doesn’t disappear into the money-ether at a certain date? This could help us fund small unexpected costs like an open-access paper, or flying a colleague over for a meeting. Guess what, it might make our working lives easier…


-Has this never happened before?

It seems, when dealing with finance, budgets and administration, that the world came into existence yesterday: ‘Apparently, this particular contract/ invoice has never been requested before’. We must repeatedly invent the process from the start.


Maybe it’s worse where I work (ahem, France does not exactly have a reputation for easy administrative processes). But I think these ridiculous rules that prevail within institutions impede research & science all over the world in the name of accounting. Obviously, I am all for checking that money is being spent as it should, but with the current system research is less efficient. I do think that it wouldn’t take much to simplify processes and add flexibility.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to: a) receive the money we asked for when it’s awarded; b) spend it on the things we requested it for and c) take into account that people do research, not robots (usually), so some flexibility is necessary. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery…

I am sure that other daft examples of this exist, but there may also be places where things are much better. Maybe you have suggestions we could request or campaign for to improve things? Or maybe I’m just completely naive… Either way, let me know and I’ll update the post!

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading