The value of working together

Research is tough at times – much of the time in fact.  Progress is slower than in many other jobs, and getting turned down is a frequent aspect of the work (funding applications and submissions to research journals are very rarely successful on the first attempt).  There are also a lot of things you need to know.  This can range from complex stuff like specific scientific techniques to something as simple as knowing who to contact to get a replacement lightbulb in the office.  Also, difficult things happen in researchers’ personal lives too, and such things can make the research work much harder.  The thing that makes this all manageable is that we work together as a team and help one another.

This might seem like a simple thing, and an obvious one.  It would however be possible to let everyone figure out their difficulties on their own – it would take longer, but you can learn techniques by going on courses or reading about them in books and papers, and despite the fact that the King’s College London website can be a bit of a challenge, you’ll find the email address for the facilities helpdesk eventually.  Doing it that way would be stupid, and we’d all probably be really grumpy too.  So instead, we use each others’ experience and knowledge to complement one another and get things done quicker and better.  Some examples:

Alan has spent a lot of time learning new and (sometimes) complicated statistical methods.  We use statistics to demonstrate that the findings of our studies haven’t just occurred by chance, so stats are in many ways the crux of our work.  We have generally used relatively simple statistical methods in our lab, but Alan’s willingness to explore new techniques (and do all the really hard reading and learning for the rest of us) means that we can explore our research data in ways we hadn’t thought possible, and robustly demonstrate findings that we felt were there but couldn’t quite show.

Caroline is the only doctor in the lab at the moment, so can help others with questions about things like the prognosis for a certain disease, or how particular medications work.  The training for physiotherapists, nurses, physiologists and the like doesn’t cover these things in as much depth.

Ged has more experience in, and greater knowledge of, human physiology than any of the other lab members.  It’s always surprising how detailed an explanation of the physiology underlying a particular process Ged can give!  This is invaluable in allowing us to understand why things that we see in our studies might happen, and how different body systems interact.  Ged’s knowledge of how the body controls breathing is particularly impressive (as that’s what his PhD concentrated on).

Manuel is a super-clever signal processing engineer, and so understands the data we acquire in a completely different way to any of the rest of us.  He can explain why it might be that we get a strange wibbly line in the middle of a study – and more importantly can often get rid of it, which means we can use a recording that otherwise we would have had to ignore.

Dan has a lot of experience as an ICU nurse, caring for patients at the bedside as well as doing research.  We do quite a lot of studies in intensive care and Dan’s insight into the minute-to-minute reality of an intensive care unit patient’s stay is hugely beneficial in allowing us to plan studies around patients’ needs, and make sure what we do is sensible and feasible.

Alongside all these skills, the silly little things that people pick up along the way are incredibly helpful too – how to change a setting to format your Word document correctly, what time to go to the canteen to avoid the big queue (and get the best chips), which screwdriver fits that bit of equipment the best, what forms you need to complete to submit your PhD thesis, what type of tape when securing the tubes we put up people’s noses to measure their diaphragm function…  The list goes on.

Most important though is the fact that we’re all friends.  If things are a bit tough, we offer words of encouragement, cups of tea, a help with something tricky, sympathy (and a bit of a whinge) if you’ve just had a grant or paper rejected, and perhaps even a quick trip to the pub (we are all over 18, and we do do it out of working hours).  Knowing that someone will help you out if needed is absolutely priceless.

A poem by Athos Athanasiou about the SpaceUp:UK conference

A wintry Friday in June we came to SpaceUp UK, bright eyed and keen, and this is what we heard.

If we age in space like we do on earth, but quicker
then we can raise our healthspan by making muscles thicker.
So move your muscles frequently, don’t be a floatanaut.
If you want to keep your health in age train like an astronaut.

Your skeleton aint static
cos blood runs through your bones.
We need high-res schematics
to map resulting holes.

Cardiac stem cells will senesce in Microgravity.
But there are ways around it for they go stochastically.
Cardiovascular degradation; we can’t get round that fact.
So run in the Space Station, yes that is how you act.

Low gravity in space could cause disks to expand.
It makes your back quite painful, whether you sit or stand.
In Heavy G they could contract and this is painful too.
But we don’t know a lot of why this will happen to you.

Our children will be living in a very different world,
so they should be our focus from a very early age.
Don’t teach them hocus pocus
and don’t just teach them STEM
Add A for Art
and make it steam.
Engage imagination, enthusiasm, dreams.
For the skills they need are lifewide.
And what we show them now will shape the world we leave behind.

Increase their science capital by reaching out to schools.
Show them that there’s a reason why we do the science we do.
Put pictures of a person looking down a microscope.
Knit a set of lungs or hearts. Knit dreams. Knit joy. Knit hope.
But get them involved
in the work you do.
Interviewing patients
and making posters.
They can bridge the communication gap.

Our brains evolved through gravity.
If you take that away,
the water pressure then builds up
and gives our heads a pain.
And if this pain is constant
you could become depressed.
But space is quite exciting now
so astronauts feel it less.

Standing still on earth, in bright light, on a flat surface,
We balance using 10% visual, 20% vestibular system in the ears and 70% proprioception.
If one is affected we undertaking sensory reweighting.
In astronauts the vestibular system gets messed up.
In a few days this reweighs
increasing dependence on the visual.
But visual quality also decreases.

If your dreams of bein’ an astronaut you don’t get to fulfill,
then set up the biggest space life science centre in Brazil.

In the stratosphere there is a sweet spot
where the air is warm and the water is liquid.
Test for life.
Not on the ground.
Up there
in the sky.
Do it independently.
Use Helium.
Send your project up there suspended on a string.
It might crash down,
but you would still have useful science.

On a flight to Mars, there’s greater risk of medical events.
And some are big so make sure the mission is medically capable.
How do you automate medicine, well an early warning system.
But beware, astronauts as soon as they get called astronauts believe they are infallible.

(To the tune of the Wombles’ theme)
Upstream market, downstream market, UK Space agency free.
They got involved in Tim’s mission to bring it back to you and me.
Making good use of experiment time they find.
Circadian rhythm the astronauts oft leave behind.
(Apologies Wombles)

Two superpower worked apart on Soyuz and Apollo
with duplicating problems and duplicating science.
They had to come together, there were far too many mistakes,
an unprecedented international collaboration in the ISS.
But that’s a start, the next step is
to work with other areas and fields cooperatively.

Homeostasis maintains the status quo.
In temperature, pressure, light and gravity.
It goes from -100o to 260o in 45 minutes.
Phew, that’s hard.
We need to help these astronauts stay well.

Puffy faces
Chicken legs
Spinal fluid
Pushes on the eye
The axial length is shortened
It makes it hard to get to Mars
We need to look to tests

Bob, he wears a spacesuit, it keeps his pressure even.
It mimics the loading we get right here on Earth.
It works by increasing tension in the vertical elastic fibres.
The fitting was quite intimate.
You can simulate the gravity in a Micro-G lab.
Then put it on and take it off in parabolic flight.

Influence policy. Use space tech for food and water shortage.
We can get a lot of data but it needs to be shared.
For those that need it most don’t have the access to it.

In 2018 James Webb Space Telescope will hopefully unfurl.
We’ll bite our nails for then, there’s lots that can go wrong.
And later WFIRST and LUVOIR.

Space tourism. DEBATE!
Space entertainment. DEBATE!
Space law. DEBATE!
There is much we need to think about.

So do we go by rocket or do we take the lift?
An elevator could give us payload as long as it don’t drift.
The price is prob’ly cheaper so that will help with thrift.
And so it seems that this would be a most fantastic gift.

And then? What then? Where should we go?
Let’s reach for the stars.
Don’t limit our thoughts, think beyond our technology.
Tweak some laws of Physics and then you can set sail.
But it’s all about the money and so about the time.
And will we get there before humanity may fail.

XCor does commercial space.
Get to Sydney in 2 hours.

Now we should thank those that worked hard to get this done.
Cheers and be jolly.
For Charles and Phil and Stephanie and Kate and Vicky and Molly.
And all those that I’ve missed.
And you the people taking part.
Who talked and listened.

So off you go with lots of facts re-join the Human Race.
And go and do exciting things that have to do with Space.

Athos Athanasiou
June 2016 at SpaceUpUK
More space poems here:
More Poems here

Max Thomas’ journey to clinical physiology

Max Thomas was a student on the MSc course in Human and Applied Physiology in 2012-13, some of which is taught by Ged, Vicky, Alan and Caroline.  He is now a trainee Clinical Scientist in Birmingham and recently contacted us for some advice about respiratory muscle testing.  Here he tells us about his career path to date.


What made you decide to study physiology at King’s?

Prior to arriving at King’s, I studied Biology. Science had always been the only subject that could keep my focus and attention. I knew my passion was within the field of biological science, but was clueless as to where. My first year reflected this lack of uncertainty with the modules I selected ranging from microbiology and comparative physiology, to forensic biology and pharmacology.

As the years progressed I found myself more drawn to subjects involving health, disease and physiological function. My final year research project looking at age-related muscle decline was what sold me on the MSc in Human and Applied Physiology. My project supervisor was Dr Jamie McPhee, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable physiologist, who suggested the course as one of the best in the country.

I’ll be perfectly honest, at that point I had no career goal at the end of the MSc; I studied because I was truly passionate about the science and knew that interest would take me forward. That fact is something I am more proud of myself for every time I reflect on it.


What did you think of the course?

What would you think of a course that teaches about the physiology in health, disease, extreme temperatures, space, the deep sea and fighter pilots? Also throw in some lectures about the astronaut selection process given by astronauts, a lecture on blast injuries, and the chance to contribute to some really interesting research. It was awesome. Although, it was equally as challenging as it was fun.

Its broad content suited my uncertainty about the aspect of the science I most enjoyed. We were exposed to everything physiological science can offer from micro, such as staining muscle biopsies for microscopy, to full body physiology in health, disease and extreme environments – with some excellent in-house experiments and research project field trips. Being exposed to so much allowed me to really determine what I was interested in and where I wanted to focus.


Tell us your one favourite thing about the MSc.

On top of the course programme, the guest lectures we had throughout the year were fantastic. However, the field trips were hands down the best part about the course. My particular favourite was the trip to an RAF station in Henlow where we helped out with a research project there using the hypobaric chambers. The team there were looking at the efficacy of two breath-actuated breathing devices used by Chinook helicopter crews who can be exposed to altitudes of 10,000 feet. We were able to participate in and operate the experiment for a week, and it is still one of the coolest things I’ve done to date.

…and one thing you really didn’t like.

Douglas bags


What have you been up to since you left King’s?

I spent a year getting as much exposure to clinical science as I could (mostly observational experience in cardiac and respiratory physiology) whilst applying to graduate schemes.

I’m currently in year 2 of a highly competitive graduate scheme called the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). The STP is a 3 year clinical scientist training scheme where you work in a hospital and develop competence in performing diagnostic tests and clinical assessment whilst undertaking an MSc in your relevant field – mine is Respiratory and Sleep Science.

The MSc in at King’s is definitely the reason why I was a cut above the rest when applying. There were 7 positions for Respiratory and Sleep Science when I applied, and this graduate scheme has thousands of applicants.


Can you tell us what your job involves now?

I spent the last year rotating around cardiology, vascular sciences, pathology and radiology learning incredible amounts and getting to see some really interesting procedures and surgeries. Now I am back in my Respiratory and Sleep department I perform lung function tests on patients (including respiratory muscle function which Dr MacBean must be super proud of me for), and help with sleep studies, consultations and issuing treatment for sleep apnoea. We work with a range of patients and diseases i.e. COPD, neuromuscular disorders (like Duchenne muscular dystrophy), lung cancer, etc.

Next year I will move on to performing cardiopulmonary exercise tests (CPET) in a clinical setting, and blood gas analysis for the issuing of oxygen therapy.

Whilst working, I am also able to perform clinical research and I am currently in the midst of a project looking at two different forms of occupational asthma.


Do you have one favourite geeky physiological fact?

Aren’t they all inherently geeky? My favourite fact comes from someone asking me if the human body is seven years old, or if that is a fabricated pub-fact. My research lead me to the answer: there are tissues in the brain that never regenerate and are as old as us. However, the interesting part of this story is not that Dave at the pub was blowing hot air, but how we’re certain of this fact. This all relies on the nuclear bomb.

Testing of nuclear bombs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s vastly increased atmospheric concentrations of an isotope of carbon, carbon-14 (C14). C14 is used along with other forms of carbon by plant matter during photosynthesis, the plant matter is eaten by animals, and humans eat either the animals or plants, or both. The C14 is incorporated into the tissues formed and the concentrations in the tissues are remarkably accurate of atmospheric concentrations around that date.

Max Thomas, Trainee Clinical Scientist, Birmingham Heartlands Hospital