A summer with the King’s Muscle Lab

Sasha is a KCL student who is working with Dr Joerg Steier, a former King’s Muscle Lab researcher who is still part of our wider research group.  Here she tells us how she has found her research ‘taster’ summer so far…

My name is Sasha and I am a 2nd year Neuroscience student at KCL. The Neuroscience course,Sasha much like other Biomedical Science courses at King’s, aims to coach you in to a research career. For ages I was never really sure whether I wanted to pursue a career in research. I couldn’t see myself stuck in a lab with pipettes in a white coat, but after a few months of working as a summer student alongside researchers, I have learnt research is nothing like that at all!

I decided to get work experience over the summer because I knew I wouldn’t be sure to pursue a career in research unless I actually had some experience of doing the job. I saw a project online through King’s called ‘the Multiple Dimensions of Sleepiness’ and after having a few lectures on sleep physiology and medicine and thoroughly enjoying them, I decided to email the supervisor, Dr Steier, and share my interest in his project. It was agreed that I would help Dr Steier throughout the summer in collecting and analysing data, attending research meetings, and writing up the paper.

On the first day of helping Dr Steier I was super nervous – I really wanted to make a good impression! We were meeting at his office at 11am so I got there at 10.40am with plenty of time to spare. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. Not to worry I thought – it’s just because I’m early. I stood outside the office for 45 minutes with no one answering the door. I decided at this point to email Dr Steier as maybe he had forgotten we were meeting. He speedily replied saying “Ah I wondered where you were, today I am at my other office in the Lane Fox Unit (Westminster) not at Nuffield house (London Bridge).” So I spent my first day on the job running across London to the other campus arriving sweaty and breathless. Already I had learnt something very important – researchers may have multiple offices in different locations (and I must check beforehand which office I need to go to)!

The next few weeks went smoothly, I attended research meetings where researchers of the King’s Muscle Lab shared their ups and downs of their projects. From these meetings it became clear that research isn’t always smooth sailing, there are set backs and hurdles you need to get through but you have your colleagues, who have often been through the same thing, to support you. Attending these meetings I gained a really good insight in to the different projects that take place in the King’s Muscle Lab. At first it was difficult as I noticed researchers seems to abbreviate EVERYTHING, they are either discussing what happened in ICU or they’re gathering data from EEG’s, MSLT’s and PSG’s… It took me a few meetings to get the hang of it but after that there is nothing cooler than abbreviating everything and having your housemates think you’re an actual genius!

So far, my favourite part about helping on the project has been the data collection. This is because our data is questionnaire based so I have been able to interview patients from the sleep clinic. I have really taken to patient contact and I feel that it is the best way to really get down to the problem you are researching. It’s also really helped with my confidence and I have learnt to approach different patients in different ways based on their needs.

After data collection was completed, we needed to do some analysing. This was done using SPSS [statistical software]. Having never using this software before I was a bit overwhelmed. It seemed so confusing and Dr Steier could do everything on it so quickly. I honestly thought I would never get the hang of it. But after several YouTube videos and a couple of hours in the library I seemed to be producing means, standard deviations, correlations and linear regressions with ease! Alike to the abbreviations, it was tough at the beginning but it felt so good to actually understand how it worked.

We are now at a point in our project where we have sent off an abstract to a journal and we are waiting for it to be accepted. I have prepared myself to not be too disgruntled if it doesn’t get accepted because, like I said, there are many setbacks in research – you just need to let your passion for the subject keep you going. In only a couple of months I have learnt so many research skills that will help me in my career, but I think most importantly I have learnt many skills that will help me through life. I would say the TOP career skills I have learnt are to be a Team player, be Open minded and to Persevere!

Lung function in dolphins!

Dan came across a research paper the other day that was all about measuring respiratory function in dolphins – and it turns out that dolphins have pretty fascinating respiratory systems so we thought it worth sharing.  Obviously measuring lung function in any animal is tricky, but when they live in water…  We’re pretty impressed with the data these researchers managed to get, given that we often struggle with adult humans.  One good thing is that dolphins are so smart that the research team were actually able to train them to perform specific respiratory manoeuvres (“chuffs”) so that they could compare normal dolphin breathing to these effortful breaths.  The researchers also emphasised that the dolphins were free to swim away or resist the measurements if they wished, so actually they ‘gave consent’ for the study in their own way (tricky to sign a consent form when you’ve only got flippers).

Dolphins’ lungs get exposed to a much wider range of pressures than animals who live on the ground, as they have to be able to breathe at the surface but also cope with the increasing pressure as they dive.  It has been thought for some time that diving mammals probably have much floppier small airways and alveoli in order to allow these parts of the lungs to collapse when under pressure during dives, and then re-expand easily when they re-surface.  In this study, the researchers passed small tubes with pressure sensors down into the dolphins’ stomachs so that they could measure the pressure being generated by the dolphins’ respiratory muscles.  This is the same as we do in our studies – though probably a bit harder to do…  This showed that dolphins’ lungs are about four times ‘stretchier’ than human lungs, in line with the researchers’ hypothesis.

F1.largeThe researchers also used a very large flow sensor over the dolphins’ blowholes to measure how much and how fast they were breathing, along with the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air.  Dolphins only breathe about 3 or 4 times per minute (compared to 12-15 breaths per minute in an adult human), but when they do take a breath they have to exchange a huge amount of air very quickly (their total time to breathe in and out is only about 0.7 seconds).  This study showed that even during a normal breath, air moves out of the blowhole at a rate of over 2,600 litres per minute, which is almost four times higher than the fastest human cough we’ve ever measured in our lab!  During a “chuff”, the highest flow recorded in this study was 8,400 litres per minute – that would be 84 bathtubs full of air over a minute!  During a normal breath the dolphins tended to take breaths of about 5-6 litres (which is about the total lung size in adult humans), but this went up as high as 18 litres during chuffs.  They also absorb more oxygen than humans do from the air they breathe – air contains 21% oxygen.  Exhaled breath from a human is normally about 17% oxygen, but dolphins get quite a lot more from it and breathe out gas at only 12.3% oxygen.  They also breathe out a bit more carbon dioxide than us (7% compared to 5% for humans).

So, in summary…  Dolphins:  big lungs, fast lungs, effective lungs.  We are in awe of the research team for what looks like an exceptionally challenging study, with fascinating results!

Student Panel meeting – 1st July 2016

Recently, a group of ‘Harris Experience Advanced’ Year 12 Scientists, including myself, and some other students from Burntwood, JFS and Graveney Schools were lucky enough to be invited to attend a visit to the King’s Muscle Lab at King’s College London in Denmark Hill.Notes page 1

Upon arrival we were invited into one of the lecture rooms where we received a short introduction about what the King’s Muscle Lab does, and the research that takes place there. The main focus of their research is Physiology, involving studying the functions of body systems, then linking this to respiratory problems and other diseases among patients.
We were first given insightful presentations from researchers carrying out projects for their studies at or allied to the King’s Muscle Lab which was interesting and very beneficial to us, as it allowed us to see the wide variety of projects that can be included within different science degrees, and what type of research areas we may want to look into pursuing ourselves, in the future.

We were then split into groups of mixed students from different schools, to talk about a disease called COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and the subject areas linked to it with the academics. The groups were rotated so that everyone had a chance to discuss each area surrounding the topic. This gave us a chance to voice our opinions within a group of students that we had not met before, and it was fascinating to listen to others’ opinions and consider them in addition to our own, to form valid points for discussion.

Firstly, Ms Kylie Morgan (PhD student) lead a discussion on ‘the use of animal models for COPD Notes page 4research’ and we talked about the controversy of research into COPD and found that it is most commonly carried out on rats and mice, and discussed the ethics surrounding this. Following this, Dr Aish Sinha (Junior Doctor at King’s) encouraged discussion on how doctors and researchers are measuring and assessing the extent of the disease, and that it can be difficult to measure whether medication is successful for patients. COPD is heavily related to the issue of smoking, and in a discussion with Ms Basak Tas (PhD student) we explored the problem of addiction within COPD.
In the session with Ms Charlotte Cheadle (PhD student) we discussed pharmacological management of COPD and how medication is delivered. For people with COPD, the volume of air that can be exhaled is reduced however the volume of air that can be inhaled remains the same and this can affect patients in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. In a talk guided by Ms Arietta Spinou we came up with different ways a patient’s quality of life can be affected which we split into social impacts and physical impacts. Under the headline social, the anxiety the disease could cause for a patient was suggested, as they could become self-conscious of coughing in public which could lead to social isolation and loss of integrationNotes page 3 within their social circles. In terms of physical problems that COPD can cause, we discussed tiredness, which would limit the activities of their everyday lives, coughing which is heavily linked to social problems mentioned above, and having to turn down opportunities that cannot be adapted to fit with the disease. These short discussions were very insightful as the points that came up included some that I had not considered before.

Following the discussions, we then all met back in the lecture room to feed back. One person from each group was nominated to present their group’s views on each topic area and this allowed each group to build upon their opinions and bounce ideas off each other.

Overall the visit was a captivating experience, and as you can imagine, these events are veryNotes page 2 popular and we are very fortunate to have received such special treatment. On behalf of the Harris Federation and Harris Experience Advanced students, I can safely say that we all thoroughly enjoyed the visit and I would like to thank the members of staff that made it possible, with a special thanks to Dr Victoria MacBean and Dr Alan Lunt and the Academics that delivered and lead the group discussion sessions. We look forward to being involved in more of these fantastic opportunities in the future.

By Ashleigh Francis
Sixth Form Student at Harris City Academy Crystal Palace