This summer we have had Dan, a King’s medical student, working in the lab on a study examining how blood flow to the brain changes during periods of intense breathing effort. His cousin, Tom, came into the lab on Friday to participate in Dan’s research. Tom is an English teacher in north-west London, so we are hoping soon to welcome some students from his school to the blog (hello, if you’re reading this!). Tom kindly allowed us to take a few photos and a video of him during the study. Maryam and Asha from our student panel filmed another subject doing the same study recently, so we will have a video with a full explanation coming soon, but here you can still see some of the techniques. On the left, Dan is inserting the tubes via Tom’s nostril into his stomach. The tubes allow us to measure the pressure and electrical activity generated by the diaphragm when it contracts. On the right, Tom is just starting the study – he is breathing from a chamber that is connected to a vacuum, meaning that his breathing muscles have to work harder to move air into his lungs. The video shows Dan stimulating Tom’s phrenic nerves (the nerves that supply the diaphragm) with a pair of magnets – this allows us to measure how strong the diaphragm is, and how fatigued it has become after breathing against the vacuum. You can see that his arms move with the stimulation too – this is because the nerves supplying the arm muscles are located in the same area as the phrenic nerves. I don’t think any of us stop finding the ‘arm flailing’ funny…
Many people may imagine a career in research to be non-stop, action-packed fun from 9 till 5, 7 days a week. When we, budding young scientists, flick through articles in New Scientist, we assume someone got up one morning and thought “I want to do this project”, and then soon enough their findings are published as articles in national journals. But, as we learnt this week, life as a researcher is far from this idyllic fantasy.
One of the first things we learnt during our week of work experience at the lab is that life as a researcher is very unpredictable. Each morning when you arrive, you have no idea what kinds of tasks you’ll have completed by the end of the day. This may seem rather daunting, however it means you are never bored, and are always kept on your toes!
On our first day at the lab, Vicky had planned for us to have a go at taking some lung function measurements. Collecting the data was reasonably straight-forward – the difficult part was setting up the equipment! As a researcher, you are responsible for locating equipment and making sure you have what you need to conduct your research. It is evident that being organised and patient are two vital skills to have as a researcher.
One would often think of a researcher as a solitary scientist alone at a work bench. In reality, there is a great deal of teamwork and collaboration involved, making it a very social job. Every Wednesday morning, all members of the muscle lab come together to discuss their recent findings, often seeking guidance from one another about something unexpected they’ve come across. This aspect of the job means that you are never alone as a researcher; there will always be someone in another field who is able to assist you.
Something which we found really exciting to see during the week was the ability that researchers have to develop their specific areas of personal interest in the scientific field. For example, Dr Clark (who we were lucky enough to spend a whole day with) has a particular interest in cardiovascular physiology, so is currently working with some masters students on a project looking into the physiological processes which occur during heart failure. To be able to learn new things every day and develop a deeper understanding in an area you’re fascinated by is incredible. We also spent some time with Professor Sutton, who works in X-ray crystallography, a technique which was used by Franklin and Wilkins – leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The development of new technology allows processes which would previously have taken 4 years, to take a matter of hours. Unfortunately, researchers need to manage to get the funding first which we have learnt is not an easy task!
As well as that, we also really enjoyed learning about a longitudinal study which Vicky is currently carrying out, looking at premature babies and their risk of developing a respiratory disorder. We observed her doing some lung function tests with a participant, who had carried out similar tests when he was a baby. Over 100 premature babies were involved in the original data collection, and Vicky is now in the process of contacting the same participants to collect further data 6 years on. Research projects often take many years to complete, but often the discoveries made are very valuable, so in the end the years of hard work and dedication pay off!
We had an amazing week at the muscle lab and learnt so much in such a short space of time. Thank you to Vicky for organising it all, as well as to the many other academics we were lucky enough to spend time with during the week!
Laura Schuz and Beth Tobiansky, Student Panel members, JFS School Sixth Form