“Research” is a word that covers a huge number of different activities. Even medical research is a very large area, and ranges from looking at how the tiniest parts of our bodies (cells and genes) work, right up to understanding where and how we should design health systems across the world (for example, whether the government should pay for all of the healthcare people need, or whether people should pay for it themselves). No one research department will do all of these different types of research and it’s definitely not possible to explain all of them here!
The research that we mostly do in our department is ‘clinical’ research, which means that we work with patients rather than doing microscope-type scientific research. Our main area of work is physiology, which is the study of how the different systems of the body work, and we particularly look at respiratory physiology – how the breathing system (the lungs, the rib cage, and the breathing muscles, together with the blood vessels that run through the lungs to take oxygen around the body) works. You might be puzzled by the blog title – “King’s Muscle Lab” – but a lot of our research looks at how the breathing muscles work and how the muscles in other parts of the body change when you have breathing problems. We have always called our lab ‘the muscle lab’, but we actually have people working on lots of different projects as well as muscle research within the department now – the name has just stuck!
A lot of our research involves finding out what happens to different processes within the body when people have breathing problems. We also do research on healthy people to compare their physiology to people with lung disease. These comparisons are important to understand what’s ‘normal’ and what’s related to having a lung disease. We tend to study groups of people and then use statistics to compare the groups: for example we might measure the leg strength of 20 healthy people, 20 people with mild asthma, and 20 people with severe asthma. We might find that the average leg strength for the three groups is different, with the mild asthma patients being weaker than the healthy people, and the severe asthma people even weaker. This doesn’t mean that nobody with severe asthma can ever have strong legs, just that on average they will be weaker. It’s the same as the fact that boys tend to be a bit taller than girls, but there are still tall girls and short boys in the world.
Lots of medical research that you tend to hear about through newspapers, the internet, radio and TV will be about new treatments for diseases. This type of research is really important, and the goal of all medical research is to help treat diseases (or to stop them happening in the first place), but the reason physiology is important is because you have to understand what’s happening in the first place before knowing how to treat it. We do some research in our department about ways of treating disease (for example, we have done a lot of work on how helpful exercise can be for people with lung disease), but most of our work is investigating how things work. We are also very interested in finding good ways of measuring how body systems work – if you can’t measure things, you don’t know how sick someone is, and whether any treatment you give them is working or not.
In order to pay for our research, we have to apply for research grants. These research grants pay for the equipment we use in our projects and also pay our wages! Some of us (like Ged) are employed permanently by the University, but most of us are paid for through research grants. These grants come from charities (like Asthma UK, the British Lung Foundation and the Rosetrees Trust), or larger government-funded organisations. Applying for a research grant involves writing a long application explaining why our planned project is important, why we are the best people to do this study, and how we think it will help to improve care for patients. There are always a lot of research groups applying for each pot of money, so we spend a lot of time working on making our applications really good. It’s a cause for big celebration when we do get a grant as so much hard work goes into each one, and they are often not successful because the competition is so tough.
When we have finished a project, we have to analyse the results in lots of detail, and then we have to write a full report on why and how we did the project, what we found and why we think we got those results, usually about 3,000 words long. We then send this off to a scientific journal for it to be published, and it will then appear in paper copy of their journal (like a science magazine) and also on the journal’s website.
So really, research is a constant cycle of thinking of new ideas (usually based on what we have done as well as what we have seen in journals that other people have done), writing applications for the money to allow us to do the project, doing the studies, and then analysing the results and writing it up. Most of us will have more than one project going at a time, so we’re always busy! In between, we might find time to go to courses or conferences, teach students, write a blog entry, give talks to other scientists or hospital staff, and maybe eat and sleep too!