EUSci seminar

EUSci is the Edinburgh University Science magazine, and this evening they held the first lecture in a new seminar series. Before the talks there was pizza and drinks and plenty of opportunity to chat to other scientists: G and I got talking to a master’s student in ‘Ecological Economics’ (or ‘Economics for hippies’ as he put it) and a new PhD student in Chemistry (she gets to play with big machines that do lots of squeezing).

There were three talks over the course of the evening, all fairly biologically based.  I was very impressed by the quality of the speakers, who were only graduate students, and I’d like to tell you a bit about the topics they introduced us to.

First up was Katie Marwick talking about ‘Cognitive Enhancement’.  There are some drugs on the market that are designed to help people with mental disorders, for example, Ritalin for ADHD and Donepezil for Alzheimers, but the same drugs administered to ‘normal’ subjects resulted in an increase in some cognitive functions, such as alertness, memory and awakeness.  These drugs appear to have no short-term side effects but the long-term effects of regular use are unknown. Katie raised a lot of ethical questions associated with these kinds of drugs:

  • Should they be legalised so that you can get them without a prescription?
  • Is it fair for some people to take them, for example, before an exam?  Is this any more unfair than giving some children a private education or raising them with more books to read as they grow up ?
  • Should some people be forced to take these drugs?  For example, doctors on night shifts to prevent them making as many mistakes?
  • Would taking these drugs alter your personality?  If you considered yourself an absent-minded person then would removing that trait change who you see yourself as?
Sheep on St Kilda

Sheep on St Kilda

Next was Adam Hayward talking about ageing in wild sheep populations.  A particular sheep population on St Kilda, to be precise.  He spends his time researching how much of an effect the environment has on the aging process of an animal.  To do this, he measures the amount of a certain parasite in the faeces of the sheep to see how good the sheep are at fighting off disease.  Firstly, it turns out that female sheep are much better at fighting the parasites than males, and they also have a life span that is about twice the male one (15 years compared with 7 or 8 years, although castrated males can live up to 17 years!). Adam also found that sheep who had lived a better life got better at fighting the parasites as they got older, whilst those who had had particularly hard lives (usually through weather conditions) tended to have more parasites in their bodies as they got older.  So, some lessons for humans: eat well and live happily (and get castrated!) if you want to have a better old age!

Finally we had Sarah Kabani who does her research on the parasite causing African Sleeping Sickness.  The parasite has a hard life, since it must survive both in the stomach of the tsetse fly (where it is attacked by gastric juices) and in the human bloodstream (where it is attacked by the immune system, but at least has plenty of sugar to feed on).  Sarah studies the transition in the genome of the parasite as it changes from ‘fly state’ to ‘human state’, using some fairly impressive-sounding technology.  Apparently they can print all 8,000 of the parasite genes onto a single microscope slide, and then they can make the genes glow at various intensities to show which ones are being used at which times.  The hope is that they can identify the genes which are most crucial to the parasite’s survival and then create drugs which can target these particular genes.

I very much enjoyed listening to all the talks, not just to learn more about the science but also to learn how scientists in other areas carried out their research.  There is quite a difference between a mathematician sitting with a pen and paper (and perhaps a computer) and biologists who are examining faeces, testing drugs on patients or scrutinising tiny glowing dots of genes.  I look forward to the next EUSci seminar!

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