Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Archive for the ‘Science Funding’ Category

Physicists, Algae and Sustainability

Posted by Athene Donald on November 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago my university was able to announce a large new initiative, £20M to set up The Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, funded by David Harding, the founder, chairman and head of research of Winton Capital Management and an alumnus of my department.  The details of this enterprise, which will be led by Professor Sir Richard Friend, are still to be worked up, but I think it is reasonable to assume that a significant amount of the effort will be directed towards novel and improved methods for energy production, applying physics to meet the growing demand on our natural resources.

However it is easy for physicists to think in purely ‘synthetic’ terms when dealing with problems such as these. By this I mean a natural area to concentrate effort on would be organic photovoltaic devices of the kind to which Friend has already made such a significant contribution.  He has recently a third spinout to his name in conjunction with the Carbon Trust; Eight19,  a new solar energy company – spun out from Carbon Trust’s Cambridge University-TTP Advanced Photovoltaic Research Accelerator – which will be focusing on developing and manufacturing high-performance, low-cost plastic solar cells for high-growth volume markets.  In my own very small way I am involved with a different project aimed at exploring optimization of devices composed of blends of semiconducting polymers by getting a better grip on the underlying polymer physics of the morphology development during device processing. This project is a collaboration involving Sheffield University, Diamond and Cardiff University.  Sheffield University has its own substantial effort directed at sustainability, Project Sunshine, which has three themes: food, energy and global change. Their description of the energy section identifies two different strands to utilize solar energy: photovoltaic devices such as those studied in the EPSRC project I am involved with or relevant to Eight19, and microalgae as the basis of biofuel production.

The latter may look as if it is far removed from physics – the project, part of a large consortium and also funded by the Carbon Trust – requires optimizing both the strain of algae used and the efficiency of lipid production as well as developing refining methodologies to produce the requisite biofuel.  But as with biofuels produced on land (which have recently come in for much opprobrium because they take land away from food production and their net effect on carbon emissions is unclear), there is much more scope for biological physicists to make a contribution than is perhaps immediately obvious.

Why do I say this? Some years ago I was involved with an unsuccessful bid to BP for their Biofuels Institute, a bid won by the University of California, Berkeley after significant commitments from their Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The Institute may now be something of a poisoned chalice on many fronts; I have no information that tells me this is so but given the  image of BP in the US and the financial situation of the state of California, quite aside from the fall from grace of biofuels produced from crops nicely described a couple of years ago by Richard Jones here,  one must assume this is so.) As people got together to start preparing our university’s case the obvious suspects were lined up: plant scientists, engineers and chemical engineers, social scientists and those involved with policy. But physical sciences collectively were thought not to be relevant. I objected (and was immediately co-opted onto the working group) because, if using plant mass (biological) physicists have relevant tools to study structure and how that varies between candidate species or cultivars. This knowledge can then be used to provide understanding of how the structure affects processing, rather than tackling this in an empirical way in large vats as might be done in a chemical engineering department. In other words, I would say that by providing underpinning mechanistic understanding, physicists can help to rationalize an optimized strategy even for feedstock of  biological origin.

In fact, it is exactly this same strategy of rationalization which underpins the work I am involved with on organic photovoltaics: many approaches in the literature rely on annealing appropriate polymer blends to modify the microstructure and then examining subsequent device performance, without having a robust underpinning understanding of the thermal properties of the polymers involved. In other words they don’t have a firm grip on where the glass transition temperature and other relevant thermal transitions sit to identify an appropriate processing (annealing) window.  By gaining a better understanding of the properties of the constituents, we believe we can provide better a priori insight into what thermal annealing will be best to give the desired microstructure. I believe in a similar way, with plants or algae, by understanding the structure (and not just the chemistry) of the feedstock it may be possible to identify which sources will be most easily broken down or how growth conditions affect microstructure and therefore subsequent processing strategies.  My work on starch (outlined on my blog previously) shows that a physicist can contribute surprisingly much to inform both plant breeders and industrialists utilizing the material, and I would be surprised if physicists – of either a biological or polymeric bent –  were not similarly able to contribute to research aimed at optimizing algae utilization for biofuel production.  That of course will not resolve the bigger issues of whether this route is viable commercially – though if it helps in the optimization it may help to bring costs down – let alone whether it is actually effective in reducing CO2 emissions overall, but if algal biofuel production is to succeed as a realistic option the whole spectrum of potential research inputs must be utilized. Once again the breadth of interdisciplinary science needs to be borne in mind and I hope physicists will form part of the teams and consortia set up to explore these novel routes to biofuel production.


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Too Much Interdisciplinarity? From Cliometricians to Mathematical Biologists

Posted by Athene Donald on October 25, 2010

I have recently been reading two apparently vastly different books: In Defence of History by Richard J Evans, a Cambridge colleague, and Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller. Despite their widely different topics and approaches, reading them in juxtaposition brought out some striking similarities.

In Defence of History is a book written to defend the discipline of history against some of the more extreme manifestations of post-modernism. As the blurb on the back cover of my edition says ‘under the influence of postmodernist theory, the profession of history is in crisis, its assumptions derided and its methods rejected as outmoded.’ I am not going to comment on any of this, as I read it simply to get some handle on how postmodernism has impacted on the field and am clearly no expert. Likewise I am no expert in developmental biology, the main theme of Making Sense of Life:  the book concentrates on how approaches to embryo development have changed over time, along with what constitutes ‘knowing’. Fox Keller refers to this as a discussion of ‘variations in epistemological culture..[that] are both temporal and interdisciplinary.’ And it is this common strand of interdisciplinarity that both these books  touch upon, that I want to explore in this post: how, in fact, there are some overlapping ideas despite the very different provenances and motivations of the two books. I should add both are books I very much enjoyed reading.

Evans writes an interesting chapter on whether history can be treated as a science suggesting that ‘attempts to turn history into science have been going on for the best part of two centuries’ but on the whole coming down on the side that it can’t. For instance he states that history is not well placed to make predictions about the future because ‘life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises’. I happen to think science is full of surprises too, but I think it is clear what he means. He also discusses the argument that history cannot be regarded as a science because ‘while scientific knowledge is cumulative, historical knowledge is not’ and that very often different historians will dispute each other’s interpretations and judgement may also come into play.  Well that also will apply to scientists but again, I think it is clear what he means.

However, the main thing that struck me was his comments about the fragmentation of history as a discipline, the spawning of sub-disciplines that then claimed to be more real than the original. In particular, this is discussed in the context of social history.  History – at least in the UK – used to be concerned solely with great men, the nation state and the ensuing politics. The vast majority of people were regarded as unimportant (‘peasants’ if you like) and didn’t feature.  This led to the need for the parvenus who wanted to study social and economic history to set up separate departments and to ‘claim that their own specialism constituted a separated discipline entirely distinct from history proper’, to quote Evans.  So-called cliometricians in the 1970’s wanted to transform the discipline of history by introducing a proper ‘scientific’ basis, particularly with regard to demographic and economic history, using quantitative methods such as those borrowed from econometrics.  Readers of this blog may see why I think this argument is not a million miles from what happens in interdisciplinary science, as I discussed previously, where new disciplines may be spawned as if to replace existing traditional ones.

So where does Fox Keller fit into this?  Her own background is in theoretical physics, but over her career she has turned into (to use her own words) a mathematical biophysicist . In her book, amongst an analysis of many topics, she discusses the emerging field of mathematical biology. She takes exception, for instance,  to how external funding agencies view bringing disciplines together at this maths-biology interface, quoting with displeasure from a press release associated with the formation of a new programme in theoretical biology at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1998:

The use of mathematical ideas, models, and techniques in the biosciences is a rapidly growing and increasingly important field. Applied mathematicians have traditionally used mathematical methods to address a wide range of problems in the physical sciences….However, several areas of biology have gradually developed an understanding of the important role that mathematical approaches can play. Such approaches are often in the hands of people who collaborate with experimentalists, but do not themselves work in the laboratory.

She sniffs at this because it smacks of belittlement of biologists who work in an apparently ‘undeveloped culture’, with theoretical physicists ‘seeking to impose the cultural givens’ of their twentieth century history on biologists.

Likewise she refers to an earlier report from 1992 for a workshop on ‘Mathematics and Biology: The Interface Challenges and Opportunities’  which had stated in patronizing voice:

This is the stage in which biology finds itself today, poised for the phase transition that comes with the total integration of mathematical and empirical approaches to a subject. Many branches of biology are virtually devoid of mathematical theory, and some must remain so for years to come. In these, anecdotal information accumulates, awaiting the integration and insights that come from mathematical abstraction.’

The solution this 1992 report made, smacks of the transformation of the discipline the cliometricians were wanting to make in the case of history: explicitly to develop new research strategies (and new funding routes) rather than simply a ‘physics of biology’.  I think Fox Keller approves of this, wanting mathematical biology to be sui generis rather than a spectrum of approaches which is flexible enough to accommodate many different facets.  Her book, written in 2002, really predates the explosion of systems biology, let alone synthetic biology – both of which obviously represent different overlaps between physical and biological sciences. (The earlier manifestation of synthetic biology, as constructed in the early 20th century, forms a separate chapter in the book, but is a completely different subject from that conveyed by the phrase nowadays.)

Herein lies my concern. The mathematical biology she was flagging up was discussed in 2000 by Peter Dearden and my Cambridge colleague Michael Akam; since then times have changed again, the approaches needed for solving cutting-edge problems have likewise changed  and it is  madness to keep trying to create new departments to keep up. It is bad enough trying to keep abreast of new journals. Meanwhile funding becomes distorted to try to follow these new hot topics.

So, be it cliometricans, social historians or mathematical biologists redefining a ‘traditional’ discipline or claiming that their particular way of doing things must overtake any previous methodology, this approach is, I think, ultimately unhelpful.  These two books, tackling utterly different fields and with totally different motivations, reinforce my suspicion that identifying new fashionable fields carved out of an amalgam of old ones is a dangerous ploy – much better to let natural synergies develop for particular purposes. This suspicion would appear to align with Evans’ position, if not Fox Keller’s. However, the reason why this idealistic approach may fail, the reason why individuals want a new hook to hang their hat on, comes down (of course) to funding and job opportunities. Sitting uncomfortably on the fence between disciplines, rather than inventing new ones, always has the danger that whichever way one falls off it is into a hostile environment which fails to appreciate the synergy one is hoping to achieve.

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Eureka! – the Influence of Scientists on the CSR

Posted by Athene Donald on October 20, 2010

The Eureka reception – hosted by the Times – was buzzing last night. This reception was to celebrate the 1st birthday of the Eureka Magazine and many of those named on the 100 most influential people in science a couple of weeks ago were there at the Science Museum. But beyond that pleasant feeling of well-being that comes with a couple of glasses of champagne (and I’m sorry if that makes me sound like Nigel Dempster) there was an additional buzz doing the rounds, as word spread about the CSR announcement for science. First it was just a hint, that the Times had been briefed, but then it began to gather momentum: it was flat cash for science; the science money was ringfenced – both the Research Councils and the QR elements.

My own ‘best moment’ because it’s when I really believed it was true, was when David Willetts walked in looking happy. Would he have come if things had been as bleak as we all feared? After all, it was only a few days ago the talks were all of 20+% cuts and that the Research Councils were talking about the dire consequences to the grants portfolio. So many people have done so much to make sure science did not get forgotten, despite the absence of a CSA within the Treasury. The list of people who have brought us to this much-less-discouraging -than-one-had feared position is long and many people deserve our thanks. People like Adrian Smith who was present last night, looking thoroughly exhausted but ultimately pleased that the news had leaked (but not at his hands); but there are many more including just the ground swell of opinion from the scientist-in-the-lab and the Science is Vital Campaign. One should not forget the CSA Sir John Beddington, the impact of the economic report by Jonathan Haskel and Gavin Wallis, and the Royal Society’s report The Scientifc Century, plus all the associated contacts and briefings. The media have done their bit, including the recent leaders in the Times and the Guardian in the last couple of days. The message from both Adrian Smith and David Willetts was plain, both said this to me personally, now scientists need to stand up collectively and say loudly and clearly that we are delighted, that this protection for the science budget is welcomed; that we are pleased and satisfied – and then of course to deliver the goods that the arguments have promised. Willetts made it clear we should appreciate what ‘George’ had done – a remark that caused temporary consternation in number 69 on the Eureka list George Efstathiou who was standing next to me at the time, until he realised the remark referred to Osborne.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, it is far too early to know what the reality is – of course as I write the CSR hasn’t even been published. But I for one slept better last night just knowing that the future for us and our scientific successors – those young who are planning a career in science, even if not knowing how they will finance themselves through university since we cannot forget the university budgets still face a slashing today – is not as bleak as I thought this time yesterday.

1745 October 20th 2010 I have now updated this with links and a few more acknowledgements to the people and bodies that have made such a difference in reaching this relatively happy state. The details of the CSR are now known, and there will be many wise deconstructions of what it all means. In keeping with the Eureka spirit, I will point you to Mark Henderson’s view of things, since he was the one who first (I believe) broke the story. But if the paywall just irritates you too much, try the CaSe analysis here – CaSE too played a large part in today’s outcome

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An Evening Out

Posted by Athene Donald on October 1, 2010

Last night I was at the IOP Awards’ Dinner in London.  Following the recent revamp of all the IOP Awards about three years ago, a new subject award – appropriately called the Franklin Medal to celebrate Rosalind Franklin  – was created for ‘distinguished research in physics applied to the life sciences’. An encouraging development that a need for a specific award for this area was identified. It is awarded every other year and this year the recipient is Tom Duke , previously a colleague of mine in Cambridge, now at UCL. Like me, he was an early convert from synthetic polymers (which he studied for his PhD) to biologically important ones such as DNA. More recently he moved on to more complex systems including the inner ear, as his citation for the award declares. The first recipient of the Franklin Medal in 2008 was David Delpy, now chair of the EPSRC (but formerly also at UCL), who specialized in medical imaging approaches. It is interesting to compare the current position with 2005, when I won the Mott Medal . Then I made sure my citation included both the phrase soft condensed matter, and also biological materials, not terms that I think would have turned up frequently before then in citations.  Having a specific subject award for the area is a great fillip.  My own work was also recognized this year with the award of the Faraday Medal, a handsome chunk of gold gilt.

From this we can see that the breadth of physics covered by the collection of IOP medals now includes topics that a few years ago might have been viewed askance (As an aside I note that there are 3 women in the list of 19 prizewinners, a reasonable percentage rate of 15% given the make-up of university departments).  To back up this statement, let me recount an episode about my early work in starch, following on from my last post . Early on I was distinctly dismayed to be told by a very senior (if by then emeritus) colleague that

‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch.’

It stuck in my mind as a depressing point of view, and not the kind of message a young lecturer wants to receive.  Hardly good mentoring!  However I suspect this professor would not have been alone in his view at the time; many people back then (in the early 1990’s) no doubt held to the view that condensed matter physics was about simple and well-defined systems and it is only more recently that complexity, emergent properties and the messy world of biology have been incorporated (at least in some departments, if not all) into the physics canon.

I can only hope that the anticipated swingeing cuts do not encourage or force departments to retreat back to what might be perceived as ‘core competencies’. However, I fear it is only too likely – and indeed necessary up to a point – that funders such as the EPSRC will be much more prescriptive about what they will fund.  So there is the danger that in defining priority areas for funding, scientists will end up trying to bend the science they do to fit some theme. In biological physics I suspect this might equate to squeezing research into topics such as Healthcare, Ageing or Living with Environmental Change, judging by the current list of priority topics on the EPSRC website.  The oft-repeated mantra that the research councils will simply fund the best science, and we all should simply write the best research case we can about the science we want to do, will be sorely stretched. It may turn into a case of funding ‘the best science that fits into our perceived priorities’ and if you don’t/can’t contort the science you do into one of these, your chances of success may be minimal. I understand the strong drivers that will force them down this route, but times ahead are inevitably going to be pretty grim and some areas are going to suffer massively. Biological physics may have to duck and dive a bit, but I’d like to believe there will still be opportunities.

Phil Willis, now Lord Willis, gave the after dinner speech. As an MP he was  Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and remains a staunch supporter of science as was made totally clear in his impassioned remarks. He was adamant that a healthy UK in the future will not be served by these anticipated swingeing cuts. He was also full of praise for the way the IOP has worked to keep the importance of physics and science more generally, firmly  in politicians field of view. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, as outgoing President, was equally passionate about the importance of scientists not attacking each other in the hope of securing a little more funding for their own particular area.

At the dinner, my colleagues Val Gibson and David Peet were on hand to pick up a Juno Champion award for the Cavendish, the third department to be so honoured.  I wrote previously about the Athena Swan awards, and the IOP’s Project Juno has a similar underlying basis.  As the citation for this scheme says:

the Juno code of practice addresses the under-representation of women in higher education physics. The designation of Juno Champion recognises that the department is making a substantial contribution towards this goal.

There are slight differences between the two schemes, since the IOP is specifically dealing with Physics-based departments, but there is a very close correlation between physics departments that achieve Athena Swan Silver awards and Juno Champion status. The Cavendish now joins the Physics Departments of Warwick and Imperial College who won Champion status a year ago.

Project Juno to a large extent grew out of the site visits the IOP carried out a number of years ago (reported here). The IOP Juno awards now have 3 levels of success: Champion, Practitioner (which is new this summer) and Supporter.  As with Athena Swan, the key issue for a department is to sit down and reflect upon its practices, and work out what it could do better – and trumpet what it is already doing well.  The IOP view it as important that there is buy in from senior management, but also that the culture is well embedded throughout the department, so that everyone knows what is being done. Within my own department, in the run-up to the submission the Personnel Committee ran an email questionnaire and a focus group with postdocs which will now turn into a regular forum for discussion about their experiences in the department.

Finally, an aside about implicit association of gender and job (as I mentioned previously here), or in this case gender and title. I was recently trying to renew my house insurance online. I got to an impressive pull-down menu to allow me to fill in my title. This long list included such familiar appellations as Mother Superior, Reverend Miss and (had I been a male) Professor Sir. But was there any listing for my own correct title of Professor Dame (note, the female equivalent of Professor Sir)? No!  I could only be a professor or a dame.  Clearly they had never considered that combination. My own hunch would be that there are more Professor Dame’s in the UK (there are at least half a dozen in my own university alone) than Mother’s Superior – but maybe that hunch is wrong. I gave up and stuck with what was on the previous documents – simply Dr.

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Am I having an Impact?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 24, 2010

The scientific community is fairly sensitised to the word ‘impact’ by now, and many of us will have written Pathways to Impact Statements, and read some too. I sit on the REF Physics Pilot panel, so I have seen a broad range of submissions from universities seeking to demonstrate impact and yet, when it comes to my own research, it seems I don’t recognize impact closer to home. I have no intention of spilling the beans about what I have read elsewhere, or pass comment on how the REF Pilot has gone, but I would like to share some thoughts about just how hard it is to know, close to home, what is good/bad or indifferent.

Now there are some obvious examples of ‘impact’ that no one would dispute – unless purely for the sake of debate. From my own department, Richard Friend’s research on organic semiconductors has spawned an industry – which may or may not yet prove to be economically successful – and his third spin-out Eight19 has just received funding. Under any set of criteria I think one can conclude his research has had impact, although I would go so far as to say (based on some REF submissions I saw) it would be possible, even so, to write a case that completely obfuscated this incontrovertible fact if not careful.  But, for most of us, without a spin-out or even a patent to our name, we probably wonder if we have indeed delivered in a way the government would recognize, however certain that what we are doing is exciting, cutting edge and entirely  worth funding.  And I would posit that actually we may have no idea of how, where or indeed why others may see impact in the work that we did for our own motivations. I would like to illustrate this supposition based on my own experiences, brought sharply into focus by a recent blogpost by an ex-colleague and collaborator Ian Hopkinson, entitled Wallpaper paste and the giant death ray.

For many years I worked on starch granule structure; indeed it was my first foray into a real, messy biological system and I cut my teeth on it. I used primarily synchrotron radiation, with a few neutrons thrown in for good measure, to characterise the underlying structure, the hierarchical packing in the granule and to explore the differences between different species, cultivars and mutants. I worked with plant breeders and biochemists, and learnt a lot of my basic plant biology from Alison Smith at the JIC, during a wonderful few years of collaboration, and benefitted from a long and enjoyable relationship with Dr Peter Frazier at Dalgety-Spillers, now defunct and transformed into part of du Pont (shortly after which the interaction died a sudden and rather sad death).  The interest in starch, however, actually started from a very different starting place based on my background on mechanical properties of synthetic polymers: Dr Andrew Smith at the Institute of Food Research was pursuing a project on extruding starch and wanted to understand the mechanical properties of foamed foods, as exemplified by Cheesy Wotsits, and so I set out, through a collaboration with them, to study the deformation and failure of such products, and how processing affected these properties and consequently ‘mouthfeel’.

The more I learnt about this process, and the more (awkward) questions I asked, the more I realised that people didn’t have a very firm grip of starch granule structure, the raw product, or at least not in a way that satisfied the physicist in me. So, for nearly 20 years, I worked on ways of characterising the internal structure of the granule.  With some of my collaborators we ran a series of international conferences dedicated to bringing people from very different backgrounds together, from chemical engineering to plant breeders (see the 2nd volume we published as a conference proceeding for further information). Tom Waigh , working with me as a PhD student, made the connection between the packing of the amylopectin side chains into lamellae with side chain liquid crystalline polymers, another subject I have tangled with in the past, and that framework helped to explain many aspects of starch’s response – to heat, to cold, to processing etc. Above all we had fun. And when it ceased to be fun, I walked away (although, to my shame, I still have one outstanding paper on my desk a year after the departed student sent it to me). By that point I did not find it difficult to resist the offer of 100 different wheat varieties  to compare and contrast, and similar blandishments.

However, I may have walked away and stopped reading the literature, but what I did is still out there. Now to some extent it is coming back to haunt me or, to use more politically correct language, it is coming back to demonstrate that, without me knowing it, it has had ‘impact’. The first indication of this was from the BBSRC who decided to include me in their list of 50 scientists who had made a real impact on the UK’s society and economy. Their 2009 publication Bioscience:Biomillions was meant to exemplify this to Government, although I was fairly stumped when asked to estimate what the net value derived from my research had been. They continued to be interested in using this work as a significant example (or perhaps they were just making their life easy by using the same examples) and in their May 2010 Impact Feature chose to highlight this work in their section on ‘Food Fighters’.  OK, so this all ties in with the source of my funding and is perhaps just saying my work had gone well. But, and the prompting for this post, I did not expect to find my work being picked up much more broadly and reaching places where I would never have found it had it not been for Ian Hopkinson’s post. He pasted diagrams  from Braukaiser into his writing. For those of you, like me, who aren’t familiar with Braukaiser it is a site dedicated to German brewing and specifically how German beers are made. And there, on the site, are references to several of my starch papers and schematic diagrams derived from them such as the one Ian had used.

Now make the comparison: the particular paper Tom, Ian and I co-authored in Macromolecules (and the separate issue of how best to publish interdisciplinary science I’ll leave for another day) has 71 citations on the Web of Science, the Braukaiser site has had (according to its meter) more than 70,000 hits, although clearly not all would have gone so far as to look at the details of the starch granule hidden at its centre. I could never have written two pages describing the tortuous pathway from Cheesy Wotsits to German beer via a couple of synchrotrons to describe potential impact. But, perhaps more worryingly for the current agenda, even in hindsight I would find it hard to write a decent description of the impact of the fundamental science I did which just happens to percolate many different areas, let alone set a monetary worth on the knock-on consequences. I am perfectly willing to try to write such ‘Pathways to Impact’ statements, but this episode has just reminded me of the frequent impossibility of doing it fruitfully.

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