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Exploring science at the British Library

7 posts from March 2015

31 March 2015

Access to Understanding 2015: In Summary

The winners of the Access to Understanding science writing competition are revealed.

On Friday 27 March, under the striking façade of the King’s Library Tower, the British Library played host to the Access to Understanding Awards 2015. The event was a celebration of excellent science writing: an evening to recognise the efforts and accomplishments of our entrants and also, more broadly, to recognise the value of clear science communication. But before we reflect on the evening’s festivities, first we take a look back at the competition as a whole.

The competition is run in partnership by The British Library, eLife and Europe PMC. We asked entrants to write a summary of a research article at a level that an interested member of the public would understand. Each summary needed to explain why the research was done, what was done and why it was important, all in fewer than 800 words. Entrants could choose from twelve articles, freely available from Europe PMC.

Looking back at the competition...

Now in its third year, the competition has gone from strength to strength. We received over 300 entries and a record number of votes were cast for the People’s Choice Award (1604). If ever evidence were needed that there is a demand for plain-English science, from both the public and the scientific community, then Access to Understanding provides it.

The need for plain-English science summaries was further underlined by Professor Jim Smith, Deputy CEO of the MRC, in his keynote speech where he stated that “such summaries would be a huge contribution to our attempts to explain science and its significance”. He felt that, in combination with further open access publishing, “this democratisation of science is very important, [perhaps] the most radical change in science communication since… the first journal 350 years ago.” Simon Denegri, NIHR National Director for Patients and the Public in Research and chair of our judging panel, echoed the importance of plain-English science in his speech emphasising that “the knowledge gained from good [science] writing is empowering”.

Jim Smith keynote
Professor Jim Smith giving his keynote speech

Now, our shortlist represents some of the best plain-English science writing around, but who was the best?

Our shortlist (from left to right): Sabrina Talukdar (People's Choice), Elizabeth Randall, Hannah Ralph, Hannah Mackay, Carly Lawler, Natalie Edelman, Minghao Chia, Peter Canning (3rd), David Bowkett, Philippa Matthews (1st), Sophie Regnault, and chair of our judging panel Simon Denegri.

First place was awarded to Philippa Matthews for her entry ‘Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time’, which described research exploring the changing patterns of malaria risk across Africa. Second place went to Juliet Lamb for her entry ‘Who you are, or who you’re with? Age predicts disease risk’. And third place was awarded to Peter Canning for his entry ‘Breaking through cancer’s acid shell’ which discussed drug absorption in the acidic environment around tumours. The People’s Choice Award – a key part of our competition – was won by Sabrina Talukdar for her entry ‘The persistent perils of puberty’. For more on these winning entries, please check out our previous blog announcing the competition winners.

Our winners (clockwise from top left): Peter Canning (3rd), Philippa Matthews (1st) and Sabrina Talukdar (People's Choice)

These Pulitzers of plain-English science are the culmination of several months of hard work – by entrants, funders and judges alike – without them there would be no competition. We’d like to thank everyone involved for their efforts and we look forward to doing it all over again in 2016!

27 March 2015

Access to Understanding 2015: Who Won What?

With the Access to Understanding awards ceremony just about wrapping up, we can now announce the winners…

First place was awarded to Philippa Matthews for her entry ‘Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time’, which described research exploring the changing patterns of malaria risk across Africa. The piece was praised by our judges for its enthusiasm, clear writing style, and sense of narrative; “using the facts to tell the story” with a “sense that the research team were on an expedition”. Congratulations Philippa!


Second place went to Juliet Lamb for her entry ‘Who you are, or who you’re with? Age predicts disease risk’. The judges felt that it was “confidently written” and did a “great job of clarifying the use of mathematical models in research”. And third place was awarded to Peter Canning for his entry ‘Breaking through cancer’s acid shell’ which “didn’t shy away from the hard science” of drug absorption in the acidic environment around tumours.

And finally, the People’s Choice Award – a key part of our competition – read by you and voted for by you. The overwhelming response to the award, with over 1600 votes across all entries, yet again demonstrates the public appetite for accessible science writing. This year’s winner with over 400 votes was Sabrina Talukdar with her entry ‘The persistent perils of puberty’. One reader commented that it was a “well written piece, making the original paper very accessible to lay people” which is exactly what Access to Understanding is about.

The standard of entries this year was very high, and it’s great to see the enthusiasm, talent and motivation of all the scientists who entered the competition.

You can read all of the shortlisted articles on our website, with topics ranging from body clocks to tinnitus. If you want to delve deeper, every article is also accompanied with a link to the original research paper freely available from Europe PMC – the European gateway to biomedical research.

Boudewijn Dominicus

16 March 2015

Shell shocked

Continuing our series about the scientific advancements that emerged from the First World War, Paul Allchin examines how shell shock led to the development of treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Confronted with the scale of shell shock during trench warfare, the British establishment and medical profession responded by gradually changing attitudes to mental illness from organic causes and punitive treatments to more sympathetic psychotherapeutic interventions. 

Dr William Halse Rivers Rivers is best known for his work with shell shocked soldiers during World War One. He and his contemporaries debated long after the war the merits of the organic versus psychotherapeutic approaches to treating shell shock. One of Rivers’ patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh was the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. In Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography, “The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston”, he described his observations of shell shock and its effects on soldiers:

“How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after effects in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour, but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncompromising – this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock …”

By June 1918, the government established a network of specialist hospitals to treat shell shock victims and specialist centres at Maghull and Netley for training medical field officers. However it was not until 1930 that the new Labour government changed UK legislation by removing the death penalty for desertion and cowardice in the armed forces.

Dr. Rivers. Dr. William Brown and Dr. Elliot Smith. Military hospital, Maghull, 1915. © The British Library Board

In contrast to the imperialist courage and valour expressed by war poets in the Victorian era, World War One saw a sea change in the way poetry and the theatre depicted the reality of war and disillusionment of those returning from battle. Sassoon's poem “Survivors” describes the experience of some.

It could well be argued that the government and establishment were very slow in responding to the needs of shell shock victims. Military authorities believed that training, morale, and discipline could prevent shell shock, and did not maintain a psychiatric service. When the Second World War broke out, only six regular officers in the British army had psychiatric training. Equally it was not until 1930 that the Mental Treatment Act made provision for voluntary treatment at outpatient clinics, providing the mentally afflicted with an alternative to the asylum.

Even though shell shocked veterans benefitted from special clinics, many also experienced considerable difficulties in claiming pensions for psychological injury and it was many years before an adequate mental health care system was established.

World War One accelerated advances in theory, practice and research in psychiatry, psychological medicine and psychotherapy, especially the cognitive model of PTSD treatment based on prompt intervention, re-processing the trauma, conceptual meaning making and reframing, developing the therapist/client alliance and reclaiming personal control in victim’s lives. These themes are echoed in the lives of all adults and children following their personal self-healing journeys whether they are male or female and whether their battles are in the military or domestic arenas. The social taboos and misunderstandings surrounding mental illness remain a challenge even today as mental health awareness programmes still need to remind us that we are human and not machines.

Shellshock in World War One. Image: Wikipedia; Public Domain

Our current understanding of shell-shock and PTSD is described in a chapter on trauma and stress in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual DSM-5, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition, 2013 used throughout the medical profession today.

Paul Allchin

Reference Specialist – Science, Technology and Medicine

See here for a detailed bibliography and suggestions for further reading

12 March 2015

Future Flemings

Antibiotic resistance poses one of the biggest threats to medicine in the 21st century. In this blog post, Boudewijn Dominicus explores the exciting new strategies scientists are developing to combat this threat, ranging from new antibiotic classes to bacterial decoys.

In a class of its own

Scientists at Northeastern University recently announced the discovery of teixobactin, a compound that represents a new class of antibiotics1. Teixobactin has a unique mechanism of action: it works by binding to two types of fat molecule some bacteria use to build their cell walls. Cutting off their supply means the cell walls cannot be maintained and eventually fall apart. This mechanism has the added advantage of making it very difficult for bacteria to develop resistance against it. The majority of antibiotics target proteins, which can be readily altered by mutation without severe consequences. By contrast, changing both types of fat molecules to evade antibiotic action would require a fundamental change in how bacteria construct their cell walls, not an easy step. As such, the team behind teixobactin believe it will take as much as 30 years before bacteria develop resistance to this class of antibiotic.

What made the discovery of teixobactin even more noteworthy was how it was discovered. As mentioned in the previous blogpost, many bacteria produce their own antibacterial compounds to keep competing species at bay. Screening these (often soil-based) bacteria for potential new antibiotics would be a potent source of new antibacterial therapies; however until now 99% of these bacteria couldn’t be grown and tested in the lab. The scientists solved this by developing a new screening device known as the iChip, which allows bacteria to be cultivated in their natural habitat. Bacteria are introduced between two permeable sheets inside the device, which is then put back into the nutrient-rich soil, allowing the bacteria to grow into larger colonies which can then be screened for antibiotic activity.

The iChip represents a great new tool in the search for novel antibiotic therapies. Source: Slava Epstein

Just a passing phage…

Another exciting strategy is to turn a resistant bacterium’s immune system against itself, an idea developed by a team of scientists at MIT2. Bacteria have an immune system, known as CRISPR, which protects them from bacteriophage (a type of virus that infects bacteria). One component of this system is a protein known as Cas9, which can recognise and ‘digest’ certain foreign DNA sequences. Cas9 is guided by targeting molecules which are specific to these sequences.

By modifying these targeting molecules to recognise DNA sequences corresponding to resistance, scientists were able to make the CRISPR system exclusively digest the bacteria’s own antibiotic resistance genes, thereby killing them. The modified targeting molecules were smuggled into the bacterium, ironically, by a bacteriophage which acts like a sort of living syringe – injecting them into the bacterial cell. What makes this treatment even better is that it is specific; non-resistant beneficial bacteria are left alone.


Targeting molecules are packaged into bacteriophage which injects them into the bacterium. These molecules then guide CRISPR to digest DNA containing antibiotic resistance genes (including DNA found on plasmids – a DNA structure some bacteria use to exchange genes with each other) Source: BBC News

Tackling toxins

Ultimately one of our best defences against bacteria is our own body’s immune response. What if we could minimise the damage done by the toxins produced by bacteria, while leaving the immune system to fight the infection? This is the philosophy followed by a team at the University of Bern who have developed ‘decoy targets’ for bacterial toxins3.

The team engineered artificial nanoparticles, known as liposomes, made from a mixture of cholesterol and a molecule called sphingomyelin. Since toxins primarily use these two molecules to target animal cells, a liposome containing high proportions of these makes a very ‘attractive’ target. With toxins diverted away from animal cells, bacteria are rendered relatively harmless. Mice, treated with liposomes within 10 hours of being infected by bacteria such as S. aureus and S. pneumonia, survived without additional antibiotic therapy (though the scientists envisage liposomes could be used in tandem with limited antibiotics). Since the bacteria themselves aren’t being targeted, this approach has the added benefit of not promoting further antibiotic resistance.

Fleming later said of his discovery: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer.” Nearly 80 years on, scientists worldwide are still striving to keep this revolution, and us, alive.

Boudewijn Dominicus


1Ling LL, Schneider T, Peoples AJ, et al. A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance. Nature. 2015

2 Citorik RJ, Mimee M, Lu TK. Sequence-specific antimicrobials using efficiently delivered RNA-guided nucleases. Nat Biotechnol. 2014;32(11):1141-5.

3Henry BD, Neill DR, Becker KA, et al. Engineered liposomes sequester bacterial exotoxins and protect from severe invasive infections in mice. Nat Biotechnol. 2015;33(1):81-8.

11 March 2015

Resistance is Futile

On the 60th anniversary of Alexander Fleming’s death, in a two-part blog Boudewijn Dominicus investigates Fleming's prescient predictions about antibiotic resistance and what scientists are doing today to overcome it.

You’d think that an untidy desk is hardly the best place to start when trying to make a revolutionary medical discovery. But it was exactly that which led to Alexander Fleming, who died 60 years ago today, to discover penicillin1. On the morning of 28 September 1928, having returned from his summer holiday, Fleming was clearing away a mess of plates left out on his desk when he noticed a Petri dish contaminated by a blue-green mould (later found to be Pencillium notatum). This mould demonstrated a halo of antibacterial activity around it, destroying all the Staphylococcus bacterial colonies in its vicinity. 


Fleming’s original lab notes can be seen right here at the British Library in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Source: The British Library

He isolated the mould’s active component, named it penicillin, and over the following few years investigated its remarkable potency and potential. By 1944 penicillin was ready for mass production, in large part due to the invaluable work carried out by Florey and Chain in isolating and purifying it2, heralding the start of the antibiotic revolution. Unfortunately it seems that this revolution may be coming to an end, as antibiotic resistance renders traditional antibiotics increasingly ineffective.

For someone whose laboratory and written work was so chaotic (researchers at the British Library have spent hours trying to make sense of his scrawled and scrambled notebooks), some of Fleming’s conclusions were remarkably forward-thinking. By the time industrial-scale antibiotic production became a reality, Fleming was already warning of the risks of antibiotic resistance. Indeed, in 1945 he gave a speech to the American Association of Penicillin Producers3 where he warned that misuse of penicillin would result in bacteria that "are educated to resist penicillin and a host of penicillin-fast organisms [will be] bred out which can be passed on to other individuals and perhaps from them to others until they reach someone who gets septicemia [infection in the blood stream] or a pneumonia which penicillin cannot save". So how exactly are bacteria ‘educated to resist’ antibiotics?

The Rise of Resistance

Antibiotic resistance is actually a naturally occurring phenomenon, which arises through random mutations in bacterial DNA, allowing bacteria to in some way circumnavigate an antibiotic’s normal mechanism of action. Resistance mutations can take many forms: some block the route by which antibiotics enter the bacteria, while others produce pumping mechanisms that eject the antibiotic. Some eliminate or change the antibiotic’s target; others enable the bacteria to ‘digest’ the antibiotic.

Such mutations can still confer a small advantage in the absence of manmade antibiotics – some bacteria produce antibacterial compounds to kill off competing species, and resistance genes allow these competing species to survive such an antibiotic attack. However, in nature this occurs on such a small scale that it doesn’t make the characteristic commonplace. Unfortunately, large-scale and indiscriminate human antibiotic usage has made this characteristic far more advantageous, making resistant strains significantly more prevalent than before.

Source: Centre for Disease Control, “Antibiotic Resistance in the United States”, 2013

Herein lies one of the most important solutions to antibiotic resistance: reduce our excessive antibiotic usage and you reduce the selective pressure in favour of resistant strains.

This means cutting down on a culture of needless prescription. Viral infections like colds cannot be treated with antibiotics; a practice Fleming described as “a waste of [a doctor’s] time, a patient’s time and a waste of penicillin”. When antibiotics are required, we should use them in a targeted manner based on precise infection diagnoses, as promoted by the 2014 Longitude Prize. We also need to limit industrial scale usage in farming with up to 50% of antibiotics given to livestock, primarily to compensate for the crowded conditions commonly found in factory farms.

The ever-prescient Fleming took a hard line against abuses of his newly discovered medicine, writing in the New York Times in 19454 that “the thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is responsible for the death of the man who eventually succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism. I hope this evil can be averted.” Careful stewardship of antibiotic usage may just give scientists enough time to find new ways of 'averting the evil' of antibiotic resistance. Check out our next blog to find exactly how scientists across the globe are doing just that.

Boudewijn Dominicus


1 Fleming A. On the antibacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae. 1929. Bull World Health Organ. 2001;79(8):780-90.

2 Chain E, Florey HW, Adelaide MB, et al. Penicillin as a chemotherapeutic agent. 1940. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1993;(295):3-7.

3 Fleming A. Speech by A. Fleming at a banquet in his honour at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, 25 June, 1945. American Association of Penicillin Producers. Typewritten. British Library Add. MS 56122, ff. 232-242

 4Penicillin’s finder assays its future. New York Times. 1945 June 26;:21

06 March 2015

Vote now for the Access to Understanding People’s Choice Award

We are excited to announce voting has now opened for Access to Understanding’s People’s Choice Award!

The People’s Choice Award is an important part of the competition – since the entries are written for the public, we think they should be judged by the public. Click here or on the image below to read and vote for one of the 12 shortlisted entries.

  Click here to read and vote for the People's Choice Award

You can vote for as many articles as you like, once a day. Voting will close at 1200 GMT on 27 March 2015, and the winner will be revealed at the Access to Understanding awards ceremony that evening.

Happy reading!

Boudewijn Dominicus

04 March 2015

To boldly go…

Katie Howe introduces our upcoming TalkScience@BL event: “Science in extreme environments: where research meets exploration?”. More information and tickets are available here.

Scientists travel to the tops of mountains, the polar regions and even outer space in order to conduct experiments, make observations and set up instruments. But what have we learned from doing science in extreme environments? Studies of creatures that survive in extreme environments allow scientists to investigate the limits of life. From tube worms that live near hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor1 to desert ants in the scorching Sahara desert2,  these so-called extremophiles have adapted to thrive in harsh conditions such as extreme heat, salt or acid. Studying these masters of adaptation has a host of human benefits. For example, scientists are now investigating the potential of biological antifreeze molecules found in the internal fluids of Alaskan beetles for use in cryopreservation and agriculture3. In addition, extremophiles can help us understand how life on Earth began and how life might survive beyond the Earth.7479 A5 TalkScience FlyerFINAL_Page_1 As well as providing important locations for studies of biodiversity and adaptation, extreme environments are also useful for many other types of scientific enquiry. For example the poles are a useful vantage point for atmospheric and astronomical observations, while experiments in space help us understand gravity and its effect on human health. The effect of microgravity on osteoporosis4 has received particular attention. In addition, technologies developed for use on extreme expeditions can have wider commercial applications. Space exploration alone has generated hundreds of technology ‘spin-offs’ including the now widespread memory-foam, which was originally developed by NASA to protect pilots in the event of a crash5.

But projects such as these come with a hefty price tag. Opponents argue that this money could be better spent on causes that are more directly relevant to human health or well being. There is also the potential human cost. By their very nature these extreme environments push humans, and their equipment, to their limits. In 2013 the crew of the ice breaker ship Akademik Shokalskiy6 became trapped in thick ice while operating a scientific expedition in Antarctica. They were rescued after two weeks - unharmed, but following a dangerous and expensive rescue mission. Others warn of the environmental impacts as previously unspoilt areas are now being colonised by scientific researchers.

TalkScienceWhatsOnimageAnother important issue is that exploring these places could make science a vehicle through which geopolitics is played out. Historically, exploration of extreme environments has been strongly associated with geopolitics - from the Cold War space race to the search for the North West passage - and this still persists today. As one of the Earth's final frontiers, Antarctica could be seen as a place to assert national political interests. Over fifty nations have agreed to the Antarctic Treaty and many of these have field stations at the pole. However many countries (notably those in Africa and the Middle East) still lack access to the region.

Aside from the more direct benefits to human wellbeing, there are many less tangible reasons to explore these environments. Although scientists are often required to justify their work by predicting the potential benefits, is there an argument that we simply need to explore for the sake of curiosity? To quote Donald Rumsfeld; “We don’t know what we don’t know.” When Captain Cook caught the first glimpse of Antarctica in 1775 he was not impressed and dismissed the perilous icy wasteland as being of no use to man. In his journal Cook said of whomever should proceed further than he had done; "I shall not envy him the honour of discovery, but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it." Fast forward 240 years and Antarctica is now a useful site for a huge range of scientific endeavours7

Join us on 25th March to discuss why scientists are driven to explore extreme environments. The debate will be chaired by Alok Jha and speakers include Professor Jane Francis, Dr Michael Bravo and Dr Kevin Fong. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe