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Exploring science at the British Library

5 posts from July 2015

31 July 2015

Over the Ice: Polar Exploration from the Air

This summer our colleagues over in the Eccles Centre for American Studies are hosting their annual Summer Scholars Seminar series - several of which have a scientific flavour. In this post Marionne Cronin from the University of Aberdeen discusses how aviation changed the nature of polar exploration ahead of her talk on 7th August. Tickets are available here.

Richard Evelyn Byrd (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For Americans, the spring of 1926 was an exciting time in long-distance aviation.  The newspapers were full of thrilling tales of pioneering flights, including three aerial expeditions aiming for the North Pole.  The excitement came to a head on 9 May 1926, when Richard E. Byrd, a young American naval aviator, returned to his expedition’s base at King’s Bay, Spitsbergen (Svalbard), after a flight of just over 15 hours, proclaiming that he and his co-pilot Floyd Bennett had become the first people to reach the North Pole by air.  Byrd’s announcement triggered a patriotic outpouring in the American press, with headlines trumpeting the United States’ polar conquest.  Byrd returned home a national hero, where he was met by cheering crowds and public accolades, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But what exactly were these crowds cheering? 

In part, they perceived Byrd’s feat as evidence of America’s technological progress and as a symbol of their nation’s modernity.  Celebrating the mechanical triumph, however, also risked undercutting the heroic nature of exploration, particularly when the flight was compared to previous expeditions, which had produced images of intrepid fur-clad explorers battling their way across the dangerous polar ice.  By lifting the explorer high above the ice and shielding him within the body of a machine that carried him towards the pole, the airplane seemed to make the process far too easy to be considered heroic.  Much as it jeopardized the explorer’s heroic status, the airplane also threatened to domesticate the Arctic, thereby destroying its imaginative potential as a space for heroic adventure.  In particular, the use of aircraft seemed to shatter the Arctic’s image as a theoretically untouched wilderness cut off from the modern industrialized world.

How was it, then, that Byrd continued to be seen as an exceptional man, even when ensconced in the machine’s protective shell soaring high above the polar ice?  The process of creating a polar hero in this context was not straightforward and the result was not a single stable image.  This heterogeneity, however, offers a window into how Americans in the interwar period sought to reconcile a celebration of mechanical progress with ideas about heroic masculinity.

Fokker F.VII plane with Byrd-Bennett in flight in 1926. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, many narratives rehearsed various longstanding romantic images of polar exploration in order to buttress Byrd’s heroic status.  But, perhaps more interestingly, several of these narratives also reimagined the practice of exploration itself.  These accounts extended the landscape of exploration vertically, imagining the skies as a new field to explore.  By underscoring the dangers present in the Arctic atmosphere – its extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather, and unknown aerial currents – newspaper stories created a new environment that could test both the polar explorer and his machine.  Much as the deep oceans and space would emerge as new frontiers later in the century, in these accounts the air became a new wilderness for a modern society to explore.  These stories also drew on popular interwar images of aviation, which imagined it as a technology of wonder and grace that enabled aviators to escape the quotidian mundaneness of everyday life and to enter a new, transcendent world.  Thus, much like the polar explorers of earlier eras, the pilot became a daring pioneer who stepped into the unknown and was transformed into a heroic figure.

To remain a polar hero, however, Byrd needed to be more than a mere passenger on this aerial adventure.  Instead, his ability to control the machine, to bend its power to his will, became a key component of what it meant to be an aerial explorer.  In particular, coverage emphasized the flight’s mental challenges, specifically the intense concentration demanded by the mathematical calculations required to navigate over the polar ice.  Thus, aerial exploration became as much a mental as a physical challenge.  By demonstrating the mental ability necessary to control the machine, Byrd acquired the power to penetrate previously inaccessible areas, to see further than terrestrial explorers, and therefore to pierce the Arctic’s secrets.  At the same time, risks from technology itself, in the form of mechanical failures, offered a new set of hazards for the technological explorer to overcome.  The technology itself thus became a site of exploration as the venture into new arenas tested both the explorer’s and the machine’s limits. The explorer’s willingness to brave these dangers and his ability to control the machine under difficult conditions became important signs of his heroic masculinity.

Coolidge awarding Medal of Honor to Byrd and Bennett 1927 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Through the newspaper stories covering Byrd’s flight, we can see their authors exploring the question of how to successfully incorporate the machine into exploration narratives without abandoning the hero’s central place.  By reimagining the nature of exploration and reconceiving of the air as a new frontier, these authors sought to create an image of heroic exploration that could accommodate the presence of the machine.  In doing so they articulated a vision of the technological explorer that would influence later depictions of figures such as Charles Lindberg and the first astronauts, and would continue to influence perceptions of heroic masculinity across the 20th century.

Dr Marionne Cronin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Northern Colonialism Programme at the University of Aberdeen, where her research investigates the place of technology in the culture of polar exploration. She is currently working on a book examining how interwar polar explorers’ use of new technologies – particularly airplanes – was incorporated into popular images of heroic exploration, masculinity, and modernity. She will be an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow in North American Studies in June-August 2015.

If you want to learn more about science in extreme environments you can watch the video of our recent TalkScience event here.

27 July 2015

King John’s teeth

Julian Walker examines an unusual item included in the British Library's current Magna Carta exhibition and discusses what it might tell us about the infamous King John.

One of the last items to be put into the Magna Carta exhibition was the X-ray of King John’s teeth. Easy to miss, and perhaps something of an oddity, this item could also be read as a key item in the lead up to the agreement at Runnymede on 15th June 1215.

Portrait of King John hunting. The British Library

The story of how the X-ray and the teeth come to be in the exhibition – and the first time I can think of that a body part of a British monarch has been part of a British Library exhibition – goes back to the opening of King John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral in 1797. The tomb was opened on the request of Valentine Green, an antiquarian and engraver, who had come to doubt that King John’s body was in fact laid within his tomb. The news of the opening attracted large numbers of sightseers, Green’s account reporting that thousands had come to watch; among these was a stationer’s apprentice, William Wood, who is credited with having taken two of the four remaining teeth from King John’s jawbone. The teeth were passed on to Worcester City Museum about 100 years later, where they have remained.

Green’s account of the teeth states that they were ‘quite perfect’, but perhaps we should think of this as a comparative assessment. By the end of the eighteenth century many people’s teeth were affected by decay, the massive increase in the importation and use of sugar during the century not being matched by increasing oral hygiene. This was the period when fashionable people wore ‘plumpers’, pads of cork or cloth in their cheeks to build up the contours of a face following tooth loss. In the thirteenth century there would have been little opportunity for John to get access to cane-sourced sugar, which only very gradually became available across Europe during the period of the crusades. Honey, the only other sweetener available at that time, though it contains fructose and glucose, also carries antibacterial agents which may act to counter some of the effects of the sugars; but honey may also cause caries[i]. Caries was certainly there during the thirteenth century, but perhaps less than might be expected given the lack of dental care[ii].

King John teeth 1216
X-ray of King John's teeth

In 1998 I was engaged on a fine art project at Worcester Museum and Art Gallery, looking at the nature of touch, and persuaded the curator to let me get King John’s teeth X-rayed at a local dental practice.  I later took the X-ray to my own dentist with some questions – one of the teeth was flattened and I wanted to know how this could have happened. If it was caused by grinding did this show evidence of John having to eat gritty bread? Were his teeth ‘quite perfect’? What my dentist pointed out was that dietary effects would be shown on all the teeth; the fact that only one was flattened could only happen as a result of tooth-grinding, whose various forms are known as bruxism. Bruxism is very widespread, seldom severe enough to cause damage to the teeth, but is often related to anxiety and stress. The attritional bruxism in this tooth might have a number of causes: a particular jaw pattern, with one tooth being ground against its opposite, or the eruption of an individual tooth, or a particular diet (my dentist had seen it in cases where the diet included bones). In this situation, and as shown by the X-ray, the enamel and dentin are worn down, potentially exposing the pulp, which tends to shrink back allowing a thin layer of dentin and enamel to slowly build up; but the tooth would have been permanently hypersensitive, producing toothache, headache, possibly earache, and potentially restriction of the ability to open the mouth.

What we have no evidence for at this stage is when or why John started to grind his teeth; was the grinding the result of emerging wisdom teeth and dental crowding early on, and thus present through his adult life? And did he grind his teeth awake or asleep (there is some evidence for hereditary sleeping bruxism)? What we do have evidence for is a family trait that involved a tendency towards outbursts of violent rage in John’s father, Henry II (not just in the Thomas Becket crisis). Anger was a constant in these two kings; R V Turner proposes that the Pipe Rolls of Henry and John show the near-institutionalisation of anger in which the king ‘remitted his anger and indignation against individuals in return for money’[iii]. Crucially with Henry we see dental activity in the context of anger: he is said to have fallen to the floor in rage and chewed the rushes on hearing the King of Scots praised by one of his own men.

What we also have is evidence for John’s taste for soft foods. Though John, in keeping with the customary behaviour of Angevin kings, was by no means controlled in his sexual activity, he clearly exerted control of the sexual activity of others. The Oblate Roll for Christmas 1204 recorded that Joan ‘the wife of Hugh de Neville gives the Lord King 200 chickens in order that she might lie one night with her lord’. This kind of ‘fine’ or ‘tax’ to allow, defer or avoid something was common at the time, and was much used by John. What is interesting here is that the ‘fine’ or ‘tax’ is paid not in money but in the soft and easily chewed meat of the chicken. There is evidence elsewhere of John’s taste for both chicken and indeed eggs – his Christmas feast at Winchester in 1206 involved 1,500 chickens, 5,000 eggs, 20 oxen, 100 pigs, and 100 sheep. Were eggs special to John because they were soft? If John had a permanently sensitive tooth (at least one), and toothache, certainly towards the end of his life, this would have made him irritable, angry, quick to find solace in easy to eat foods (perhaps even those notorious peaches washed down by cider, which allegedly hastened his end).

As regards treatment for toothache, as well as bloodletting, cupping and herbal poultices, some effective painkillers were available – ice, mandrake, henbane, alcohol, and oil of cloves, though this last was fantastically expensive. Gilbert Anglicus, whose Compendium of Medicine was written about 25 years after the death of John, mentions oil of cloves as a treatment for toothache, but conflict at home and on the continent would have hampered its import and transportation.

The British Library exhibition "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy" is open until 1st September


How much importance should we put on John’s tooth? Should we build his physical pain into our view of the circumstances that led to Magna Carta? Historiography of the physiology of movers and shakers has always been suspect. There is a perceived danger of reductivism in including Henry VIII’s leg ulcer in the factors leading to his increasingly autocratic reign, or evaluating among the factors leading to the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo Napoleon’s haemorrhoids, which prevented him from supervising the denouement of the battle on horseback. During schools’ workshops in the Magna Carta exhibition I ask students whether they feel King John’s dental distress should be considered as part of historical research and a factor in the story of the document. Mostly they think yes; teachers are less convinced, perhaps wary of the influence of Horrible Histories. I also ask students for suggestions for an exhibition souvenir for British Library shop; my favourite so far has been an eraser in the shape of one of King John’s teeth.

Julian Walker is an artist and writer; he leads workshops for schools and colleges for the British Library Learning Department. He is the author of How To Cure The Plague And Other Curious Remedies and The Finishing Touch - Cosmetics Through The Ages, both published by the British Library.


[i] Compare

Effects of honey, glucose, and fructose on the enamel demineralization depth, Ahmadi-Motamayel, Fatemeh et al., Journal of Dental Sciences , Volume 8 , Issue 2 , 147 – 150


Diet, nutrition and the prevention of dental diseases Paula Moynihan1, and Poul Erik Petersen2 1 WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Oral Health, School of Dental Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: 2 WHO Collaborating Centre for Community Oral Health Programmes and Research, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

[ii] Dental caries, tooth wear and diet in an adult medieval (12th–14th century) population from Mediterranean France, Esclassan, R. et al., Archives of Oral Biology, Volume 54 , Issue 3 , pp287 – 297, indicates a 17.5% incidence of caries.

[iii] Turner, R. V., in Loengard, J. S., Magna Carta and the England of King John, 2010, Woodbridge, p17


22 July 2015

Come and work with us!

Are you:

- An MRC or NERC-funded PhD student?  Bl

- Interested in science policy?

Come and work with team Science BL on a three month science policy internship!

The main task that you would work on during your time with us would the development and delivery of an event in our TalkScience series. TalkScience is a successful series of public debates on topical issues in science policy. Previous topics covered include everything from sustainable fishing to genetic testing; from biomedical patents to the research impact agenda. The events place scientific policy issues in their wider context as part of our culture and address social, ethical, economic as well as scientific/academic perspectives.

You would work with colleagues in the science team to research and identify a suitable topic and appropriate speakers; work with the speakers to set the discussion topics; market the event to a wide audience; design print and web-based marketing material as well as organising local logistics. Afterwards you would help disseminate the event by producing videos/podcasts. You would also collect event feedback and report on the event's successes and areas for improvement.

This is a great chance to be involved in the delivery of a high profile event from start to finish and would enable you to develop organisational skills as well as stakeholder management and team-working skills.

CatrionaAs well as working on TalkScience you would also have the opportunity to explore the British Library’s collections in relation to science policy. For example past policy interns have carried out primary research asking how science policy organisations use information and exploring how the British Library might be able to improve their information provision. Peter Spooner, our most recent science policy intern, worked with the British Library’s web archiving team to investigate how climate change researchers might be able to make use of archived websites to inform their research.

There are always lots of other things happening in the science team which you could also get involved in. For example we have existing collaborations with a range of science/cultural organisations. Previous interns have also enjoyed exploring the British Library's collections or areas of personal interest in blog pieces and contributing to our social media activity.

We have hosted Science Policy Interns for the last three years. You can read more about their projects here:

StuartStuart Smith (BBSRC intern, 2012)




Adam Levy (NERC intern, 2014)





RachelRachel Huddart (BBSRC intern, 2014)





We are pleased to offer up to three placements for MRC or NERC students in 2016. For further information and to apply please see the Research Councils UK website.

08 July 2015

Inspiring Careers - Part 2

Katie Howe continues a series outlining the careers advice given at 2015's Francis Crick Institute post-doctoral researchers' retreat. The first post in this series, which covers careers in pharmaceuticals, science communication and education, can be seen here.

Drinks reception at the Francis Crick postdocs' retreat. (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

Science policy: Beth Thompson (Wellcome Trust)

After a PhD at Cambridge University, and amid increasing concerns about the stability of the academic career path, Beth made the move into the world of science policy, starting with a temporary role at the Royal Society of Chemistry. Beth is currently a policy advisor at the Wellcome Trust where she works on a range of projects aimed at promoting a sustainable environment for biomedical science.  Beth’s responsibilities include: responding to consultations; briefing the Director ahead of meetings with key policy figures (e.g. cabinet ministers) and developing and coordinating the Wellcome Trust’s position with other organisations in the sector. On a day-to-day basis this involves desk research, meetings, phone calls, writing - and a lot of networking!

Although Beth pointed out that she never uses subject-specific information from her PhD or even undergraduate in her current job, the skills that she developed during her graduate studies are invaluable for her current role in policy. Written communication, project management and analytical skills are particularly important attributes for a career in science policy.

(There are several internship opportunities for PhD students wishing to get a taste of science policy. BBSRC/NERC/AHRC’s policy internship scheme, which the British Library’s Science Team participates in, is just one example).

Editorial: Christina Karlsson Rosenthal, Nature Cell Biology

Christina’s presentation first outlined the editorial process at Nature Cell Biology. Not only did this give post-docs a glimpse of an editor’s day to day work but also shed some light on the editorial process for those who submit papers to Nature journals! Journal editors like Christina might spend time: organising peer reviewers, writing paper summaries, attending editorial meetings and emailing reviewers and paper authors.

Name badges ready for collection (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

Christina held an Assistant Professorship at the Karolinska Institute before moving to Nature in 2008. Her experience in academia meant she was able to enter the editorial team at a more senior level than perhaps someone making the career move immediately after completing their PhD. Unlike Beth’s career in science policy, Christina’s role as an editor means she still intimately linked to her subject area. However it is now important that she has a broad overview of current topics in cell biology rather than focussing on a much narrower area as is required in academia.

Although most academic publishers are based in English-speaking countries, Christina was keen to emphasise that it is not necessary for your first language to be English if you are interested in working as an editor.

Academia: Victoria Sanz-Moreno (King’s College London), Jan Lipfert (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), James Keeler (University of Cambridge)

Viktoria, Jan and James all gave inspiring talks on their very different experiences of the academic career path.

Jan, whose academic career has taken him from Germany to Sweden to the US and back to Germany again, shared some thoughts on the “publish or perish” culture that persists in the world of academia. He acknowledged that publications are still the main way by which your scientific ability is measured but did note that this model was slowly changing. Jan also emphasised the importance of collaborative working. His PhD supervisor advised him that “everyone in the lab should be able to present everyone else’s work at a conference”.

Jan was open and honest about his experiences of applying for tenure track positions and helpfully outlined some key differences between the US and European systems. Although he likened applying for faculty positions to buying a lottery ticket he sagely noted that you definitely won’t get a position if you don’t apply so advised developing a thick skin!

Jan Lipfert, James Keeler and Viktoria Sanz-Moreno. (Photos: Riccardo Guidi)

Viktoria was keen to stress the importance of having a good mentor and if possible finding a mentor in the institution where you wish to establish yourself. Like Jan Viktoria also noted the difficulties in applying for tenured research positions so advised starting planning for this process early. Viktoria also covered her experience of becoming a mother while transitioning from post-doc to PI and represented a very positive role model for women in science. 

We then heard from James Keeler who is Director of Teaching at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. James’ talk title “An Unexpected Journey” was borrowed from the first instalment of J.R.R.Tolkien's The Hobbit trilogy. Bilbo Baggins says,

“It's a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to”.

This quote neatly illustrates the unexpected twists and turns that his own career took. James started out on the conventional research track but discovered an aptitude and enjoyment for teaching. James’ role involves raising the profile of teaching in the department as well as wider university involvement in undergraduate recruitment and selection and academic administration. The key message of James’ talk was to be flexible and agile in developing your career and to be open to different options beyond pure research.

Communication is key

As you will note from the above, communication skills are vital for many of the careers described. Whether you need to explain the concept of a hydrogen bond to a member of the public, or write a compelling grant application, describing complicated scientific concepts in a clear and understandable way is an important skill. This is something the British Library and our collaborators are keen to promote.

Access to Understanding writing guidance_v1_Page_01We recently launched the Access To Understanding website, which contains guidance on how to write about biomedical research in plain English. The guidance outlines some of the key reasons why you might need to (or want to) write a plain-English summary of a scientific research article, and gives some tips on how you might do so. We also run an annual science writing competition, which challenges early career researchers to write a plain-English summary of a recent scientific research article. Whether or not you enter the competition we hope you will find the website helpful in developing your communication skills.

We look forward to continuing our work with our neighbours and fellow Knowledge Quarter members the Francis Crick Institute as they look ahead to the official opening in 2016.

Katie Howe

07 July 2015

Inspiring Careers - Part 1

Katie Howe outlines some of the careers advice given at the 2015 Francis Crick Institute post-docs' retreat. The second blog post in this series covers science policy, editorial and academic careers and will be posted tomorrow.

Last month we hosted the 4th Francis Crick institute post-doctoral researchers' retreat, which this year had the theme of 'Inspiring Careers'. With competition for tenured faculty positions greater than ever, post-docs are considering a wide range of careers inside and outside of academia. Many of the British Library’s science team are former biomedical research scientists who have hung up our lab coats to pursue other opportunities, so this is a theme with which we could strongly identify.

There were 11 speakers on the day, each with a different story to tell about how they got to where they are today. This series of two blog posts outlines some of the careers covered during the retreat and brings together a few of the top tips shared by the speakers.

Pharmaceuticals: Klaus Hirzel (Roche) and Neil Torbett (hVIVO)

Klaus outlined his role at Roche showing how a drug progresses from basic research into the clinic. He noted that in terms of day to day work the tasks he carries out are often quite similar to those that might be experienced in an academic research lab.

Neil Torbett
Neil Torbett (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

Neil Torbett followed Klaus’ introduction by describing his experience in pharmaceutical start-up companies. Following a PhD and post-doc investigating protein phosphorylation, Neil became involved in Piramed, a research collaboration with Genentech that focussed on the discovery and development of PI3-kinase based inhibitors for cancer. This experience paved the way for a career in various biotech companies involved in molecular diagnostics. These start-ups are great examples of the huge potential of interdisciplinary working. For example the biomarker discovery company Activiomics where Neil served as Chief Operating Officer, brought together academics leading in the fields of mass spectrometry and cell signalling into a spin-out company overseen by QMUL’s technology transfer arm. Neil suggested getting in contact with your university’s technology transfer office if you have a project that could be of commercial interest. They can help by providing professional support and vital funding. Neil also noted that the expertise possessed by academics is very much in demand by start-up companies, so if your own research doesn’t have a commercial angle, your skills could be valuable to an existing start up.

Science communication: Dane Comerford (University of Cambridge)

Dane has had a varied career in academia and engagement as well as a brief sojourn to the civil service working in a team dealing with CRB checks and disclosures. But it was Dane’s passion for the hydrogen bond and desire to share its simple beauty and power more widely that led him to try his hand at public engagement.

Dane Comerford
Dane Comerford (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

By sharing some examples from his portfolio of public engagement activities, Dane illustrated the wide range of opportunities within science communication - from creating films describing scientific concepts to getting involved in international science festivals. A key message of Dane’s talk was to be brave and don’t be afraid to try new things and to “keep your eyes and ears open” for new opportunities. Dane did recognise that without a supportive supervisor getting involved in public engagement can be a challenge but pointed out that Research Council UK-funded researchers are now required to participate in public engagement activities. Communication of and engagement with research is increasingly recognised as a valuable and necessary part of the research process so hopefully any opposition from supervisors is becoming less common.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in public engagement within academia. Dane pointed post-docs to the local university public engagement units. The Crick’s communication and engagement team are developing plans for their own programme of public engagement training and have lots of upcoming volunteering opportunities. Over this summer the Crick is attending several local festivals that require volunteers to help deliver science engagement activities, so please keep an eye on CrickNet or email [email protected] to find out more and how to get involved.

(I also recommend the psci-com mailing list for anyone interested in science communication or engagement with any audience - KH).

Education: Bryn James (Researchers in Schools) and Ed Arthur  (TeachFirst)

Ed first outlined the innovative TeachFirst programme. TeachFirst was set up in 2002 and aims to address educational disadvantage by recruiting high calibre graduates to teach in challenging schools. Participants are given an intensive ‘crash course’ in teaching during a six-week long Summer Institute before entering the classroom in September. Professional development and specialist teacher training then continues throughout the two year programme.

Bryn James and Ed Arthur introducing Researchers in Schools and TeachFirst respectively (Photos: Riccardo Guidi)

Some of the key skills required of TeachFirst teachers are resilience, organisation and empathy. The schools that TeachFirst works with often have high levels of economic deprivation which can present many challenges to new teachers as well as exciting opportunities to make a difference. Ed went on to describe the impact of TeachFirst alumni. A third of those who complete the programme stay in teaching after the two years but many go on to leadership positions in other sectors and 36 social enterprises have been formed by TeachFirst alumni.

Bryn then introduced us to Researchers in Schools - a relatively new programme that specifically recruits people with PhDs into the teaching profession. This teacher training route is highly bespoke and designed to utilise participants’ academic experience. Uniquely, participants are given the chance to take one day out of school per week for their own independent research giving them a chance to keep their foot in the door of the lab. The aim of the scheme is to increase subject expertise within non-selective state schools, particularly in science subjects. Another benefit is that by acting as champions of higher education Researchers in Schools teachers can also promote and widen access to the best universities.

Both Ed and Bryn noted how rewarding teaching is as career with Bryn even sharing some of the very touching messages he had received from students thanking him personally for his help and support.

Tune in tomorrow for the second part of this post - featuring careers in science policy, science publishing and academia.

Katie Howe