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PubhD Sheffield - Event #8 - June 2017

Wednesday 7th June 2017

June is already upon us and we find ourselves back in Harrisons for our 8th PubhD event, but this time with sunshine and fresh enthusiasm for the longer and lighter nights of summer! YAY! During this event we had three very diverse and thought-provoking researchers - but if you were off at a BBQ or planning who to vote for in General Election the next day, we’ll forgive you and let you catch up with their talks here…

First up, we had Milena von und zur Mühlen – a second year PhD student from the department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at The University of Sheffield – who spoke to us about the impending troubles of antibiotic resistance. Milena started by telling us that antibiotics are molecules made by bacteria, to kill neighbouring bacteria and outcompete them, and that resistance in bacteria to these compounds can occur as a natural phenomenon, just like evolutionary adaptation and survival of the fittest! However, antibiotics are being misused and overused by people in everyday practise, therefore we are artificially accelerating this process – but how and why is this happening? The causes typically fall into two areas: health care and agriculture. Doctors are under increasing pressure from patients to provide medications, and antibiotics are becoming oversubscribed. Patients also do not always complete their courses, and end up stock-piling antibiotics for times they may not need them, or using them for an illness which the antibiotic cannot actually treat. Additionally, farmers have used antibiotics in livestock to prevent infections and also enhance growth. Whilst this is no longer permitted in the UK, it still happens across the world. But what is being done to tackle this problem? Well the research Milena and her group are conducting will help us to understand how bacteria become resistant to these drugs in the first place. She works on MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – to look at how antibiotics kill it, and what happens when it becomes resistant to such drugs. She described how MRSA builds a barrier around itself, a protection from the drug – sort of like building a brick wall – and that the formation of the wall can change during antibiotic treatment. She uses fluorescent ‘bricks’ and microscopy to image and trace these changes, which might help us find new ways to tackle resistant bacteria, in place of traditional antibiotics. But what about the immediate future, what can be done? Well Milena pointed towards a change first in government, at a policy level – there needs to be incentives for new antibiotic development as companies don’t currently get a return on investment. There also needs to be stricter regulation of antibiotics – which the World Health Organisation are currently fronting. Finally, she described how proper prescribing and antibiotic usage needs to be adhered to by healthcare workers and patients, and how appropriate hygiene monitoring in hospitals will also prevent the spread of infections. So use those antibiotics wisely or you may have Milena and the rest of her research team to answer to!

Our second speaker was Tareq Omairi, a final year PhD student at The University of Sheffield who had actually submitted his thesis on the same day! (YAYY WELL DONE TO HIM!) Tareq began by talking about the concept of life, and its potential origins. He described how some people consider life to have formed through the mix of chemicals and elements in the environment, and how life may have spontaneously appeared on Earth. However, what if life didn’t originate on Earth? Or what if life originated on Mars and migrated to Earth over billions of years? Historically people have considered the Earth to be the centre of the universe and the only known life source – but we are barely even the centre of the milky way, so what if this isn’t true? Tareq introduced us to ‘panspermia’, which is the idea that life exists throughout the universe and can be dispersed throughout space, for example by meteors. To research this concept, Tareq studies life in the stratosphere – that’s about 20-60km from the Earth’s surface. He does this by sending up special balloons, which have sampling boxes attached to them. When they return to the ground, he analyses the samples using electron microscopy and specialist spectroscopy techniques, which show him what these foreign species look like and what elements they are made from respectively. From his research, Tareq has discovered that only species smaller than 5 micrometers can be lifted from the Earth to this height in the stratosphere – with the larger cells still a mystery as to where they came from! He has studied what they might be and how they survive in space, but there is still plenty to unearth (pun intended). Tareq finished by explaining that one of the biggest problems he has faced in this work has been the controversy and acceptance of the panspermia theory. He reminded us of what happened to early philosophers and scientists when other controversial topics were first proposed, for example the idea that the world wasn’t flat! He’d like to think that people nowadays can still keep an open mind and will be excited to look out for more on this concept in the coming years!

Some of the images Tareq has taken from his research balloons.

Our final speaker was Sasha Garwood, an early-career researcher and academic writer in the Faculty of Humanities at The University of Sheffield, who is interested in historical representations of food, sex and the body. Her PhD looked into self-starvation of women during the early modern period and how these experiences were very different to the contemporary ideas surrounding current eating disorders. Sasha explained that early modern noble woman saw their bodies as tools, which is very much a contrast to today’s idea of female bodies - almost as products and as something that needs to look and feel good. She gave examples such as Catherine of Aragon, Elizabeth I, Catherine Grey and many others, all of whom had chosen to self-starve. This was often a method of both political and emotional expression, as many women in this era had their decisions made for them - decisions like where they lived, who they married, who they had sex with, what happened to their children. Therefore, it was deemed that one of the few things they could control was what they ate, so this became their arsenal. For a woman of this period to self-starve, it posed a threat to the social fabric of nobles – where would they get their children or heirs? For a man to self-starve did not seem to have such connotations or consequences. Sasha continues to research into cultural identity in this period and has also written a book in this topic, which you can access via Google here.

Sasha brought her research workbook, showing the contrasting ideas of beauty throughout the years.

Each of our three speakers prompted some great questions from our audience, and we’d like to say thank you not only to the speakers, but to everyone in attendance – it’s wonderful to see such inquisitive and thoughtful ideas bouncing round the room! We hope you loved the night as much as we did, and we look forward to seeing you all again at our next event on Weds 5th July at Harrisons Bar! ☺

Our three fabulous speakers!
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