Monday, May 31, 2010


Whenever I read about PhDs and post-docs and academic/scientific life in general, one of the main themes that comes up is career paths. Specifically, the problem of finding a permanent job in research or academia. It's common to hear people express the view that they wish they hadn't done the PhD at all, that it has been a waste of their time, that they wouldn't advise anyone else to do one etc etc. I can understand the frustration if they have been depending on the PhD being a ticket to a particular position, or a guarantee of a secure, well-paid job.

But the best advice I have read on the subject, is to do a PhD because you want to do a PhD. Because you want to spend those four years researching that particular subject, becaue you feel you can make a contribution, because you want to do something significant. Yes, it will likely open up a wider range of opportunities for you in the future, but it seems backwards to me to look at the PhD as something to be endured. Similar to the common view of an undergraduate degree as something that you have to 'get' in order to get a job afterwards, rather than something you actually want to do for its own sake.

And a PhD (and a post-doc) are not in my view 'education' in the same way an undergraduate or Masters degree, not even really 'training', and comparisons between training to be a plumber and training to be a researcher certainly seem to be missing the point. When you start a PhD, you are already doing research. You're not in training to become a researcher (though of course you have a lot to learn, and will learn a lot during the process), you are a researcher already. You're contributing to the body of scientific knowledge, if only in a small way, you're making discoveries and publishing papers. That seems to me a remarkable way to spend four years (or more if you do post-docs as well) and it would be a shame to spend those years worrying and complaining about what's going to happen next. It also seems to me that a period of research is very much worth doing, both for yourself and for everyone else who benefits from and builds on your findings, regardless of what happens next. If you feel that it was just a waste of your time, you really have to question what you think your time is for. If you think it's for amassing as much money and status as possible for yourself, then you're probably right, research wasn't the right choice for you.

Perhaps I look at this from a different perspective compared with the 21 year olds starting a PhD after continuous education since they were 5 years old, but I think part of the problem is seeing 'my life' as something that will start happening just as soon as this annoying period of education is over with. Or something that will only start happening when you have a permanent, paid job. Not so. Your life is happening right now, and has been for some time, and this is part of it.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Daily Fail Causes Cancer

I had to laugh out loud when I saw the Daily Mail's latest cancer scare:

Simply turning on a light at night for a few seconds to go to the toilet can cause changes that might lead to cancer, scientists claim.

Of course, 'scientists' claimed no such thing at all, as the University of Leicester pointed out the following day. As far as I can tell, the Mail didn't bother to publish any correction or apology for horribly misrepresenting the research, and indeed just making some of it up.

The research in question actually looked at factors affecting circadian control of cell division. It's well established that living organisms have a 'biological clock' (circadian oscillator) with an approximately 24 hour cycle, apparently an evolved response to changing conditions over the 24 hour day, and this is observed in single-celled organisms as well as higher animals. It's also been observed that cell division operates on an approximately 24 hour cycle in some organisms, and it appears to be the case that the circadian oscillator is controlling the cell division.

The circadian oscillator operates via transcriptional feedback loops. This is where the expression (i.e. production) of proteins in the cell is controlled by the levels in the cell of these proteins - it can be a single protein exerting feedback on the expression of its own gene, or there can be several proteins and genes involved. There's a lot of feedback loops and many changes in expression of genes and levels of proteins in a cell over the course of the cell division cycle. The numbers of genes and proteins involved and the complexity of the feedback loops and protein-protein interactions makes it a very difficult process to untangle, and some parts of it are surprisingly poorly understood. It's an important one to understand though, as the regulation of the cell cycle is fundamental to the development of cancers.

And the research by Kyriacou and Ben-Shlomo looked at the effect on the expression of various genes during the cell cycle in mouse brain cells, and the effects of disrupting this cycle by, among other things, administering hour-long pulses of light during the 'night', i.e. the dark part of the artificial circadian cycle created in the lab. They found that the light pulses affected the expression of several genes in the cell cycle - some of these changes led to higher expression of proteins associated with cell-cycle arrest (i.e. the cell stops dividing), some were increases in proteins implicated in uncontrolled division and tumourigenesis. Whether the overall net effect of all these changes was an increased or decreased or unchanged risk of tumours developing in the brain tissue - they don't say, as that's a far more complex question and beyond the scope of the study, which was intended to observe the expression of cell-cycle genes.

So it's quite a long way from 'OMG YOUR BATHROOM LIGHT GIVES YOU THE CANCER!!!'. Why do I care if the Daily Mail wants to be stupid? Well, it's annoying to see genuine and interesting and important research misrepresented in this way, it reinforces the view among the general public that 'scientists' are always coming up with new, bizarre and unjustified health scares (when it's actually the newspapers that are doing this) and therefore it's reasonable not to listen to any health advice from scientists or doctors. Or that if everything causes cancer anyway, you might as well do what you please. Which means ignoring actual evidence-based advice (like maintaining a healthy weight or giving up smoking) that really is known to affect your risk of cancer and other diseases. So I guess indirectly the Daily Mail causes cancer. Will we see that on their front page?