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Insights from Animal Behaviour Researcher, Lauren Brent

Dr Lauren Brent from University of Exeter is a biologist interested in the evolution of sociality. Her research asks why social relationships are formed and how they are maintained. Lauren tweets @ljnbrent

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We asked Lauren about her research…

What made you decide to become an academic?

I became an academic because I love the process of independent thought and inquisition. As a young student, I was especially fascinated by the natural world and the behaviour of animals and so could think of nothing better than to spend my time asking questions about how and why the things we observe in nature came to be.

How does your currently research fit into your further research ambitions? 

My main research ambition is to gain a greater understanding of the evolution of social relationships. In particular, I am interested in why social bonds (“friendships”) evolved – i.e. what function do these relationships serve? – and why some individuals are more or less socially integrated than others. I am currently working on a few different but related projects; one on the evolutionary mechanisms that underpin cooperation, and the other on the consequences of social relationships for survival and reproductive success.

Both projects take place at the long-running rhesus macaque field site in Puerto Rico where I do much of my research, and fit nicely into my research ambitious by addressing some of the key unanswered questions in my field.

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This is a picture of two rhesus macaques relaxing at the field site in Puerto Rico where I do a lot of my research

If you had unlimited funding what would you do with it?

With unlimited funding I would initiate a series of field-based projects in species whose social lives are little understood. A key to understanding how and why friendship evolved is the ability to compare what “friends” look like in a range of different types of animals. But since the biology of friendship is a relatively recent area of research outside of humans and other primates, we are currently unable to ask this question.

Animals where data on friendship are missing and would be most useful include many types of mammal, such as the social carnivores, whales, rodents and ungulates, as well as many non-mammals such as schooling fish and colony-living birds.

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Friendships in whales is little understood, this is something that I would like to explore more about if I had unlimited funding.

Have you had any experiments that have been a bit disastrous?

I typically observe the naturally occurring behaviours in animals rather than running experiments. However, things can go very wrong doing this since wild animals almost never do what you want or expect them to do! Working with monkeys can be especially frustrating since they often live up to the cliché that monkeys are mischievous. While attempting to collect data I’ve been pooped on, peed on, shoved, hit, and had many pieces of equipment stolen and chewed beyond recognition.

What are your thoughts on crowdfunding research?

Crowdfunding of research is incredibly important. Research like mine often doesn’t require huge amounts of funding – just a bit of money for flights to field sites and for the few pieces of equipment needed to collect the data. Yet while low-cost research sounds ideal, it can be paradoxically excluded from traditional funding streams precisely because it is low-cost. Crowdfunding is therefore critical for this type of research.

Below is a TED talk by Lauren Brent…

Notes from Walacea:

Walacea’s first successful project was with Dr Andy Radford from University of Bristol, his research investigated friendships in dwarf mongooses, if you are interested in this area of research you can sign up to our newsletter on friendship. We also have a crowdfunding tips newsletter for scientists thinking about crowdfunding and a general newsletter where we share our favourite blogs about research and new projects raising funds that you can support.

Should scientists learn to pitch?

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Innovation and Research Communication Competition

At the beginning of June 2016, I was selected as a finalist in a competition about innovation in scientific research communication. The reason for my nomination was specifically related to my crowdfunding campaign on Walacea and the supposedly novel way I communicated my Alzheimer’s research to the public. The campaign involved a short video which I did in the lab, some written text and offering a few perks to people who supported my work from seminars to a simple postcard. As a result of the campaign I found that people were actually quite curious about my work and interested in what I had to say about it.  Before the campaign I’d assumed that talking about my research with any level of details was likely to be a conversation killer!

The competition  was a fun and enjoyable experience and the winner took home €3000 (which would have been nice). The run up culminated in an online voting system, which I’ll admit I wasn’t prepared for – it involved background work and lots of marketing to my network.  As the only single individual of the 6 finalists (the rest were organisations or collective groups), I was largely doing it on my own which was tough, but I was proud of my efforts and really want to thank my friend Iita for nominating me, the organisers for selecting me, and of course everyone who has supported me throughout the whole (crowdfunding) ordeal! I came runner up out of the 6 finalists which is a a great achievement for me.

This whole event and the social and research aspects of the concept of research communication were very new to me. I took on crowdfunding as a means to acquire financial support and continue the research I enjoy, and learnt the basics as I went. The further on in my campaign, the more I realised what was at stake,  what was required and that more effort lead to more financial support.  In addition good communication was vital! The campaign also gave me a broader view on things that go wrong in science and how engaging the public is a useful and important part of being a scientist.

So, should scientists pitch for funding?

Startup @ Reeperbahnfestival

During the Competition day, I took part in a workshop on the ABC in Pitching. In science, this is not a particularly strong point of interest. People give presentations on their work at conferences and seminars, and some also lecture to students or teach laboratory groups. They usually involve one topic and range in time from 20 minutes up to an hour or more. Plenty of time to get around to what you want to say, and also on the odd occasion to bore people’s pants off.

Pitching is what I imagined entrepreneurs do to get funding to support their business idea and get it off the ground. Wait. Those essential elements are what we as scientists are trying to do. Once you get the ball rolling with support and publications, then things usually take on (to some degree) a life of their own. But in the beginning, you have to put in the hard work.

I now realise more than ever that pitching should be an integral part of a scientist’s every day means. ‘Elevator pitches’ should be the correct way to grab the attention of funding agencies as well as members of the public through crowdfunding and make them interested enough to read on, ask questions and hopefully potentially fund you.  Entrepreneurs would never send a full business plan to a potential investor from the gecko, they send pitch decks, executive summaries and arrange meetings and events…this system works for business so just maybe it could work for science and save everyone lots of time in terms of writing and reading grant proposals?! And infact, this is the system that crowdfunding is using where scientists can create a 5 minute video pitch about their work than a more detailed explanation of what they plan to do.  It worked for my campaign and perhaps with even more pitch practice next time it could work out even better!

Are women taking the helm in Science Communication? 

On a side note, at the competition one thing that struck me about the whole event was the gender difference. The majority of the people there either representing the finalists, or listening and at work promoting science, were female. There was a massive majority of women participants – almost to the realm of 90%!

I was surprised and commented on a number of occasions to different individuals, both male and female, and there was a general consensus that others were surprised too. One comment from a fellow (male) contestant was that if women are going to be the face of science, then that would be okay by him. Is it the age where we start making science sexy too, I wonder? Although that thought shocks me a bit and some of the kit we wear may need a bit of design work…

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I wondered whether this was just a product of the fact this competition was held in Finland with primarily Finnish participants, or whether science communication is primarily undertaken by women throughout the world. A quick google of the topic seems to suggest that “women are more suited to communicating due to their natural style of communication,” thus indicating that perhaps it is not a phenomenon known only to Finland.

In any case, I must admit that I myself have found a fair amount of satisfaction and pleasure in sharing my research and also my experiences through my crowdfunding campaign, radio, magazine, newspaper and tv interviews, as well as this blog, and the continual contact I keep with my supporters and followers. I hope that I continue to be as well received! Thanks for tuning in again!

 

Surprising findings for beer and Alzheimer’s related brain lesions

Could beer have some positive effects on the brain and memory? Eloise, who recently crowdfunded on Walacea has just had a manuscript accepted for publication and she explains about her journey to get there and gives us a few insights into her recent taste of the media limelight in Finland

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Image: Thinkstock

Can scientists be media personalities?

In keeping with the idea that scientists can also be media personalities, I’ve just received an email to be interviewed for a women’s magazine here in Finland. Yes, it’s true. I’m not really sure of the positive fluffy role model image that I could provide, but they are interested in hearing about my crowdfunding adventure. As a colleague earlier said to me “It’s not bad if a scientist is in the news in a positive light”. Well….ok, I’ll go with it.

But I should backtrack a little. I had my manuscript accepted for publication a while back and this week was the early view publication release. Now, that’s nothing to rejoice at in the world of science – although let’s be fair, I haven’t had an article published in four years, so I’m pretty ecstatic about the whole thing – but I believed the concept would appeal to the general population, so thought I’d jump on the bandwagon of press release accompanying research method.

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Well…it certainly has appealed to the public. An article on the University’s website (coupled with an English version – these guys are really getting to know me now!), plus an article in the local paper. Not to sound too arrogant or anything, but that’s kinda THE DREAM….for a scientist. To get your research read by every day people thinking you’re on the way to a cure for such and such a disease. Because let’s be honest, as scientists we all believe our research is finding the ultimate answer to this or that.

I do know however, how the media take your results and rewrite them the way that makes it seem like you HAVE found the cure. Boy have they done that. How many times do we have to read about the next ‘cure for cancer’ or something? Well that’s kind of what they did with my research. But I’m still excited about it, and if you’re interested in actually hearing more about it from my perspective rather than the media’s, I’ll attempt to explain the research itself and the implications.

I was given an older autopsy series to work with on this topic, (compared to the one I usually work with) which had brain lesion data (information about whether the individual had amyloid beta aggregations or plaques) and alcohol consumption data. Amyloid beta aggregations are thought to be the cause behind Alzheimer’s disease. The protein accumulates in clumps and is believed to cause the death of neutrons, which leads to the associated memory loss. The alcohol consumption information involved types of alcohol drunk and an estimate of how much (note this is retrospective data, which is less strong than data collected in real time). The alcohol data came from relatives of the deceased, so to be fair, it’s not entirely rock-solid info. However, it’s interesting enough to show some insight into how these people lived. You’d be amazed at how much you can divulge on a person’s habits when you really think about it.

One final point is that the cohort is a non-demented cohort, meaning that none of them are cognitively impaired, although some had the brain lesions. This could mean that they would have developed dementia if they had lived longer, or may alternatively suggest that these lesions can occur without dementia and there is something else required to cause Alzheimer’s disease.

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Fig 2 shows that beer drinkers had less than half the amount of amyloid beta-immunoreactivity compared with non-beer drinkers. Amyloid-beta aggregations are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ll focus on our most interesting results to keep it simple. We measured the amyloid beta aggregations as a dichotomous variable (present or not) and had a look whether any alcohol amounts or types were statistically associated with the brain lesions. In one of those beautiful eureka moments, the statistical program I use (SPSS, in case you’re wondering) spat out a nice significant result. Beer drinkers were less likely to have amyloid beta aggregations in their brains than drinkers of other types of alcohol.

So does that mean beer is good for you?

Yes, it is possible that beer could be good for you! But before we go jumping to extravagant conclusions, let me bring you back down to the ground. This was quite a small study (125 males – which means the results cannot be assumed to apply automatically to women – sorry ladies!) and when we investigated further it seemed that age had a large part to do with the effect. But this isn’t the end of the story. I have another larger cohort with similar information (with both males and females) where I will look to see if I can find similar results.

Of course it will also be nice to back up our results with a substantial theory as to how and why we found this result. Our thinking is that beer has a number of nutrients that are involved in important mechanisms in keeping cells functioning well. So another step will be to see if we can measure certain metabolites to corroborate our story, of which I’ve made a new collaboration to tackle this topic, through the sharing of my research!

So yeah, beer could potentially be good for your brain. But as I should point out all things should be enjoyed in moderation and a full healthy diet with exercise should be paramount to living a healthy long life!

Read the full article here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.13102/abstract

Dating clams to study pollution history on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Underwater seagrass meadows are disappearing fast, Dr. Kelsey Feser investigates why with the support of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). 

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Dr. Kelsey Feser

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York, USA is currently running a campaign to support its new dating laboratory.  Before you jump to conclusions, this is not a lab taking the likes of tinder to a new scientific level, it is a lab for gauging the ages of biominerals such as seashells and bones using a technique known as amino acid racemization (AAR) geochronology (for info on how this works see PRI’s project page).  The dating of biominerals and seashells has many applications in research. Fields such as paleontology, tectonics and marine conservation all benefit from accurate dating methods that can help scientists put their samples in temporal context and form a clearer understanding of what has been going on over a period of time.

We spoke with Dr. Kelsey Feser, a paleontologist from Cornell College in Iowa, USA, who is visiting PRI’s AAR lab to date seashells from St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Dr. Feser collected the shells from sediment cores and is using them to investigate the history of seagrass meadows that are threatened by pollution.  During her visit to Ithaca, we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her research and why AAR dating is an important tool for her project…

How did you collect the seashell samples and what can they tell us about human impacts on the spectacular marine environments of St. Croix?

I collected the seashells by digging sediment cores while SCUBA diving in shallow seagrass meadows just off the coast.  The cores were 40cm deep, and contained all of the sand and seashells that have accumulated on the seafloor for hundreds, or even thousands of years.  By picking out the shells of thousands of clams and snails from several depths in the cores we were able to construct a record of how the abundances of these animals have changed over time. 

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Clams and snails are very sensitive to environmental changes, particularly those imparted by human activity, so through this research we hope to determine whether the population changes we found were  caused by nearby sources of pollution.

The sorts of pollution sources that we think could be impacting marine clams and snails in St. Croix include runoff during heavy rains and contamination from a power plant and a large, unregulated dump.

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Human impacts on the coast of St. Croix are not hard to find—Dr. Feser photographed this decaying barge not far from the island’s main power plant.

Why is AAR dating important for your research on St. Croix? What do you hope to learn from the data you are collecting at PRI?

I’ve been working in St. Croix for six years, and the question that keeps popping up is “how old are these shells?”  And it’s not a trivial question.  I am interested in the effects of human impacts on populations of marine clams and snails through time, so it is incredibly important to know how recently these population changes took place.  If they happened 5,000 years ago, humans were likely not the cause!  By sampling in seagrass beds, where a thick root mat anchors the sand and prevents it from getting mixed up by waves, we are hoping to find that the deeper the shells are buried, the older they are. 

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The clam shells being dated are tiny—smaller than a fingernail!

This would help us better interpret the changes we see in clam and snail populations through our cores.  By collecting lots of shell ages throughout a given core, we can answer this question. 

Finally, we want to know how long-lived seagrass beds are through time; this is especially pressing given the alarming declines in seagrass meadows around the world. 

By combining our knowledge of change in seagrass-indicating mollusks, and the ages represented through the core, we can determine over what timescales seagrass beds have remained stable around St. Croix and hopefully improve our understanding of what the human impacts on these ecosystems have been over time. The results of this research could have important implications for the conservation of other types of marine life that rely on seagrass, such as sea turtles. 

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A sea turtle foraging in seagrass, a habitat which, sadly, is in decline worldwide

 AAR is the best option for me because I can date far more shells than I could using a more expensive technique like radiocarbon dating, and quantity is crucial for answering these questions

What have been the benefits of running your samples at PRI?

I was thrilled when I found out PRI was getting an AAR lab! By visiting the PRI lab, I have learned the AAR process first-hand and am processing my own samples. This has provided me with invaluable insight into the steps required to date a shell and has also brought down the cost of sample processing considerably. I also was able to bring along one of my undergraduate students, John Lewis, who is participating in a faculty-student summer research program with me. Neither of us could have gained this “insider’s insight” had we elected to mail our samples to a lab to have them run for us. Additionally, working with PRI researchers like Greg Dietl and Steve Durham has been valuable and hopefully will lead to new collaborations beyond my short stay here in Ithaca.

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Dr. Feser and her undergraduate student, John Lewis, at work in the AAR lab last week

A big thanks to Kelsey for answering our questions. You can learn more about her research on St. Croix in the video below.

Please support our campaign to fund the AAR lab at PRI so that we can continue contributing to important projects by researchers like Dr. Feser!

You can also help us by spread the word about the project! Share on Facebook or tweet about it! 

 

Listen to the bees

There are twenty six different bumblebee species in the UK, and you can see perhaps ten of them in most suburban gardens if you have a few bee-friendly flowers and if you look hard enough. Honeybees are usually common enough too – these slim, brownish insects are of course the ones that give us honey, and that are kept in hives. But this is just the tip of the bee iceberg; there are also leafcutter bees, sweat bees, mason bees, mining bees, carpenter bees and many more, about 270 species in total in the UK!

Picture tweeted by @twaihaku for the #beeboxchallenge

Picture tweeted by @twaihaku for the #beeboxchallenge, click on image to find out more and to check out Prof Dave Goulson’s research proposal that is currently crowdfunding on Walacea and learn more about the photo competition.

Globally, there are an astonishing 20,000 known species of bee (and no doubt many more yet to be described by science). The large majority are solitary creatures in which a female makes her own small nest, rather than living in a colony with a queen and workers as do honeybees and bumblebee. Most people go their whole lives without ever even noticing these little creatures, yet they live all around us, they pollinate our garden flowers and vegetables, and they ensure that wildflowers set seed.

I’ve heard bees describes as tiny flying paint brushes; they are furry, and their fur helps them to collect pollen and hence spread it from flower to flower. When we humans resort to hand-pollinating a crop, for example if we want to ensure a specific cross takes place, we use a paint brush to mimic a bee. But the analogy with paint brushes can be viewed at another level, for without bees, our landscapes would have little colour. Back in the age of the dinosaurs there were no colourful flowers; plant relied on wind to carry their pollen, as grasses and pine trees do to this day, and hence they had no need of brightly coloured petals to attract pollinating insects such as bees. Eventually, plants evolved a much more efficient system to get their pollen moved from flower to flower; they co-opted bees and other pollinating insects, bribing them with sweet nectar, and vying with other plants to attract them via beautiful, scented flowers. The wonderful flowers that brighten our gardens, spring woodlands and hedgerows would not exist if it were not for bees and their kin.  

Worryingly, these vital creatures are in trouble. The modern world poses many threats to them: our countryside has far fewer flowers than it once did, with almost all of our hay meadows and downland having been ploughed up in the twentieth century. Herbicides enable farmers to grow weed-free crops, and where wild flowers do persist in the field margins and hedgerows they are often contaminated with insecticides. On top of that we have accidentally introduced new parasites and diseases from abroad that attack both honeybees and our wild, native bees. As a result, many of our bees are less common than they used to be, and some such as the short-haired bumblebee have gone extinct in Britain.

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This is an example of a short haired bumble bee, sadly now extinct in the UK.

Fortunately, we can all help to reverse these declines. Plant a few more bee-friendly flowers in your garden for a start; there are many to choose from. As a general rule, avoid annual bedding plants which tend to be the end result of years of intensive selection for huge blooms with extra petals, but which have often lost their nectar, pollen and scent, so that they are of no interest to bees. Instead, go for traditional cottage-garden favourites: lavender, thyme, aquilegia, alliums, marjoram, comfrey. Go for ‘single’ rather than ‘double’ varieties; for example single roses and dahlias are great for bees, while doubles are mostly hopeless. Try growing lovage and angelica, which are much loved by some of the smaller solitary bees. Squeeze in some native wildflowers – for example viper’s bugloss is a beautiful purple flower that sits well in a sunny herbaceous border and will attract a cloud of bees.

If you can, buy your plants from an organic nursery, grow them yourself from seed, or plant swap with a neighbour. Otherwise there is a serious risk that the plants you buy might have been soaked in pesticides and could do more harm than good, at least in the short term. Of course you should avoid using insecticides yourself; it is my view that there is absolutely no need for them in a garden setting, where you should have an abundance of natural enemies such as ladybirds and hoverflies ready to munch up pests as they appear. You might also try buying, or better still making, a ‘bee hotel’. These provide holes for solitary bees to nest in, and can be very successful; they are particularly popular with red mason bees, excellent pollinators of your apples and pears. Finally, consider taking part in a citizen science project to gather data on how our pollinators are faring over time.    

Bees have been around for 120 million years or so, far, far longer than we humans have. They have been quietly pollinating our crops since we first started growing them, in the Middle East about ten thousand years ago. Now, after all this time, they are in trouble, and it is entirely down to us. We owe these little creatures. Together, if we all do our bit, we can ensure a future for all of our bees and other pollinators, and ensure that our grandchildren grow up in a world where the buzzing of bees is still a familiar, reassuring sound of summer.

If you would like to learn more about wild bees and other pollinators, read the bestselling books “A Sting in the Tale” or “A Buzz in the Meadow” by Dave Goulson which you can recieve signed copies of through supporting Dave Goulson research on Walacea. Prof Goulson plans to investigate whether neonics or other pesticides dangerous to bees are present in plants sold in garden centres, potentially labelled as bee friendly.

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Picture tweeted by @canonuser101 as part of #beeboxchallenge, click on image to learn more about the competition and check out Prof Goulson’s crowdfunding page.

 

My science crowdfunding experience – by Eloise Mikkonen

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So, I’ve finished my crowdfunding campaign, raised enough money to survive for roughly 1-2 months, and had a whirlwind of an adventure with the press and interviews and competitions! So what’s next?

First of all, let me recap. I had 66 backers, providing me with £3398. Wow. That’s amazing and totally unexpected. But it was a lot of work. I found myself on Facebook and Twitter every day trying to plug something about my campaign. It got very tiring in the end, trying to come up with new ways of saying the same thing…and I’m a native English speaker! But it did pay off in the end, and it’s given me a lot of insight into how science should be presented to the public. I’ll touch on that a bit later in more detail, but suffice to say it has led to this blog!

I also became a sort of local celebrity by appearing on the local tv news. I’ve had parents, teachers, and the manager at my boys’ kindergarten point out they saw me on tv! I’ve also been amazed by the reach of my campaign. There were roughly 25 backers that I did not know – and some of them very generous – from all across the world! I was even approached for an interview by a journalism and science student from the University of Queensland! My friend nominated me, leading to me being selected as a finalist in a National (Finnish) Innovation in Research Communication competition, where I will present my crowdfunding campaign on Friday 3rd June in 6 minutes and be in the running to win €3000 (another month’s funding!!!)! So it has all been very exciting and fun!

To find out people are interested in what I actually do, instead of the usual party line of “I’m a biochemist and I study Alzheimer’s disease.” I feel comfortable now going into details, encouraged by the enthusiasm and questions from people without a science background (and to be fair, also those WITH a science background, but that’s not new to me).

Whilst all this was going on, I’ve managed to get a manuscript published (hear more about that in another blog as it hasn’t officially been published yet), and submit another. I feel like I actually have a career! My boss has also secured some funding, so he can fund me a few months after the summer, which has really made me feel like my research is worth doing – on a broader scale than just me thinking it’s important.

So to summarise, I’ve had to put a lot of hard work into marketing my research. It was difficult, and I had to change my mindset and think of what the general public would be interested in hearing about (as opposed to the grant funding agencies), as well as spam the hell out of all my friends/colleagues and family (sorry everyone!!!) and use a lot of time on social media. But, it was worth it. I had a blast, and it has encouraged me to take my research to the public on a more regular occurrence. I’ve started this blog, and if things look a bit dire in the future, perhaps I’d even approach a crowdfunding campaign again. Who knows? At least one thing I’ve learned…it’s not a bad thing for a scientist to engage the public!

Thank you and until next time!

You can view Eloise’s crowdfunding campaign page here.

Is Crowdfunding an Answer to Academia’s Publish or Perish Culture?

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Whether you prefer the mysterious charm of the unknown, or believe that things become more beautiful with understanding; there’s no denying that science has, and continues to, helped make the world a better place. To do that, the field has to continually evolve and improve, with scientists constantly coming up with new ideas and hypotheses, testing them in various ways and rejecting or supporting them based on robust experimental evidence.

But how can we trust that what scientists are reporting is reliable, their methodology was sound, and their interpretations were accurate and unbiased? Anyone can do an experiment and document what they found, so there needs to be a vetting process to sieve through the dodgy and pick out those that are genuine contributions to the field. This is what peer review is, and those that pass the process earn the reward of being shone in scientific lights through publication in an academic journal.

The gold standard of science, but nothing is perfect, and peer review is indeed far from that. A hoax paper entitled “Get Me Off Your F*cking Mailing List,” consisting solely of that sentence repeated over and over again which still managed to get published in an open-access journal, is just one of many examples that highlight how the system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

That is of course an extreme illustration of the situation, but predatory journals such as the one which accepted that paper are just one undesirable outcome of the pressure to publish in academia. Lengthy lists of publications and papers in prestigious journals with high impact factors, such as Nature and Science, are seen as hallmarks of success as a researcher. Some institutions also set annual publication targets, and publication records are known to play a significant part in the selection of projects to be awarded grants by research councils.

Of course, publications are an important part of scientific research; they promote the dissemination of results and therefore the application of discoveries, invite constructive criticism from peers, and allow researchers to replicate the experiments to ensure their validity. That said, the demand for papers means that scientists may be forced to hastily publish their work in low impact and sometimes obscure journals, just to keep playing the numbers game and survive in academia. This has unfortunately resulted in the arrival of predatory journals which will publish pretty much anything for a fee, which devalues genuine papers with reliable and important findings.

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

So who suffers the most as a result of this so-called “publish or perish” culture? With only around 30% of grant applications awarded funding, it’s clear that there is an ongoing struggle for the majority of researchers. However, early career researchers or women returning from maternity leave are some that bear the brunt of this issue.

“It really is a situation of publish or perish,” said Dr Eloise Mikkonen, a postdoctoral researcher who recently returned from maternity leave and turned to crowdfunding through Walacea to support her research on Alzheimer’s. “I’ve almost perished due to not having anything published in 4 years – I’ll have my first (first author) manuscript published in July since I graduated in 2011.”

Mikkonen’s last publication was in 2012, prior to going on maternity leave. “This has been frustrating,” she said. “I understand you need to prove yourself and get things done, but it’s very difficult with the stresses of being a mother of small children.

“They [research councils] do say that you can include in your applications information of maternity and parental leaves. But if you are struggling to set up your own research ideas and make a break at the same time as continuously applying for funding just to get some income each month, it can feel like a never-ending nightmare.”

Mikkonen has now been awarded the break she deserves, smashing her crowdfunding goal so that her important research can continue. But she also touches on another important issue, of trying to become independent and investigate novel ideas. While the pressure to publish may encourage progression in established areas of research, it may also stifle innovation. Rather than taking risks by exploring new ideas, which have the potential to lead to significant breakthroughs, research has suggested that the demand for publications means scientists are more likely to play safe and build on existing research.

Another issue of this publishing culture is that it leads to reporting bias. Since it seems that journals are more likely to accept papers with positive results that support hypotheses, the published literature is therefore skewed and not representative of the actual research that’s going on in the field.

Clearly this situation in academia is in need of addressing, and while there is no simple overnight solution, crowdfunding does have the potential to make a difference to the field. The method is still in its infancy in the UK but already it’s helped bring projects that were rejected from research councils to life, from studying friendships in dwarf mongooses to using 3D cameras to improve diagnostics in African children. And with the media and public attention that some campaigns received, most notably the first imaging study of LSD on the human brain, people evidently have an appetite for it. It’s an exciting time to get involved, so we hope you share our enthusiasm for seeing how this venture unfolds.

Project Update: Can The “Spirit Molecule” DMT Help Protect Brain Cells?

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

What do you associate with elves? Christmas? The Lord Of The Rings? DMT? For the vast majority of people, the latter is doubtful, and you’re probably left a little confused right now. But for those who have experienced the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic chemical DMT, the mention of elves may well have just flooded your mind with memories of that drug trip.

DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a powerfully psychoactive compound that can induce profound experiences, such as the feeling of transcendence and intense visuals. These hallucinations commonly feature humanoid beings or entities sometimes described as elves.

But there’s much more to DMT than otherworldly creatures; some scientists believe it may have a place in modern medicine, and the brains behind a successful crowdfunding campaign launched on Walacea last year has made it his mission to explore this idea further. Six months on from the campaign’s closure, we caught up with this quirky scientist for an exciting update on how the project has progressed so far, and plans for the future.

Those who generously backed the project may be familiar with the science, but we’ll start off with a bit of background for those who aren’t. DMT is produced by many different plant species, some of which are used to make the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, used for centuries by Amazonian tribes in shamanic ceremonies. It’s also found naturally in very tiny amounts in humans, known as “endogenous DMT,” and fairly recently it was discovered that the human brain has multiple active transport mechanisms that allow it to cross our protective blood-brain barrier and cellular membranes. Together, these suggest that DMT likely has some role or purpose in the body, other than being a hallucinogen.

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Interestingly, DMT also acts on a cell receptor called sigma-1 which studies have indicated has a protective and restorative function in neurodegenerative diseases and brain ischemia, or the restriction of blood flow to the brain, suggesting it could also play a role in stroke. This, combined with the fact that near-death experiences have been likened to DMT trips, forms the foundations of Dr Ede Frecska and colleague Attila Szabó’s research, who believes that DMT could help protect brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, such as during a heart attack, coma, or clinical death.

After successfully smashing his crowdfunding goal of £2,000 last November, raising almost £3,600, Ede Frecska and Attila Szabó have now completed the first phase of their studies, and the results were very promising.

“The experiments went much better than expected,” said Frecska, Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. “We’ve done the in vivo experiments, using brain cells in a Petri dish, which is the stage before animals. We stressed these cells with low oxygen concentrations, and found that more survived when exposed to DMT.”

More specifically, Frecska explained that his team exposed human stem cells that had been coaxed into becoming neurons to low levels of oxygen and added varying concentrations of DMT to different dishes. As expected, being starved of oxygen caused the cells to become stressed and die, and adding very low concentrations of DMT didn’t seem to mitigate this. However, higher concentrations of DMT caused three times as many neurons to survive. They also repeated this procedure with a different type of brain cell, called glia, and found similar results.

“The next step is to start using animals,” said Frecska, “so I wish to publish this second DMT paper soon. We have already published work showing that DMT has an anti-inflammatory effect.” That’s also a potentially important find, since chronic inflammation has been linked to a myriad of diseases of civilisation, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease.

If results in such animal models are similarly encouraging, indicating some neuroprotective role of DMT during hypoxia, then Frecska hopes to pursue human trials, possibly investigating its use in individuals whose brains have sustained injury or a lack of blood, and thus oxygen flow. But to progress his work, Frecska needs further funding, which is hard to come by for most scientists, let alone those working on Schedule 1 drugs like DMT.

“Psychedelics are stigmatised,” said Frecska. “You don’t have an endogenous opioid system just so you can have a nice time in an opium cave! And we don’t have endogenous hallucinogens just to make us go crazy.

“But the opioid system has been studied for decades [for its role in pain, stress and immune regulation, etc.]; this didn’t happen after endogenous hallucinogens were discovered. People assume they just have a psychedelic effect. I’m trying to show scientists that this is a new chapter of research, that endogenous hallucinogens have a physiological role in the body.”

Psychedelics are proving themselves not only as promising therapeutics, particularly with regards to mental health, but also as a potential window for investigating fascinating subjects like consciousness – check out the groundbreaking LSD research we also helped crowdfund. It’s time to end the stigma so that more studies like these can be conducted, and so research isn’t hindered by outdated ideas that are rooted in fear rather than science. Thank you for helping towards that goal, and for bringing this study to life!

5 Tips For Your Crowdfunding Campaign Page

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If you’re crowdfunding for your research, you’re likely sick and tired of trying to convince people why your work is deserving of money. But creating a good campaign page needn’t be as laborious or tedious as grant applications; in fact, you might even enjoy writing it because it gets you to consider your research from a new perspective. And it’s your space, so use it as an opportunity to really showcase what you’re doing and sell it to the public.

Your work is exciting, you know that, but how are you going to convince others to think the same way? We’ve come up with some tips to help you with this important part of your campaign, so that hopefully your crowdfunding venture is as successful as it deserves to be! We’ve also written various other articles to help you on your way to success, so make sure to check out the “crowdfunding tips” section of our blog!

1: Tell A Story

This may seem fairly basic, but structuring your page logically will make the text flow better so that it’s easier to read and understand. If you lose people at the start by not introducing the project properly and giving it some context, then you’ll struggle to get people interested.

The “beginning” part of your story should offer some background – what’s the current situation, what are the issues within the field? You have only about 10 seconds to hook readers, so make your first few sentences impactful; don’t waffle, just get straight to the point.

In the “middle,” you need to introduce the solution, i.e. your research. What are you hoping to achieve, what can you bring to the table, and why is your work important? Try and bring in the reader here by thinking of ways, whether direct or indirect, that this work could ultimately affect them, or the world they live in.

Finally, at the end, you need to say what you need and why. How much are you asking for, and where exactly is that going? Try not to be too vague here and just say “we need £X for this project,” as people will want to know that their money is being well-spent. It would also be good to touch on the struggles of getting funding for research, so people understand the need for crowdfunding.

2: Show People Who You Are

After you’re done introducing the project, it’s important that you include a section on you and your team. We want to make sure you get the recognition you deserve and boost your network, so this is a really good way to break down the barriers between you/science, and the public.

If the campaign is faceless, it’s more difficult for people to share your passion. So show them that you’re more than just a stereotypical scientist, and are a likeable person. More importantly, explain what drives you to do your research and what makes you qualified to do it; tell people about your background and experience, and how that’ll make the project successful.

3: Ditch The Jargon

You want to appeal to as many people as possible, and the majority of the public aren’t experts in science. So don’t fill the text with complicated and off-putting science words; strip it back to its bare bones and only explain what you need to to get your point across. It’s not a grant application, so people don’t need to know the ins and outs of different scientific techniques, etc!

4: Remember Your Audience

Keep your audience at the forefront of your mind while drafting your campaign page. Think about who you’re addressing: are you aiming your campaign towards the general public, or perhaps a certain group of people, say environmentalists, parents, young people, etc. This will dictate the language and tone that you use. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes: what would they want to hear? For instance, if you’re crowdfunding for medical research, you could maybe include some words from someone affected by a particular health condition to help put the study into context.

5: Break Up The Text

A simple one, but important nonetheless. Confronting readers with big blocks of text is off-putting because it immediately puts them in the mindset that the read requires a lot of effort and concentration. People are often busy, so make your page less of a task by breaking up the text in two ways: using images and catchy subheadings.

With regards to the former, eye-catching images can help bring a sterile-looking page to life, keep the reader interested and help your audience understand what you’re talking about. Developing a new piece of tech? Show people the progress you’ve made! Taken some awesome microscope pictures? Include them!

There’s no real secret when it comes to the latter, but don’t overlook their importance as a way to maintain reader interest. Keep them short, snappy, and don’t include any jargon.

We hope you’ve found these tips helpful and use them to your advantage. It may seem like there’s a lot to consider, but just remember why you’re doing this, and your passion should effuse.

Good luck!

Crowdfunding: Why Science Needs Public Support

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“If it was legitimate science, then it wouldn’t need to be crowdfunded.”

This is a response we have sometimes unfortunately received when seeking support for campaigns. Aside from being far from the truth, this highlights an apparent lack of understanding of some of the difficulties that scientists face while trying to secure funding for their scientific research. So, we thought we would use this as an excuse to delve into the subject and catch up with the scientists behind some projects which have crowdfunded through Walacea, to show you just how tough the world of research can be and hopefully lay these ill-informed ideas to rest.

The life of an academic is not as glamorous as many may believe. Much of a researcher’s time is consumed by the laborious process of writing grant applications, a thankless task for the majority due to the depressingly low success rates. Last year, for instance, the Medical Research Council, one of the five major science research councils in the UK, funded only 23% of the grant applications it received. The MRC funding panels give proposals a score of between 0-10 and state that while 6s or above are considered fundable, due to competition they are never able to fund 6s, and only rarely award 7s.

“Everyone has struggled. It’s a big issue, how to get funding for your research,” said the Karolinska Institute’s Dr Christoffer Rahm, lead researcher of a pioneering clinical trial seeking support through crowdfunding, which hopes to reduce the risk that people with paedophilic disorder will sexually abuse children. For Rahm, a major stumbling block in terms of funding has been a lack of big publications in prestigious journals.

“If you don’t have many high-impact articles on your CV, then most grant funding committees will decline your application. I’ve been a bit unlucky when it comes to publications; I don’t have any super-big articles so far,” Rahm added.

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Early-career scientists transitioning from a position within a research group to becoming a group leader also face considerable difficulty in securing grants. This is a critical phase for researchers in regards to funding, said Rahm, but there aren’t many grants to apply for.

The issues surrounding funding don’t end there, either. There is actually an entire field of research for which funding is incredibly difficult to secure: psychedelics. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are grouped in the same category as heroin – Schedule 1 – meaning it’s not only almost impossible to gain approval for human studies into these substances, but funding bodies are extremely reluctant to award grants because of the perceived risks.

“Even though it’s legal to research these drugs, the associated political negativity deters funders,” said Professor David Nutt, former government advisor and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “You can get lots of money to study drug addiction, like with heroin and alcohol, but research councils aren’t interested in recreational drugs like psychedelics.

“Studying the effects of drugs and how they alter consciousness, rather than addiction, is a lot harder.”

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Last year, Walacea hosted a crowdfunding campaign for the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD, exploring its effects on consciousness. It was a huge success, more than doubling its funding goal of £25,000, and the groundbreaking results have appeared in two high-impact journals – PNAS and Current Biology.

“Funding bodies will often promote themselves as being visionary and willing to take a risk, but they didn’t with this work,” said Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, lead researcher of the LSD studies. “We were refused support, our research was rejected. Scientifically, I think they made a wrong decision. I think we’re proving that now with major publications in top journals. Top scientists have spoken, and the work was quality.

“I hope in the future that they’re more willing to help move this field forward, but people should be made aware of the research they’ve neglected.”

But this research is about more than playing I told you so. There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that certain psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for numerous mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of drug scheduling, though, clinical research into these substances has been hampered.

“We did the first human research on psilocybin in the UK for 50 years,” said Carhart-Harris. “The first fMRI work with psychedelics, the first proper MDMA study using fMRI… We were doing pioneering research with modest resources and consistently delivering. Now that we have a solid platform and it’s harder to refute what we’ve achieved, things should be easier in the future.”

Image credit: this shows the staggering difference in brain activity between those receiving a placebo (left) and LSD (right). PNAS/Carhart-Harris et al., 2016.

Alongside helping scientific projects secure the funding they need to come to life, crowdfunding brings people together who are passionate about a cause and establishes a community of people who together can make change happen when, individually, they wouldn’t have been able to. And apart from the obvious benefits to the scientists themselves, the media coverage that campaigns can pick up shows funding bodies that the projects are of public interest, and thus increases the chances that future grant applications will be successful. For clinical research, there is also the added bonus of keeping pharmaceutical companies out of the picture.

“The results are more reliable, I think, if you don’t have to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry,” said Rahm. “Because the researcher is free to decide the project, choose the outcome measures they want to look at, and interpret the results without conflict of interest; and that’s very serious. Crowdfunding is one of the solutions to that problem.”

Of course, crowdfunding is not attempting to replace or compete with research councils; the grants these bodies give out each year could never be matched by this platform. But it’s clear there is a need for it, and the overwhelming success of some previous campaigns shows that there is indeed a public appetite, too. Crowdfunding science is still very much in its infancy, but the ingredients are there, and needless to say we’re looking forward to watching this exciting journey unfold.

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