Updated: Jul 25, 2020


The end of the year is nigh and so comes the social media feeds filled with ‘new year new me’ posts. And while some people are ready to completely leave 2018 behind, I always try to reflect on the year just gone in order to shape my 2019 goals. Every 12 months that pass holds highs and lows, mistakes and lessons, memories and emotions; and processing these events before the clock strikes 12 on the 31st December can help you make the most of the motivational wave that comes with the change in date. I thought I would write a post reflecting on the highlights of my year just gone and share some of my 2019 ambitions in my work and personal life. Physically writing these goals down will hopefully help me see some of them through and make the most of my time instead of mindlessly scrolling my life away (thanks Apple for that screen time update…).

Work Life: Working 9 ‘til… whenever the experiment is finished

2018 saw me finish the first year of my PhD. Hours of optimisation, many failed experiments, a few good results, trawling through data analysis and learning new techniques; this year has been really packed. I have been knackered, excited, deflated and motivated in equal measures, with some days having me question what I am even doing while others show me there is nothing else I would rather do. I am now officially a second year PhD student which means the dreaded ‘you are half way through’ chat will be coming during early 2019. So I need to make the most of my time and jump a train from motivation station.

Highlight of 2018: Putting together my research proposal

A research proposal is a 1000-word document stating what you want to study for the next 3 years and why. My PhD project was completely undefined, which had its positives and negatives. I had free reign over what I wanted to research within the bounds of our group’s field but as a person with little research experience, drafting up these ideas was daunting. With the help of some fabulous scientists and students, I pulled together a project I am super interested in and have already got some promising results.

Other Highlights:

  • I attended my first ever research conference

  • I set-up a new technique that hasn’t been used in my lab group before (and it actually worked lol)

  • I started teaching with The Brilliant Club, letting me share my passion for STEM with some amazing young people

2019 Goal: To pass my upgrade exam and get some of my work published

Health: Fitting in Fitness

A really important part of my life is trying to be active and healthy as it is good for both my body and mind. From the age of 3 to 20, dance was my main form of exercise and since moving away from home, I have struggled for a few years to fill that fitness void. Finally, I think I am getting there. My main focus now is strength training and this year, I definitely feel more confident bouncing into the weight section with all the males and just doing ma thangggg. I am also heading into my third year of vegan life and 2018 has seen me get more inventive with my plant-based cooking.

Highlight of 2018: Following a 6-week Fitness Programme from start to finish

I am the first to admit that I find it hard to stay motivated with fitness goals (literally give up in the middle of fitness classes every time). So sticking to a 6-week fitness programme which involved exercise and culinary alterations was a huge deal. It was tough to not binge out on crisps and biscuits, but the results were worth it, and it showed me what I am capable of if I keep my goals at the front of my mind. This programme was ran by @adammartin_coach - check him out if you want to reach your fitness goals this year!

Other Highlights:

  • I ran 8km without stopping

  • I stuck to 3 workouts a week all year (except my vacay)

  • I managed to cook really high-protein vegan meals

2019 Goal: To be able to do a pull-up (this was also my goal last year, but I still can’t do it so persevering on!)

Personal Life: We are Fam-i-ly

I have made so many memories with my family and friends this year and been lucky to go on some great trips and to some fabulous events. We have partied, chilled and chatted the year away. I also started my sci-com adventures and I am so excited for things to come!

Highlight of 2018: Starting my Sci-Com Instagram account and blog

I have been saying since I started my PhD in 2016 I wanted to start an account to translate science into everyday conversation. After almost 2 years, I plucked up the courage to finally enter the sci-com world and it has given me a whole new passion for science and STEM education. I have been introduced to some fabulous scientists and accounts who have inspired me to get creative with my work and opened the doors to many interesting discussions. I couldn’t imagine my life without “me, my cells and I”.

Other Highlights:

  • We welcomed 4 new baby girl cousins to my family (female power)

  • My partner-in-crime started studying post-graduate medicine

  • I went on fab holidays with amazing people including trips to Barcelona, Bermuda and Bath.

2019 Goal: To start a podcast about science. Also, to limit the time spent on my phone and spend my spare time being productive and enjoying the moment.

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That’s a wrap 2018! Here is to a year of new adventures. I hope you all have some time to reflect on your year just gone and think of a how you want to get the most out of 2019. Have a fab, bubbley NYE!


Updated: Jul 25, 2020


Question: What is the worst sound in the world?

Answer: Your alarm clock going off on a Monday morning.

There is nothing quite like the gut wrenching noise of your alarm dragging you from the depths of slumber. Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, we all need to get a good 6-10 hours sleep a night to feel somewhat human. But if you think about what sleep actually is, it is a bit weird... Our well-being revolves around us routinely lying down on a sprung mattress, bundled in cloth for over a third of our lifetime. Evolutionarily, sleep seems like a period of vulnerability; leaving us unconscious to our surroundings and at the mercy of the elements, predators and thieves. And if we didn’t need sleep, just imagine what productive things you could do with those extra 8 hours? However, the mechanism of sleep is conserved across almost all species; indicating it is vital to survival. During your periods of unconscious rest, your brain is actually pretty active; carrying out essential processes. So, while we check out for our 20 nods, what happens in our brains? And what keeps us coming back to our bed night after night for another stint of Zzz’s?

Smile and Wave, Boiz

Every night when you are tucked up, your brain experiences 2 sleep states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These states occur in a specific pattern and each sequence lasts around an hour and a half; meaning you have about 5 sleep cycles a night. Using an EEG, neural activity (described by wave-patterns) of these cycles can be monitored. During the day, your wave patterns appear as a mix of many desynchronised, small bursts of activity (beta (β) waves), representing your synapses firing to keep you alert, and slower synchronised waves (alpha (α) waves) which you experience when you are relaxed. During sleep, these wave patterns change massively, with different patterns describing different stages of your snoozing cycle.

The NREM sleep can be split into 4 stages to describe your ‘light’ and ‘deep’ sleep:

1. Stage 1 & 2: Light Sleep

Stage 1 is responsible for that feeling when you start to nod off in a dark, warm meeting room and lurch back to reality as head drops like a dead weight. In your brain, this is characterised by an increase in theta (θ) wave activity; a wave pattern slightly slower and more synchronised than your relaxed alpha waves. The theta waves of stage 1 continue but with a few extra features added in called sleep spindles (an increase in wave frequency) and k complexes (an increase in wave amplitude) every few minutes to differentiate stage 2. if you are disturbed during this period of drifting off, you will quite easily switch back to wide-awake mode.

2. Stage 3 & 4: Deep sleep

Your third and fourth stages of sleep represent your ‘deep’ sleep. These phases are characterised by haaaaage, slow wave patterns called delta (δ) waves. Stage 3 has less than 50% delta wave pattern and stage four has over 50%. These big slow waves are almost the opposite to your wakeful state, so when you are left feeling completely disorientated after someone or something (that bloody alarm clock) waking you, blame it on the delta waves. Delta waves are also the patterns responsible for sleep talking or walking (or sleep change-of-clothing like I do – waking up in a completely different outfit to what you went to bed in is always fun).

The final stage of sleep is REM sleep. This happens at the end of your 90-minute sleep cycle, which goes from stage 1 to 4 and back up to stage 2. REM sleep is characterised by involuntary rapid eye movements and loss of muscle tone, leaving the REM sleeper almost paralysed. During this phase, your brain activity is the most similar to the brain activity you experience when you are awake; consisting of desynchronised activity of short low-frequency spikes. The length of REM sleep increases with each cycle, meaning the last cycle before you get up is when your brain is most awake. REM sleep is also when you dream as your brain is in a similar state to when you are awake. This means it can produce life-like simulations, but that handy paralysis stops you from acting your crazy sleep scenarios.

Why do brains need sleep?

1. Memory

The 8-hour unconscious period representing sleep is the perfect time for your brain to consolidate information learnt during the day and prep itself to get geared up to learn more tomorrow. Memory formation involves the strengthening of synapses and when people are sleep deprived, this ability is out the window. The brain region required for memory formation, called the hippocampus, is super sensitive to not getting sleep and it is thought that lack of sleep disrupts plasticity in this region. Neuronal plasticity allows the alteration of synaptic strength necessary for memory formation, which requires making new proteins (through gene transcription) and increasing the number of receptors at the synaptic, making their connections stronger. If your brain doesn’t have this period, plasticity cannot occur, and you are unable to both consolidate what you have learnt that day or make space for new information the next day. So, although those late-night revision sessions might seem like the best way to cram for your morning test, a good night’s sleep is needed for you to remember the last-minute bites of info.

2. Attention

Attention is the ability to focus on a specific task without any distractions. For your brain, the mechanism of attention requires two active process; selecting important information to focus on and blocking out non-important background noise. For example, when you are sat in a crowded bar chatting with your friend, you can ignore all the background chatter and tune in to just them telling you all about their horrendous week in work. Your brain works in a similar way, with neurons in attention circuits (thought to be in the frontal and parietal lobes) firing strongly to one another while other brain regions have their activity dampened. The inactive brain regions show alpha wave patterns, like those your brain experiences when relaxed, as these provide ‘silent’ periods of neuron firing and make the desynchronised beta-wave patterns in the active regions seem even louder. Sleep represents an extreme version of this dampening, with prolonged periods of slow wave patterns across the entire brain. This enables all the active circuits in attention to be cut off from each other. The mechanisms surrounding why this cut off occurs is not completely understood but if you are sleep-deprived, the difference between your active attention signalling and suppression of background noise is lessened, making it more difficult to focus on your mate’s latest office dilemma.

3. Waste Clearance

During the day, your brain accumulates waste products released from cells in the extracellular space and during your sleep, it is thought clearance processes kick in to get rid of any rubbish. This is similar to you turning up to the office in the morning to see the carpets hovered, surfaces cleaned and bins emptied; the cleaners of your brain work while you unconsciously snooze. This clearance system is called the glymphatic system as it coordinated by immune brain cells called glia. These increase the volume of extracellular space in you brain to ‘flush out’ the old fluid and replace it with a fresh batch. This clearance is mainly active during sleeping periods so if you are deprived of sleep, some waste products remain in the brain. Over time, this can be bad for brain health and has been linked to susceptibility in developing Alzheimer’s disease (although this is not fully proven!).

The role sleep plays in your health and cognitive function is obviously huge, and we are only just starting to scratch the surface explaining the mechanisms behind these processes. Sleep is also important for the health of other organs in your body and tissue repair, explaining why it is super important to retire to our slumbers every night.

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After learning a bit more about the importance of sleep, make sure you always try to get your 80 winks. And if anyone shouts at you for sleeping in, tell them your brain needs it.

Main Sources used (in case you want to keep awnnn readin’)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306452215003942

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223615002258

https://www.livescience.com/54284-sleep-deprivation-selective-attention.html

https://www.theguardian.com/science/neurophilosophy/2013/may/22/dreaming-of-animals-and-other-warning-signs-of-neurodegeneration


Updated: Jul 25, 2020


Happy Halloween Folks! The day of the dead is upon us; an occasion to celebrate all things spooky, ghoulie and macabre. The Halloween holiday is best known for fuzzy teeth, dunking your head in the washing up bowl and scaring yourself for fun. And while now it may be the one time of year you can wear whatever you want and get away with it, the reason Halloween exists is all down to human fear. The festival of Halloween dates back over a thousand years and while you would not have found a Harley Quinn or dead Batman back in the 8th Century, costume-wearing people would gather together to light bonfires on the night they believed the living and dead worlds collided. These rituals were spurred on by fear ghosts were responsible for the long, harsh winters which would kill many crops and people. Centuries on, fear is still a driver of human behaviour and on the holiday when you go out seeking a scare, certain brain regions will be firing out for you to run and hide.

The Root of Fear: Why do we get scared?

The spectrum of things we humans fear is endless; spiders, heights, buttons, the unknown. Some of these fears exist to protect your life while others are more of a burden than a benefit. A fear of heights will stop you from tightrope-walking across a telephone wire from one building to another and protect your well-being. Whereas being afraid of clowns doesn't do much in the way of protecting your body or dignity; leaving you screaming in a corner at your cousin’s 4th birthday party. Unless the clown is running towards you with a carving knife, having a fear of an adult man wearing makeup and big shoes making balloon animals holds little advantage. However odd some phobias seem, the raw emotion and reaction to a fearful stimulus is an evolutionary advantage found accross many species.

Fear is an emotion. And when you break down what an emotion is, it is basically a response to a stimulus. Even the simplest of organisms like bacteria are able to respond to a threatening situation to improve their chances of survival. From these single celled organisms, vertebrates and invertebrates (animals with and without backbones) evolved and while invertebrates, such as spiders and squid, maintained an emotional response similar to their bacterial ancestors, vertebrates went on to develop a more complex range of expressions. Of these responses, fear became one vital for survival. Fear granted vertebrates not only with the option to escape a threatening situation but also gave them the choice to battle through their phobias to advance the survival of their species. In many vertebrates, fear is a rapid, impulsive response that propels the body into a highly-alert, ‘survival-mode’ state and us humans are no different. However, a key alteration between the human response to fear and our other ancestors is that we have sacrificed the size of brain regions associated with activating fear to gain areas which provide control over our response. Think back to a time you were given a fright; your impulsive reaction may have let out a scream but your brain then assesses the situation before you make your next move. It would be pretty bad if your mate jumped out on you in the supermarket and following your initial yelp, you proceeded to run screaming down the aisles and out of the building. Human control over the fear response has provided us with evolutionary advantage as we can detect real and fake threats before spending valuable energy escaping.

It’s all in your head: The Amygdala

In humans and other vertebrates, a brain region called the limbic system was thought to be the centre of emotional responses. Despite evidence for the limbic system mediating all emotion falling short, it’s role in the fear response has been confirmed. The limbic area responsible for fear is called the amygdala, which sits deep in the temporal lobes of both hemispheres. The removal of this general brain region from monkeys (back in the early 20th century when animal ethics were non-existent) made the animals lose their fear towards objects they normally would not go near, like snakes and humans. These experiments lead to the prediction that humans without an amygdala would also be fearless.

As well as the amygdala’s role in directing a person’s feeling of fear, it is also vital in the role of fear memory. Research in the mid-20th century showed that the amygdala is activated in fear conditioning experiments. These tests involve presenting a subject with a normal stimulus (not harmful) or an unconditioned stimulus (harmful). For example, you could use two sounds with different stimuli associated with them; one noise with no stimulus and the other with an electric shock. If you give these to an individual at random intervals during the experiment, the second noise will eventually elicit the fear response; even without the electric shock happening. This is because the amygdala is activated in by the unconditioned stimulus; leading its neurons to form strong connections with other brain regions to make a memory of the 'scary' noise. It has been shown that damage to the amygdala in humans inhibits fear conditioning. Think about not being able to remember something which causes you pain – like touching a hot pan. You would continually pick up the pan and burn yourself until you caused permeant damage to your hand. The role of amygdala in fear memory is another vital component of human survival.

The 3 F's of Fear: Fight, Flight or Freeze

Once the amygdala has been activated by a fearful stimulus, it then alerts the rest of your brain and body to the potential danger. The amygdala signals to motor areas to have them on stand-by for rapid movement and also activates a response similar to the stress pathway By signalling to the hypothalamus, the amygdala can stimulate the release of hormones needed to increase heart rate, dilate pupils, quicken breathing and make you sweat. This enables the body for ‘fight or flight’; to stay and fight the fear out or to run as fast as possible out of danger. This response is also activated in face recognition when the person you are looking at looks afraid or angry. Even though a facial expression is not an active threat, your body gets prepped from this cue in anticipation of having to leg it.

Another response associated with fear is ‘freezing’; when you feel stuck to the spot unable to move or speak. This behaviour is similar that seen in prey animals and normally occurs before fight or flight. The freezing period is activated by a sensory stimulus, such as a rustle in the bushes, and its purpose is to heighten the prey’s senses to detect where the potential threat is coming from. The amygdala is activated by the sensory stimulus and triggers the freezing response in another brain region called the periaqueductal grey (PAG); the brain region in the cerebellum associated with tension and relaxation. Activation of the PAG leads to a tense state; heightening senses and alertness. The amygdala also stimulates the fight or flight response during the freezing period so once the threat makes itself known, activation of the PAG is inhibited and the prey can take action on the danger.

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Fear is fundamental to human survival but can be inhibiting for some. Fears of ‘non-scary’ stimuli can be debilitating and make everyday life hard. These phobias may develop following trauma or during your childhood when your amygdala is more plastic. So, when you walked into your best friend’s party and saw these huge man wearing face paint and a red wig, your amygdala may have triggered the formation of a fear memory, leading your adult self to still freeze with fear when you see a clown. Some people also love getting scared as it caused the release of adrenaline; the hormone associated with ‘living on the edge’. For those thrill seeking who will stay up late this Halloween to watch that scary film that you definitely shouldn’t watch (or the Haunting of Hill House because you might actually want to sleep again in 2018), it is your amygdala that will be on a mad one; triggering your heart to thump, senses to be heightened and create those fear memories which will haunt you all night long. Enjoy!

For more info on fear and the amygdala, check out this article:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3600914/