Fish, Brains and Dancing

Sometimes I have weeks which are memorable on several counts.  Well, here’s a corker. I found myself making a film about Alzheimer’s with some extraordinary scientists, had a day of fishy surprises in Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, and finally found myself dancing with Darcey –  yes, her Strictly Dameship herself – on stage, in front of a couple of hundred people.

But let’s start with the fish.  The University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, which is the largest of its kind in the world, hold an annual Ph.D. conference which I found myself hosting on a wet day in April.  There were some very impressive presentations. Did you know that farmed fish, especially when they are hungry, behave like a load of grumpy toddlers? Apparently, they barge about, causing trouble, in particular, biting the fins of other fish which is painful if you are on the receiving end, as well as a big welfare and health issue.  But provide them – and this is a top fish fact – with the equivalent of fish toys (the proper term is environmental enrichment) and there is a significant reduction in fin damage. Who knew?

Another bit of fishy fascination concerned cleaner fish – the fish which feed on other fishes’ parasites. Aquaculturists talk about ‘deploying’ them as if they were a load of tanks in a battle.  Wrasse is a champion fish louse muncher but grow slowly. Thomas Cavrois, a French scientist, explained how manipulating temperature and food during their development can reduce the time taken to get them to their optimum ‘deployment’ size by a quarter.  He also let slip that whereas almost no-one in the UK will eat wrasse, an ugly thick skinned blighter with flesh that has a curious green tint, the French will kill for a wrasse fillet which they think is delicious. I was not surprised. I once met a Frenchman on a beach in Brittany enthusiastically eating a chiton, a rock dwelling mollusk that looks a bit like a scaly squashed woodlouse. Briny tasting toenail is being over generous.

Finally, African catfish.  They are the principal farmed fish in Africa and Isa Suleiman, a Nigerian with a wonderful knack for storytelling, had the entire audience hooked as he explained current hatchery practices in Nigeria.  ‘Shooters’ are preferred as broodstock. These are much bigger than the other fish and local farmers believe them to be genetically superior and pay premium prices for them. Sadly, Isa concluded, having checked out their genetic profile, that they had got big by eating their friends instead of tedious old fish food.  He’s now working to provide better broodstock to make this important industry sustainable. It was a top day and thank you to Giuseppe Paladini, a Scottish Crucibliste, for inviting me.

Goldfish are notorious for having short memories – although this is in fact, a myth.  Memory problems in humans, however, are often the first symptom of something we all fear – Alzheimer’s – and over 10 million people already live with this disease across Europe.  Although there is some evidence that the incidence of Alzheimer’s is falling, its prevalence will increase in line with the increasing number of us who now reach advanced ages. We all want a cure but the understanding of the brain is way behind that of say, cancer.

This year’s Lundbeck Brain Prize has been awarded to four scientists who have each contributed enormously to the understanding of the basic science underlying Alzheimer’s.  It’s a disease of plaques and tangles in the brain. I was privileged to interview the winners for a film. John Hardy, the geneticist, who advanced the idea that the build-up of amyloid plaques was a key process, Michel Goedart whose work focuses on the tau tangles found inside brain cells, Christian Haas who managed to devise a model for testing theories and Bart de Strooper, who heads the UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL and whose work on the enzymes that chop up amyloid has been so important.  Back in the 80s, only a few hundred scientists were interested in Alzheimer’s, including these four. Now it is tens of thousands. I’m looking forward to interviewing them all again in Copenhagen in May. And if you are wondering why, with so much work, we still haven’t got a way to prevent or treat this terrible disease effectively, I suspect we have a number – but we just need to give them far earlier in the disease process which may begin 20 years before any symptoms appear.

Finally dancing with Darcey.  I am including the least incriminating of the pictures, ie the one where I look slightly less like a twitching sack of potatoes.  The Dame of Dance and Strictly Belle had come to the Aesop Showcase and Conference at the Guildhall School’s magnificent Milton Court venue.  Aesop, which develops evidence-based arts interventions for health, was founded by my husband Tim Joss. It was an inspiring occasion and I love hosting it although obviously, I had to sleep with my husband to get the gig.  You can read more about it here.  Darcey has developed a dance programme called DDMix for schools and showcased it at the event.  She talked about it with huge passion and then decided to demonstrate some of the moves. Unfortunately, I happened to be the only person with her on the stage at the time and got roped in.  Dear reader, I failed for how anyone can look elegant beside the ever elegant Darcey. I did confess to her that I had been thrown out of my ballet class at the age of 4 for being a danger to the rest of the class (an unfortunate incident with a chair) and offered to show her a few of my steps but luckily for the audience, she declined the femtosecond experience which would have ensued.  Roll on the next season of Strictly.

Future Energy Forum, Astana

I’ve spent some time last month in Kazakhstan hosting two conferences in the Future Energy Forum series, one on the role of cities and the other on the role of policy.  A standout speaker was Professor Mohan Munasinghe, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace with Al Gore.  The conferences took place in the Kazakh capital, Astana which is hosting the World Energy Expo. Of course, I enjoyed the British Pavilion, designed by superstar architect British architect Asif Khan but the Kazakh pavilion (which is in the globe) was incredibly impressive.  You walked from the top down and around different levels, each representing separate renewable energies: wind, solar, biomass, hydro and space.  What struck me was the number of kids there, completely starry eyed, mouths open, gulping all this future down.  I suspect they will remember it all their lives and that it will prompt them to do two things; the first to dream of becoming an astronaut (the biggest queues were on the space level) and the second, cement in their minds that renewables are their future.

For older Kazakhs this is difficult to imagine – after all, their whole economy is based on the country’s production of abundant fossils fuels and their power is, by our standards, astonishingly cheap. Climate change doesn’t have the traction with them that it does elsewhere for they already live in the harshest of climates  – it can reach -60c in winter and +40c in summer.  So how do you persuade?  At a political level, one of the most persuasive arguments is economic. As other countries leave fossil fuels behind, the price will fall and the Kazakhs will begin to see their economy and influence in central Asia diminish. This is driving government.  As for ordinary Kazakhs, starting where they are and focusing on reducing energy use by increasing energy efficiency is the first step – that and inspiring a whole new generation with Expo.  It’s a strategy that I think will work – as it must.

I’m listening here to the Chief Engineer of the Kazakh state railway. A brief welcome was supposed to be his brief but bless him, the opportunity to tell a captive audience about the engines of his trains was an opportunity too irresistible to pass up. Engineers. They’re enthusiasts in every language.

The thing that most impressed me whilst I was in the country was its celebration of women warriors.  This is a Muslim country but Kazakh women enjoy high status and traditionally fought alongside men, typically as lethal horseback archers.  We celebrate Jane Austen, a writer of sharp social observation who dueled with her pen, on our bank notes.  The Kazakhs celebrate Queen Tomyris who personally killed Cyrus the Great of Persia in a 5th Century battle on their notes.  Gosh.

August: A month of rest for most, but not me!

We are only 10 days into the month of August and so far I have been very busy. Here are three completely contrasting things I have been doing so far:

Here’s a commentary from me, just published in Nature .

Everyone is getting in a froth about gene edited embryos and talking about the need for ‘conversations’.  I am making the point that the really urgent conversations that need to be had are about genomics which is now entering mainstream NHS care, rather than about a technology which is many years ahead and likely to be for the very few.  I say this particularly in the context of the UK Chief Medical Officer’s report ‘Genome Generation’ which calls for a social contract between patients and the NHS, especially about the use of data.

Here’s a piece that I wrote for the Mail on Sunday about the Princess of Wales and the furore over a documentary revealing tapes recorded by her voice coach. 

Astonishingly, it is 20 years since the death of the Princess of Wales.  I worked with Diana for 12 years while she was Patron of Birthright, the mother and baby research charity that was then part of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.  I was its National Organiser, running the research programme but also all its fundraising events

I was a rookie charity organiser aged 26 and Diana was a rookie princess when we first met in 1982 at an event, ‘The Brilliant and Beautiful Evening of Fashion’ at London’s Guildhall.  We got on famously.  I called her ‘Miss’ and she mocked me for my short skirts and my ever constant clipboard.  I watched her grow from anxious ingenue to confident world superstar and she was a very important part of my life for over a decade. After her death, I became a Trustee of the Diana Memorial Fund.   Although it is now two decades ago, the week between her death and her funeral was one of the most extraordinary in British history and remains sharp in my memory.

And here’s a pic of the World Energy Expo.  I recently visited Astana in Kazakhstan for the World Energy Expo where I facilitated two conferences for the Future Energy Forum.

Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Expo pavilion (which was inside a huge ball) was outstanding, incredibly well presented and thought out.  After going up in a lift to the top, you made your way down through different levels, with each one representing a different sort of renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass, space and so on.  It was fascinating.  I watched a lot of very excited Kazakh children in the space section and wondered if a decade or so hence, they will be the astronauts and engineers of the future, having been inspired by their visit to Expo as children. In the UK I am sure that we will have a Tim Peake generation of engineers in the same way that there is a generation (who constantly tell me this) that were inspired to take up engineering and science by watching Tomorrow’s World.

I also visited the Great Britain pavilion which has a fascinating installation of a yurt made of perspex struts which lit up when you touched them, completely surrounded by a landscape panorama.  As the yurt lights came on, so the representation of light in the corresponding piece of the panorama changed, going from day to night or from sunny to cloudy. Sounds weird on paper but it was mesmerising to watch.

I was in Astana to facilitate two conferences of the 12 conference series, ‘Future Energy Forum’.  Kazakhstan has vast reserves of oil and gas and a booming economy based on oil but seem committed to a future in which renewables become more and more important.  They are especially interested in energy efficiency, as well they might be with a temperature range of over 80 degrees, running from +40 in the summer to -40 in the winter (Oh, and add a windchill factor of another 20 degrees).  I really enjoyed talking to young Kazakhs in particular at the conferences.

The Abel Prize; the last interview with John Nash

When my friends at the Norwegian Academy of Science asked me to interview the winners of the 2015 Abel Prize, I said yes, of course.  They are very, very nice people and more than that, I love Norway. What’s not to like?  The problem for me was that the Abel is one of the world’s great math prizes and I am shamingly bad at math.

The winners were Louis Nirenberg of the Courant Institute in New York over 90 but still brim full of vigour and great charm and John Nash, 86 whose life is more familiar perhaps to us than his math because of ‘A beautiful Mind’ in which he was played by Russell Crowe.  It documented his battle with schizophrenia.  I prepared more for these interviews than perhaps any other in my life.  Did by the end, I understand partial differential equations.  Dear reader, it was the North Face of the Eiger and I failed to make it to base camp.  All I can tell you is that PDEs have had an extraordinary impact in the world, making it possible to model the unpredictable.  And remember Nash also gave us the Nash Equilibrium, kickstarting Game Theory and once again, having an extraordinary impact on everything from organ donor allocation to broadband auctions.

During the interview, Nash’s voice was faint, making it hard to follow what he said.  He was very frail, with a stooping, shuffling walk – a great contrast to his wife Alicia who although only a couple of years younger seemed much more robust.  Nash was very interesting about his illness.  I asked whether there was a problem that he would have tackled had he not been so ill.  He replied something to the effect that his mind went on strike but that he was now back in control adding that being in good health does not guarantee that you can discover, let alone think through a problem – which of course is right.

There was a wonderful dinner for Nirenberg and Nash at the Akershus Castle in Oslo, in the presence of the King of Norway.  I went there with Cedric Villani, the French mathematician, media personality and spider lover (he always dresses immaculately and wears big spider brooches).

I came back to London briefly and then left for Seville for a cardiology congress. At the very moment that I was telling a group of cardiologists about my encounter with Nash, someone said they had just received a news alert on their phone.  Both Nash and his wife were dead, killed in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike.  It was deeply shocking.

The world contains all sorts of people.  Nash was challenging but he also had extraordinary insight, making leaps of intuition that almost no-one else could. He was genuinely that very rare thing.  A genius




Girls, girls, girls

Iris 15 (2)

Girls, girls, girls

How gorgeous are these girls? All are dwarf iris and all named after girls which seems appropriate as we come up to International Women’s Day. Katharine Hodgkin, the unmistakeable pale blue and yellow, Lady Beatrix Stanley (that mass of mid blue) and Pauline, elegant in deep purple. The great plantsman, E B Anderson crossed two rare irises in the 1960s and named the stunning result after his chum Eliot Hodgkin’s wife. Katharine. The colours are so elegant, the patterns a joy – how wonderful to have something quite so beautiful forever bear your name.

I use three suppliers of bulbs – these come from Avon Bulbs This is about their third or fourth outing. When the flowers die away, I feed them all with a liquid feed.

I am also feeding my Fritillaries now, even though the shoots are still tiny. This is because the fritillary bulbs are even now bulking up for the future and need some extra help. They smell really strongly of foxes but unfortunately this does not deter lily beetles who love them almost as much as lilies themselves.

Now sowing tomatoes.  Trying more bush tomatoes.  This is really hope over experience because I know my cold Oxfordshire garden isn’t really tomato heaven.  But that’s the deliciousness of gardening.

Bring on spring

Lachenalia liliiflora
Bring on spring
There’s something about freezing weather in February that has me rushing out to the greenhouse with packets of seeds, as if by doing so I could conjure up warmer weather.  This week it has been aubergines (Black Beauty) since you ask and Padron peppers.  If you haven’t tried growing these before, these are the classic Spanish tapas peppers.  They are easy to grow but need to be started soon because with our cooler temperatures, they require a really long growing season.  Once they are big enough to handle, put them first in three inch pots, and then pot them on into big pots or, as I do, into growbags, with three plants to a bag.  They start off little and green (which is when you pick them) and then, if you leave them, turn red.  Be warned.  For inexplicable reasons, one or two of every couple of dozen little green ones are ferociously hot.  There is no way of telling them apart so it’s a bit like Russian Roulette.  They also get hotter as the season progresses so that by August almost all of them are eye watering.  Flash fry them in olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt – fantastic.
I am very taken with Lachenalias.  These are bulbs from South Africa.  Lachenalia liliflora has glorious spotty leaves and stems and flower spikes that are a mass of translucent violet tubes each with a little natty white fringe  of protruding stamens and I have been admiring them in the greenhouse whilst planting my seeds and fussing with my pelargoniums.  Every couple of weeks I move the resting pelargoniums (well actually some of them haven’t been resting, it’s been so warm, they are getting all enthusiastic with leaf) around a bit and remove all the dead leaves.  I am Mrs Messy indoors but in the greenhouse, I suddenly become Mrs V. Tidy – but that’s only because long experience has told me that messy things turn into mouldy things which then infect the whole greenhouse.   But there’s one pelargonium that I leave outside all winter – astonishingly, even in our cold frosty garden, Pelargonium sidoides ‘Pink Fizz’, a species pelargonium from South Africa which spreads through underground tubers – seems untroubled by cold.  It’s more than you can say for me.

Wonders of proton beam therapy

Wonders of proton beam therapy
I am making a film about proton beam therapy which is a highly advanced form of radiotherapy.  Sometimes there are facts that stop you in your tracks.  At the heart of the kit that hurls proton at tumours is something the size of a car which weighs as much as a Boeing 747.  Huge gantries, each the size of a three storey house, house tubes down which protons are accelerated, guided by magnets.  The exquisite precision of PBT, which is used to treat deep or awkwardly sized or placed cancers in the head, neck and spine, is down to the Bragg Effect, an explosion of energy that is only released as the protons reach their target.  It means there is hardly any collateral damage to tissue whilst the tumour gets a pinpoint nuclear strike.  One of these machines is being built at UCL and the other in Manchester, which is very appropriate given that Ernest Rutherford, discoverer of the proton, was at the University of Manchester (and yes for those Trans Pennine-ists, Bragg the Younger after whom the effect was named did work in Leeds).
Installing this kit requires vast quantities of special concrete and a hole which, in London, is deeper than tube train tunnels. 
And now see the film here:
Note how we magically transformed a grey cold Manchester day  into a sunny one, courtesy of our brilliant post production team.

The Crucible Programme

The Crucible Programme
I’ve just had the joy of facilitating the 7th Heriot-Watt Crucible.  The Crucible programme was begun by the innovation charity Nesta back in 2005.  It brings together some 30 early to mid career researchers, all of whom have been identified as potential high flyers for three residential sessions helping them to communicate, collaborate in an interdisciplinary way and develop leadership skills.
For many years,  I have led the first of these sessions which helps these young research stars communicate, unravels the mysteries of the media for them and, perhaps most important of all, helps them understand how best to talk to policy makers.  If you are a young researcher, you need to know how the research firmament revolves and, if you really want to make an impact on the world and your research is of this type, how to make sure that you get heard in the right places.  Impact is a bit of a dirty word amongst researchers but it shouldn’t be.  People don’t do research simply for their own pleasure.  They do it because they want to make a difference.  But policy makers speak a different language and, a bit like journalists, operate to a different time scale to the average researcher.  Academics need to understand how they work if they want to communicate the importance of their work.
The Heriot-Watt Crucible, like the Scottish Crucible (which I will be facilitating in April) spend a day in the Scottish Parliament. As ever, there were some absolutely outstanding individuals from some astonishingly diverse disciplines.  In this session we had someone who studied the anthropology of children’s clothing, another whose area was shipping and supply chains, another in photonics, another in memory research and so on.  They were dazzling.  How lucky am I to be able to spend time talking to such a talented bunch of people?  I always learn something new.  This time it was about what landscapes submerged beneath the waves can tell you about how the future climate change will affect dry land.  Dr Claire Mellett you were brilliant.