Oxford University Scientific Society - Hilary Term 2011

"Foot-and-mouth and foot-in-mouth: science and talking about science"

Professor Stephen Curry, Imperial College London - First Week - 19th January 2011

As a structural biologist with interests in virology I have devoted much of my research to understanding how the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease operates at the molecular level. I plan to say a little bit about one aspect of our research - our work on the structure and mechanism of a key virus protein, the 3C protease, which is a plausible target for the development of antiviral drugs.

Foot-and-mouth disease provides a good opportunity to talk about the societal impact of science since many people in the UK will remember the outbreaks that happened in 2001 and 2007. My work in this area is partly responsible for levering me out of the laboratory and into more public discussions about the role of science in our society. I would like to argue that getting scientists to speak up more often is good for society and good for scientists.

Professor Stephen Curry is a Professor of Structural Biology who uses X-rays to tease out the three-dimensional structures of biological molecules in atomic detail, working primarily on proteins used by RNA viruses such as the foot-and-mouth disease virus. By understanding how these viruses operate at the molecular level, he aims to further the design of enzyme inhibitors that might be used to control future outbreaks.

Stephen is also curious about the place of science in the world, and he explores the social and political responsibilities of being a scientist at his blog Reciprocal Space on Nature Networks (http://blogs.nature.com/scurry). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Biochemist, at Lablit, and in the Open Laboratory anthologies of the best science blogging in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

(adapted from http://www.bio.ph.ic.ac.uk/~scurry/)

"Information Is Beautiful"

David McCandless - Second Week - 26th January 2011

(Joint event with Oxford Invariants)

In an age of high-speed living and info overload, visualized information has incredible potential to help us quickly understand, navigate and find meaning in complex world. The use of infographics, data visualisations and information design is a rising trend across many disciplines: science, design, journalism and web. At the same time, daily exposure to the web is creating a incredibly design-literate population. Could this be a new language? David will share his passion for exciting potential of this merging of design, information, text and story. And unveil some of the interesting, unexpected and sometimes magical things that happen when you visualise data, knowledge and ideas.

David McCandless is an independent data journalist and information designer, into anything strange and interesting. He is passionate about visualizing information—facts, data, ideas, subjects, issues, statistics, and questions—all with the minimum of words.

David is the author of Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins 2010) and The Internet—Now in Handy Book Form (Portico Books 2007). His work has appeared in over 40 publications worldwide including Wired, The Guardian, Tank, and The Independent. In 2000, he was the editor and writer of http://seethru.co.uk/, the interactive half of the BBC2 / World Productions drama series, Attachments.

(adapted from http://www.davidmccandless.com/)

Energetics and the evolution of complex life

Dr Nick Lane, UCL - Third Week - 2nd February 2011

(Joint event with Oxford Biological Society)

All complex life on Earth is composed of eukaryotic cells. All eukaryotes share a common ancestor that arose just once from prokaryotes, such as bacteria. Otherwise, prokaryotes show essentially no tendency to evolve greater morphological complexity. What happened on that one occasion? I shall argue that prokaryotes are constrained by their energetics, and that the acquisition of mitochondria by a prokaryotic cell - a vanishingly rare event - overcame this limitation, enabling a massive increase in genome size and complexity. But the necessary genetic rearrangement in eukaryotes - a massive central nucleus supported energetically by tiny remnant mitochondrial genomes - holds major connotations of its own, potentially explaining the evolution of two sexes, the origin of species, and ageing.

Nick Lane is a biochemist who researches the role of bioenergetics in the origin and evolution of complex life. He is the author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (Profile/Norton 2009), Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life (OUP 2005), and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (OUP 2002). He also co-edited Life in the Frozen State (CRC Press 2004).

Nick studied at Imperial College London and completed his doctoral studies at the Royal Free Hospital. He holds the first Provosts Venture Research Fellowship in the Department of Genetics, Evolution, and Environment at University College London. He has also written numerous articles in Nature, Scientific American, and New Scientist.

(adapted from http://www.nick-lane.net/)




Lévy flights and the search behaviour of marine predators

Professor David Sims, Plymouth - Fifth Week - 16th February 2011

(Joint event with Oxford Biological Society)

Search processes play an important role in physical, chemical and biological systems, including, for example, the encounter of two molecules to perform a chemical reaction, proteins searching megabases of DNA for specific binding sites, and in animal foraging. But how should predators best search for sparse prey when they have incomplete information of its whereabouts in a changing environment? Simulations indicate that specialised random walks known as Lévy flights are an efficient search strategy under certain conditions to locate new resource patches by combining local search with longer excursions to new areas. It has been hypothesised that since Lévy flights optimise random searches, organisms may have naturally evolved to exploit Lévy flight-type movements (the so-called Lévy flight foraging hypothesis). Much research over the last decade has tested this hypothesis with empirical data, apparently finding Lévy search patterns in diverse species, from bacteria to humans. But do these empirical studies stand up to closer scrutiny? Is Lévy flight searching really a universal law in biology? This talk will describe the scientific background to this topic, identify key points of general interest in the debate, and will present recent empirical results from the movement analysis of electronically tagged marine predators. Studies will be presented for sharks, tuna, swordfish and turtles, that offer themselves as particularly good models for testing these ideas. The potential value of these findings for animal conservation will also be highlighted.

Professor David Sims is Deputy Directory of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, where he also leads the Behavioural Ecology group. By tracking individual marine predators (like sharks, tuna, swordfish, and turtles) in the Atlantic Ocean, his group tests ideas about the tactics of free-ranging animals in searching, foraging, habitat selection, and migration.

In recognition of his research, David has been awarded a Royal Institution 'Scientist for the New Century' Lecture (2001), the Fisheries Society of the British Isles Medal (2007), and the Stanley Gray Silver Medal from the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science, and Technology (2008). Many of his articles have appeared in Nature. He also holds a joint position with the University of Plymouth.

(adapted from http://www.mba.ac.uk/simslab/)

Background Reading

"Modeling Biochemical Networks: from DNA to Cellular Function"

Professor David Fell, Oxford Brookes University - Sixth Week - 23rd February 2011

David Fell is a Professor of Biochemistry and Assistant Dean in the School of Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. His research focuses on modeling networks of reactions in cells, with a particular emphasis on metabolism. These predictive models can be used to enhance antibiotics, through identifying vulnerable sites in metabolic networks of bacteria, and further our understanding of how organisms adjust their metabolism in response to environmental signals.

David graduated from the University of Oxford in 1970. He is the author of Understanding the Control of Metabolism (Portland Press 1996). He co-founded the Systems Biology company Physiomics in 2001, and he is currently Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Helmholtz Alliance for Systems Biology.

"Ocean forcing of ice sheet change in West Antarctica"

Dr Adrian Jenkins, British Antarctic Survey - Seventh Week - 2nd March 2011

(Joint event with Oxford Geology Group)

The part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that drains into the Amundsen Sea is currently thinning at such a rate that it contributes nearly 10% of the observed rise in global mean sea level. Acceleration of the outlet glaciers means that the sea level contribution has grown over the past decades, while the likely future contribution remains a key unknown. The synchronous response of several independent glaciers, coupled with the observation that thinning is most rapid at their downstream ends, where the ice goes afloat, is generally taken as an indicator that the changes are being forced by the ocean. On Pine Island Glacier (PIG), in particular, the signatures of acceleration, thinning and inland retreat of the grounding line, where the ice goes afloat, have been almost monotonic in the admittedly short and patchy observational record. Understanding the causes of these changes and their relationship to climate variability is imperative if we are to make quantitative estimates of sea level into the future. Observations made since the mi on the Amundsen Sea continental shelf have revealed that the deep troughs, carved by previous glacial advances, are flooded by almost unmodified Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) with temperatures around 3–4°C above the freezing point, and that this water mass drives rapid melting of the floating ice. This talk summarises the results of recent work, including both observations made by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle beneath the floating tongue of PIG and numerical modelling of ocean circulation in the Amundsen Sea. The results give us important insight into the processes that could cause variability of CDW inflows and how the impact of any such variability on PIG would have been influenced by the seabed topography beneath the floating glacier tongue.

Dr Adrian Jenkins is a Science Programme Coordinator at the British Antarctic Survey with 25 years of experience in the study of interactions between Antarctic ice shelves and the Southern Ocean. He joined the British Antarctic Survey in 1985, and spent the following three austral summers engaged in fieldwork on Ronne Ice Shelf.

Subsequently, he participated in nine further research expeditions to observe ice shelves and oceans of West Antarctica, culminating in a joint programme with the US in 2009, as part of which he led the deployment of an autonomous underwater vehicle beneath the 60 km long floating tongue of Pine Island Glacier. He has also appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Material World, discussing ice loss in West Antarctica.

Nanotechnology: From Single Molecule Biophysics to Biology and Nanomedicine

Professor Sonia Contera, University of Oxford - Eighth Week - 9th March 2011

(Joint event with Oxford Transhumanists)

Professor Sonia Contera is codirector of the Institute of Nanoscience for Medicine at the James Martin 21st Century School. Her research group in Oxford explores the potential of nanostructures to deliver treatments by, for example, loading them with drugs that are only released at the site of a tumour. The aim is to help establish fundamental design principles for nanoscale drug delivery methods and enhance understanding of potential nano-toxicological effects.

Professor Contera graduated in Physics from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, did graduate studies at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Beijing Languages and Culture University, and has a PhD in Applied Physics from Osaka University. She was awarded postdoctoral fellowships in SANKEN, Osaka University and the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

(adapted from http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/users/contera/)