BRAZILIAN BIOCHAR!

BRAZILIAN BIOCHAR!

In September I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of fellow environmental scientists on a trip to the beautiful Brazil! The group consisted of 3 academics and 3 very over-excited PhD students. The aim of the trip was to set up collaborative work with a University based in Belem, Federal Rural University of the Amazon (URFA.) Additional academics, who had previous links with the University of Nottingham, also attended the meetings in Belem facilitating collaboration between 3 universities in inter-disciplinary areas.

The first thing that struck me whilst in Brazil was the different approach to research. Many of the academics and post-docs couldn’t understand why we wanted to work in collaboration with them, other than the obvious trip to Brazil!! The concept on which I base my PhD project, biochar, originates from ancient Amazonian practices so working with Brazilians on the topic brought out the geek in me! The local academics loved the enthusiasm but couldn’t completely relate.

Now, when it comes to agriculture in Brazil there are a lot of social issues. You have the huge companies, such as Monsanto, dominating the market in the South and trying to penetrate the North where farming is seen on a sustenance level. The North struggle with a reduced capacity for farming due to protection of the rain-forest therefore reduced land. This means any additions or changes to the farming practice in the North need to be 100% beneficial due to the heavy reliance on local farms for food. While in Brazil my understanding of the extent to which locals depend on farming massively increased, putting into context the impact of my work.

acai pic
Acai seeds are a huge waste product in Belem.

While in Belem I was asked to present my work. After seeing the Brazilian enthusiasm for biochar  I was excited to present my ideas! The language barrier made the presenting difficult but thankfully a trusty postdoc was on hand to act as translator! The academics then presented suggestions and potential oversights within our projects which, although slightly daunting, turned out extremely beneficial. After the presentations we enjoyed the sun set over the amazon with a well deserved beer.

 

sunset
Amazonian Sunset

Overall I found it extremely interesting to see how different education, farming and economic systems worked globally! It was great to see for myself the potential impact my work could be having (a long way down the line.) The key drive for sustainability in Brazil was brilliant. The country values the magnificence of the rain-forest and understands any technologies developed need to respect and maintain the forest. Brazil… it was an absolute pleasure and I have no doubt I will be back (as long as I can string together a few quid for the air fare!)

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I couldn’t post without a picture of Christ the Redeemer

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

 

Gardens by the Bay

On a recent holiday to Singapore I had the pleasure of visiting the a project called ‘Gardens by the Bay.’ The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ did a lot to revamp my outlook on science communication. Think Eden project, but to a more epic scale! Unfortunately I only had the time to visit 2 of the 3 gardens including the cloud forest garden as well as a section containing plants from many global niches. The flora however was not what drew me in, which is impressive considering how much of a sucker I am for plants!

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After timidly walking around the high, very transparent barriers of the impressive cloud forest (not for those scared of heights) I found myself in a room full of UV lights! Upon closer inspection I saw the writing illuminated by UV was informing the public on deforestation, climate change and global food security. The centre explained how deforestation reduced the diversity of tribal populations within the rainforest as well as animals and plants and elucidated how these may impact our everyday lives. The informative display was extremely successful at engaging people, explaining how our daily behaviour effects plant growth and the impact of these effects. Facts were presented as just that…facts and no sensationalist statements were seen! The simplicity was amazingly effective. The brightness and interactivity of the room meant visitors were actively engaging. The enthusiasm of customers was fantastic, I came out of the cloud rainforest excited to see what else I had in store during my visit!

I entered the plant house, much more suited to me as it’s all flat! The variety of plants was impressive to say the least. Cacti, olive trees and orchids are just some of the groups I can remember seeing as I comfortably wandered around the huge greenhouse. Amongst the assortment of shrubs an evening event was being prepared for. The idea of holding event surrounded by nature shows even further how the gardens by the bay are being incorporated into everyday Singaporean life. Again, I was amazed by the country’s ability to communicate and embrace science and nature! As I left the greenhouse, I passed through yet another dark room, this time set up by spotlights. The surroundings were again informative, however I could see geared towards an older audience! Information here focussed on crop growth and how plants are threatened by human behaviour, developing how our daily lives impact the environment around us. Improving understanding of how our day-to-day routine is intimately linked with the environment helps explain why simple tasks, such as recycling, can make a massive difference.

The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ really improved my perspective on science communication. I believe most countries, if possible cities, should have such informative centres to clearly explain why conservation is important. The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ has potential spark passion in future generations as it has done me! The interactivity of the centre means it certainly is flourishing with energy and life, just as any garden should be!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in Training

The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The brilliant charity Sense About Science has provided me with yet another opportunity to promote the amazing work it does. As part of their effort to debunk science myths and misconceptions, Sense about Science, produces ‘Making sense of’ guides which tackle a variety of misunderstood scientific areas. The areas covered range from statistics to genetic modification. Recently, Sense about Science released a new edition of ‘Making Sense of Screening’ on the emotive area of screening. The guide aims to draw out the common misconceptions around screening and discuss both its pros and cons.

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Public expectations of screening are very unrealistic. But who is to blame for this? In part, the portrayal of screening in the media and in public discussion. High profile cases covered in the media, often involving celebrities or emotive case studies, allows the issue to be sensationalised and the debate skewed. This has led to calls for more regular screening, for more of the general population to increase earlier stage detection. But what’s lost from the debate is the discussion of potential harms as well as the benefits.

Many people are shocked to hear that not all of the population will benefit from screening. No screening test is 100% accurate, which means the use of screening to detect tumours, in say breast cancer, will result in some people being overdiagnosed and receiving unnecessary treatment. Similarly if you get screened and celebrate the news of an all clear, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop that disease later in life and rarely, there are false negative results – where the disease marker is not detected.

 Screening-EN

 

Screening is an important tool that can indicate if you are at high risk of developing a disease and tells professionals what might need to be done. It can play essential role within our healthcare system. However public misconceptions have resulted in the demand on screening becoming excessive. Making Sense of Screening aims to bring clarity to the issue and centre the debate around the scientific evidence of harms and benefits. This guide is extremely important and a huge leap in the right direction towards recalibrating public perceptions of healthcare.

 

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

Suspicious Saltpipe

Hey folks! Today I am going to promote a brilliant charity and pack my media berating hat away. But never fear, I’m still as critical as ever! I first heard about this charity ‘Sense about Science’ while attending a talk as part of my course and I am so glad I did. Sense about Science are trying to debunk poor media representation of science by talking to scientists and journalists alike. As part of this work they have a campaign called ‘Ask for Evidence.’ This campaign is aimed at encouraging everyone to ask for evidence supporting scientific claims companies make. Many celebrities have got behind this campaign which is extremely important to be sure that what we are all being told about science is true.

Sense about Science have recently released a guide called ‘Making Sense of Allergies.’ To couple the release of this guide (although slightly late), I started exploring a product known as the Salt Pipe. To see what a Salt Pipe is and the claimed benefits click here.

I had never heard of a Salt Pipe before, therefore I decided to delve into the ‘Ask For Evidence’ campaign to find out the science behind the benefits of the Salt Pipe. I didn’t really know where to start but as I wandered across the website I saw a ‘How it works’ link however this led to an empty page. I figured something must be wrong here so I continued to look on the website for someone to contact. I found an email address on the website and messaged them to ask for the evidence and how the product worked. Well, in short my emailing left me at a dead end. The initial response led me to further webpages which explain what the salt pipe is and suggest how it works but lack actual evidence. I pushed a little further and asked for the scientific literature, to which I got a response stating the literature was in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish ‘which we cannot read.’ I asked if I could be sent the papers despite the language barrier, to which I received no response…my first ever time asking for evidence wasn’t going well. I felt at a little lost.

I sought out some advice and decided to turn to twitter to try and get some solid evidence. I tweeted @thesaltpipe asking how it works and for evidence and had no response. I retweeted it a few times and still received no response. Now I really was at a dead end. I tried messaging the various groups on facebook selling and promoting salt pipes and also searched instagram…I got very little response. The one reply I got on facebook gave me the names of the treatments e.g. salt therapy and halotherapy but when I pushed a little further I got no response. The lack of answers may be due to many reasons however I feel the silence is very telling. So in a bid to get answers, I am appealing to you guys, the readers, to not only ask for evidence about the saltpipe but for anything. If a product appears to be making bold claims then they may not be 100% honest. Don’t believe the hype, find the truth!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in Training

Do it for the Dolphins!

My recent internet trawling has led me to a heart-wrenching article focussing on an area of biology I am extremely passionate about…conservation. I feel discussion of how to help all endangered animals is the best way to increase public backing behind conservation programmes, however I can’t help but focus on the risks faced by small cetaceans, such as dolphins.Dolphin-kill-animal-rights-527176

Some of you may have seen the horrific Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Cove.’ The cove vividly explores the horrific nature of drive hunting of dolphins observed in Japan. The article found on science daily outlines studies into conservation of dolphins in the Solomon Islands, which are also victim to drive hunting. Although descriptive and potentially upsetting, the article is well-written and provides links to the primary literature  exploring hunting and the effects on dolphin numbers. More importantly the science daily article really delves into the difficulties in finding an economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable solution to the hunting of these dolphins. A similar article is also featured on abc news.

the cove

The tradition and culture associated with drive hunting counts as much as the economic value within the Solomon Islands. The hunting has a long –steeped history within the local’s culture and the teeth of hunted dolphins are integral to some of the islands traditional formalities. The tooth of the dolphin, which holds the greatest economic value, is used within wedding ceremonies in the Solomon Islands showing how it is not just the hunt, but also the product which is deep rooted within local society. Furthermore, locals to the Solomon Islands do have dolphin meat on the menu, showing that not a morsel of the hunted cetacean goes to waste. The traditions associated with hunting makes banning it much harder due heart- felt opposition by the locals. Many successful conservation programmes elsewhere have highlighted the importance of educating the locals of the risk of extinction related to killing endangered animals. The article however states the hunters understand this extinction risk, making it much more difficult to provide a sustainable answer!

It does need to be considered that the hunters may just need the money! The value of the dolphin tooth within the past decade has increased dramatically showing a commercial incentive as well as the cultural. In 2012, the government gave economic compensation to stop hunters from killing. This had a positive impact and hunting was suspended, however the agreement broke down in 2013 at which point hunting began again at such a rate that in 3 months over 1,500 spotted, 159 spinner and 15 bottlenecks dolphins were killed. The breakdown of the agreement shows that providing compensation isn’t a sustainable answer to solve conservation issues. The government of the Solomon Islands has contributed to conservation research efforts, however it isn’t equipped to provide for the scale needed. The two examples of sadly unsuccessful governmental support show conservation efforts need to consider problems more deep-lying than money, making solutions much more difficult to devise.

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To me conservation efforts for dolphins are very difficult in the Solomon Islands as an intricate balance between various factors needs to be achieved. This can be shown by past conservation interventions which have caused dramatic problems. International support and grass root education projects for the hunters could help to reduce the massacres. Although it is said the hunters understand the extinction risk, education for the next generation will have a long term impact. The idea of conservation therefore needs to be tackled in the Solomon Islands with great care and respect to the hunters. To further understand the challenges the dolphins face you can read the primary literature provided. If you wish to support the efforts to save the dolphins visit the Dolphin Project website. Don’t be shellfish, do it for the dolphins!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

A little coffee helps your heart a latte

A little coffee helps your heart a latte

As a well-established coffee lover and a student who endeavoured a 7 week project into the chemistry behind coffee, it’s only natural for me to be intrigued by the news that coffee is good for your heart (which I personally would like to celebrate…that is of course if it’s true.) Coffee throughout the years has been seen as good, like declogging arteries as seen here and bad due to the effects on metabolism and long term energy levels. After all, the caffeine in coffee is considered a drug and high intake of any kind of drug is bad for you. The segments I am focussing on are found on the BBC, telegraph and ITV websites despite the piece of news being scattered all over the internet. The articles explain drinking a few cups of coffee a day may help avoid the clogging of arteries therefore reducing the effects of heart disease and strokes. In previous posts I have highlighted the responsibility the media has when explaining science surrounding food and drink, I therefore wanted to explore the supposed perks of coffee in more detail.

Coffee-beans

The video clip on BBCs news page suggests 3-5 cups of joe a day may avoid clogged arteries. The segment is thought-provoking as it also highlights that in the past coffee has been linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol, accepting the controversial nature of the results presented. Most of the articles I explored including the telegraph, BBC and ITV discuss that the results are based on a South Korean population who experience a different diet and lifestyle. This drawback was originally highlighted by the British Heart Foundation who suggest further research needs to be conducted. All articles however fail to acknowledge that factors such as diet, smoking, family history and many other variables were taken into account by the study. Coffee was also suggested to protect against Alzheimer’s, depression and certain cancers however no support is provided. The BBC article then focuses on caffeine stating it is also seen in tea, coke, energy drinks and chocolate continuing to discuss the recommended daily levels of caffeine. However caffeine has not been isolated as the compound that causes the results seen within the study. There may be another compound within the coffee causing health benefits. The BBC therefore made a sensible assumption, however it may not be accurate.

Barista prepares espresso in his coffeeshop; close-up

After a heavy afternoon of google scholar and some aid from the daily telegraph article the scientific paper was found! Upon reading the paper I immediately saw a large sample size of 25,138 individuals used within the study. Originally the study had a larger sample of people however they removed any individuals from the study that had previously suffered cardiovascular disease, showing how the scientists refined their study. The article focusses on coronary artery calcium (CAC) which is heavily considered the main indicator of cardiovascular disease in Korea. I, myself, do not know how accurate the method is therefore it may have been representative to use more than one method to measure CAC. Varying levels of coffee consumption were compared to no coffee consumption. Moderate consumption levels were shown to reduce the prevalence of CAC which is a marker used to predict future heart disease. The paper also highlights that this topic is one of controversy and uses a review of 36 different studies to support what they have found while mentioning that other papers disagree.

Overall, the media have had a great shot at filtering out the key and important facts from the paper (all puns completely intended!) The only real point I contest is the unrepresentative sample size pointed out by the British heart foundation as the study assessed many other lifestyle factors which may have effected coronary artery calcium. I can see why the media included the quote from the British Heart Foundation however I feel it is unfounded and the study works to disprove the point. So despite all the controversy, this particular study and the media reports do a strong job to suggest coffee may reduce the effect of heart disease. All you coffee lovers can now sleep soundly knowing your health is in check…well, that is if you haven’t had one too many cups!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in Training