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PubhD Sheffield - Event #5 - Festival of Science and Engineering Special!

Wednesday 15th March 2017

As part of British Science Week and the Sheffield Festival of Science and Engineering (SFOSE), PubhD Sheffield hosted a special one-off event to celebrate the science and engineering research currently going on within the two universities of Sheffield: The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. Rather excitingly, we sold out all the tickets for the event! So if you missed it, don’t worry, here’s your chance to catch up =D

Our first speaker was Laia Pasquina Lemonche, a first year PhD student from the The University of Sheffield. Laia began by introducing the idea of the bacterial cell wall, and how this structure is really important in the growth and division of bacteria, enabling them to thrive but also cause disease. Historically, we have used drugs, like Penicillin, to disrupt and make holes in these cell walls, which then causes the bacteria to die; however, bacteria are now becoming resistant to many of these drugs and it is becoming increasingly difficult to fight off bacterial infections. This is known as antimicrobial resistance or AMR. Laia is a Physics graduate, who is now doing her PhD as part of the Florey Institute, which focuses on trying to understand host-pathogen interactions and if we might be able to find alternative antibiotic therapies. Laia is using a specialist microscope, called an Atomic Force Microscope or AFM, which literally touches samples instead of purely visualising them. The microscope holds a specialist cantilever, which has a fine probe on the end, with a tip radius of just a few nanometers – that’s 1,000,000x smaller than a millimetre! This probe scans across the surface of the bacteria, in many different planes and directions, to construct a 3D image in a similar way to a 3D printer! Laia is using this technique to produce images with incredible resolution, to see how the bacterial cell wall changes during treatment with drugs like penicillin, and if we might be able to use this information to inform future drug design.

After a short break, we returned to our second speaker of the night, Prince Rautiyal, who is a first year Materials Engineering PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University. Prince is an avid supporter of nuclear energy, as it is still one of the most efficient and largest energy producing methods in use today. However, one of the biggest problems facing nuclear energy is how to deal with the waste. Typically, the waste is first treated, to salvage any reusable fuel, and the remaining radioactive substance is then stored in big stainless steel drums and buried underground. The waste remains radioactive for many, many years as it decomposes very slowly, but what if we could store the waste in a different way? Well, Prince is working to try and solve this issue, by looking into the use of borosilicate glass in the waste storage procedure. This special type of glass can be blended and mixed with nuclear waste, encapsulating the radioactivity in a unique way. Currently, Prince is in the process of making glass samples and running simulations with these samples. He then hopes to irradiate his samples and see how this affects their properties and potential to contain nuclear waste over long periods of time, to try and find the most suitable glass to use in the future.

Our third speaker, Kyle Martin, is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield. Kyle started by introducing us to the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology – or ‘Evo-Devo’ as he preferred to call it! This is the study of the emergence of complexity in organisms over time, looking at patterns of morphological change that occur between different species - and attempting to elucidate the molecular and developmental underpinnings of those changes. He explained how his interest lies in the origins of anatomical novelty. To better understand this macro-evolutionary idea, he explained that this sort of research looks at evolutionary differences over hundreds of millions to billions of years. When considering evolution, an example of a micro-evolutionary study would be how Darwin studied the different types of beaks on birds of the Galapagos Islands. However, macro-evolution would be a study looking into how and where the beak evolved in the first place! Kyle is using this sort of phylogenetic research to look at the origin of teeth, with a specific focus on a comparison between humans and sharks. Interestingly, sharks have an unlimited ability to regenerate their teeth, which we humans have obviously lost. Also, sharks and many extinct armoured fishes have tooth-like structures that grow out from their skin, named denticles, which do not naturally regenerate. Kyle is looking at the differences in the development of these structures between species, and the role of the Sox2 gene, which is present in both humans and sharks teeth but not in the shark denticles. This has interesting and potential applications for human tooth regeneration and the prevention of tooth loss in a clinical setting.

For more on Kyle's work, check out his blog post or research paper!

Our final speaker was Aimee Paskins, who is a final year PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University. Aimee’s research focuses on Parkinson’s disease. This is an age-related degenerative disease, affecting 1-2% of 65yr olds and up to 5% of 80+yr olds, and is caused by the formation of clumps of a protein with neurons called alpha-synuclein. This protein has no definable structure when in the body, it can be quite unpredictably flexible, but it is pre-disposed to forming clumps in the brain. As the protein clumps, it can form big clusters or rings and then form fibrils, which impact the proper functioning of the brain. To study this protein, Aimee is using normal Mass Spectrometry (MS) and Ion-Mobility Mass Spectrometry to look at the different protein clustering, and to see if we can find compounds that prevent the clusters from forming. A good way of thinking about how MS works is to think about dropping a flat piece of paper versus a scrunched up piece – the scrunched one obviously falls to the floor much quicker! The MS uses the same sort of principle; singular proteins will pass through the spectrometer much slower than big, heavy clustered proteins. So far, Aimee has found that one compound, Curcumin, can reduce the formation of clusters by up to 20%. This compound is usually found in turmeric, and gives rise to its yellow colour! This is really exciting news! However, you can currently eat as much turmeric as you’d like, but it won’t necessarily reach your brain as the compound isn’t very bioavailable. Therefore Aimee hopes that by modifying the chemical structure or delivery of this compound, it might one day help the prevention of Parkinson’s disease and disease progression.

We would like to say a massive THANK YOU to our speakers. It was brilliant to hear about four very different topics and your research into them. We'd also like to extend our thanks to the audience and everyone who attended this event - you had some brilliant questions and we hope those inquisitive minds will return to our PubhD events again in the future =D Our next event is on Weds 5th April - so hopefully see some of you then!

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