Women living with HIV – carrying the burden of the pandemic.

Source: Sophia Forum – We are still here – accessed 25-10-21

All groups affected by HIV should have access to appropriate care and the opportunity to, for instance, enter clinical trials and access innovative treatments. A recent editorial noted the mismatch between those PLWH that were recruited to clinical trials (overrepresentation of young white males) and those seen in the general population (a more heterogeneric demography). Women have been severely underrepresented in many areas of HIV treatment and care including inclusion in research. This appears to be an ongoing issue across the HIV landscape with alternative approaches required to allow both access and opportunity in advancing care and its underpinning research. This is essential as in the UK a third of people living with HIV are women and globally the figure stands at fifty percent and it is incumbent on everyone that the right interventions are utilised in this as well as any other community. This is particularly important where intersectional issues make marginalisation and stigma even more challenging.  The near-invisibility of WLWH is not a recent phenomenon but one that has existed from the early 80s when HIV came to the fore and the public’s attention.  This is one legacy that the community needs to overcome and as Jacqui Stevenson says:

No more excuses: Making HIV research work for women. (Sophia Forum)

Other marginalised groups such as those from BAME backgrounds, whilst being disproportionately affected, were also largely excluded from trials and medical care more generally.

As ART has produced improved outcomes in terms of life expectancy, the demographics of people living with HIV has changed radically. A significant number of PLWH including women have a life expectancy similar to that found in the general population.  However, there are disparities between groups (see, for instance, Solomon et al 2020) and a general reduction in quality of life for PLWH due to the onset of a range of geriatric syndromes a decade or more earlier with ongoing discrimination. This has been emphasised recently by ongoing research and advocacy by Jacqui Stevenson who has studied WLWH growing older. The outcomes of the research provide eight asks to improve the lives of WLWH.

Advice for women and HIV including using PrEP can be found at:

UKRI Reviews of Doctoral Training – The Good and Some Cause for Concern

The UKRI, the overarching government body that manages publicly funded research and innovation in the UK, has just published two reports on doctoral training one in STEM (the EPSRC report) and one by the equivalent in social sciences (the ESRC report). Both reports recognise the value of doctoral training with an emphasis on employers rather than the wider community. The reports highlight the need for future action in this area:

Alongside council-specific actions, the two reviews are also an important contribution to the evidence base for a new deal for postgraduate research, which will address:

  • funding and stipend levels
  • routes in, through and out of doctoral training
  • rights and conditions
  • diversification of models and access.

UKRI – https://www.ukri.org/news/epsrc-and-esrc-doctoral-reviews-published/ accessed 10-10-2021

The EPSRC has released its review of doctoral training in the STEM arena within the UK. There is a wealth of information on the background to the report including outcomes from workshops with stakeholders and a review of the current literature. There is also the report itself and the recommendations therein.

List of recommendations  
Recommendation 1 To stimulate economic growth, EPSRC should increase the number of students it supports and the professional development that they receive. EPSRC-funded doctoral students go onto careers in innovation and research in manufacturing, information and communication technologies and other scientific and technical careers in industry and academia. To become a global science superpower, the number of people with these skills must grow and EPSRC must lead by increasing the number of students it supports. EPSRC should bid for an uplift of investment in EPS for doctoral education from the spending review and other opportunities.
Recommendation 2 EPSRC should better demonstrate the value of a doctorate, its outcomes, and the destination of doctoral graduates, so that this is understood by all key stakeholders.
Recommendation 3 EPSRC should continue to provide thought leadership in doctoral education to the EPS community by investing in the highest quality doctoral education provision which supports a diverse range of career paths.
Recommendation 4 EPSRC should provide a stable long-term baseline of investment to support a creative and innovative fundamental research community (such as the current algorithmic DTP investment), alongside a more dynamic framework to respond to and support emerging strategic priorities (for example by investing in more frequent CDT competitions and including studentship investments alongside research investments in top priority strategic areas).
Recommendation 5 To effectively support the UK’s increasing STEM capability, the system as a whole needs to grow. Recognising the high value placed on doctoral studentships by industry, EPSRC should engage with industry (both the current and new sectors) to encourage and enable increased industry funding and co-funding of doctoral students. These are effective ways of attracting industry investment into the R&D landscape.
Recommendation 6 EPSRC should showcase the ways small and medium enterprises can and do engage with doctoral students, to widen participation and enable overall growth in the system.
Recommendation 7 EPSRC should work with UKRI on doctoral student issues covered by the Government’s People and Culture Strategy expected to be published in summer 2021, ensuring that issues facing the EPS community are addressed. In particular, the New Deal for postgraduate research is expected to address areas such as the stipend level for doctoral students, the rights and conditions of doctoral studentships, financial sustainability of doctoral education investments, doctoral student recruitment policies, and the health and wellbeing of students.
Recommendation 8 The existing opportunity to employ graduates on UKRI grants does not replace our main route to doctoral education but could provide a valuable alternative career
Recommendation 9 EPSRC should work with the sector to provide greater recognition and visibility of the wider skills developed alongside research skills during a doctorate to ensure the employability of all doctoral graduates.
Recommendation 10 All EPSRC funded students should have access to opportunities outside of their research project (e.g., conferences, placements, public engagement), irrespective of the funding route. EPSRC should be explicit within each scheme that funding should be made available for opportunities outside of the research project.
Recommendation 11 EPSRC should prioritise funding excellent doctoral experiences and access to opportunities over student numbers, while ensuring value for money.
Recommendation 12 EPSRC should assist those who deliver the EPSRC doctoral investments in developing and sharing good practice.
Recommendation 13 It is essential that EPSRC continues to invest through a diverse range of flexible approaches so that we continue to support doctoral students’ varied needs, backgrounds and potential careers as well as the differing requirements of the research and innovation communities.
Recommendation 14 As EPSRC’s current mechanisms are well regarded, new initiatives should only be introduced where there is a compelling case for an alternative approach.
Recommendation 15 EPSRC should work with all stakeholders to ensure the current flexibilities relating to both collaboration and supporting students are well known and used.
Recommendation 16 Doctoral education should be available to people following a variety of career paths. EPSRC should work with stakeholders to continue to improve access, diversity of entry points to doctoral education and tailored support for individuals.
Recommendation 17 EPSRC should understand detailed EDI issues in each of our research areas or sectors and work with our community and representative bodies to address them. EPSRC will continue to work within UKRI on broader EDI initiatives.
Recommendation 18 EPSRC should explore how doctoral training investments can support the levelling up agenda.

Conspiracy theories as new pandemics arise… the role of the scientist!

Word Cloud from a set of Guardian posts on the origins of HIV

While reading the literature for a forthcoming grant submission on aspects of the HIV pandemic, I came across several articles both within and outside the mainstream media that relate to the development and spread of troubling assertions. These concern, for instance, the origin of HIV and an implied role of politicians in restricting or encouraging certain avenues of development to maintain industries’ pre-eminent economic position and profit-making. Sometimes these assertions develop into conspiracy theories which are explained, at a later date, in relatively simple terms, as is the case in recognising HIV sequences in the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Here, a bit more thought and critical evaluation would have prevented this avenue of thought, but instead it was posted on a pre-print server for all to see and then subsequently withdrawn, but not before the ‘engineered’ virus concept had taken hold in certain areas of the media.  The simple explanation was that a number of viruses have these sequences.

So what, as scientists, are we to do about preventing such misrepresentations in terms of engaging the public and our own self-management? Here are some thoughts:

  • Employ the skills that are central to our work as scientists, indeed as researchers more broadly, of checking, validating and providing critical insight to our work.  This is particularly important in the medical field generally, but in pandemics specifically, where there may be a heightened awareness of our own frailty and fear of new pathogens that arise from time to time.
  • Personally, I am concerned by the rise in the production of pre-prints from a niche activity to one that has now become mainstream. I suspect this is motivated by data-driven metrics (citations but also prestige) as well as the ‘first to print’, which may be important in exploiting base technologies. It can be argued, however, that this rapid dissemination of information is key, not only in developing collaborative research, especially in times of a pandemic, but also in allowing the quick development of frameworks and insights that may otherwise take months to generate if the peer-review process had to be adhered to. To protect both the research community and the wider public, servers hosting pre-prints have strengthened their assessment procedures once an article is posted. Nature Cancer provides a more nuanced overview of this issue as does the Lancet.
  • We should take it upon ourselves to assess the risks involved in how we report scientific findings, asking ourselves whether our published work can be misconstrued or misrepresented so as to allow a false discourse to emerge that can create a situation that does more harm than good.  I am not suggesting, in any form, that we should self-censor but there may be better ways of disseminating information to allow a more constructive debate.  A lack of transparency can also lead to a rise in misinformation, although we should endeavour to realise that the relationship between opaqueness, conspiracies and power, in the eyes of the public and other stakeholder groups, is a complex one and there are no easy fixes.
  • Following on from this we should aim to provide the public with timely information (see my second point) that adds to the debate, treats the individual or group with respect and takes out of the communication moralising (our prejudice) about their behaviour or activity. This is a multidisciplinary arena which works most effectively when it engages people from different disciplines and stakeholder groups to develop strategies relevant to the target cohort(s).
  • Words (and deeds) matter – choose your words carefully and have consideration for the cultural as well as scientific aspects of the cohorts’ living status.  Using certain words and phrases, however well meaning, can alienate, disenfranchise, further stigmatise and evoke distrust in the individuals or groups we are trying to help.  This applies across a range of illnesses and traumas, but particularly so for those in which there is significant stigma, such as mental health and HIV. In doing so, and where you can, try to make it a two-way dialogue and place the person we are trying to help at the centre of the research – co-create and co-produce – and ensure their contribution is valued.

Those outside science, medicine and research also have responsibilities, especially those that are in positions which require them to uphold given behaviour and adhere to certain protocols or codes of conduct. This is particularly important when using frameworks to build trust between stakeholders in the public at large and the wider concept of ‘truth’.

These are just a few thoughts and are not meant to be definitive answers. But I do hope to stimulate some debate.

Validation and Verification

Collectively, verification and validation are a cornerstone of many areas of research, none more so that in engineering and the physical sciences. Yet many early stage researchers have yet to appreciate their definitions or fully understand the signficance of these activities.  William Morales’, blog provides a brief introduction to Device Design Verification and Validation – useful for those just beginning in their careers in the MedTech arena or indeed anyone who needs a quick refresher.  However, there is still of lot of discussion about the use of the terms particulary between fields as there maybe nuances or historical context that means the defintions deviate – for instance the article at ResearchGate by Ryan and Wheatcroft (2017).  Simple defintions may employ something along the lines of:

  • verification - am I building something right
  • validation - am I building the right something

Software engineering, an increasingly important aspect of medical devices, especially through the rise of in situ/in vivo monitoring, has it owns definitions. Sargent defines the processes by which a researcher can V&V computational simulations whilst Viceconti et al (2021) discuss V&V for in silico trials.

A warm welcome to André Plath, our second ESR to start in BioTrib

BioTrib welcomes André Plath who has started as an Early Stage Researcher at the ETH Zurich within Prof Stephen Ferguson’s Group.  Like Pedro, André is from Brazil.  André will surely be pleased with the performance of his home country in the Olympics where the Brazilian Footbal Team won an exciting game over another soccer ‘Super-Power’ Spain, 2-1.  Whilst at ETH Zurich, André will research Boundary Lubrication of Fibrous Scaffolds as he brings new technologies to the fore for improving joint replacement and/or augmentation.

Excellent paper from the Nu-Spine ETN – Congratulations to Seung and co-authors!

Seung Hun Lee and colleagues at ETH Zurich have recently published a peer reviewed paper “Comprehensive in vitro Comparison of Cellular and Osteogenic Response to Alternative Biomaterials for Spinal Implants” in Materials Science and Engineering: C. The article explored the effects of silicon nitride (SN) in terms of cell proliferation, mineralization and osteogenesis, all of which were deemed positive with respect to the effects of other materials including Ti and PEEK. A similar result to that of SiN was found for zirconia toughened alumina. Further, the paper demonstrates the potential of surface texturing in enhancing the osteogenic capacity of this material. The graphical abstract for the paper can be found below.

CC License – NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
Seunghun S. Lee, Stephanie Huber, Stephen J. Ferguson,
Comprehensive in vitro comparison of cellular and osteogenic response to alternative biomaterials for spinal implants,
Materials Science and Engineering: C, Volume 127, 2021, 112251, ISSN 0928-4931, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msec.2021.112251.

BioTrib’s first ESR – Pedro Lima Dos Santos

A big welcome to Pedro from Campina Grande in Brasil.

Some of you will have met Pedro already through the on-line courses etc we have held previously. Just to let you know that Pedro has now been in the UK for 2 weeks of which 10 days were spent quarantining. Previously he had been working as a researcher in Lisbon, Portugal.  Like England in the UEFA final, Brasil lost 1-0 in the Copas America final vs Argentina over the weekend and on home territory so he is probably in need of some sympathy!

Pedro will be researching surface modifications in additive manufacturing processes to enhance artificial joint performance.

93 percent club

Earlier in the year I reported on a new University Stakeholder Group that was gaining traction within the sector. Unusually this one was centred on those which form the greatest proportion of school leavers, those from state schools.  There is further news on this on the BBC website.  Sophie Pender expertly brings the situation to the fore saying:

“Truthfully, when many state-educated people reach the pinnacle of their careers, they’ve often dispensed with their state-school identity,”

“Our socioeconomic background is not obvious on the surface.

“It’s a characteristic that we are able to mask if we need to – and that needs to stop.”

 Quotes taken from the BBC website – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-57580910, accessed 12th July 2021

I just wonder how may of us now say ‘dinner’ rather than ‘tea’!?

Further information on this not-for-profit social enterprise can be found by following the link  – 93percent.

Paige Kesemeyer – homelessness to academic success!

A truly brilliant piece from Paige Kesemeyer about her journey from disadvantage and initial lack of opportunity to completing her BA degree in Social Policy and an MA in Society, Culture and Media.   Education for all and the opportunities that it provides are a necessary part of imaging a just and beneficial society which allows all to flourish as they see fit. It also provides us (society) with the widest possible pool of talent and encourages a broader range of innovation and ideas to circulate within different sectors.  It also recognises the importance of taking to account all stakeholder views to ensure that minimal disadvantage is impacted on particular groups.

What does a Lecturer/Professor actually do?

It is pretty much a standard joke about what academics do with their time including the perception we have lengthy holidays when the UG students are on vacation.  This view is held in not only amongst the public at large but by our own students, their parents and, rather alarmingly, by policy makers and even former Ministers of Education (I thought there would have been solidarity amongst professions that have a long summer ‘recess’).

Dr Susan Wardell from Social Anthropology at the University of Otaga, NZ, has produced an infographic of the life of an academic and the various tasks we have perform to fulfil our obligations to our stakeholders (see below). There is further info on Dr Wardell’s twitter feed. What is left off the infographic is the number of hours a typical academic works – which in the UK is in excess of that defined by the working time directive – 48 hours (when the UK was a member of the EU it was the only country to have an exemption from this legislation). Prof. Katherine Sang et al (2015) provides a critique of this phenomena. This is not an isolated discussion (just type ‘How many hours a week do academics work’ into a search engine) especially around the reducing focus on research.

An academic’s role within the University environment. Creative Commons License – Copyright, Susan Wardall – Source Twitter: Unlazy Susan.

Surface Modifications of Breast Implants affect Immune Response.

Further evidence of the important effect of engineered surfaces on immune response, this time in breast implants. Such research demonstrates the importance of modifying the surface texture in a manner that reduces the foreign body response. These and other examples pave the way for the development of new technologies for enhancing a favourable response to the implant and reduce complications including, potential, arising from infection and surface contraction.

The authors of the original paper have already provided a classification system for functional biocompatibility with regard to surface roughness (see figure below).


Figure reproduced from: Barr et al, Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, Volume 75, November 2017, Pages 75-81.  Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

10 ingredients for a successful supervisor/PhD student relationship – A thoughtful commentary from Elsevier Connect

The PhD candidate-Supervisor Relationship is probably the cornerstone of academic research, at least in Western Europe. The relationship, which can last anything from 3 to 5 or more years depending on the type and location of the PhD degree, provides a key transition for the student from being a learned individual to one who enhances these attributes and becomes more or less independent in their pursuit of excellence.

Some of the more successful relationships last a lifetime particularly for those candidates that continue a career in academia or a similar domain. Prof Torralba declares 10 key constituents for developing this relationship successfully. How do these attributes/features resonate with your experiences as a supervisor or student?


Data in the EU – Interesting information on demographics and Migration within the World’s Largest Trading Bloc

We are often told that data and the knowledge derived from it drives our economy and our is important for social justice – an evidence based approach but so often we are not provided with the data we need let alone the tools for the average person to access it. A step in the right direction is the data service of the EU – interesting reading was the demography and migration bit of the service… have a read! But not sure if you can get hold of the source data.