Inside Track | Faculty of Biological Sciences going Further Together

In this Inside Track, Professor Karen Birch, Executive Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, pays tribute to our technicians and facility staff in helping drive our research Further Together.

Inside Track | Faculty of Biological Sciences going Further Together. July 2022

Do you ever find yourself thinking how some very talented people in our University community continue to make a very real impact? I do. The Faculty of Biological Sciences (FBS), where I work, is filled with staff and students who are passionate about the study of life in all its varied scales: from single molecules, through cells, tissues, organs and organisms, to whole populations and entire landscapes. 

We explore how our diversity of animals, fauna and flora are impacted by our changing world. We use technology to closely observe the impact of changing climate patterns on agriculture and future food types. We watch molecules and cells interacting with each other, in both healthy and diseased biological samples, to improve interventions and treatments for disease. And we develop precision-type approaches to healthy ageing and rehabilitation using exercise and medical technologies. It’s a faculty awash with the excitement of viewing how resilient biological life can be!

As we think of our future through this lens, I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw stating: “Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.” The continuous unearthing of new questions and new technologies in FBS relies entirely on collaboration, and it’s the coming together of academic pursuit and our University technical/facility staff to tackle the next 10 problems that I find so inspirational.

Enthusiasm and dynamism

During the next six months, our new campaign – Further Together – will showcase the achievements of many of those involved in delivering our transformational, fundamental and challenge-led research.  

As an example, one key problem in the laboratories has been how to tackle environmental sustainability, especially around waste management, recycling and the purchasing of equipment. Think pipettes, stirrers, petri dishes and containers! Staff in our technical and facility teams, cheered on and ably supported by postgraduate researchers, set about making plans in some of our research facilities to reduce waste from our experiments. By working together, teams have now been able to:

  • decrease plastic use by 4,000 items per year by moving to glassware
  • source recyclable, reusable plastic bottles simply by changing suppliers, when before they would become waste; and
  • secure a 30% energy saving by changing the temperature of freezers for storing biological samples and better management of equipment.

The enthusiasm and dynamism of those involved has seeped out across other labs, and has been rightly rewarded with a bronze and the University’s first silver LEAF (Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework) Awards. Just imagine the impact we can have together across the whole University!

Spirit of collaboration

This spirit of collaboration is also seen in our work with crops and how they struggle with stresses, such as drought and temperature. Three research groups across two schools in the faculty found themselves able to explore this struggle and push it further by coming together. The plant scientists discovered tiny genes hiding within much larger genes within plants. It appears these hiding genes have been around for millions of years and their job is to enable the larger genes to pass on their instructions only in times of environmental stress. 

Next problem: How to explore how they do this? Colleagues from molecular and cell biology already study the internal cell machinery, where the genes do their work, whilst our facilities staff operate, maintain and intricately understand the powerful microscopes enabling us to see how molecules of this size fit together. 

By coming together, the group is hoping to fully understand how the genes do their work under drought conditions, which we hope will help us to develop more resilient crops in the future. A breakthrough so critical to supporting life is faster and more significant when we share ideas and build questions together.

Passionate interest

From molecules to plants to humans! Our sport and exercise scientists are exploring the impact of transcutaneous electrical stimulation therapy applied to the spinal cord in patients with spinal cord injury. One excellent measure used to see if function is improved following therapy is grip strength. However, there’s a problem in that classic grip strength devices merely assess the force produced by someone’s grip, and the team needed a measure with more meaning. Something to assess the force produced during activities of daily living, such as picking up a glass. Working with the technical team brought about the design of a device that recorded functional grip force. Without this finesse, maybe we might miss the biological impact for these patients.

Imperatively, going further together in our research has only been enabled by sharing passionate interest, scientific curiosity and technical knowhow across teams of academics and technical/facility staff. For me, this is what we do so well and why I would like to pay tribute to all our technicians and facility staff in the University. 

Posted in: