PubhD November 2015

The final PubhD of the year brings three more intrepid researchers, all keen to share their research with the public in return for a drink.

First up is Hannah, who is researching mathematics with the aim of making more bacon.

Recently, the media has been full of the news about the Russian athletes ban because of doping offences. In the past we’ve had Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Dwayne Chambers all taking steroids. What if it was possible to work out what it is at a cellular level that is causing all of that muscle growth and apply it to something useful. We need to look at the proteins within the cell and also the mitochondria, the so-called powerhouse of the cell.

We want to come up with a testable model that will predict how the concentration of metabolites (molecules created during metabolism) will change over time. So, if an enzyme changes from one state to another at a particular rate then we can measure this rate by doing a sensitivity analysis. Then if we make a small change to this rate we can see if the system changes. This should tell us how important each enzyme is. Then, using statistical analysis, it’s possible to identify different pathways.

The aim is to work out how to make each cell bigger. Bigger cells mean bigger muscles and in the case of pigs, this means more meat. Global food security is a huge risk and at our current rate of population increase we can’t keep up with meat production.

Key learning: pork is the second most consumed meat on the planet (chickens are first but aren’t very receptive to this kind of growth)

Next up is Anja, who is looking at coins of the Norman conquest.

From the 9th to the 13th century, silver pennies were the only coins issued in England. While it doesn’t sound like it, a penny was a lot of money, they would only have been used to pay for rent or taxes. On the front they featuring a portrait of the ruler, sometimes in profile, sometimes face on. Then, around the edge would be his name and title, while on the back would be a cross to indicate that we were a Christian country. During the reigns of William I and William II, 68 different towns minted coins. The coins were also marked with the name of the town and the moneyer who minted it.

Anja is aiming for a dataset of around 4,500 coins and is only looking at those in the public sphere. What regional variations are there in the coins? Weights, sizes, dies? Were mints and moneyers different? The moneyers are very interesting as they represent an area of continuity. They were not ousted at the time of the Norman conquest and replaced with Normans – we can see this in the fact that the coins still contain Saxon and Scandinavian names.

In general the coins weigh between 0.7g and 1.8g. There are some explanations for this disparity such as the fact that they used a different shaped die in York to mint the coins. However there do seem to be a number of coins that weigh less and are forgeries. We’re these from mints that we’re further out from central control? At the time, the punishment for passing poor coin was to have your right hand chopped off and hung above the door of the mint. By the 14th century there were even written exchange rates at the mints located in ports.

These coins could tell us economic, social and personal stories but they represent biased data. How do we know which coins museums have rejected? How are the coins being used by museums and could they be used more effectively? In many museum displays they are rare or absent altogether.

Key learning: There were 13 different coin designs used during the reigns of the two Williams.

Finally we have Matthew who is looking at using MRI on lungs.

In the western world, lung disease in on the decline. Unfortunately, this isn’t true across the globe. Two million tonnes of asbestos is still being dug out of the ground, mainly in Russia and China. At some time a third of the world’s population has been infected with TB. In 2009, 6 trillion cigarettes were smoked and more are smoked in China than in the rest of the world combined.

We don’t have a very good way of looking at the lungs – x-rays can show shadows but that’s about it. MRI machines work by looking at the hydrogen atoms in water – lungs don’t contain much water. The Magnetic Resonance signal is very weak, this is why a scan takes so long. Only 7 atoms in every million actually contribute to the signal. Water doesn’t magnitude very well – you don’t wake up on the morning pointing north.

So, rather than trying to image the hydrogen in water, could we instead image gases? Using lasers, gas can be polarised. This makes the signal received from them a million times higher than without. On the MRI you can then see spaces where the gas isn’t reaching. However, you only get one shot at this technique and a lot of patients that need to be tested can’t breathe very well so they struggle to inhale the gas in the first place. So, the next stage of research is to look at using fluorines instead.

Finally, Matthew tells us that you need to be careful when going for an MRI. Obviously, you shouldn’t put anything metal into an MRI scanner but this can also include certain dyes. So, don’t go in if you have tattooed eyebrows. You also have to watch out of you’ve had breast augmentation surgery as some breast implants now contain silicon chips.

Key learning: If the room that the scanner was in wasn’t shielded then the radio transmission for an MRI would knock out all of the taxi radios in Nottingham.

Author’s notes

Previously unpublished – first written up in 2017

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