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Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

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Getting layed

On a past blog post I came across the most wonderful comment from Kelly, one of our readers:

Lay people are far smarter than it is supposed, they are also fickle and quick to get bored or offended if talked down to

This got me thinking about the last time I spoke to an expert in another field about their research, about the last time I got “layed”, if you’ll excuse the awful pun. I also hope you’ll excuse an excursion into biochemistry for one post.

Alex and Kia, relaxing in the sun

Alex and Kia, relaxing in the sun

I was in Manchester for the weekend, spending the evening with Alex and Kia, a couple of friends from undergraduate and we had a lot of catching up to do! They’re both biochemistry graduate students and they work in the same lab, although in different areas. We stayed up all night over tea and biscuits (how British), discussing our research, using analogies, looking at diagrams, and coming up with all sorts of thought experiments to try to understand what was happening. They had a lot of questions about how the detector works, how we reconstruct particles (including the Higgs!) and why it takes so long to find it.

Having a discussion about something technical with an expert is not only lots of fun, but it also tells you a lot about your own skills when it comes to explaining concepts. As Kelly mentioned in her comment, there’s a temptation to talk down to people, but I find it’s more rewarding for all involved if we match our discussion to the intelligence of the audience. I’d like to think that most people who read Quantum Diaries and US LHC Blogs are here because they’re intelligent, they’re not scared of nuance, they want to read more than what a press release will tell them, and they may even be a scientist too. Once we find the right level of discussion for a given audience things get much more rewarding!

From the outside biochemistry is such a wonderful field of research. Their work is instantly relevant to the fight against disease and cancer, the field is expanding so rapidly that what students learn one year may be out of date a couple of years later, and there’s no end to the range of different topics you can research. It’s about as fast paced as you can get! It must have its frustrations, like any area of research, but being a layperson I got a chance to appreciate the concepts without the hard work, and that made it sound amazing.

The watered down version of what they told me went something like this:

HIV and T cells

What HIV looks like (Telegraph)

What HIV looks like (Telegraph)

The HIV virus is extremely dangerous for one reason- it infects the white blood cells (T cells) that fight disease in the body. This in itself isn’t a huge problem, but when a person with HIV have some infection then things become very serious. It’s not so much that the white blood cells don’t function anymore, it’s more that they use so many of their resources building more copies of the virus. The virus attaches itself via a protein, and a small percentage of the population have a different form of the protein, which has a different shape. In principle, if a person could get a complete blood transfusion then they could be given the white blood cells with the other protein and may become immune to HIV. An easier way to do this would be to have a bone marrow transplant from another person, as the bone marrow creates the white blood cells. Naturally there are dangers associated with any procedure like this, so it’s not something to be taken lightly. Still, in the course of an hour or so my friends gave me a wonderful insight into how HIV works and some of the discoveries in the fight against the disease.

Genetic diseases

While on the topic of diseases with risky treatments we also discussed a family of genetic diseases (known as mucopolysaccharide diseases, a name I could not remember) which cause premature aging or degradation of the body. The diseases are associated with the failure of the body to break down certain sugars, so the cells get clogged up, do not function as well and then part of the body ages. The exact type of disease manifests in different ways, and sometimes they can only be identified once the disease has progressed. So I asked why children aren’t just screened for this at birth, as they are for many other diseases. It turns out that the cost of the test isn’t low enough and rate of incidence of the disease isn’t high enough for that to become a realistic option yet. Putting groundbreaking, life saving research in that kind of context is rather chilling. I’m glad physicists don’t have to deal with those kinds of choices!

Kia was kind enough to link to one of the charities, so I could find out more about the disease and how it affects us: The MPS Society.

The immune system

But we weren’t done yet! We also talked about the immune system and cancer. Having heard so much about T cells, I was curious about where they came from and why they only attacked foreign objects in the body. It turns out that T cells spend much of their time in the thymus where they are trained to learn what cells in the body look like. When the T cells are produced there is some shuffling of genes and each T cell ends up a little different. If a T cell latches onto part of the thymus it gets destroyed and isn’t allowed into the rest of the body. Otherwise the T cell is let out into the bloodstream. If it finds a cell it “thinks” is attractive, it latches on and releases chemicals into the blood stream. Other T cells respond to the chemical gradient and they too latch on. After a short while the foreign body is overwhelmed and dies.

A red blood cell, a platelet and a T-cell, side by side (Wikipedia)

A red blood cell, a platelet and a T-cell, side by side (Wikipedia)

Well that’s how it works in principle, and there are many ways in which it can go wrong. Some viruses are adept at mutating so that their appearance changes. (On the subject of mutations, my friends also treated me to a discussion of “frame shifts” and how you can get two proteins from one gene!) If one of these viruses gets identified and overwhelmed, one copy may mutate into another form, and the T cells are back to square one again. Another “nightmare scenario” is when a cancerous growth releases a different kind of chemical which essentially says “All fine over here! Carry on!” to the T cells. If that happens then things can go quite seriously wrong quite quickly. If all that wasn’t complicated enough, T cells can also get “confused” and latch on cells from their host body, giving rise to auto immune diseases. The immune system is so amazingly intricate that you could easily spend a whole evening just scratching the surface of the subject. At the same time it also seems immensely fragile and wonderfully robust. Although the apparatus for making an immune system is inherited, the good work it does fighting disease isn’t. If those ideas doesn’t blow your mind then I don’t know what will!

The PhD problem

To round off the evening we also discussed how our PhDs had progressed. Biochemistry seems less forgiving than physics, and they told me that between them and two other mutual friends, two of them had to find new topics, new funding and new institutions. Sometimes, when a research idea doesn’t work out and the funding disappears, even if it’s through no fault of the student, the student has no choice but to start again. I faced a similar situation with my own PhD, as funding for the experiment was cut short and I suddenly found myself with 18 months left, no research topic and no service task. My colleagues rallied round, asked questions, contacted people and helped me find a new topic and a new service task on the same experiment. I finished about 9 months later than expected (but still within four years!) with a decent thesis and some glowing letters of recommendation. Once again, I was glad to be in the cozy realm of physics! It’s differences like these that aren’t at all obvious, and make us realize just how much we have to learn from each other. (My friends were also amazed to find I had about a hundred papers with my name on!)

PhDs are elastic... (PhD Comics)

PhDs are elastic... (PhD Comics)

When did you last get layed?

So for a few hours I was a layperson with two experts at my disposal, and it was one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve had in a long time. So to the lay people reading this blog, if you don’t find the term “layperson” pejorative, it would be great to hear about your experiences. What discussions particularly excited you? How you deal with being patronized or, perhaps worse, overwhelmed with ideas? Or for that matter, if you’re an expert in another area, what are your experiences telling other people about your work? In short, tell us happened last time you got “layed”.

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