PubhD #20: Chemistry, Mathematical Physics, Biomedicine

23 September 15 words: Gav Squires
Can three researchers explain their research to pub goers in just 10 minutes with only a whiteboard to help?

Carry on reading to find out what these are

- Photo by Gav Squires

Opening proceedings is Mattia Colombo. He is investigating black holes and gravity.

2015 is the 100th anniversary of Einstein publishing his theory of General Relativity. It's also the 100th anniversary of Karl Schwarzchild developing his black hole solution (although this wasn't actually published until 1916). While General Relativity works really well, it does have a few problems such as dark matter.

It also doesn't work very well at very high energy levels. Here, quantum mechanics and quantum field theory work much better. General Relativity also doesn't work well with other theories, which is why it has been so difficult to come up with a "unified theory of everything".

Can we find something that is similar to General Relativity but that works better for higher energies? Would black holes exist in this theory? Would they work?

In the new theory that Mattia is researching, the speed of light is no longer the speed limit of the universe. In fact you could have particles that travel at infinite speed. This theory implies that you could escape a black hole. But since a black hole can trap everything, do they still exist?

There are still black hole solutions in this theory and they have something like the event horizon that will still trap you no matter how fast you travel - even if you reach infinite speed. This theory ignores Lorentz symmetry in General Relativity.

The reason that Mattia is focussing on studying black holes is because they have high gravity and high energy. Long term, the hope is that there will eventually be a quantum theory of gravity. This would kill off all other gravitational theories such as string theory.

Key learning - The idea of black holes was first created by a French astronomer in the 1860s

Next up is Johanna Barry, researching medical measurement.

How many times have we put our symptoms into the internet and come up with a horrible diagnosis? But how do doctors tell the difference between similar symptoms? For example, auditory processing disorder, where something has gone wrong neurologically, has a primary symptom of problems of listening and noise. However, sufferers can also have problems with short term memory and concentrating. The issue here is that these are similar problems to those faced by people who are dyslexic or have language learning disorder.

There is no "gold standard" test to show which is which. So, as a parent, you could end up taking your children to a different specialist because the presenting symptoms are different. If we have the right measure, can we tell the difference between these issues?

We fit the data to a model and then analyse how well it actually fits that model. From there we can create profiles on a radial graph. If the measures are well defined enough then you can classify the issues much better eg. the graph can tell us whether someone has a little problem with memory or a lot or a little problem with language or a lot.

Dyslexia is often seen as a "middle class" problem. However, it could just be middle class families are more sensitive to their children not performing so well at school. These developmental disorders also change with time and this is why there are so many overlaps. For example, reading tests on young children are especially insensitive in terms of what condition they can identify. While the tests may be subjective, a big problem is that the analysis of the results might not be. There may also be parental bias and this may lead to children being pushed towards the wrong kind of treatment.

In the 1970’s a paper in Nature linked auditory problems to other conditions. This led to the Fast ForWord program being developed in the USA. These days, attention problems seem to be the bête noir, linked with everything else.

Key leaning - There are no diagnostic tools for auditory processing disorder in Nottingham.

Closing matters is Mike Taylor, who is researching stem cells.

Regenerative medicine sidesteps the traditional ways of treating damage to the body. For example, after a heart attack, there is significant damage to the heart. Conventional drugs treat the damage and hopefully slow the progression of that damage. However, regenerative medicine can actually repair the damage.

To make this work, a stem cell is extracted from the patient or from an embryo. This goes onto a petri dish and growth factors, which are proteins, are added to develop the stem cell into the type of cell that we require, for example a heart cell. Unfortunately, these proteins cost £2,000 per milligram.

Instead, Mike is looking at hydrogels. These are long chain polymers which are essentially liquid, in fact they are 98% water. They allow passive diffusion and so they are a great material for growing cells in. More importantly they are highly modifiable which means that they can grow the different cells required and they should prove cheaper than the proteins.

The idea is to eventually create a bank of hydrogel chemistries that develop specific cells. To test these various chemistries, an element is fired at the hydrogel. It breaks into pieces and the time of flight of these pieces is analysed. They are looking to see if the fragment on the surface is also prevalent deeper down.

The reason that stem cells have to be nurtured outside of the body is because there is a risk of just injecting them straight in. They could develop into the wrong thing so you could get non-heart cells in your heart or they could grow uncontrollably, which would lead to cancer.

Key learning - Hydrogels are the same things that you can buy from a garden centre to put plants in (check out the picture above).

PubhD #20 took place at the Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 16 September 2015.

PubhD #21: Chemistry, History, Mathematics will take place at the Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 21 October 2015. Facebook event.

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