Are you always thirsty? Has your appetite increased, or do you urinate more often than you used to? Do you feel tired even when you are well rested? If you answer yes to these questions, there’s a chance that an important hormone called insulin is not working properly. Insulin helps our body to control the amount of sugar (glucose) in our bloodstream. If your body starts to release too little insulin, or stops responding to the insulin that is released, glucose levels can reach higher levels. When this happens, you can be diagnosed with the disease diabetes, which can have serious health consequences if left untreated.
Insulin reaches our organs after it is released into the bloodstream by the pancreas, a small organ near the liver. Scientists have tools to calculate insulin action in different organs, such as the liver, muscles and fat storing tissues as well as the whole body. Thanks to advancements in human genome sequencing technology, we now know that insulin action is linked to our genetics (DNA), which is inherited from our parents, and which we pass on to our children. DNA linked with disease passes on to generations by this way and our goal is to identify that regions of DNA that are linked with type 2 diabetes.
At CBMR, we carry out basic research into the biological systems behind the causes and outcomes of diabetes, which might help us to develop better treatments for the disease. I joined CBMR in August 2019 and work on a project that examines how different organs react to insulin, to what extent their response is inherited, and how organ- specific insulin action is related to other diseases such as heart and blood pressure problems.
What we have yet to learn is if there are some specific regions of our genome that are linked to organ-specific insulin action. We also don’t know if those organ-specific genetic regions are hereditary and if so which of these genetic regions are actually involved in reducing the effectiveness of insulin.
Answering these questions is the aim of an exciting new project I am working on, which combines blood glucose and insulin readings, effectiveness of insulin action in different organs, together with organ-specific genetic data from all those sample and state of the art computational technologies. At CBMR we have all the resources we need, including several group of samples from families and general population. The research will help us to create an organ-based risk score for individuals at risk of developing insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. After the successful completion of the project, this risk score could be used by physician to guide individuals for better management and prevention strategies and to predict other diseases that are linked with type 2 diabetes The risk score can also tell us how the other diseases contribute to the development of diabetes. Drug development agencies might also be interested, as the research could provide new drug targets and open window for precision medicine.
The lockdown has brought many challenges but one of its unexpected benefits has been the growth of digital conferences, lectures and events that allow us to tune in no matter where we are in the world. My favorite science comedy night in London, Science Showoff, even moved itself to the virtual world, and last week I took the opportunity to present my own comedy ‘set’ about my work with circadian scientists at CBMR.
Science Showoff, Copenhagen’s Science and Cocktails and many other science-comedy events, podcasts and youtube channels are thriving in our virtual ‘new normal’, so I thought I would reflect a bit further on humor and what it brings to science communication.
Learning and laughing Studies have shown that humor can be an effective tool in science communication (Riesch 2015; Pinto and Riesch 2017). In a study published just this month in Public Understanding of Science, researchers examined this trend for science comedy by studying whether test subjects perceived science comedy as ‘an appropriate source of information about science’, and indeed whether they felt the scientists themselves were credible sources of information (Yeo et al. 2020). They found that people did think that comedy was a valid source of scientific information, but how much they trusted the information was mediated by how ‘expert’ they perceived the ‘comedian’ to be.
With that in mind, I feel I have to start by saying I’m not an expert in making science funny. But I have watched a good amount of science comedy and I’ve tried my hand at it a few times. So, I thought I would tell you what I’ve learned so far about laughing at (with?) science.
Know your audience I anticipate it’s mostly CBMR scientists who are reading this blog so I’ve started it off with some peer-reviewed studies. You are welcome. But seriously, if you are doing science comedy or any kind of science communication, it should look different if you are talking to a group of school children, or a bar full of slightly inebriated 20-somethings, or indeed, your colleagues at a conference. I would not even know where to begin with comedy for an audience full of scientists – but this is probably something you already know how to do. It’s all about in-jokes and making fun of the technical absurdity of your field. Acronym based jokes for example – everyone loves them.
I’ve only really done science comedy for a ‘general public’ audience, even though – let’s be honest –that is a uselessly vague term. If you are doing a set at a night like Science Showoff or Science and Cocktails then the audience is pretty self-selecting – it is mostly composed of people in there 20s and 30s who have a pre-existing interest in science. This is a great starting point because they are already primed to laugh at (with) you – and the fact that they probably think of themselves as ‘science nerds’ is a good foundation for some identification with your audience. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any prior knowledge about your particular subject area. So the next step is – what are you going to talk about?
Offer a fresh perspective In my experience, this question is often what keeps people from wanting to try science comedy. How do I pick an appropriate subject or topic? It is true that it is pretty difficult to make jokes about the specific, technical nature of your experiments given the immense amount of prior knowledge people would need to understand it. But, at the same time, there’s no point in talking about a subject so general that anyone could be doing your set (because that’s just a waste of your expertise).
The best comedy sets are often those where someone has been able to identify a smaller aspect of their work and then look at it from an unusual angle – hopefully one that is at least a little bit relatable to non-science people. A particularly crude (but still hilarious) example was a set I saw recently with a gastroenterologist who did eight minutes on the weird anuses of nature. People loved it.
I tend to do comedy sets about what I call ‘weird science’, which you could think of as just observational comedy about science. Or maybe just unusual stories told well. Science is full of strange or unexpected stories – of experiments gone wrong, of new discoveries, of bizarre coincidences, crossed-wires, misunderstandings, and inter-personal problems. Unravelling these stories isn’t exactly joke-telling but it can still be funny and informative.
For example, at my recent Science Showoff set I decided to talk about the early cave experiments by circadian rhythm researchers. I don’t have to work very hard to explain why a scientist and his erstwhile grad student trapped in a cave for 30 days is funny. The audience seemed to respond particularly well to this photo, below, of physiologist Rütger Wever and one of his (grad student) participants in the Andechs Bunker experiments. It is often this human side of science, the stories of everyday people behind the science, that people respond well to.
Be yourself! As a final thought, I would say that when doing science comedy lean in to your own sense of humor. Do you find the set you’ve written funny? Some people like telling jokes with punch lines, some people like puns, and some people like making silly PowerPoint slides. Everyone’s idea of comedy is different and attendees at a science comedy night are first and foremost interested in you – who you are, what your science is, why you do it and why you enjoy it. It would be so boring if there was just one way to make science funny – so all you can do is find what works for you and most importantly, just give it a try!
Sometimes being a researcher – or a student aiming to be one – is a lot like being Alice in Wonderland. The book is often read as a critique of Victorian era nonsensicality, but because of its fantastical setting and myriad of characters, it can be interpreted in a thousand ways. It’s about an escape from boring reality, which is sometimes the same in science.
Of course, science is all about quantifying reality. But it is true that the whole procedure can be so time-consuming that we often end up entering in the rabbit hole of our very specific field, which can be very difficult to dig our way out of.
Over the past few months, I have been working with Mendelian Randomization, specifically Two-Sample Mendelian Randomization. This method allows us to “find” causality between traits simply using summary statistics from genome-wide association studies (GWAS). GWAS summary statistics contain information on the association between traits, or diseases, and changes to individual letters in our genetic code (SNPs). With that information taken from individual data, two-Sample MR tests can be done in five minutes, without the necessity of genotypes, which means that everyone is running MR tests and publishing them like crazy before the fad fades out.
But understanding that your data is not violating some very delicate assumptions, or how the many models work to control for pleiotropy and heterogeneity…, oh boy, that is another matter entirely. I have entered the rabbit hole of MR and I haven’t quite got out of it.
Of course, this brings frustration, since focusing too much on the parts does not let you see the whole. This especially rings true in corona times. I work every day from my room, which is where I mostly rest afterwards and the parallel between working on a niche field and living in a niche magnifies the frustration.
While Zoom/Teams/Skype meetings are doing their best to fill the gap of previous meetings and help us to keep up with the work of your group or the center, the feeling is, unfortunately, not the same. For a week, I thought I worked at the Center for Mendelian Randomization – I forgot what metabolism even was.
I don’t want to end with a sour note, because we are already surrounded by them in the news. While things are slowly going back to normal, I too have managed to both adapt to the new normality and wait in hope for the old one. To avoid the tedium I have rearranged my room’s furniture so the bed and sofa are far from the desk. That way I physically divide my work and rest areas. I also spend more time reading papers and going to whatever meeting I can to keep up with what is going on – beside outlier extraction with the least cherry-picking possible.
It is not easy to find the balance between rest and work, between the parts and the whole, but by going through these times we might become the best generation of scientist at doing so!
Many of us find ourselves with the opportunity to learn a new skill while we are working from home. Bioinformatics is central to much of the research at CBMR, and is a specialist skill that takes many years of training and experience – so much so that many lab scientists don’t get the chance to train in bioinformatics (and vice versa).
Leonidas Lundell and Lars Ingerslev, who are both bioinformaticians in the Barrès Group, decided to share their programming expertise and teach the basics of programming in R (a popular and useful programming platform) with three other members of the group. Unusually, they have a background as bench scientists, and so understand how challenging it can be when starting out.
They thought it would be a good idea to teach researchers to solve some common problems they face when processing their data – to take some of the workload off the bioinformaticians! For example, they taught the basics of plotting so that researchers can modify figures themselves and the basics of processing microarray data. Of course, the main goal was to pass on programming skills to researchers who might otherwise not have the chance to learn them.
Ann Normann Hansen, who participated in the course, says: “We are learning things that are potentially very relevant for molecular biologists to use, such as visualizing data in different ways, sub-setting and converting data into different formats, and creating nice and consistent looking plots. Seen from a group-perspective it is also a win-win (hopefully!), as teaching us non-bioinformaticians some basic R programming skills could help relieve some of the very common tasks for the bioinformaticians. As we all know, they are very popular and busy guys!”
Learning to program in R on Microsoft Teams
During the course, Leo was surprised that the virtual format actually had a key strength over traditional classroom teaching. People can individually share their screens if they have a problem, and the other students get to follow the problem-solving process. This is in contrast with traditional classroom-settings, where individual troubleshooting is rarely shared amongst the class.
Ann echoed this advantage: “A good thing about learning to code ‘virtually’ is that we are a small group of people, which makes it a lot easier to ask questions. I wouldn’t have necessarily had this opportunity if I was sitting in a big class with lots of people, and it also feels more comfortable. The small-format ‘meetings’ also allow us to easily share our screens and codes with each other, for example when Leo and Lars are going over new topics, when we discuss specific exercises, or if we are stuck on a question. Also, by learning to code this way, we have a good opportunity for seeing and discussing different ways of solving the same question.”
As well as this initiative from the Barrès group, there are lots of ways researchers can learn new things during the lockdown. There are a number of online seminar series, for example @EcoEvoSeminars, whichare open to researchers from all disciplines, giving people the chance to step out of their comfort zone and hear from experts. Leo also suggests ‘The Science of Well Being’ course, hosted by Yale University – if you fancy something a little different! Ann sums up how the lockdown has impacted her thinking: “Looking at all of this in a positive way: instead of being busy with many of the weekly tasks we would normally do if we were in the lab, we have more time and opportunity to learn new things – both individually and together, such as having our little R course”.
On Monday, some CBMR staff returned to their laboratories for the first time since the University of Copenhagen closed its doors six weeks ago. But it’s not a return to normal – far from it. The government has allowed for a controlled and limited reopening, which have required new comprehensive health and safety guidelines limit the number of staff on each floor, and which also require them to follow strict social distancing measures.
Still, staff are happy to continue their science, even in a limited capacity, reports Laboratory Manager Fie Hillesø. She is one of a few staff members who has been allowed into CBMR’s facilities in the Maersk Tower over the past six weeks, in order to carry out critical maintenance and upkeep.
What has been keeping you busy these past few weeks?
There’s lots to do while the tower has been asleep! I’ve carried out maintenance on equipment, which has had to be put on standby. Then there are packages that need to sorted and stored as some are temperature sensitive.
What’s it like to go to work in an empty tower, which is normally buzzing?
It’s very odd to be in here because there are a lot of coffee cups and things like that standing out, which makes you realise that people must have left quite quickly. We’ve been away much longer than we thought. So I’ve had to clean up a bit and throw out the garbage to make sure it doesn’t smell.
How have the new guidelines taken shape?
They have been underway for a couple of weeks. We have measured all of the laboratories to determine how many staff can be in them at one time, while maintaining a safe distance. Group Leaders have also had to prioritise their research and decide which staff can come in and when. And a lot of work has gone into implementing new disinfection and cleaning procedures – there is disinfectant and ethanol wipes everywhere!
I understand that you’ve been sharing the lab upkeep responsibilities with some colleagues, and worked from home the other days. What’s home life like at the moment.
I have two kids at home that need to be home schooled, which is a lot. The younger one got to go back to school this week, but the older one is still at home. It’s been nice to eat breakfast together and not have to deal with the stress of the pick up. But the first week I definitely felt a bit guilty because it was hard to both work and help the little one with their homework! Then we developed a routine to divide up the time and we got adjusted.
The first staff returned this Monday, what was that like?
People were so happy! There aren’t that many, only six per floor so it’s not full of life still, but people are very happy to be back and can start up slowly. My main job now is to organise the shift plan so that people know when they are allowed to be here. People send me their wishes and I try to give them slots that they can use – if they need to be in for a specific number of days in a row or if they are more flexible. We put it into an online booking system so that everyone can keep track.
How do you enforce social distancing rules in the laboratories?
Well the labs are different sizes so we have had to make rules for how many people can be in each room at one time. But people are very good at keeping a safe distancing and waiting for each other to leave the smaller rooms. Its been a lot like supermarkets, where we have gotten used to giving each other a lot of space. Really people have just been very flexible and kind and excited to be back!
The nationwide shutdown in Denmark due to the coronavirus outbreak was not entirely unexpected, observing other European countries’ trajectory of mounting infected cases and deaths. The first few days was unbearable, with the overwhelming amount of news on the media brewing into fear and anxiety in isolation. The unflinching reality of the spread confronted me to make a decision to either live drastically different or perish with fear. After a few days of struggles, I started to build structure into my life at home, and gradually, life has grown to be more spacious. I can breathe again.
I believe this is the critical moment that we, as a society, have to start cultivating a love that is considerate, informed, and objective. The first is self-love, which is taking care of our mental and physical well-being while being connected to the world and our loved ones. A love for our friends and colleagues in the community where we are, by keeping social distancing, while in support of each other. Respect for our frontline medical professionals who risk their lives to keep us safe, by heeding their urgent pleads for safety practices during this outbreak.
With this in mind, I implemented a routine balanced with different elements in life for myself and with others that motivates me and keeps me focused. I hope you could find parts of it that is relevant. Here it is:
In the morning, I wake up to ‘Morgensang med Phillip Faber’, a live singalong program hosted by Phillip Faber, the chief conductor of the DR Koncerthuset Girls’ Choir. It usually starts with a warmup, followed by a singalong of 2 well-known Danish songs. Adding a meditation session, I start my day feeling fresh and positive.
After morning work hours, I find myself spending more time preparing nutritionally-balanced meals. I also schedule brisk walks to Fælledparken after lunch, while practicing social distancing. Having refreshed myself, I come home and play some piano before starting my afternoon work session.
After dinner, I finally turn on the news to keep myself informed of the current situation, but set a time limit. Normally it is followed by video chats with family and friends. For evening entertainment, to my delight, I found virtual tours of many world-renowned museums offered by Google Arts and Culture project, and also many concert pieces recorded and offered by DR Koncerthuset. A slow down before heading to bed is a 20 mins yoga session to get a good night’s sleep, until the next morning, when I have to brave the world again.
I believe we can all practice the love for ourselves through such self-care routine, the love for each other by staying apart while connected, and the respect for our medical workers for their sacrifice by honoring their advice. Please continue to share your lives through social channels and platforms, and keep our community healthy and safe.
Cells have been frozen, flights have been canceled, data quickly stored on shared drives, and lab meetings have become virtual. With the lockdown set to continue for another two weeks, here’s how CBMR’s Barrès Group has been coping with our new reality.
The lockdown is forcing us, and many others, to be creative how we communicate and support each other as scientists. Social media and virtual platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype – so often seen as secondary to ‘being there in person’ – are proving their value and providing crucial human contact and inspiration in this unprecedented situation.
We still hold a lab meeting once a week, only we now use Microsoft Teams, which allows us to meet virtually with video, chat, share screens and present Powerpoint presentations. Other than a few teething problems, we are so far finding the platform to be quite effective, particularly the instant chat and creation of ‘channels’ for distinct projects.
My role as Research Coordinator has actually not changed a huge amount despite working from home, as I spend a lot of my time communicating with our collaborators is Sydney and Chicago via email and Skype. Keeping in touch with them has also given me an insight into their experiences of how the US and Australia are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one of the resources that I have found particularly useful in this transition is the infographic below by Dr. Zoe Ayres, which shows different ways in which we can use this time at home and help maintain focus.
For me, connecting with colleagues and letting go of guilt are two of the most important tips I try to remember. Chatting on Teams and making sure I take time to have a coffee, do a home workout, or listen to a podcast has helped me stay sane and happy over the past few weeks. There has been a huge focus on maintaining productivity – but you can’t be productive if you don’t have a positive outlook.
Many of the PhD students in our group have adopted some of these strategies, most notably the importance of sticking to a schedule. It has been no great surprise to hear that they have struggled to maintain focus while working at home – I can definitely relate to that! This is especially true for those members of the lab who have children and other family members to care for.
PhD student Eleonora Manita shares her experiences:
“Sitting in front of the computer all day is not easy. Going into the lab kind of gives you a routine and also a break, since it’s more manual. Doing experiments takes time and attention but some parts of it are also very automatic. So I would say that the biggest challenge has been being focused. Also, because of the situation we are facing, it is easy to get distracted by the news, which makes the whole experience a bit different than just a week where you work from home. I’ve been trying to keep a normal schedule as if I were at work, working and taking breaks when I usually do, but there is space for improvement!”
But for some, at least, the lockdown has created an unexpected silver lining – PhD student Emil Andersen is finally getting a chance to write his thesis!
CBMR PhDs and postdocs reflect on the impact of Denmark’s social distancing measures, and what it means for their work, family and social lives
Danes were given little warning before the prime minister introduced stark social distancing measures on March 11 – measures that are now expected to last through until the middle of April.
Immediately after, the University of Copenhagen closed and staff sent to work from home. This includes CBMR researchers, who now have to try and get on with their work without their lab equipment and close contact with their colleagues.
I asked the Center’s PhDs and postdocs to share their experiences and received a range of different responses. The first is postdoc Morten Dall (above) from the Treebak Group.
It’s normally hard enough to balance family life and science, but that feeling has intensified during this situation.
“To be perfectly honest, I struggle with feelings of guilt throughout this situation. We are expected to work full time, but when you have children you have to divide the time between work and them. My wife is a high school teacher and is expected to run remote classes, meaning that we have to divide working time between us. I don’t want my daughter to watch TV all day, so I have to make an effort in activating her somehow. But that takes time away from work. I can’t even imagine how much effort this must be for our colleagues who have to home school on top of their normal work load.”
“There’s so much I’d like to do, participate in the Metabolism in Isolation seminars, learn to code R, catch up on reading. It helps to read Twitter, because I can see a lot of others are in similar situations, but Twitter can also be less helpful as it can make you feel like you are under-performing. It’s just so hard to find the time. It’s normally hard enough to balance family life and science, but that feeling has intensified during this situation.
“I’m lucky I have a basement where I can work in peace, meaning I can be somewhat productive when I can work. However, it’s a rather weird contrast to go back and forth between science, and being cast as the big sister when my daughter wants to play house. It’s feels a bit like groundhog day, and it’s really strange that we do not know how long this will go on for.”
Postdoc Nathalie Krauth from the Clemmensen Group is also trying to find ways to use the time productively.
Working in a goal-oriented manner is way better than just floating around.
“It took me some time to get used to the home office but I am now starting to develop a routine. What helped me was to actually ‘get dressed for work’ and make a designated home office area in the apartment.
“I also made a list of all the things I wanted to achieve and learn. Working in a goal-oriented manner is way better than just floating around. For me the time has been most productive working towards getting better at coding and reading literature in an organized manner while collecting info from articles in different categories of word documents with all the highlights and most important figures.”
Given the international travel ban, our international postdocs and PhD students face a long period of uncertainty away from their friends and family. This is the case for PhD student Hermina Jakupovic.
“There are many good things happening, with people coming together to help at-risk groups, sing together, organise free online yoga classes or providing free e-book platforms – there’s lots of positive news from around the globe!”
“This situation makes me frustrated because there are still people who do not take this seriously enough. And I also have no idea when I will be able to see my family, boyfriend and close friends who all live in other countries.
“Thankfully we can socialize over Skype, Instagram or Facebook. I know people are watching Netflix together over a distance and playing online board games with their friends from different apartments. There are other benefit, lots of time to read and learn new skills. There are many good things happening, with people coming together to help at-risk groups, sing together, organise free online yoga classes or providing free e-book platforms – there’s lots of positive news from around the globe!”
The message from the public health authorities is clear: stay home unless you absolutely have to. So how do you remain sociable and in touch with your friends and colleagues? Postdoc Helene Bæk Juul from the Hansen Group shares some ideas.
“I started a daily ‘socialising’ email for the 8th floor. Each day there is a new question or category that people can nominate colleagues for. Previous categories have been ‘most likely to work in PJs’ and ‘most similarity to a mermaid/merman’. It’s a little silly, so I started with the colleagues I already know well, but now there are more than 30 people on the list and many reply daily that they enjoy the socializing and procrastination.
“As a tip, I think many people are unaware of how easy it is to set up meetings in Outlook using Skype for Business. For example, only the meeting organizer needs to have Skype for business, everyone else can join through the web app or by phone, so it also works with collaborators outside of UCPH. Just choose ‘New Skype meeting’ when creating the meeting in Outlook calendar, which creates a unique link to your call and also a unique conference code for participants calling in by phone.”