Monthly Archives: October 2014

A new art exhibition in Canterbury organized by two University academics put the spotlight on the hidden side of science – and revealed the role of a ‘lucky rabbit’ as an unlikely source of inspiration in one laboratory.Entitled “Chain Reaction!”, the exhibition marked the 30th anniversary of the development for laboratory use of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) procedure. PCR multiplies fragments of DNA, and has ensured advances in genetic science such as forensic analysis and diagnostic tests in IVF embryos and prenatal samples. Charlotte Sleigh and Dr Dan Lloyd worked together to organize the exhibition that ran from 22 November-21 December 2013 at the city’s Sidney Cooper Gallery. A pervading theme of the exhibition, through the work of six artists, was that science through the ages should not be seen as big breakthrough moments, but rather as a series of unsung processes.

Charlotte said: “Science is not all about fancy ideas or extraordinary outcomes. Simple and basic graft is the biggest part of it. This is a show not about the products, but about the processes of science and the people involved.”

“Sometimes PCR simply doesn’t work and the scientists themselves don’t know why. Dealing with this can introduce an element of irrational ritual into what they do; I know of one laboratory where the scientists ‘believe’ that each time they see a rabbit in the woods the PCR will work.”

Two of the artworks on display in the exhibition, Stig Evans’ painting Ritual and his prayer kneelers embroidered with DNA, playfully respond to this rarely discussed aspect of science As well as Stig Evans, among the other artists exhibiting are Annie Halliday, whose work Sum of the Parts explores the key concepts of doubling and copying implicit in the PCR process, and Tony Stallard, whose work Mutation explores the nature of mutation, both in genetics and as a random variable.Dan said: “The process of artists working with scientists has revealed true insights into how science works. It has been fascinating to see how artists and scientists alike have explored PCR and communicated its significance in this exhibition. In doing so, they have learned so much about each other’s practice – as well as their own.”


Kentish Chromosomes

It was “no rest for the wicked” as far as conference organization in the Griffin Lab was concerned as Darren and his team organized their second international conference of the year. In the first week of September 2014, Woolf College was home to the 50th Anniversary meeting of the International Chromosome Conference – the 20th of these to be held.

Professor Cyril Darlington, dubbed “the man who invented the chromosome”, first initiated the series back in 1964. Darlington started his academic career in Kent (at Wye College 1920-1923), and in 1953 became Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford. He remained in Oxford until his death in 1981, and during this time, was apparently the next door neighbour of our very own Professor Mick Tuite. Darlington was one of the leading biological thinkers of the twentieth century who sought to answer nature’s biggest questions such as how species arise and how variation occurs. This inspired him to ask questions about the link between biology, culture and society, core themes of CISoR. The national archives in the Bodlean library records his review of “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s memorandum on artificial insemination by donor” as well as his founding of these conferences, something he considered to be one of his most important achievements.

Professor Cyril Darlington


The latest gathering brought together leading researchers on chromosome biology covering topics such as reproduction, fertility, cancer, nuclear organisation, human artificial chromosomes, avian genomics and sex chromosome evolution.

Dr Turi King of the University of Leicester delivered the keynote lecture giving an account of Grey Friars project that uncovered the remains of Richard III. It was thought that the chances of finding Richard’s remains were slim and best but nevertheless, Turi, with her background both in archaeology and genetics, was approached – should the skeletal remains of a ‘good candidate’ to be Richard III be found. Turi spoke about the project, from the early stages of planning, through to the excavation and the results of the various strands of analysis carried out on the skeleton. She told a captivated audience about us about her work on the mitochondrial DNA of two descendants of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York, and how this confirmed that the remains were actually the former King himself.

Dr Turi King

T KingRichard III

The conference began with a reunion of the Griffin lab, which celebrated 10 years in Kent and concluded with a conference dinner at Leeds castle. Darren said “it was a very emotional experience for me to bring together friends, colleagues and former mentors on this historic occasion. The conferencing office, particularly Louisa Harvey did a fantastic job keeping us all organised, and, for the second time in a year, my lab excelled themselves in providing a great advert for the University.”

Professor Darren Griffin, Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, Professor Jenny Graves and Professor Dean Jackson

Group ICC

Wain Medal Lecture on Sex Chromosomes

In October of this year we were delighted to welcome Dr James Turner of the National Institute of Medical Research, as the recipient of this year’s Wain medal. As a result of a generous endowment from the family of the late Professor Louis Wain CBE, FRS, the University of Kent has established an annual Medal Lecture and Award in his memory. The Wain Medal is awarded to a young scientist doing research in biochemistry. Candidates for the award must be 40 years of age or under in the year of the award and work in the United Kingdom. This year James told a captivated audience about how the sex chromosomes appeared in our ancestors, how sex chromosome research is presented in the popular media and how research into them is creating potential new disease treatments.

Dr James Turner



Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories

A belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories may have significant and detrimental consequences for children’s health, new research from the University showed earlier this year.

Researchers Daniel Jolley and CISoR’s Professor Karen Douglas surveyed 89 parents about their
views on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and then asked them to indicate their intention to have a fictional child vaccinated. It was found that stronger belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories was associated with lower intention to vaccinate.In a second study, 188 participants were exposed to information concerning anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. It was found that reading this material reduced their intention to have a fictional child vaccinated, relative to participants who were given refuting information or those in a control condition. Daniel Jolley said: ‘This research is timely in the face of declining vaccination rates and recent outbreaks of vaccinated-against diseases in the UK, such as measles. Our studies demonstrate that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories may present a barrier to vaccine uptake, which may potentially have significant and detrimental consequences for children’s health. ‘ Dr Douglas added: ‘It is easy to treat belief in conspiracy theories lightly, but our studies show that wariness about
conspiracy theories may be warranted. Ongoing investigations are needed to further identify the social consequences of conspiracism and to identify potential ways to combat the effects of an ever-increasing culture of conspiracism.’

Professor Karen Douglas


Neuroscience ‘used and abused’

A study led by Jan Macvarish, in March of this year found that claims that children’s brains are irreversibly ‘sculpted’ by parental care are based on questionable evidence – yet have heavily influenced ‘early-years’ government policy-makers.

Dr Jan Macvarish


The study identified that although there is a lack of scientific foundation to many of the claims of ‘brain-based’ parenting, the idea that years 0-3 are neurologically critical is now repeated in policy documents abs has been integrated into professional training for early-years workers. Jan said: ‘What we found was that although the claims purporting to be based on neuroscience are very questionable, they are continually repeated in policy documents and are now integrated into the professional training of health visitors and other early years workers. “Brain claims” entered a policy environment that was already convinced that parents are to blame for numerous social problems, from poverty to mental illness.

“The idea that these entrenched problems will be solved by parents being more attentive to their children’s brains is risible. Although aimed at strengthening the parent-child relationships, these kind of policies risk undermining parents’ self-confidence by suggesting that “science” rather than the parent knows best.”

The study highlights that mothers, in particular, are told that if they are stressed while pregnant or suffer postnatal depression, they will harm their baby’s brain. ‘This dubious information is highly unlikely to alleviate stress or depression but rather more likely to increase parental anxiety,’ said Dr Macvarish. ‘Parents are also told they must cuddle, talk and sing to their babies to build better brains. But these are all things parents do, and have always done, because they love their babies. ‘Telling parents these acts of love are important because they are ‘brain-building’ inevitably raises the question of how much cuddling, talking and singing is enough? Such claims also put power in the hands of ‘parenting experts’ and ultimately risk making parenting a biologically important but emotionally joyless experience.’The study, titled The Uses and Abuses of Biology: Neuroscience, Parenting and Family Policy in Britain, was co-authored by Jan Macvarish and Ellie Lee and Dr Pam Lowe, of Aston University. It was funded by the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology programme.

John Bruer: ‘Growing up in poverty doesn’t damage your brain irretrivably’

US philosopher, John Bruer spoke in March 2014 at a Kent University conference, The Uses and Abuses of Biology, about neuroscience, parenting and family policy in Britain. John believes that babies need somebody to care for them, but it doesn’t matter who that person is; early experiences are important but probably do not set your patterns for life; and young children do not need any special stimulation in order to develop normally.

John Bruer. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for The Guardian


At a time when parent has become a verb, such views verge on the heretical. And certainly that is the way his book, The Myth of the First Three Years, was greeted in some circles. Published in 1999, it was his response to what he saw as the growing influence of neuroscience on parenting and family policy in the US, spearheaded by the Clintons during the 1990s. It dismantled what he describes as the myths behind the misuse of neuroscience by politicians and policymakers. It saw him branded a rightwing mouthpiece. “Where I come from they see me as somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun,” he jokes.

Bruer believes that his criticisms still stand, 15 years after the publication of the book. And they apply increasingly to the UK, where policymakers are drawing on what he sees as the flawed US reports to promote early intervention with disadvantaged families. One of the most popular figures quoted by early interventionists is that “the human brain has developed to 85% of its potential by age three”. But Bruer points out that the figure applies to the “volume or weight of the adult brain. It says nothing about brain capacity.

“But if such arguments are being used to support much-needed help for disadvantaged families, where is the harm? “Yes, people need help,” he says. “And we should do something to provide that help. But the basis for our claims should be reasonable. We have to avoid this implicit assumption that growing up in poverty damages your brain – irreversibly.” Bruer  says he is not arguing that experiences in early life do not have an impact, but says they are “probabilistic, not deterministic. And there are things that can have a considerable impact on changing whatever it was that occurred earlier in life.”

A simplistic focus may also skew public funding to the detriment of other priorities, he warns. “In the States there were people arguing (that) we might as well stop educational programmes in prison because there’s nothing we can do for these people, it’s too late”.

Bruer himself grew up in a working-class family in the then small town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His father was a postal worker, his mother stayed at home to bring up Bruer and his younger brother. It is clear that his own background has made him question prevailing assumptions. “I think there are these generalisations made by academics who have very little experience of what it’s like to be from a working-class home or an impoverished background, and they are attempting to impose these middle-class views on everybody, and I’m not sure that’s warranted,” he says.

UK teenage pregnancy reduction unlikely until policy makers adopt ‘evolutionary approach’

Attempts to reduce the high rate of teenage pregnancy and motherhood in the UK, which is also the highest in Western Europe, are unlikely to succeed if young women continue to face environmental risk and uncertainty.

This was one of the key findings of research from a team that included Sarah Johns. Together with colleagues from the universities of Middlesex and Portsmouth, Sarah investigated how an evolutionary framework might help move UK policy makers beyond an ‘intervention impasse’ on teenage pregnancy and motherhood. Among their conclusions, published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, the team found that environmental risk, including factors such as crime and vandalism, is a clear predictor of early pregnancy.

Dr Sarah Johns

It is estimated that the Labour government of 1997- 2010 spent nearly £468 million on various public educational and health initiatives to try and convince teenage girls to delay becoming pregnant or giving birth. However, Sarah and colleagues suggest that, rather than investing in educational programmes, money would be better spent on ‘the maintenance of at-risk neighbourhoods’. This would mean public money being diverted from existing teenage pregnancy unit policies and applied as specifically targeted supplements to local authority council tax budgets in areas with high rates of teenage pregnancy. She said: ‘Government initiatives since 1999 have squandered vast amounts of money, producing only a marginal decrease in teenage pregnancy to just below 40 per thousand. Current approaches are clearly ineffective.’

‘Our view is that the well-established links in evolutionary biology between reproduction and the risk – and the perception of risk – of dying at a younger age, are likely to provide a more effective foundation for understanding and tackling teenage pregnancy. Putting it simply, delaying pregnancy increases the likelihood of never having children, particularly when there is an increased risk of dying young. So if women perceive their future prospects are poor, why should they wait? ‘For us, it is unsurprising that the UK has such high rates of teenage motherhood in comparison to other European countries: the UK is extremely unequal with little social mobility; life expectancy and risk varies greatly, even across a few miles; relative poverty is especially psychologically damaging. ‘Therefore risk and mortality perception will vary greatly between different groups of people. Evolutionary biology predicts that people should be sensitive to this variation when it comes to reproductive decision-making, and having children at a young age is an evolutionary rational decision when such risks are high.

New Professorial Appointments

In the most recent round of promotions CISoR is delighted to announce the awarding of personal chairs to Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton who have just been appointed as Professors of Social Psychology.

Professor Douglas (Karen) is an authority on the psychology of conspiracy theories. Her research is based around the fact that many people are deeply suspicious of medical and scientific developments and the motives and actions of governments (often associated with belief in conspiracy theories). Karen is interested in how conspiracy theories influence health intentions such as those related to reproductive medicine and planned parenthood.

The research of Professor Sutton (Robbie – above) is based on issues surrounding sexism. He has shown that people who revere women as kinder, more moral, and more refined than men tend, ironically, to view women’s rights and welfare as less important than their children’s. This leads to a “maternal sacrifice” ideology where people endorse restrictions on women’s autonomy and their access to medical procedures during pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Their simultaneous appointment generated especial celebration in their household as they also happen to be married with two children, Jamie (11) and Rose (10).

Many congratulations!

Sex selection: what Britain’s abortion law really says

Ellie Lee recently commented in “Spiked online” about the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announcement that it was not going to bring criminal charges against two abortion doctors. The doctors had been secretly filmed by pregnant female journalists from the Telegraph who pretended they were seeking an abortion because they did not want to have a baby girl.

Dr Ellie Lee

Ellie Lee

The then secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley demanded action. This prompted the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to do spot checks on all abortion clinics in the country, (an unusual action for the CQC which not only whipped up an unhelpful discussion about procedures in clinics for signing the necessary forms to authorize abortion, but also cost around £1million).

Ellie said “The CPS’s decision not to bring charges against the abortion doctors is merely the latest installment in an 18-month-long saga, one in which abortion providers have been under incredible scrutiny. Throughout, we have been repeatedly told that abortion doctors are out of control and act as if they are above the law.”

“The CPS said that while it would be possible to prosecute the doctors, it was not going to do so, partly on legal grounds and partly on ‘public interest’ grounds. In response, those keen to see the abortion doctors charged have spent the week doing as much as they can to paint a picture of an abortion service that is doing Britain’s women, and the wider society, a disservice. They simply cannot believe the CPS dropped the case” Fanning the flames, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: ‘We are clear that gender selection abortion is against the law and completely unacceptable… [The refusal of the CPS to bring charges] is a concerning development and I have written to the Attorney General to ask for urgent clarification on the grounds for this decision’.

Self-proclaimed feminists have taken Hunt’s side. Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman wrote: ‘The selective abortion of girls is a crime. Simple as. So why no criminal charges?’ Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry wrote to the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, expressing her outrage at the decision on women’s behalf.

Pregnancy and drinking – Examining the Evidence

Ellie Lee became involved in the debate about the risks of drinking while pregnant and her comments were recorded in the Guardian on February 6th of this year. The remarks were in response to a court hearing to decide on the rights of a child to receive compensation because their mother drank while pregnant.

It has been suggested that this could be the start of a process that could ultimately lead to criminalisation of this behaviour in expectant mothers. The case rests on providing convincing evidence that a pregnant mother’s caused criminal harm to her unborn baby. Ellie commented “It is remarkable that these approaches have gained such a hold. What has come to count is not evidence about the effects of drinking, but rather the absence of it. Since it is not known whether drinking certain amounts of alcohol in pregnancy is harmful, it is seen as better to act as though it might be. What is known is that there is an association between drinking a great deal and a specific set of birth defects, but since not all babies born to alcoholic women have these defects there is more to it than alcohol as a substance – for example, nutrition and general health.”

The debate continues with Guardian columnist Rebecca Schiller also quoting the work of Margaret Attwood, Elizabeth Armstrong, and Lynn Paltrow (founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women) who said ““what is being criminalised is not just the ‘action’ or ‘behaviour’ it is the pregnancy as well. In other words – but for being pregnant – there would be no criminal or civil liability.” She added “So-called pro-life measures are being used in ways that not only violate women’s reproductive rights, but create the basis for depriving them of their constitutional personhood and human rights.”