Archive Science and Society

WANTED! Artists/illustrators needed for glowing art/science project. Siouxsie Wiles Feb 09


hello kitty

Are you an artist/illustrator who wants to try something different? Or do you know anyone who is?

I’m looking for 8-10 people to join me for a very special project as part of this year’s thinkScience day being held during the Auckland Arts Festival and White Night. They will need to be free and in Auckland on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th of March and not be a germaphobe….

The challenge: to create a 1 metre x 1 metre art piece.

The catch? The ink is actually a solution of bacteria and the ‘canvas’ a collection of petri-dishes.

The bacteria the artists will be using is not dangerous, and naturally glows in the dark. This means that wherever the artists draw/paint onto the petri-dishes, the bacteria will grow. And when they do, they will glow a beautiful blueish colour in the dark.

Interested? Get in touch!

Here’s a time-lapse of a ‘drawing’ Rebecca Klee and I made:

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Why scientists need to step up & engage! Siouxsie Wiles Feb 08

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A few days ago, the UK parliament voted in favour of making Britain the first country in the world to permit IVF babies to be created using biological material from three different people. The vote passed by 382 to 128 – a majority of 254 – and is to amend the UK’s 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to allow mitochondrial donation. With this technique, to prevent serious genetic diseases, involves using a donor egg which has had its nuclear DNA removed, a woman’s nuclear DNA and then a man’s sperm as normal. You can listen to me talking about this momentous vote with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme here.

The reason the vote has got some people alarmed is because the donor egg will still contain some genetic material from the donor, in the form of mitochondrial DNA. But it’s a miniscule amount. Almost all of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells, apart from a little stretch found in our mitochondria that codes for 37 genes. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells, producing ATP, the energy currency of our body. The mitochondrial DNA (or maternal DNA) is inherited solely from the egg. In ’3-person IVF’ this DNA will come from the donor egg rather than the mother’s egg.

There are a number of illnesses caused by mutations in mitochondrial DNA, such as Kearns–Sayre syndrome (KSS), which causes a person to lose full function of heart, eye, and muscle movements. The law change will give women who have mitochondrial mutations the opportunity to have healthy, genetically-related children who won’t suffer from the devastating and often fatal consequences of mitochondrial disease.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technique has been labelled unsafe, unethical and a step towards designer babies by many religious leaders. In an article on the Guardian website, the Wellcome Trust’s Mark Henderson*(@markgfh) says much credit to the successful vote should go to Prof Doug Turnbull who has spent the past decade taking opportunities to discuss his work on mitochondrial donation in the media, at science festivals and with the public, politicians and regulators. And over that decade Prof Turnbull has become a case study in learning to communicate difficult and controversial research successfully. Writes Mark:

“It is my firm belief that not only would MPs not have supported the regulations allowing mitochondrial donation, but that those regulations would never have been laid for a vote at all…..What Turnbull’s evolution over the past decade shows is how important it can be for scientists who are never going to be Brian Cox or Alice Roberts to recognise that taking public engagement seriously is not only the right thing to do, but beneficial to their science. Without it, Newcastle’s mitochondrial research might have been forever confined to the lab, instead of poised to have a direct impact on the lives of families affected by a devastating disease.”

Mark is absolutely right. Here in New Zealand we are fortunate to have the Science Media Centre (SMC) who run a number of workshops to upskill scientists to better communicate with the media. We also have a number of prizes aimed at rewarding those scientists who do step up and communicate, such as the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication, and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Callaghan Medal. Later this month, with the help of the SMC, award-winning writer and broadcaster Alison Ballance and the lovely folk at Mohawk Media, I’m running a workshop to introduce scientists and science communicators to the power of animation to tell science stories. I’m putting my money where my mouth is too – donating $10,000 of my PM’s Prize pot to help some of the ideas on the day turn into animations. Watch this space!

*Writer of the fantastic Geek Manifesto… Check out his great TEDx talk:

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Tim Minchin – The Good Book (unofficial) Siouxsie Wiles Jan 26

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If you’ve not yeen seen this yet, it’s marvelous!

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Skeptical Thoughts – Bigfoot, MMS, deja vu & ‘vagacials’ Siouxsie Wiles Jan 26

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For anyone interested, you can hear my latest Skeptical Thoughts slot with Graeme Hill on his RadioLive Weekend Variety Wireless show here. We cover an eclectic mix of stories, from Bigfoot, using MMS to ‘treat’ autism and deja vu.

My favourite story was the appearance of ‘dating guru’ Lisa Palmer on UK breakfast TV show This Morning who claims to have invented facials for a woman’s vagina. According to Ms Palmer, being in a long term relationship can lead to some women neglecting their vaginas, so they become dry and sagging. Excuse me, but isn’t that just what happens as women age/have children?! Ms Palmer’s solution is to steam ‘the area’, then apply a concoction of Vitamin E cream, coconut cream, honey & egg whites. They are being called ‘vagacials’ but to be honest, the stuff is being applied to the outside area (vulva) so they should probably be called ‘vulvacials’. She also seems to suggest she has put onions inside her vagina “as they are great for aging” apparently. Before any of you men start sniggering, I’m predicting it won’t be long before we hear of ‘scrotacials’ and ‘penacials’. Just saying.

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Ladies, if you are tempted, the vagina is a self-cleansing organ. You don’t need to go steaming it, or shoving onions up it, that’s more likely to cause an infection. If you do want to slather your vulva with honey and egg whites, feel free, you could even turn it into a fun game with your other half. Just remember it’s not some magic elixir and won’t rejuvenate your nether regions! If you do feel dry and saggy, best use a lubricant and do regular exercises with your pelvic floor muscles.

Biolumination: Turning glowing fish poo into art… sort of! Siouxsie Wiles Jan 22


Last year I collaborated with artist Rebecca Klee for the Art in the Dark festival, held in Auckland, New Zealand, each year. Our piece, called Biolumination, featured several litres of glowing bacteria, some custom-made glass tubes and three aquarium pumps. A big thanks to Benj from Gather and Hunt who shot some footage of our installation and put together this short video in which I explain why the bacteria we used glows in the first place.

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A gift for someone special – Part III Siouxsie Wiles Jan 04


I recently blogged about my experience donating eggs. In this post I want to explain why I chose to write about it.

What I have just been through is what some companies are encouraging their female staff to do so they can be ‘career women’ without leaving it too late to have a family. Apparently companies like Facebook and Apple are offering to pay for staff to have their eggs frozen. It’s likely most women will undergo two to three rounds of stimulation to have enough eggs to freeze down for future use. Personally, I’d like to see companies make it easier for people to have families and successful careers, not lull them in to a false sense of security that all will be fine because they have some eggs in the freezer.

Putting aside that going through the process of producing a bumper crop of eggs and having them collected is hardly a walk in the park, or indeed, risk free, I’m not sure many people realise what the chances of having a successful pregnancy are using in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Cil and colleagues published a paper in 2013 with some graphs that make interesting reading. They did a meta analysis of 10 studies with 1805 patients and looked at how the rates of live births changed with the age of the woman and how the eggs were frozen (1). This is the relevant graph to look at, with the % probability of a live birth after implantation of between 1 and 3 embryos, plotted against the woman’s age. The dotted lines are for eggs that were frozen using a method called vitrification (VF), the solid lines are for eggs that were slowly frozen (SF).

ivf live births

As you can see, the probability of a live birth drops with age. At its highest, the probability is less than 35% for young women when 3 embryos are implanted, dropping to 5% when only one embryo is implanted into a 42 year old woman. To put all this in context, of the 11 eggs that were sucked out of me recently, only 6 were good enough to go forward to be fertilised. Of those, 5 were successfully fertilised but a week later only one had developed into an embryo suitable for implantation. I can’t begin to tell you how gutted I was about that. The little embryo has now been frozen down but will soon be implanted into my friend. Based on the data presented by Cil and colleagues, the chances are slim that it will result in a pregnancy which makes me both really sad and very disappointed but I’m going to have all my fingers and toes crossed that it’s the 5%. One of them has to be!

1. Cil, AP, Bang, H, and Oktay, K. Age-specific probability of live birth with oocyte cryopreservation: an individual patient data meta-analysis. Fertil Steril. 2013; 100: 492–499

A gift for someone special – part II Siouxsie Wiles Jan 02

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I recently blogged about my experience donating eggs. In this post I want to explain why I decided to become an egg donor. There are three main reasons:

1. Someone very special to me needed a donor.

2. My family is complete and I’ve no more need of my eggs.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a biologist or an atheist but I’m not particularly freaked out by the idea of my genetic material being used to make a child who won’t be mine. The law in New Zealand is very clear – if a child is made using my eggs, that child is the child of the woman who gave birth to it, not mine. Yes, it may have my green eyes and my dimples, but I won’t be it’s mother. The law is also very clear that if a child is born, that child will have the right to know who I am when they reach a certain age. In my case, the person I have donated my eggs to is a permanent feature in my life. We have been open with our families about everything so if we are lucky enough that there is a child from my donation, my role will not be a big secret.

3. Society functions because ordinary people do generous things.

I’m not special. Yes, I have given someone a special gift but this is the kind of world I want to live in. I want to be able to have a life-saving blood transfusion if I need one – something only made possible because people give blood. I urge you all to think about what generous things you could do in the coming year. Perhaps you could look into joining a bone marrow register, or let your family know you are happy to be an organ donor. Think about how you would feel if you were the one who needed that generous gift.

A gift for someone special Siouxsie Wiles Dec 31


Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet for the last month. I’ve been feeling ‘under the weather’, to use a common euphemism. In reality I’ve been through a really interesting experience that isn’t often spoken about in public. That must make it the perfect material for a blog, right? Right!

Warning: I will mention the word vagina at least once. Giggle if you must.

Over the last month I’ve put my middle-aged body through quite an ordeal in order to be an egg donor. I’m not talking Easter eggs here, but my ova. The gametes that contain half my genetic material and one of the main ingredients required to make a baby. My journey down this path started almost a year ago, and has involved numerous tests to rule out genetic mutations and sexually transmitted diseases, several counselling sessions to assess mine and my husband’s understanding of the law around egg donation, our rights regarding the eggs and any babies they may produce, and to determine whether I was making the donation of my own free will. We also had to apply for permission from an ethics committee as laid out by the New Zealand Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act of 2004.

Needles, needles and more needles

After passing all the tests and with ethics permission granted, on Tuesday the 2nd December I took a dose of antibiotics and started giving myself a hormone injection into my abdomen every evening. I really hate injections but the needle was very fine and didn’t really hurt. That all changed 5 days later when I had to start giving myself a second injection each day, this one in the morning. This injection really stung and left me with a new little bruise each day. Normally every month a woman’s body matures one egg which is released from the ovary in anticipation of being fertilised. The hormones I was taking were to make as many eggs as possible develop at once. I felt sore and very tired.

Three days after starting the morning injections I was back at the fertility clinic for blood tests and a scan to see how many eggs were developing and the size of the follicles they were developing in. Once enough follicles had reached a certain size, I stopped having the two daily injections, took my ‘trigger’ injection which makes the eggs do their final maturation step and then 36 hours later went into the clinic for the egg collection. Under a mild sedation, the eggs were sucked out of me using a fine needle inserted through my vagina. The antibiotics I took at the beginning were to prevent me getting an infection from this procedure. I went home and slept for the rest of the day. For the next couple of days I was sore and uncomfortable so took some pain killers and spent most of the time sleeping.

A slight complication…

At this point I should have started feeling better, but I was one of the unlucky few who go on to develop a rare complication called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome. Fortunately mine was just a mild case; I had a painful swollen abdomen, shortness of breathe, nausea and aching arms. Severe cases can require hospitalisation to drain fluid from the lungs and abdomen. About a week later the swelling had gone down, the nausea abated and my arms were back to normal. Alas, I’d missed all the work pre-Christmas parties but was back to full strength for the family festivities. Phew!

In a future post, I’ll explain why I became an egg donor and give some of the stats around success rates for in vitro fertilisation. In the meantime, to see what happens during ovarian stimulation watch this neat little animation:

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Edit 04/01/15: On reflection, I’d just like to state for the record that even though it was touch, I would do it all again! Here’s my post on why and my post on why we should talk about it.

The science of Rudolf’s glowing nose! Siouxsie Wiles Dec 24

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Rudolf by Latharion

Rudolf by Latharion

This festive season AUT University Prof’s Steve Pointing and Allan Blackman released a marvelous little video explaining the science behind some of the unanswered mysteries of Christmas. How does Santa get to all those houses unseen in one night? And how does he get down the chimney? I’ve been sent the video so many times as they also cover the science that could explain Rudolf’s red nose. Bioluminescence of course!

Except…. they get it a little bit wrong. So I talked to the fantastic Rebecca Watson from Skepchick and explained the real science behind Rudolf’s red nose. Enjoy!

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PS Slight correction… while we are being pedantic, in the video I say that GFP is excited by UV light. This is true for wild-type GFP but there are also lots of variants now so it’s probably the case that the GFP-expressing animals are made with a modified GFP that is excited by blue light rather than UV.

PPS If you like Rebecca’s video, you can support her to make more on Patreon, and if you can think of other science stories you would like explaining like this then let us know!

Tales from the Ivory Tower: when ‘Publish or Perish’ becomes ‘Publish & Perish’ Siouxsie Wiles Nov 30


A few days ago the UK media ran a story about the death of Prof Stefan Grimm, a professor of toxicology at Imperial College London. Prof Grimm was found dead in September, and anonymous colleagues are quoted as saying he had felt under increasing pressure by Imperial after a series of unsuccessful grants, and had been placed under performance review.

In academia we live by the mantra ‘Publish or Perish’. Publications are the currency on which jobs are won and lost, and we all know that if we fail to publish we will be unemployable*. The institution I work at has actually set metrics for the numbers of publications required for promotion. Hence the ‘perish’, although I’m not sure the person who coined that phrase meant for it to be taken literally. According to his profiles on Research Gate and Google Scholar, Prof Grimm had published a respectable 53 publications, 11 of them in the last 2 years, and had an h-index of 24. He had also published in a number of high impact journals which is very important to those who believe (mistakenly in my opinion) that the impact factor is a reliable measure of academic quality. My point is that Prof Grimm was publishing.

Research funding is another thing that my institution has set metrics for and I’m sure Imperial is no different. It seems like we are moving into the era of ‘Get Funded or Perish’.Many people outside of academia don’t know that we don’t just get handed a pot of money to carry out our research. Instead we spend a huge amount of time applying for funding. Purses are tight and competition is tough (and many reviewers and panels are unconsciously biased but that’s another story….). All around the world success rates have plummeted and many excellent applications go unfunded.

This year I have written 12 applications to support three different research projects in my lab. I have had the outcomes for 6 of them and they have all been rejected. I was lucky though. Last year I applied for nine grants, one of which was an Explorer grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand. It’s an interesting new funding stream that awards relatively small amounts of money** at random to three or four of the applications that are deemed to meet the criteria for funding. My application was one of the lucky ones to be randomly selected for funding. The grant started in October and so one of the three projects I have been trying to fund can now progress. But the other two are stuck in limbo. Is there pressure on me to get those projects funded? I’ll let you know after I have my annual performance review early next year.

*Both this and the ‘Publish or Perish’ mentality leads to some interesting gaming of the system by some academics, slicing pieces of work into as many papers as can be squeezed out of it (we refer to this is as the ‘minimum publishable unit’…).

**Just $150,000 over 2 years (‘proper’ grants with full overheads are more like $300,000 PER year).

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