Posts Tagged ‘Universities’

Thursday last week (Feb 27) Mark was up from Keele and popped his head around my office door – not a surprise, as he is often here to do circular dichroism on various heparin-binding proteins – to announce that Marcelo had managed to make some SARS-CoV-2 S1 receptor binding domain. Mark had asked Hao,  my postdoc, to do some SPR measurements to see if it bound heparin.

Later in the day I went over to the SPR/CD lab to find Courtney, Mark’s PhD student and Mark beavering away on the CD. A quick discussion. Hao had finished some work on our first grade A heparin functionalised SPR surface, so we set about injecting the SARS-CoV-2 surface protein (Spike) S1 Receptor Binding Domain – a one shot experiment, as amounts of protein were limited, so we injected 1 mL at 500 µL/min (I like high flow rates as mixing is way better, though still far from perfect).


Still the control to do, since though confident in the surface’s resistance to non-specific binding, we still needed to be sure. So we collected the effluent fraction with the Receptor Binding Domain and then passed that through the pump (we are still sorting out fluidics etc., instrument only arrived a month ago) onto the reference channel (streptavidin, no heparin). Small drop due to mismatch in refractive index of the receptor binding domain and the running buffer, and then nothing. Back to running buffer and we go to baseline, no binding.

We agreed we should write up the experiments and put them out as a preprint. The work was not done in a vacuum. SARS-1 receptor binding domain binds heparin and its interaction with cellular heparan sulfate looks to be important in viral adhesion and cell entry (as for many viruses) and the corresponding region of the SARS-2 protein is identical. As we note in the preprint, this may provide a route to first line therapy, while we await a vaccine and other therapeutics.

The experiments depended on many other factors, which are worth considering, when we think about how research and innovation actually occur.

Back in the day, I had a suite of IAsys optical biosensors – brilliant instruments, with a vibrostirrer so we had proper mixing and never had issues with mass transport. The company bit the dust sadly, so these became legacy and then were scrapped. As a back up a colleague had a Biacore, but that packed up too. Personally I never liked these, as they are too ‘closed’ and I much prefer instruments that are open, without any ‘black box’ or inaccessible elements. Last year a new colleague, Roy Goodacre, hosted a seminar by Jean-François Masson from Montreal on SPR. So I went along and was taken by the instrument Jean-François had developed – open architecture in terms of fluidics, small, portable (he developed it to measure explosive residues in ground water used by communities near Canadian Army ranges). We had a chat after the seminar, and I contacted the company he has set up to commercialise the instrument. Some months later, when I had the time, I went around the Biochemistry Department with my hat and we put together the cash and bought a P4SPR, delivered end January 2020. I then set out plumbing in fluidics and making biotinylated oleyl ethelene glycol self assembled monolayers on the gold surface, with help from Richard Nichols in our Chemistry department who has a plasma cleaner.

So a group of people happy to work together with no discussion regarding ownership etc. and willing to stump up a few £ to buy a modest, yet powerful piece of kit. This really boils down to trust in your colleagues, be they PhD students or Professors and it is a real pleasure to work at ground level in such an environment. It is also an environment where you can innovate, something that still excites me.

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An article in the New Statesman this summer argues that the British degree has lost its value. The evidence is largely restricted to:

  1. A complaint by students at the University of Sheffield (course not mentioned) which resulted in an uplift of the marks, particularly at the bottom end.

Without context this is a non-argument. Was the course new and there was a mismatch between what was delivered and examined? Was the marking rogue (not everyone does their job with due diligence…)?  And so on.

There follow a few paragraphs that provide no evidence, but plenty of hand waving.

The last paragraphs consider the increase in the number of students going to university and asks the question, sure, if access if wider, there should be more at the bottom, more failures. A corollary is that schools are doing no better now than they used to.

I agree there has been some grade inflation, which has two sources. The first is using the full range of marks available, rather than deciding in advance that there will be no more than one first class degree each year. Current practice is the right thing to do and past practice was wrong. The second source of grade inflation is due to the law of unintended consequences. Legal challenge, now possible because students can access their marks (transparency can only be a good thing) means there are issues at degree borderlines. Common responses have been to avoid all marks at borders (of course this fails singularly to solve the problem, since the final mark is an average of many, so student still end up under the border) and to push students up a % or two if their final marks are below a border. These and other responses to the problem have had an inflationary effect, but I would estimate it to be more more than a few %.

Counter arguments to very substantial and continual grade inflation are:

GCSEs and A-levels are harder than they were, and students are better prepared for university (just as primary students are much better prepared for the jump to secondary). While every year ministers and sections of the press whinge that the all time high level of passes represent a failure, the teaching profession (who have forgotten more about teaching than ministers or members of the 4th estate ever knew) argue the opposite. I always take the expert over others and my limited personal experience of the matter supports the views of the teaching profession.

University courses have changed. At least for STEM courses, they are much harder and demand a lot more effort on the part of the students (my personal opinion is we have gone too far) than 40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate. There is far greater challenge and courses develop skills that in STEM subjects were not even touched on, such as critical thinking and critical analysis of data. Back in the day you either figured this out or you didn’t, so this was learned by the time-honoured system of osmosis. Importantly, a student’s abilities in these areas had no impact on the degree awarded. There is perhaps a generational difference between the young (18-35 and the middle aged and older graduates >35), with the former better at critical thinking  and analysis than their elders.

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