Researching abroad: Cannabis and decision making in the Big Apple

by Michelle Taylor @chelle_bluebird

Setting off for TARGs 2013 annual retreat to Cumberland Lodge in Great Windsor Park, I was looking forward to hearing a talk from an invited guest speaker. Gill had flown in from Columbia University to talk to the group about a recent drug administration study her lab group had completed. The research being conducted by their lab was very different to the epidemiological research that I am used to. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the research that I do, but these studies sounded new and exciting. After listening to the talk, the evening activities began with dinner and a quiz. Luckily, I ended up on the same quiz team as Gill, giving me the opportunity to ask more about her research. I decided to grab the bull by the horns and offer my help in one of her future studies, and so my trip to the Big Apple began…

central park 1Nine months later I was on my way to Heathrow for a two month stint collecting data on a cannabis administration study. I was both excited and apprehensive. I have never lived more than a 3 hour drive away from family, and have always been in a city where I have known people. I didn’t know whether I would get homesick, or whether I would make friends on my trip abroad. These feelings of apprehension soon disappeared in the first few hours of my first day at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming, even the many morning commuters who stopped to help the lone Brit who was obviously puzzled by the subway map at 7.30am.

yankeesI was to spend the next six weeks collecting data for a study examining the neuro-behavioural mechanisms of decisions to smoke cannabis at the Substance Use Research Center in the New York Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University. This research centre is unique; it is one of the largest drug administration centre in the world and has licenses to administer a wide variety of drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and heroin. This means that much of the research conducted here is cutting edge. The aim of the study that I would be working on was to shed light on how and why drug abusers repeatedly make decisions to take drugs despite substantial negative consequences. The study used brain imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural and behavioural processes involved in decisions to self-administer cannabis, compared to decisions to eat food, in regular cannabis users. We also examined the influence of drug and food cues on the processes underlying these decisions. To do this, participants were recruited as inpatients and stayed with us in the lab for a week. Data collection for this study is still ongoing, but I will be sure to write another blog post with what we found when the results are available.

coney_2I found this research fascinating and it was a pleasure to be involved in the work carried out in this department. The experience was made even more enjoyable by the people I was working with. There were many office conversations about the British and American slang that was being used, many lunchtime trips to Chipotle (an American fast food restaurant that I am definitely missing since my return to the UK), and several Friday evening trips to the local Irish bar. One office memory that will always stick in my mind was meeting a very accomplished researcher in the field of my PhD, a researcher that was definitely someone I should be impressing. Upon entering this individuals office on an extreme
ly hot New York day, the fan was turned to the meeting area and the smell of cannabis filled the room as the flow of air reached me (I had been administered the drug to a participant earlier that afternoon). Probably not the best first impression I have ever made!

milkshakeI did, of course, take every opportunity to explore New York. I was lucky enough to get tickets to watch the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox at the Yankee Stadium, which was also one of the last games played by baseball-legend Derek Jeter. I made several trips to the American Natural History Museum (my favourite type of museum, and this one cannot be done in a day), and while there saw a live spider show, a 3D film about Great White Sharks and a full T-Rex skeleton. The glorious weather allowed for several leisurely strolls around Central Park. And, of course, the American food definitely needs a mention. If anyone reading this takes a trip over the Atlantic, I would definitely recommend visiting Big Daddy’s Diner for what could be the best milkshake on the planet. And don’t be shy about trying a hotdog from one of the carts that can be found on nearly every street corner. The reason there are so many of them is that they’re delicious! I would also recommend a trip to the Russian Tea Rooms for caviar afternoon tea, an evening at the New York Metropolitan Opera (if that’s your cup of tea), and a trip to Coney Island.

t_rexAlthough it was daunting going abroad for that length of time to begin with, I don’t think I would be having those feelings again and I would definitely jump at any opportunity to work in a different environment in the future. I am very grateful that I am a PhD student in a large working group like TARG, as without this I probably would not have come across opportunities such as this one. This experience has taught me the importance of inter-disciplinary research, and the need for several fields contributing evidence to a much larger research question. Since this trip, I have been successful in a fellowship application allowing me 9 months in a different department at the University of Bristol, an application that I probably would not have made if it wasn’t for my experience at the Columbia University. I am an epidemiologist and do not have any plans to change that; however I do plan to conduct more interdisciplinary research in the future. I would like to that Gill (and everyone in her lab group) for welcoming me and making this trip possible. I look forward to hopefully working with you again in the future…

How I ended up on the other side of the world

By Sarah Griffiths

My New Year’s resolution this year was to get out of Bristol for a bit. I love living in Bristol and enjoy my PhD research, which is what brought me to the city in the first place. But the weather was pretty miserable in January and, after a year and a half, perhaps I was starting to take the place for granted. I decided that it would be a good time to look into some of the great opportunities there are to travel in academia.

I had heard that it was possible to get funding to visit a foreign university through the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) during your PhD. The WUN is an association of 16 universities around the world who have decided to cooperate to promote international research collaboration. I looked at the research that was being done at each of these universities to see if any fitted with my PhD topic and found Face Lab at the University of Western Australia. Face Lab, I learned, was doing some fascinating research on the nature of emotional expression coding in typical development and in autism. Perth also looked like a pretty fun place to spend some time so I decided to apply.

I got in touch with Professor Gill Rhodes who leads Face Lab and asked if she would have me for a visit for a few months and she kindly agreed. I then went ahead and filled in the application form. This involved writing a research proposal, including details of how the exchange would benefit the university and myself. Additionally I was to submit a CV and supporting statements from my supervisor and the Head of School in Bristol, and Gill at UWA. There are two calls for applications a year: one in February, which I went for, and one in November. A few months later I heard that my application had been accepted and I was going to be spending 3 months in Perth in the autumn!

Cycle path

I’ve now been in Perth for 2 weeks and I’m so glad that I decided to come. The people I have met both in the University and out have been incredibly friendly and helpful. I’ve found accommodation in a great area in a complex that has a pool (!) Everyday I get to cycle along the river to the university, looking out for dolphins that supposedly live there.

I’ve also found that working in a different lab has renewed my interest in research. A change of environment and the opportunity to discuss new ideas with experts you wouldn’t otherwise meet is a great remedy for any mid-PhD disenchantment. Here I’m working on a project about recognition of emotion in a crowd of faces. This is a topic that is complimentary to my PhD research but different enough to be new and exciting. I hope that when I return to Bristol I will bring back new ideas and fresh enthusiasm to my PhD, as well as a tan! I will let you know in 10 weeks time. In the meantime, if this has inspired you to take part in some “academic tourism” (as one other WUN funded visitor I met this week called it), the next deadline for the WUN researcher mobility funding is in 7th of November so get applying!

Sarah is a PhD student in TARG researching emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorder. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahGriff90 and see her academic profile on the University of Bristol website.


Welcome to the Real World

Dave Troy 

Taking laboratory studies into the ‘real world’ is every scientist’s nightmare. We love the lab – it’s where we feel safe, where we can control our world, our variables, our environment, and our interventions. However, lab studies can only tell us so much; eventually we need to know whether the findings from our lab studies apply in the real world. This is what the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG) has endeavored to do. Findings in our lab suggest that individuals drink beer slower from a straight-sided glass compared to a curved glass. As a first step towards testing this effect in the real world, we carried out a small feasibility study to investigate whether a large-scale study might be possible. We needed to find out what outcome measure we could use to measure alcohol consumption, whether pubs and customers would be willing to take part, and what the logistical challenges of running a study of this nature might be. With this in mind, we contacted the owner of Dawkin’s Ales. He was open to the prospect of stocking three of his pubs (The Portcullis, Clifton Village; The Victoria, Clifton; and the Green Man, Kingsdown) with differently shaped pint glasses over a couple of weekends, using monetary takings as a proxy measure of the amount of alcohol consumed. He was extremely supportive of the endeavor and we would like to thank him for all his help. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the outcome of the study and in science in general. The feasibility study was a success: we showed that this type of drinking rate study can be carried out in a pub environment. However, there were some teething problems. Variables such as the size of a dishwasher caused unforeseen complications. Only when you get into the real world, do you realise how unstandardised it is.

Green Man Pub, Kingsdown
Green Man Pub, Kingsdown

What we learned on our adventures in the real world is that communication is key. Cultivating good relationships with pub landlords and staff was vital to the success of the feasibility study. Naturalistic studies are unpredictable – nothing goes to plan. Good communication and rapport with stakeholders is vital and can assist in acquiring high quality data. Pub staff are also a great source of industry knowledge. We were educated on the extent of research by the drinks industry into the effect of different glass shapes on drinking behavior, which is extensive in their opinion. They were also full of ideas regarding what other experiments could be carried out. One of the landlords mentioned that people “drink with their eyes”, which piqued an interest in me about how our other senses may play a role in our drinking behaviour. Another comment was that people tend to drink more quickly when they are standing up. This hadn’t occurred to me before, but I was told that it has grabbed the attention of policy makers, who want to discourage ‘vertical drinking’ by demanding pub license holders supply more seating. Another topic that came up again and again is the use of “nucleated” beer glasses. These have marking at the bottom of beer glasses to promote the formation of bubbles, maintaining the head for longer. The importance attached to it by pub staff and customers suggests it might be an important factor in people’s drinking. All of these are ideas that we may take forward in our lab studies. Pub staff also made valuable suggestions on how to improve future pub studies. One landlady said that we should do it over a whole week to get a better picture of the cadence of an average drinking week.

Nucleation vs Non-nucleation
Nucleation vs Non-nucleation

On a personal level, I learned more as an experimenter helping with this study than in all my previous lab studies. Perhaps surprisingly, the attention to detail and organisation required is above the requirements of a lab study. The logistics involved are greater and an ability to think on your feet is essential. The real world is a challenging place to do research but the advantages are clear. The data collected reflects more natural behavior of participants and therefore your findings have greater relevance. Activity that would have otherwise have gone unnoticed can be observed. Qualitative data collected can inform future research. Another advantage is that you can interact with professionals who have their ear to the ground, which can lead to ideas for new studies. There are also some challenges. There is a greater probability that an external variable, not controlled for in your study, has influenced your findings. Natural environments lack the control of lab studies. It may be difficult to replicate a study when there are so many variables at play. Nevertheless, lab and naturalistic studies complement each other and there is a need for both in science. Advances in technology, such as tablet computers and smartphones, have made acquiring vast amounts of data in the ‘real world’ much easier. Researchers in TARG will continue to engage with the public in natural settings in the future and hopefully capture data that will inform people’s lifestyles and public health policy.

From ‘Canadia’ to Bristol and Back Again – My Adventures with TARG

By Meghan Chenoweth

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my connection with TARG, where I performed a one-month research exchange in the fall of 2013, started when I was a neophyte Pharmacology PhD student. In 2011, I had co-written a chapter with my supervisor Rachel Tyndale in the book “Genetic Influences on Addiction – An Intermediate Phenotype Approach”, for which Marcus Munafò served as an editor. Fast-forward a year later, and I am sitting in my living room in Toronto on a Saturday afternoon reading an email from Rachel asking if I would want to do a stint of training in the UK with Marcus. Opportunities included: working with data from a large cohort (1000s!) of adolescents, learning new analytical approaches, gaining perspectives on tackling research questions from a novel angle, and living in a new city for a month. My first response was: “When can I start?”

Marcus and I met at SRNT in early 2013 to discuss the opportunity in person, and over the next several months, plans were set in motion. With excitement and anticipation, I arrived in Bristol on a Saturday morning in October 2013 and checked into my accommodations on campus. My initial awe at what would be my home for the next month quickly turned to panic as I realized I forgot to pack a travel adapter. In quick succession, my laptop and cell phone died. I set out into the sunshine, jet-lagged and completely unfamiliar with my new surroundings, determined to find a travel adapter. I happened upon a local shop operated by an electrician and his wife, and after providing me with a travel adapter, they thanked me for bringing the sunshine with me from ‘Canadia’. They then proceeded to draw several maps of Bristol, recommending things to do and sights to see. This was only the beginning of an incredibly long list of kind people I either met or had the pleasure of working with in Bristol.

As I reflect on my time working and socializing with members of TARG, I realize I could probably fill an entire blog. I think it may be more palatable to summarize my more scholastic experiences in four short “lessons” I have learned. These, I think, are applicable to many fields and disciplines, not just research.

Bristolian Christmas steps
Bristolian Christmas Steps

Lesson #1: It is important to focus not only on the end result, but also the process used to get there

 One of the many great things about working in a talented epidemiology research group like TARG is gaining a true appreciation for the elegance of the analytic approaches used in epidemiologic studies. This is particularly true for longitudinal studies like ALSPAC, where repeated observation at the individual level occurs over many years. I am fortunate to have previously gained some exposure to longitudinal data analysis techniques through working with Jennifer O’Loughlin at the University of Montreal on the NDIT cohort. Fully immersing myself in TARG for a month was an excellent way to not only learn, but also to utilize these approaches in a hands-on manner. I enjoyed writing an ALSPAC research proposal, and having regular meetings with Marcus and Jon Heron. This, together with regular email contact with Rachel, helped guide our ideas and approach to set the collaboration in motion.

I feel that this experience broadened my view of how good research is conducted, in terms of study design and analytic approaches, and I find myself reading papers more critically now. There can be a natural tendency to focus on the outcome and interpretation of the outcome, rather than the process used to generate it. Without a sound process, however, the results are likely meaningless. This lesson was solidified for me by David Nutt during his plenary lecture at the Bristol Neuroscience Festival. In describing how the definition of ‘drug’ changes across disciplines, David Nutt humorously pointed out that pharmacologists define a drug as a substance, that when given to a rat, results in a scientific paper. After I had finished laughing and could hear myself think again, I realized it was a fine teachable moment for me as a budding researcher: never lose sight of the process.

Clifton Suspension Bridge
Clifton Suspension Bridge

Lesson #2: New perspectives on your own work can arise from sharing ideas with individuals from a variety of disciplines

 I learned rather quickly that TARG members are experts in social networking, after Jen Ware sent me my itinerary for the month. We later joked that I would be well hydrated, with daily coffee mornings and weekly pub nights with the School of Experimental Psychology. These were welcoming forums to chat with people from a variety of training levels and areas of expertise within psychology. In a formal conference setting, I have often felt intimidated to approach faculty members, even if I had rehearsed a specific question I wanted to ask (which never comes out quite how you intend). The informal psychology coffee mornings and pub nights, which junior graduate students through to senior faculty members attend, were settings very much conducive to conversation and the sharing of ideas.

View from Clifton Suspension Bridge
View from Clifton Suspension Bridge

Lesson #3: Planning and performing work in a novel environment is refreshing and restorative

Toward the end of my last week with TARG, I was completely surprised to feel so refreshed and ready to continue my projects back home. Working with TARG stimulated new ways of thinking about science and approaches I could use with my existing projects, which gave me a new energy with which to tackle them. I showed up to work early every morning during my first week back in Toronto, which I like to attribute to my newfound zest as opposed to jet lag…

Lesson #4: New collaborations continue long after they begin

This has to be the best part about establishing a new collaboration. I am happy to report that I am continuing to work on an analysis using ALSPAC data. I am too scared to count the number of times I have emailed Jon Heron asking for help, but he is always incredibly responsive. It continues to be a great learning exercise for me and I can honestly say I now view setbacks in a more positive light, as so much more is learned through active trouble-shooting.

I am indebted to Marcus and his group for warmly welcoming me to TARG and I am looking forward to staying in touch with them in the years to come. I think it goes without saying that I would highly recommend an exchange to any trainee that is presented with an opportunity to research abroad, especially with a group like TARG.

Meghan Chenoweth is currently completing her PhD in Pharmacogenetics at University of Toronto.

MRC celebration of international collaboration

Amy Taylor’s research, which relies heavily on international collaboration, has been awarded by the Medical Research Council in their Celebration of International Collaboration poster competition. Amy describes this work and the importance of international collaboration in her debut blog for TARG.

The Medical Research Council, one of the largest funding bodies for scientific research in the UK, celebrated its 100th birthday this year. To mark the occasion they have hosted a series of events in 2013, showcasing some of the incredible and life-changing discoveries that have been made by MRC scientists over the last century.

I was lucky enough to be part of the final event, a reception at the Royal Society on 10th December, celebrating a key aspect of the MRC’s work: international collaboration. They had invited MRC-funded early career researchers to submit abstracts explaining the importance of international collaboration to their work.  As one of the 10 shortlisted applicants, I was asked to turn this into a poster to display at the event.

Amy Taylor MRC international collaboration

My poster focused on CARTA, the consortium for Causal Analysis for Research in Tobacco and Alcohol, which is made up of over 30 studies from 9 different countries. We are investigating whether smoking causes a range of physical and mental health outcomes. To do this, we use a method of analysis called Mendelian randomisation, which uses a genetic variant related to smoking heaviness in the population. This type of analysis often requires large sample sizes and we can achieve this by combining information from different studies. To date, CARTA has data on over 100,000 individuals.  Forming CARTA has been one of my key roles in my first year since finishing my PhD and has taught me a great deal about the collaborative approach to scientific research.

The reception was a fantastic experience, highlighting the amazing breadth of the work of the MRC both past and present. We were treated to talks by eminent MRC researchers (including a Nobel prize winner) on developmental origins of disease, osteoporosis, HIV and TB and the structure of the ribosome.

Amy Taylor receiving her prize

For me personally, the event served as a reminder of why I have chosen this career path, which was sometimes easy to forget in the depths of PhD thesis writing! My fellow poster presenters worked on a diverse range of topics including bacterial motility, genetics of speech and language, childhood rickets in Bangladesh, zoonoses detection in Kenya and ageing in schizophrenia. It is easy to become very focused on your own tiny area of research, so it was great to have the opportunity to learn about other MRC-funded work from researchers at similar stages in their careers.

I was awarded second prize for my poster and received some funding to enable further collaboration. This can hopefully be used towards visits to meet some of my international CARTA colleagues, without whom the research I do would not be possible.

Dr Amy Taylor is a post-doc in TARG.