Microbes red in tooth and claw: welcome Dr Mel Thomson to RealScientists

Our curator for this coming week is Dr Mel Thomson of the Molecular Medicine Research Facility at Deakin University School of Medicine, Geelong (about 100km south-west of Melbourne, Australia). Mel is a microbiologist, researching bacterial pathogenesis – how bacteria cause disease – with a particular focus on Helicobacter, the bacteria which cause stomach ulcers. She’s also very active in science communication, advocacy, crowdfunding and social media – check out her blog at http://drmelthomson.wordpress.com/ and follow her on Twitter at @Dr_Mel_Thomson (which she’d appreciate, as she’s hit Twitter’s arbitrary ‘2000 following’ limit and needs only a hundred or so more followers to get around it!)

Here’s Mel’s story, in her own words:

image_2I was interested in science from a very young age and would constantly dismember my dolls to see how they worked…which drove my family nuts (and beheaded many dolls). I had a brilliant teacher in Grade 5 who was all about maths and science and had us conducting experiments to answer posed questions like ‘Does salt lower the freezing temperature of water?’ (My very first official experiment at age 11. The answer is yes!)

I grew up on a farm, so had many opportunities to observe ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ first hand and am still using some of those empirical observations to inform my work today (like using medical maggots to heal wounds).

As the genetic revolution was starting around the time I was in high school, I decided I wanted to become an genetic engineer. I also had a passion for plants and then decided I would be the person to invent the Blue Rose. This was a much cherished ambition until I reached botany classes in my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. Boredom drove me from an interest in plant based genetics and into the Microbiology field (the subject I had taken to fill in my timetable between genetics and biochemistry)

My passion was then ignited for the ‘us versus them’ narrative of clinical microbiology and I when on to complete my Honours degree on the host-pathogen interactions between Rotavirus and mammalian cells. But my passion for a certain London Bobby also grew during my first degree and I married and emigrated to the UK in the same week of my degree ceremony.

I then worked as a research assistant at Great Ormond St Hospital in London, in the Immunobiology department at the Institute of Child Health. I was employed for my tissue culture skills to work on a project that was investigating a mouse model of oral tolerance to peanut antigens…in the hope of developing a treatment for life threatening peanut allergy.

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It was an interesting time to work at GOSH as they first cured a child of SCID using gene therapy whilst I was there (before the side effect of cancer was subsequently discovered) and was also during the time of the MMR debate. But living in London was too expensive for me to have a garden (and a dog!) so we decided to move to Yorkshire to enable us to have the rural idyll and a house that wasn’t attached to any others in the vicinity.

I got a job, again as a research assistant, at the Cancer Research UK department at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, again, based on my tissue culture skills. I worked on the role of CD40 and apoptosis in a bladder cancer model, using primary (non immortal) cells. But during this time, I became frustrated with the general perception that as I was ‘just an RA’ And while I was a ‘good pair of hands’ in the lab, I seemingly no active intellectual capacity attached about the neck.

I decided at this point to continue my scientific training and applied for PhDs. I was constantly knocked back for these positions, owing to the fact that UK educational institutions failed to understand the concept of the Australian Honours system and had a bias against more mature candidates (less malleable…!)

I then applied for a Masters of Research in Biomolecular Structure and Function at the University of York, to improve my chances of then getting a PhD scholarship and give myself a UK qualification to override my Australian degree. I was one of only two students to receive a distinction in this intensive one year course and then started door knocking with this qualification in hand for PhDs. Ironically, the same institutions that had refused my applications the year before all offered me scholarships but I decided to stay in the lab at the Biology department at York where I had done a Masters project. I got on well with the lab head (Dr James Moir) and after already spending 5 years post under grad in research labs as an RA, I knew that the relationship with your supervisor is the most important thing for ensuring success of your PhD project.

So began my 3 year PhD, funded by the BBSRC, working on the enzymes in the denitrification pathways of Neisseria meningitidis. It was a fruitful time (5 papers from my PhD in the end) but as my fertility clock was counting down, I decided to plan to have a baby during my ‘write up’ year. So, I finished my 3 years of lab work, heavily pregnant and gave birth to my son in Dec 2007.

After a few months at home with him, I started to get itchy feet and wanted to get back into the lab. I needed part time work with flexible working hours to care for my son (as well as work on my PhD thesis…the other baby!) so I took a job doing mmelanie-thomsonicrobiology QC in a local goat milk diary. That was an interesting 6 months but enabled me to get ‘back to work’ after a hiatus for child rearing… without the intellectual challenge of research science (for which I am eternally grateful!)

I managed to finish my thesis write up (no procrastinating as I was paying someone by the hour to mind my baby) and hand in almost on time for my deadline. I then did another short term project for my internal thesis examiner at the Hull York Medical School before securing a post doc position back at Jimmy’s Hospital in Leeds, at the shiny new Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine. It was to work for a member of the ‘Helicobacter Royalty’ (Professor Jean Crabtree), the woman who had discovered one of the major virulence factors of H. pylori earlier in her career. It was to work on a huge EU funded project being run across Europe and South America on host-pathogen interactions of a gastric microbe, so my research life had come full circle to gastrointestinal pathogens.

During this time, I tried to have a second baby…the first attempt ending in a late miscarriage. And while I was attempting to get pregnant for a third time (as sand in my fertility clock was rapidly disappearing) I decided to apply for a lecturing position at the Deakin Medical School in Geelong, so that I could bring my young family back to enjoy the Australian lifestyle. I was offered the position on the Thursday….and found I was pregnant on the Sunday. I still had 3 months notice period to work at Leeds before I could return to Australia to take up my new position and I arrived at Deakin 4 months pregnant.

I somehow managed to set up the rudiments of a research program in the 5 months before my daughter was born in Oct 2011 but owing to the archaic maternity leave system in Australia (based on years of service as opposed to the clinical needs of the mother and baby) I returned full time to work as the family bread winner 6 weeks after the birth. And didn’t get to take a day off for the subsequent 9 months as I had been compelled to take recreation leave in advance to get even as long as 6 weeks off post partum on full pay. (As to keep a roof over my family’s head)

The following year, I had two fabulous Honours students in the lab, one of who is still with me as my first PhD student (and she is fabulous!) I have slowly grown my research program to encompass local clinical microbiology concerns of my clinical collaborators like the Bairnsdale Ulcer and Implant infections.

My nascent science style is collaborative and driven by clinical need. As I work on some infections that are transmitted in an unknown way from the environment to human and animals, I embrace the ‘One Health’ multidisciplinary approach and also live by the ‘bench to bedside’ mantra. It makes my track record look completely random and hence I have also had to embrace non traditional funding models to support my research, like crowd funding. (See @mightymaggots and @hips4hipsters)

I like to communicate my science to anyone who will listen and can be found alternatively bending a politician’s ear about Emerging infectious disease threats or teaching preps how to form a hypothesis to test by experimentation using live maggots in any given week…and I am excited by the opportunity to take the reins of the @RealScientists account as it amplifies my signal and gives me more metaphorical ears to bend!

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Please welcome Mel to RealScientists!

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Adiós, Monica – A farewell to a science communicator extraordinaire.

“Nine year old me would have loved to become a scientist, except I didn’t know what that meant. I had never met a scientist. I thought science was done elsewhere, by people who looked nothing like me.”

The quote above, taken from our introductory post earlier this week, lies at the heart of why Mónica Feliú-Mójer (@moefeliu) is so passionate about science outreach and communication. In addition to her role as Manager of Outreach at the University of Washington Department of Biostatistics, she is also the vice-director and news editor of Ciencia Puerto Rico (@CienciaPR), an organisation which utilises social media and social networks to engage both scientists and lay audiences in science communication and education with a focus on the Spanish-language community. Monica spent her time at the helm of @realscientists discussing the importance of science outreach to underserved communities, focusing on the importance of context, cultural relevance, and language in translating scientific research and concepts to a lay audience, as well as on the use of social media in doing outreach work, collaboration, as well as as a source of professional opportunities.

To sum up:

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Monica also led a conversation on diversity in science, noting the need for an intentional approach to diversity training that focuses on accountability and actionable strategies – and that diversity in this instance isn’t restricted to race, sexuality, gender, and class, but also diversity in disciplines, asking (and leading a discussion) on diverse, interdisciplinary teams in scientific research. She also took a brief look at the buzz around Big Data and the problem of a lack of statisticians in Big Data, which has led to significant (and alarming) errors in the interpretation and application of scientific research.

Truth be told, we can’t do Monica’s work on @realscientists justice in a single post. We strongly encourage you to go back and re-visit her tweets from the past week (check out the Storify) and follow the conversation on the @realscientists account. After all, it’s a conversation worth having.

Numbers never lie: welcome Dr Mónica Feliú-Mójer to RealScientists

‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’, 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was supposed to have once said. However, since that line was likely made up by Mark Twain, ‘making up quotes about people’ should possibly be included as a fourth category. Statistics have come a long way since Disraeli’s prime ministership in the 1800s – even since his name was coopted into the title of Cream’s best album in the 1960s. Indeed, in the big-data era, statistics are crucial to making sense of science. Even in biology – especially in biology – which is disappointing for everyone who went into biology because they didn’t like maths. *raises hand sheepishly*

It’s the job of our next curator to make biostatistics make sense to people. Dr Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, aka @moefeliu, is the Manager of Outreach at the University of Washington Department of Biostatistics (@UWBiostat). She is also the vice-director and news editor-in-chief of Ciencia Puerto Rico (@CienciaPR), an organization leveraging social networks to engage scientists in science communication and education. RealScientists followers will recall @CienciaPR through our former curator Dr Greetchen Diaz. Mónica’s bilingual outreach efforts focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics and opportunities, as well as increasing diversity in science and science communication. In 2013, she received the COPUS Paul Shin Memorial Award for her efforts to increase public understanding of science among Hispanic audiences. Her work has been featured on international media outlets, such as Univisión and VOXXI, among others. And this week, she’s featuring on RealScientists!

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How and why did you end up in science?

I was a scientist by vocation before I was one by training. Growing up in a home in rural Puerto Rico, nature was the ‘play laboratory’ where I developed an intense interest in science. I collected rocks, had pet-lizards, and wanted to understand how things around me worked. Nine-year-old me would have loved to become a scientist, except I didn’t know what that meant. I had never met a scientist. I thought science was done elsewhere, by people who looked nothing like me.

Then when I was 11 years old, a very personal experience got me interested in the brain and how it affects behavior. So, early on, I wanted to become a psychiatrist because it was the only profession I knew about that was related to the brain.

Once in college, two words changed my life: “Try research,” said my freshman Biology professor (first scientist I ever met), as she handed me an application for a summer research program. After my first month in the laboratory, the thrill of discovery got me hooked on research and I decided I wanted to become a research scientist. That initial experience introduced me to neuroscience, the field where I eventually earned my Ph.D.

Why did you choose your current field, and what keeps you there?

When I moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to pursue a research career, I wanted to be able to stay connected to my community. One of the strongest motivators for me to go train in the U.S. was to be able to use my knowledge and experiences to contribute to the advancement of science in Puerto Rico. Originally, I thought I would accomplish that by coming back to Puerto Rico after completing my Ph.D.

Even before I started my Ph.D. (I did a three-year stint as a research technician at MIT before starting my Ph.D. at Harvard) I kept thinking: “I want to give back. I want to pay it forward.” In 2006 I found a way to do this when I became involved with Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that uses social networking to connect and engage members of the Puerto Rican scientific community with science communication and education. Long story short, it was through my volunteer work with this organization that I discovered my current path as an outreach scientist and science communicator.

As a child, I didn’t have any scientific role models and mentors, or many science education resources in school. Having experienced many of the challenges that keep students from developing an interest in science, and the science literacy and problem solving skills needed to thrive in the complex world we live in, I have a strong interest in using my scientific training to bring science to the masses, particularly young people who, like me, do not see themselves readily represented in science. Having the opportunity to share science, to educate and inspire people through science is what moves me. It gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me up working late at night.

Mónica collecting her PhD from Harvard

Tell us about your work, and why people should be interested in it?

I am the Manager of Outreach at the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington, Seattle (UW). In this role I lead, create and maintain a range of outreach efforts to attract attendees to Departmental programs such as the Summer Institutes, a series of short intensive modules in basic and advanced biostatistical principles and methods (which I also co-coordinate). I do outreach to alumni and the general academic community. I help create awareness about biostatistics and the research and people in the department among lay audiences through news articles and social media. I am also creating initiatives that will allow scientists and students in the department to reach out to K-12 students, something that has never been formally done in the department and for which I am very excited. This position allows me to combine my experiences as a research and an outreach scientist and my passion for sharing science.

Before working in a biostatistics department, I had a limited impression of the breadth of the applications and research topics in the field. I thought biostatistics had to do with clinical trials and not much else. Since then have learned that biostatistics is so much more! Biostatisticians develop the tools that allow scientists to interpret and exploit data from the genomes of humans and other organisms; to help law enforcement combat wildlife crime; and to predict the transmission patters of infectious diseases, among many other things. I have gained a great appreciation for the interdisciplinarity of the field. Biostatistics is a field where biology, public health, math and computer science come together.

I like to say that biostatisticians help makes sense of data and turn it into useful knowledge. It is a very exciting field. We live in an increasingly data-centric world, and biostatistics’ will help provide answers to some of today’s most pressing challenges, from science to business and finance.

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Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am the volunteer vice-director and news editor of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). It is through my work with this organization that my passion for making science accessible and relevant to underserved audiences is most powerfully realized. For CienciaPR, I write about science for lay audiences and help fellow scientists do the same (in Spanish and English). I blog. I co-created, co-edited and was a contributing author for the book ¡Ciencia Boricua!, an anthology of multidisciplinary easy-to-understand science essays written by scientists for the general public and the first book to actively contextualize science to the Puerto Rican reality, by making science meaningful and relatable. I mentor students. I tweet. I am also heavily involved with the administration of the organization. I get to be inspired everyday by working with a passionate team of volunteers who are committed about promoting science and research.

I also speak publicly about my experiences as a Latina woman in science and a Spanish-language science communicator. I use contextually-relevant and experiential-based lessons to make science and scientific role models accessible to underserved audiences.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I love to read. Unfortunately I don’t have as much time to read as I would like. I enjoy being outdoors. Strolling through the park, hiking or just sitting outside in the sun. I also love baseball, wine and beer tasting and chocolate.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

Sitting at the beach on a nice sunny day, with a good book, good music on my iPod. No cell phones, no emails. It’s one of the things I miss the most about living on a tropical island.

Skydive

Or failing that, jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane…

Please welcome Mónica to RealScientists!

X-ray Precision: Thanks and Farewell, Dr David Briggs

We bid a fond farewell to charismatic crystallographer Dr David Briggs, tweeting live from the University of Manchester in this International Year of Crystallography.  Coincidentally, this was also the week of a famous and pioneering crystallographer,  Nobel Laureate Dr Dorothy Hogkin’s birthday. Dorothy Hodgkin was responsible for decoding many early protein structures, including insulin.

 

What is crystallography? Well, we’ll let Dr Dave explain in his own words:

“Shooting X-rays at crystals’ sounds like the most fun ever and something out of a science fiction battle, in fact, many countries now build synchrotrons to help them produce the X-rays needed for such work. Crystallography is a hugely important process in determining structures of proteins, which in turns allows us to identify where we can target drugs to treat diseases. David’s own work on arthritis looks at possible drug targets to help treat this curiously modern disease.  Most of these structures are also freely available, as David pointed out, in the Protein Data Bank, which also reached 100,000 structures this week.100000PDB

Dave’s lab is  a typical molecular biology lab space; small, crowded with solutions and very precisely regulated!  If you know a molecular biologist, or protein chemist, this is what their work place looks like. Those funny blue things are Gilson pipettes that help deliver tiny microlitre quantities of solutions for the very tiny experiments of structural biology.

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As well as taking us on a tour of how to make tiny protein crystals, David found himself in JRR Tolkien’s old haunts in Kirkwood.  We thanks David for his awesome week of molecular biology, be sure to follow him on his adventures on his regular account, @xtaldave, or via his about.me profile. If you missed out on anything, catch up via RealScientists on Storify.

Next week: @UWBiostat Outreach Manager and @CienciaPR vice-director, Dr Mónica Feliú-Mójer aka @moefeliu.

Dr David Briggs brings some Structure to Real Scientists!

Dave-QEDThis week we are pleased to welcome Dr David Briggs to the @realscientists steering wheel.  David is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manchester, UK, and answered our welcome-exam questions with style.

Why/How did you end up in science?

Science is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at, academically speaking. My Dad is a vet, and with his influence I think I was always going to so something in the life sciences field. My interest in chemistry at A-level (16-18) lead me to study biochemisty at University in Birmingham.

Why did you choose your current field and what keeps you there?

Whilst at Birmingham, I became fascinated by protein structure and function. My final year project was a protein structure modelling project, and my supervisor suggested that I go for a Masters degree in Structural Biology at Birkbeck College in London. Whilst there I was given the opportunity to go for a PhD, which I took. The rest, as they say, is history. The real appeal of solving protein structures is that until you tell someone or publish the structure, you’ve been the first human being ever to see what that protein looks like, and to see how it folds, and how its structure relates to its function. I imagine it’s the closest I’m going to get to finding out that I’m pregnant. Until I tell someone, that’s my little secret. That’s kind of cool .

Tell us about your work?

I’m a structural biologist/biophysicist, studying molecular mechanisms of arthritis at the University of Manchester, UK. I primarily use protein crystallography to study what the protein molecules inside us look like, and how their structures are related to their various functions. In addition to this, I uses various biophysical techniques to examine how proteins interact with each other to regulate their different functions. Currently, I’m studying a complex proteoglycan (a molecule composed of proteins and sugars) found in our blood stream. This molecule (called Inter-alpha-inhibitor, or “IaI” for short) can leak into our joints during as a result of inflammation caused by diseases like osteoarthritis. I’m currently trying to figure out whether or not the IaI in arthritic joints is a good thing – it is part of the bodies attempt to repair damaged cartilage tissues or is it part of the problem – does it damage the cartilage? This work is funded by Arthritis Research UK.

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research?

IF you live long enough, YOU ARE GOING TO GET ARTHRITIS. The load bearing structures in our joints like cartilage haven’t evolved to support us for our 80+ year life spans. It’s also likely that you aren’t going to get arthritis before you have had children, so there is no selective pressure to evolve joints that can regenerate. By the time the disease has hit, you’ve already passed on your genetic information to the next generation. The World Health organisation estimates that 9.6% of men and 18.0% of women aged over 60 years have symptomatic osteoarthritis. As populations age and working age extends into later life, this is going to have a significant burden on our healthcare systems. At the moment, Arthritis can only be treated symptomatically. Anything we can do to understand the progression of Osteoarthritis is going to help future drug design efforts.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

When not doing science, I look after my two sons: James (10) and Harry (7). I also have a very sporadic blog, a crippling addiction to coffee and an out-of-control twitter habit. I enjoy real ale, cooking, and eating what I’ve cooked. Washed down with real ale, of course. I then walk up hills in a vain attempt to shed the pounds.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

Late start. Cooked breakfast. Long country walk to a decent pub for lunch. Boozy pub lunch. Walk home again. Fall asleep by the fire with a glass of a good peaty malt whisky. Heaven.

Now that is an admirable day off.  Please welcome Dr David Briggs/@xtaldave to Real Scientists!

A warm farewell to Santiago de la Peña! (See what we did there?)

And so the time has come to farewell our curator for the past week, Dr. Santiago de la Peña of the Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus, Ohio. Over the last week, Santiago has taken us to Greenland and Iceland and given us a handy crash course in glaciers, dynamic thinning, melt (and the alarming rate at which it is increasing), as well as the not insignificant changes to sea ice volumes and cover over the years as a result of climate change. As Santiago points out, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal”.

As the atmosphere and oceans become warmer, the amounts of snow and ice in these diminish, leading to a rise in sea levels.

Very sobering thoughts indeed, and while these are all important and interesting topics to be sure, did you know that unlike beer, single malt whisky will not, in fact, freeze on a glacier?

Guys, this is a very useful thing to know.

And it seems our followers agree!

We also discovered that while the glaciologist’s life is not all glamour and glitz (digging snow pits and cursing at computers, anyone?), there are still some perks to be enjoyed. Namely, this view:

And maybe this one, too:

How about this one?

You can see more photos – and catch up on Santiago’s tweets – via Storify. Thank you for participating, Santiago! And folks, be sure to follow him on Twitter at @ice_santiago.

Where in the World is Dr Santiago? Santiago de la Peña joins Real Scientists

This week we’re leaving the Australasia region completely and heading over to the United States of America, with a layover in Greenland! Dr Santiago de la Peña is a research scientist from the 1754_1033131783655_769_nByrd Polar Research Center in Columbus, Ohio. The BPRC is all about polar and alpine research, looking at things like the changing of land-shape over millions of years, effectors of the global climate system, and the history of exploration – all within the polar (or alpine) regions.

Santiago is currently a NASA-funded investigator, and combines satellite observations of volume changes of the Greenland ice sheet with information about the snow and ice structure they acquire in the field each year. They study changes in the ice structure, monitor melt intensity, and assess overall climatological conditions in the Greenland interior. The aim of their work is to improve estimates of the yearly contribution of the Greenland ice sheet to sea level rise through its melting and ice dynamics (commonly known as icebergs calving).

We asked Santiago why he ended up in science:

“Since I was a kid, I been often surprised by some of the beautifully simple explanations that science provides. Yet, learning science made me also realize how complex and vast our world is, and how much there is still to discover. Working in Earth Sciences, I have the fortune of experiencing that sense of wonder every day.

Growing up, I loved going out camping, hiking and such; I always wondered about the weather, why suddenly we could not go outside, and why we couldn’t predict it better. I also was a bit of a computer geek as a boy, which led me to study for my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. While studying, I found out about remote sensing, which is basically techniques used to measure geophysical phenomena from a distance, such as satellite imagery, radiometers, lidar, radar, etc. I enrolled in the University of Colorado at Boulder, and decided to study remote sensing in graduate school, and specialized in radar remote sensing. I think I have been very fortunate, and everything fell in to place from there.”

And the ever-important question – how did you end up in your current field of study, and what keeps you there?

“I visited Antarctica for the first time as a graduate student, and I can single out this experience as the life-changing event that led me to where I am now professionally. The diverse group of scientists I met, and the wide spectrum of research projects that were being conducted in Antarctica was an inspiration and a wakeup call to me. In my own studies, I was just beginning to understand how all Earth systems were linked, but not until I experienced standing on the bigger ice sheets of the planet that I truly comprehended how vast our world is, and how fragile we are. Besides my love for glaciers and the cold regions, I believe that the cryosphere plays such a huge part in Earth dynamics, and I believe we should be paying more attention to the changes occurring in the polar regions, and how it affects us and our environment.”542127_3968926336684_893983922_n

With so much research funding coming from the tax payer, and with an eye towards improving science literacy across the globe, we asked Santiago for his motivation, and to tell us why he thinks the lay public should care about his research?

It is all about the big picture. In a sense, my research may appear a bit technical, but the changes in the Polar Regions could have serious consequences to our way of life. There is no place where global warming manifests more severely than in the Arctic, with warming several degrees higher than the departure seen on a global average. Recent warming trends at high latitudes have raised concern regarding the current state and dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and there is serious concern about the effects of melt in Greenland could have on sea level, and on the thermohaline circulation, of which the gulf stream is part of. The consequences are still a matter of debate, but extreme weather events are starting to be linked to these changes. Many regions may become unsuitable for human life, and economic activities may as well be disrupted.”

So, with that rather sombre thought; please welcome Dr Santiago de la Peña /@ice_santiago to Real Scientists!