The neuroscientist who champions LGBT+ equal rights

The neuroscientist who champions LGBT+ equal rights

This Cambridge Life

The neuroscientist who champions LGBT+ equal rights

Duncan Astle

Duncan Astle is a neuroscientist on a mission to understand why the brains of some children develop differently to others – and how it affects not just their education but their lives. He also chairs the University’s LGBT+ Staff Network. He talks about the Network’s recent decision to sign a declaration that trans rights are human rights.

We study the developing brain in children – how it changes as children grow and the different factors that can shape it. We’re super interested in children who are in mainstream education but who are really struggling – so they might be three or four years behind where they are expected to be.

Our feeling is that the way these kids have been studied in the past has been too simplistic. If you try to put kids into neat groups, you miss lots of information. We believe that the variability between children isn’t noise to be controlled for, it’s something interesting to be studied. 

It’s vital to take this variability seriously as the pathways that kids are on can last a lifetime. There are knock-on consequences not just in terms of how they do at school, but also in how they transition into the work force, and their physical and mental health over time – affecting them as individuals, their communities and society more broadly.

One of the really big things that our research has shown is that a child’s diagnostic label doesn’t really predict the kind of areas of difficulty they have, and the diagnosis just doesn’t provide enough useful information to the teachers. When you say this to some people in our field they are horrified – they basically think you are a heretic. But when you go into a school and say that to teachers, they say: “well I could have told you that years ago!”

My favourite part of my job is the people I get to work with. They are very fun and very smart, and their conversations are vitalising.

I feel really lucky that in my research unit there are a number of out LGBT+ people. This visibility for members of the LGBT+ community can be transformative. We also have the rainbow flag up all year round – this creates an environment where you give everyone permission to be themselves.

One of the challenges for the LGBT+ community is to make sure that young people have diverse role models. I remember when I was a kid there weren’t really gay people I could look at and think: “I can identify with that, that feels like me, I can see myself in that scenario.” I think visibility matters.

Outside of the lab I’m part of the University’s LGBT+ Staff Network. I was asked if I would take a turn at chairing the group and so at the beginning of 2020, just before the first lockdown, I took up this position. 

The network is a mouthpiece to give voice to the concerns of the LGBT+ community in Cambridge. It’s also really good fun. Even in lockdown we’ve watched films together via Zoom – my knowledge of Queer cinema has improved dramatically over the last 12 months! 

Last autumn the LGBT+ Staff Network signed Stonewall’s declaration: ‘trans rights are human rights.’ The ongoing narrative and public discourse surrounding trans and non-binary people is overwhelmingly negative, and we wanted to say publicly that we are not okay with that. This declaration is so important as it sends a powerful message to trans-communities and everyone else that employers are on their side. 

I think as a country, we’re still at the stage where things can be said that sound superficially okay but are actually transphobic. We’ve become better at spotting homophobia dressed up as ‘legitimate concerns’, but we’re way behind when it comes to recognising transphobia for what it is. 

The UK is an increasingly hostile environment for trans and non-binary people. Recent data shows that in a 12-month period around 41% of trans people and 31% of non-binary people will experience a hate crime, and those levels are rising. 

A vocal minority seek to erase the identities of trans and non-binary folks and try to constrain or remove their rights. It is rare for a news piece about trans people to feature the voice or perspective of an actual trans person. This creates a fertile ground for a general campaign of misinformation. This happens in the outside world, but it can also happen in universities too. 

We want to make our institution as inclusive as possible and do everything we can to shift the wider conversation on to things that actually matter. It’s time to stop debating other people’s right to exist, and start discussing important stuff like how we improve access to quality support and healthcare. 

Duncan will speak about his research on the impact of COVID on young people's mental health at the Cambridge Festival. He will join with other leading academics to discuss: how does insecurity impact wellbeing? The event will take place on Saturday 3 April 1pm – 2pm GMT. Book your free place. 

He is a Programme Leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, and a Fellow of Robinson College. In 2020 he won the Established Academic Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact Award.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Michael Chapman.

HeLa: the cells that changed science

HeLa: the cells that changed science

HeLa: the cells that changed science

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells with cytoskeletal microtubules via WikiCommons

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells with cytoskeletal microtubules via WikiCommons

Discover the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells enabled a scientific revolution and contributed to numerous incredible developments and life-saving treatments in a special book club as part of the Cambridge Festival 2021 in partnership with the Gurdon Institute.

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945-1950.

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945-1950.

In 1951, a mother of five sadly passed away from cervical cancer at the age of 31. Her name was Henrietta Lacks but she would become known throughout the science community simply as HeLa.

Born in 1920, Henrietta grew up in rural Virginia and after the death of her mother, Eliza Pleasant, in 1924, her father, John Randall Pleasant,  moved with his 10 children to Clover, Virginia, where he divided them among relatives to be raised. Henrietta was thus raised by her grandfather alongside her future husband, Day Lacks. Henrietta and Day would go on to marry and have five children of their own.

In 1951, Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, complaining she felt a "knot" in her womb. Upon examination, gynaecologist Dr Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumour on her cervix. At the time, The Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans.

Image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue) via WikiCommons

Image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue) via WikiCommons

Extensive treatment, including radium treatments cited as the best medical treatment available at the time, began. It was during this treatment, that a sample of Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken, without her knowledge, and sent to the lab of cell biologist, Dr George Gey.

For years, Dr Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer to try and culture these cells. But each sample quickly died in the lab. 

However, he would soon find out that Henrietta’s cells were something quite different. 

Little did Henrietta, and her family, know that those little cells taken from her on that day in 1951 would become crucial for understanding viruses, developing vaccines and devising treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukaemia, Parkinson’s and more.

As part of the Cambridge Festival, we are inviting you to read (or reread) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, join us in reflecting on Henrietta’s life and story and to discover the science behind her immortal cells. Through our website, you will be able to find a number of resources and ideas to help guide you. 

If you already run a book club and are choosing to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you will be able to ‘borrow a scientist’ to join in on your (virtual) meetings to discuss the current research that is taking place, thanks to Henrietta’s cells.

If you’re looking to start a book club then great news! We have gathered together some handy resources to help you get started and join in.

Got questions about HeLa cells or what it is like working in a lab? Maybe you want to know what is happening in research at the moment? You will be able to submit your questions via the website where it will be answered by one of our scientists from across Cambridge. 

What would you say to Henrietta if you could? Has her story resonated with you? Have you been inspired?

We are collecting responses to Henrietta’s story and are inviting you to get involved. We would love you to be creative in your writing. You can write your letter online and send it to us by email - or if you prefer to write by pen, or pencil, you can take a photograph of the letter and send it to us. Another idea is to record a video of you reading your letter to Henrietta - and send this to us too!

On Thursday 1st April, we will be holding an online book club in partnership with Cambridge University Library’s successful The Really Popular Book Club

Joining us to discuss the book, and how Henrietta Lacks’ cells are still making an impact today, are two scientists whose fields of research have been greatly influenced by Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells; Professor Andrea Brand, Gurdon Institute, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge and Professor Nick Hopwood, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. 

As well as hearing from our researchers, we will be opening the floor up to you to share your own observations and ask questions.

For more information visit our website or contact the team on 

Background image: Hélène Doerflinger

Image: Helene Doerflinger-Bouqueniaux

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Surgeons at work in an operating theatre

Scientists launch a pre-emptive strike on deadly post-transplant infection

23 Feb 2021

A potential new treatment to protect immunosuppressed patients from human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) has been discovered by scientists at the University of Cambridge. Their study shows that certain epigenetic inhibitors expose and help to destroy dormant HCMV infections, which often reactivate to cause serious illness and death in these vulnerable groups. Subject to clinical trials, their proposed ‘shock and kill’ treatment strategy offers hope to transplant patients across the world.

Read more

The cosmologist modelling the Universe with maths

The cosmologist modelling the Universe with maths

This Cambridge Life

The cosmologist modelling the Universe with maths

Dr Tobias Baldauf standing in front of a blackboard with equations written on it in chalk

Dr Tobias Baldauf likes nothing better than seeing an equation ‘cross reality’. His work is helping us to answer some of the remaining questions about the Universe.

My research is concerned with the history and composition of the Universe. But I study just one tiny piece of this complex puzzle. Through the use of mathematics and computational modelling, I describe how stuff – that is matter and galaxies – is distributed throughout the Universe.

This distribution is called the Large-Scale Structure (LSS). The maps we produce of the LSS look a bit like a sponge, with holes of nothingness within the matter. The map is really a pattern of threads that connect denser dots where you have accumulations of galaxies.

I build computational models to describe this distribution. I use a mixture of methods from theoretical physics, but I also design and run simulations on supercomputers. I enjoy the practical programming component of this work.

 Large-Scale Structure of the Universe

Large-Scale Structure simulation

Large-Scale Structure simulation

Hopefully through this research we can understand more about how these structures were created, shed some light on what makes the expansion of the Universe accelerate, and determine whether Einstein’s general relativity is the correct description of gravitational interactions.

Our modelling efforts are aimed at analysing ambitious astronomical surveys that map the galaxy distribution in the Universe. Over the past three decades, we have gained a lot of insights from observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background – an afterglow of the Big Bang that is providing us with a ‘baby’ picture of the Universe. But now we are trying to extract information from the LSS in the late-time Universe, which is more difficult to model because of its non-linear nature.

It’s amazing and beautiful how a mathematical theory is able to cross reality. I find it incredible that maths can be used to help us to understand something so vast and incomprehensible as the Universe. It’s almost unbelievable that you can simply sit down at your desk and work with these equations.

From the outside perspective, general relativity or matter distribution in the Universe might sound like extremely abstract and difficult concepts. But it’s like everything, once you’ve looked at something for long enough it becomes familiar and you develop an intuition for how to deal with it. It’s a craft that I wouldn’t say is any more difficult or admirable than someone building a beautiful wall with bricks.

I’ve always been interested in how things work, and this curiosity has never left me. Whether it’s the distribution of galaxies, aircraft or space rockets. When aerial photography began to be used in nature documentaries, I wanted to understand how the technology worked, so I ordered a kit and assembled my own drone on my kitchen table.

I first picked up a camera aged 16. I was trying to capture not just a snapshot of the world but aiming to convey some sort of emotion with the photograph. This is the sort of challenge I find very interesting.

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Ariel view of Cambridge
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Boy playing harp in street