Engage 2019

Earlier this month I attended the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) Engage conference, the theme of which was ‘Disruption’. The conference took place in Bristol on the 4th and 5th December and was my first foray into public engagement conferences. 

The conference programme was filled with workshops, panel sessions and a ‘living library’, where you could ‘borrow’ a human book (chat with the author about their chosen topic). This was a world away from the familiar conference experience of sitting in one room for two days to hear multiple presentations with PowerPoint! 

At the end of day 1 I had the opportunity to present the Have You Heard? Project during the ‘poster party’. I loved the opportunity to share the project with delegates, to get some useful feedback and discuss our future plans. We are at an exciting time for the project, having recently launched our podcast and been awarded funding from the British Society for Immunology Communicating Immunology grant, so I’m looking forward to incorporating ideas into our new sessions. 

Photo credit: Dee-Ann Johnson

The most memorable workshop I attended was ‘Engaging with Disrupted communities’ with Sarah Buhler on day 2 of the conference. Sarah works with the Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC) project to provide legal services to underprivileged communities in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. During the workshop, we discussed the disruptive forces that have shaped our lives, be those historical, social, political or colonial. Through this exercise we were reminded of the importance to situate ourselves when working with community groups, as our background influences how we interact with individuals and our work. 

Finally, I would like to share some of Kimberley Freeman’s reflections from the closing plenary of the conference 

“Research is so often painfully disconnected from the people and places most impacted by it, and I think that is fundamentally a bad thing.” 

Kimberley’s speech summarised the overarching tone of the conference, of the need for change, and I believe left us all with something to think about. You can read the full blog of the speech here

Glasgow Science Festival 2019

When Have You Heard? was first dreamt up by a small group of friends over beers in the pub I don’t think any of us expected it to grow as it has! Over the last 2 years, the team has expanded and travelled across Greater Manchester, connecting adults with science in a community setting.

This month, we launched the Scottish chapter of HYH as part of Glasgow Science Festival. These events, held across a weekend during the Festival, were a bit of an experiment for the project. Usually we reach out to community groups and go to them in their existing community space. This time, we asked the public to come to us.

As nerve-wracking as that was, we needn’t have worried. On both days we had great individuals from across Glasgow join us in Govan Stones (go check them out – their exhibit is incredible!) who kindly hosted us & also provided much appreciated tea, coffee & cake!

We were excited to also have some new members from north of the border join the team to deliver parts of the session. Fingers crossed for more events in Scotland soon!

Bikram yoga: worth the heat?

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Is knotting yourself into a pretzel in a hot room better for you than trying the same thing at room temperature? A recent paper (featuring in the Express, Forbes & the Independent) asked that very question. This study was fairly well reported, with all three of the above news outlets choosing headlines that accurately reflected the research – good stuff! So with that in mind let’s take a look at the study.

Yoga comes in many shapes and sizes but this study focused on a style of yoga called Bikram yoga. Bikram, who’s founder has been in the headlines for some fairly unsavory accusations of late, follows the same strict series of 26 yoga poses at the nice and toasty temperature of 40.5ºC.

A previous study by the same group of scientists found that for people aged 40-60, 9 weeks of Bikram yoga improved how well endothelial cells worked (these are the cells that line the inside of your blood vessels, known to be involved in vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis). So this time the team wanted to work out whether these changes were due to the yoga, the heat it was done at or both.

To figure this out, participants were randomly assigned to either practice Bikram yoga 3 times a week for 12 weeks at the usual 40.5ºC, to do the same sequence at a more pleasant 23ºC or to do no yoga at all (the control group).

So how reliable is this research? Let’s check it out using our toolkit.

  1. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Experimental Physiology and the news articles above have accurate headlines and summaries of the research (Forbes get extra kudos for getting a quote from an independent researcher).
  2. The press release however fails to mention that the study only included 40-60 year olds, and according to the groups’ previous study the same effect just isn’t there for younger participants (sorry folks!)
  3. An obvious downside to studies like this is that all participants are obviously well aware of whether they are practicing yoga or not! This means that some measurements could be affected by the placebo effect. Though this is less likely for a study like this where results were drawn from X-ray scans and blood tests, as opposed to questionnaires of perceived pain for example, the researchers doing the measurements weren’t blinded (they knew what group each participant was in) meaning that some bias could have snuck into the data analysis.
    This is why a randomised double blind placebo-controlled trial is considered the ‘gold standard’ (double blind = neither the participant nor the researcher know which treatment or intervention the subject is receiving).
  4. It is worth considering that this study has shown an effect in only one type of yoga – in fact a previous study by the same group didn’t see any changes in vascular function when practicing hatha yoga twice a week, so is it that the Bikram yoga was practiced 3 times a week or is it the type of yoga? It’s very difficult to say.

To better understand whether yoga is beneficial or not overall, collecting many different studies together to look at all the available evidence is probably the best indicator. The Cochrane Library review and summarise all of the evidence that has been collected on a given treatment for a particular illness or benefit, from how to get kids to eat more fruit and veg to yoga for improving health and wellbeing.

Overall this study throws some more evidence into the ring that some types of yoga can be good for some people, sometimes.