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Frances Arnold

Nobel Prize winning chemist Frances Arnold left home at 15 and went to school ‘only when she felt like it’. She disagreed with her parents about the Vietnam war and drove big yellow taxis in Pittsburgh to pay the rent.
Decades later, after several changes of direction (from aerospace engineer to bio-tech pioneer), she invented a radical new approach to engineering enzymes. Rather than try to design industrial enzymes from scratch (which she considered to be an impossible task), Frances decided to let Nature do the work. ‘I breed enzymes like other people breed cats and dogs’ she says.

While some colleagues accused her of intellectual laziness, industry jumped on her ideas and used them in the manufacture of everything from laundry detergents to pharmaceuticals.
She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from taxi driver to Nobel Prize, personal tragedy mid-life and why advising the White House is much harder than doing scientific research.

Sir Martin Landray

Who could forget the beginning of 2020, when a ‘mysterious viral pneumonia’ emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Soon, other countries were affected and deaths around the world began to climb. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, there were no proven treatments to help prevent those deaths.

As the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the UK and the rest of the world braced itself for what was to come, doctor and drug-trial designer Martin Landray had his mind on a solution, devising the protocol, or blueprint, for the world’s largest drug trial for Covid-19.

As Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Oxford University, Martin was perfectly positioned to jump, delivering what became known as the RECOVERY Trial. The trial was tasked to deliver clarity amid the predicted chaos of the pandemic and galvanised every acute NHS hospital in the UK. Within its first one hundred days, it had yielded three major discoveries and it has transformed Covid-19 treatment worldwide, already saving over a million lives. Sir Martin Landray was recently knighted for this work and RECOVERY’s legacy lives on, not just for Covid. Martin plans to revolutionise drug trials for other diseases too.

How Covid Changed Science, part 3

In the third and final part of our series How Covid Changed Science, Devi Sridhar Professor of Global Health at Edinburgh University looks at the legacy and lessons of the pandemic for scientific research. Tackling the virus became a global issue, but many have pointed out the inequality of both resources and effort in the response. Going forward do we need to be directing research more towards improving health and disease surveillance in less wealthy parts of the world, would investing there help prevent future pandemics?

How Covid Changed Science, part 2

In the second of our series How Covid Changed Science, Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Health at Edinburgh University looks at the scientific messaging. Just how do you explain to both politicians and the public that a growing global pandemic is likely to kill many people, and unprecedented measures such as a nationwide lockdown are needed to prevent even more deaths. What information should be imparted and how?

Similarly how to address the clamour for information on the development of vaccines and other potential treatments when there often wasn’t clarity? And with the rise of misinformation how did individual scientists who became the subject of conspiracy theories cope with being targeted?

In this programme we hear from scientists and politicians directly involved with the pandemic response. For some the experience of explaining their often highly technical research to the general public was a daunting experience. For others it became a mission to answer the publics concerns and fears.

How Covid changed science, part 1

The global Covid pandemic was a wake up call for the scientific community. With remarkable speed and agility a massive global effort was soon underway – to turn existing science to tackle the immediate threat of the pandemic and invent new science with a longer term aim of protecting the global population from the new pathogen.

The old ways of ‘doing science’ changed but was that entirely for the better and is such change permanent ?

Until 2020 developing a new drug took at least 15 years. Scientists by and large competed with each other, were somewhat secretive about their research and only shared their data once publication was secured. And the public and the press had no interest in the various early phases of clinical trials. An incremental scientific step possibly on the road to somewhere was simply not newsworthy. Face masks were the preserves of hypochondriacs in the Far East, with no scientific evidence base for their use.
Now the findings of research are published as soon as they are ready, often before they have been peer reviewed they are being openly discussed in social media.

This series documents the key changes in science which the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about.

The speed of research, collaboration between science and industry, and public perception of science are areas that have undergone incredible and likely permanent change. Devi Sridhar asks which of these changes increase or decrease the public’s trust in science. And what the direction should be now for a more joined up global response to infectious disease.

Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Health at Edinburgh University hears from scientists in a variety of fields, whose working lives and practices have been affected, in some cases revolutionised by the pandemic.

Satellites versus the stars

If you look up into the night sky, there are around 7,000 active satellites orbiting the Earth. They’re part of our daily life – essential for things like the internet, the GPS in our cars and giving us weather reports. Seven thousand might not sound a lot in the infinite expanses of space. But the reality is that most satellites are found in a small slice of the solar system - called Lower Earth Orbit - and countries and satellite companies are planning to launch hundreds of thousands more in the next decade. So things are about to get crowded. In this week’s Discovery, Jane Chambers speaks to scientists, astronomers from the ALMA Observatory in Chile, space environmentalists and satellite companies like SpaceX about the benefits of this explosion in mega satellite constellations, as well as the unintended consequences to those who value a clear and unhindered view of the stars.

Picture: Radio Telescopes at ALMA Observatory in the north of Chile, Credit: Jane Chambers

Plant based promises, diet and health

Giles Yeo learns how to make a Thai green curry with Meera Sodha. This is a recipe without meat or prawns but with tofu and lots of vegetables. If we need to eat less meat and dairy to help prevent global warming- what difference will altering our diets make to our health. For a long time now people have been urged to cut down on red meat and processed foods but if you have been eating them all your life it takes an effort to develop new habits. Plant based products that can replace for example dairy milks, cheeses, sausages, burgers and meat based dishes such as lasagne can be helpful in making this transition but are they healthier?

Plant based promises, sustainability

In Plant Based Promises, Giles Yeo a foodie and academic at Cambridge University, asks how sustainable are commercial plant based products?
This is a fast growing sector with a potential value of $162 billion by 2030. Giles travels to the Netherlands Food Valley to look at companies developing plant based alternatives and to find out what role they have to play in changing diets.
And Giles designs, his own plant based Yeo Deli range online, but discovers that new markets are already causing shortages of alternative proteins so what will the future look like?

In 2019 the Eat Lancet Commission set up specific targets for a healthy diet and sustainable food production. The aim was to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees and to be able to feed the world’s 10 billion people by 2050.
The Commission’s recommendations are best visualised as a plate of food, half fruits vegetables and nuts and the other half whole grains, beans, legumes and pulses, plant oils and modest amounts of meat and dairy. Is there room on the plate for Giles Yeo Deli Baloney range.

Plant based promises, rise of the plant based burger

In Plant Based Promises, foodie, researcher and broadcaster Giles Yeo looks at the science behind plant based diets and the increasing number of plant based products appearing in supermarkets and restaurants. The market for plant based products could be worth $162 billion in the next ten years and Giles asks how sustainable and healthy the products are and the role they play in decreasing the world's carbon footprint.

Globally food production accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gases. In the UK we eat over six times the amount of meat and more than twice the amount of dairy products recommended to prevent the global temperature increasing more than 1.5 degrees C, after which extreme weather events become more severe. But eating less meat and dairy means new protein sources from plants are needed and how easy or practical is it for people to change their diets? Veganuary, where people pledge to go vegan for the month of January show that people are willing to change what they eat for a variety of reasons including animal welfare, sustainability and health.

In programme one Giles, an expert on food intake looks at some of the foods being developed to replace animal based foods and looks at alternatives to the iconic cheeseburger. Giles meets biochemist Professor Pat Brown founder of Impossible Burgers, a Silicon Valley start up making burgers from genetically modified yeast to replicate the taste of meat.

But from high tech to the artisanal, sisters Rachel and Charlotte Stevens missed eating cheese so much they are now making cheese alternatives using traditional moulds, cultures and aging techniques while replacing dairy ingredients with nuts.

The mysterious particles of physics, part 3

The smaller the thing you look at, the bigger the microscope you need to use. That’s why the circular Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where they discovered the Higgs boson is 27 kilometres long, and its detectors tens of metres across. But to dig deeper still into the secrets of the Universe, they’re already talking about another machine 4 times bigger, to be built by the middle of the century. Roland Pease asks if it’s worth it.

The mysterious particles of physics, part 2

Episode 2: Lost in the Dark

Physics is getting a good understanding of atoms, but embarrassingly they’re only a minor part of the Universe. Far more of it is made of something heavy and dark, so-called dark matter. The scientists who discovered the Higgs boson ten years ago thought they’d also create dark matter in the underground atom smasher at CERN. But they haven’t seen it yet. Roland Pease joins them as they redouble their efforts at the upgraded Large Hadron Collider, and travels to Boulby Underground Laboratory inside Britain's deepest mine, where subterranean telescopes hope to see dark matter streaming through the Galaxy.

The Mysterious Particles of Physics (1/3)

The machine that discovered the Higgs Boson 10 years ago is about to restart after a massive upgrade, to dig deeper into the heart of matter and the nature of the Universe.

Roland Pease returns to CERN’s 27-kilometre Large Hadron Collider (LHC) dug deeper under the Swiss-French border to meet the scientists wondering why the Universe is the way it is. He hears why the Nobel-prize winning discovery of the “Higgs Particle” remains a cornerstone of the current understanding of the nature of matter; why the search for “dark matter” – 25% of the cosmos - is proving to be so hard; and CERN’s plans for an atom smasher 4 times as big to be running by the middle of the century.

183 episodes

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