Podcast: Treating diabetes, boardroom diversity, and avoiding hangovers

December podcast


In this edition: We meet a clinician investigating diabetes, find out how boardroom diversity benefits companies, and hope for a hangover cure.

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News: World’s first net-zero flight and air pollution monitoring – We hear how the first net-zero transatlantic flight powered with sustainable aviation fuel will launch in 2023, and how communities are being empowered to measure their own air pollution in real time.


Feeling like a scientist: the clinician – When does a scientist first start to feel like one? We continue our series exploring the careers of some of our scientists with Dr Shivani Misra, a clinician and researcher who sees diabetes patients and studies the condition.


Boardroom diversity is good for business – We hear how diverse views help avoid groupthink, improving innovation and performance and guiding companies through changes. Diverse boards also reflect the real world, allowing companies to find talent in the whole pool.

This is an excerpt from the Many Minds podcast from the Imperial College Business School.


Can we avoid hangovers? – We learn what happens to the body and brain when we drink alcohol (and drink too much), and discover how researchers are trying to make synthetic alcohol that doesn’t cause hangovers.


 (21 December)



Gareth Mitchell:               Hello everyone. I'm Gareth Mitchell. Today, she's a researcher and she's a clinician. So does she feel like a scientist? Find out in the last of our Feeling Like a Scientist series. Also, why diversity from the boardroom down is good for business, and Christmas has kicked in but for some of us, perhaps, so have the hangovers. But wouldn't it be great if scientists could create hangover free booze?

Rayyan Zafar:                    The final goal of this research is to make a synthetic alcohol drink, which makes you feel relaxed and confident and sociable, but doesn't make you feel as though you are losing control of yourself.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right, so well, I'll tell you what, I think we should start with some news. Caroline Brogan is in our midst and she's here to talk about a zero emissions flight, transatlantic as well. My goodness. And it's not April, so it can't be an April fool. Might this be real then, Caroline?

Caroline Brogan:              Yes. Hi Gareth. So this is news of the world's first ever net zero transatlantic flight. It will be going in 2023 from London, Heathrow to New York, JFK Airport.

Gareth Mitchell:               Well, tell me a little bit about the plane that's involved in all this.

Caroline Brogan:              So it's a Boeing 787 and it will be run solely using sustainable aviation fuel, which is a type of fuel made from raw materials like waste oils and fats. They say that it could slash the lifecycle carbon emissions of the flights by over 70% compared to the conventional kerosene based jet fuel. The rest of the 30% of emissions will be accounted for through biochar credits, which is a material that traps and stores the carbon taken from the atmosphere, which makes the overall flight net zero.

Gareth Mitchell:               Ah, so that's how they've come up with net zero. And Virgin are involved, aren't they?

Caroline Brogan:              Yep. So this will be a Virgin Atlantic flight. It will be a passenger flight and Imperial are involved. So what our Imperial researchers will be doing is looking at the most efficient flight paths to take based on things like contrails. Contrails are the white fluffy streaks that you see in the sky and they actually contribute to warming. So what Imperial are doing are A, helping the flight team to devise the flight route for the most efficient route possible. And B, just generally advancing our understanding of the non-carbon effects of flying as well as the carbon effects.

Gareth Mitchell:               Caroline, part of the Imperial involvement is a new institute, isn't it?

Caroline Brogan:              Yeah, so we have a new institute opened this year, 2022, called the Brahmal Institute for Sustainable Aviation, supported by a generous 25 million pound donation. They're not directly involved in the Virgin Atlantic flight, but the flight does sort of demonstrate Imperial's continuing commitment to developing technologies that allow our aviation to be more sustainable, as it's currently one of the most polluting industries that we have.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right, Caroline, thank you very much indeed for that. Now Conrad is with us today as well, Conrad Duncan. We're going to talk about air quality now as well, aren't we? I always find these rather uplifting stories when we talk about community involvement with the monitoring and improving air quality. So pick this one up for us.

Conrad Duncan:                So Imperial's researchers on air pollution... I mean, air quality, have been working over the past year on the Breathe London Community Program. This is a program that helps community groups in London who live in either areas of high deprivation or with poor air quality in general. It gives them the opportunity to have access to air sensors that allow them to basically pick up real-time air quality data and measurements of small particular matter, that's PM 2.5, which you might have heard about, and nitrogen dioxide, which is NO2, which are basically harmful to health. Which is a really important way of allowing community groups to take control of the air quality in their area, and to lobby for changes, and to just protect their own health on a day-to-day basis.

Gareth Mitchell:               So this is a scheme that's been going on for some time, isn't it? And this is the second raft of sensors that have been given out. Is that right?

Conrad Duncan:                Yeah, so the first raft of sensors were given out in the summer. That was for 10 groups. We're now expanding with 30 more groups, especially with the backing of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Mayor of London's Office. So it's a huge expansion in terms of where we were before. And this is for groups all over London in the inner and outer boroughs, a wide range of groups. So some groups are like schools groups, parents groups, and there're GP practices involved. There are kind of residents associations who are wanting to check air pollution that comes from construction work in their area. So it's a really wide range of groups that are involved.

Gareth Mitchell:               And just a quickie, what are these sensors then? Can you describe them to me?

Conrad Duncan:                So they're about the size of the shoebox and they go onto a lamppost in the area, and they basically just pick up pollution that's in the air and help you track what the quality is on an hour to hour basis.

Gareth Mitchell:               That's great. All right. Well, Conrad, we'll leave it there. It's an exciting project. We look forward to seeing how it all pans out as well. Conrad Duncan there talking to us for the news and we also heard just now from Caroline Brogan.

                                             Well, now it's time to take the final installment of Andrew Youngson's miniseries, Feeling Like a Scientist. It's a multimedia collection of audio interviews, images, and transcripts. And the series explores what being a scientist is all about. All Andrew's guests are wise people with plenty of advice for people considering getting into science. Andrew's spoken to seven students and staff about what being a scientist means to them. Well let's hear about the latest. Andrew.

Andrew Youngson:          Hi Gareth. So yeah, for the past four episodes of the podcast, we've been featuring some audio highlights from the series. We kicked things off with space science, PhD student Jesus. We then shifted focus to medical student Tani. And then last time we heard from mechanical engineer Ji. Now today in the final of this four part mini-series on the podcast, we speak to diabetes expert Dr Shivani Misra.

Gareth Mitchell:               And we are back on that question. So we discussed it with Tani, this question, what's the difference between a doctor and a scientist? In this case, Shivani is both a doctor and a scientist, isn't she?

Andrew Youngson:          She is. She has those two roles, a very busy person. The first role is as consultant physician at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. And the second is as honorary senior clinical lecturer here at the college. So that is a mouthful of a role.

Gareth Mitchell:               Whoa, she sounds busy. So what does a very busy day in the life look like for her?

Andrew Youngson:          Well, varied as you can imagine, and here she is talking about just that.

Dr Shivani Misra:              I am a clinician, so I see patients. And in my case, I see people with diabetes. As well as that I'm doing research. And for me, again, that research is clinical research. So I'm interested in the way people with diabetes present when they're first diagnosed and what type of diabetes they have. So I have a number of projects under that sort of heading. My working week is literally an amalgamation of the two. So I have clinics and then I'm doing research the other day, which might be recruiting someone to one of my studies or doing some database work and then back to clinic again on another day. So it's a real mishmash, plenty of variety, which is frankly what attracted me to it, because I get bored doing the same thing again and again.

Gareth Mitchell:               So does that mean that Shivani feels part scientist, part doctor?

Andrew Youngson:          To an extent, yes, that's true. But actually, she says it's a little bit more blurred and nuanced than that

Dr Shivani Misra:              Science is applied across the board, just in different ways. So when I've got my research hat on, I'm trying to make new discoveries. So I'm using various scientific methods, interrogating data, doing patient studies, and we're trying to derive new knowledge and new discoveries. And then the hope is, down the line, that's going to improve things for people that I see with diabetes.

                                             When I've got my clinical hat on, that's actually also scientific because one, I'm doing things in a really evidence-based way, whether I'm picking the right treatment or the right intervention, all of that is guided by scientific evidence. And also there is an element of discovery.

                                             So for example, one of my funded projects came from an observation and a finding in one of the patients in my clinic. We set up a study to recruit this individual so that we could study their type of diabetes in more detail and made some amazing discoveries, which were then published. So clinical work is equally a scientific endeavor, just perhaps in a slightly different way to when you are doing card-carrying research.

Gareth Mitchell:               And with such rich experience in her job and all the insights this brings her, what advice does Shivani have for others thinking about a career in science?

Andrew Youngson:          So for Shivani, whether someone should pursue a path into science comes down to a few simple but really crucial fundamental things. Here she is.

Dr Shivani Misra:              Firstly, it's interesting, right? I mean you have to have an interest. I remember doing biology A level and my mind was blown. I thought, "Wow, that's so intricate and amazing." I can't believe that that's the biology of the human body and questioning what's the reason for this. So this sort of scientific interest.

                                             The second thing is learning new skills. So science is intrinsically about learning a skill and applying it to answer a new question. So addressing knowledge gaps or developing a new tool that will enable you to answer a question, something that we don't know the answer to. It could mean coding. I'm learning how to code at the moment because I need to analyze this massive data set of hundreds of thousands of people.

                                             And the third thing is be really infused by the concept of discovering something new and sharing that information. So we're on social media, we're talking, we're interacting, showcasing to the world what our discoveries are and interacting with people that are going to benefit from those discoveries. It's so exciting, for me, that's the really fun bit.

Gareth Mitchell:               Yet more great advice from our scientists/doctors, in this case. Which draws us to a close for our Feeling Like a Scientist series. It's flown by, but where can people hear more?

Andrew Youngson:          Sure, I mean there's seven profiles for people to listen to and read and look at. But first of all, just thanks so much for featuring the series on the podcast, Gareth. It's been really great to share the voices of our community on it. But for those who want to see more, the Feeling Like a Scientist series is live in full on Imperial Stories. That's what we call our home for the college's best storytelling. The easiest way to find that is just put Imperial Stories into your favorite search engine and you'll find the Feeling Like a Scientist series on there in full.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right, thanks a lot Andrew. Well, now diversity is good for business. Less diverse organizations perform less well than those with people from a greater range of backgrounds. That's the big message from one edition of the Many Minds podcast from the Business School. The sixth edition all about flexible working for women has recently dropped. But I've actually dialed back to addition two to hear more from Dr HeeJung Jung, assistant professor in the department of Management and Entrepreneurship.

                                             She's in conversation with Dr Omar Merlo and guest alumnus Shirak Amin, general manager at Johnson and Johnson in Japan. And the edition is all about why boardrooms and below should represent the diversity of wider society. "It's not just about hiring practices," says HeeJung, it's about better strategies for success.

                                             Well, I'll tell you how you can access this edition and the entire series just after I've played you this excerpt. Here's Dr Jung.

Dr HeeJung Jung:             I think there are two clear benefits behind the board diversity. The first, directly to the firm, the diversity among directors brings healthy debates and often leads to better, less bias, and innovative decisions in the boardroom. Not only that, a lack of diversity among board members can make firms not source a various range of views and voices, which is an important instrument to, actually, their strategy change. And also innovation enhances and improves their performance.

                                             I think when the decision makers at the top levels are too similar to each other, it is for them to actually use groupthink, which we actually blame for bias decision, some very silly, strategic choices. It's because they don't listen to the somebody who has a completely different view from them. If you have all similar backgrounds of people in the boardroom, I mean, this groupthink happens more often, and hence, the board diversity would make the board think and hear more various views when they decide their important key strategy changes.

                                             Secondly, and simply and fundamentally, it reflects the real world. Look at our population, look at our working populations, and why, what we look for, the great talent in the leadership, and on which we spend lots of energy and money, and why then look at only a subset of the population, which is white males rather than women and racial minorities or somebody from a different social class. And so what we are looking for, the great talent, then we have to search the entire pool. And that's actually beneficial for, not only for the firm, but for the entire corporate ecosystem and society.

Shirak Amin:                      You mentioned performance, and I think that that's probably the most important factor here. The varying opinions and varying perspectives that can be brought by having an open mind and a view to having voices that can be heard, that see those perspectives, that in that groupthink environment or when you have too much of a similar mindset, I think it opens doors to improving performance. And I think that's pretty much the key here. If we can keep the conversation around diversity focused on that big output, being improved performance, I think we move to a place that is incredibly productive and is valuable for all organizations and, ultimately, whoever the end user is of the company's products or services.

Dr HeeJung Jung:             Adding on Shirak's point, if I may, seeing the consumer profile is very important. These companies are selling their product and services to women and racial minorities and different social groups. Not having them in their decision room, how can they be sure that they reflect their consumer's needs and real needs and authentic needs? Right? In that manner, also the board diversity, is definitely very important, especially for improving the company's performance.

Shirak Amin:                      I think it's a good point, HeeJung. I think that, also, making sure that everybody at the table has an opportunity to voice their thoughts in a way that's easily received. I've seen examples in many situations where you do have a really robust mix of individuals, both, whether it's gender or race or just different demographic backgrounds, that are at the table but don't have a voice. And I think trying to marry those two things together are very critical to ensure that you do actually get that output.

Dr HeeJung Jung:             Totally. I think that's... Some of my research evidence actually kind of supports what you've just explained. That when the boardroom has a female or racial minority chair who has power, they kind of, against this drawing back from the diversity because for here they care about all different voices and they capture those even better. And so I think that it's not only about making a diverse board, but whether they have power to speak up. I think that's really important.

Gareth Mitchell:               Dr HeeJung Jung on the Many Minds podcast from the Business School, you can find all six episodes by searching for Imperial Many Minds podcast. And while you're there you'll find all sorts of great content from the business school, including newsletters, blogs, videos and audio. If you are in business, and to be honest, even if you're not, it's a must.

                                             Well, finally, Merry Christmas one and all but watch out for making it too merry on the alcohol front. That sore head in the morning after all does remind you that alcohol is a drug, and in excessive quantities it's not much good for you. So imagine a beverage that made you feel equally uninhibited, but without the hangover. Could PhD Neuropsychopharmacology student Rayyan Zafar be riding to your rescue? And anyway, what is going on in our bodies and brains when we are merry and then groggy the morning after? Rayyan has been speaking to Hayley Dunning.

Rayyan Zafar:                    Alcohol is the most common social lubricant. And the reason why it's a social lubricant is related to a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA. So what researchers have found is that when you start having a drink, your brain releases GABA. And GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it slows down the firing of nerve cells in the brain. And in particular what it does, is it slows down parts of the brain and the frontal areas which are involved in kind of thinking and behavior. So that's why you might feel a bit disinhibited. It also calms down stress parts of the brain, so that's why people feel a little bit more relaxed. And so this general calming down effect is what happens from drinks one to drink three in the night.

Hayley Dunning:               So what happens after drink three?

Rayyan Zafar:                    Too much of anything is a bad thing. And that's the same with GABA. So once GABA moves from these frontal areas of the brain and you feel a bit disinhibited, it can actually inversely cause some problems. So it can move to the back parts of your brain, which are in control of motor coordination. So a specific region known as a cerebellum is in charge of motor coordination and movement. And actually, if that part of the brain starts shutting down slightly from GABA stimulation, you start losing coordination. And that's why people are a little bit slight on their feet. They may knock a drink over.

                                             As well as this, what we do know about alcohol is that it binds to other receptors in the brain and works on something called the glutamate system. So the glutamate is the opposite system of GABA. So it speeds up the brain. And what it essentially leads to is the blocking of the formation of memories. And that's often why individuals have blackout or don't remember things when they're drunk. It's because these glutamate receptors are not working properly so that you can lay down memories.

Hayley Dunning:               Oh, so there's a lot going on in our brain with alcohol. So let's talk about the aftermath, the day after. What causes a hangover?

Rayyan Zafar:                    We know alcohol is metabolized in the body and broken down in the liver. And the way that it does this is through an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. And we think that it takes a liver about one hour to break down one unit of alcohol. Now what it breaks it down to is this compound called acetyl aldehyde. And acetyl aldehyde is a carcinogen and a poison. So that's essentially the kind of culprit in making you feel nauseous, in making you feel ill. We know that this compound can change the way that DNA works and causes mutations.

                                             But when we go back to the brain effects of a hangover, a lot of the time people report anxiety. So feeling anxious and on edge. And yes, it might be because you've done something stupid the night before, but actually we were talking before about how we release a lot of GABA, which slows the brain down when you drink alcohol, and what the brain wants to do the next day is to rebound from all of that slowing down, it needs to speed up. So it actually goes above normal levels and it releases a lot more glutamate the following day, which is the excitatory neurotransmitter. And then after a while the system settles.

Hayley Dunning:               So is there any way to help cure a hangover to speed up that process?

Rayyan Zafar:                    There are no cures, unfortunately. The best cure is drinking less. But there are things that you can do to help reduce the symptoms. So we know that alcohol is pro-inflammatory, so your body sees it as a kind of attacking pathogen almost, like a virus or a bacteria. And so your immune system ramps up when you drink it. And so taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen could help to reduce some of that inflammation. We also know that hydration is super important, and we don't just mean drinking water, we also mean having electrolytes. So sodium and potassium and chloride are electrolytes which balance ionic concentrations in your cells and it allows you to hold onto water in your body again, because alcohol is a diuretic.

                                             Eating foods with high amino acids in them, so eggs, can help reduce the symptoms. But there are also now, interestingly, a whole host of functional alcoholic drinks that hit the market as an alternative kind of drinking to this Christmas.

Hayley Dunning:               That sounds fascinating. Is there a way we can drink without getting hangovers then?

Rayyan Zafar:                    Well, so based on this GABA, there's been research that my professor's turned along with colleagues in my department, to try and find botanical products in the environment that actually naturally increased GABA. And he's produced a drink which goes by the name of Sentia from a spinout company called GABA Labs. And the idea here is that what it uses compounds that stimulate the production of GABA but not to the same level as alcohol.

                                             And the final goal of this research is to make a synthetic alcohol drink called Alcarelle, which will bind to specific GABA receptors, but not all of them. So the idea is to use very specific chemical engineering to bind to the good GABA receptors, if you will, rather than the bad ones. So you don't have the kind of disorientation that you have with the shutting down of the cerebellum or the blocking of memory formation. The idea is to have a drink which makes you feel relaxed and confident and sociable, but doesn't make you feel as though you are losing control of yourself.

Gareth Mitchell:               Well, I'll drink to that. That's Rayyan Zafar speaking there to Hayley Dunning, bringing this addition to an end, and indeed, the entire year of podcasting from Imperial College to an end. Oh my goodness, it has flown by and I think we can all agree that 2022 has been quite an eventful year. So I hope we can all take a bit of time just to relax slightly over the festive season. But here on the podcast, we don't relax for long. We're already thinking ahead to what we're going to bring you in January. So we'll see you then. But in the meantime from me, Gareth Mitchell and all of us here on the podcasting team, thanks for being with us over the last year and we look forward to joining you again in just a few weeks’ time. See you then. Bye-bye.