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Buddhini Samarasinghe
Attended University of Bath (Undergraduate)
Lived in Hawaii
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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Cancer Immunotherapy

Since I started working at +Cancer Research UK, one of the first questions I asked the Scicomms team was "why aren't you doing Google HOAs on the amazing research that CRUK funds?". Because I've had a few years of experience hosting science HOAs and because of the thriving science communities on G+ would love this, I proposed a partnership between +Science on Google+ and +Cancer Research UK to produce and host a cancer HOA. The first topic we picked was Cancer Immunotherapy. 

Working for an organisation as large as CRUK that funds some of the best research in the world allowed me to access two of the world leading experts on the topic of cancer immunotherapy. After months of coordinating with various teams in Press, Social Media, and Scicomms, we finally did it! +Ben Willcox  and +Frances Balkwill  were fantastic guests, clearly explaining how important immunotherapy is, and how it works. It was also fun to tag team the questions with my co-host +Kat Arney. In case you missed the live broadcast, you can watch the discussion on YouTube here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5McTl469Wo

Feedback would be much appreciated, because I hope this will be the first of many HOAs on cancer research. On a final note, it's been absolutely wonderful to hear from the patients and families who are directly benefiting from these new drugs (via comments on the Event Page https://goo.gl/HdRWDr). It's inspiring to hear from them, and motivates me to keep doing outreach this way. 

#ScienceEveryday   #CRUKHOA  
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+Kevin Clift Too bad that Reddit fired their AMA person. :/
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Personalised Medicine for Cancer Treatment

I'm really excited about this weekend because I am in gorgeously sunny California for Science Foo Camp! What is Science Foo Camp you ask? Here's a quick primer - http://www.digital-science.com/events/scifoo-camp-2015/. I've never been to the Googleplex before so I'm really looking forward to it, along with meeting all the amazing people who will be at this event. I'm also looking forward to catching up with G+ friends in California as well while I'm here.

I'll be doing a 'lightning talk' on personalised medicine for cancer research. Here is a quick video explaining the basics. I really think this is the future of cancer treatment, because we know that cancer is not a single disease, and we need to think of cancer in terms of the specific mutations they carry, rather than tumour location like 'breast' or 'lung'. The individual patient is the best model for his or her disease, and the future looks bright now that healthcare and translational research are starting to catch up. 

#ScienceEveryday   #SciFoo15  
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Nice, do share the presentation, and its outcomes all the best!
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Authenticity on Social Media: A Missed Opportunity

We all try to portray the best of ourselves online. The nature of social media allows us to carefully curate the optimal facets of our personality to share with the rest of the world. We make sure to photograph ourselves at the best angles, publicly celebrate our successes, and even put a positive spin on the setbacks, because #winning and #inspiration and #keepfighting and #whatever.

We also know from behavioural economics that "altruism can often exert a far stronger influence over our decision-making than calculation". This in turn is utilised by corporations that are increasingly becoming more 'social' as they realise that "if one wants to control other human beings, it is often far more effective to appeal to their sense of morality and social identity than to their self-interest". Marketing executives attempt to manipulate this as they try to get their customers to share positive brand messages with each other, without a public advertising campaign through traditional avenues of TV, print, and radio. This process is rather aptly described as 'friendvertising'. (Note: if you're interested in reading more about this, here is a fascinating article by William Davies - http://goo.gl/g6HSwl)

Employees of these organisations are often knowingly or unknowingly co-opted into this campaign, as they too can share positive brand messages and act as 'brand ambassadors' for their employers. Yet this is contradicted by the token disclaimer of 'views are my own' on the bios to make it clear that our views do not represent the views of the organisation we work for. 

Social media is something that lets us find and connect with like minded individuals who share common interests. Social media is also an opportunity to engage in debate, to learn, to have our minds changed, and our horizons expanded by talking to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Sometimes this can lead to uniting for a common cause, such as communicating science or advocating for women in STEM, two issues that many of you know I am passionate about. Indeed, my established social media presence is such that the topics I write about have a self-selected audience who (I hope!) enjoy consuming the content that I produce. 

As large corporations embrace the 'power of social' along with their employees who act as unofficial brand ambassadors, I have noticed that sometimes, brand-ambassadoring is all that these employees do. Most of their contacts are also other employees, and most of their content is promoting or discussing products or events from their employer. This is despite the 'views are my own' disclaimer, which at this point is a bit like a vestigial tail, because it is truly difficult to imagine people who have no other interests outside of their employer's. 

Social media allows us a powerful opportunity to effect positive change in this world. I am wary of coming across as a preachy 'you're doing social media wrong!' type of person, but this is such a lost opportunity! Instead of embracing the diversity of viewpoints that are afforded to us by engaging with different people, and discussing a wide range of topics, we are instead ending up with a bland, homogenous persona that is devoid of any authenticity. It limits our development, denies us the richness of fascinating discussions, and saddest of all, keeps us from forging meaningful relationships with each other. After all, isn't that the whole point of social media in the first place? 

Image credit: Pete Gamlen from http://goo.gl/g6HSwl
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Heh.  I read that last user name as 'biogarbage'.
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Hiking in Puck's Glen

A few weeks ago we had an unexpectedly sunny spell here in Scotland. To those of you who are uninitiated to the wonders of Scottish weather, this was an exceedingly rare event, so we decided to make the most of it and explore a hiking trail that I've been meaning to check out for ages. Situated about 1.5 hrs drive from Glasgow, along the shores of Loch Lomond, the trail is known as "Puck's Glen" and is absolutely charming. 

The pine forests are timeless and still, the silence punctuated by the sound of the wind in the trees above or the soft gurgling of the freshwater spring nearby with icy cold water. The trail is set along a series of waterfalls and pools, spanned by beautiful wooden bridges and mossy banks. The dappled sunlight filters through the greenery above, giving the place and ethereal quality. I almost expected to stumble across a gathering of wood nymphs or fairies sitting on the soft moss. 

The solitude was desperately needed after the manic hustle and bustle of London, and I could feel myself recharging. Scotland is an amazing place and there is still so much left to explore here. 
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Musings of an Academic Refugee

Three months ago, I started working at Cancer Research UK as a Science Communications Manager. The position was a temporary one; a part time, maternity cover for just one year, but I was told during my interview that there would be a possibility of making it a permanent position depending on "how things worked out". 

At first, my contract was just for working from Monday to Wednesday. But within 3 weeks of starting, I was made full time (so Monday to Friday) and then in less than 3 months I was made permanent. For the first time in my life, I have a job and an income without an obvious expiry date. This is remarkable; in science, especially for grad students and postdocs, short term contracts with low pay, with no real guarantees of a permanent position is a way of life that we tolerate well into our late 30s/early 40s. 

I have always loved science, and ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted to be a scientist. I loved the way science could answer questions. Curiosity about the world around us is one of the things that defines our species, and science was always a way for me to engage with what those answers were. So it was a little difficult to reconcile the fact that I would be leaving a career in research behind, with this new job. But then...actually getting paid for and being able to make a living out of science communication is something that I never thought could happen either. There is immense satisfaction in being appreciated for something that I am good at, and the sense of validation that comes with it feels priceless. I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am right now. 

I've had a tough couple of years, and it's an ongoing process to recognise that the circumstances involved were beyond my control, and the people involved were not my responsibility. It's very easy for troubleshooting to turn into victim-blaming, i.e. berating myself for not seeing the red flags that I somehow should have seen. My self-confidence was buoyed up only because of my friends who believed in me when I wasn't able to. 

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of final year PhD students about 'Science Communication as an Alternative Science Career' (or, as I titled it, “Musings of an Academic Refugee” :P). I've attended plenty of talks like this during my student days but never thought I'd be invited to give one. One key piece of advice that seems obvious is that outside of academia, no one really cares how many papers you have authored; for a career in science communication, what matters is evidence and examples of good scicomm. "Just Google my name" is a pretty satisfying reply to give when asked to provide these examples at a job interview :P. 

For the first time in a long time, thinking about my career does not fill me with dread like it used to, when I considered the grim reality of how few postdocs make it into permanent positions in academia. I jokingly refer to myself as an 'academic refugee', but there is a grain of truth to that description too. It is possible to love science, and continue working in science, outside of academia. It is possible to make a living out of something that brings you joy.

There is a life outside academia. 
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Greetings Dr Samarasinghe. I've been following and reading your articles on the Hallmarks of Cancer on ScientificAmerican. They have been a great source for me to understand cancer biology. However, I couldn't find your article on the 10th feature. It would be great to have all the articles written by you and use them as extra notes. The link below is the 9th hallmark on cancer. 

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2014/10/08/the-hallmarks-of-cancer-9-reprogramming-energy-metabolism/#respond
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Malignant Melanoma: Drug Resistance is Futile

As we approach the end of 2014, I want to write about targeted cancer therapy, using malignant melanoma as an example. In this article, I explain how a new drug (vemurafenib) works, and why resistance sometimes develops, and the latest research into how we can overcome this problem. 

Most melanomas have a mutation in a key gene known as B-RAF. Mutant B-RAF is a signal that tells the cancer cell to keep dividing - it is an accelerator that is jammed, so the cancer cell replicates endlessly. Knowing this mechanism allows us to target mutant B-RAF, which is the epitome of targeted therapy. Yet all is not quite as it seems, and most cancers develop resistance to B-RAF inhibitor drugs; how can we prevent the development of drug resistance, and how can we combat it when it happens? 

"Cancer is not one single disease. Even a hundred different instances of melanoma, though pathologically classified as the same disease, will have a hundred different variations; is B-RAF mutated? What about the other proteins in the ERK pathway? What about other pathways? Do the metastases have the same mutations as the primary tumour, and if not, how different are they? There is a dizzying array of possibilities, and in turn cancers have a dizzying array of variations within them. This is known as the biological heterogeneity of cancer, and it demands therapeutic heterogeneity in the way we approach it. The same treatment cannot be indiscriminately applied to all cancers. Targeted therapies that can home in on the unique vulnerabilities of a cancer with precision are the way of the future. Indeed, vemurafenib was a breakthrough in every sense of the word; it allowed a once untreatable disease to become treatable."

Read the full article here: http://www.jargonwall.com/cancer/malignant-melanoma-drug-resistance-futile/

#ScienceEveryday
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+Buddhini Samarasinghe one quick question, why cancer occurs in some one at some particular age? does it has any relationship between antibodies? i have seen people getting cancer at old age as well, how can you explain that? few article says it is completely because of DNA if that is the case does DNA gets mutated due to some reason? and can cancer become a hereditary ? can it get passed to generation because of a mutated gene ?
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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Pluto Flyby

I don't usually share meme-ish stuff but this really was too funny not to. Also, how amazing is it that our species built a thing that traveled all the way out there to send these pictures back. Truly remarkable, and suddenly gives a much-needed dose of perspective. 

Here's a great video that pays tribute to NASA's New Horizon's mission that made this possible: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/07/14/422811142/pluto-mission-gets-a-poetic-tribute

Image via http://imgur.com/gallery/Bq73vnu
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+Kiki Jewell Indeed, it will take some time before I'll be able to bring myself to forgive whoever introduced that meme. =)
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"The Laboratory is not a Single's Bar"

Today I was asked at very short notice if I would like to be a guest on +BBC World Have Your Say for a discussion about Women in Science following the disastrous comments made by Sir Tim Hunt (http://goo.gl/cNJ8Ea).

Being on live radio is something I've never done before, despite hosting the multitude of Google+ HOAs so I was understandably nervous! But I think it went really well, and managed to show why his comments were so problematic. The other guests on the show were also fantastic, and it's really worth listening to this discussion if you can. 

Short clip: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02tczpd

Full programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02st6q9
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Wow, way to prove that he's unsuited to be anyone's boss.... Doubling down and then incapable of understanding how his biases hurt people. Not exactly mentor material, not even for men since he'd just teach them to perpetuate discrimination.
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Why is Chemotherapy Given in Cycles?

A friend recently asked why chemotherapy infusions are spaced out. Is it to allow the body a chance to recover between treatments, or is chemo actually more effective when given in cycles? How does it work?

The answer is a bit of both. Traditional chemotherapy involves drugs that are toxic for rapidly dividing cells. The theory is that because cancer cells are dividing very quickly, they will succumb to the toxic chemotherapy quicker than normal cells would. The fact that chemo affects rapidly dividing cells also explains their typical side effects; hair loss because hair follicle cells are constantly dividing, nausea and diarrhoea because the cells lining the digestive system are constantly dividing and so on. So if you take too much chemo too soon, then normal cells would be affected even more, which in turn could lead to even more nasty side effects. 

But it’s also important to remember that the cancer cells in a tumour are at various stages of the cell cycle. The cell cycle is a programme that every cell goes through during growth and division - cells first need to double their DNA and then divide into two. 

The way chemo works is by causing DNA damage, so that cancer cells kill themselves. This happens through a process known as ‘apoptosis’. So a chemotherapy infusion kills all the cells that are in the DNA synthesis phase of the cell cycle, but doesn’t affect cancer cells that are in the other stages. By spacing it out and giving an infusion a few weeks later, the doctors are able to target the cells they couldn’t get the first time around. Normal cells usually repair the damage from chemotherapy more effectively than cancer cells, so damage to cancer cells should progressively build up without causing permanent damage to normal cells

When I explained this to my friend, she mentioned how "it’s a lot like waiting for dandelions to get big enough so they can be ripped out effectively. It’s much harder when they are tiny. But you want to actually get to them before the flowers set seed". It’s a brilliant analogy, and explains really well why chemotherapy is given in cycles. 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/swallowtailgardenseeds/15644450971/

H/T to +Mary Anne Mohanraj for the wonderful analogy!
#ScienceEveryday  
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Thanks for sharing this Buddhini. Where can I find your previous articles?
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Nature's Ice Sculptures

It was a really cold frosty morning here in Cambridge and I luckily had my macro lens with me to capture it. I love how delicate the lighting and the colours are here.
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Beautiful.
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Molecular Biology 101: Translation

This is Part 3 of my 'back to basics' series on molecular biology (Part 1 is here: http://goo.gl/5ltt87, and Part 2 is here: http://goo.gl/pxTm7e). In this article, I explain what protein translation is and how it works. In the previous article on Transcription, I explained how a DNA template is used to create a 'transcript' of a gene required by the cell. In this step, the transcript is 'translated' into a protein molecule. It is a beautifully elegant system in which the genetic code embedded in our DNA is translated into the proteins that are the workhorses of our cells. The vast majority of the functions within a cell is carried out by proteins. All the chemical reactions, the structural functions, the respiration, and indeed the very act of being alive, is down to proteins and their actions. This article explains how those proteins are made.

You can read the full article here: http://www.jargonwall.com/molecular-biology/translation/

"The chain of amino acids ordered in the sequence dictated by the genetic code, assembled within the ribosome, represents how every single protein in every single living organism is made. Given how important it is, there are quality control checkpoints at various steps of this process to ensure that the linear amino acid chain is folded correctly. This ensures that the freshly produced protein has the correct structure that allows it to carry out its function within the cell. Protein synthesis is a fundamental process in molecular biology, and indeed, of life itself."
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+Ayshvaryaa Choudhary excellent, I'm really happy to hear that! 
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Molecular Biology 101: Transcription

This is Part 2 of my 'back to basics' series on molecular biology (Part 1 is here: http://goo.gl/5ltt87). In this article, I explain what transcription is and how it works. Transcription is the first step in gene expression, which is how cells ensure that the right proteins are present in the right amount at the right time. Through gene expression, the myriad different cell types in our bodies can carry out their functions. The end goal of gene expression is typically (though not always) the production of proteins. 

"Transcription is the first and sometimes only step in gene expression. It is how the genetic material encoded within DNA is utilised by the cell to express genes. This is a fundamental process which provides the cell the ability to control its structure and function, and is the basis for the adaptability that allowed our cells to survive and evolve for billions of years."

Read the full article, complete with  a handy video link to help visualise some of these processes here: http://www.jargonwall.com/molecular-biology/transcription/

And yes, again the artwork is me experimenting with some water colour double helices!

#ScienceSunday  
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+Buddhini Samarasinghe just a question on cancer, how does sleep affects cancer? for e.g alpha level etc? during sleep the enzyme activities will be there for involuntary activities, do you feel the activity of cancer cells differs some what with metabolic activities? 
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Education
  • University of Bath (Undergraduate)
    Molecular and Cellular Biology, 2002 - 2006
  • University of Glasgow (PhD)
    Veterinary Parasitology, 2006 - 2010
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Molecular Biologist & Science Communicator
Introduction
I am a molecular biologist and a passionate science communicator. I love engaging the public with current research in the life sciences. Where possible, I use original, open access research papers and I describe the science minus the jargon! 

I am the author of a series of articles in Scientific American, titled "The Hallmarks of Cancer". These jargon-free articles explain the molecular mechanisms that underlie cancer development. 

I am also involved in science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube and I am an active contributor to the many Science Communities here on Google+. I also have side interests in photography, technology, travel, baking, good conversation and food! 

  • I am a strong advocate of science. Therefore I will on occasion write about 'controversial' topics like global warming, vaccination, evolution, pseudoscience and science policy. Beyond a certain point, I will not debate topics that the vast majority of scientists agree on. 
  • I respond to questions on science. Engagement is a vital component of science outreach, and if the topics I write about interest you, I encourage you to join the ensuing discussion!
  • I encourage conversations on my posts. To that effect I maintain the right to ask anyone who joins in to keep the discussion on topic, and not attack others already engaging on the post. 

The majority of my posts tend to be about science. These are a few example posts, so you have a fair idea what to expect to see from me;

Evolution of Snake Venom 
Interfering with RNA
Curiosities of fly genes 
"Inferring The Wind From the Movement of the Trees"
Zombie roaches 
How to Build a Snake
The history of WI-38 cells 
Radioactive bacteria for cancer treatment
Cancer Stem Cells
  • I am involved in curating a circle of women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. 
  • I am a co-curator for Science Sunday. If you want to get involved, tag your science posts with #ScienceSunday on Sundays or #ScienceEveryday for other days. 
  • Oh, and apparently I am an INTJ
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Science Communicator
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Previously
Hawaii - Glasgow - Bath - Colombo - Memphis