On 15th March 2017 Pro Vice-Chancellor Paul Hayes introduced the inaugural lecture of Professor Alex Ford to a packed lecture theatre.
Alex began his lecture by talking about the way hormones work in our bodies, and how it has been discovered that there are a range of pollutants that either block or mimic hormones. Often, when we think about pollution we think about large qualities of a polluting substance. In fact, Alex explained, just the equivalent weight of a few grains of brown sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool is enough to cause a female snail to grow a penis, thus preventing reproduction eventually leading to population collapse! (The scale of this problem was demonstrated with a bit of audience participation and grateful thanks to the catering department for providing all the sugar packets for us to play ‘guess how much sugar’.)
Sex changes are sometimes caused by feminising parasites, which converts males to females and leaves others intersex, producing less sperm and females producing fewer eggs. One key question for Alex is does an increase in pollution cause an increase in parasites, which in turn lead to intersexuality; or, does pollution itself cause intersexuality directly?
Alex then moved on to talk about pharmaceutical pollutants and their impact. One of Alex’s studies looked at the effect of Prozac on prawns. He discovered that amphipod crustaceans exposed to prozac swim higher, closer to the light. This may seem like a small thing, but it means the crustaceans are potentially more likely to be eaten! This research hit the headlines, going viral across the globe, reaching 1 billion people even (Alex states quite proudly) becoming an interpretive dance!
To mark British Science Week, Alex then briefly considered the question, ‘Is science broken?’. There is a lack of public trust in science and expertise at present. The rise of #alternativefacts and #fakenews are a big problem facing modern society (and modern scientists). But Alex wonders whether scientists need to get their own house in order? A publish or perish culture has evolved, this has led to exaggeration in papers and an increasing use of positive language to make research more appealing and accessible. It’s getting harder and harder to publish negative results. He looked at the recent example of microbeads in cosmetics, which caught the public attention; it’s great that these have been banned, but is it really what we should be focussing on?
Alex’s lecture was closed with thanks by Sherria Hoskins who praised Alex for his great public engagement, his impact on public policy and his great success in bringing in £1.5 million in funding. She promised not to mention the degree to which his Welsh accent increases depending on the score of the Wales game, or a certain incident with a turtle in Cyprus…
You can view Professor Ford’s inaugural lecture, along with the inaugural lectures of some of our other professors, at www.port.ac.uk/research/meet-our-professors/.