Helen, who is also a general practitioner and NIHR Doctoral Research fellow, was awarded the prize for her study that looked at whether pain while going over speed bumps can be used for the diagnostics of appendicitis, which was published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal in 2012.
The Ig Nobel Prize, whose tagline is “achievements that make people LAUGH and then THINK”, is an award to honour the unusual and to spark people’s interest in science. Other winners this year were awarded prizes for papers titled: Duration of Urination Does Not Change with Body Size, and Honey Bee Sting Pain Index by Body Location.
The official Ig Nobel Prize twitter page reported that Helen offered a demo with a live speed bump and her acceptance speech was delivered as a rhyme: “just drive him quickly up a hump, and in pain he will jump”.
Somerville spoke with Helen before she left for Massachusetts. She told us “I’m excited to go to Boston, I’ve not been before. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of our speedbump team. All five of us are going to collect it and some of the people I haven’t seen since 2012.”
The ceremony, in its 25th year, has become a scientific event with a huge cult following. Audience members are encouraged to throw paper airplanes throughout and there is a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel- Laureate competition.
Audience members throwing paper airplanes at the 2015 Ig Nobel Prizes
All of the awards are presented by real Nobel Prize Winners and, as Helen expressed, “the list of people that they’ve got who will be there awarding the prizes it’s incredible for example the person who discovered telomeres and the person who discovered introns. They are all people who’ve made massive contributions to scientific research.”
The idea for the study, titled Pain Over Speed Bumps in Diagnosis of Acute Appendicitis, came about when Helen was working as a junior doctor. She noticed her colleagues were asking patients about their journey to the hospital and if there been pain when going over speed bumps. As there was no evidence supporting the practice, she thought it would be a very easy and fun study to do.
“It fits the bill quite well,” she said, “because it’s a study with an important scientific purpose. We wanted to back up what doctors were doing any way and provide research evidence to back up practice. That’s really important in evidence based medicine but also it was a really fun study.”
The results showed the test had a 97 % sensitivity rate, which means if you didn’t feel pain, you were very unlikely to have appendicitis. This determined that the diagnostic practice of asking patients if they’d been over speed bumps is a good rule out test.
“I have tried to dress as a speed bump, but I possibly look more like a traffic-themed witch” – Dr Helen Ashdown
“We actually showed that in terms of sensitivity of the test it actually performed better than some of the tests that doctors very commonly use, for example asking if somebody has pain that moves from one part of the tummy to another or if they have nausea or vomiting. It’s quite funny really that something that is introduced as a public health intervention to slow traffic ends up being something that can help in a medical diagnosis.”
Helen wanted to express that the humorous side to the awards ceremony is not a mockery of science but a celebration of its often overlooked fun side. “I think the public perception of science is that it is really boring but it can be really fun and interesting. Hopefully there will be people thinking about careers who will think, ‘that’s a study that I can understand. Maybe I should look more at doing science at university.’”