In which I get angry (again): Science, as vital as ever

Hopefully most of you have heard about the upcoming campaign that we at Science is Vital are frantically working on. The background can be found in our recent Guardian piece, and the fine details are on our website. But for those who are too busy to click, here’s the digested read:

The government is threatening cuts of up to 40% for science, and if we don’t get angry and raise our voices, it might actually happen. There are a number of ways you can help: join our party/rally on 26 October (in science fancy dress for good measure!); hold a rally-watching livestream party in your local area; spread the word to everyone you know; and write a postcard to George Osborne. /raises pitchfork

Just to get you warmed up, here’s the draft of my postcard! (Note: no bad-assed bacteria were harmed in the making of this postcard. Though they will get autoclaved very soon – soz.)



Dear Mr Osborne

My lab at UCL studies chronic urinary tract infection – a serious problem in the elderly.

Mr Cameron says that the antibiotic resistance crisis could send us back to the Dark Ages. The bacteria are winning, and only research will solve this looming calamity.

In labs like mine across the UK, experiments need feeding. Petri dishes aren’t as sexy as big capital, but they’re equally important.

Please boost the science budget so we can carry on fighting for our lives. Time is running out.

If I’m honest with you, this campaign is ambitious and a lot of hard work. We are looking for people who can help out in the run up to 26 October. If you’re in London and would like to join us at a pub session tomorrow, you can find us at the Prince Arthur on Eversholt Street at 6pm (the site of our very first Science is Vital planning session almost exactly 5 years ago today!). If you’re not local and would still like to lend a hand, drop me a line at jenny[at]

No more Dr Nice Guy!

Posted in science funding, Science is Vital | 3 Comments

In which I lose my way

An autumn breeze flutters the paperwork on my desk: a credit card bill; a daily report from my son’s nursery (complete with meals, sleep times and nappy composition); a manuscript I’m proofing for a colleague – all held down by a paperweight commemorating the Silver Edition of Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry, swag from a long-ago microbiology conference expo.


The desk is a mess: spent candles, empty tea mugs, a ball-and-stick Cochrane’s of Oxford model of penicillin G I use to teach undergraduates. (The plastic straws making up the square lactam ring, I notice, are bent with the strain of being in a suboptimal conformation for so long. I can relate.) The blues hover just beyond rational perception, rather like the halo of silvery-white on the periphery of my new spectacles: easy to screen out but always present.

I find it difficult to understand why I am feeling so out of sorts about my scientific career. I tell myself that it’s the bad cold that’s laid me low. Or possibly an end-of-summer hangover, the logical shock of returning to reality after time off. I just finished my first fortnight back and had to deal with a grant deadline, a lab full of young researchers needing my guidance, and frantic preparation for a new term of teaching. And this, on top of the constant background hum of various administrative headaches familiar to any principle investigator – broken equipment, safety cabinet maintenance, staff contract issues, website updates, scheduling conflicts, BSc project proposals, committee tasks. Massive email chains copying in too many or the wrong people.

Perhaps most pressing, next week a new project I’m leading will officially kick off. Our goal is to bring a novel microcapsulated drug formulation through preclinical testing to a small clinical trial in patients with chronic urinary tract infection. This step is exciting, but also stressful: we are underwritten by angel investor funding and we are expected to deliver good return on their financial faith in our science. There will be tight budgets, non-negotiable milestones. After my experience in industry, I know the drill, but it will take some mental readjustments to throw off the more relaxed attitudes of academia for this portion of my time.

I think the stress would be easier to deal with if I had a better sense of job security, of my own worth. But at the moment, these elude me. I feel old, tired, uninspired and uninspiring; I move through the world, but I leave no mark.

All I can do is wait for the spell to pass.

Posted in Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | 4 Comments

In which I avoid the topic

I have been downtrodden this week, struggling to stay afloat in this erratic and stormy sea we call academic science. I suspect there is a post in there waiting to get out, but I am too blue (and overworked) to face it now. So in its stead, a bit of Friday fun from a second-hand lab equipment provider:


Posted in Careers, Silliness, Staring into the abyss | 1 Comment

In which we respect the tough love: editing your writing is an art

Everyone’s a critic. But how good are people at taking their own medicine? Any why should writers strive to embrace and even welcome constructive criticism?

Total carnage: a ruthless editor attacks Draft 5 of my first novel, circa 1999

Total carnage: a ruthless editor attacks Draft 5 of my first novel, circa 1999

I got to thinking about all this last night at Fiction Lab, our monthly science novel reading group at the Royal Institution. We were discussing The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, the less satisfying sequel to the bestselling debut The Rosie Project. (A third book is in the works, we understand, along with a Hollywood film starring Jennifer Lawrence as the eponymous irritable-but-sweet love interest.) The protagonist of these comic novels is geneticist Don Tillman, somewhere on the spectrum between socially awkward and “just a little bit Asperger’s”.

One thing I’ve learned by running Fiction Lab for the past seven years is that no one will ever agree about a work of fiction. Of the more than eighty novels we’ve analyzed over the lifetime of the book group, I can number on one hand those that were universally liked – The Housekeeper and the Professor; Cannery Row; Mendel’s Dwarf. Books that polarize opinion, on the other hand, are commonplace – we almost came to fisticuffs over Gravity’s Rainbow.

The most common criticism raised by the group is, “This book would have been brilliant with a little bit of editing/tightening up/shortening/shaping”. Presumably most books are indeed edited to some extent or another; and presumably editors themselves suffer from the same diversity of opinion that you see in readers: one man’s tortuous meander might be another’s delightful literary romp. Still, erring on the side of too many words is a frequent transgression: repeating what we already know; using too many adjectives and adverbs; filler scenes and characters that don’t bring a great deal to the table. The same verbosity invades many short pieces you read online these days. In my view, lack of space limitations bestowed by screen reading has not been good discipline for the art form.

As a writer, it is hard to accept criticism of your work. Many years ago when I first started writing professionally and getting severely subbed by editors, I used to feel a niggling of hurt, each suggestion a perceived slight. The process of dismantling a beloved polished whole and reshaping it into something better was, somewhere in the messy middle, a painful, emotional process. Later on, in becoming a professional editor, I was able to see the other side. Now, decades later, I have grown to relish criticism, to embrace it. If I give something to someone to read and they return it saying ‘fine, love it’, my heart sinks with disappointment. Where are the red marks, the scratchings out, the insightful suggestions? Nothing is beyond criticism, and nothing cannot be improved.

I think one of the biggest problems with the editing process is that editors are very good at flagging up what is wrong, but not all of them hit on the right solution. This happens frequently with newspaper and magazine subediting: the replacement sentence feels clunky, no longer like something you yourself might say. But the amateur error is to leap upon this as an ally to your cause and crow, “See, the editor is wrong, they’ve made it worse.” Actually, something probably was wrong or it would not have been flagged up in the first place. Scrutinize the original and see what caused the red flag; look at the clunky substitute sentence as a gift and rework it, or unravel the whole paragraph and start from scratch.

Another problem with editing, and writing in general, is that it is difficult to put your finger on what gives a piece that grace and movement that some people call ‘flow’ or ‘style’. Sure, there are obvious pitfalls: don’t use tortuously long sentences or paragraphs a reader has to re-read to understand. Avoid adverbs, use adjectives sparingly. Ruthlessly shave out words that are unnecessary: for example, instead of “I went to the shops so that I could buy a loaf of bread”, you could just say, “I went out to buy bread”. Avoid asides that add more clutter without adding anything to the argument. These are all easy pickings.

But what about the way the sentences move and interact? That’s not so easy to teach, or to achieve. Vary sentence structure, don’t repeat words or patterns (unless deploying a spot of anaphora), read it out loud to see if it plods – or sings. Content-wise, are you leading the reader along your argument in a logical way, or are you going back and forth between concepts with no rhyme or reason? Are your sentences more like lists than like a coherent narrative? When your reader reaches the end of a paragraph, are they yearning for more?

Everyone’s a critic. But decent, helpful criticism is hard to come by. Although I’ve been at the receiving end of a lot of professional editing, some of the most helpful advice I’ve received is from colleagues and friends, giving up their time freely to make my stuff better. You know who you are – and you have my sincerest thanks. Any time you want, let me return the favor.

Posted in LabLit, Writing | 3 Comments

In which we make do: live from the cash-freeze lab

The government loves to tell us scientists how good we are at doing ‘more with less’. Over at the Guardian, I’ve posted yesterday about how the UK’s core research budget is again under threat, with the possibility of up to 40% cuts to be announced at the Spending Review in November.

I’ve also summarized how things have been tight ever since that budget was frozen in real terms in 2010. Many highly respected scientists I know are spending all of their waking hours submitting grants and facing a string of rejections. Even high-scoring grants often cannot be funded: as the price of research goes up with inflation, the pool of available funds is depreciated by it.

Of course grant writing is good for focusing your thoughts and honing experimental plans. But to be a successful scientist, you also need to spend time writing papers, supervising your team and helping to analyze the data. Many of us also have to teach and sit on committees. When you’re in the throes of a grant application, other stuff tends to go out the window – which ultimately isn’t good for your team or for your science. We may be doing more with less, but imagine how much more scientific output we could produce if we had better resources – and if the perilous funding situation didn’t put people off taking the risks that are often required to break new ground.

Anyway, I’m doing my bit for the more-for-less thing. Long-term followers of this blog may remember my descriptions of several home-made pieces of lab equipment crafted out of cheap starting materials, including plywood, tin foil and a baby bottle sterilizer. Several years later, we’re having to be increasingly creative.

Behold this piece of kit:

Expensive Perfusion System

I love it because it reminds me of the beautifully crafted old instruments that you can see in the Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum: weighty, shiny, brimming with purpose. It’s a perfusion chamber, which one of my PhD students, Harry, uses to grow a three-dimensional bladder tissue in the context of urine flow, coaxed into life from progenitor cells – and a bit of love. When hooked up to a peristaltic pump, the top (apical) side of the epithelial layer is exposed to urine, while the bottom (basal) layer is fed with a special growth media mimicking the blood supply. So far, this exciting model is proving superior to standard cell culture, and we hope it will be better than any rodent model. Harry is using it to understand chronic bacterial infection – a big problem in the elderly – and to test novel ways of treating it. We also use similar chambers to grow biofilms: slimy communities of bacteria ganging together for protection from the immune system and antibiotic treatment.

The downside of such chambers is that you can only grow one model at a time, and they cost hundreds of pounds. So until we get our next major grant, we’ve got to improvise if we want to compare different conditions.

Harry had a think and came up with this little beauty:

Handmade Perfusion System

Tweaking the Perfusion Chamber

Comprised of a plastic tissue culture plate and a few needles, this workaround probably costs only a few quid. Unfortunately it’s not appropriate for growing the bladder model, but it seems to be good enough for biofilms. One of our summer students, Amy, is busy growing up biofilms from patients and trying out different ways of killing them (the biofilms, not the patients!). Once we narrow conditions down a bit, we can run the experiments a few times in the expensive chamber to generate the official data.

So far, we’re still in the ‘fun’ stage of resource depletion, akin to the triumphant feeling you get when you’re camping and manage to cook up a full English breakfast over the fire. But I’ve just had one grant rejected, and two more are pending.

Fingers crossed.

Posted in science funding, The profession of science | 8 Comments

In which nature imitates science – number 327

Sometimes when you look at something from a different angle, you see something you’d never otherwise have noticed.

We’ve been trying to grow melons in the greenhouse, without much success: hundreds of female flowers have unfurled, but only a handful have set fruit. Meanwhile, we haven’t been very good about keeping the vines tidy or pruned, so they have infiltrated absolutely everywhere in an untidy green tangle, underfoot and overhead.

This morning, Richard was outside the greenhouse and happened to notice one fruit we’d missed, growing between the slats behind the lettuces and padrón peppers:




Its strange behavior reminded me of something. After a few minutes, I realized what it was:

A white blood cell l in the vessels squeezes between cells into tissue to fight infection
Remix of “Leukozytenmigration 01” by Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck – own work, made with InkScape. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Diapedesis: the process by which leukocytes, which patrol in the bloodstream, are attracted into tissues to fight infection. Like this melon, leukocytes manage to squeeze their very large bulk into a very tiny space to get from A to B. Once in the tissues, the immune cells home in on invaders and eat them up.

In this case, however, the meal is going to be a lot tastier.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Scientific thinking, Silliness | Comments Off on In which nature imitates science – number 327

In which we recommend a classic lab lit novel in honor of the Pluto flyby

The big day is finally arrived: in just a few hours, we are about to get our closest look yet at Pluto. Call it what you will – planet, dwarf planet, even the last word in that classic American solar system mnemonic (“My very educated mother just served us nine pizza-pies” – sung to the tune of “Swannee River“) – it’s a big day for science, and it’s a big day for our species.

If you want to learn more about the history of Pluto’s discovery in a truly entertaining way, I can highly recommend the lab lit classic novel The Unfixed Stars (its UK title; in America it was called Percival’s Planet). Penned by the fabulous Michael Byers, it’s a fictionalised account of the painstaking identification of the heavenly body by a Kansas farm boy. Byers brings the story to life by imbedding it in a colorful and vivid story – not all of whose elements are true.

But that’s just part of the fun!

Posted in LabLit, Writing | Comments Off on In which we recommend a classic lab lit novel in honor of the Pluto flyby

In which we kill the messenger: is Twitter dystopian?

In the past week there has been a lot of talk about sexism in science. I don’t want to rehash any of the arguments (though you can hear some of my views on Radio 4 and in the Telegraph). One might summarize it like this, just to set the stage:

1. Some silly, ill-thought-out comments were made by a high-profile scientist in a very public venue, as an attempt at humor

2. The comments were shared widely via social media

3. Many people thought the comments, even if delivered in jest, were damaging to the cause of parity; others didn’t see what all the fuss was about

4. Much commentary ensued, both in mainstream and social media channels as well as in emailing lists and in the tea rooms of academia and beyond

5. Perhaps predictably, the backlash instigated a backlash, which in turn spawned a counter-backlash, and a counter-counter-backlash…so on, as the ripples radiate further afield and begin their inevitable dissipation into the vast, short-term memoried milieu of the media sea

The current reigning trope seems to be about how social media is a spiteful and devastating weapon, a kangaroo court that can decimate a reputation in minutes flat. A piece yesterday in the Guardian ascribed to Twitter “innate cruelty” and “savage power”. But while social media may at times have this effect, it can also be a strong force for good – a conduit for protest, a way to share knowledge with a swift efficiency never before possible in the history of the world. It can boost a lone cry escaping the censorship of a repressed regime, or a small-town mindset, or a lonely city of millions. With social media, even the most insignificant voice might be amplified so that all can hear. So is tarring the entire medium with one brush really fair?

First off, everyone will see their own version of social media: my timeline is not the same as your timeline. The people I follow might be more reasonable that the timeline of a troll. Can we assign one modus operandi to a medium fractured into a billion personal pathways?

From my filtered end of it, the commentary was as varied in tone as human nature itself: measured and balanced; or humorous; or outraged; or bewildered; or hostile. Some called for heads to roll; some called for sympathy; some called for people to lighten up; some called for censoring all feminist response; some used the opportunity to widen and refresh a discussion of the underlying issues. (My step-daughter’s science class even used the affair as a basis for a lesson.) Social media was neither good nor bad; it was simply media, a channel for people to air their views in a global discussion. Do we kill the messenger, and vilify the people who had genuine concerns and wished to exert their right to air them? Or do we celebrate the fact that Twitter, Facebook and its ilk can help everyday people, not just the privileged few, make their cases public – the good, the bad and the ugly?

Actions have consequences. Ill-judged, damaging comments will provoke response, and the people who make them, for better or for worse, need to understand that there may well be unpleasant repercussions – even inappropriately harsh ones. The responses will be varied. But the people responding have a right to be heard. Free debate is not ‘dystopian’- even when it goes against your opinion, or unfairly damages a reputation. This is the nature of free speech. We reap its benefits, and we also, if we’re unlucky, feel the sting of its tail.

Posted in The profession of science, Women in science | 16 Comments

In which you can take the girl out of the lab…

I suppose most scientists have the problem of taking their work home with them. And by this I don’t mean the stacks of papers you need to read, or the manuscript you’re writing, or the grant application you’re still cobbling together one day before the deadline. No, I mean the tendency we scientists have of seeing everything through an experimental lens. For example, after a long day of thinking about finch beaks or the mating habits of barnacles or the separation of sex organs in plants, Darwin intensively experimented on his own children.

Case in point: I’ve just finished a lovely work of non-fiction by my friend, the psychologist and writer Charles Fernyhough, called The Baby in The Mirror. In it, he studies his first child from birth through to the end of her third year, charting developments in language, socializing and self-awareness. Some of these same questions were also of interest to Darwin when he put his son William Erasmus through his paces. Fernyhough’s observations are placed into context with reference to both historical and current thinking on how these processes are thought to come about. It’s a fascinating read – funny, sad, confessional – and deeply illuminating if your child, like mine, is right in the midst of acquiring language. And yes, Fernyhough and his fellow psychologist wife do describe subjecting their daughter to some of the classic childhood experiments. There are tests involving mirrors, and objects hidden in cups, and all sorts of other tasks designed to probe the innermost workings of the toddler brain.

I haven’t quite got to that point with Joshua – although I have noticed that he spends most of his time doing things that could easily be defined as experimentation. Indeed, Fernyhough in his book describes children as “little scientists”.

Bucket Scientist
Click to play the video in Flickr

But yes. My day-job lab habits die hard. And no more so than in my gardening. This year I started to keep a notebook to record what worked and what didn’t – seed varieties, sowing and planting-out dates, propagation and harvest information. I’m currently grappling with how to get my Melba melons to actually set fruit. The female flowers don’t seem to become fertilized by insects on their own, so each day (feeling like a furtive perv) I peel back yellow petals from the male flowers, exposing their stamens, and brush them delicately against the stigmata of the relatively rare female flowers. If I were Gregor Mendel, I’d have tied a piece of coloured string to each female flower and recorded subtle variations in application (apparently the lady bits are very fragile and hand-pollination often destroys them). Instead, I’m so disheveled with the necessities of getting a cranky toddler fed, bathed and bedded each night that I keep losing track of which flowers I’ve serviced each evening – so I’m none the wiser about the odd successful fruit set.

Cuke Notes

The gardening book – stained with manure and dirt and the pen running from off-course hose spray – lives in the big greenhouse where most of the most successful “experiments” are ongoing. I realized only today that – aside from being negligent about the details of my pollination efforts – I’ve been keeping the notes exactly as I would do in the lab. My lab notebook style tends to err on the side of lengthy prose, with plenty of sketches and irrelevant asides: rambling, untidy and emotional, sprinkled here with jubilation, there with despair (and the occasional four-letter embellishment). It’s been nearly a year since I’ve written in a real lab notebook: my team does the front-line experimentation now, while I supervise and, of course, write lots of grant applications in a bid to future-proof my group. The teaching duties are relentless, with year two material to prepare despite the end of term. And increasingly too, I’m being press-ganged into academic committees. I’m so grateful to finally be a real part of that club that I accept such invitations gracefully, only too aware of what a thin membrane lies between me and the abyss.

But I do wonder: am I redirecting all that pent-up, neglected and observational science directly into my gardening journal? Is it keeping me sane? I always hoped I’d be able to get back into some bench work once I’ve got secure funding and we’ve moved into our new home close to my teaching obligations. The reality around me, however, suggests that once you start to go the way of an office-bound lab head, it’s seldom a two-way street.

How do I feel about that? Surprisingly OK. If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t miss those three-hour marathon sessions in the tissue culture hood, seeding cells, pipetting tiny amount of clear liquid into 384-well plates, sweating miserably inside my nitrile gloves and white coat, longing for a blast of fresh air. I actually enjoy writing grants and papers, and chatting to my students about their work without having to do the hard graft myself. The thrill of discovery is still there – made possibly more exciting by the chance to frame it all in context, with persuasive paragraphs aimed at convincing others that the work deserves the funding to go further.

Meanwhile, I’ve got cucumbers to pick.

Posted in Gardening, Scientific thinking, The profession of science | 2 Comments

In which the small fish contemplates the bigger pond

The wandering path of my unconventional scientific life is about to shift yet again. It’s with mixed feelings that I report another lab move – same Division, another new campus. The retro digs in Bloomsbury, with its polished hardwood trimmings, were always meant to be temporary – even more so when the entire street was slated for imminent destruction to make way for High Speed Two (along with parts of Drummond Street, Camden’s famous curry street, and the incomparable Bree Louise Pub). But instead of rehousing to a newly refurbished, high-concept building on Riding House Street as originally planned, this June my team will be squeezing into a friendly existing centre in the Royal Free Hospital.

Mixed feelings? I am very happy about the move in many ways. Our current set-up is just as isolated as the previous, seeing as how we are still the sole biomedical researchers in residence. The building also lacks permanent infrastructure, the sort of kit and facilities that are traditionally shared amongst entire departments: ultracentrifuges, decent microscopy, darkrooms, cold rooms, shaking incubators. To record the results of ethidium bromide-stained gels, the rest of the known universe uses dedicated digital imagery. Not us: we slap the gel onto a second-hand UV box (circa 1978, recently taken from a skip, only one of four tubes working) and snap pictures with our phones through a protective piece of scratched perspex:. To isolate bacterial DNA, we put our stuff in a box and take the Underground to another institute in Mornington Crescent. There are no handy colleagues next door to bounce ideas off or to borrow chemicals from. It’s lonely and disruptive, and I’ll be happy to see the back of that sort of lab life.

But moving, twice in two years, also take its toll. It can eat months off the progress of a PhD student, especially one who relies on specialized long-term tissue culture models. It is psychologically disruptive. The first few weeks, you feel like a houseguest from abroad who doesn’t know where the sugar is stored or how to find the nearest corner shop.

It will all be worth it, I know. My soon-to-be colleagues are a vibrant bunch of basic scientists and clinicians working on a broad and diverse range of systems and diseases. I already see dozens of potential opportunities for collaboration. I like the idea of being a small fish in a big, nutrient-rich pond. It will be good for my career, good for my PhD students, and good for the science. So bring it on.

Posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | 2 Comments