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

In which the forest emerges

The clocks have gone forward, the crocuses wither, the tulips unfurl. The students have dispersed for Easter, full of dread about the immunology exam that will pounce on their return.

Budding life forms

I put one grant application to bed and work on two others. I sketch diagrams for my PhD students, helping them to keep track of the bigger picture, the sweeping narrative arc of their overall research. They panic amidst the trees; I remind them about the forest.

And then I remind myself too. My quest towards academic security seems finally to be reaching a safe haven. As I prepare to move my lab to its new home, I make contact with like-minded researchers, explore possible angles of collaboration, try to see how best to fit my own pieces into the puzzle. Sometimes I feel like a neuron extending my dendrites in all directions in the dark, one moment absurdly confident, the other wondering if it’s all just bluster and bravado and a shimmering of dead-end impulses in the blackness. Maybe everyone feels this way. Or maybe it’s just me, burnt edges after too many years of seeking.

Meanwhile, back in real life, my son is a living, breathing experiment in language acquisition and development. Every day brings some new jaw-dropper: the complicated sequences of gesture and babble that manage to convey perfect meaning. The abstraction of one concept to a wholly unrelated one. The parallel development of vocabulary: one set in English, the other in some mysterious phonetic system that seems to make perfect sense to him, if not to anyone else.

The main thing is that he doesn’t seem to care what people think: he wants everything, right now.

Not a bad life strategy for a scientist trying to make it in academia. I plan to watch and learn.

Posted in Careers, Gardening, Scientific thinking, Staring into the abyss, Students, Teaching, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which the forest emerges

In which Charles Fernyhough comes to Fiction Lab

One of the great things about being the LabLit Guru™ is that I am constantly receiving interesting books to look over.

Stack o' Books
A stack of lab lit, yesterday – plus an intriguing hanger-on there at the bottom

One of the not-so-great things is that (A) I am always desperately behind on my reading, and (B) it doesn’t leave me time to read anything else except novels with scientists in them. (I think the last non-science-y novel I read was Gone Girl back on summer holiday two years ago.)

Still, there’s nothing that makes me happier than a stack of books. And I’d like to direct your attention to the third-from-top volume: A Box of Birds by Charles Fernyhough. I am delighted that Charles has agreed to be our guest at the next Fiction Lab – my monthly lab lit book group at London’s Royal Institution.

Charles is a brilliant writer and a fascinating person. I first met him a few years back when I was researching my third novel and wanted to understand a little bit about what it ‘sounds’ like when people experience auditory hallucinations. This being London, you can find an expert on absolutely anything within just a few city blocks, and so it was that we ended up in a coffee shop in Farringdon talking about all sorts. Charles is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University, a novelist, a popular science writer, a broadcaster and a whole host of other things too. To whit, I picked up my copy of the novel from him last month at the Wellcome Trust Collection, where he is (enviably) part of the first group of Residents in the Hub.

I enjoyed his first (non-lab lit) novel The Auctioneer immensely, and am still haunted by some of its images. So the prospect of reading his latest is exciting – because I can already tell it’s hard-core lab lit from the opening paragraph:

An opening line of beauty

An opening line of beauty

As intrigued as I am? Then do read the book and come along to meet Charles and discuss Box of Birds on 13 April at 7 PM. It’s free, and all are welcome.

Posted in LabLit, Writing | 1 Comment

In which life imitates science – number 264

A scientist is never off-duty, even in a fabulous Michelin-starred restaurant on Charlotte Street.

Spindle organization was never this tasty

Spindle organization was never this tasty

I think pretty much anyone with a cell biology background would have seen what I saw in this rhubarb confection:


Non-rhubarb-associated centrioles, diagram by Kelvinsong, Wikimedia Commons

But alas, my immediate dining companions consisted of a software system engineer and a cognitive neuroscientist, both of whom looked at me blankly – and with perhaps just a whiff of pity – when I excitedly pointed at my dessert and made little squeaky noises.

Posted in Scientific thinking, Silliness | 4 Comments

In which the postdoc sell-by date continues to shrivel: The MRC comes to its senses

How do you judge the worth of a researcher? In particular, can you tell how excellent she is by how quickly she gets from point A to point B in her career?

Old postdocs may not be as stale as they look

Old postdocs may not be as stale as they look

The funding bodies used to think speed was of the essence. Hence the ‘sell-by’ or ‘expiration’ date of post-docs applying for fellowships: “Thou shalt not be be X years beyond the awarding of your PhD” – where X would tend to be about 4-7 years.

I’ve written about this before, and just to give you an example of how sell-by date is a lousy measure of excellence, here’s the example I gave in that older post:

Postdoc A does his first postdoc in a high-powered lab, stepping neatly into a project, initiated by a departing PhD student, that is just starting to bear fruit. He doesn’t have a family, so is able to work 12-hour days and throughout the weekend. He ends up with two top-tier papers in four years, and is able to secure another high-profile postdoc in an allied field, consolidating his reputation as an up-and-coming star with two more decent papers. Adding those to his 2 publications from his PhD, he has 6 first-author papers after 7 postdoctoral years. Moreover, his boss is happy for his protégé to take the line of research with him, so he’s in a great place to apply and succeed at a fellowship like the URF.

Not so Postdoc B. She does her first postdoc in a small but respected lab, but gives birth to her second child in year 2. The project is disrupted by her one-year break, so by the end of four years, she has only one co-first author paper (shared with the postdoc who took over her project while she was on maternity leave) and one small first-author paper. She has had to leave the lab every day at 5 PM to pick up her kids from daycare, and can’t work weekends. Most funding bodies would disqualify her break, so she’s effectively done a 3-year stint. From this, she secures a second postdoc in another decent lab, but the boss wants her to develop an entirely new system, which takes her three years to perfect: it’s a highly intricate technological advance, clearly innovative and incredibly powerful. In her third year she manages to publish one first-author paper about the system, but her boss doesn’t want her to take the bulk of this desirable prize as seed-corn for an independent fellowship; she attempts arbitration, but the head of department sides with the lab head. So instead she leaves it all behind and does a third postdoc in a high-powered lab on a project that’s quick off the mark: four years later, she has two top-tier papers, one decent one, and a portable line of research. Her track record is now the same as A’s – except that she’s been in the postdoctoral system for 10 years (not counting the break), so is not eligible for the URF.

So three cheers for the UK Medical Research Council, which yesterday announced the results of its 2014 Careers Review consultation. Here’s the key bit:

We are taking a fresh approach to supporting careers by removing eligibility criteria based on years of post-doctoral experience. This will allow for variations in career paths, recognising that the speed of career progression can be affected by factors unrelated to a person’s scientific potential.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council abolished the sell-by date years ago – and there may be other major funders that have followed suit. (Can you let me know if you know of any?) This current news is definitely a step in the right direction: it’s a victory for older scientists, for scientists with complicated family or personal lives, for scientists who dabbled outside of academia, for scientists who maybe just had a string of bad luck or a series of unsupportive supervisors.

For scientists who are human, in other words, and not charmed charmless turbo-gunners with ten Nature papers and no social life.

Posted in Careers, science funding, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Women in science | 1 Comment

In which I invite them in

Although engaging with the public about science is famously not about – heaven forbid – ‘teaching’ it, the two endeavors do share some common strategies. I’ve been organizing and executing a lot of undergraduate educational sessions these past few terms, and I can report that the humble analogy is equally effective in both spheres.

It’s true I sometimes weary of science similes and metaphors, especially when they stray into overtrodden cliché territory. The DNA-as-letters/chromosomes-as-books/genome-as-library trope, once so apposite and fresh, has been trotted out so many times by the unimaginative over the years that is has become almost greeting-card sickening. Other metaphors are so engrained in our science vocabulary that people have even forgotten they were metaphors in the first place – concepts such as ‘immune surveillance’ or ‘protein translation’, for example.

Still, I can’t resist a really nice analogy, as long as it’s evocative and – above all – original. So I tend to collect them as I find them through life’s little happenstances.

Yesterday when I was leaving the local high street home improvement superstore with my family, I was accosted by a wild-eyed, cheap-suited man who’d set up temporary shop in the foyer next to a folding table covered with leaflets. His suit wasn’t nice enough to be a Jehovah’s, although there was something of that vibe about him. In a fraction of a second I’d analyzed the leaflet being fanned enthusiastically in my face and had him pegged as a double-glazing salesman.

In a moment of terrible weakness, I decided to accept a leaflet. After all, there are a few single-paned windows in the back of our new house and Richard and I have discussed replacing them at some point in the future. What harm could one leaflet possible do?

As I tried to walk past with the brochure, the man actually grabbed me by the arm and informed my that I couldn’t get the forty per cent discount without registering. Heart sinking, I realized I was falling into a trap – a proper fruit-fly-lodged-into-congealing-jam trap – but I somehow couldn’t stop myself from scribbling my name onto his form. And, when prodded, almost robotically, my mobile phone number. I was that mesmerized maiden, inviting the vampire past my threshold. Except vampires are a lot more charming.

Desperate to escape now, I attempted again to pull away.

“Stop!” the man barked imperiously. “We need a second phone number!”

“What? Why?” Fortunately I couldn’t remember my new land line number yet, and told him as much. The fly, managing to pull half of its legs out of the jam, soon starts to wake up and sense freedom.

“What about the gentleman’s?” he barrelled on, looking over to where Richard, with a don’t-you-fucking-dare expression, was holding our squirming son, who had started to howl with hunger and fatigue. Or maybe he just doesn’t like double-glazing salesmen.

“I’m not going to give you another phone number!” I had to shout to be heard over toddler indignation. “Why do you need more than one?”

As he was muttering something about ‘security’, drowned out by unearthly shrieking, we finally managed to make our escape. There was no way I was going to give my custom to any company that would rather bully a potential customer than allow her to get her screaming baby home to lunch.

As the morning dawned foggy and morose, I knew I was in for a protracted siege. Sure enough, four missed calls from the number on the leaflet between 9 and 11 AM – but no voicemail. Don’t they comprehend that some people cannot take private calls at their places of work? (If you’re interested in science analogies, you can start paying attention again now.) I used my iPhone to block the caller. About 20 minutes later, another call – the same number except the last three digits. The second time this one called, I blocked that one too. Starting at 2 PM, I started to get calls from unknown numbers. Including one just now, as I type these words.

Screen shot from phone

The stupid, make it stop

But it wasn’t all bad. Actually, I started to realize, it was a lot like host/pathogen interactions. When you co-evolve over many millennia with an ancient enemy, as humans have done with bacteria, viruses and other parasites, you are constantly shifting to stay one step ahead. We have developed an elaborate immune system to keep out invaders – so elaborate that we are struggling to summarize it all even at a basic level for our students this term. But the pathogens seemingly shrug such barriers off and, often in no time at all, have mutated to get around our defenses.

Imagine a flu virus, which is covered in coat proteins that can latch on to our vulnerable cells. Our immune system amplifies antibodies that can stick to these virus attachment proteins and neutralize them – as my iPhone blocked the first number. But the virus, with its sloppy genome copying system, can mutate to make subtle variations in its coat proteins – subtle variations that the first antibodies no longer can recognize. That’s their related number, a few digits different, that my iPhone failed to block. I block the second number – as the immune system rebounds to generate new antibodies that can bind to the revised version of flu coat proteins. And the flu counterattacks: just as the company switches to phones that will not trigger caller ID, flu periodically makes more major coat protein changes – the so-called ‘antigenic shift’ that can sometimes be the harbinger of an epidemic. And so on, ad infinitum.

In summary: parasites…vampires…double-glazing salesmen. You get the idea.

This will be on the exam.

Posted in Science talking, Scientific thinking, Silliness, Students, Teaching | 14 Comments

In which we make a splash: Fiction Lab in the papers

A perplexing start this morning: a text from the lovely Sarah Main, director of CaSE, congratulating me on a mention in London’s Metro newspaper and wishing me “luck on Monday”.

Cue breaking out into a cold sweat as, seeing nothing unusual on my diary, I am suddenly terrified that I’ve forgotten something very important. Which would be very like me, as I tend to be disheveled on the appointment front. Vacillating between a paper diary and an electronic one, there are times when I lapse and fail to update either. And my filing system more often than not reverts to frantically searching an inbox with about 6000 emails in it at any given time. Which is tricky when you can’t remember the name of the person who contacted you or the name of the event you may or may not have agreed to participate in!

Not to worry, however. It was just a mention of Fiction Lab, the monthly science book group I’ve been hosting at the Royal Institution for about seven years now. I have no idea why this particular event was picked up, but it’s great to see in the news again – and in the entirely apposite ‘Geek Diary’ section, no less.

It is a bit of a shame that this particular novel was the one, out of so many over the years, that happened to surface. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925) was recommended by a regular Fiction Lab attendee on the basis of the back cover, which informs us that one of the main characters in a bacteriologist, sent into a Chinese village to help out with a cholera epidemic. Alas, there isn’t a whiff of science in the book, just some vague mentions of obsessive late nights in the lab – so far, so sterotypical. It does contain a wonderful line which unfortunately still resonates today – in fact, I’d like to frame it on my office wall:

“From a social standpoint the man of science does not exist.”

p.s. Feel free to join us on Monday for the discussion, even if you’ve only seen the film based on the novel. It’s free – and fun – followed by the usual pints and cheesy chips down at The King’s Head .

Posted in LabLit, Stereotypes | 3 Comments

In which a tale of antibiotics takes form

It’s a grey afternoon outside the study window. This morning a thick fog erased the usual twinkling lights of Tilbury Docks along the estuary, with seagoing vessels blowing their horns in long, sonorous warnings. A fitting soundtrack, as tomorrow spells the demise of a fortnight’s holiday, during which disbelief was well and truly suspended (along with every other sort of cogent thought or mental exertion).

The return to reality also means that I can no longer put off fretting about an impending event: the Friday Evening Discourse I will be delivering on 30 January at the Royal Institution. Despite its long and illustrious history – having been initiated in 1826 by Michael Faraday (the brooding chap on the twenty-pound banknote) – I wasn’t really nervous until I made the mistake of reading Stephen Curry’s account of his own experience back in 2013. An eminent professor and confident public speaker, Stephen was obviously terrified. And just like that, so too was I.

Although I’ve spoken publicly before to a variety of different audiences about my chosen topic, antibiotic resistance, I want to give my Discourse a fresh spin: many hours of research and thought will be required to get it right, including a host of difficult decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Faced with such a daunting task, I prioritized perhaps the most grueling: finding the right dress for the occasion. Traditionally the event is black-tie, and though this custom is now optional, I figured there was no pointing in doing things by halves.

And so it was that I ventured into one of the circles of Hell – the Bluewater shopping mall during the post-Christmas sales. As always, Richard had my back – and a keen eye for tasteful fabrics. I couldn’t possibly give any substantive spoilers, but I will reveal that it is floor-length. And possibly slightly sparkly. (If I’m going to stand on the same podium as Alexander Fleming and talk about antibiotics, a little bit of sparkle is surely de rigueur.)

I’ve spent this grey day, this transition back into the real world of term time and tutorials and renewed research endeavor, thinking about the antibiotic crisis, and how best to tell the tale. In truth, it’s a topic with enough history, tricky science, in-built drama, human interest and future uncertainty to carry the night – with or without sparkles. Or a cold sweat.

Tickets are selling fast, but there are still some available (you don’t have to be a Member to attend).

Posted in Science talking, Staring into the abyss | 3 Comments

In which we despair: show and tell is alive and well

I have a theory about best-selling authors. Once they have finally made their breakthroughs, they tend to get lazy.

I have noticed that subsequent novels often become longer – just eyeball your collection of Harry Potters on the bookshelf and observe the chronological increase in spine widths, like a literary Fibonacci sequence. They also tend to contain a fair number of editorial no-no’s (such as clichés) that are the bread and butter of every ‘How to write’ self-help book their authors used to swear by (see what I did there?). In fact, the same sort of lapses that would have landed their manuscripts on the slush pile had they not already made a name for themselves.

Case in point. I’m right in the middle of A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, author of the New York Times best-seller City of Light. Published in 2010, her follow-up, A Fierce Radiance, is a great example of the continuing rise of the lab lit genre. Unfolding as the United States is drawn into the Second World War, the story follows the development of penicillin from promising but frustrating mouldy precursor to the mass-marketed miracle cure it eventually became. It is also a romance, a spy story and a murder mystery.

And the novel is definitely bona fide lab lit, with labs, colorful fungi growing in jam jars, experiments and quirky, non-stereotyped scientists in their white coats (including one who’s wearing a cocktail gown underneath because she’s come back to her bench after midnight straight from a party – sound familiar, anyone?) And as the scientists are observed mostly from the perspective of a photographer from Life magazine, called in to document the developments, it offers an interesting and creative insight into how science looks to a complete outsider.

There is a but, of course. I’m halfway through and mourning how the intriguing plot, well-crafted prose, beautiful descriptions and light, skillful touch are so frequently marred by schoolgirl errors. Lips are pursed. People are ‘clocked’, several times in as many chapters. Scenes begin with too many greetings, introductions and how-are-you’s, chatter that’s normally trimmed off as unnecessary padding. I can live with that. But what is starting to jar me right out of my suspended disbelief is the growing evidence that author hasn’t the slightest faith in her readers’ powers of comprehension.

Show not tell is a fundamental concept that every beginning writer is taught. Do not tell the reader something – show them. Even worse is to show and tell – having patronized the reader, the author then hammers them over the head with the obvious. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I hate you!” Henry yelled, banging his fist angrily against the wall.

In this sentence, someone is yelling, and banging his fist: the anger is clearly shown. In fact, it didn’t even need to be shown three times (exclamation mark; yelling; the fist-banging). I would use only one of the elements.

So here’s how Belfer ruins an otherwise perfect scene, which the reader can clearly see and hear, a scene that would have brought the words to life were it not for the subsequent howlers. The photographer, Claire, is ringing the busy Life magazine office to check something alarming out.

She called collect. Frieda accepted the charges.

“Hi, Claire, everything okay? Sure you can borrow it, just bring it back. No, he needs it now.” From the clipped tone of her voice, from her simultaneous conversations, Claire knew Frieda was distracted, others standing at her desk. Frieda saw nothing amiss in Claire’s call, a photographer checking in, standard procedure.

This is reader-bludgeoning, plain and simple. The dialogue itself is perfect – we’ve all experienced phrases like that at the other end of the line, and it’s difficult to write dialogue that sounds this natural. But there my praise ends. Frieda is obviously distracted, obviously addressing the last two phrases to a person or persons nearby. What’s more, it’s clear from the very fact that she’s doing her job normally that she is not suspicious of the motivations behind Claire’s call. To tell us all this is not only unnecessary, but painful. Especially as the violations accumulate, chapter after chapter, until you want to throw the book across the room.

I’m going to finish the novel, because I’m interested in the plot and I do so love seeing science take center stage in fiction. Still, it’s a shame that the book wasn’t taken in hand by a decent editor before it was let loose into the world.

And speaking of which, it’s too soon to go public with the details, but it looks as if I may very well have secured a London agent for my third novel – provided I commit to some strenuous editing, and the result hangs together. After a productive meeting in a Hampstead tea room last night, I have agreed to take on the challenge of condensing the manuscript by almost forty percent. It’s a daunting proposition, but strangely, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Aside from show not tell, there is nothing truer in fiction than less is more.

Posted in LabLit, Writing | 9 Comments

In which I enjoy a Northern sojourn

I spend a lot of my time these days up at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, helping out with undergraduate teaching. It’s marked a new phase of traipsing up and down on the Northern Line to my lab on the main campus, but now that term has started I’ve settled into a routine that seems to work for everyone, myself included.

As a workplace, the Free has a lot of advantages. It’s right next to the Heath, nestled into a leafy village of pretty shops, streets, pubs and houses. This time of year the foliage is spectacular, crimson and flame and every shade in between, heaped up in layers on the pavement and making a satisfying swishy noise as you shuffle through them. The boutiques have shocking price tags, but the charity shops have lovely clothing for a snip. (You know that universal musty smell that charity shops and their wares tend to give off? Well, not in Hampstead they don’t.) This means I’ve been able to kit myself out as a proper pedagogical academic for only a fistful of fivers.

The hospital itself is full of cutting-edge medicine and science. Its National Amyloidosis Centre, for example, is world-class. And famously, it is the only institute in the UK allowed to accept Ebola patients. Just the other day, the entrances were blocked by an RAF ambulance, a sinister-looking lorry and several dozen personnel in military drabs. But rumors soon trickled down that it was only a drill.

Or else, that they wanted us to think that it was only a drill.

Or else, that it was a double-blind and that the lorry really did harbor a patient in a bubble after all. Given the distinct lack of helicopters and news stories, I guess the first rumor was correct.

I am still getting my bearings – the building is of a proverbial “can’t get there from here” layout, and whenever I get lost, no matter where I start or which direction I double back towards, I invariably end up in the MRI suite. (It makes me wonder if I’ve got any metal imbedded into my body that I don’t know about!) And so confusing are the passageways that the only way for me to find my way back to the undergraduate office is to actually exit the building and circle round until I’ve located that oh-so-handy landmark for weary lost travelers, The George.

Today I needed a break so I went out the Rowland Street entrance, up the hill I’ve trudged a hundred times before. The sun was unexpectedly warm, and the air was mild. Squinting like a cave-dwelling mammal in the light, only then did I happen to notice the incongruous cornfield, visible down a flight of stairs leading into a disused corner:


Any ideas? Nope, me neither.

Posted in Gardening, Silliness, Teaching | 2 Comments