In which I feel a bit too old for this game sometimes

Age is a slippery thing. Most days I still feel like that tentative new PhD student, pulling 80-hour weeks at the University of Washington Health Sciences Center in Seattle. By the red glow of the safelight, I’d feed dusky rectangles of film into the developing machine and they’d emerge clear, slightly sticky and covered with a primitive pattern of dark marks that would raise another dozen questions for every answer they revealed.

RNAisolation

It was those messages from the void, more than the cupfuls of strong espresso, that kept me alert in the dead of night: the thrill of knowing somehow not as enticing as the ongoing chase, the truths just around the corner. One more experiment, one more gel, one more blot, one more session in the darkroom: endlessly onward. Messy biology would transform to meaning in front of my eyes: flasks full of dying cells becoming dots on a growth graph; viral genomes magicked into lurid pink bands on a Polaroid film; radioactive fragments of DNA transformed into international database entries of official sequence. All of this knowledge, amassed by my own hands, scrutinized by a brain still young and agile enough to remember PIN codes and passwords – to remember my own age, without having to count up from the year I was born.

And this period – so vivid, so strange, so compelling – was more than 25 years ago.

Where has that time gone? So much water has rushed past in between – a blur of existence punctuated by scenes of astonishing clarity. My viva lecture, a comfortable triumph with my parents (mother, still alive) smiling anxiously from the back row. Stepping off the Tube at Russell Square for my first postdoc with a suitcase full of key possessions, the rest a few months behind on a slow cargo ship bound for Felixstowe. Sitting on a sunny balcony in Amsterdam, waiting for my work permit to clear: wondering what on earth I’d done, leaving academia – and as I watched, a bird falling out of the sky, one moment flying, the next dead. On the dole, pacing the Amstel with its endless houseboats, terrified of a future that had no plan, no structure, no certain destination. My first day in publishing, going up the stairs in trepidation, behind quicker young people in their designer trainers and casual confidence. My return to the lab, like a moment out of my recurring dreams but this time, wonderfully real. And even this scene, nearly a decade in the past.

What’s it like, being old in the lab?

For starters, you no longer know all the lyrics to all the songs on the radio. Heck, you’ve never even heard of most of them – though you’re the only one in the lab who can mouth all three verses verbatim to Rupert Holmes’ Escape when the DJ decides to be ‘ironic’. (For any young non-scientists wondering what a ‘radio’ is, it’s a ancient, battered metal box that plays music – because nobody wants to set up their personal MP3 player or laptop and speakers in the same room as the concentrated hydrochloric acid.) You are deeply comfortable with any old piece of equipment (centrifuges with dials instead of touch screens; Mini-Protean 3 pour-your-own gel boxes), but a bit wary of new kit (such as the real-time PCR machine that costs more than your mortgage). Some of your on-the-fly math skills are a bit rusty, though you’ve kept your hand in by coaching generations of undergraduates who don’t seem to have been taught how to dilute solutions or calculate nanomolar solutions, and freeze like terrified rabbits when you ask them to.

But a few days ago, Dear Reader, I discovered the biggest handicap of all.

I can’t see a bloody thing.

I mean, literally. I’ve just done my first RNA purification in about a decade, and I’ve got to the last step, where the precious substance – in theory – has been concentrated into a tiny, nearly transparent pellet at the bottom of my plastic tubes. I’m meant to be slowly decanting off the alcohol while being especially careful that the pellet doesn’t slide out and ruin the entire experiment.

And I can’t focus on anything closer than about three feet from my face – which is too far away to see a semi-invisible smear of transparent nucleic acid against the smoky translucence of the tube.

I can sense all the youngsters watching me in bafflement as, glasses removed, I hold the tube approximately one centimeter from my right eyeball, the smell of alcohol pungent in too-close nostrils, and then fumble around with the Gilson pipettor, thumping the barrel blindly onto the box and only managing to spear a tip on the third try.

Just then, a form materializes by my side. I put my specs back on and see one of my fellow PIs, a woman about my age. She looks with horror at the stuff strewn on my bench and says, “You’re not using TRIzol, are you? I haven’t used TRIzol in about 15 years. Why don’t you just use a Qiagen column?”

“I was trying to save money,” I say, sheepishly.

“You could have had the RNA in about half an hour, about ten times purer,” she informs me, quite unnecessarily. “Mind you, I remember when TRIzol first came out – it seemed like such a luxury at the time, not to have to prepare your own phenol.”

“I know, I know. Hey, do you remember having to treat everything with DEPC water to avoid degradation?”

“God, yes: wasn’t that a pain? And half the time it didn’t work anyway, because some stupid student would touch your stuff without gloves, and your Northern blot was just a big ugly smear of black.”

I now sense the youngsters hastily melting back into the undergrowth. For there is nothing more annoying than oldies reminiscing about the ‘bad old days’ of phenol extractions, phage cloning and isolating restriction enzymes from your own shit. Except they’re not even really sure what a restriction enzyme is, or phenol, or a Northern blot, nor how molecular biology actually works without a kit.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m against new tech – far from it. To wit, I was thrilled to discover that my PI friend’s lab housed not only a NanoDrop spectrophotometer, but one with eight channels. Check this beauty out:

NanoDrop_8

I was even more thrilled to discover that, invisible or not, there actually was a sufficient amount of RNA in my tubes after all. These old hands? Apparently, they’ve still got it.

Victory dance time: “If you like piña colaaaaaadas…”

Posted in Nostalgia, Scientific method, Students, The profession of science | 1 Comment

In which fiction infiltrates science

Two years ago I was honored to have been one of the recipients of the Suffrage Science award. Launched in 2011 by the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre, this program involves heirloom jewelry, originally designed by art students at Central St Martins College, being passed down from one ‘generation’ of women to the next.

As I wrote about at the time, I received my brooch from the broadcaster and writer Georgina Ferry, who had received hers from the biographer Brenda Maddox. Unlike all the other branches of the Suffrage Science tree, ours organically became dedicated to those who write about science, both in fiction and in fact.

pippa

When it became time to nominate my successor, the choice seemed obvious.

Pippa Goldschmidt, a former scientist, has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and several years of postdoctoral research experience in astronomy at Imperial College London. In true ‘two cultures’ style, she also has an MLitt in creative writing from the University of Glasgow, and has been writer in residence in several scientific establishments.

I first encountered Pippa in 2009 when she submitted a short story to LabLit.com, the science/culture web magazine that I founded and edit. It was beautifully written, funny, and with an underlying trace of melancholy – which I now know are hallmarks of her literary style. Her first novel, The Falling Sky, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and follows a woman astronomer struggling to make sense of her life, both in and out of the lab.

Her collection of short stories The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her short stories, poetry and non-fiction have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and also have been broadcasted on Radio 4.

She says that her stories tend to be inspired by “real, imaginary, and bizarre aspects of science.” I think it is enormously important to encourage and inspire writers to deal with science and scientists in their fiction, and Pippa adds a strong voice in this literary endeavour.

I was niggled with a bit of imposter syndrome at the awards ceremony at the Royal Society last night, because all the other women giving and receiving awards were there because of their amazing scientific achievements. But then, I reminded myself of the power of words to inspire and enlighten people about scientific research – not just as a palatable way to impart scientific information, but (much more importantly in my view), to illuminate the hidden world of scientists and breathe life into a profession that is often misunderstood.

Posted in LabLit, The profession of science, Women in science, Writing | 2 Comments

In which we are unlucky: on lab superstitions

I was thinking the other day that if academia were a mental illness, it would be bipolar.

One day it treats me well: a student shows me an experiment that shows great promise. I have a spirited chat with a like-minded collaborator about the great work we’d like to do together, and emerge from it buzzing with plans and ideas. I preside over a classroom of students who seem switched on, excited, eager to know more. I help one of the BSc project students focus the microscope, or decide how to analyze an experiment, or plan the next small lab question to explore. I have a productive chat in the espresso queue with a colleague about some data we’re gathering for a committee. I may not have time to eat all of my lunch, but I reach the end of the day having crossed most of the things off my list, and I have a sense of my years at this university stretching out in happy productivity.

The next day, it all goes wrong. An initially exciting experiment reveals subtle striations that might well be fatal structural errors in the whole edifice. A grant – three months of concentrated effort – is casually rejected. Students fail to turn up to tutorials, or seem bored and unimpressed by a plan that took hours to perfect. I send repeated emails to get someone to file a contribution that was due weeks ago. Somehow it’s already time to catch my train, but there have been so many new demands on my time that not a single item is crossed off my morning list. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about instability, about jobs being perhaps not as secure as they once were, and I find myself scouring job adverts – not seriously, but as almost a talisman against the darkness.

I can go a whole week slamming wildly between these two sorts of extremes. Is it just me?

When things get particularly bleak, I try to see the funny side of things. We recently had a very strange turn in the tissue culture room. Our primary human bladder cells are by far the finickiest cells we’ve ever grown, but something was killing them off even more frequently than normal. Scientists can often be superstitious, perhaps because failure is so frequent that you can easily correlate incidents with regular events: full moons, Tuesdays, the wearing of stripey underpants. So it was not long before we noticed that everything on the second shelf seemed to be doomed.

Unlucky Shelf 2

Proclaiming haughtily that luck was not a quality that any right-minded scientist should believe in, one of the undergraduates brazenly put his entire set of experiments on Shelf 2 – which were promptly obliterated.

As I inspected the floating shriveled corpses, I thought to myself: it was just newbie sloppiness, right? The steel shelves were perforated with many holes that would make the environment equal no matter where the plates happened to sit. Moreover, the entire incubator is wired up to report even the minutest alterations in temperature and carbon dioxide concentration. What happened on Shelf 2 would not stay on Shelf 2: it would happen on all other shelves – and according to the overnight logs, exactly nothing had happened.

Our feelings about Unlucky Shelf 2 were solidified when one of the PhD students grimly thawed out a new set of cells and split into two identical plates, placing one on the top shelf and the other on the second. Sure enough, the next morning the top-shelf plate was fighting fit, the cells spread and gleaming, while the Shelf of Doom had produced its usual sad crop of raisin-like casualties. It was pretty much then that we all stopped putting our dishes there, no matter how irrational.

You’d do the same.

 

Posted in Academia, Careers, Research, Scientific thinking, Silliness, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | 5 Comments

In which I finally get it: multitasking is evil

It’s a new year, and the academic term has kicked in with renewed vigor. I haven’t written here for a while because I simply didn’t have the mental capacity.

I collapsed into the Christmas holidays nearly flattened with exhaustion and stress, and demoralized by some bad news. Over the two week break, I finally managed to relax, catch up on my sleep and rebuild my battered confidence. Spending time with my family properly was the best medicine:  there was a lot of cooking, and baking, and wooden train tracks snaking all over the living room carpet. Each day I ran up Windmill Hill, pounding the muddy grass with my trainers, heart beating furiously in my ribcage, low sun dazzling my eyes and the estuary Thames spread out below: a meandering ribbon of blue with its entourage of wind turbines, great ships, smokestacks, docks and cranes, the town’s rooftops, trees and church spires seeming to tumble into it.

Estuary

Before I went back in January, I put my work practices under the microscope to see if I could identify any way to prevent another miserable term from playing out all over again. I’d kept a time sheet in the autumn to try to pinpoint what was going wrong. It didn’t tell me much when I’d skimmed it, bleary eyed, on my last day before vacation, other than that I simply had too much to do. With my renewed clarity, however, the patterns jumped right out at me, and what had caused the stress was now obvious.

I am supposed to teach no more than three days a week, with the fourth day for regular research. During the fifth day, my time has been bought out since October by the biotech company that’s helping me take our novel treatment for chronic urinary infection through to clinical trials. But the designated days were only virtual partitions – in reality the teaching was scattered all over the place, and as last term bore down, its chores spread like a cancer into all my other time slots. As anyone who teaches knows well, what’s in the timetable is only a small fraction of what you end up doing on a course. If you don’t defend your non-teaching time, it will simply dissolve into the maw.

The spreadsheet showed that each day, in a vain attempt to keep all the balls in the air, I’d do a little bit of everything – an hour of teaching, then frantic work on a grant, then more teaching, then a chat to one of my PhD students, then a meeting – then more teaching. Constant interruptions meant that I never really sank into any chore wholeheartedly or with the proper focus. Transitions – not being able to start anything else a half hour before teaching a class, or commuting back and forth for meetings between Bloomsbury and Belsize Park – eroded my time even further.

But suddenly it was all clear. All I had to do was block out two actual, real-life days a week and dedicate them solely to research (or other academic chores), and to keep them sacrosanct. I drew a thick black line through square after square in my diary. In weeks where there weren’t two free days from teaching in the timetable, I negotiated with the friendly admin staff to reschedule them to another day, until I finally managed to herd every last hour of teaching into three separate corrals. The two non-teaching days weren’t the same each week, but that didn’t matter. I had done it.

But has it worked?

Three weeks in and I’m sitting here asking myself that very question. If you’d queried me yesterday, I would have said yes: the first two weeks on the new pattern had felt manageable – and for the first time in many months, enjoyable. But now the stress is creeping up on me once again. I am registering flickers of panic just off-stage, the kind that heralds total paralysis: when you have so much to do that you can’t do anything. The problem is that, within each designated day, there are two many subcategories of chores. And tasks that are neither teaching nor research – for example, my new role as Athena SWAN lead for my Division – are starting to gather like brewing stormclouds. Where do I file them? How can I keep everything moving without slipping back into that inefficient multitasking mode? Most importantly, how can I prevent what now seems inevitable – starting to work even longer hours on evenings and weekends to catch up, despite a small child that takes up all my time and energy at home?

 

 

Posted in Academia, Teaching, The profession of science | 6 Comments

In which I lose my tubes, and other manifestations of lab rustiness

When you’re a young scientist, it’s the done thing to poke gentle fun at the lab head for being out of touch. For example, when I was a graduate student, we’d all pretend to be horrified whenever our boss, wearing that rare white coat, approached the bench to actually do an experiment. After all, once you reach a certain point in academia, you spend most of your time holed up in an office, meeting with your researchers, writing grants and papers, and dealing with an increasing amount of admin.

I try to pop by my lab as much as I can to chat with my team and see what’s going on first-hand. But sadly, with my full teaching load, I haven’t done an experiment personally for many months.

Next week, as term is winding down, I’m going to treat myself to a small stint in the lab. My new grant kicks in on 1 January, but I’d like to get a head start before the holidays.

Today, I ventured down to the lab to locate some supplies I’d need for setting up a cell culture experiment on Monday.

And was completely lost. Not only has it been a while since I’ve done any lab work, but I realized that I haven’t done any since we moved here this summer. Hence I didn’t know where anything was. Where were the lab coats? The gloves? Which fridge contained personal boxes? Where, in the right fridge, amid the unknown landscape of boxes and tubes, were my own personal boxes?

Fridge
It’s  a jungle in there.

I managed to orient myself in the end, but it’s a sobering reminder of how quickly one can drift out of touch. And it’s not just the lab layout or basic manipulations either. Techniques move on too. When I last did any serious genetic manipulation, it was all small interfering RNAs. Now the world is abuzz with CRISPR-Cas9 – a methodology I know about only in theory. Imaging modalities move quickly too, as do sequencing technologies. It’s no secret that we oldies rely on young researchers to keep the entire lab abreast of the latest developments.

Dear reader, I found my tubes. And my lab coat.  And I remembered that particular flick of the wrist you need to wrestle the metal canes out of the liquid nitrogen tank – bonus points for not burning myself in the process.

So not entirely past it yet.

 

Posted in Careers, Research, Scientific thinking, The profession of science | 4 Comments

In which we are funded: urinary infection in people with multiple sclerosis

MSclip

The big announcement!

I wanted to thank the good folks at the Multiple Sclerosis Society for awarding me an Innovation Grant. With Government funding for research dwindling, life scientists rely increasingly on charities to help us answer the important questions that lead to cures.

More than 100,000 people in the UK have MS and, amongst this population, urinary tract infection (UTI) is a very common complication. It’s important to stress that UTI in people with MS is not merely a nuisance. Hospital admissions for UTI occur more frequently in people with MS than in the general population, and these infections seem to make MS worse, being associated with relapses, increased neurological damage from those relapses, enhanced disease progression, increased fatigue, and the worsening of cognitive deficits.

There is growing awareness that the interaction of UTI bacteria in the bladder is more complex than initially thought. The bugs exert clever strategies to evade our defences, including the formation of thick, antibiotic-resistant biofilms and the ability to invade and hide inside our very cells. A lot of what’s known about UTI biology is gleaned from studies in the mouse – but the mouse model does not seem to be the best reflection of what’s happening inside human beings. Yet it’s difficult to do experiments in actual patients, and traditional cancer cell line models can’t emulate the beautiful and three-dimensional architecture of the human bladder epithelium.

bladder

Our prototype model

So the MS Society are funding me to help enhance a human-cell model being developed by one of my PhD students, Harry Horsley (whose studentship is also kindly funded by the MS Society). In particular, we want to overcome a technological challenge inherent in switching off genes at will within the cells of this model – which is crucial if we are to gain any understanding of which cellular pathways the bugs are subverting during invasion. This work can serve as a platform to come up with better diagnoses and treatments of chronic UTI in people with MS as well as all the other people worldwide who are plagued by it.

Posted in Research, science funding, The profession of science | 4 Comments

In which I embrace the literature

Work from home

Work from home

I think I’ve earned a five-minute break.

I’ve been working hard to ready myself ahead of a big interview for a significant funding scheme. I’m being subjected to a series of mock interviews, and I’ve been reading as much as possible in my field for the past few months, mostly on evenings and weekends and on the trains in between home and work.

For the final few weeks, I’m now treating myself to a few immersive days of study at home. Although stress levels are constant and high, I’ve really enjoyed this rare immersive scholarly experience. I’m making connections and coming up with new ideas for the future. The future, this mythical place after my trials are over where I can stop thinking in PMA elevator pitch mode and start doing actual research again.

Posted in Careers, science funding, Scientific thinking, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which I embrace the literature

Too many jobs, not enough quiet: In which I am spread too thin

My group office, in a rare quiet moment

My group office, in a rare quiet moment

To be in academia is to multitask.

As a principal investigator in a big university, it is becoming increasingly apparent that investigation is not my principal role. Yes, I run a lab (which is in turn defined by multitasks: supervising researchers; writing papers and grants; taking part in departmental activities). But I also have a heavy teaching load, sit on several committees, act as a formal mentor, and have recently taken on the mantle of Athena Swan lead for our division’s charter renewal application next year.

None of this is new or surprising – it’s been ever thus and, with dwindling resources, is not likely to change any time soon. But sometimes it distresses me to be so divided in focus. And my feeling of perpetual dishevelment is enhanced by the current craze for group offices. I think back to my various solitary cubbyholes with real nostalgia: spaces where you could think in perfect silence, or brainstorm freely with colleagues in person or on Skype without fear of collegial disapproval. But such spaces are a thing of history, as surface area is carved up and repurposed for the greater good (breakout areas and soft seating for students, for example).

Of course I understand the arguments about interactivity, but am pretty sure that packing many scholars into small spaces is ultimately more counterproductive for their work. Indeed, I thought it was telling that, in a recent pro/contra piece about shared space in academia, even the pro voice had to admit: “Staff are much more visible now and that is a positive – it makes the place buzz. They do still say that if they are trying to do quiet work, they use the library more or work from home.” So research staff have effectively been given offices whose specifications mean that the only way to do all their work is to not come to work at all.

One of the reasons I can no longer blog here as often as I’d like is because the fractured role I play in academia has started to encroach severely into my private time (as each role can expand to full-time if you let it). Being a working mother has also taken its toll. I know that these things come in cycles, and this term happens to be a particularly stressful one, coinciding with my son’s sudden relapse into broken sleep patterns. So I’m hanging on to the thought that the Christmas break isn’t far away, and I should be able to recuperate from the accumulated burden of sleep deprivation and 24/7 stress.

Once day I’d love to recover the time I need to write properly. I’d like to blog more here, and I’ve got a completed novel to edit and a new novel to continue beyond chapter one. But it might not be possible, and I need to accept that if it’s true. Even as I write these words, I know the chances are slim.

But no time to be sad: my lunch is eaten, and I’ve got a tutorial to plan, a broken autoclave to deal with and a presentation to polish.

Posted in Scientific thinking, Teaching, The profession of science, Writing | 6 Comments

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.)

 

Postcard1_lowrez

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]scienceisvital.org.uk.

No more Dr Nice Guy!

Posted in science funding, Science is Vital | 4 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.

Desk

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