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.


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?

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


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.


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 | 3 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.)



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 | 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.


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