In which we grow towards the light

It’s that time of year when the long winter starts to nibble away at your core. Everything feels cold, dark, and dormant, held in abeyance until better times. The festive period is a distant memory, and spring seems so far away that it hurts.

Joshua harvesting parsnips

Of course in this mild climate, the lock-down doesn’t feel quite so absolute. In our garden, a few stubborn roses still bloom on defoliated stems. We carry on harvesting vegetables despite periodic frosts. Winter jasmine shines with faint yellow stars, and the quince curling around our front bay window is lush with deep maroon flowers. The overall look is verdant, and spring bulbs pepper the muddy lawn like green Braille. But the darkness: nothing can ameliorate that, and every extra minute of daylight feels like a small victory.

The school run

Just before Christmas, we discovered two withered old potatoes that had started to sprout chits a few inches in length. I told Joshua how certain root vegetables like to grow towards the light, and sometimes they even prefer the dark; he seemed skeptical.

So after removing all but two main sprouts, we placed one spud uncovered on the windowsill, and the other we set up with an old, bent wrapping paper tube so that the sprouts were inside. Every few days we’d view the progress, and we kept track of the covered shoot’s length by marking the cardboard tube. As expected, the process of etiolation propelled the darkened shoot far more efficiently than light did; the covered shoot was much taller by the end. It was also purple instead of green, and it produced many more side rootlets. Joshua was disappointed that the etiolated shoot only managed to turn the corner, but didn’t make it to the end of the tube — at least not before the potatoes had started to rot and Richard made us throw them away (boo).

Experimental endpoint

Right now, I feel like it’s taking ages to get around that corner. But I keep telling myself that it’s only a matter of time before we will finally see winter’s end.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Joshua, Scientific thinking, Work/life balance | 1 Comment

In which I see through other eyes

A few months ago I had a Twitter encounter with an American far-right Trump supporter.

Unbeknownst to me, this man had been lurking and – as incongruous as it sounds – apparently enjoying my Twitter feed (which is largely, these days, random stuff about science, literature and women in science, sprinkled with occasional absurdity). That is, until I made a rare snide remark about American politics. Then he addressed me directly for the first time, saying that a lot of my tweets had really ‘resonated’ with him, but now he was disappointed. I wrote back something along the lines of wishing him luck in finding someone with whom he agreed on every particular.

I expected him to flounce off and that would be that; instead, he took it with humour and good grace and it was at that point I decided to follow him. He returned the favor soon afterwards.

It’s been a very interesting glimpse into a strange world. His tweets and retweets drop into my timeline like grenades, so different than everything else that my follow choices have carefully filtered. This is deep wall-buildin’, bump-stock-open-carry-totin’, xenophobic #MAGA territory, so extreme that it’s almost difficult to believe that there really are people – quite a lot of people as it turns out – who honestly subscribe to this stuff. Today’s zinger, for example (which I appreciate for its unintended poetry):

Our Country Has Gone Batshit Crazy!

Have You Ever Read the Threads On Liberal Trash Pages

The brainwashed and brain dead Liberals, Worshipping Corrupt Scum

Being Played and Manipulated at every turn, like sheep to the slaughter!

What the Hell is Wrong with these People ?

Obviously, at this point any logical ‘liberal’ would be thinking about the cloud of corruption surrounding the current US administration, the arrests and indictments, the emoluments, illegal endorsements, hypocrisy and dodgy favors, the innumerable documented lies issuing forth from the POTUS on a weekly basis – in short, the biggest swamp ever seen in US politics. (#DrainTheSwamp is a frequent hashtag used in these tweets, utterly without irony.) The liberal would also note the way that Trump’s followers seem themselves to be ‘played and manipulated’ by these documented untruths. Are there really people who are blind to the fact that this tweet would have been much more appropriate aimed in the opposite direction?

Of course there really are. They must think that the ‘documented truths’ are in fact manufactured fake news, and that their own side is spotless and the victim of gross defamation. And there is no way to change their minds: even video evidence (Trump saying one thing one day on camera, for example, then denying it the next day on camera) could be faked, right? It’s fascinating to know that there is nothing I can possibly say to change these minds, and it’s also useful.

And that is why I follow this person: to remind myself of the sheer insurmountability of the differences that divide us. We will never reconcile. We will never believe each other and we will never make peace and work together, no matter how much I might want it to happen. Instead, we must fight, and when we are in power, we must do what we can until we lose power again – as we inevitably will – and all the good is undone (or evil, depending on your perspective) until the next cycle. It’s exhausting, and it’s almost impossible to get anything permanent done – like trying to build a castle halfway between low tide and high, which will never amount to more than a misshapen lump of sand.

What a waste of time and energy, when united we could do so much. But this is the reality that entraps us, and I cannot see any hope for escape.

Posted in Politics, Staring into the abyss | Comments Off on In which I see through other eyes

In which the unsaid gathers

It’s a new year, and the cursor blinks at me accusingly. It knows I have not written here for some time, and perhaps it wonders why, given that thoughts and feelings are gathering restlessly in my brain and need to get out.

After a marathon blitz of unsociable and family-unfriendly grant writing over the holidays, I finally have a few hours of solitude I can spend, like a pocketful of the rarest of golden coins, on other things. But as usual, I find instead that I would rather sleep, or read, or allow my mind to slither away down endless timelines on a screen. And then there are all the chores that I should be doing, or exercise I should be undertaking. Instead, I stand paralyzed with my handful of gold, unable to commit to anything as the clock ticks ever onward and the pale afternoon light fades too soon to that early winter dusk.

Or maybe it’s because nothing at the forefront of my mind seems interesting enough to capture. The swarm of starlings on the rooftops as I walked my son to school in chilly darkness this morning. The shocking green of the seedlings reaching towards the white-hot light in our new indoor hydroponics system, glowing like an alien spacecraft in the corner of the dining room. The bowlful of winter crops harvested by torchlight last night for dinner: rainbow chard, blue kale, baby Brussels sprouts, a few fat crimson beetroots. The hundreds of pale-green spears pushing up from the heavy mud in our garden, hinting at the benevolence of a springtime that is still painfully distant. Everything seems loaded with a significance that I cannot put a name to, a weight on my soul that leaves no mark.

Posted in Gardening, Staring into the abyss, The ageing process, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which the unsaid gathers

In which I evolve (or possibly, devolve) as a scientist

Tangled up in blue

Last Thursday was a normal day. After a few hours at my desk working on a grant application and a paper revision, I ran to the tube station, threw myself into a train down to the main campus, trudged a mile or so to a remote building near Russell Square and sat through a two-hour Faculty teaching committee meeting.

Back up north, feet considerably sorer, I ate half of my lunch at my desk while sorting out a lecture for next week, then had to abandon the rest of my food for a quick meeting with the department head, before greeting one of my funders who was coming for an lab visit and progress report.

After we’d said goodbyes, I saw I had about 20 minutes before I had to catch another train down to Bloomsbury, where one of my postdocs was delivering a research talk.

For the first time in I’m-not-sure-how-long, I poked my head into the big communal lab to see if any of my team were around. The benches of our domain were quiet, though with some evidence of recent experimental activity. Over in the bays of other research teams, several white-coated students and postdocs were hard at work, head down and focused. I saw at least one scientist I didn’t recognize – a new arrival whose existence I had failed to process?

At that moment, I was hit with a strong feeling – part memory, part melancholy – and was transported back to the past.

It was 2004. I was an editor for BioMed Central, visiting campuses around the world to meet with scientists and peddle this new-fangled ‘open access’ thing to the bewildered and skeptical community. BioMed Central had been doing its thing well before the launch of the Public Library for Science in America, and even then I really was evangelising a concept that almost no one had heard of, and few thought was a risk worth embracing.

Often during these trips, I’d walk past workspaces on my way to the bigwig’s office. Dark corridors, bright labs: the scenes within quickly glimpsed, iconic snapshots from another world. I can still remember being assaulted by the desolate feeling of no longer belonging, of being shut away from something I had dearly loved and had left only out of personal disaster and circumstantial necessity. It was probably during one of those trips that the seeds of the imperative of my return to the lab was planted.

And here I am, many years later, living the dream. But doing experiments is no longer really on the menu. And that niggle of sadness brought it all home.

It’s a normal part of the scientist life-cycle to drift further and further away from the bench. Most of the time it is a relief: I truly don’t miss those hours-long tissue culture marathons, or pipetting sessions, or killing myself with stress doing five experiments simultaneously. I don’t miss the constant failure. I like that, as the boss, at least someone in my team is showing me a positive result at any given time, that a number of papers are in play, mitigating the individual rejections; that, as a group, we are more or less moving constantly forward, even if some individuals are periodically hitting the usual barriers.

But I do miss the process. The working with my hands. The thousand tricks of the trade that I learned to perform without thinking. The thrill of an answer about to be revealed; the joy of a modest victory. The banter and culture and camaraderie of lab life. The sounds and smells and colors. The rituals.

The feel of the white coat as it settles comfortably over the shoulders, right where it belongs.

Posted in Academia, Careers, Nostalgia, The ageing process, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which I evolve (or possibly, devolve) as a scientist

In which we science the world

My son just can’t help it.

He’s not even doing it deliberately: he’s just acting naturally. Curiosity combined with razor-sharp eyesight is a killer combination for the accidental scientist. He sees things that I miss, with my own failing ocular capacity – especially things closer to the ground.

On our way home from school, we always cut through “the doggie park”, where we might pretend to be aeroplanes, or take slow-motion videos on my iPhone of helicoptering sycamore seeds or a blown dandelion clock. We collect one leaf of each color, or run with sticks along the iron fence rails to see what sounds they make. We say hello to the usual dog walkers and watch their furry charges cavort across the field. Ritually, we pause at the tree with the strong horizontal branch, where I suspend him and let him hang until he falls back into my arms – each day a little longer, it seems.

The other day, Joshua noticed a column of ants moving ponderously in a dual carriageway up and down the silvery bark of the hanging tree. He squatted to see where the downward column was going; eventually he found a small hole in the ground where they vanished one by one. He then found a stick and tried to see if the ant column would divert onto it (it wouldn’t) or whether if he dug a hole just nearby, they’d “make a new home” (they ignored it). Then he wondered aloud why not?, before getting distracted by the pale green lichen growing on the bark. Could the stick dislodge it? (Yes.)

Why? How? Everything is up for grabs when you know hardly anything. Reality is a shifty place where things often do what you don’t expect, because you’ve never seen it happen before. And Mama is the omniscient being with all the answers – or at least, he thinks she should be.

I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Scientific method, Scientific thinking, Work/life balance | 3 Comments

In which I question an assumption: do fiction readers really dislike scientific detail?

My regular readers will know all about Fiction Lab, the world’s first book group devoted to discussing lab lit fiction. We’ve been meeting once a month for just over a decade at London’s Royal Institution to talk about novels with scientists as central characters. We try to get authors to join in whenever we can – and next month it’s my turn.

This is not my first rodeo; I also submitted myself to the grilling for my previous two novels. It’s quite nerve-wracking. For the past ten years I’ve witnessed more forensic and eloquent book trashings than I care to recall. The LabLiterati are a discerning bunch and very difficult to please. It’s not enough that any science is dealt with plausibly and realistically – the story, characters, writing style, pace and tone also have to be up to snuff, and the bar is high. We warm up by going around the circle giving the book a score from one to ten; some regulars routinely give zeros or indeed negative numbers, and the average score is seldom over five.

When the author takes part, we let the group meet in privacy for half an hour to allow candid discussion before ushering in the author for the Q&A. Members are usually on their best behavior at this stage, but it’s difficult to disguise disgruntlement completely. Hence my nerves on the eve of my own grilling.

My third novel Cat Zero has been well received thus far, especially by non-scientists (who will of course comprise the majority of any literary audience). Using an iterative process of running drafts by non-experts, I was very careful to try to strike a balance between detail and understanding. I agonized over every single passage that contained technical details, trialling it on dozens of guinea pigs, gauging whether it was earning its keep or going too far. I included only enough science to get the point across and offer a flavor of what research is really like. That said, there is a lot of science in the book, probably more than I’ve ever included before.

I’ve been very interested in the quibbles I have heard about from a few scientist readers; many seem to assume that the science is “too difficult” for non-scientist readers, who inevitably “won’t like it” or are bound to “struggle”. The novel, they suggest, might best be enjoyed by researchers or science students. This viewpoint is in contrast to what most of the non-scientist readers have actually been telling me, or saying in reviews.

I find this disparity of great interest. Why is it that scientists assume that non-scientists won’t enjoy or be able to cope with technical details? I am sure they are not merely being patronizing. It’s possible that it’s difficult to put themselves into the shoes of someone who knows nothing about a subject, experiencing it for the first time through the careful clues and word choices that I have labored hard to lay down (instead of putting it into their own context, which might include an undergraduate degree and PhD’s worth of baggage).

I have discovered over my many years of writing lab lit fiction that readers are surprisingly happy with a bit of technical detail and jargon, provided it’s clearly sign-posted as being part of the atmosphere and not strictly necessary for full comprehension of the plot. This experience is reinforced by the Fiction Lab group, the majority of whom are not scientists; their most frequent complaint is that the lab lit fiction we read is too watered down in the technical details, because the authors didn’t credit their readers with enough smarts to cope.

Because jargon, while it may be bad in traditional science communication (such as newspaper pieces about science, or a researcher up on the podium talking to school kids about her work), is paradoxically not automatically a bad thing in fiction. The example I always use is Star Trek: the characters may be chattering away about “quantum fluxes in the alpha segment of the warp core generator” but we, as the audience, don’t need to know what that really means. And we know we don’t need to know. All we need to know is that it’s a problem that needs to be overcome – and meanwhile, we’re left with the feeling that an authentic technical exchange has occurred, adding verisimilitude to the scene. Hospital dramas do similar things with medical jargon, as when we know we don’t need to know what it means when the consultant barks to the nurse to order an urgent amylase or creatinine test. It’s the same for lab-based fiction: one researcher might remark to another that she’s “cloned a PCR fragment”, but provided it’s embedded in an otherwise understandable exchange and the detail is signposted as being furniture instead of crucial, your average non-scientific reader will let it flow overhead as a touch of reality they don’t need to come to grips with.

What do you think about this issue? I’m sure it’s going to come up during the grilling, and I’d be delighted if you’d read my novel and join the Fiction Lab debate on Monday, 8 October at 7 PM at the Royal Institution in London. It’s free and all are welcome. The most cost effective way tor read the novel is on Amazon Kindle, but if you want a paperback, head over to Blackwells online, where it’s under a tenner with free UK delivery.

Hope to see you there!

Posted in LabLit, Scientific thinking, Writing | 10 Comments

In which I drift

Today as I walked to the lab from Belsize Park underground station, fallen cobnuts crunched under my shoes, and an obstacle course of shiny brown conkers scattered free from their deflated prickly cases. In the spent edges of Storm Helene, I could feel microscopic flecks of rain gusting against my face, almost more a temperature than a touch. The endless summer is finally winding down, and just a few precious days remain until the first-year undergraduates flock in for their Induction Week.

My mood is not so much melancholy as diffuse, undecided as to whether I am up or down. I feel a sense that I’m marking time, that there is something I’m striving for but I don’t know what that is. In the great press of competing imperatives, I have suddenly lost track of what is important. I have a monumental list of academic tasks, each competing for pole position, but I am not certain, sometimes, why they really matter in the grand scheme of my working existence. Maybe the diffuseness stems from there being just too many obligations to give enough time or attention to any one – the whole blurs into a mass of blind effort whose purpose becomes ever more opaque. Or maybe because I know that my position is not secure, this imparts the fleeting sense that I might not matter or belong.

I have caught myself recently wondering what it would be like to put all of my efforts into one thing – a project that would consume me, on which I could lavish all of my passion and energy. It’s not something I’ve ever had the luxury of experiencing in my working life, although I came close to that all-consuming feeling when I wrote my second novel on the dole. It wasn’t necessarily a healthy place to be, either.

Maybe the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. But in academia, I am never going to get even close. The style of modern university work has evolved into a monstrous portfolio of a thousand different, disparate efforts, most destined to be overdue before they’re even begun, with emails unanswered, appointments double-booked, people disappointed, simply because you are constantly in an impossible situation. A situation that doesn’t stop when you slip out of the building; it chases you on your phone, follows you home, invades your bed, accelerates your heartbeat and threads into your dreams.

Most of the time, I love what I do. The rest of the time, I wait it out, knowing that the feeling will pass.

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In which we enjoy: unique recycled goods from Upside-Down

I rarely engage in product endorsement, but I’d like to tell you about a company I’m just crazy about. (They aren’t giving me any money or discounts to write this review.)

Upside-Down is a Romanian company which recycles urban materials, such as truck tarpaulins and street banners, into beautiful products like wallets, folders and courier bags. I first encountered Upside-Down when I received a freebie folder branded with Figshare at a Digital Science event. It was a lovely object, visually and texture-wise, and as someone who is a bit of a stationery nut, it soon became one of my most prized possessions — where I would keep, for example, chapters of novel I was currently editing, or anything else intellectually precious.

It took me a few years to get around to finding out where the folder had actually come from. Digital Science kindly put me in touch with Figshare, and Figshare put me in touch with Andreea from Upside-Down. Yes, the “upcycled” products were for sale internationally, so I went to the website to find a wonderful assortment of objects in ravishing colours and with surprisingly low price tags.

The website is only in Romanian, but Google Translate did a pretty good job and I managed to order. Unfortunately you can’t use a card to pay, but I negotiated with Andreea to make an electronic transfer, as their preferred mode (cash on delivery) wasn’t practical for me. The bank wanted to fleece me for the BACS, so I used Transferwise for efficient service, good exchange rate and only about £1.50 in fees instead. Delivery is via DPD to the UK, fully trackable. The unit prices may be low, but the shipping is expensive, so I’d recommend clubbing in with your mates and buying in bulk.

So if you need a folder, bag, wallet or iPad case and want something environmentally friendly, beautiful and very different from the high street, this is the place for you.

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments

In which I plug: Cat Zero! (Punchline: it’s a great holiday read)

Are you heading off for some well-needed rest? Then do considering packing a copy of Cat Zero, my latest lab lit novel – in which a feminist virologist joins forces with a sexist mathematician to solve a cat plague that might be more sinister than it first appears.

Set in a quirky research institute in leafy North London, the novel sees Artemis “Artie” Marshall, a new lab head, deploying charm, wit and lateral thinking to establish herself in an old-fashioned academic community notorious for its misogynistic outlook. A light-hearted scientific whodunnit with a serious streak, Cat Zero is part-thriller and part oblique love story, packed to the hilt with hardcore lab life. It’s one of the hottest summers on record, and the novel kicks off with a strange new outbreak rearing up on the Isle of Sheppey, just off the coast of Kent in the atmospheric Thames Estuary. Artie and her team, with the help of two otherworldly and antisocial theoretical epidemiologists, find themselves on a race against time to get to the bottom of an epidemic which certainly isn’t what it first appears to be.

But don’t just take my word for it. Matthew Reisz, the book editor of the Times Higher, recently wrote that this “highly entertaining” book is “both informative about the science and intriguing about the rivalries, backbiting and sexual tensions of laboratory life”, and that the mystery kept him turning pages to find out how it ended. (Other plaudits, including a few from best-selling authors, can be found in an earlier blog post.)

Once you’ve returned from your holiday (hopefully sun-kissed and not nettle-stung and/or midge-devoured), we’d love to see you at Fiction Lab at the Royal Institution on the 8th of October, where we’ll be discussing Cat Zero. For those who don’t know, Fiction Lab is the world’s first book group dedicated to the lab lit genre; we meet on the second Monday of each month at 7 PM, followed by a pub session at the nearby King’s Head (where the cheesy chips overfloweth and the ales are pretty decent). When the author attends, there’s a 30 minute free-for-all discussion beforehand so you don’t feel inhibited by any fragile authorial egos, after which they make an appearance to chat about the ins and outs of the novel, answer questions and of course, sign copies. It’s free, it’s a friendly bunch of regulars, and all are welcome – we’d love to see you there!

Cat Zero on
Cat Zero on

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In which I preserve

I often think about how ancient survival strategies are probably still encoded somewhere deep in our chromosomes, cryptic and dormant but with the potential to be roused by the faintest of stimuli.

For me, recent unrest in the world has woken up some vestigial feelings. Social and traditional media are full of black times, news feeds spewing out calculated falsehoods, threats, abuse, close-mindedness, propaganda, pessimism – and ever other kind of -ism you’d ever not want to see in one lifetime. I try to walk a fine line between keeping informed and protecting myself from the worst of the onslaught. Otherwise, it’s impossible to stay productive – despite the more relaxed summer academic vibe, I still have a million and one tasks that need doing, and a team of scientists to supervise with a clear head.

Brexit is one of the things in the daily onslaught that worries me the most. I wouldn’t classify myself as either of the two patronizing categories currently in circulation (“remoaner” and “remainiac”), but I did vote for Britain to stay in Europe and I am heartily concerned at how terribly the Government is handling the negotiations. I don’t believe there will be any sort of apocalypse afterwards, but I do think it could take a few decades for the nation to stablize – at which point I’ll be gone, or close to, from this planet. I know that I am far better off than most, but still I am saddened that my chances at a pleasant denouement after a long life of working so hard will likely be materially harmed by a generation of sluggish economic growth.

This is my rational mind talking. But somewhere deep within, my body is preparing for some sort of immediate disaster come March of next year, no doubt fuelled by speculation in the media about supply-chain problems immediately after Brexit. (Actually, I’m not sure it’s even irrational to think there might be a period of food shortages, with trade so finely balanced and with retail supermarkets not being geared up to storing or refrigerating anything extra.)

Seeing as I spend so much of my spare time in a hard-working garden, it’s probably not a surprise that I’ve been thinking more carefully than usual about the bounty of fruits and vegetables currently glutting around me. In fact, I’m almost obsessed – hence my idea that instinct might be kicking in. Richard and I always have done lots of preserving: jams, jellies, pickles, chutney, wines and ciders. But this year it’s felt different to me, more relevant and urgent. I may joke that one day soon we might be trading quince jelly for ammo, but underneath the humor is something imperative that I don’t understand and am loathe to dismiss outright.

So I pick far more fruit than we will ever need, sacrificing precious reading and writing time to labor long after evening has fallen, scratching my hands on brambles and stinging my ankles on nettles. I save sweetcorn cobs desiccated by the draught to grind into meal, even though extracting the kernels is a tedious business. I research the best way to crack open sunflower seeds en masse. I collect coriander seed, linseed and fennel seeds for seasoning or infusions. I get more serious about saving seeds from the heritage vegetables that we currently have, preparing and drying and labelling them carefully in white envelopes for germination next year. Our fruit drier is going 24/7 – plums, figs, apples, chilis, whatever’s going – and Richard has lots of fermentation in progress, gurgling away in the corner of the utility room. We sow winter crops now in beds cleared of summer’s efforts, and think ahead to what will go in come early spring. And above all, we enjoy what we have in real time: fresh pesto from our basil pots; salsa verde from tomatillos, onion and coriander; deep-friend courgette flowers. Joshua wanders around in paradise, picking and eating what he finds, and will grow up thinking this is normal.

Or, I can only trust that it will remain so, even after we leave.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Joshua, Staring into the abyss, The ageing process, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which I preserve