In which I realize I am part of a select sci/art group

Me talking about the antimicrobial resistance crisis back in 2015

I haven’t written here for a gazillion years – life is just too full-on. But I found out an amusing fact that I wanted to share. I’m not sure how it came up, but my Fiction Lab contact at the Royal Institution recently told me he’d done a little digging and found out that only three published fiction authors had ever given a Friday Evening Discourse there.

These were:

1. H.G. Wells
2. Ian McEwan

and

3. Me

!

PS. You can see my talk here. I also wrote about the terrifying run-up.

Posted in LabLit, Nostalgia | Comments Off on In which I realize I am part of a select sci/art group

In which I assess

There’s plenty more where that came from

It’s that time of year – piles of booklets appearing on my desk faster than I can clear them out. Baffling handwriting, detailed rubrics, Excel spreadsheets, moderation sessions, similarity scores, pens of many different colored inks. Short answer questions, dissertations, poster vivas, essays – all produced by students who seem gripped by fear, no matter how talented or likely to smash it.

I remember my own undergraduate exams: the sense of panic and dread has left an indelible mark in my memory. This must be why my own students laugh when we lecturers confess that the exam marking season can be more stressful for us than the regular teaching term, as busy and fraught with deadlines as that period may be. How hard can it be, they must wonder, just to read over stuff and give it a grade?

But anyone who has done it will tell you that a pile of 200 essays on the same topic, assessed over and over for hours on end to a tight schedule, is a one-way ticket to anxiety. For each individual student, the mark might be the difference between one grade boundary and another; in the aggregate, such a difference could affect the final year mark, or overall degree classification. This, in turn, is bound to make ripples through the rest of a given student’s career. So naturally the stakes are high, and we have to remain sharply in focus throughout. There is a crushing sense of responsibility.

And of course, academic life does not grind to a halt during the marking period. In a sense, I think this is the most stressful aspect of all. We still have papers to write, grants to work on, data to analyze, collaborations to tend to, scientists to supervise, seemingly endless meetings to attend, open days to plan, hundreds of emails pouring relentlessly into our Inboxes. Everything else I do is portable, modular, can be nibbled away at in chunks. But marking, at least for me, requires long uninterrupted stretches of time so that I can apply the utmost consistency, student to student.

I will survive, obviously. But if I don’t answer your email straight away, you’ll know why.

Posted in Academia, Students, Teaching, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which I assess

In which I run aground

It’s been a long winter, and the past academic term seemed to stretch on forever, a blur of stress and deadlines punctuated by good news and bad. My lab got another paper accepted, and my outline-stage grant was shortlisted. But then I had to complete the full grant application alongside a hefty stretch of intensive teaching and supervising a team of researchers, while juggling a handful of manuscripts and some quite distressing issues in my life. As a result, I hit Easter break like a clapped-out car running out of fuel and rolling to a stop on the side of a long, deserted roadway.

This isn’t anything unusual: holidays for me often feel more like a period of convalescence – especially the first few days of it. This sense is compounded by the usual guilt that gathers every time I am not doing anything, an insistent voice in my ear scolding me for not writing, weeding the garden or embarking upon some long-awaited DIY project. Instead, I tend to sit in the garden with a cup of coffee and stare into space, wishing I were asleep instead. If I’m lucky, I might manage a few handwritten lines in my journal.

So here I am, laptop resting on the marble-topped table at the back of my garden, listening to the creek spilling into the pond, and the urgent springtime songs of robins, blackbirds, tits and finches. Cherry blossoms drift downward and speckle the surface of the water, which reflects back trees and sky. I’m past the convalescence stage of this break, but I still feel like I haven’t had a proper sleep since the 1980s. My body aches, the consequence of pounding the concrete pavements five days a week over the past four months as I commuted from Kent to London and transited between campuses, going about my frantic academic business, prolonged by the on-foot school run. Sometimes I fear I’m getting too old to physically keep up the pace. When I fantasize about quitting academia, it’s not to take up some high-flying alternative career, but to become a gardener or a park ranger, somewhere far away from the city where I can work with my hands and breathe the fresh air.

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel, of course. If I can get enough momentum over the next two years to ensure continuous research funding (“escape velocity”, a former colleague used to call it), I’ll have a fighting chance. Diversification is probably key, even though that’s the last thing I want. But it’s so hard to convince anyone that a usually-not-life-threatening bacterial disease which is most problematic in older women, and which already has a cure traditionally viewed as “effective”, should be funded at all. Grant reviewers tend to point out that there are far bigger problems out there, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, and that antibiotics are perfectly serviceable, so why dabble with new therapies?

This gap in understanding the reality behind the myth means more precious lines of the application devoted to explaining how chronic and recurring urinary infection are far more serious than people think – which then means less space to devote to the plan of attack. Leading, in turn, to criticisms about lack of experimental detail. Achieving that balancing act has been the product of nearly eight years of grantsmanship refinement, and time will tell whether I’m finally getting it right. The cause is so very important – thinking about the plight of the patients, and how close we are to making a difference, is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going.

So, five more days to forget about work, lick my wounds, catch up on my sleep and spend precious time with my family. Unusually, the weather has actually cooperated this year, with summery sun arriving just in time for the hank holiday weekend. So I’d better sign off now – I’ve got goosegrass to pull up and a son and husband to cuddle close.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, science funding, Staring into the abyss, The ageing process, Work/life balance | 11 Comments

In which we find out how


Science in your pyjamas: bliss

What’s the youngest a person can be exposed to science in a meaningful way? Loyal readers will know that I’ve pondered this question before, especially since becoming a mother.

The other day a colleague told me that his four-year-old grand-daughter had expressed firm interest in “being a microbiologist when she grew up”, and could she and her mum come and visit me in my lab some day soon? Of course I agreed, though I wasn’t really expecting much. I duly arranged a risk assessment and permissions, and then asked one of my students to prepare some pretty slides that were at least visually striking, even if what they showed might be beyond the capacity of a four-year-old to grasp.

When the day arrived, I was confronted with a firebrand of a little girl, eyes fiercely inquisitive. In lieu of a teddy, she was clutching two soft Giant Microbe toys, which she shyly held out to me for approval: a smallpox virion and a T4 bacteriophage. I revised my expectations considerably right there and then.

My student was brilliant, explaining everything in a friendly and simple way as the girl was hoisted up onto the tall stool. It has to be said that at first that our pint-sized guest seemed a lot more interested in the swivelling mechanism of the stool, but eventually we managed to engage her with what was happening down the oculars: bright green bladder epithelial cells coated with a liberal sprinkle of neon-blue bacteria, and the wonky looking leukocytes that were coming to the rescue. As she and her mother took turns ooh-ing and ah-ing at the various slides, I got the impression that she was grasping at least the basic idea of cells under attack.

When we’d finished with the scope demonstration, her mother produced a hand-written list of questions that her daughter wanted answers to:

I was quite surprised at the complexity of some of these, which I answered as best I could in a way that she was likely to understand. I didn’t ask, but I wondered what sort of content and education she had been exposed to elicit this list.

My own son, a year older, knows all about “mama’s germs”, but is very interested in the physical world and how it all works. I’ve told him about the water cycle on Earth, in which liquid from the seas evaporates into the air, forms clouds and eventually rains back down to start the cycle anew. The other day he asked me whether rain was salty like seawater.

It was a good and understandable hypothesis, but I explained that salt was simply too heavy to float up into the clouds along with the water vapor. He seemed skeptical, so I decided that a little experiment was in order. I asked Joshua to dissolve a large amount of table salt into a cup of water. He then spooned the clear liquid onto a glass plate, which we put on the sunny windowsill of his bedroom.

“But mama,” he said. “Aren’t we supposed to have the second thing…the thing that is the different thing?”

The control! How embarrassing to have to be reminded. And it made sense, as our tap water probably has some mineral content that might – literally – cloud the analysis. So we set up a second glass plate with plain water, labelled them, and left them for a few days. I warned him that it might not work – the most valuable science lesson of all, in my view.

Fortunately, the experiment went off beautifully. Once dry, there were a few grainy smudges on the control plate, but the experimental plate was loaded with fat salt crystals, left behind for the big journey to the sky.

Joshua was entranced. This experiment was dead easy to perform and understand, but I don’t think activities like this are being put on at school at his level. They’ve already done the vinegar and baking soda volcano, and have been asked to draw the solar system, but I wonder why they don’t get exposed to the art of posing a question and working out how to answer it. Because what could be a more effective lesson about science at this age, when asking how and why are so imperative?

Posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Scientific thinking, Students, Teaching | 1 Comment

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