In which life imitates art, and an epidemic leaps off the page

In mid-November, a journalist from BBC Southeast contacted me about a perplexing rise in COVID-positive cases in the nearby borough of Swale, a mainly rural part of Kent known for its fruit orchards, beer hops and vast areas of marshland within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The borough is dominated by windswept fields and open land dotted with the occasional factory or wind turbine – isolated and underpopulated. As the journalist remarked, it seemed an unlikely place to be incubating a mass of new infections compared with its mighty neighbour, London.

But incubating it certainly seemed to be. He quoted a concerning figure: at the beginning of September, the rate was just 6.7 cases per 100,000 people, yet it now stood at 531. The epicentre seemed to be the Isle of Sheppey, which protrudes out into the North Sea, separated only by the swathe of water that bears the borough’s name.

Later on, after pouring over the most recent maps, I speculated to the presenter on air that perhaps the surge was connected with the commuter belt, as it did seem to hug the High Speed 1 rail line all the way down to Ashford. But that didn’t entirely make sense – if the source were London, then why wasn’t London also as badly afflicted? The presenter wondered if it could all be down to risky behaviour – but it seemed unlikely to me that one small, relatively sparsely populated part of the UK could be breaking the rules enough to explain those numbers.

Of course we all know now what was happening: a new virus variant, B.1.1.7, had arisen, after evolving mutations that increased its ability to transmit from one person to the next. Being much more contagious, it resisted the second lockdown and the Tier 3 restrictions that followed, rapidly replacing the previous circulating strain. Just a handful of mutations, some of them in the Spike gene, was all it took – fast-forward to just before Christmas, when the variant had begun to dominate in London, the rest of the Southeast and East England as well, and over forty other nations slammed their borders to UK travellers, causing chaos at ports and leaving hundreds of lorry drivers stranded for days. Now the new strain has been identified in other countries and is probably unstoppable, the only saving grace being that it seems neither to cause worse disease nor to render the current vaccines useless. Yet.

Decades before all of this, when I started thinking about the plot of my third novel, Cat Zero, I wanted to discuss virus evolution in an entertaining context that did not diminish the science needed to track and understand it. Of course I knew a lot about virus evolution from my PhD work on feline leukemia virus, which involved six years painstakingly identifying and characterizing point mutations, insertions and deletions accrued in Envelope (the virus outer protein analogous to the COVID Spike) during the course of infection in live safari cats. Less familiar with epidemiology, I had a few chats with my friend Bill Hanage, now a famous scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School, who advised me on some terminology and methods that I could adapt for my narrative. (This included using R0 as impenetrable jargon – which thanks to the pandemic is now, unhelpfully, a household term.)

When I was deciding on the epicentre for my fictional cat epidemic, I looked at a map of Southeast England and chose the most remote and unlikely place I could find: a small island called Sheppey, separated from the mainland by a wash of sea known as the Swale and connected by only one road bridge. It was a perfect place for a fictional epidemic to be initially “containable”. I pinpointed the first case, my “cat zero”, to a small bungalow on Seaside Drive in the town of Minster. When my protagonist, a troubled but talented scientist, took on the case following alarming reports from local veterinarians, she was soon hot on the trail of a series of mutations that seemed to be propelling the workaday feline virus into an increasingly worrisome direction.

Every time I look at a case map of England and see the dark purple stain spreading outward from Sheppey, I think about life imitating art. One day, after the story has reached its denouement and we re-surface into real life, we will look back on this strange chapter of history, a selective narrative fractured through the prism of a million different perspectives. What I will take away is the sheer heroism of all the scientists who raced against time to save us, even in the face of public misunderstanding and sometimes even abuse. My hope is that we will remember the lessons of this pandemic well enough to apply them swiftly and decisively against whatever plague comes next – and that instead of slashing research funding and pandemic readiness systems as before, we will increase the scientific resources and infrastructure necessary to craft a happier ending.

Posted in Epidemics, LabLit, science funding, The profession of science, Writing | 5 Comments

In which winter sets in

Unexpected color

Although winter has not yet formally begun, this is the time of year when the darkness stretches ahead into infinity. In the face of this, the prospect of brighter days, of snowdrops and crocuses pushing up from the bare earth, seem like an impossible dream. We know that day will come, but it’s not a reality we can yet grasp.

As the second lockdown ends, the news has come that the entirety of Kent and Medway where we live will go into Tier 3 restrictions next week. To be clear, this is essentially continued lockdown with just a few limited perks. Christmas is set to be mostly insular, and we are being asked to brace ourselves for no indoor socialising until Spring. The promise of effective COVID vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca – miraculous medicines developed by hard-working and no doubt exhausted scientists in ten months instead of the usual ten years – are like those springtime bulbs: we know they will pull us out of our blues eventually, but we’ve got to get through the winter first.

Even though the vaccine results are preliminary, I say “know” with some confidence. While the first report of vaccine success might have been a blip, the further confirmation of two independent vaccines also showing good efficacy strongly point to an infection that is amenable to vaccination generally. We had inferred from other coronaviruses that immunity might not be robust or sustainable, but in this it appears we were wrong – and thank goodness for that.

Still, as the logistical nightmare of mass production, roll-out and deployment get underway on a global scale, we still have to get through the winter. Respiratory viruses are at their peak this time of year, and many people are going to perish before those spring blossoms start to unfurl. Now is not the time to surrender our vigilance.

So I am treating the Tier 3 news philosophically – a necessary winter evil we have to pay to reach the Spring. We’d been saving our Thanksgiving feast until next weekend, to celebrate with another family, but instead we’ve hastily thawed out the bird and will have our meal today, just the three of us (and a lot more leftovers than usual to look forward to). Having already had to cancel my birthday treat in Whitstable a few weeks ago, it seems inevitable we’ll be calling off our planned “freedom” escape to look for fossils on the beach in Lyme Regis later this year. So be it.

All around me are things that keep the gloom at bay. The so-called “Christmas” cacti that flower prematurely without fail ever year at Thanksgiving, brilliant splashes of hot-pink in the otherwise murky grey daylight. The phalanx of paper white narcissus bulbs I’m forcing in the garage, pots soon to be brought out one by one to fill the room with scent. Our experimental new winter garden in the spare room, rows of vegetable seedlings flourishing on a bamboo ladder shelf under a heavy-duty industrial LED array. The jaunty shoots of mixed lettuces growing in our hydroponic system. Out in the back garden gone wild and fallow for another year, we’ve strung up solar lights around the sauna, and we recently installed a small wood-burning stove into our summer house, which makes unavoidable weekend science work a bit more palatable.

Spare-room winter garden

Christmas, though solitary, will also give us temporary reprieve. I think I’m looking forward to it more than ever because of the current situation, not despite it. The rituals keep us anchored in familial love and good cheer. I’ve dispatched the first of a string of gifts to my ailing father shielding in Colorado, and we have plans to put the lights up early this year. Live Christmas tree vendors are allowed to trade, we have a blitz of baking on the docket, and Richard has already started incubating the eggnog (made extra special this year because our own lovely ladies have provided the main ingredient).

So let the days get even shorter. Let the frost glaze the grass, the feeble sun fail to crest the garden wall. Let the freezing fog roll in off the Thames below, spangling the spiderwebs, blotting out even the neighbours and setting off lonely horn blasts from passing ships, unseen. We’re ready.

Family day out at our local beauty spot

Posted in Domestic bliss, Epidemics, Gardening | 7 Comments

In which we face the rain

One of our white wine 2018 vintages

How quickly strangeness becomes familiarity.

As autumn hunkers down, and the COVID infection rates continue to rise (nearly 13,000 cases reported yesterday in the UK), I see things around me that I never could have imagined before 2020. A trip to the mall yesterday revealed a docile crowd with universal face coverage – gone are those defiant mavericks of a few weeks past. Hand sanitiser stations sit at every shop entrance, and we avail ourselves automatically. On the drive there, we witnessed queues snaking though the car park at the local doctor’s surgery: people actually waiting in line on a weekend afternoon to get a flu jab from a makeshift tent. Video calls, so awkward initially, and now breezy and commonplace. Commuting into Central London a few times a week, where I have learned to walk down an escalator like a boss without touching the handrail; buried somewhere in the mess of my handbag, the Test and Trace app exchanges a socially-distanced bluetooth handshake with everyone I pass, ready to dispense future bad news. The evening ritual of washing cloth masks, and hanging them up to dry for the next day. The sense that contagion is everywhere, but avoidable if I do the right things. So although I am not frightened, the invisible menace is something that never leaves my awareness.

The new normal, in some ways, has been good for my science. Working from home so frequently has unlocked a well of creativity and headspace that I can’t remember ever having enjoyed. Perhaps it is because, aside from scheduled video calls, I am seldom interrupted. In the past few months I have read more papers, planned more new angles of experimental attack, launched more collaborations and written more grants than I can ever recall. Some days I am electric with ideas and find myself having to pause during domestic chores to scribble down an elusive thought before it slips away. Perhaps this state is similar to the grip that takes hold of me when I’m knee-deep into writing a novel, and it will not last. So while the mojo visits me, I squeeze out every drop.

And speaking of which, it has been raining nearly nonstop for three days. There is a massive grape harvest awaiting outside, but I don’t have the heart to leave the warmth and comfort of the house to help Richard tackle it. Instead, I sip at a glass of one of our 2018 vintages (surprisingly palatable) and light candles against the gloom. We are still enjoying produce from the garden: late apples and tomatoes, chillis and kale, chard and beets, a few scraggly beans, and the last of the sweetcorn and courgettes. Parsnips and cabbages are still in our future, and a few more pumpkins. A bouquet of sunflowers, scabiosa, verbena and autumn anemone sit in a vase next to my laptop. The seasons cycle, bringing rain and cold and face-high spider webs, but my family keeps me rooted within the centre of this spinning wheel.

Late-season windowsill ripening

Destined for a pie

Autumnal flowers

Every time I am being interviewed on television, I am asked what will happen. Will cases continue to rise? Will more restrictions come into place? Will Christmas be “cancelled”? Will hospitals be as overwhelmeed in this second wave as they were in the first? Will the vaccine come soon and save us?

More TV tea-leaf reading, Friday

I do not know, and neither does anyone else. So right now, I’m focused on the present: the rain drumming impatient fingers on the conservatory roof. The sound of the cocktail shaker (my lovely husband, making me one of his famous espresso martinis). The rummaging of Lego as my son builds a fantastic space space lab opposite me at the dining room tables. Everything as it should be, safe and precious.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, Scientific thinking, The profession of science, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which we face the rain

In which Frank leaves the building

Martin

Martin onstage at “Trop-a-Delic”

Last night I lost a friend.

I couldn’t think of a more graceful way to start this post, as I am still a little bit in shock. But last night, I lost a friend.

Back in about 2006, I found myself in a London pub with a group of friends I call “the Nature crowd” – many being senior editors at that august journal, but also including a few scientists, ex-scientists and friends from other walks of their lives. I’d fallen into their amiable circle years earlier via a former post-doctoral colleague who’d left the bench to join the ranks on the other side of science publishing.

At that time smoking was still permitted inside public buildings, but this group preferred to stand outside. I remember I found myself suddenly alone at the table as the entire party decamped. But a few minutes later, realising what had happened, Karl chivalrously popped back in to keep me company.

He started telling me about a band he was in. I told him how much I loved to play and especially sing, and before I knew it he was inviting me to come along to the next practice session of Frank-a-delic, to see if there was a fit.

I was terrifically nervous when I arrived at The Premises, a famous rehearsal space in the East End. The band already had a lead vocalist, Jane, and I didn’t want to tread on her toes. As an alto, I am accustomed to singing harmony and, having a flair for it, I thought I could contribute back-up vocals. But I needn’t have worried – the natives were friendly and welcoming. And the most welcoming of all was the band’s founder and guru, “Frank” himself (real name, Martin Griffith). He had a smile like the sun suddenly emerging from a bank of storm clouds. Jane hadn’t yet arrived, so he suggested I go up to the mic and help them practice “Psycho Killer” in the meantime.

“You do know ‘Psycho Killer’, right, Doc?” he said briskly. (He always called me Doc from that day forward.) “Here’s the lyrics sheet.”

And the rest is history.

Me singing

Martin gave me the confidence to try my hand at lead vocals

We played together for about the next eight years or so, until life gradually became too much for everyone to keep up the pace. We played about one major gig a year, crazy (and expensive, as we hired all the PA and kit) parties we threw for our friends in various venues and festivals around England, often in costume. It turned out that neither Jane nor I had the vocal stamina to sing lead on every song, so we traded off, and even took on a third lead vocalist, Rinoko, a bit later. We only played covers, but we prided ourselves on doing them in different, usually weird, styles. So a punk version of “The Girl From Ipanema”, sung by Paul, one of our percussionist, cross-dressed as a nun, was entirely normal for us.

The band in costume

Wigs and costumes featured prominently

We were sprawling and huge, with 17 members at our apex, making it difficult to fit on most stages. We had a brass section, three guitars, two basses, two keyboards, three percussionists, a scattering of singers and even a theremin. We were unbelievably, ear-splitingly loud. What we lacked in prowess we made up for in enthusiasm. Our parties were mad fun, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves, including the hardcore audience regulars who followed us faithfully til the end.

The band and audience

The audiences always seemed cheerful

And through all of this, Martin would stand in shades at the helm behind his keyboard, nodding his head to the rhythm, a benevolent presence who kept us real and suitably bizarre. Afterwards, he would often ascend into the DJ booth and spin a great dance session. I can still see him up there in the booth at the pub in the centre of the Archway roundabout, face glowing purple in the lighting with a look of rapt happiness on his face.

The band playing

One of our Imbibe gigs, with Martin overseeing (second from right)

My first gig was at the Imbibe bar in Southwark. I can remember only dribs and drabs, such as the moment when Bill Hanage (now a famous epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School), dressed in a fetching Miami-vice-style jacket, was so overcome by our rendition of “Anarchy in the UK” that he rushed onto the stage, insinuated himself into the circle of backup vocalists around a single mic and joined in. I remembers the Seven Bells festival when we were the headliners, but the local cops yanked the electricity only three songs into our set. I remember a small stage in Brighton that was so hot that pools of sweat formed under every player, and it transpired that my silver sequinned dress, picked up at a charity shop for a fiver, was see-through with camera flashes. I remember possibly our best gig ever, at the Bullet Bar in Camden, when the entire venue, packed with hundreds of people, flailed and waved their hands in ecstasy. On lead vocals, I remember bringing down the house with renditions of “In These Shoes?”, “Pure Pleasure Seeker” and “She Blinded Me With Science”. But secretly I preferred backup vocals, fading back from from the spotlight, spinning harmonies and tapping on claves, scraping a guiro or brandishing a shaker or tambourine.

Brighton gig

Sweating profusely in Brighton

Last night the news came to us on Facebook. The band quickly mobilised, dashing off shocked texts, unable to process the enormity of Martin being gone. I looked into my Facebook message timeline and saw Martin’s name in the list – he often sent me links to music he thought I’d like. With a pang I noticed that I’d never even responded to the last few, let alone listened to them, as they’d arrived during the height of lockdown home-schooling. Blinking back more tears, I hesitated forever at the silliness of the gesture, then typed my final reply:

“I’m so sorry I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. Rest in peace dear friend.”

After a moment, the little blue tick appeared signifying “received”, like a punch in the gut.

Now I’m listing to all the links I ignored from this generous sharer of music, a passionate man who viewed songs as highly personal gifts. First up, “Ka Bu Txona” by Dino d’Santiago. As expected, it is exactly my cup of tea. As the mellow tones fill the room now, I like to think that Martin is up there somewhere, enjoying it with me.

(all photos by Karl Ziemelis, used with permission)

Posted in Music, Obituaries, The ageing process | Tagged | 1 Comment

In which business is not quite as usual: the post-first-wave lab resumes

Suspended animation: the lab awaits the return of its researchers

Business as usual is the sort of mentality that’s probably only certain in retrospect. At the moment, the jury is still very much out.

My lab reopened its doors a few weeks ago. This is, of course, a wonderful thing. After four long months at home, everyone was going a little stir crazy analysing data, writing papers, planning experiments and reading the scientific literature.

But I cannot say that we have “resumed” properly. Not at all. The team are still getting to grips with booked hot-bench spaces to maintain low occupancy, working in enhanced PPE, and braving crowded public transport to get to and from work. It’s stressful and disruptive, and the joys of lab work are blunted by the need to wear a mask at the bench, a constant reminder about the invisible menace around us. As lab heads have been asked to maintain working from home wherever possible, I have the added burden of guilt that my team members are facing dangers that I am not sharing. I work incredibly hard each day, preparing for the new teaching term, writing grants and papers, supervising the researchers via video calls and tending to collaborations, but I feel somehow, at the same time, that I am cheating.

How long will this go on? Many places may be reopening, but I fear we are far from out of the woods. Hotspots flare up all over the world, both in virgin territory and in countries whose first curves were long since flattened. The case numbers in the UK have been creeping up over the past month or so. Although hospitalizations and deaths have not yet followed suit, there is increasing awareness of a significant but uncounted middle-ground of severe, long-term illness amongst younger people. Add that to the really unknown long-term effects of those hospitalised people who ostensibly “recovered”, and the true direct toll of the pandemic is likely to be much higher than the minimum binary stats – dead or alive – would have us believe.

Of biggest concern is what will happen when winter descends upon us. Will its lower temperatures
fan a simmering virus reservoir into flames, mingling with seasonal influenza virus in an especially toxic mixture? I feel that we are in the eye of a storm right now, and that the lab time my researchers have now is borrowed, a golden few months of opportunity before another surge. I very much hope to be wrong about this, but as one of my colleagues remarked yesterday, you can hear a very loud clock ticking. This sense of urgency has infected the researchers in my team, as they pile on extra experiments in a bid to have enough to analyse and write up during the next potential lockdown.

In academia, the fear is palpable. Not about the virus: we scientists understand well the risks and have the ability to balance those fears appropriately. But what we fear is what will become of us: our careers and livelihoods. In this we are no different than most other folk; the pandemic has tipped the world into economic chaos from which it may take years to recover. But academia already had an inbuilt insecurity that the current circumstances will only enhance. Many of us will be forced to leave and compete for an ever-diminishing pool of jobs outside research. Many of us will be at the best, disappointed, and at the worst, unemployed. It remains to be seen how resilient the higher education sector will be. None of us has the slightest idea what to expect.

My office mate, clearly having more fun than I am

So as a long, hot summer dwindles into rains, shorter days and the end of one of the most momentous years on record, I work at my dining room tables, keep an eye on my son and, when time allows, tend to our garden. It’s that time of ridiculous bounty where we struggle to deal with the glut of fruit and vegetables: figs, apples, pears, plums, cucumbers and blackberries pile up in the fridge, and we cook with our own beans, chillis, courgettes, chard, beets, carrots, celery, zucchini flowers, onions and potatoes. Fat pumpkins, aubergines and sweetcorn ripen, and parsnips, cabbage, Brussels and broccoli await the frosts. Soon Richard will be harvesting grapes, hops and apples for wine, beer and cider. There is a comfort to the predictability of these seasonal harvest cycles, and this year I feel even more connected because it’s an environment I seldom leave. The garden is my anchor, keeping me tethered in a strange see with an uncertain forecast. Even if this is only an illusion, I’ll take it.

Rouge vif d’Etampes, fit for Cinderella

Posted in Academia, Careers, Domestic bliss, Epidemics, Gardening, Joshua, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which business is not quite as usual: the post-first-wave lab resumes

In which we venture out

We are poised on the edge.

As the world teeters between spring and summer, cloaked in lush green and bursting into flower, there is a sense that our pandemic lockdown is coming to an end. Not all at once, of course, and not anywhere close to normal, but it is happening.

Freedom: a secluded swimming hole on the River Darent, last week, just before diving in

The evidence is everywhere. Unless something changes, Joshua’s school is reopening a week from today, amidst a storm of controversy about whether it is too soon. After a relaxation in lockdown rules, our local parks are filling up with sunbathers and barbecues, while the tennis courts are suddenly humming with players. Our own family ventured to the seaside yesterday — albeit at the obscenely early time of 8 AM, which allowed us to enjoy the vast stretch of low-tide Joss Bay sands with dozens of meters between us and the other sporadic early-bird groups brave enough to confront the chilly winds and frigid surf. And although the university labs remain closed, a plan is being put into place for a phased re-opening soon. The Royal Free Hospital, where my team is based, endured a large burden of COVID-19 patients, with a significant part of the building converted into make-shift intensive care units, including the floor where my lab is situated. So it’s a logistical health-and-safety nightmare aside from the social distancing we’ll need to practice.

There are many things about lockdown that are negative, but I am not looking forward to resuming the daily commute by train and Tube, a long-winded and stressful inconvenience I used to take for granted that now seems faintly ridiculous in the era of breezy Zoom calls. And I will genuinely miss the privilege of getting to spend so much time with Joshua as his teacher. He is such a clever and obliging little boy. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and work commitments have meant I’ve had to outsource some of it to online resources such as The Khan Academy and BBC Bitesize, subscription kits like Toucanbox and Kiwi Crate, and the wonderful kids magazine Whizz Pop Bang. But by and large over the last ten weeks we have stuck to a loose schedule that includes English, mathematics, art, science and PE, and almost without me realising it, we have filled a scrapbook, and various Key Stage 1 workbooks, with the evidence of his learning. I hope when he returns, he will be perceived as being on track. All this, and still, somehow, I’ve stayed on top of my own work too.

Learning about our garden herbs

Although the experiments have been fun — gelatine-based microbiology, nature walks to collect specimens, parachutes from plastic bags, adventures with surface tension and water pressure, considering rudimentary hypotheses and controls — I think I have honestly enjoyed the art more. As the daughter of artists, growing up in a messy house surrounded by student portfolios that my father was grading, or of my parents own works, I love to draw but rarely indulge in the hobby these days. So it’s been good to incorporate this activity into the fabric of the everyday by sharing it with my son, just like my mother used to do art projects with me.

Chemistry time with Dad

I like to think that some of the nicer lockdown traditions will stay with us, but in my heart I know it cannot last. In the frantic resumption of the long commute, which eats up hours and spits out exhaustion at day’s end, our post-dinner dances and walks, art projects and story-writing, all will slip away, like spring into summer.

So for now, I’m going to soak in every last minute of precious time while it lasts, this preternatural pause-button couple of months that taught me the true meaning of “work-life balance”.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Joshua, Teaching, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which we venture out

In which we lock down

Garden

Pandemic existence: reaping what we’ve sown

There is nothing I can write about life on lockdown that has not already been written. Doing so risks the scorn of the likes of Times journalist Matthew Parris, who on Saturday opined:

I’m encountering what for me is an almost intolerable level of guff about reconnecting with nature, learning the joys of contemplation, home-cooking, realising how much more there is to life than nine-to-five, putting the rhythm of lovely walks and daily exercise back into life, birdsong, etc.

But what else does he expect? We are all processing what has been one of the most extraordinary times in living memory. Of course we are struck by the commonplace, with a strong desire to find the silver lining — there is little else to hand aside from fear and contagion, seasoned by social media ire, fake news, recriminations and the arrogant wisdom of hindsight (or what my fellow Americans might call shoulda-coulda-woulda).

So yes, my journal is full of repetitive and probably deeply tedious observations about birdsong, the lack of contrails, the calming reduction in passing traffic, and all the wonderful neighbourhood nooks and crannies we’ve discovered on our daily family walk. To Parris’s list, I could add jokes about attending teleconferences in your underwear, middle-aged aching glutes after too much PE with Joe, panic buying, and when gin o’clock starts in the new world order. This is now our existence, and sharing makes us feel part of something larger.

So with that apologia, I will write what I need to write, and count the blessings I need to count.

For the past three weeks — which feels a lot more like three years — my world has been compressed into a small domestic core, as it has for so many others around the world. Richard drives out for the weekly shop, but I’ve only walked or cycled since the government’s social distancing mandates went into effect, and then only once a day and no more than half a mile of distance.

I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have my health, my family around me, a job where working remotely is possible, and the green space out back — the green space that enticed us away from London some five years ago, despite the added hassle and expense of the rail commute. In addition to give us that extra breathing space, the garden comes with its own seasonal imperatives, which now keep us on track and add structure to weeks which might otherwise pummel us with same-ness — even as it is an unrelenting bootcamp that sucks up much of our free time.

We are near the beginning of the cycle now, just completing the indoor propagation of seeds sown into heated trays in March — tomatoes, chilies, cucumber, courgettes, sweet corn; or into cool trays in the greenhouse — broccoli, celery, Brussels sprout, sunflowers, zinnias, various bare-root towering perennials. This conveyor belt of new green life overlaps by a few months with the end of last year’s cycle, as we continue to harvest overwintered vegetables — onion, chard, cabbages, pak choi, potatoes, kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, broad beans, carrots, parsnips. Richard is the caretaker of the grape vines we inherited from the previous owners, who had a penchant for home-brew. He is, in fact, in charge of all alcohol-related activities (which go far beyond grapes, including hops, apples, rhubarb, blackberries, elder and sloe). But the vines are the fussiest charges. Soon the buds will need rubbing, apparently.

One of my colleagues joked to me that he’s always been a bit of a “prepper” even under normal circumstances, and the pandemic has sharpened this instinct like a knapped flint. I know what he means. Every morning I give a silent thanks to the three warm eggs laid by the hens we managed, quite coincidentally, to install just before lockdown; their regular feed is supplemented generously by garden weeds, and their poo rots down and goes back into the vegetable beds. I am being particularly careful this year to gather more seeds than usual from those vegetables we have that breed true (including six varieties of heirloom tomato), as garden centres and online plant distributors wink out one by one. We’ve always been frugal with leftovers, but in recent weeks the entire family goes to particular pains to consume every last crumb of what we are served, as staples like bread flour and yeast grow increasingly hard to find.

Work has been challenging, as we’ve had Joshua to home-school, with disappointingly minimal guidance from his teachers. Clearly a lab head has an easier job of working from home than does her research team — much of what I do anyway is write papers and grants, supervise my team and tend collaborations, all of which lend themselves to remote working. But I’ve been trying to do the same number of hours as normal on top of keeping Joshua on some semblance of a schedule — regular hours set aside for maths, English, art, music, science, exercise and eating lunch with classmates on the Houseparty app. Sometimes when I’m busy on Zoom or Teams, his sad little face pops into the frame.

With undergraduate teaching complete aside from assessment, and individual lab members settled into lab-less home tasks like writing papers, bioinformatics and analyzing data, most of my efforts now are future-focused. On the teaching side, I tend to my broader roles as admissions tutor and faculty careers liaison. On the research side, nearly all my funding runs out in a bit more than a year, so I’m trying to write as many grants as I can. With chronic urinary tract infection seemingly unfundable, I’m now, with regret, forced to branch out into other related areas (hopefully still allowing some scope for carrying on with chronic UTI). So I’m forging links with other researchers and clinicians who have bold ideas and the same roll-up-your-sleeves attitude to science that I strive for, even as many of us academics wonder whether our universities will be in the financial position to keep us on once this is all over. But despite the uncertainty and genuine fears for my prospects, thinking about the future, brainstorming with diverse colleagues and exploring new areas is deeply stimulating. I am sure that this old dog still has a few new tricks to learn, and that one day soon I will strike it lucky.

So yes, I’m busy, perhaps busier than I’ve ever been. But at the same time, I have the oddest sense that nothing is actually happening. This must be an illusion of lockdown, when the environment is invariant day after day. Meanwhile outside, the pandemic crests over our heads with ruthless efficiency, widespread heartache, and no end in immediate sight. The conduit of outside information that keeps us plugged into badly-needed intelligence from the wider world is also an agent of fear, uneasiness and rancour. So I’ve sunk wholeheartedly into Easter weekend, allowing myself to down tools (aside from the spade and hoe), enjoy this glorious summery stretch of weather, and reflect upon the positive side of my new normal.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Work/life balance | 6 Comments

In which we home-school science: introducing #HomeSci, a social media experiment

Joshua channeling his inner boffin at dress-up time

From this coming Monday in the United Kingdom, all schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that many parents will be working from home and looking after their children at the same time. And not just looking after them, but having to support their education too. Other countries are or have already faced school closures.

As daunting (and sometimes frightening) as these times are, I have been heartened by how people have banded together to support one another and stay grounded, especially the online community, where we’ve seen everything from virtual choir practices to book groups chats rolling out via screen.

Yesterday on Twitter I was musing about how I might do a weekly scientific experiment with Joshua to keep him engaged with his home-school studies. My dear friend Sally Lowell suggested that we do it as a community: commence weekly experiments on Mondays, and report back on Fridays on Twitter with the results, including plenty of pictures. This would, she reasoned, mimic what happens at school, where kids work together on a project and get to see the outcomes. A number of parents expressed interest, I proposed the hashtag #HomeSci to keep track of everyone, and the idea was officially born!

For our first experiment on Monday 23 March, we decided to do something topical with micro-organisms. Paul Ko Ferrigno suggested the following [with my clarifications in brackets]:

Dissolve a stock cube and a cube of sugar-containing strawberry jelly [warning: this is the British term for Jell-o or gelatine…don’t use jam!] in hot water. Divide between 2 [paper] cupcake holders. Make as many as you want. When set, use moistened earbuds to sample around the house, wash/unwashed hands, swabbing and streaking. [Rub the moistened bud onto your surface of choice, then rub that gently onto the set gelatine as a smear. After a few days, bacterial colonies should grow. They will grow faster in a warm environment. It might help to put them into an enclosed Tupperware container that contains some wet paper towels at the bottom, to keep them moist.] Who can grow the grossest bug?

We all agreed this sounded like great fun, but I was keen to develop something a bit more hypothesis-driven. I’ve written before about how school science seems to be more about facts, figures and description than in learning how to actually ask and answer questions. So with a bit more discussion, we decided that people should choose parameters to test, whatever their child was most interested in: see what grows better if you vary the ingredients of the culture medium. Look at the effect of temperature. See which surfaces in the house are the most bug-ridden. And my personal favourite: determine whether hand-washing can affect whether microorganisms can grow – or whether 20 seconds is better than 10 seconds. Or even better: is the “five second rule” actually a thing?

We will be looking at bacteria, not viruses, but I like the idea of showing Joshua that such interventions really can affect the microbial world, as he’s been hearing so much about the right way to wash hands at school.

Do feel free to join us – the more, the merrier! Leave a comment below if you have any questions or suggestions.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Research, Scientific method, Teaching | 1 Comment

In which the pandemic unfolds: a postcard from The Big One?

Epidemics are works in progress. At any given moment in time, you can’t know how they will end. They are a curve on a graph of ultimately unknown trajectory; when you are just a dot on a growing curve, you can’t see where line will go when it has yet to be drawn. Or to use another metaphor, as I remarked on my Cosmic Shambles blog back in late January when there was all to play for:

What we know right now about the Wuhan coronavirus is like a photo of a cluster of snooker balls a second after the break shot. We don’t know how fast the balls will roll away, nor to which corners of the table.

I wrote something here at the beginning of the Swine Flu pandemic back in 2009 which now makes interesting reading, encapsulating as it does that feeling of living through an outbreak’s beginning, of being a blind pixel on an unfolding graph:

Scientists, I think, are trained to be sceptical about major events in general, and the coverage of these events in the media in particular. Thus far the typical responses of my learned colleagues to the news of possible pandemic influenza have ranged from shrugs of disinterest to humorous quips, but very few feel that it will come to anything much. It is almost as if magnitude of the press response has reinforced their suspicion that nothing could possibly be as bad as advertised. So, are we witnessing another SARS fizzle-out, or the birth of a devastating plague that will be recorded in textbooks for millennia to come? I can almost see it inscribed: “In 2009, the first year of the Second Great Depression, the Swine Flu Epidemic wiped out a third of the earth’s population.”

While the 2009 pandemic infected up to 20% of the earth’s population and killed upwards of half a million people, it could have been worse. Knowing just how bad something is is a tricky thing, though. The piece I wrote for Shambles in January mentioned above references a tweet from a prominent medical expert telling everyone to calm down, that the evidence suggested the new coronavirus was only moderately contagious. Today, no one would dream of berating anyone from being concerned about what is unfolding before our eyes all over the world: escalating infection and death, supermarket shelves cleared by panic-buying, healthcare systems overwhelmed or predicted soon to be, countries on lockdown, borders closed and flights grounded. To me personally, this feels much more worrying than the Swine Flu pandemic, but at the very beginning, there was simply no way of knowing. And truth be told, Swine Flu might ultimately turn out to be more deadly.

I wrote in the Guardian in early February, before the seriousness of COVID19 was completely apparent, that the Big One was inevitable, but we wouldn’t know it until it was too late to repair our eroded and underfunded preparedness infrastructure. We can only hope now that we will overcome this challenge despite our flagrant lack of investment.

One of the reasons why I haven’t been writing much here over the past months is because I’ve been doing a lot of media work around COVID19 awareness. I have lost track of how many interviews I’ve given. I’ve appeared on television and radio (BBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, ITV, Sky), been filmed for documentaries (CNN, Discovery Channel), been quoted in print (New York Times, Guardian, London Times, Daily Mail), and turned down literally many hundreds of requests at all times of the day and night. My phone has been ringing off the hook and I’ve stopped answering it, allowing my university’s press office to filter them. (As I write this piece right now, an email from Good Morning Britain has pinged up on my screen, and I’ve got two missed called from Sky News.)

It was exhausting enough keeping up with the story when it was a small seedling; now that it’s a monstrous tree with miles of underground roots, I’m feeling as if it might be time to step away. My expertise was very useful in the beginning – a six-year virology PhD on viral evolution coupled with years of experience in drug discovery, and lots of practice honing my communications skills on undergraduates and the general public, allowing me to craft simple messages that might be of some use. On Friday the university’s Provost name-checked me in his weekly newsletter and thanked me for having helped out from the beginning. But I suspect now what we need more are the specialists able to provide the nuance, to chase those roots and branches to their very tips. So I’m going to be increasingly stepping away from this public role. A shortage of experts and the sheer demand might make this impossible, so if I’m needed, I will do my bit.

So is this the Big One? I very much hope not. But if one thing is certain, COV19 is the biggest thing we’ve coped with for a generation, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Posted in Epidemics, Nostalgia, Scientific thinking, Staring into the abyss, Work/life balance | 1 Comment

In which my mother stands behind me, and I mother in turn

The winter always belonged to my mother and me.

We both loved the late autumn, when the last of the leaves plastered the pavements in a smear of color, and our breath fogged the morning air. November also usually brought the first snows, in that faraway land of four proper seasons – a land that seems so dreamlike now in this drizzly country of muddy ivy green.

We both had our birthdays in November — Mom first, and then me a few weeks later.

And then there was Thanksgiving, hard on the heels of presents and cake. I learned how to cook the meal from my mother, and each year I prepare it using the same gravy-stained recipe, all the American measures and temperatures converted in the marginalia. I can no longer ring her up, seven thousand miles away, to get advice about stuffing or to give me verbal reassurance that the bird is actually done.

And finally Christmas, when we’d do the turkey all over again. But also there’d be gingerbread cookies, flaming raisins, and dozens of other ritualistic kitchen adventures to share.

I find myself passing all of these rituals to my own child, who is just as eager to crack eggs, roll out dough, cut shapes and decorate as he is to scrape the last bits out of the bowl with his finger for a sweet treat.

And my family creates new traditions, such as the medieval figgy pudding we threw together yesterday using garden plums and figs thawed from the deep freeze, drizzled with flaming brandy and a sprig of holly.

Christmas becomes a scramble of past, present and future, the best of what you used to have melded with the rituals from your partner’s family side, tweaked with joint innovations – each generation sculpting and perfecting a personal haven of deep family life and experience. There’s probably a scientific metaphor in there somewhere, but I am officially off duty until 2020.

Happy Christmas and New Years to all!

Posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Nostalgia, The ageing process, Work/life balance | 2 Comments