In which I’m published – in ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’

brotherton-cover

As the Queen of Lab Lit, a literary subgenre whose defining characteristic includes not being science fiction, people are often surprised to discover that I do actually like SF.

But it’s true. I read little else when I was younger, and though my tastes have broadened considerably since, I still enjoy the occasional foray into the speculative. I think a skilled writer can say everything she wants within the constraints of reality, but it can also be a challenge for both reader and writer to view reality through an altered lens.

Last year I was approached by Michael Brotherton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming and an SF author. He was putting together an anthology of SF written by scientists for Springer. The collection would employ a format used quite extensively by Comma Press, which is to pair fiction about science with a factual essay on the scientific topic covered.

I weighed in with “The Tree of Life”, a story about genetic engineering. The rest of the anthology ranges across the scientific disciplines, and I can’t wait to read all the other tales.

It’s already out on Kindle on Amazon UK, and the print version can be pre-ordered there and on Amazon US. There’s also a nice review in Nature Physics.

Go on, you know you want to!

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In which I am cloistered

I’ve had to do a lot of working from home these past two weeks, as our Athena SWAN submission reaches its final denouement.

(Let’s pause to appreciate the image of “Athena SWAN” as a reassuringly corpulent opera singer with Viking horns, inhaling gustily for one final, glass-ceiling-shattering bellow…)

I love working from home. For starters, there’s the dining room table, which I can plaster with papers, scribbles and tea mugs without ever running out of space, being about ten times the surface area of my cramped office desk.

Then there’s the conservatory with its tropical plants and trickling water feature, which gets sun-warmed even on these late autumn afternoons. It’s an excellent place to pace for a few minutes to restore circulation to limbs tense from keyboard work.

There’s my back garden, too, a turn around which which never fails to refresh me. If it’s sunny, I’ll hang the laundry out, which gives me a satisfying feeling of multi-tasking: keeping the mucky boy in clean smalls while staving off deep-vein thrombosis. Bonus points for grazing on grapes and apples as I pass up and down the paths.

ivy
Welcome break

And of course, there’s the hot-air popcorn maker, which needs no justification.

Mostly I just enjoy the ability to get stuff done without constant interruption. I love academic life, but it isn’t half full of collegial distraction. Which is, of course, most of the fun of being an academic in the first place.

I do look back to my work life getting back to ‘normal’ – whatever that means. In the meantime, it’s time for another cup of tea.

Posted in Academia, The profession of science | 1 Comment

In which green means go

It’s often been said that witnessing your child grow up is akin to scientific experiment – an intense longitudinal observational study with no control group.

As a fan of language in all of its nuances, it’s been fascinating watching Joshua learn to talk. He just turned three last Friday, and he’s already a dab hand at rudimentary conversations (in which body parts, wheels and being “up and down” tend to feature prominently).

He still hasn’t quite mastered all the colors, but red and green (“geen”) came first and remain his most reliable.

Signs of the season

Signs of the season

This evening on our walk home from nursery, we paused as usual to appreciate the temporary traffic lights propped up in the road to direct an alternating one-way flow of traffic around construction works.

“Green means go,” he informed me as the lights changed and the queue of grumpy cars slowly trundled up the hill.

Then Joshua picked up two fallen leaves and explained to me that they were lights, a red one and a green one. I tried to imagine the sheer number of neurons involved in recognizing and expressing such a complex metaphor, but ultimately failed.

Like pretty much everything else involved in the existence of this little human, let’s just chalk it up to a miracle.

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In which the calm cowers before the storm

Can you hear it?

Yes, that’s the sound of a distinct lack of undergraduates knocking around the place. Even the summer lab students have departed, off for a few weeks of R&R or debauchery before the grind kicks back in again.

Jennys Angels
Jenny’s Angels: A postdoc and two summer students, who apparently did NOT coordinate their outfits in advance

I miss them, hovering anxiously next to the tissue culture suite as one of the PhD students helps them out with a culture. Filling the coffee room with laughter. Taking selfies with their contaminated petri dishes. Dropping their experiments on the floor just minutes before they were ready to analyze*.

It’s quiet, like only a department full of exhausted academics racing towards their last summer grant deadline with grim resolution can be.

But this is our last full week before Induction Week. Come Monday, the next batch of first-years will burst into our lecture halls, labs and corridors with astonishing amounts of energy and enthusiasm. I’m no longer teaching full time, but working with students has the magical ability to absorb all the hours that the ivory tower can send.

I’m bracing myself. Bring ’em on.

*Not the students in the picture – they were exemplary. And I made up the bit about the debauchery.

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In which I wave in your general direction

Has it really been a few months since my last post?

Holidays are only partially to blame: that covers two weeks. Maybe three, if you count the frazzled week finishing up in the lab beforehand, or the frazzled week on the other end catching up with what I missed (a Dehydrated Incubator Incident, chiefly).

For the rest of the time, I plead the immortal words of Gary Larson: “May I be excused? My brain is full.”

This summer, my role has been formally divided surgically into four parts: one day a week supervising my academic research team, one day supervising an industrially funded lab project, one day working on teaching materials, and two days leading our Division’s Athena SWAN renewal. I have had to compartmentalize my thinking like never before, and manage my time almost as if I were holding down A Real Job.

Meanwhile, my son, who is nearly three, seems to have suddenly hit Level 2 of whatever crazy neuronal game his brain is playing. Entire sentences come out, albeit with charming mispronunciations and rather fantastical premises, and I swear his head is just a little bit further over the bedpost each morning as he tears around our bedroom, up to all sorts of mischief. I don’t want to blink and miss anything.

And of course, there is the garden, which started sprouting triffids while we were away, and is bearing more fruits and veg than we can possible eat or preserve. We are still struggling to pickle and bottle everything in the freezer from last year – hence several kilograms of fruit got made into a very tasty Chinese plum sauce for duck pancakes last night.

It’s all been challenging, but I’m feeling clear-headed and productive – except some mornings before the caffeine kicks in, when I want to weep gently into my Petri dishes.

I can do this thing. And as always, I’d love to hear your strategies for time management and just general coping when things are out of control.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, The profession of science, Women in science, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which I wave in your general direction

In which I snap

OCD Antibody Box

I’m not a neat freak or anything, at home or in the lab, but sometimes, enough is enough. Behold the new arrangement of our lab’s stash of fluorochrome-conjugated secondary antibodies. Is it not a thing of beauty?

(A moment of silence to admire said new arrangement.)

It goes without saying that if I catch anyone filing them back in the wrong slot, they’re toast.

I’ve spent far too many hours of my life digging through box after box of identical-looking tubes: pulling them out, squinting at the unintelligible labels, putting them back, checking out the next one. Repeat ten million times. I’ve been in labs where the tubes were all labelled in Chinese; or were missing the concentration; or whose pen marks had long since rubbed off altogether, but people in the know recognized what they were by distinctive nicks in the lid or smudge marks on the side. I’ve contracted frostbite going through hundreds of snow-covered boxes in the back of the -80 freezer, untouched by human hands since the early Pleistocene.

It’s getting pretty bad in our communal cold spaces. I think this is a predictable outcome when a lab starts out very small (one person doing experiments, who knows where everything is because it’s all his) and expands organically.

After my last experimental foray, when it took me two hours to find the red phalloidin, I am almost, but not quite, thinking about a bar coding system. Can someone please shoot me?

Posted in Research, Scientific thinking, Silliness | 3 Comments

In which the old girl rides again

Second-Hand Confocal

As you can see, my young apprentice, your experiments have failed. Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational second-hand confocal microscope!

My love-affair with second-hand lab equipment continues unabated.

Some time ago, our department scored a good deal on an old Leica SP2 microscope that another department was getting rid of. Mothballed it remained until my lab moved in with its heavy imaging modus operandi, and we were asked to get it up and running as a communal asset. One of my PhD students, Harry, rather likes messing around with equipment or anything technical, and seeing as how he was having to commute to another institute to do the microscopy on which his work is heavily reliant, it seemed like a good idea to rise to the challenge.

Harry is also the sort of person who has a natural way with engineers and tradesmen, and over the years has developed a great relationship with the various people who would be crucial for getting the machine up and running.

It turned out not to be as straightforward as we might have hoped. This machine is, in modern lab terms, ancient. On unpacking, the scope guys discovered that some of the pieces were missing – pieces that Leica no longer manufacture. To compress the months-long saga into one sentence, after scrounging old parts and fabricating one new one, and even calling a Leica engineer out of retirement to cobble together a new service dongle, we had gone as far as we could go. This required financial investment – and all without knowing whether it would actually function, as some parts couldn’t be tested until the thing was properly switched on.

Dear Reader, there was a happy ending: it works. For how long, we don’t know – but we’re just going to ride that wave ’til it crashes.

In the meantime, she needs a name. And no, we’re not going to call her Scopie McScopeface.

Posted in Kit, Research, The profession of science | 7 Comments

In which work-life balance wobbles

As with most academics, evenings and weekends often provide the extra time I need to stay on top of my workload. I’d rather sacrifice some family time than get behind – because once you’re behind, the anxiety sets in, making it increasingly harder to get anything meaningful done.

Work-life Balance
This weekend’s modest haul

Usually the chores are paper-based – reading, grading exams (I’m staring down 350 essays on immunology and six Bsc project theses at the moment), writing papers or grants. But recently, being short-handed, I’ve been having to do extra lab work to keep some grant-funded work on schedule. The truth is that I don’t really have time to be in the lab a lot anymore, but it’s got to be done, slotted in feverishly over lunch and in snatched moments between my various other obligations.

Currently I’m working with fussy, finicky primordial bladder cells that are prone to shriveling up and dying at the slightest provocation. If my cells were celebs, their backstage riders would be prodigious: baskets of fluffy kittens, incubator strewn with (sterile) rose petals, Veuve Clicquot infused into their culture medium. I’ve got the measure of them now, but they still need to be coddled with frequent media changes. I’ve managed to wean them down to 48-hour feeds and still keep them glowing with health, and prickling with pert pseudopods.

With the long bank-holiday weekend, however, I had no choice but to go in yesterday to refresh the medium on a few experiments I’m currently running. Because I don’t live in London anymore, it’s not so easy to pop in – and with a lovely sunny day on the cards after this protracted cold snap, I was grumpy about having to do this. Going into lab on the weekend isn’t the end of the world, but to me, it feels like crossing a significant line – the moment when work-life balance takes a tumble and scrapes its knee.

Javelin HS1
HS1: Fast and shiny

Luckily, my lovely family decided to come with me, transforming something unpleasant into a day out. Joshua loves trains, and the high-speed Javelin is better than a fun-fair ride as far as he’s concerned. He also enjoys the experience of crowded stations and the Underground – and especially the “e-ca-LIE-tors,” which we allowed him to stand on for the first time ever.

TubeBoy
Ride ’em, cowboy

Once on site, Richard took the opportunity to fix some of the iCloud syncing problems rife on my iMac, while Joshua had a ball decorating my office.

Decorators In
Feng shui

I don’t think kids are allowed in the lab itself, but he was suitably impressed by his mum’s scary-looking domain from the outside.

Mum's Domain
You must be THIS tall to play in Mummy’s lab

Best of all, we got back in time to enjoy the best of the day. There were seedlings to transplant, patio loungers to bask on, tricycles to ride, tulips to admire, and a barbecue to fire up.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, The profession of science, Women in science, Work/life balance | 3 Comments

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

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

RNAisolation

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

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

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

What’s it like, being old in the lab?

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

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

I can’t see a bloody thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NanoDrop_8

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

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

Posted in Nostalgia, Scientific method, Students, The profession of science | 2 Comments

In which fiction infiltrates science

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

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

pippa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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