In which I break through

Sometimes the things you fear the most aren’t as bad as the fear itself.

About two years ago, I gave my first media interview on what was then generally referred to as “the Wuhan coronavirus”. It was still three days before a case would be confirmed in the UK, so most people were thinking of it as a Chinese problem, remote and unthreatening, even the occasional punchline of British gallows humour. I’d already turned down a few approaches from Sky News when the press office twisted my arm, saying it couldn’t find anyone willing to speak out. We didn’t have any coronavirus experts on staff (that’s all changed now, of course, after diverse scientists from multiple disciplines rolled up their sleeves to expand their research questions), but they’d used me in the past for other infectious disease news items and were keen to get the university front and centre in what was shaping up to be a very large story. As I had a PhD in virology and a broad background, it seemed harmless enough as a one-off favour.

Jenny on TV

First coronavirus media appearance – before I invested in better AV equipment!

But within a week, I’d given a dozen interviews and was rejecting scores more – they flooded in by email, text, landline, FaceBook and Twitter, until I eventually switched off my phone in despair. It would stop eventually, right? Soon, however it became clear that, unlike all the other topics on which I’d commented, the answer was no.

Fast forward to today, hundreds of interviews later, and I look back on it all from this unusual perspective: the meta-COVID perspective. Whenever I prepare for an interview, I do a lot of research, filling up a few plain A4 sheets with scribbles that I try to memorise before going on air. Every once in a while I stumble over these sheets in the scrap paper pile, or find Joshua drawing on one. They are ephemeral time capsules about a quickly moving target, and I marvel at how obsolete the information is. All those pressing questions, long since answered, even though at the time they seemed so raw and perilous. Will the epidemic reach Britain? Will the epidemic, now arrived, get out of control in Britain? Will many people die? Will coronavirus come back in the winter? Will we need to go into a second lockdown? Will any of the vaccine candidates work? Will the vaccines we’ve bought be enough to end the pandemic in 2021? Will omicron send us back to square one, or herald the beginning of the end? I now wish I’d saved all these notes in chronological order, just so I could remember what we knew when. But of course you never realise you are living through history until you are looking back.

Despite my highly detailed knowledge about the twists and turns in the pandemic story, it was all still rather abstract back in December. But this was soon to change. A few days after my last stint in the lab before the Christmas holidays, I was congratulating myself on having avoided omicron, even though it was already cresting over the capital during my last few commutes on the crowded, largely mask-less Underground. I was quite worried about it, in a way that hadn’t really gripped me before. In this particular snapshot in history, all we knew was that omicron spread like the clappers, but its severity was still an open question. We did know that even people with a booster vaccine dose, like me, could still be re-infected, but we still didn’t know whether it would protect against severe disease. So I traveled around for over two weeks in this knowledge limbo, trading in my cloth mask for an FFP2 and hoping for the best.

A few days before Christmas, I developed a scratchy throat and eventually some congestion, sneezing and fatigue. None of my symptoms were on the allowable list for a PCR test, but I knew from my media research that omicron had a different spectrum and was more or less indistinguishable from the common cold. (One of my time capsules sheets from that period states “one in two cold-like illness in London is actually omicron”). Still, the lateral flow tests, based on a nasal swab, kept coming up negative. By Day 4 of my “cold”, I’d seen a lot of social media chatter about omicron coming up more easily, or earlier, when a throat swab was taken. As the first LFD kits had been combined tonsil/nasal swab-based before the nasal-only ones were phased in, I knew the correct way to sample the tonsils, so I tried it out in the spirit of scientific research, alongside a test swabbing the approved way (nostrils only). The throat sample came positive straight away, an alarming red line that coalesced as soon as the fluid flowed over the test area, while the nasal swab came back negative. A PCR test taken later that day confirmed the positive result.

Two years after those first Wuhan reports, I was SARS-CoV-2 positive. I wasn’t talking about the news: I was the news – especially when my tweet about throat vs. nasal swabbing went viral. (I’m relieved to see that this anecdotal report, one of thousands, is now backed up by actual data.)

How did I feel about joining the COVID club at last? The oddest thing was the overwhelming sense of relief. Although it was always possible that my illness could take a turn for the worst, my time capsules started recording reassuring data about omicron’s severity, first from Ground Zero in South Africa, and then in the UK. Risk of hospitalisation was slashed. The T-cells were mobilising even thought the antibodies were failing. The virus itself was intrinsically less able to replicate in the lungs, preferring the loftier expanse of the bronchi and the nasal passages, where it was better at transmission but less able to cause bodily havoc. I felt terrible, but my cough didn’t get worse; my oxygen saturation levels remained at 96 or above. I was one of millions of people in the UK (up to one in ten in London alone, says Wednesday’s time capsule) with prior immunity coming to the realisation that this particular variant of SARS-CoV-2 was manifesting as a bad cold. I was going to make it. I’m still concerned about how the already struggling National Health Service will survive the coming weeks and months of onslaught, and about potential longer-term effects of infection, but – at least for the moment – I don’t need to worry about catching COVID again myself.

Is this really the beginning of the end for the pandemic? Many people think it is. Others aren’t so sure. With so much of the world unvaccinated, new variants still have the space to breed and ferment. In line with my usual meta-COVID stance, I’m waiting for more data before I form an opinion worth sharing. But my own little COVID story feels like it’s reached a happy ending of sorts – at least for now.

Posted in Epidemics, Media | Leave a comment

In which pandemic storm clouds gather – again

A hillside with trees

A number of months have slipped past since I last wrote here, two seasons under the bridge as my ramped-up academic life has consumed most of my free time. Then, it was the height of optimistic summer; now, the year trundles toward its endgame, short days of chill air and bright sunshine, followed by long nights under an icy-sharp moon. And all of it has been overseen by the ongoing pandemic, waxing and waning in neatly printed daily oscillations on infographic charts, lulling us into a sense of false vaccinated security over the warm months and now, poised to rain down on us all like poison from the heavens, blind and unrelenting.

We can’t cope with another year like this,” the journalist Janice Turner lamented in yesterday’s Times, chafing against further restrictions. But the virus neither knows nor cares what we think: it simply gets on with the job: surviving long enough to reproduce, just like everything else on our planet that harbours greedy genetic information. It was the same in the lightning-struck, acrid primordial soup of 3.6 billion years past as it is today. We, the alpha species, can send people into space, but we can’t (yet) fight evolution.

And maybe it’s not us who are the alpha species after all; perhaps it is the microbes who inhabited this world billions of years before we swaggered onto the scene. Behold the mighty, big-brained humans with their smartphones and over-engineered cars, felled like harvest grain by a microscopic entity with only a dozen genes. When the host species conveniently failed to care enough to vaccinate the entire world effectively, the virus did what all the scientists predicted: it exploited pockets of neglect to mutate into the magic combination that now appears can evade even fully vaccinated people’s immunity. It turns out that sometimes doom and gloom scaremongering is not just a recreational pastime, a performance piece by ‘experts’ designed to ‘curtail our liberties’ – it is simply speaking the truth. And now we are almost back to square one in developed nations (and even worse off everywhere else).

Living through history is difficult: sometimes I can see the forest, and other times it’s all trees. On days that I don’t commute into the lab, I take the long way home after dropping off my son at school, trudging up to the top of Windmill Hill with its spectacular view of the Estuary Thames as it winds past the Port of London Authority, flanked by Tilbury Docks. Great seagoing vessels pause there awhile on their journeys, dwarfing the warehouses, rooftops and church spires while themselves dwarfed by the giant wind turbines dotting this serpentine zone of grey industrialisation. The morning skies have been streaked with lilac and coral, setting off the skeletal reticulated silhouettes of the horse chestnut trees. With breath fogging and fingers numb inside gloves, frosted grass crunching underfoot, the raw air reminds me of the fact that I am alive, that neither me nor my family has been rendered seriously ill, that I still have a job and plenty of money to live comfortably.

I think how the pandemic has reshaped some of the patterns of my life. In the Before Times I would never have dared to spare fifteen minutes out of my busy morning to clear my head and remind myself that there is a world outside of my work. I wouldn’t be so in shape if lockdown hadn’t encouraged me to get more serious about keeping fit, a habit that I now carve out time to maintain. And I’m eating healthier food, and trying to spend more time with my family, and I live in an almost perpetual state of thankfulness for all that I have.

Small boy with Xmas tree

Leading an undergraduate intercalated BSc course and revamping it almost from scratch has been challenging and rewarding, but it killed my summer and turned my autumn into a blur of stressful deadlines, one after the other in a relentless assault. Yet because of my enhanced pandemic perspective, all I can be is grateful. This will pass, and Britain may lock down once again, but Christmas will come and my family will be together.

This weekend, we bought a Danish fir tree and have taken down all the old boxes from the loft – more tape than cardboard by now and lined with newspapers bearing decades-old headlines (in both English and Dutch) – containing the precious family ornaments and relics. These, and the annual rituals, give us continuity, binding together our history with that of our families past. Richard ferments the eggnog and makes homemade mince pies and sausage rolls; Joshua and I bake the julpepparkakor and play four-handed carol duets on the piano. I fashion wreathes from fir offcuts and sprigs of holly and ivy from the garden, and bring out the narcissus bulbs I’ve been forcing in the garage. We light candles against the darkness and hope for better days – but the days we have together already are almost too good to be true.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Epidemics, Teaching, The profession of science, Work/life balance | 1 Comment

In which academic dreams come true: a belated professorship

Lab scene

I have wanted to be a scientist since before I can remember.

I did all the right things: I studied hard, finished my homework, raised my hand in class, failed to hide the fact that I loved learning, even though the other children teased me for it – and worse. (Those Hollywood movies about the cruelty of the American school system? It’s all true.) I didn’t care. I was going to become a scientist one day, even though no one in my family had ever earned a PhD, and even though I had never met any scientists, let alone a female one. I’d only encountered them on the page, in the novels I devoured, teetering-library-stackfuls at a time. These characters were heroic and colorful, leading the sort of exciting lives that seemed so far away from suburban existence in small-town Ohio.

I was going to be a scientist one day, even though I constantly received pushback: the well-meaning high school guidance counsellor who suggested that nursing might be more “appropriate”. The male senior researcher in a summer lab internship at the National Institutes of Health who sneered that women made terrible scientists, and convinced the boss to redirect me from experiments to photocopying journal articles for him. Years later as a postdoc, the lab heads who told me I wasn’t cut out for academia because I had outside interests in writing, public engagement and activism. I’m sure they thought they were being kind, doing me a favor. Tough love.

Every time I hit setbacks, or I was told I couldn’t do it, I tried harder. At university, when I couldn’t get a lab job, I got a part-time position scrubbing shit from mouse cages, just so I could wear a white coat and be closer to action. In senior year when I didn’t get into any of the biomedical research labs for my Honors project, I persuaded a new group leader to let me work on plant genetics. Even that NIH internship didn’t happen straightaway; the summer before I’d papered my CV all over the Bethesda campus, but the only job offer I received was in the Health and Safety department. I took it anyway (and had a blast, teaching myself C from Kernighan and Ritchie and doing all sorts of bizarre odd jobs with my newfound programming skills).

The very worst set-back of all was after such a promising start – a PhD from the University of Washington, a postdoc in a prestigious London lab and a group leader position in biotech – it all unravelled in just a few months. The biotech bubble burst, I was made redundant and was on the dole in Amsterdam. The few interview offers I did receive dried up after my unemployment was official, and I was forced to go into scientific publishing to put food on the table. I don’t regret this now, as I learned a tremendous amount during those times. I wrote novels, I started a freelance writing career that continues to this day, I helped launch new journals, I found out what I was made of. But at the time it was devastating, and for several years afterwards I suffered from depression and a complete lack of self-confidence. Being a scientist had become my identity; now that had been stripped away, what was left?

Of course you all know how the story ends. I made it back into academia eventually, even though it took years to find my true calling. Re-starting a scientific career with no prior line of research to build on, in a new discipline where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you, is a very lonely business. For me, the worst was the sensation of having been left behind. First it was seeing postdocs with whom I’d shared a lab become professors. Then it was PhD students I’d supervised. I knew I was swirling in the dust when the PhD student of a PhD student I’d supervised became a professor too. When I ran into such former colleagues at conferences, I always felt awkward and embarrassed, even though I was sure they weren’t aware of how lowly I felt, and wouldn’t have dreamt of judging me. To them, I was that interesting person who’d published novels and organized a memorable political demonstration. But inside, I was the failed scientist who didn’t even have a permanent position, who was surfing, hard and desperate, on a wave of rolling short-term contracts, who was kidding herself, who wasn’t doing justice to the second chance she’d been given. I even allowed myself to be bullied on several occasions because deep down, I thought I deserved it.

Fast forward to today, a full fifteen years after re-starting my academic career. It is only now that I finally feel like I belong, and deserve, to be running a lab. I lead with a light but steady hand, confident in my choices; I have a clear scientific vision; I am respected in my new field. I play a pivotal role in the university. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – a shocking and protracted incidence of collegial abuse a few years ago nearly threw me back into that roiling surf. But I got through it, and kept my head above water, and now I know that such terrible things happen all the time, but the trick is not to let those incidents define you or undermine your confidence or sense of self. The perpetrators are to be pitied, not feared or hated, and one day they will undoubtedly reap what they sow. Meanwhile, it strengthens my resolve to never be the sort of person who seeks to advance themselves by treading on others; to break the cycle of abuse by refusing to be bitter or changed; to encourage my trainees to shine brightly, to become their best possible selves.

Earlier this month, I found out that my promotion bid had been successful, and that from October I will officially be known as Professor Rohn. After all the heartache, obstruction and deviation, it seems almost unbelievable. I think this is why it took me so long to process the information enough to write about it. Somewhere inside me, a young girl is still scrubbing rodent poo from hundreds of cages; as she walks the corridors on her way out, tired and back-sore, she is peering into the brightly lit labs to the left and right and wondering what it would feel like to belong to one of them. But the long-dreamt-of moment has finally arrived. I survived. I made it.

The other day, on a whim, I looked up the sneering senior scientist online and found that he’d vanished without a trace from PubMed within ten years of our encounter.

Yet I am still here. In fact, I’m only just getting started.

Posted in Academia, Careers, Nostalgia, Research, Staring into the abyss, The ageing process, The profession of science, Women in science | 5 Comments

In which summers shrink

Academics talk nostalgically about rosy-tinted times of yore when summers meant a lull in lecturing duties.

The months would unfold before you, a vast landscape of research possibilities. It was a time to write papers, craft grants, catch up with the technical literature, come up with new hypotheses, spend more time chatting with your team. It was a time to dream big, and then work out how to make it happen. It was a time to attend conferences – remember those? – and reconnect with your colleagues worldwide. Some of us might even be tempted back into the lab to do a few experiments personally, even though it would open us up to a bit of good-natured ridicule from the younger set.

These days, I fear, are gone for good. Long after the students pack up and scatter to the four winds, academics labour on. First there is the marking, and the mark moderation. Next comes the Exam Boards, and preparing new exam material for the Later Summer Assessment, for all the students who need to re-take. And more marking after that, and the LSA Exam Boards. In the midst of this, there is a new academic year just around the corner. With online materials becoming increasingly prominent, gone are the days when we could just dust off our PowerPoint lectures. Instead, we find ourselves having to update to newer platforms and widgets, adding transcripts to video lectures, developing interactive content, working out better ways to make our teaching engaging and useful. In departments where teaching is expanding, there are new modules to create and populate, and new courses. We have open days to attract new students, and taster days to keep offer-holders interested.

I am not complaining – I love teaching, and I love the fact that my role at the university continues to expand, embedding me more firmly into the fabric of the department. I love working with students and helping them to reach their fill potential. I even like the challenge of juggling teaching with research, alongside the entrepreneurial and engagement activities that I also pursue. It means my days are full-on and always busy, so that the hours fly by – to say nothing of the days, weeks and months. After so many years of not being sure, of exploring the fringes of where a PhD could take you, I have finally found my calling.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss that summer lull, when science truly took centre stage, and I could sink into it like a warm bath. These days, it’s just a quick shower – then I’m off to do something else!

Posted in Academia, Careers, Nostalgia, Research, Students, Teaching, The ageing process, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which summers shrink

In which normal life flickers just ’round the corner

Today on a neighbourhood walk with my son, blustery and cold with a few flecks of rain, we passed a window that still had a faded child-drawn rainbow and the advice to “stay safe”. It struck me as rather quaint, like a decades-old newspaper you might find lining a crate of belongings in the attic. A world that was once new and perilous had evolved into a blasé shrug of familiarity.

It’s been more than a year since I first started being a scientist from home – aside from those brief few weeks in summer when the first pandemic wave had subsided enough for lab heads to be allowed to make an appearance. Even then, it was only a few days a week, since my officemate and I were not allowed to be in the room at the same time. With face-to-face meetings forbidden, I found myself sitting in my office all alone attending the same online meetings I could just as easily have done from home – with better coffee. And the three hour round-trip commute was costing me about £25 for the privilege of those hours being subtracted from my work time.

Like many other people in many other privileged professions, my dining room table has become a nerve center of focused and productive activity, and my HD webcam, a window into the exotic dining rooms, studies and bedrooms of other similarly fortunate colleagues. I have written successful grants, aced two funding interviews, reviewed and submitted papers, examined a PhD candidate, and forged several exciting new collaborations with scientists and clinicians I’ve never met in person. I’ve co-presided over an international conference, given hundreds of media interviews, filmed hours of teaching videos and taught ‘live’ many hours more. I’ve interviewed and hired a post-doc I’d never seen in real life. I’ve sat through faculty meetings, committees and webinars, given undergraduate office hours, and held weekly meetings and one-on-ones with my research team.

Each day, I’ve surfaced to take a little walk around the back garden for some fresh air. I watched summer fade to autumn, the great twisted willow tree losing its leaves all over the stone paths and the sycamore helicopters invading from the nearby park, showers of whirligig seeds that soon sprouted in the tubs of withered courgettes and begonias. Autumn morphed into the longest winter I can ever remember, bitter-cold gloominess relieved by only a few days of patchy snow that the neighbourhood children rubbed off almost immediately from the muddy hillsides. I witnessed the bare earth giving way to snowdrops and crocuses, then to daffodils, hyacinths and cowslips, and now, finally the first tulips and bluebells, unfurling into the near-zero temperatures of a springtime that keeps refusing to come. Our fruit trees and hedgerow are fuzzed with pinkish-white blossoms that fall like snow in the bitter wind.

Yesterday I went into work to get my second COVID vaccine in the hospital staff scheme, and a trip I’d made hundreds of times felt alien. Most of my team were on Easter holiday, but I stepped into the lab anyway, feet planted in what used to be our designated bay (now reassigned for socially-distanced “hot benching” to whomever might book it first.) The greater lab space was empty save for a white-coated researcher I didn’t recognize, who looked up and said “Can I help you?” I held out my hands, unable to find the words. This is my lab. I belong here, even though you’ve ever seen me before. A year in hibernation, taking its toll.

Various signs and portents, from the success of the UK’s vaccination scheme and the flattening of the second wave’s curve, to various hints spotted between the lines of staff bulletins, suggest this strange situation will soon be coming to an end. Any week now, I’ll be packing up my home AV equipment, dropping more than five thousand pounds on a season rail ticket, and ‘real life’ will resume with a judder. I will become far less productive, my foot problems will resume – but I might shed a few of these unwanted lockdown pounds, and I will be able to look my team in the eye.

I am not entirely sure how I feel about the closing of this chapter. But close it will, and I will be blown along with it, like those petals and sycamore seeds, waiting to find out what the new season holds.

Posted in Academia, Epidemics, Research, The profession of science, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which normal life flickers just ’round the corner

In which we near end-game

Sight for sore eyes

January and February are always my least favorite months, but I can’t remember a winter when I longed for spring as desperately as this one. It’s the pandemic, of course, which has sucked the world dry of what little joy remains, damp and grey and interminable.

Locked down and stultifying in the sameness of life, I did what I could to appreciate what pleasures were to be had. The scent of an old winter-flowering arrowwood tree over a neighbor’s fence, a powerful mix of cinnamon and daffodil. (The next day I bought two specimens to plant in my own garden.) The deeply colored yellow berries on our pyracantha shrub, picked clean in one afternoon by a migrating family of redwings. When we had our few days of annual grudging snow, we were out at the crack of dawn scraping the hill down to the mud with our sledges.

But what I have really been pining for are the spring bulbs. The wait for the first green spears to appear is agonizing, but then it seems like another eternity before they finally flower. At least you can say this for the daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, which are stately and slow. The snowdrops and crocuses seem to pop up and bloom out of nowhere, unless you really have your eye in. It’s all go now, with new beautiful flowers appearing every day, unstoppable. During a recent tromp in the muddy woods, the loam was pierced with a thousand nascent bluebells. The ornamental cherry and apricot tree in our back garden are about to unfurl pink blossoms; the furry magnolia flowers will follow soon after.

And high above, the great tits sing “Peter Peter Peter” with a tenor that you only ever hear when the worst is over.

After the nature walk

Joshua’s home-schooling is much better organized this time around, but it’s still difficult to juggle everything. I do miss the intensity of the first lockdown, when we were largely on our own and I had to come up with what to teach him. I was reminded of those days when we took a little nature walk last week as a break from school and work. I taught him all the bird calls we could hear, and the names of a few trees. When we got home, he sketched the birds he’d heard, using Collins as a guide. These are things that would probably not happen were it not for lockdown.

So, the end is near, as the UK vaccination programme rolls on successfully. Unless something terrible happens with new variants of the virus, schools will re-open in two weeks, restrictions will gradually ease thereafter, and normal life is set to resume in June. It has been so many months that I wonder how long we will still feel the rub of the cage bars once we are freed. What scars will linger? How will it affect us long-term? For the moment, we can only hope that soon this impossibly long year will fade into memory, that brighter days truly are ahead.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Epidemics, Gardening, Joshua, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which we near end-game

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 overwhelmed 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 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