In which I invite them in

Although engaging with the public about science is famously not about – heaven forbid – ‘teaching’ it, the two endeavors do share some common strategies. I’ve been organizing and executing a lot of undergraduate educational sessions these past few terms, and I can report that the humble analogy is equally effective in both spheres.

It’s true I sometimes weary of science similes and metaphors, especially when they stray into overtrodden cliché territory. The DNA-as-letters/chromosomes-as-books/genome-as-library trope, once so apposite and fresh, has been trotted out so many times by the unimaginative over the years that is has become almost greeting-card sickening. Other metaphors are so engrained in our science vocabulary that people have even forgotten they were metaphors in the first place – concepts such as ‘immune surveillance’ or ‘protein translation’, for example.

Still, I can’t resist a really nice analogy, as long as it’s evocative and – above all – original. So I tend to collect them as I find them through life’s little happenstances.

Yesterday when I was leaving the local high street home improvement superstore with my family, I was accosted by a wild-eyed, cheap-suited man who’d set up temporary shop in the foyer next to a folding table covered with leaflets. His suit wasn’t nice enough to be a Jehovah’s, although there was something of that vibe about him. In a fraction of a second I’d analyzed the leaflet being fanned enthusiastically in my face and had him pegged as a double-glazing salesman.

In a moment of terrible weakness, I decided to accept a leaflet. After all, there are a few single-paned windows in the back of our new house and Richard and I have discussed replacing them at some point in the future. What harm could one leaflet possible do?

As I tried to walk past with the brochure, the man actually grabbed me by the arm and informed my that I couldn’t get the forty per cent discount without registering. Heart sinking, I realized I was falling into a trap – a proper fruit-fly-lodged-into-congealing-jam trap – but I somehow couldn’t stop myself from scribbling my name onto his form. And, when prodded, almost robotically, my mobile phone number. I was that mesmerized maiden, inviting the vampire past my threshold. Except vampires are a lot more charming.

Desperate to escape now, I attempted again to pull away.

“Stop!” the man barked imperiously. “We need a second phone number!”

“What? Why?” Fortunately I couldn’t remember my new land line number yet, and told him as much. The fly, managing to pull half of its legs out of the jam, soon starts to wake up and sense freedom.

“What about the gentleman’s?” he barrelled on, looking over to where Richard, with a don’t-you-fucking-dare expression, was holding our squirming son, who had started to howl with hunger and fatigue. Or maybe he just doesn’t like double-glazing salesmen.

“I’m not going to give you another phone number!” I had to shout to be heard over toddler indignation. “Why do you need more than one?”

As he was muttering something about ‘security’, drowned out by unearthly shrieking, we finally managed to make our escape. There was no way I was going to give my custom to any company that would rather bully a potential customer than allow her to get her screaming baby home to lunch.

As the morning dawned foggy and morose, I knew I was in for a protracted siege. Sure enough, four missed calls from the number on the leaflet between 9 and 11 AM – but no voicemail. Don’t they comprehend that some people cannot take private calls at their places of work? (If you’re interested in science analogies, you can start paying attention again now.) I used my iPhone to block the caller. About 20 minutes later, another call – the same number except the last three digits. The second time this one called, I blocked that one too. Starting at 2 PM, I started to get calls from unknown numbers. Including one just now, as I type these words.

Screen shot from phone

The stupid, make it stop

But it wasn’t all bad. Actually, I started to realize, it was a lot like host/pathogen interactions. When you co-evolve over many millennia with an ancient enemy, as humans have done with bacteria, viruses and other parasites, you are constantly shifting to stay one step ahead. We have developed an elaborate immune system to keep out invaders – so elaborate that we are struggling to summarize it all even at a basic level for our students this term. But the pathogens seemingly shrug such barriers off and, often in no time at all, have mutated to get around our defenses.

Imagine a flu virus, which is covered in coat proteins that can latch on to our vulnerable cells. Our immune system amplifies antibodies that can stick to these virus attachment proteins and neutralize them – as my iPhone blocked the first number. But the virus, with its sloppy genome copying system, can mutate to make subtle variations in its coat proteins – subtle variations that the first antibodies no longer can recognize. That’s their related number, a few digits different, that my iPhone failed to block. I block the second number – as the immune system rebounds to generate new antibodies that can bind to the revised version of flu coat proteins. And the flu counterattacks: just as the company switches to phones that will not trigger caller ID, flu periodically makes more major coat protein changes – the so-called ‘antigenic shift’ that can sometimes be the harbinger of an epidemic. And so on, ad infinitum.

In summary: parasites…vampires…double-glazing salesmen. You get the idea.

This will be on the exam.

Posted in Science talking, Scientific thinking, Silliness, Students, Teaching | 14 Comments

In which we make a splash: Fiction Lab in the papers

A perplexing start this morning: a text from the lovely Sarah Main, director of CaSE, congratulating me on a mention in London’s Metro newspaper and wishing me “luck on Monday”.

Cue breaking out into a cold sweat as, seeing nothing unusual on my diary, I am suddenly terrified that I’ve forgotten something very important. Which would be very like me, as I tend to be disheveled on the appointment front. Vacillating between a paper diary and an electronic one, there are times when I lapse and fail to update either. And my filing system more often than not reverts to frantically searching an inbox with about 6000 emails in it at any given time. Which is tricky when you can’t remember the name of the person who contacted you or the name of the event you may or may not have agreed to participate in!

Not to worry, however. It was just a mention of Fiction Lab, the monthly science book group I’ve been hosting at the Royal Institution for about seven years now. I have no idea why this particular event was picked up, but it’s great to see in the news again – and in the entirely apposite ‘Geek Diary’ section, no less.

It is a bit of a shame that this particular novel was the one, out of so many over the years, that happened to surface. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925) was recommended by a regular Fiction Lab attendee on the basis of the back cover, which informs us that one of the main characters in a bacteriologist, sent into a Chinese village to help out with a cholera epidemic. Alas, there isn’t a whiff of science in the book, just some vague mentions of obsessive late nights in the lab – so far, so sterotypical. It does contain a wonderful line which unfortunately still resonates today – in fact, I’d like to frame it on my office wall:

“From a social standpoint the man of science does not exist.”

p.s. Feel free to join us on Monday for the discussion, even if you’ve only seen the film based on the novel. It’s free – and fun – followed by the usual pints and cheesy chips down at The King’s Head .

Posted in LabLit, Stereotypes | 3 Comments

In which a tale of antibiotics takes form

It’s a grey afternoon outside the study window. This morning a thick fog erased the usual twinkling lights of Tilbury Docks along the estuary, with seagoing vessels blowing their horns in long, sonorous warnings. A fitting soundtrack, as tomorrow spells the demise of a fortnight’s holiday, during which disbelief was well and truly suspended (along with every other sort of cogent thought or mental exertion).

The return to reality also means that I can no longer put off fretting about an impending event: the Friday Evening Discourse I will be delivering on 30 January at the Royal Institution. Despite its long and illustrious history – having been initiated in 1826 by Michael Faraday (the brooding chap on the twenty-pound banknote) – I wasn’t really nervous until I made the mistake of reading Stephen Curry’s account of his own experience back in 2013. An eminent professor and confident public speaker, Stephen was obviously terrified. And just like that, so too was I.

Although I’ve spoken publicly before to a variety of different audiences about my chosen topic, antibiotic resistance, I want to give my Discourse a fresh spin: many hours of research and thought will be required to get it right, including a host of difficult decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Faced with such a daunting task, I prioritized perhaps the most grueling: finding the right dress for the occasion. Traditionally the event is black-tie, and though this custom is now optional, I figured there was no pointing in doing things by halves.

And so it was that I ventured into one of the circles of Hell – the Bluewater shopping mall during the post-Christmas sales. As always, Richard had my back – and a keen eye for tasteful fabrics. I couldn’t possibly give any substantive spoilers, but I will reveal that it is floor-length. And possibly slightly sparkly. (If I’m going to stand on the same podium as Alexander Fleming and talk about antibiotics, a little bit of sparkle is surely de rigueur.)

I’ve spent this grey day, this transition back into the real world of term time and tutorials and renewed research endeavor, thinking about the antibiotic crisis, and how best to tell the tale. In truth, it’s a topic with enough history, tricky science, in-built drama, human interest and future uncertainty to carry the night – with or without sparkles. Or a cold sweat.

Tickets are selling fast, but there are still some available (you don’t have to be a Member to attend).

Posted in Science talking, Staring into the abyss | 3 Comments

In which we despair: show and tell is alive and well

I have a theory about best-selling authors. Once they have finally made their breakthroughs, they tend to get lazy.

I have noticed that subsequent novels often become longer – just eyeball your collection of Harry Potters on the bookshelf and observe the chronological increase in spine widths, like a literary Fibonacci sequence. They also tend to contain a fair number of editorial no-no’s (such as clichés) that are the bread and butter of every ‘How to write’ self-help book their authors used to swear by (see what I did there?). In fact, the same sort of lapses that would have landed their manuscripts on the slush pile had they not already made a name for themselves.

Case in point. I’m right in the middle of A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, author of the New York Times best-seller City of Light. Published in 2010, her follow-up, A Fierce Radiance, is a great example of the continuing rise of the lab lit genre. Unfolding as the United States is drawn into the Second World War, the story follows the development of penicillin from promising but frustrating mouldy precursor to the mass-marketed miracle cure it eventually became. It is also a romance, a spy story and a murder mystery.

And the novel is definitely bona fide lab lit, with labs, colorful fungi growing in jam jars, experiments and quirky, non-stereotyped scientists in their white coats (including one who’s wearing a cocktail gown underneath because she’s come back to her bench after midnight straight from a party – sound familiar, anyone?) And as the scientists are observed mostly from the perspective of a photographer from Life magazine, called in to document the developments, it offers an interesting and creative insight into how science looks to a complete outsider.

There is a but, of course. I’m halfway through and mourning how the intriguing plot, well-crafted prose, beautiful descriptions and light, skillful touch are so frequently marred by schoolgirl errors. Lips are pursed. People are ‘clocked’, several times in as many chapters. Scenes begin with too many greetings, introductions and how-are-you’s, chatter that’s normally trimmed off as unnecessary padding. I can live with that. But what is starting to jar me right out of my suspended disbelief is the growing evidence that author hasn’t the slightest faith in her readers’ powers of comprehension.

Show not tell is a fundamental concept that every beginning writer is taught. Do not tell the reader something – show them. Even worse is to show and tell – having patronized the reader, the author then hammers them over the head with the obvious. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I hate you!” Henry yelled, banging his fist angrily against the wall.

In this sentence, someone is yelling, and banging his fist: the anger is clearly shown. In fact, it didn’t even need to be shown three times (exclamation mark; yelling; the fist-banging). I would use only one of the elements.

So here’s how Belfer ruins an otherwise perfect scene, which the reader can clearly see and hear, a scene that would have brought the words to life were it not for the subsequent howlers. The photographer, Claire, is ringing the busy Life magazine office to check something alarming out.

She called collect. Frieda accepted the charges.

“Hi, Claire, everything okay? Sure you can borrow it, just bring it back. No, he needs it now.” From the clipped tone of her voice, from her simultaneous conversations, Claire knew Frieda was distracted, others standing at her desk. Frieda saw nothing amiss in Claire’s call, a photographer checking in, standard procedure.

This is reader-bludgeoning, plain and simple. The dialogue itself is perfect – we’ve all experienced phrases like that at the other end of the line, and it’s difficult to write dialogue that sounds this natural. But there my praise ends. Frieda is obviously distracted, obviously addressing the last two phrases to a person or persons nearby. What’s more, it’s clear from the very fact that she’s doing her job normally that she is not suspicious of the motivations behind Claire’s call. To tell us all this is not only unnecessary, but painful. Especially as the violations accumulate, chapter after chapter, until you want to throw the book across the room.

I’m going to finish the novel, because I’m interested in the plot and I do so love seeing science take center stage in fiction. Still, it’s a shame that the book wasn’t taken in hand by a decent editor before it was let loose into the world.

And speaking of which, it’s too soon to go public with the details, but it looks as if I may very well have secured a London agent for my third novel – provided I commit to some strenuous editing, and the result hangs together. After a productive meeting in a Hampstead tea room last night, I have agreed to take on the challenge of condensing the manuscript by almost forty percent. It’s a daunting proposition, but strangely, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Aside from show not tell, there is nothing truer in fiction than less is more.

Posted in LabLit, Writing | 9 Comments

In which I enjoy a Northern sojourn

I spend a lot of my time these days up at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, helping out with undergraduate teaching. It’s marked a new phase of traipsing up and down on the Northern Line to my lab on the main campus, but now that term has started I’ve settled into a routine that seems to work for everyone, myself included.

As a workplace, the Free has a lot of advantages. It’s right next to the Heath, nestled into a leafy village of pretty shops, streets, pubs and houses. This time of year the foliage is spectacular, crimson and flame and every shade in between, heaped up in layers on the pavement and making a satisfying swishy noise as you shuffle through them. The boutiques have shocking price tags, but the charity shops have lovely clothing for a snip. (You know that universal musty smell that charity shops and their wares tend to give off? Well, not in Hampstead they don’t.) This means I’ve been able to kit myself out as a proper pedagogical academic for only a fistful of fivers.

The hospital itself is full of cutting-edge medicine and science. Its National Amyloidosis Centre, for example, is world-class. And famously, it is the only institute in the UK allowed to accept Ebola patients. Just the other day, the entrances were blocked by an RAF ambulance, a sinister-looking lorry and several dozen personnel in military drabs. But rumors soon trickled down that it was only a drill.

Or else, that they wanted us to think that it was only a drill.

Or else, that it was a double-blind and that the lorry really did harbor a patient in a bubble after all. Given the distinct lack of helicopters and news stories, I guess the first rumor was correct.

I am still getting my bearings – the building is of a proverbial “can’t get there from here” layout, and whenever I get lost, no matter where I start or which direction I double back towards, I invariably end up in the MRI suite. (It makes me wonder if I’ve got any metal imbedded into my body that I don’t know about!) And so confusing are the passageways that the only way for me to find my way back to the undergraduate office is to actually exit the building and circle round until I’ve located that oh-so-handy landmark for weary lost travelers, The George.

Today I needed a break so I went out the Rowland Street entrance, up the hill I’ve trudged a hundred times before. The sun was unexpectedly warm, and the air was mild. Squinting like a cave-dwelling mammal in the light, only then did I happen to notice the incongruous cornfield, visible down a flight of stairs leading into a disused corner:


Any ideas? Nope, me neither.

Posted in Gardening, Silliness, Teaching | 2 Comments

In which my palm is crossed with silver: Suffrage Science 2014

Inheritance doesn’t have to be genetic.

This past Thursday at London’s Dana Centre, I was one of this year’s recipients for Suffrage Science. For those of you unfamiliar with the scheme, it was launched in 2011 by the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre, and involves heirloom jewelry, originally designed by art students at Central St Martins College, passed down from one ‘generation’ of women to the next.

I received my brooch – a lovely domed magnifying glass set within a series of concentric silver rings – from the broadcaster and writer Georgina Ferry, who had received her from the biographer Brenda Maddox. Humbling provenance indeed. The event, compered by the incomparable Vivienne Parry, also featured a discussion about inspiring female scientists throughout history.

It was a family affair, although Richard spent a lot of the time chasing after Joshua, who has recently started to walk. I like to think he bonded with the other gentlemen likewise engaged (including the affable Dane who gently corrected the only phrase – tak for kaffe – I had picked up from watching too much Forbrydelsen).

(Credit for all photos, unless otherwise indicated, is Brona McVittie, © MRC Clinical Sciences Centre)

Here’s Georgina introducing me:

And here’s the handoff (in addition to the brooch, note the goody bag from L’Oreal, which had some superlative products inside, not least the subversive blue nail Yves St Laurent nail varnish!)

This is a picture I took of the brooch, but it doesn’t really do it justice:

Later I said a few words about my inspirational PhD supervisor, Julie Overbaugh – one of many stories told that evening of amazing women doing great things in the past and present.

And the final classy touch: the awarding of commemorative cufflinks to Richard and the other male childminders (none of whom, fittingly, were actually in the room at the time).

I am relieved that I have a whole two years to decide who should receive my brooch. There are so many wonderful women out there. Georgina is keen that we keep the writing theme going in our ‘branch’, and I think that’s a good idea. So watch this space.

Posted in Women in science, Writing | 3 Comments

In which we need more lab coats in the Commons

Like many commuters serving as a captive audience on the London Underground, I tend to read the free Evening Standard most nights. I enjoy the op ed pieces by Rosamund Urwin, who has always struck me as both light-hearted and eminently sensible – a good combination for any journalist desirous of keeping the attention of exhausted people trapped in one of the sweatiest circles of Hell.

Tonight’s offering was an impassioned plea for more scientists in politics. You can read her brief piece yourself, but it highlighted the grim stats for politicos in the United Kingdom: just one scientist MP (“A token Beaker stuck in there with all the muppets” – genius); no science graduates in the Cabinet; a majority of Tories polled recently believing that the case for anthropogenic climate change has not been proved; the fact that our Health Secretary, presiding over an annual budget of over £100 billion, believes in homeopathy. She calls for action to entice scientists to enter professional politics (“more lab coats in the Commons” is her rallying cry), and suggests giving all MPs a science “refresher course”.

I doubt this will ever happen, but it’s nice to see a demand for it in the mainstream press.

In the meantime, for all three of you paying attention in the back row, after several weeks of burning the candle at more ends that I thought candles actually had (maybe it’s some sort of cosmological multi-dimensional candle), my big paper was finally resubmitted to Current Biology yesterday. Accompanied, I might add, by the strains of “The Final Countdown” blasted out at top volume (but replacing the word “Countdown” with ‘Upload”) as I clicked the button. Where it has remained a stubborn ear-worm ever since. Fingers crossed that my magnum-ish opus finds favor with the Editorial Powers That Be at long last.

Posted in Policy, Politics | 4 Comments

In which I am still largely at large: another mother in academia

Blogging appearances to the contrary, I am still alive, clinging gamely to some semblance of work-life balance as a new mother in academia.

Not so new anymore, I realize, as Joshua hurtles, one milestone at a time, toward his first birthday. He sways on his feet, unsupported, for long periods of time, yet is still reluctant to let go as he steps along the furniture. He keeps remembering anew that he can clap his hands together, which causes no end of private amusement. He has taken to pointing portentously at all manner of random objects, and is now so curious and fast – a dangerous combination – that we cannot leave him alone for even a second. Still, at least he is sleeping well – most nights. But this long-awaited achievement somehow has not brought my perennial exhaustion to an end as I’d hoped it might.

I think I’m so tired because of changes in my job. As I rework a fellowship at the request of a major funding body, I’ve been helping out as a teaching fellow on a brand-new undergraduate course being launched by the university. It’s an ambitious and innovative program aimed to teach a fusion of medicine and science to researchers who want to work with clinicians or in an applied setting, and we’re doing it all from scratch using a flipped learning approach that hasn’t been employed much here. So all eyes are on us – my own faculty, and other departments thinking of taking the plunge into flipped learning with a significant online component – and the first cohort of students is due to arrive in exactly three weeks. Meanwhile, I’m still looking after the lab and keeping a team of basic scientists afloat.

But the teaching office is on a different campus, across town from the lab, and the nursery is not located anywhere near either my home or my two sites of employment, which makes life hectic. I love that feeling when I sneak up on all fours on my baby boy at the end of the day and he hurtles himself, cooing and delighted, into my lap. Yet I loathe the final leg, pushing the pram through the rush-hour crowds jostling down Borough High Street and then descending underground to cram the buggy into the sea of irritable commuters flowing eastward on packed Jubilee Line carriages. When Joshua goes down, there are only a few precious hours with which to write or do other creative endeavors, but more often than not I’m working on my last first-author paper from the previous lab (just about to be put to bed in a good home, I think), or dealing with lab stuff, or hiring BSc project students, or proofing papers and grants from the rest of the team and from various collaborators. Or lying on the sofa in a stupor, if I’m honest.

On the literary front, an older story of mine, The Pair-bond Imperative, was selected for the upcoming Nature Futures 2 anthology. I recently sat on a well-attended panel about LabLit fiction at the LONCON3 science fiction convention, and gave a talk at that same august gathering about antibiotic resistance, with a B-movie flavor. (You would think that a science fiction convention could provide adequate geeky tech. But no. Instead, I was given a laptap that couldn’t play movies, so I had to act out the key scene from Fantastic Voyage instead – when Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies – and received a vigorous round of applause for my efforts. As an aside, can I just note that I found this large group of science fiction afficionados one of the most warmly responsive audiences to whom I’ve ever delivered a science talk?) Also, I was interviewed about LabLit for an American public radio program, To The Best of Our Knowledge, which must getting syndicated on NPR stations all over the country as I keep getting lovely pockets of fan mail and people suggesting books for my List of science novels every few weeks or so. I struggle to publish one article a week on LabLit, but somehow I manage it, and I’m proud to be approaching our tenth year of existence.

I haven’t been able to write fiction since Joshua was born, however, or work out a good publication plan for my third completed novel, which is the first of a comedy-thriller trilogy about a feminist virologist who is forced to combine forces with a sexist mathematician to solve a mystery cat plague that threatens the whole planet. I keep hoping that the time and energy and creative juices will one day come. For now, I’m happy just to be able to keep everything else afloat and pen the occasional blog or journal entry. One day soon I know the mojo will return.

Posted in LabLit, Science fiction, Students, Teaching, The profession of science, Women in science, Writing | 10 Comments

In which I receive a gift

What do you buy the female scientist who has everything?

A few days ago I noticed a news clip in the London Evening Standard, mentioning that a new line of Lego featuring women researchers had sold out within hours of being offered for purchase online.

Women Scientist Lego hits news

These are glad tidings, given that Lego has previously sustained complaints for sexist stereotyping in its toys. I myself felt physically ill the last time I passed one of Lego’s horrid pink and purple collections aimed at little girls. Having grown up with Lego back when it was just primary-colored bricks and I could play at architect instead of bikini-clad sunbathing bimbo, I felt that the company had left me, and probably many kids, far behind.

Joshua, enjoying some old-fashioned Lego bricks acquired circa the year 2000.

While all is not totally forgiven, I was cheered by this news. I also secretly wanted to own the collection, but assumed it would be too difficult to get a hold of.

This evening, as a wedding anniversary present, Richard surprised me (after a long, dispiriting and existentially tenuous day at work) with my very own box!

Women Scientist Lego Box

And it’s no exaggeration to say that I was as excited as an undergraduate lab intern trying on her first white coat. I can’t wait to assemble them all – a chemist, a paleontologist, and an astronomer. And I am especially excited by the accessories – check out these itty-bitty Gilson pipettors!

Women Scientist Lego Accessories

It was Richard who first noticed one of the best features of this ingenious set: the scientist heads are reversible, so you can have them display either a studious/benevolent expression, or one that is considerably vexed at the nonstop vicissitudes of the scientific life. Just pulled an all-nighter, only to drop your beaker on the floor in the morning from sheer exhaustion? Just found out that your grant application was rejected – for the fifth time – or that Nature wants you to do so many revisions that it would take approximately thirty years to satisfy the referees? No problem – there’s a scowl for every occasion.

And for that rare Eureka moment? A slightly skeptical twitch of a smile that almost dares not linger, lest the whole intellectual edifice come crashing down.


Note added after publication: These Lego researchers have their own Twitter account! Thanks to Hans Zauner for kindly pointing this out.

Posted in Silliness, Stereotypes, The profession of science, Women in science | 8 Comments

In which I heart academia

Say what you will against life in the upper echelons of higher education. By all means complain about the low pay, the long hours, and the increasingly desperate funding situation. Above all, rail against the crushing career insecurity, and the sad truth that no matter how far up the ladder you are, there is only an ephemeral membrane between you and the night shift at McDonald’s.


Impromptu math

Where else can you sit down at a lunch table and hear such incredible conversation? Today, instead of being regaled with the latest football scores or celebrity gossip, we were dazzled an impromptu fifteen minute lecture about the Fibonacci sequence, the inevitability of hexagonal honeycombs, and the real reason why apples fall at precisely the right time – complete with kitchen towel diagrams and equations. Round it off with a debate about whether such things evolved or whether instead there are only a limited number of physical manifestations of matter, and that’s academia in a nutshell.

Posted in The profession of science | 4 Comments