In which horizons expand

Every career probably has a tipping point. Twenty-seven years after embarking on my PhD, a period riddled with false starts, uncertainties, twists and turns, I sense the shifting of weight beneath me and momentum gathering as I start to swing to some bright but unknown Other Side.

Nothing has materially changed about my job description or status. I’m still in the same place, running a small group at UCL. I’m somewhere around the Senior Lecturer/Reader mark in terms of on-paper rank, although being on the research ladder instead of the academic path muddies the water. And I’m still on open-ended funding, meaning that my position is moderately less secure than that of an academic (though to be honest, in the current climate nobody is truly safe).

But recent events have conspired to consolidate my position. I feel like a tree whose roots have grown in complexity until they have finally knitted into the community around me. The connections are formed of research collaborations, shared experiences, collegial friendships, teaching interactions, an increase in responsibility and visibility, the imminent translation of my work from lab abstraction to clinical trial. I have also managed to secure enough funding to both shore up my position and expand my group size this year; soon, I’ll be advertising for three new positions.

I feel a bit of stage fright at the thought of a bigger lab. Obviously it will be amazing to finally have enough hands to make real progress in my research area. But the flip side is the realization that each new person in the group will require a successful research project to thrive in their own right, and that ultimately it is me who has to ensure that this happens. I have to consciously realign my thinking from the point of view of a few individual research strands to the larger, coherent and synergistic whole – a whole only possible when a lab reaches a critical mass of people.

I am looking forward to taking stock, working together with my team to create a detailed and concrete vision for the group and its future direction. But at the moment, on this last day home before my holiday ends, I’m enjoying the sense that it is all before me, still unformed, but soon to take flight under my guiding hands.

Posted in Academia, Careers, Research, The profession of science | 2 Comments

In which an era ends

She was decent and hard-working. She seldom complained, even when she got herself into a jam.

She witnessed my awakening as a writer, from tentative, cliché-prone beginner to confident, stripped-down wordsmith capable of earning money and book deals.

She saw me through three novels – so long ago now that it seems like a dream, the sort you have when you’re delirious. All of that creativity and frenetic energy, not quite possible to rekindle these past ten years amidst the splinters of reality continually interposed: work, home, child, the weight of too many other passions and obligations. Energy I still hope I might one day be able to reclaim, glassy fragments gathered back into a glowing core.


I bought her in Amsterdam, lugged her home to my airy flat in de Pijp and installed her in the spare room along with the patriotic orange iMac. I was still employed then, and just starting out as a novelist on the evenings and weekends. Back then, I found it easier to proof drafts in printed form, so each day I’d run off a chapter or two to read on the daily train commute to Leiden, clean crisp sheets gradually defaced with tough-love marker pen. Later, my agent needed me to post numerous double-spaced copies of the manuscript back to London, and during those sessions, the printer would grow hot and bothered with the effort, the pages curling and spilling off the tray in disorderly piles.

I used to stagger home with reams of paper from Vroom & Dreesman or HEMA. How many thousands did she burn through? I know that I replaced the drum once, and the toner innumerable times. She finally gasped her last a few weeks ago, almost eighteen years after I first bought her.

Eighteen years.

A moment of silence them, for a loyal workhorse, before I drag her dusty carcass away. Her replacement, a sleek, networked model with superfluous functionalities, won’t get the same treatment even if I do ever get back into my novelist stride. These days, I’ve learned to prefer editing on screen – at one time, as unlikely as learning to prefer the keyboard instead of the pen.

If the new printer lasts as long as the old one did, it will see me into retirement – a compelling but strange notion. Whether I will have more time to write then, or less, is anyone’s guess.

Posted in LabLit, Nostalgia, Work/life balance, Writing | 4 Comments

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


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.

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.

Posted in Academia, Students, Teaching, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which the calm cowers before the storm

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.

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