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

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

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


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

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

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

What’s it like, being old in the lab?

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

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

I can’t see a bloody thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

In which fiction infiltrates science

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In which we are unlucky: on lab superstitions

I was thinking the other day that if academia were a mental illness, it would be bipolar.

One day it treats me well: a student shows me an experiment that shows great promise. I have a spirited chat with a like-minded collaborator about the great work we’d like to do together, and emerge from it buzzing with plans and ideas. I preside over a classroom of students who seem switched on, excited, eager to know more. I help one of the BSc project students focus the microscope, or decide how to analyze an experiment, or plan the next small lab question to explore. I have a productive chat in the espresso queue with a colleague about some data we’re gathering for a committee. I may not have time to eat all of my lunch, but I reach the end of the day having crossed most of the things off my list, and I have a sense of my years at this university stretching out in happy productivity.

The next day, it all goes wrong. An initially exciting experiment reveals subtle striations that might well be fatal structural errors in the whole edifice. A grant – three months of concentrated effort – is casually rejected. Students fail to turn up to tutorials, or seem bored and unimpressed by a plan that took hours to perfect. I send repeated emails to get someone to file a contribution that was due weeks ago. Somehow it’s already time to catch my train, but there have been so many new demands on my time that not a single item is crossed off my morning list. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about instability, about jobs being perhaps not as secure as they once were, and I find myself scouring job adverts – not seriously, but as almost a talisman against the darkness.

I can go a whole week slamming wildly between these two sorts of extremes. Is it just me?

When things get particularly bleak, I try to see the funny side of things. We recently had a very strange turn in the tissue culture room. Our primary human bladder cells are by far the finickiest cells we’ve ever grown, but something was killing them off even more frequently than normal. Scientists can often be superstitious, perhaps because failure is so frequent that you can easily correlate incidents with regular events: full moons, Tuesdays, the wearing of stripey underpants. So it was not long before we noticed that everything on the second shelf seemed to be doomed.

Unlucky Shelf 2

Proclaiming haughtily that luck was not a quality that any right-minded scientist should believe in, one of the undergraduates brazenly put his entire set of experiments on Shelf 2 – which were promptly obliterated.

As I inspected the floating shriveled corpses, I thought to myself: it was just newbie sloppiness, right? The steel shelves were perforated with many holes that would make the environment equal no matter where the plates happened to sit. Moreover, the entire incubator is wired up to report even the minutest alterations in temperature and carbon dioxide concentration. What happened on Shelf 2 would not stay on Shelf 2: it would happen on all other shelves – and according to the overnight logs, exactly nothing had happened.

Our feelings about Unlucky Shelf 2 were solidified when one of the PhD students grimly thawed out a new set of cells and split into two identical plates, placing one on the top shelf and the other on the second. Sure enough, the next morning the top-shelf plate was fighting fit, the cells spread and gleaming, while the Shelf of Doom had produced its usual sad crop of raisin-like casualties. It was pretty much then that we all stopped putting our dishes there, no matter how irrational.

You’d do the same.


Posted in Academia, Careers, Research, Scientific thinking, Silliness, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | 5 Comments

In which I finally get it: multitasking is evil

It’s a new year, and the academic term has kicked in with renewed vigor. I haven’t written here for a while because I simply didn’t have the mental capacity.

I collapsed into the Christmas holidays nearly flattened with exhaustion and stress, and demoralized by some bad news. Over the two week break, I finally managed to relax, catch up on my sleep and rebuild my battered confidence. Spending time with my family properly was the best medicine:  there was a lot of cooking, and baking, and wooden train tracks snaking all over the living room carpet. Each day I ran up Windmill Hill, pounding the muddy grass with my trainers, heart beating furiously in my ribcage, low sun dazzling my eyes and the estuary Thames spread out below: a meandering ribbon of blue with its entourage of wind turbines, great ships, smokestacks, docks and cranes, the town’s rooftops, trees and church spires seeming to tumble into it.


Before I went back in January, I put my work practices under the microscope to see if I could identify any way to prevent another miserable term from playing out all over again. I’d kept a time sheet in the autumn to try to pinpoint what was going wrong. It didn’t tell me much when I’d skimmed it, bleary eyed, on my last day before vacation, other than that I simply had too much to do. With my renewed clarity, however, the patterns jumped right out at me, and what had caused the stress was now obvious.

I am supposed to teach no more than three days a week, with the fourth day for regular research. During the fifth day, my time has been bought out since October by the biotech company that’s helping me take our novel treatment for chronic urinary infection through to clinical trials. But the designated days were only virtual partitions – in reality the teaching was scattered all over the place, and as last term bore down, its chores spread like a cancer into all my other time slots. As anyone who teaches knows well, what’s in the timetable is only a small fraction of what you end up doing on a course. If you don’t defend your non-teaching time, it will simply dissolve into the maw.

The spreadsheet showed that each day, in a vain attempt to keep all the balls in the air, I’d do a little bit of everything – an hour of teaching, then frantic work on a grant, then more teaching, then a chat to one of my PhD students, then a meeting – then more teaching. Constant interruptions meant that I never really sank into any chore wholeheartedly or with the proper focus. Transitions – not being able to start anything else a half hour before teaching a class, or commuting back and forth for meetings between Bloomsbury and Belsize Park – eroded my time even further.

But suddenly it was all clear. All I had to do was block out two actual, real-life days a week and dedicate them solely to research (or other academic chores), and to keep them sacrosanct. I drew a thick black line through square after square in my diary. In weeks where there weren’t two free days from teaching in the timetable, I negotiated with the friendly admin staff to reschedule them to another day, until I finally managed to herd every last hour of teaching into three separate corrals. The two non-teaching days weren’t the same each week, but that didn’t matter. I had done it.

But has it worked?

Three weeks in and I’m sitting here asking myself that very question. If you’d queried me yesterday, I would have said yes: the first two weeks on the new pattern had felt manageable – and for the first time in many months, enjoyable. But now the stress is creeping up on me once again. I am registering flickers of panic just off-stage, the kind that heralds total paralysis: when you have so much to do that you can’t do anything. The problem is that, within each designated day, there are two many subcategories of chores. And tasks that are neither teaching nor research – for example, my new role as Athena SWAN lead for my Division – are starting to gather like brewing stormclouds. Where do I file them? How can I keep everything moving without slipping back into that inefficient multitasking mode? Most importantly, how can I prevent what now seems inevitable – starting to work even longer hours on evenings and weekends to catch up, despite a small child that takes up all my time and energy at home?



Posted in Academia, Teaching, The profession of science | 6 Comments

In which I lose my tubes, and other manifestations of lab rustiness

When you’re a young scientist, it’s the done thing to poke gentle fun at the lab head for being out of touch. For example, when I was a graduate student, we’d all pretend to be horrified whenever our boss, wearing that rare white coat, approached the bench to actually do an experiment. After all, once you reach a certain point in academia, you spend most of your time holed up in an office, meeting with your researchers, writing grants and papers, and dealing with an increasing amount of admin.

I try to pop by my lab as much as I can to chat with my team and see what’s going on first-hand. But sadly, with my full teaching load, I haven’t done an experiment personally for many months.

Next week, as term is winding down, I’m going to treat myself to a small stint in the lab. My new grant kicks in on 1 January, but I’d like to get a head start before the holidays.

Today, I ventured down to the lab to locate some supplies I’d need for setting up a cell culture experiment on Monday.

And was completely lost. Not only has it been a while since I’ve done any lab work, but I realized that I haven’t done any since we moved here this summer. Hence I didn’t know where anything was. Where were the lab coats? The gloves? Which fridge contained personal boxes? Where, in the right fridge, amid the unknown landscape of boxes and tubes, were my own personal boxes?

It’s  a jungle in there.

I managed to orient myself in the end, but it’s a sobering reminder of how quickly one can drift out of touch. And it’s not just the lab layout or basic manipulations either. Techniques move on too. When I last did any serious genetic manipulation, it was all small interfering RNAs. Now the world is abuzz with CRISPR-Cas9 – a methodology I know about only in theory. Imaging modalities move quickly too, as do sequencing technologies. It’s no secret that we oldies rely on young researchers to keep the entire lab abreast of the latest developments.

Dear reader, I found my tubes. And my lab coat.  And I remembered that particular flick of the wrist you need to wrestle the metal canes out of the liquid nitrogen tank – bonus points for not burning myself in the process.

So not entirely past it yet.


Posted in Careers, Research, Scientific thinking, The profession of science | 4 Comments

In which we are funded: urinary infection in people with multiple sclerosis


The big announcement!

I wanted to thank the good folks at the Multiple Sclerosis Society for awarding me an Innovation Grant. With Government funding for research dwindling, life scientists rely increasingly on charities to help us answer the important questions that lead to cures.

More than 100,000 people in the UK have MS and, amongst this population, urinary tract infection (UTI) is a very common complication. It’s important to stress that UTI in people with MS is not merely a nuisance. Hospital admissions for UTI occur more frequently in people with MS than in the general population, and these infections seem to make MS worse, being associated with relapses, increased neurological damage from those relapses, enhanced disease progression, increased fatigue, and the worsening of cognitive deficits.

There is growing awareness that the interaction of UTI bacteria in the bladder is more complex than initially thought. The bugs exert clever strategies to evade our defences, including the formation of thick, antibiotic-resistant biofilms and the ability to invade and hide inside our very cells. A lot of what’s known about UTI biology is gleaned from studies in the mouse – but the mouse model does not seem to be the best reflection of what’s happening inside human beings. Yet it’s difficult to do experiments in actual patients, and traditional cancer cell line models can’t emulate the beautiful and three-dimensional architecture of the human bladder epithelium.


Our prototype model

So the MS Society are funding me to help enhance a human-cell model being developed by one of my PhD students, Harry Horsley (whose studentship is also kindly funded by the MS Society). In particular, we want to overcome a technological challenge inherent in switching off genes at will within the cells of this model – which is crucial if we are to gain any understanding of which cellular pathways the bugs are subverting during invasion. This work can serve as a platform to come up with better diagnoses and treatments of chronic UTI in people with MS as well as all the other people worldwide who are plagued by it.

Posted in Research, science funding, The profession of science | 4 Comments