In which we are snapped

Current Team Wee-Wee: Jane, Johannes, Dhan, Harry, Monika, Me, Kristina

I’ve been meaning to make a lab website for a long time now, but you know how it is: ten million other things intrude, higher priority items forever bumping lower ones down the queue. Even though I don’t yet have anywhere formal to put it, I thought it high time my lab finally had a group photo taken.

To me, there is something deeply symbolic about a formal lab snap. When you first start out in science, such images are the stuff of dreams. You see them projected at the end of seminal talks given by people who have assumed deity-like standing in your field. “These are the people who actually did the work,” the speaker will say casually, perhaps pointing out a few key faces: faces that look as hopeful and idealistic as your own. Faces protected and nurtured by greatness – yet in displaying the photo, that representative of greatness now betrays a human side.

Due to circumstance and an unusual career path that led me out of academia on several occasions, reaching the point of being able to take such a photo myself has been a long time coming. As I approach the most sobering significant birthday this year, I can’t stop pinching myself that I’m now several years into being a bona fide PI.

My current team is source of pride and inspiration to me. We have enough momentum and expertise now that the science carries on when I’m not looking. I can come down from a fortnight of frantic exam marking to find that someone has made an interesting discovery I didn’t even know was on the cards. Catch-up meetings become a source of pleasant surprises: even when things don’t work (which is of course a frequent occurrence), it’s good to witness ingenuity, resilience and stubborn tenacity. And a relief, too, that my input is still required on occasion to nudge the ship back onto the right path.

I’m particularly happy with the undergraduate students, who always seem to have a smile on their faces. Young, smart people impart a vibrant feel to the lab that is only definable by its absence.

Come autumn, three new postdocs will be starting in the lab. This change is sure to be an inflection point in the trajectory of the research, enhancing our scope and standing. I can’t wait to see what we achieve together by the next group snap.

Posted in Careers, Research, Students, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which we are snapped

In which I hire

A colleague I respect very highly once likened academic careers to a rocket launch: once you hit escape velocity, you’re safely in orbit. Problem is, achieving this state as a post-doc or untenured faculty is becoming increasingly difficult. Hundreds of eminently qualified people can apply for a prestigious fellowship, and the difference between the one who succeeds and the rest who fail can be as thin as a piece of paper.

Enterococcus bacteria invading a human bladder cell, from Horsley et al., 2013

My personal career rocket has just acquired a significant booster. The lab recently secured substantial funding for an exciting project requiring two post-docs for four years each to study host/pathogen interactions in chronic urinary tract infection. Both posts are now being advertised and the closing date is 2 July. The first post is geared more toward novel therapies and translational research, while the second is a more basic science-oriented cell biology project. Any experience in host/pathogen interactions in another system would be a plus.

My lab works at the multidisciplinary interface between basic cell biology, clinical research, biotechnology and engineering to develop better treatments and diagnostics for this serious global health problem, with a strong “bedside to bench and bench back to bedside” ethos. Current lab interests focus on bacterial invasion and reservoirs, biofilms, antibiotic resistance, human tissue organoid models, innate immunity, and collaborative efforts to develop novel nano- and micro-capsule-based local treatment strategies – one of which has attracted Series A industrial funding towards pre-clinical and clinical trials. If you’re interested, do consider applying. If you know someone else who might be, please spread the word. There’s a lot more information in the links below:

Research Associate in Novel Therapeutic Delivery Systems 1649602

Research Associate in Host-Pathogen Interactions 1649603

Come fly with me!

Posted in Academia, Careers, Recruitment, Research, The profession of science | 1 Comment

In which we ride the imposter rollercoaster – again

We often think of our personalities and tendencies as being immutable, fixed, typical. But the older I get, the better I know myself.

And what I know is that I’m often no more in control of my perceptions of self than that beetle in my three-year-old’s Pyrex specimen jar, being shaken and examined with a wide blue eye.

Gratuitous picture of Joshua with his scientific specimen

What I’ve especially noticed in recent years is how quickly my feelings of worth can change. One minute I’m riding the high of a great experimental result, revealed to me slyly by one of my talented team, or I’m emerging from a leadership workshop still tingling with the after-effects of eight solid hours of pep-talk. Or I’m opening an email to find that an application has been accepted, or that I’ve scored another source of funding. The next I’m laid low by a difficult conversation with a superior, or by a scientific set-back, or just generally overwhelmed and demoralized by how many academic responsibilities I have and how little time there is to devote to each.

When I get to this point, I start waking in the middle of the night sick with anxiety and a galloping ectopic heartbeat, wondering what might happen to my family and my mortgage if politics shift and my tenuous position is suddenly no longer supported. (As a matter of biological interest, since being put on beta blockers for cardiac arrhythmia, these episodes at least are not nearly as distressing as they used to be. But that’s fodder for another blog post altogether.)

A sleepless night feeds the blues. But then, of course, something good happens, and it starts all over again.

Today I’m still mired in a low ebb. I have decided that I’m an imposter, and that I have no right to attempt something positive – yet scary – that I’d finally psyched myself up to do. The aftermath was a queasy mix of relief and shame. Mostly relief, because I didn’t even remotely have time to do it anyway, with a full docket of teaching nibbling, as always, into all corners of my working hours. This is how you always feel when you are nearly a full-time equivalent on teaching duty yet you are judged almost solely on your research output.

You can, actually, never win.

Tomorrow is another day. I’ll probably have a chat with my post-doc or one of my students first thing, and get energized by a ravishing image or rock-solid graph. I’ll be more clear-headed. I will manage to plough through more of the nearly 500 essay questions that I still need to grade, enough to ease the growing sense of panic. I’ll finish preparing that talk for the Retreat, and that other talk for the Board meeting of the company that’s funding my nanocapsule therapy project, and writing the job applications for the two new postdoc positions I’ll be advertising soon. (There are another 25 items on my list, equally urgent, that I won’t bore you with.)

Soon I’ll be headed for the top once again.

But for now, I’m thinking of the quiet of the house, of my son asleep with flushed cheeks in his bed, of my husband upstairs tapping at his computer. And I’m wishing that everything else would just go away.

Posted in Careers, Research, Staring into the abyss, Teaching, The profession of science | 5 Comments

In which we experiment

My three-year-old son Joshua is a bright and curious boy, full of incessant questions and always wanting to get into everything.

The other day he noticed that when he was sucking up juice with a straw, the level of liquid in the cup went down. I pointed to the glass vase of tulips next to him and remarked that they also sucked up water to stay strong.

Joshua then wanted to know if he could see the level of water going down in the vase as well.

I told him that, unlike his juice straw, it happened too slowly for him to see it. But if he liked, we could do a little experiment to test whether it was happening.

Joshua knows what “spare-mints” are because he likes to watch “Nina and the Neurons” on CBeebies – a TV program in which a terrifyingly perky, white-coated host does interesting science with pre-school children.

Joshua was excited about the prospect, so we lined up an envelope on the vase, made a mark at the waterline, and wrote down the date and time next to the line. The envelope went on the fridge, and whenever Joshua wanted, we got it down and made a new mark corresponding to the new water level. As hoped, the tulips drank lots of water, with the level dropping about 3 mm every ten hours or so. We’re now on our second experiment with a new set of tulips, and he seems happy that it’s reproducible.

The staff at Joshua’s nursery has just asked me if I’d be willing to come in one morning to do a small science demonstration or experiment with the kids. This is a completely different brief, as it would have to be something that would have a real impact within half an hour, and which would be robust enough to withstand very short attention spans.

I’m stumped at the moment, so all ideas welcome!

Posted in Domestic bliss, Teaching | 4 Comments

In which I make myself useful

Two centrifuge buckets, both alike in dignity?

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an ageing group leader is, by definition, out of touch when it comes to the lab. After all, we spend most of our time writing grants and papers, fretting about ever-tightening budgets and attempting to navigate an arcane, deeply political academic minefield without getting blown to smithereens.

I do keep a hand in as much as I can, but in the back of my mind I know I’m not always at the top of the game when it comes to winkling out a cane from the liquid nitrogen tank without incurring frostbite, or pipetting into Eppendorfs at an industry-standard post-doctoral rate of two or more TPS (tubes per second).

Still, I like to feel I’m needed. So I honestly don’t mind that when I pass through the large lab space that we share with a few other groups, I am occasionally flagged down for advice.

Yesterday there was a small, perplexed huddle of postdocs around the big centrifuge. I wandered over to see what the fuss was all about.

“The balance alarm keeps going off, no matter what I do,” one of them explained to me, with that particular expression postdocs get when they are ten minutes behind schedule and not at all pleased at the prospect of arriving late down the pub.

“There’s definitely nothing inside any of the holes,” another said, tipping up the buckets to show me.

“Well, let’s take out the buckets and get a closer look,’ I suggested. “Better still, let’s weigh them. If they weigh the same, the problem must be with the rotor – or something electrical.”

“Oo, I didn’t think of that,” the first postdoc said.

Both buckets were duly removed, and I saw that they were the sort that are made of stackable, interlocking pieces, in order to accommodate tubes of different heights. The scales revealed that one set was 21 grams heavier than the other.

“But they are exactly the same,” someone said. “How could they be different weights?”

And it was true: from all superficial appearances, each was comprised of a stack of five pieces of identical color and make, nested into a larger but equally identical-looking metal seat.

“Take them apart,” I ordered. “You can weigh each part separately if needs be.”

Once completely disassembled, I noticed that one of the metal seats had a cloth pad fitted into the bottom, and the other did not.

“There’s your culprit,” I said.”And look – there’s the missing pad over there.”

General surprise,relief and hilarity ensued. The pub jaunt was rescued, and I walked away feeling, if not indispensable, then at least not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

Posted in Kit, Research, Silliness, The profession of science | 2 Comments

In which we sort ourselves out

Writing space: the final frontier

When you move into a new house, you unpack about 90% of your belongings in the first months. And then, of course, there’s that lingering tail that seems to get put off indefinitely.

This asymptote of neglect can be indicative: if you haven’t opened a box for a few years, it’s likely you never will. I’ve shed a lot of junk along my life’s journey from one country to the next, over many dozens of temporary dwellings, but I still carry along with me a few dusty, taped up boxes containing goodness-knows-what: old photos, letters, memorabilia, experimental data. One day I might be tempted to break the seal. For now, they’re stashed in the loft, their contents wrapped in yellowing newspaper, each wad of it a time capsule in itself.

We moved into our current house a bit more than two years ago and, as per the formula, most of the rooms were sorted out in short order. The spare room and the study, however, become dumping grounds for things we thought we could organize later, bookshelves crammed willy-nilly, literature mingling sadly with storage containers and extinct media formats like VCR tapes and CDs.

Over the Christmas break, we’d had enough. Both Richard and I can’t write well if our designated spaces aren’t tidy, and something needed to be done. Ruthlessness was required. Many things were “lofted”: sealed boxes, seldom-used things, and a heartbreaking series of baby items that are no longer required but might one day be useful for grand-children. Best of all, we finally sorted out our respective desks, and the many bookshelves. We drew the line at any sort of organization aside from spine height – except for my long-anticipated “Wall of Lab Lit“.

In short, there’s no excuse now not to get writing seriously again!

Wall of LabLit

Posted in Domestic bliss, LabLit, Writing | 8 Comments

In which I bring Lego to lab meeting

Our floor recently initiated a monthly lunchtime meeting as an informal feedback conduit. Although the individual labs all work in one mammoth communal room, the research that goes on is disparate. The key to propelling your project forward might be someone else’s knowledge, or a helpful reagent stashed unbeknownst to you in a fridge just one bay over. But without communication, you’d never know that help was so close to hand.

The meeting operates a “no PowerPoint” rule. I understand why this was decided: to prevent the exercise from morphing into a dreaded pain in the ass, with people taking hours agonizing over a talk that was never meant to be more than a breezy summary. It does, however, sometimes make it difficult to get across an abstract concept, or an experimental set-up where a picture really is worth a thousand words.

None of my team was available yesterday when it was our lab’s turn, so I took on the update myself. As it happened, I’ve been tinkering on something personally over the past year and needed some fresh advice and perspective – especially as one of my New Year’s resolutions is to do more lab work overall. Having already witnessed several undergraduate students glaze over when trying to describe our nifty virus constructs verbally, though, I decided to bring along a prop, where each functional part of the virus construct was represented by a different colored Lego brick, so I could show what happened to expression when the various inducing chemicals were added:

I also brought along a Lego-based cell which I used to explain my reverse genetic strategy, removing parts of the cell pathway one at a time to show how you could use this to work out which processes were important for bacterial invasion. I could tell from the head nods that people were getting it in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d been blathering on blind.

Best of all, I got some great advice – and access to some biological materials that I had no idea were available in the department. We also bandied about a few collaborative ideas that might bear some fruit one day.

In other Lego news, on the home front, this is what happens when you let your toddler anywhere near your lab. It’s a good thing I saved the assembly manual!

Posted in Research, Scientific thinking | Comments Off on In which I bring Lego to lab meeting

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!

Posted in LabLit, Writing | Comments Off on In which I’m published – in ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’