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!

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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’

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