In which science imitates life, number 365: zones of death in public transport

I was waiting for the bus this past weekend, ridiculously early to get my son to his swimming lesson across town. Or so I thought.

We waited, and waited, and Joshua jumped up and down anxiously, looking adorable with his lobster rucksack bouncing on his back, asking over and over, “Mama, why isn’t the bus coming?”

Quite. We were rapidly reaching the point of no return, so I pulled out my phone to view the live map. There, I could see a swarm of buses studiously avoiding our position in a way that was strangely familiar:

Was it something we said?

Where had I seen that pattern before? And then I had it:

The Kirby–Bauer disk diffusion assay (via Wikipedia)

My son and I were the antibiotic, and the buses were the bacteria. And the swathe of nothingness between…was about to make us very late.

I called up an Uber – which arrived just as the bus lumbered past.

Posted in Joshua, Scientific thinking, Silliness | Comments Off on In which science imitates life, number 365: zones of death in public transport

In which age is no impediment to scientific discourse

Joshua has had quite a few vaccinations in his four-and-a-half years – the usual routine inoculations for standard childhood illnesses and a couple (chicken pox and meningitis B) that are not on the NHS menu. The last time I took him out of nursery, this time for the flu vaccine, he asked me why we were going to the doctor, and I decided to give it to him in simple terms.

With Joshua these days, you never know how much information he will end up retaining. His memory seems very fluid: he can easily forget an event that happened only moments before, but will then come out with something that he was told only once, months ago.

I wasn’t sure if he had really been paying attention, but as he was sat on my knee in the GP surgery, the kindly nurse looming over him with a syringe, he spontaneously volunteered, “I’m getting pretend germs to teach my body how to fight the REAL germs.” The nurse was visibly astounded, then regrouped and told me how happy it made her to know that someone had bothered to explain it to him.

Currently, the nursery is being decimated by chicken pox – when I picked him up today, the room was nearly deserted.

“I’m not getting the pox,” Joshua said confidently to one of his teachers. “I’ve got pretend germs. Mama, what is chicken pox?”

So I told him about viruses, and promised to show him pictures on the phone when we got home. Together, we pored over images of virions in all of their strange and beautiful glory. He liked the science fiction monstrosity of T4 phage a lot better than varicella zoster, which he proclaimed to be a “boring spiky ball”. After I tucked him up in bed, he said, sleepily, “Mama, I know I have pretend germs, but how do they REALLY fight chicken pox?” I promised I’d draw him some pictures tomorrow – antibodies, perhaps, in simple terms, and how they act.

I have tried very hard not to hold back on any scientific explanations when my son says “why”, no matter how further down the molecular or atomic rabbit hole it takes us. He seems continually up for the challenge, soaking in facts like a sponge, and enjoys the simple experiments we have done together when it turns out the answer to “why” can be demonstrated in some way. Not for the first time, it strikes me that his is precisely the age when this sort of information is best assimilated, and I always wonder if I am doing enough.

I suspect this is my cue to plug my friend Alom Shaha’s new book, Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder: Adventures in Science Round the Kitchen Table. He is also giving a free talk at University College London next week called “How To be your child’s first science teacher” if you want to know more.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Students, Teaching | Comments Off on In which age is no impediment to scientific discourse

In which I get the blues (a tale of miracle surgery)

I have a good excuse for not writing for a while: eye surgery in the new year, which made reading or writing of any kind difficult. Only now am I starting to get back to my old literary self.

I have worn glasses since about age six. My myopia had grown progressively worse over the decades until I settled at about -11 diopter with an astigmatism of about 3.5. Standard laser surgery was out of bounds, as my deeply distorted corneas didn’t have enough width to sculpt away. Soft lenses became unworkable, and then toric lenses in their turn, leaving gas-permeable hard lenses the only contact option. Finding these increasingly uncomfortable, I eventually surrendered to specs.

In my forties, I started losing my near vision too. I remember the precise moment I realized this: I was riding the New York subway, got a bit lost and realized I was physically unable to read the network map in my hand. Thus began the era of carting around three different eyeglass cases in my handbag, and shoving my glasses up onto my head to read my iPhone with one eye a few millimeters from the screen.

To make matters worse, for the past few years no optician has been able to give me a spectacles prescription that made far vision even remotely sharp. I finally went to Moorfield’s Eye Hospital to find out why.

The answer: early-onset cataracts.

I wasn’t actually unhappy to hear this. It was good to have a diagnosis at last, especially one with such a safe and reliable surgical method of treatment. Before this, I’d even been toying with the idea of treating myself to more intensive surgery. So this seemed like a good excuse to jump in feet first.

As is traditional, I underwent treatment one eye at a time. For approximately a minute, the surgeon blasted the cornea of my right eye with an impressive piece of kit known as a femtosecond laser. This was primarily to allow surgical access, but the computer had been programmed to bestow a bonus partial reduction in astigmatism. (“You’re a tough case,” the surgeon told me cheerfully. “I spent an entire evening with your scans.”)

Next, as my veins were flooded with opiates and sedation by a breezy anesthetist who looked like a rock star, and “Comfortably Numb” blasted into the theatre (I still don’t know if this was a joke), my natural lens was sonicated to bits and sucked away, and a brand-new perfectly powered artificial lens was deployed, probably as specialist as one of the eyepieces on our fancy microscopes back in the lab. It was all over in 20 minutes, efficient and painless.

The world of our senses is a neuronal construct, a fudge factor the brain cobbles together to keep us alert and safe. It’s not something most of us probably think about very often, if at all, until we encounter a drastic change. As I was wheeled into recovery, the difference was stark. I couldn’t see much out of the right eye yet, but everything was suddenly pure and silvery blue, bathed in an ethereal full-moon glow. In contrast, my knackered old left lens showed a dingy-yellow world that I didn’t much like the look of.

Which one was real? I had no idea, and I still don’t. The ageing lens does increasingly facilitate the yellow wavelength, but is the newborn lens crystal clear? Does my son see the same white-hot light that my right eye was seeing now, or is it a super-human enhancement courtesy of a lens that is clearer than any biological material could ever achieve? I can’t think of any objective way to measure this, as my experience can’t be coherently compared with anyone else’s.

But more revelations awaited. My surgery was in the evening, and it wasn’t until the next day that I properly appreciated the difference. A large number of things were newly blue, an effect that intensified when my second lens was swapped. Black looked dark navy, and some shades of blue were now full-on purple – including, it seemed, half of my wardrobe. Sunsets and sunrises featured lush, jaw-droppingly beautiful shades of violet and lavender; flames contained an iridescent core of indigo that I’d never seen before and is impossible to describe now.

Having done some reading, I now know that I’m lucky. Some color changes are more drastic, and can be quite distressing to patients (and life-changing, if their profession relies on color distinction, such as interior decorators). And while the blue shift turns out to be common, it sometimes comes at the expense of other shades, washing out greenery into a dull grey for example, and draining existence of beauty.

More than a month on, I still wander around in a daze, half befuddled and frustrated by my poor far and close vision, and half admiring the world’s transformation. My acuity improves week on week but I have a long way to go. It can take six months for the brain to adjust to the new input, and I have a hefty residual burden of astigmatism which may be correctable with more lasering, or toric lenses if not. Meanwhile, the temporary difference in acuity between my two eyes has led to a new problem: double vision in the distance, especially when I’m tired or have been using reading glasses (which are still essential for most close-up tasks beyond reading). I now have a grand total of four eyeglass cases in my bag – two different powers of readers for very close work and screens, unpowered lenses with a rather obtrusive prism in one eye to correct the double vision when I can’t bear it any more, and sunglasses for those rare bright days when the white light becomes overwhelming.

Yes, I’m partially disabled now, worse than before for a few months: things like working from a cookbook or assembling something from instructions have become so troublesome that my brain keeps urging me to avoid them. But equally, I feel I’ve been blessed with an astonishing miracle. I can see, without glasses, for the first time in my conscious life.

A world without glasses – I never thought I’d see the day.

Posted in The ageing process | Comments Off on In which I get the blues (a tale of miracle surgery)

In which we look back at top 2017(ish) lab lit fiction

As the old year dribbles to a close under heavy grey skies and relentless rain here in southeast England, just a quick note to point you towards a recent interview of me on US National Public Radio, chatting to host Heather Goldstone about a few science-in-fiction novels that kept me busy over the past year. They’re all either out in 2017, or the paperback versions were.

Listen here!

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In which we wind down

I’ve been off work for a few days, but the incompatible clash of exhaustion and adrenalin which characterizes my life in academia has yet to ebb. These days it takes a full week to come down from the jaw-clenched crush of forward propulsion that sees me through a busy term.

It doesn’t help that a few outstanding work tasks smuggled themselves home with me: a paper revision; signing off some data on the industrial project; fielding a pursuing wave of emails that only today is starting to taper off.

Here at home, we are ready for Christmas. The final packages have been delivered, the larder is stocked, the tree and decorations are all up. The pipeline of paperwhite narcissus I’ve been forcing in the garage for the past few months are obediently flowering in sequence in the warmth of our living room. We’ve made a gingerbread house, have all the ingredients for the annual batch of Julpepparkakor, and have remembered to load up the next morning’s drawer of Joshua’s advent calendar house in advance, every single night. Richard has made his incredible sausage rolls, and is about to turn his hand to home-made mince pies.

I miss my Mom the most this time of year. It was she who taught me how to make the pepparkakor, and who always had bulbs flowering on time. I miss the proper Ohio winters, burrowing through several feet of snow, going numb on the sledding hill, ice-skating on lakes in the woods, the swirling filigree of jack frost on all of the window panes. Here in southeast England, after a few weeks of zero temps, we’ve reverted to the usual Christmas norm: moist and mild, the intense green of holly and ivy, muddy grass, fallow fields under weak sun.

Meanwhile, the precious time off is melting away far too quickly. Any day now, I hope to shake the residual end-of-year blues and inhabit the joys of Christmas in full.

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In which we’re in business: Cat Zero officially for sale!

Just a quick note to say that my upcoming third lab lit novel, Cat Zero, is now available for pre-order on Amazons near and far (UK and USA)!

Still with placeholder cover featuring the neighbour’s cat Sergei!

There should be a Kindle edition too.

Happy days!

PS. If you’re a blogger or journalist and want an advanced review copy, please drop me a line.

Note added 1 December 2017: The high UK Amazon paperback price appears to be a glitch. We expect to sort this out, and pre-orders will only be charged at the right eventual price. There will be a reasonably-priced Kindle option too in due course.

Posted in LabLit, Writing | 1 Comment

In which life slips past

Time is passing.

My baby son has somehow turned four years old, and a very significant birthday approaches in a month’s time for me as well.

Birthday Boy

The seasons are changing. We’ve stopped watering the withered tomato vines, seen the last of our courgettes swell, dug up the final potatoes, cut down the tall sunflower canes. We collect hops for beer, windfall apples to make cider. Filling up the house with enticing aromas, we prepare chutneys and jams from last year’s harvest to make room in the chest freezer for this year’s overspill.


In various beds, the carrots, chard, celery, beets, red cabbage and peppers still yield, and there’s always a fresh bouquet on the table: roses, dahlias, passion flower. Our Florence fennels never swelled, but waiting in the wings are parsnips, sweet potato and a promising crop of quince.



I retreat to my garden increasingly as academic stress builds, even as the daylight hours shrink. I have always loved this time of year – though I never truly remember how much until it’s happened. I’ve started wearing a coat and scarf against the chill as I scuffle home through fallen leaves on the way from the station. The central heating is finally in use, and we light candles to ward off the rainy darkness.

I’m secretly horrified by the horse-chestnut blight that looks set to erase conkers from the cultural landscape of England, and am saddened that my son might not remember the last time he held a burnished, healthy specimen in his chubby palm.


My newly enlarged lab is settling in, and I am enjoying the bemused feeling of activity happening when I’m not looking, initiative being taken, self-organization processes clicking into place. I get copied into emails requesting strains and reagents from far-flung labs; the ordering spreadsheet gets populated with interesting-looking reagents when I’m looking the other way; pub sessions occur.

Tequila shots may even have been downed after our lab brainstorm session.

A new crop of students has arrived, boisterous, alive, full of potential. The course has grown from a little more than thirty students in 2014 to nearly 90 this year, and it feels good to have been in on the process from the beginning, to have helped create something new and different from nothing. Every time an entire room full of young people laughs at one of my jokes, or treats me to a round of applause after my world-famous “Reconstruction of G-Protein-Coupled Receptor Signalling Using Chairs and a Handbag” routine, I feel like a million bucks.

Grant applications go out, manuscript decisions come in. Somehow, I hold it all together.

At the moment, I’m confident, happy and riding high, yet aware of the undercurrent of wistfulness that autumn always brings.

Time is passing.

Posted in Academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Teaching, The profession of science, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which life slips past

In which I present my third lab lit novel, Cat Zero – out soon!

Cat Zero cover art

Placeholder cover art…with thanks to Sergei, the neighbour’s photogenic feline

I’m pleased to announce the imminent publication of my third lab lit novel, Cat Zero, with Bitingduck Press, a science-friendly indie imprint out of Altadena, California.

I have always wanted to write a story starring feline leukemia virus (FeLV), the subject of my PhD research. As viruses go, it’s got great history. Cancer-causing viruses were first described in birds in 1911, but starting in the late 1960s, the cat retrovirus FeLV helped shed light on a number of genes important in mammals. Tumor after tumor revealed hybrid viruses that had physically stolen bits of cat DNA – and these DNAs (known as ‘oncogenes’) were derived from cat genes that play a crucial role in cell growth and division in animal hosts like ourselves.

The rest is history. But after we worked out what was going on in human cells, the viruses themselves fell into disfavor as cancer study models. FeLV had also been of interest as an AIDS model, since it frequently induces immunodeficiency in cats. But the 1986 discovery of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) – a virus much more related to HIV – sounded the death knell for poor FeLV. When I joined Julie Overbaugh’s lab in 1990, the body was already twitching. I managed to pinpoint yet another oncogene during the course of my research – Notch2 – but my papers about FeLV are among the last wave of those dealing with the virus as a model for human disease.

I thought it would be an intriguing challenge to set a novel around a laboratory studying FeLV in full awareness that it is a research backwater – and then to have that virus suddenly become incredibly relevant. I also wanted to explore a few other thorny issues: women in science, lab relationships, and uneasy collaborations to name a few. The result is part thriller, part romance, and 100% academic science geekiness. It probably has more hardcore science than either of my previous novels, molecular experiments being integral to solving the mystery. As always, I’m hoping that I achieved the right balance between detail and clarity while always keeping the science accurate.

Compared with my first two novels – written effortlessly while I was on the dole in Amsterdam – this latest tale was more of a struggle. Cat Zero began easily enough in Amsterdam, but then I moved back to the UK in 2003 and my life went a little crazy. Fast-forward to 2009: I finally got to a mental place when I could pick up the half-finished work and propel it over the finish line, but then the draft lay fallow for years more as my complicated life got even more so.

Exhibit B: gratuitous picture of one of the main Complications

One of the biggest, and most interesting, challenges to me as a writer in giving Cat Zero a final edit and polish was the massive changes that have taken place in molecular technologies in the past few decades. The plot relies on DNA sequencing to solve the mystery, and the tech in 2003 was a hell of a lot slower and more expensive. How could I update the methods without scuppering the timing of the plot? Answer: with a few tricks.

Other things had also changed. Certain key train routes radically altered; government entities dissolved and reformed under new names. The National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, home to one of my scenes, closed down a mere two months before my copy was due at the publishers. And instead of writing about Kent from afar as a true-blue Londoner, I now reside in this beautiful green county, and am tickled that my book actually became a prospective homage.

Despite the differences I had to grapple with, most items are thankfully timeless: the passionate drive to discover, the endemic sexism familiar to most female academics, the tensions that crop up in close-knit labs. And above all, the secret, ever-shifting and deceiving world of biology, where truth really is as strange as fiction.

I’ll end this post with a synopsis to whet your appetite. Pre-ordering information will be available soon!

Cats start dying mysteriously on the Isle of Sheppey – and their owners might be next. It’s up to one woman to work out what’s going wrong and how to stop it.

Scientist Artie Marshall is perpetually underfunded, relegated to a damp basement, and besieged on all sides by sexist colleagues. Added to that, she is immersed in a messy divorce. But she’s never been happier: she recently landed her own lab, based in an eclectic think-tank housed in the leafy suburbs of North London.

Artie spends her days studying an obscure cat virus that nobody else in the world seems to have heard of – or cares about. But her arcane little research problem suddenly becomes worryingly relevant as local cats start dropping dead overnight. Matters get worse when people start getting infected too.

Working with her right-hand man Mark, her vet friends and her street-smart technician, Artie races to get to the bottom of the ballooning epidemic. Unexpected assistance arrives in the form of two basement-dwelling mathematicians – a sociopathic recluse and his scary, otherworldly savant mentor. When their mathematical models suggest that the cat plague might actually be more sinister than it first appears, Artie gets drawn into a web of secrets and lies that threatens to blow apart her lab family, undermine her sanity – and endanger her own life.

Posted in LabLit, Nostalgia, Work/life balance, Writing | 11 Comments

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.

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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