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.

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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

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