Latest posts

Spayed

It’s been a funny old day. It started in a celebratory mood as my book finally got to be published in the UK. And also, in Dutch, in Holland. I have been basking in congratulatory messages, which has been lovely, and if you want to know what the fuss is all about, you may visit the book’s very own website, which is here.

But the day was also deviant in its routine as I had to get my faithful dog Lulu to the vet to be spayed.  This is an appointment of long standing, and calculated from the end of her last being in season. She is now back from having been spayed, surprisingly perky withal, and modelling a very smart babygro. But I’ll be nursing her this evening.

And it also happens to be Yom Kippur, a day in which publishing books and nursing spayed dogs should really be very far from one’s mind. Real life, eh?

Posted in Domesticrox | Leave a comment

‘Pure’ versus ‘Applied’ Science

When I started this blog, more than ten years ago, I imagined I would write about physics, and specifically about physics at the interface with biology. Perhaps, I thought, I would write about exciting papers I’d read; indeed, I asked a couple of other researchers in my field to join with me in doing this, to be met with little enthusiasm. In practice, things have turned out very differently. The science itself has not featured greatly here; I’ve largely written about the doing of it – who does it, how it should be done (and equally important, how it should not be done), and how it is funded; the political landscape for science; and the diversity angle. Interdisciplinary work – of the sort I was doing at the time – has certainly featured, particularly in the early days. So have its challenges, not least around funding, but not much about the science itself. I don’t regret that. I’ve had fun with writing this blog. I’m sure it has helped my writing skills (never too late) and I’ve enjoyed the interactions I’ve had, initially through posted comments although now much more usually over Twitter. But today I want to revert to something closer to my original concept, although still without detailed science.

I am prompted to write this by reading an editorial in the newsletter of the Institute of Physics’ Biological Physics Group written by my Cavendish Laboratory colleague, Pietro Cicuta, who is stepping down as Chair. I was instrumental in setting up this group nearly fifteen years ago, and I was its Chair for the first few years. As far as I can tell, this editorial is available to all, and not just IOP members, so I encourage you to read Pietro’s thoughtful views. He says

‘Today, many of us capably handle living systems within our physics departments, or in genuine cross-disciplinary environments, making entirely new research possible, for example integrating new tools and designing experiments that are as systematic as many other areas of condensed matter physics.’

In the early 2000’s, physics departments did not expect to have cell culture facilities, for instance, nor to teach material that might be called ‘biological physics’, although the field has various equivalent names (e.g. biophysics). Things have undoubtedly moved on; many departments are now well equipped with facilities for working with live organisms and with teaching relevant material.

However, I absolutely share Pietro’s concern

‘that despite the excitement of our field, the new teaching courses we developed, the fundamental progress that it is possible to achieve even with relatively small teams, the relevance to real challenges that matter to the public…. despite all this, we are still seen as one of the various sectors of “applied physics”. We have not impacted the “physics culture” very much: particle physics, astrophysics or cold atoms are not considered as physics applied to particles, stars or cold atoms… they somehow are still “the physics”.

Readers who are not physicists might wish to consider what the topics are that they immediately think physics covers, and it probably wouldn’t involve malaria (I wrote about Pietro’s work in this area in the Guardian, back in 2014 when that paper was committed to science blogs), or Covid (more on that shortly), or tumour evolution (to cite the work of another Cavendish colleague Sarah Bohndiek). On the contrary, their thoughts are more likely to turn to black holes and the Higgs’ Boson, or perhaps how to manipulate single atoms at ultracold temperatures. As Pietro says, the rest is, somewhat derogatorily, described as ‘applied’. Dirty stuff, that might be useful….not seen nevertheless as differently exciting and full of wonder.

Back in 2010, when this blog was still largely on the topic of biological physics, I asked ‘Where’s the Wow Factor?’ for this very reason: mainstream physicists think there can be no beauty or amazement in areas away from the sorts of topics I list above. Pietro’s editorial indicates how little things have changed in the last decade. Yet, physicists working in this area can contribute very substantially to our wellbeing, potentially to ‘healthy ageing’, as through work on cancer. If physics is being applied to cancer, why does that not attract a sense of amazement? It baffles me why our culture, and this includes the media in the way they report stories, see so-called applied physics as less worthy of interest than black holes. It isn’t that everyone believes ‘applied’ is bad in all disciplines, because they have made so much – rightly so – about the work of Sarah Gilbert’s team on vaccine development. ‘Pure’ (as that must be the opposite of applied, I suppose) work may have underpinned the development, but its current wow factor sits in enabling it to be applied to our real world, in moving us gratefully on from total lockdowns.

I mentioned physicists’ contribution to Covid. Here I will cite theoretical physicist Mike Cates (educated in the Cavendish, but now Lucasian Professor – the Chair formerly held by Stephen Hawking – in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics) who, early on in the pandemic, kickstarted an initiative known as RAMP (Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic) under the auspices of the Royal Society. This brought together, essentially via crowd-sourcing, over 1800 scientists who felt they had something to offer. Mike’s latest co-authored paper from this programme Efficient Bayesian inference of fully stochastic epidemiological models with applications to COVID-19 takes tools from other areas of physics to apply to this current problem, relying also on the late Dave Mackay’s (another professor at the Cavendish) work on inference. Why is all this work not seen as mainstream?

It seems to me right and proper that fields should evolve. We should remember that James Clerk Maxwell was fascinated by light and colour, but also how our eyes worked to perceive that colour (see, for instance, Basil Mahon’s biography The man who changed everything). In 1855 he presented a paper Experiments on Colour, as perceived by the Eye, with remarks on Colour-blindness to the Royal Society, and five years later he followed up with On the Theory of Colour Vision  to that same august institution. People back then were much more open-minded about what ‘physics’ might be. Certainly his work in this area, along with all his other notable achievements, did not stop him becoming the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge – when the Cavendish Laboratory was first opened – in 1871.

Somehow, in the intervening century and a half, scientific culture has become much more narrow-minded, putting us into boxes unless we fight hard. This is the problem for researchers attempting to break down disciplinary boundaries. The interface between physics and biology is one which has become much more blurred; for those of us working at that interface the work is fascinating, intriguing and infinitely worthwhile, and comes in many different flavours. But some of our colleagues seem stuck in a time-warp and, inevitably, that message may rub off on those they teach. I look forward to the world of physics in this country (other countries do rather better as far as I can tell) losing its hang-ups about pure versus applied, what is ‘proper’ physics, and what is not. I hope many members of the Institute of Physics read Pietro’s editorial and consider their positions.

 

 

Posted in Biological Physics, education, Interdisciplinary Science, James Clerk Maxwell, Mike Cates, Pietro Cicuta, Research | Leave a comment

Name-calling, Favourites and Bystanders

Name-calling of any kind is painful. My first experience of it that I recall, dates back to primary school when the other kids used to call me teacher’s pet. Probably deserved as an appellation, in so far as I undoubtedly applied myself more to my lessons than some of my more troublesome peers. Nevertheless, looking back I feel aggrieved that I was so castigated because of the teacher’s slightly creepy predilection for me, obvious even to my eight or nine year old brain. Indeed, that probably upset me as much as the name-calling. I had no time for the teacher, not least because he was so ignorant he classified bats as birds.

That was merely a mild form of childhood bullying, albeit one which certainly left me feeling isolated amongst my classmates. There are many worse ways in which bullying can occur; name-calling is just one of them. I wrote previously about Jane Willenbring, who was repeatedly referred to (amongst other things) as ‘slut’ by her then PhD supervisor David Marchant during a season of fieldwork in Antarctica. Although on the surface impervious to this – according to a fellow student present at the time – it ate into her, so that a decade later she finally filed a complaint leading to his dismissal from his faculty post at Boston University. But comments eating away inside are immensely damaging. The facile statement that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you, is just rubbish. Words can colour who you think you are and, if you are a researcher may mean you simply turn your back on research because the pain is too bad. Mentally, the labels that are applied in the insults can become part of your inner being.

Labels come in many forms. I don’t recall ever being called a slut, but I’ve had plenty of comments fired in my direction, derogatory and dismissive of me simply because I’m a woman.

“You only work on starch because, as a woman, domestic science is all you can do”

may have no explicit word of insult in it, but the message is still insulting to receive (this, after I had given a talk about several years’ worth of cutting edge physics research on starch).  PhD students who are repeatedly demeaned by peers or more senior members of their team or department are, in far too many cases, going to quit, whatever their intrinsic abilities may be. That is why I believe observing such behaviour – say, in a group meeting – and doing nothing makes that individual complicit. It is so much easier for the person who isn’t the one being bullied, or otherwise verbally attacked, to step in, than for the victim. Too often, if the latter attempts to speak up, they are accused of not being able to take a joke or, worse, the severity of the attacks increases. Such a ‘bystander’ intervention is much easier done when all that is under consideration is verbal abuse, not unwanted physical attention, but practice always makes perfect.

Catherine Sanderson has written a whole book, The Bystander Effect, about when people do and do not speak up against a bully or harasser (looking across many sectors and situations, although education is one she mentions). It provides both information on the psychological responses people experience when watching bad things unfold, and insight into how you can improve your toolkit to do something when things do go wrong in front of you. She certainly believes in the importance of practice; having ready phrases at hand makes it easier to intervene in the heat of the moment. It is always frustrating when, with the best of intentions, the moment slips by and your mind remains a blank and what you should have said only comes to you some minutes later when it’s far too late. But, as she reminds us, you can always go and give support to the victim later, even if you haven’t actually confronted the aggressor.

Bullying is well recognized, even if rarely well dealt with. It’s a problem in academia as in any workplace. But I also want to highlight a second kind of demeaning behaviour from the lead in any team, something I certainly was on the wrong end of during my first postdoc. That is, the case of a supervisor/Principal Investigator who has favourites. If you’re the blue-eyed boy or girl, you get all the attention. Any others in the group are all but ignored. This is the situation in which your work gets presented at a conference by someone else while you stay at home kicking your heels; your name does not appear where you feel it should in the list of authors on a paper; and you are not tapped on the shoulder to apply for a relevant postdoc the PI hears about, or some major fellowship scheme. This is insidious and can be quite hard to spot.

In my case, I really only worked out what had been happening much later. I am quite sure, in this specific case, a lot of the fault was down to the fact that, at the time, I was completely unmotivated. That is, however, a vicious circle. I was unmotivated not only because it was not a project that I felt any enthusiasm for, but also because, being ignored a lot of the time, there was nothing to stimulate me coming from my supervisor. I was not inspired to try harder, but just spiralled down. Luckily for me, my second postdoc was utterly different. Not everyone is so lucky.

By the time I was back in the UK with a Fellowship under my belt and grants to hand, I hired as a postdoc a student from that very same group I had worked in a few years before, with whom I’d overlapped. He regaled me with how he had been so fed up with Professor X because of the favouritism he had shown to another student, while he and others had been given very little attention, and how he’d seen that happen to me compared with another postdoc. That was a lightbulb moment for me, albeit the other postdoc had accomplished a great deal more than I had (and went on to join the faculty in the department and thence to have a very successful academic career in various US institutions).

The constant passing over of one student in favour of another is all too common, as is the unevenness with which academic benefits of any kind are handed out. I am not sure though whether it is always the case, as my freshly-hired postdoc opined in the case of our mutual professor, that this is because the supervisor only feels they can handle one student and one postdoc at a time, regardless of the size of their group. I think, too often it is simply that they respond more to one person than another, someone, perhaps who is the one that reminds them of the student they once were. In other words, they are swayed by affinity bias. Here gender and race are undoubtedly likely to play a role. All kinds of bias – against a woman doing physics, against a woman or black researcher in an otherwise all male/white research group and so on – can come into play. The upshot may be the kind of favouritism I am describing. Like name-calling and bullying, it can be immensely detrimental, but even harder to put a finger on let alone counter.

Academia, like any work-place, has a long way to go to be a truly fair and comfortable place to work. Each of us have our work to do, to support others being unreasonably treated and to make sure we are not ourselves guilty of these sins.

Posted in bullying, Equality, insult, intervention, Science Culture, Women in science | Leave a comment

Publishing incrementally – micropublications

Looking back and looking forward

I recently received a reminder that it was my 13th anniversary of joining Twitter. I signed up to Twitter as a result of attending the Science Blogging conference in London in 2008 where I heard how useful it could be. I’d heard about Twitter previously, but was not persuaded it would be useful to me.  Well, it has proved enormously useful over the years.

It was at that event I also first heard about Open Notebook Science – an idea that blew my mind.  It still feels pretty radical to consider sharing all your research results as they are generated, and not many researchers have followed this path. Maybe it’s still something for the future.

A report produced in 2019 by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI envisioned what the world of research will look like in 2029. They reviewed the literature and interviewed futurists, research funders, publishers, technology experts and researchers. The report makes interesting reading, with a number of possible scenarios outlined.

I don’t think it is any surprise that one of the conclusions about research outputs was that “the article structure is evolving and new forms will become the norm”.  But it’s instructive to note that many of their respondents expected that articles would become further atomized, breaking into standalone elements.

Science Matters

Ten years after I learnt about open notebooks, a publisher called Science Matters came to give a talk at my institute. Someone working for them had earlier been a postdoc with one of our researchers and he’d arranged for her to visit. Science Matters  at that time published two journals:

Instead of publishing stories, Matters and Matters Select publish single, validated observations, thus highlighting the fundamental unit of scientific progress – the observation.

After the talk I did discuss whether the institute should sign an agreement with Science Matters for unlimited publishing by our researcher. I decided against it. I couldn’t justify the upfront costs without clear evidence that this new publishing platform was something our researchers would be motivated to use. Also, the costs of publishing five single-observation micropublications seemed to work out higher than those of publishing one regular paper with five observations.

Sadly the Science Matters’ website has now disappeared from view and is only available on the Wayback Machine. Their Twitter account still exists but is silent.

Micropublications

Learning about Science Matters was my first introduction to what I now know to be micropublications. I’ve since seen other examples of micropublications – for instance Flashpub, Experimental Results (from Cambridge University Press) and microPublication Biology. These micropublication platforms are another approach to the early sharing of research results. They are less radical than open notebooks but still represent a bold move.  They will soon be joined by the new Octopus platform.

As I’ve explored the world of micropublications I have observed that the term ‘micropublishing’ seems to have a variety of meanings – see this Wikipedia entry – but I’m using the term ‘micropublication’ as it seems to be reasonably well understood.

A micropublication, also called a Single Figure Publication, is “a peer-reviewed report of findings from a single experiment”. You could say that micropublications are the ultimate in salami slicing – the least publishable unit of research.

Another term I’ve seen is ’nanopublication’ – basically a single statement such as “misexpression of DUX4-fl, even at extremely low level, can recapitulate the phenotype observed in FSHD patients in a vertebrate model” expressed in a formalised way.  For me this rather stretches the concept of what is a publication, but it seems to be a term used in the semantic web community.  A recent article by Fabio Giachelle, Dennis Dosso, Gianmaria Silvello provides a useful introduction to nanopublications in life sciences.

In theory

In a thorough exposition in 2014 Tim Clark, Paolo Ciccarese & Carole Goble laid out their ‘micropublications semantic metadata model’:

The micropublications model is adapted to the Web, and designed for (a) representing the key arguments and evidence in scientific articles, and (b) supporting the “layering” of annotations and various useful formalizations upon the full text paper.

The micropublication approach goes beyond statements and their provenance, proposing a richer model in order to account for a more complete and broadly useful view of scientific argument and evidence, beyond that of simple assertions, or assertions supported only by literature references.

This is a re-imagining of research outputs for the 21st century, designing them to build into a corpus of knowledge that is fully formalised and evidenced. It is quite a theoretical vision of a micropublication and I am not sure to what extent current micropublication platforms have been guided by this kind of theoretical approach.

In practice

A more pragmatic vision from Long Do and William Mobley in 2015 describes the Single Figure Publication (SFP) as a more manageable method to inform research. They define an SFP as:

consisting of a figure, the legend, the Material and Methods section, and an optional Results/Discussion section, reduc[ing] the unit of publication to a more tractable size. Importantly, it results in a markedly decreased time from data generation to publication. As such, SFPs represent a new means by which to communicate scientific research.

They also look towards a more structured corpus of scientific literature:

It will serve as a forerunner of the nanopublication, a modular unit of information critical for machine-driven data aggregation and knowledge integration.

Adoption

What will it take to see a large-scale adoption of single-figure publishing? Will researchers see micropublications as a quicker and more manageable way to keep informed about new results?  Or will they see them as a new fad in publishing that only ‘publishing types’ are talking about?

Richard Sever (co-founder of bioRxiv) at a recent meeting suggested that the latter was the case and said that he saw no evidence of strong interest from researchers in publishing single-figure publications.  Indeed many researchers are not aware of what exactly SFPs or micropublications are.

On the other hand, if ten years ago you had asked a typical biomedical researcher what they thought about preprints then I suspect you would have received a pretty blank (at best) or negative (at worst) response.

Perhaps SFPs will be mainstream ten years from now, whether on new publishing platforms or in existing journals.

Open Research London – 29 September 2021

If you want to learn more about micropublications, then you can register for a virtual event organised by Open Research London on Wed 29 Sept 2021, 3pm – 4.30pm (BST).

Titled “Micropublications: publishing science results piece by piece”, it will be chaired by Michael Markle, publishing director of F1000Research, with the following speakers:

  • Kaveh Bazargan, Director, River Valley Technologies
  • Paul Sternberg, Professor of Biology, Caltech; Editor-in-chief, microPublication Biology
  • Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge; creator of Octopus.
  • Nate Jacobs, Chief Executive Officer, flashPub Inc.
  • Michael Nevels, Reader in Virology, University of St Andrews; Chief editor, Life sciences, Experimental Results

Register via this Eventbrite page.

Posted in Journal publishing, micropublications, Open Research London, Open Science, Scientific literature | Leave a comment

Getting Universities’ People and Culture Right

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed there has been nothing to read for some time, regularly or irregularly. As for so many of us, this has been a tough year culminating, for me, in a chest infection (non-Covid) that knocked me back for weeks. I haven’t felt so ill and weak since I had ‘flu in 1990! Hence, I have lacked all energy to do anything on top of the bare essentials. A blogpost was well beyond me, even walking off the College site defeated me for quite a while. It is no doubt wholesome to be reminded of one’s fragility, particularly in the middle (or perhaps towards the end?) of a pandemic, but it is depressing to realise how much one’s physical and mental state can go into precipitate decline without warning. I am looking forward to my ‘get up and go’ being back in full strength soon.

Burnout is, of course, to be seen across academia. Our lives have been upended as we have been caught between government requirements to protect staff and students and the imperative to teach and otherwise support the student body and staff. I have not had to teach during this period, but the number of additional meetings (Zoom, naturally, occasionally broken up by Teams or even Googlemeet) required to ensure we complied with everything demanded for an establishment such as a Cambridge College, has been astonishing. I am looking forward, perhaps too optimistically, to my diary reverting to something less horrendous as we learn to live a new normal existence, whatever that may look like.

Around the time I got completely knocked off my feet this summer, BEIS published its R+D People and Culture Strategy, long trailed by Science Minister Amanda Solloway, with its sub-title ‘People at the Heart of R+D’, so here is the blogpost about this that should have been written weeks ago. How could I not be in favour of such a document? Putting people at the heart of the R+D enterprise is exactly how it should be. But…..full of laudable sentiments though the strategy is, it appears to lack any clear indication of the path from where we are now to where BEIS aspirations would take us.

It has always been heartening to hear the minister talk so passionately about the importance of people and their well-being, with her own first-hand experience of bullying in the workplace (not in the university sector) to spur her on to find ways to improve the situation. Likewise, over many years I have heard – indeed more than once shared a platform on this topic with – Ottoline Leyser talk about the importance of improving our lab culture, to eradicate the bullying and ensure all members of a research team are treated fairly and the breadth of their work respected beyond mere numbers of grants or papers. Nevertheless, fine words butter no parsnips, as my mother was prone to say.

The concluding statement about the whole document, headed ‘Making it a reality’ says ‘We invite and encourage institutions, businesses and the people who work in them and the wide range of other partners in the sector to work with us to drive change, making a difference in their own sphere of influence and thereby contributing to change across the sector.’ Such a statement would appear to lack any teeth, although one cannot argue with the intent. However, what is likely to change on the back of it? Universities should be already striving in this direction – as schemes such as Athena Swan (however unsatisfactorily revamped) and the Race Equality Chartermark highlight. These are schemes, note, that have been demoted by Solloway’s and her pair Michelle Donelan’s (Universities’ Minister) own actions, so that they cannot be linked directly to funding. So what we see is an overall plan of action that hopes for wide buy-in without any explicit mechanisms or levers attached. In this context, it is perhaps worth pointing the reader to a recent paper by Alison Phipps and Liz McDonnell in which they talk about ‘institutional polishing’ and ‘airbrushing’ as ways to look as if ED+I issues are being addressed in a university without any structural change ensuing. It is a depressing read that should give all of us wanting to work in this space pause for thought.

I would highlight two particular aspects of the BEIS paper that are admirable and need addressing, but where I can see nothing spelled out that is likely to lead immediately to change and improvement: the issues facing early career researchers (ECRs) and bullying and abuse of power in hierarchies within universities.  A consultation process with ECRs is envisaged, yet their problems are well-known already and I wonder what more will be gained from such a consultation. Many of the problems relate to the lack of permanent positions, meaning that the majority of postdocs end up not in the tenured ranks of faculty. Unless some dramatic reconstruction and expansion at the top of the academic pyramid is envisaged, or a radical decrease in the number of funded PhD students and postdocs to reduce the supply, it isn’t clear what solutions there are to this conundrum. (Neither, of course, are envisaged in the strategy document. Neither are likely to be popular.)

Sometimes people talk as if the answer was to create a new tier of permanent positions, lab managers or senior researchers with responsibility for key equipment, for instance. For those who got such a position it would be a satisfactory outcome, and there are many good reasons why research overall would benefit from their creation, instead of the hand-to-mouth, or rather grant-to-grant, uncertainty PIs face with keeping their research going on a steady basis. Nevertheless, looking back to the lecturer jobs bonanza of the 1960s, when a new swathe of universities was created, and how that led to stagnation in the job market for decades thereafter as those appointed at the time sat tight for years and practically no further jobs opened up, it is clear that such a ‘once in a lifetime’ job creation scheme would not provide a lasting solution for future generations of ECRs.

To my mind part of the needed solution is a much more honest dialogue about the nature of the pyramid, so that those embarking on a PhD have realistic expectations of what is likely to come next. The Royal Society (through a piece of work I was involved with) tried to set out such expectations and responsibilities on the sector some time ago. I’m not sure it got much traction, but it holds true. Students should be aware that, for most of them, moving swiftly, or even slowly, up the ranks to professor is an unlikely outcome, but that there are many other enticing opportunities for which their research training will stand them in very good stead. Their PhD supervisor is probably not the best person to inform them about these, given that the vast majority will only have worked in a university themselves; I would myself fit into that category. There are of course careers services available to researchers, which they should avail themselves of early on. Nothing of this gets a mention in the recent document, unless it is the idea – a good one – of facilitating porosity between academia and other sectors including industry.

The other issue, of bullying and harassment, is something I have often written about on this blog and elsewhere (e.g. see a rather personal account on this). We can – and should – all deplore this, but what does this latest document suggest should be done about it? As a colleague rather unkindly said, it is sadly vacuous. There are no teeth or levers provided, just that the sector should work together to stamp it out. That, one could argue, is how it has been for decades and that much-desired eradication shows no signs of happening. Again, to quote the document, we are told BEIS will ‘encourage the recently established Forum for Tackling Bullying and Harassment to develop sector-wide definitions for all forms of bullying; and to establish clear guidelines to inform future policy and action.’ I don’t need a definition to know when bad behaviour is going on; on the other hand perhaps some people want to hide behind formalities rather than tackle the issues; I refer the reader again to the Phipps and McDonnell paper illustrating just this point.

Sexual harassment should already be covered by clear guidelines in place in every institution. The trouble is more usually the inability to create an environment in which people feel safe bringing forward allegations, with confidence they will be appropriately treated. For every Fred Marcy convicted of such outrageous behaviour (and eventually kicked out of the National Academy of Sciences) there will be plenty of others who either are permitted to slip beneath the radar because no one feels willing to speak up for entirely understandable reasons, or whose behaviour is nevertheless tolerated because the leadership does not want to see a major player be disgraced. This is the reason why Non-Disclosure Agreements are so pernicious (as argued here by Mark Geoghegan), since a complainant can be paid off without disgrace being attached to the perpetrator, who then feels able to continue their appalling behaviour without restraint.

Bullying is perhaps harder to identify with confidence, since what a PI feels is legitimate language addressed to a researcher about ‘pulling up socks’ or working harder may feel to the recipient like unreasonable pressure. However, I am not convinced definitions will help get round this, as much as appropriate dialogue between the parties. There are times when pulling up socks really is the only way a PhD will be accomplished, after all! But this is where I believe sector-wide reconsideration of incentives is important.

The pressure an organisation puts on all its staff – multiplied during the current pandemic – can be excessive and that pressure can be onward transmitted to researchers in the spirit of the office boy kicking the cat. If all that matters for progression is the value of grants, the impact factor of journals published in (and it is surprising how many DORA-signatory organisations at the highest level still permit panels to factor IF’s in decision-making, even if it’s not written down as an explicit criterion) or size of group, then there is no incentive for a PI actually to worry about their students’ wellbeing. Narrative CVs, which UKRI are introducing, may allow panels – appointment or promotion – to assess whether an applicant has worked towards ED+I initiatives or shown particular interest in mentoring ECRs, but if no value is actually attached by the institution to such actions, such assessment may carry no weight. Expectations should have been set higher in this space in the People and Culture document, even if mandating all institutions should always pay heed to such factors might have been a bridge too far.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the very fact that BEIS has mentioned such thorny issues at all is a hopeful sign our institutions will change. But I, for one, will not be holding my breath that any change will be consequent on its publication, much though I’d like to be proved wrong.

Posted in Amanda Solloway, BEIS, bullying, ECRs, Equality, Science Culture | Leave a comment

Failure

I’ve seen a lot of eructations on social media lately consoling those who might not have achieved the grades they wanted in order to go to their preferred job or institute of higher learning. Therefore I thought I should contribute to the now-customary general outpouring and effusion of platitudes by people saying that there are more things in life than exams, that things happen for a reason, and so on, and so forth, notwithstanding inasmuch as which I invite you to consider, therefore, my so-far stellar career…

— I failed my Eleven-Plus.

— I failed my Common Entrance for public school. I did however make the subs’ bench and was asked for an interview. I took my fossil collection to show the headmaster and didn’t let him get a word in edgeways. I got in.

— I failed A-level maths. That is, I got an ‘E’, which wasn’t good enough. I had to re-take a year. In the end I got a ‘C’, which was honestly the best I could manage, and enough (just) to get into University.

— I failed my entrance exam to be an undergraduate at Cambridge. ‘Don’t worry’, my Mum said, ‘you’ll get there as a graduate student’. Which I did. I did my undergraduate degree at Leeds, which I loved, and was much more fun than Cambridge would have been. I got a 1st and went to Cambridge to do a PhD.

I failed my PhD viva. They offered me an MSc as a consolation prize. No, I said, I’d rewrite my thesis. Which I did. I got my PhD.

— While I was writing up (the second time) I was invited to join the staff of the Submerged Log Company. That was more than 33 years ago. So despite the three six five failures listed,  I haven’t done too badly. For more advice on the sometimes circuitous route one can take to career success, I refer you to this recent eructation from my colleague Professor Rohn.

Posted in Career advice, failure, Leeds, Research, Science Is Vital, University of Cambridge | Leave a comment

Introducing Golgi, the Labrador Retriever

Golgi

Golgi waiting for a tennis ball throw. For now, we are forced to keep her in “the Golgi Compartment” (a bedroom) when we leave the home, so she will not destroy it!

I as reported not long ago, we recently had to say a difficult goodbye to our 12-year old rescue dog, Ginger, who was (even by the standard of those outside our family) an exceptional dog in her friendliness and great nature. While the grieving process will go on for the rest of my life, it did not take me long to realize that I was in need of new canine companionship.

. Untitled

Our grieving process include putting together a book to commemorate Ginger’s life with us. It’s a great reminder of what a wonderful time we had with her.

Coming home from work without being excitedly greeted (no matter how many grants or papers were rejected), not having a partner for hide-and-seek and throwing a tennis ball, I knew that at some point I would look to adopt another rescue dog, to rescue me. What I didn’t realize was how quickly this would happen. Or how much energy a younger dog has!

I spent time looking online at nearby humane societies and rescue shelters, in Omaha and Lincoln Nebraska, nearby Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, seeking a relatively young Labrador Retriever-like dog (preferably female, because akin to the human species, females are generally less aggressive and better natured…), but not a puppy. About 3 weeks ago, a cute ~1-year old female Labrador Retriever showed up on the website for the Sioux City, Iowa Humane Society, about 90 miles away. It was a Saturday evening, and knowing that many dogs are quickly adopted (especially nice-looking ones), my son and I drove out to be first to see her at opening on 12 pm Sunday the next day. I didn’t even wait for my wife to return from out-of-town (but did have her approval if we liked the dog). Within an hour we were driving back to Omaha with our new family member, renamed “Golgi” (what do you expect from a cell biologist?! Endoplasmic Reticulum just doesn’t have the same ring!).

Golgi is a sweet and affectionate dog, with boundless energy. I perhaps underestimated the  lack of maturity of a 1-year old dog, thinking that she would be less puppy-like, and a little calmer. But hopefully with consistent training and lots of exercise, she will calm down and we will get back into a routine (one that doesn’t necessarily include 5 am wake-up on weekends!). On the positive side, I am certainly not lonely, with a shadow by my side everywhere I go, from the shower to the kitchen to the garden. In addition, while there are many reports detailing how dogs increase the quality and length of human lives, anecdotally I can easily see how they induce one to walk and exercise more. Indeed, this graph of my “steps” from before and after adoption on Aug. 2 clearly demonstrates a trend. Untitled

Any guess as to when we adopted Golgi?! Almost like the graphs in papers with pre- and post-treatments…

But leaving aside such health considerations, despite the huge effort and amount of work in training Golgi, I feel happier with a new canine companion in my life again.

 

Posted in dogs, Golgi, Labrador Retriever | Leave a comment

August

August is a funny month. The nights start to draw in rather quickly as summer draws to a close with what seems like unseemly haste. Keen, fitful gusts of autumn are followed by a rumble of thunder.

I am in the garden, pulling up the last of the carrots (yummy) and the garlic (will weave into a plait and hang up somewhere); harvesting courgettes that have grown as large as zeppelins under what seems to be a jungle of tropical leaves; and seeing if we have any tomatoes yet (everything this year is late, late. late). I’m digging over the plot and will be sowing spinach and kale for overwintering; pricking out tiny baby leeks; and trying again with lettuces (a failure this year – usually we are awash with them).

When the sun shines it’s brassy and hot but somehow melancholic, as if it’s having its last hurrah. There is a kind of torpor.

And some people do not seem to have enough to do.

Twice, in as many days, I have received somewhat impatient emails from friends (two different ones), complaining why a third person (again, different in each case), with whom I am acquainted but over whose actions I have no responsibility, hasn’t responded promptly to some inquiry or other. One of these was actually complaining to said third person about the inaction of a fourth person of whose existence I had not previously heard.

I respond that, in August, that fag-end of blowsy summer, one must be patient. People are probably taking a well-deserved vacation. Or they might be beset with travails of which one knows nothing. Oh, yes, and COVID, that contagion/ government plot/ excuse for inaction (delete as applicable) which, whatever else one might say about its origins and career, seems to make everything take three times as long as it usually does, and that’s quite long enough.

In any case, what do people expect me to do about it? I have not the judgment of Solomon, nor, thankfully, the responsibility, and although I may Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk, reports of my omnipotence are greatly exaggerated.

Sometimes it feels as if the whole world wants a piece of me. But, really, I’m just as lost as everyone else.

Posted in August, Gardening, responsibility, Solomon, summers lease hath all too short a date | Comments Off on August

In which academic dreams come true: a belated professorship

Lab scene

I have wanted to be a scientist since before I can remember.

I did all the right things: I studied hard, finished my homework, raised my hand in class, failed to hide the fact that I loved learning, even though the other children teased me for it – and worse. (Those Hollywood movies about the cruelty of the American school system? It’s all true.) I didn’t care. I was going to become a scientist one day, even though no one in my family had ever earned a PhD, and even though I had never met any scientists, let alone a female one. I’d only encountered them on the page, in the novels I devoured, teetering-library-stackfuls at a time. These characters were heroic and colorful, leading the sort of exciting lives that seemed so far away from suburban existence in small-town Ohio.

I was going to be a scientist one day, even though I constantly received pushback: the well-meaning high school guidance counsellor who suggested that nursing might be more “appropriate”. The male senior researcher in a summer lab internship at the National Institutes of Health who sneered that women made terrible scientists, and convinced the boss to redirect me from experiments to photocopying journal articles for him. Years later as a postdoc, the lab heads who told me I wasn’t cut out for academia because I had outside interests in writing, public engagement and activism. I’m sure they thought they were being kind, doing me a favor. Tough love.

Every time I hit setbacks, or I was told I couldn’t do it, I tried harder. At university, when I couldn’t get a lab job, I got a part-time position scrubbing shit from mouse cages, just so I could wear a white coat and be closer to action. In senior year when I didn’t get into any of the biomedical research labs for my Honors project, I persuaded a new group leader to let me work on plant genetics. Even that NIH internship didn’t happen straightaway; the summer before I’d papered my CV all over the Bethesda campus, but the only job offer I received was in the Health and Safety department. I took it anyway (and had a blast, teaching myself C from Kernighan and Ritchie and doing all sorts of bizarre odd jobs with my newfound programming skills).

The very worst set-back of all was after such a promising start – a PhD from the University of Washington, a postdoc in a prestigious London lab and a group leader position in biotech – it all unravelled in just a few months. The biotech bubble burst, I was made redundant and was on the dole in Amsterdam. The few interview offers I did receive dried up after my unemployment was official, and I was forced to go into scientific publishing to put food on the table. I don’t regret this now, as I learned a tremendous amount during those times. I wrote novels, I started a freelance writing career that continues to this day, I helped launch new journals, I found out what I was made of. But at the time it was devastating, and for several years afterwards I suffered from depression and a complete lack of self-confidence. Being a scientist had become my identity; now that had been stripped away, what was left?

Of course you all know how the story ends. I made it back into academia eventually, even though it took years to find my true calling. Re-starting a scientific career with no prior line of research to build on, in a new discipline where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you, is a very lonely business. For me, the worst was the sensation of having been left behind. First it was seeing postdocs with whom I’d shared a lab become professors. Then it was PhD students I’d supervised. I knew I was swirling in the dust when the PhD student of a PhD student I’d supervised became a professor too. When I ran into such former colleagues at conferences, I always felt awkward and embarrassed, even though I was sure they weren’t aware of how lowly I felt, and wouldn’t have dreamt of judging me. To them, I was that interesting person who’d published novels and organized a memorable political demonstration. But inside, I was the failed scientist who didn’t even have a permanent position, who was surfing, hard and desperate, on a wave of rolling short-term contracts, who was kidding herself, who wasn’t doing justice to the second chance she’d been given. I even allowed myself to be bullied on several occasions because deep down, I thought I deserved it.

Fast forward to today, a full fifteen years after re-starting my academic career. It is only now that I finally feel like I belong, and deserve, to be running a lab. I lead with a light but steady hand, confident in my choices; I have a clear scientific vision; I am respected in my new field. I play a pivotal role in the university. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – a shocking and protracted incidence of collegial abuse a few years ago nearly threw me back into that roiling surf. But I got through it, and kept my head above water, and now I know that such terrible things happen all the time, but the trick is not to let those incidents define you or undermine your confidence or sense of self. The perpetrators are to be pitied, not feared or hated, and one day they will undoubtedly reap what they sow. Meanwhile, it strengthens my resolve to never be the sort of person who seeks to advance themselves by treading on others; to break the cycle of abuse by refusing to be bitter or changed; to encourage my trainees to shine brightly, to become their best possible selves.

Earlier this month, I found out that my promotion bid had been successful, and that from October I will officially be known as Professor Rohn. After all the heartache, obstruction and deviation, it seems almost unbelievable. I think this is why it took me so long to process the information enough to write about it. Somewhere inside me, a young girl is still rinsing rodent poo from hundreds of cages; as she walks the corridors on her way out, tired and back-sore, she is peering into the brightly lit labs to the left and right and wondering what it would feel like to belong to one of them. But the long-dreamt of moment has finally arrived. I survived. I made it.

The other day, on a whim, I looked up the sneering senior scientist online and found that he’d vanished without a trace from PubMed within ten years of our encounter.

Yet I am still here. In fact, I’m only just getting started.

Posted in academia, careers, Nostalgia, Research, staring into the abyss, The ageing process, The profession of science, Women in science | Comments Off on In which academic dreams come true: a belated professorship

Ultramarine

One or two of you might have read By The Sea, my Gothick Bodice Ripper with Detectives, which was originally serialized by my Occam’s Typewriter Compadre Jenny Rohn on her LabLit website, but now published in book form and available on all good e-book platforms, and even as a paperback. One of the readers was my friend Mr J. W.-V., a fellow Norfolk resident, musician and newsroom journalist. Continue reading

Posted in adapted screenplay, by the sea, Jenny Rohn, Lablit, tolkien, Writing & Reading | Comments Off on Ultramarine

Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research

9781032065953

I am very excited to finally have my most recent book, “Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research” in press and now available for preorder. 

For a very long time I have been concerned that there is decreasing appreciation (and hence investment) for very basic, curiosity-driven research, with many political leaders and the public (and even Continue reading

Posted in basic research, book, CRC, curiosity-driven research, disease-related research, education, Francis & Taylor, great discoveries, History of Science, Research, Routledge, science, Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research, translational science | Comments Off on Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research

Nautilus

I really can’t believe it.

I’ve been writing books for thirty years, but have never seen the anticipation that’s buzzing around my fifthforthcoming tome, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth.

When a book of mine is published, it’s usual for me to receive translation offers in one or two languages, but only after it’s been out for some time. This time, it’s ra Continue reading

Posted in a very short history of life on earth, David Attenborough, flabbey road, Korg Nautilus, Life on Earth, Music, Picador, St Martins Press, Writing & Reading | Comments Off on Nautilus

In which summers shrink

Academics talk nostalgically about rosy-tinted times of yore when summers meant a lull in lecturing duties.

The months would unfold before you, a vast landscape of research possibilities. It was a time to write papers, craft grants, catch up with the technical literature, come up with new hypotheses, spend more time chatting with your team. It was a time to dream big, and then work out how to m Continue reading

Posted in academia, careers, Nostalgia, Research, students, Teaching, The ageing process, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which summers shrink

Picture a Scientist – Who Do You See?

I am often asked who inspired me. I feel embarrassed to admit the answer is no one, it seems like the wrong answer. Certainly there was no female scientist who triggered my love of science at an early age; I was far more inspired by my reading matter. In this category I would single out The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon, I’ve written about the significance of this book at length bef Continue reading

Posted in discrimination, Equality, harassment, Jane Willenbring, MIT, Nancy Hopkins, Raychelle Burks, Women in science | Comments Off on Picture a Scientist – Who Do You See?

The Imperative of Skills

Whereas academic scientists too often only think in terms of producing the next generation of academic scientists like them, the reality is many would-be PIs would be lost without the technicians who keep the equipment running, train newcomers and generally make sure the lab is in a fit condition for work. They aren’t always visible, but they are crucial in many areas. Last week an article appeare Continue reading

Posted in BEIS, careers, Chatteris, education, Further Education, technicians, training | Comments Off on The Imperative of Skills