The life scientific – Rediscovery

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Once again I find myself lamenting my lack of blog writing. It’s getting worse and worse. This time around it’s been a whole year since my last post! So much can happen in a year. Mine has been crammed so full that during my scant downtime I’ve barely had the energy to crawl off the sofa, let alone think cohesively enough to write.

For me, this has been a year of challenges. Somewhat surprisingly I have found myself once again living in South-West London. I never thought that I would even visit my old haunts, let alone take up permanent residency there, and yet here I am, walking the same streets and visiting the same friends. It hasn’t been the easiest of transitions and I still miss the bizarre landscapes and wonderful woods of Somerset, but at least I’m now close enough to visit on a somewhat regular basis. I wouldn’t miss the woods in springtime for anything.

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Even more surprisingly, I’ve found myself back in the world of science, only this time I’m working for one of the largest and best-known scientific publishers in the world. After working as an editor for a year, I still find myself wondering exactly how I managed to get the job. I’m pretty sure they must have been desperate …

Again, it has been a challenging transition. Just three years away from the lab has left me with some enormous gaps in my knowledge, and I’m forever impressed with just how quickly things can move on in medical research. There has been so much to learn in a short space of time, not just scientifically, but grammatically too. It’s a sad fact that those of us educated in the UK in the nineties and noughties were not taught grammar in any sort of structured way in school. Rather, we were encouraged to just go with what felt right. This had always worked well for me; that is until I started getting feedback on my work that included terms like ‘clause’ and ‘imperative’. It was at this point that I realised that, embarrassingly, the non-native English speakers in the department knew more about English grammar than most of the native speakers.

Dodgy grammar aside, this job has given me a new perspective on science and scientists and has taught me some interesting things.

Fun fact number one: conferences are more fun when you’re a PhD student. They’re much harder work when you have to live tweet from sessions, talk to strangers and spend every spare moment meeting with Professors, most of whom are old enough to be your parent, if not your grandparent.

Fact number two: even senior scientists with impressive publication records can turn in some shockingly bad pieces of writing. I guess that’s why editors exist. We’re there to bridge the gap between science and society by helping scientists to share the knowledge they have in ways that other people can understand.

Number three: it’s amazing how rapidly approaching deadlines can make the impossible possible. Suddenly, that edit that would normally take you two weeks can be done in three days.

Number four: looking young is not an asset in the world of science. This is definitely a profession in which a few grey hairs can work wonders if you want to be taken seriously.

And lastly, fun fact number five: you can never really leave the world of science behind. Once you’ve started along the path of scientific research, it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, a desire to know things will follow you for the rest of your life. Whether you are discovering something for the first time, or rediscovering something you once knew and loved, the pursuit of knowledge will always be there.

So, despite the challenges and difficulties of the past twelve months, I’ve come to realise that, surprisingly, I’m happy to be rediscovering London, happy to be rediscovering science and happy to be rediscovering the joy of writing something for myself (rather than news items for work).

 

The life scientific – Role models

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Upon hearing the sad news of the death of legendary mathematician, John Nash, and his wife, Alicia, I was struck with an immediate desire to dig out ‘A Beautiful Mind’ from our stack of DVDs.  It seemed like a fitting tribute and celebration of the life of one of the greatest mathematical intellects of our time.  Settling down to start watching, I realised what an amazing thing it is to have a record of his life and works set down as a film, and an award-winning one at that.  It made me wonder if, without it, I would even know who he was?

One of the big struggles that I face in this world of instant celebrity and social media, is the fact that those we seem to celebrate the most are those that seem to have done the least that is worthy of praise.  Why is it that we admire the rich and famous, and what is it that they have actually done to become so in the first place?  Don’t get me wrong, sports stars and actors often have talent in spades, and some make excellent role models, but unfortunately, the majority of those thrust into the public eye are sadly lacking.  Where are the scientists and doctors, lawyers and philosophers, humanitarians and peace-keepers?  Why are there so few people of integrity and character in the limelight?

I know that fame is not for everyone, and that I would hate to be hounded by media if it were me, but I feel like we should at least make an effort to find role models that are worth following.

ten-Boom_CorriePeople like Corrie Ten Boom, who helped to hide hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and who later was able to meet and publicly forgive one of the guards that held her in a concentration camp.

Or Professor Molly Stevens of Imperial College, who managed to mix together the fields of biochemistry and engineering to pioneer ways of growing human bone to use for transplants.

amal-alamuddinOr Amal Clooney, who’s actor husband gets all of the attention, but who is a lawyer and activist, working in a field she is clearly gifted in, to bring about change in cases of human rights abuses and genocide.

It makes me wonder what the world would look like if those that did the most for mankind were the ones that we looked up to.  What would this world be like if kindness was rated higher than wealth, and serving the poor was given more prestige than a PhD?  I think it would be a world that I would like to live in.  I would certainly have more hope for it than I do for the current  generation.  We have allowed it to be raised on a diet of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, and will end up reaping the fruits of that decision.

The life scientific – Doctor, Doctor …

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… yes?  Er no, sorry can’t help with that … I’m not that kind of Doctor.

I now live in the full expectation of having to use that phrase frequently for the rest of my life.  As of 16:30 on Tuesday 3rd December, I am officially allowed to call myself Doctor.  Woop!!!!!  4 years of work were not in vain!!!!!  We cut it quite close to the wire to actually get my viva organised due to a few issues with some official forms, and I must admit I was starting to think that I was going to end up leaving without getting my degree, so to have it all done is such a relief.

The viva itselViva (2)f was nowhere near as scary as I expected.  I don’t know if I just had nice examiners, but I actually enjoyed my viva!  It was nice to be able to discuss my work with people who understood it and took an interest.  You spend so much time during a lab-based PhD feeling like you’re making things up as you go along and riding on the crest of imminent disaster, that your view of your own work becomes skewed.  It’s good to hear that you’re doing well from people that are objective experts.  It gives you some well-needed perspective.  It’s also nice to see people’s reactions when you tell them.  When practically everyone you work with has a doctorate, you lose a sense of their value, so it’s nice to be reminded of that by people that love you (thanks for the flowers Mum & Dad).

The last few months have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster at work, with what seems to be everyone I’m friends with either having their PhD viva or leaving, or both.  This has provided many occasions for celebrating, which in my book always includes cake.  I have a funny feeling I’m probably going to end up making the cakes for my own leaving do to make sure that there’s enough to really count as a party.  That’s a little bit sad isn’t it?  Anyway, it’s been a great time for me to try new recipes like chocolate & coconut eclairs, which taste like Bounty bars, and white chocolate & lemon cupcakes.  These went down particularly well at my friend Lolly’s viva celebration, so I thought I’d share the recipe with you.

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Lolly’s Vanilla, Lemon & White Chocolate Cupcakes

Vanilla cupcakes filled with homemade lemon curd and topped with fluffy white chocolate buttercream

For the Cupcakes

80g unsalted butter

280g caster sugar

240g plain flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

pinch of salt

240ml whole milk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon lemon oil

For the Lemon Curd

1 large unwaxed lemon

75g caster sugar

2 large eggs

50g unsalted butter

For the Frosting

225g unsalted butter

175g good quality white chocolate

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Large pinch of salt

375g icing sugar

To make the Lemon Curd

  1. Grate the rind of the lemon and place with the sugar in a heatproof bowl.
  2. Whisk together the eggs and the juice of the lemon, then pour over the sugar.
  3. Add the butter cut into small pieces and place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water.
  4. Stir frequently until thickened (approx. 20 minutes), then allow to cool.

To make the Cupcakes

  1. Slowly beat together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  2. Whisk together the milk, eggs, vanilla extract and lemon oil in a jug.
  3. Using a mixer on low speed, add 3/4 of the milk mixture to the dry ingredients.
  4. Scrape down the sides of the bowl well and mix in the remaining milk mixture.
  5. Once incorporated, beat on a medium speed until smooth.
  6. 2/3 fill muffin cases (I find it usually makes 18), and bake at 170°C (fan oven) for 20 minutes.
  7. Remove and allow to go completely cold.

To make the Frosting

  1. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and allow to cool a little.
  2. Using a mixer, whip the butter on a low speed until very pale.
  3. Add the chocolate to the butter and beat until incorporated.
  4. Add the salt and vanilla and mix on medium for a minute.
  5. Slowly add the icing sugar, switching up to a medium speed once incorporated and beating until fluffy.

To assemble the Cupcakes

  1. Cut a small core out of the top of each cupcake.
  2. Fill the hole with a teaspoon of lemon curd, then replace the piece of cake you removed (you may need to pinch off some of the cake to make it fit – these bits are perks for the chef).
  3. Top with a swirl of frosting.

Please do give these a go.  The lemon curd cuts through the sweetness of the white chocolate really well and stops it from becoming too cloying.  Any left over lemon curd can be kept in the fridge for a week and goes really well on toast.  I would also suggest using Green & Black’s white chocolate as it’s not overly sweet, and I like the way the vanilla seeds from the chocolate show through in the finished frosting.

The life scientific – The amazing (thesis) race

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I must admit that after 4 years of quite literally blood, sweat and tears, the moment of thesis submission was something of an anti-climax.  I feel that the examinations office should definitely invest in some sort of fanfare to welcome in the poor PhD students nearing the end of their journey, or at the very least give out ‘I survived my PhD!’ badges rather than silently taking your 2 freshly printed copies and handing you a receipt.  Ah well, we can but dream I suppose.

Not that my thesis submission exactly went according to plan.  The idea was to head in to pick up my thesis, walk it over to the examinations office and then head back to the lab for a bit of a celebration around 4 o’clock-ish.  I had happily spent the morning making some rather special cinnamon buns for the occasion that were supposed to be a pretty exact replica of the ones you buy at Cinnabon.  I found the recipe on Sweetapolita’s blog, and somehow managed to resist sneaking a taste before dropping them off at the lab.  Everything was going well until I picked up my thesis and had a quick flick through, only to discover that every single colour page had printed out wrong.  This wasn’t just a slight change in colouration either, this was an ‘oh no, you can’t read most of my very important data’ moment.

Luckily, I’m not one to panic, so I got straight on the phone to the binder’s.  Ten minutes later, they had eventually located the file I had sent them, and having realised that the colour was not correct, managed to find a printer that would work.  All would be well they said, and I could have shiny new copies if I could come and pick them up from Upton Park.  So, with an hour and a half until the examinations office closed, I had quite the journey ahead of me.

Route Map

For those not familiar with London, my journey had changed from the 20 minute walk from A to B shown in orange, to the zone 3 trek out to Upton Park and back shown in blue.  Yes, that is a whole lot further than a 20 minute walk, or even a 20 minute tube journey.

The District Line being notoriously dodgy, I spent the journey out feeling grateful every time the train started moving again out of a station.  Upon arrival at Upton Park I had been told to ring the binder’s, and that they would direct me to their shop.  2 unanswered phone calls later, and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to make it.  I had less than an hour to find this place, pick up my thesis, get back across town to Waterloo, and then find the examinations office within the labyrinth of university buildings, assuming that my thesis would even be finished by the time I got there.  Oh, and my phone had run out of battery by this point, so Google maps was out of the question.

Luckily, I remembered that the binder’s had left a flier inside one of the copies of my thesis, so I dug it out and, joy of joys, discovered a map of their location on it.  Even better, when I got there the new correct copies were waiting for me, ready to go.

I don’t think any train has moved as slowly as the one I took back across town did that day.  I couldn’t tell you how often I checked the time.  I somehow managed to run up the escalators from the Jubilee Line at Waterloo, which, as anyone who has ever tried this will tell you, is a feat best left to the professionals, and arrived at the correct building with my legs asking me what they had ever done to make me hate them.  7 floors later (why anyone would want to put an examinations office on the 7th floor is beyond me), I was handing over my thesis with 5 minutes to spare and practically collapsing on the floor.

The amount of adrenaline the afternoon’s excursion had required somewhat took the rush out of submitting, but I figured that I was going on to a decent amount of cake and company, so I didn’t mind too much.  That was until I arrived at the lab to discover that the company had gone back to their experiments, and the cinnamon buns had disappeared so fast that there wasn’t even a crumb left!

BefoPost-submission Drinksre you start thinking this is all a tale of thesis-induced woe, fear not, for the evening was rescued by good company and some genius level cocktail making skills from a different kind of LAB.

The thesis gremlins may have stopped me from getting the tissue samples I needed, spoilt my experiments, crashed my laptop halfway through writing up, ruined the final printed copy, and stolen my celebration cakes, but I still got the thing finished, and it does feel good!

Or it will do once I’ve recovered from the resulting post-submission immune system crash and feel less like death warmed up!

The life scientific – They say it’s grim up north …

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It’s conference time again, and this time I was off to Glasgow for an intensive 2 days of Rheumatology.

It was a 4 1/2 hour train ride from London through some truly spectacular countryside, but I couldn’t help noticing how much darker and forbidding the cities look as you head up country, changing from the limestone of the south to the granite of the north.  That always depresses me slightly, so I wasn’t feeling great when the typical Scottish weather set in.  For some reason I’d got it into my head that Glasgow was going to be some sort of concrete monstrosity filled with drunkards that sound like Billy Connolly.  I have never been so glad to be wrong in my life.  The city is full of beautiful old buildings that look stunning even in the drizzle, and the university itself felt like something out of Harry Potter, all cloisters and turrets.

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This particular conference is always good fun, and this year was no exception.  The students got to show off what they’ve been up to, which the funding bodies and supervisors always seem to love seeing.  For us it was just nice to be surrounded by other people that understand how frustrating the sort of experiments we do can be.  You can moan about really geeky things like the difficulty of setting up disease models and a lack of decent tissue samples without leaving people with the impression that you’re going to try and steal bits of them to keep in jars!

We learned all about how to send mice into space and what happens to their bones once they get there; and why your body mounts a more severe immune reaction to infection at night.  Apparently, circadian rhythms are where it’s at …

It wasn’t all hard work though.  The Glaswegians treated us to some typically Scottish entertainment; a tour around a micro brewery and a ceilidh!  Not really being a beer drinker (I have no idea why anyone would drink something quite so disgusting), I was just really going to the brewery for the food afterwards.  You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a beer that was actually drinkable, although I think I’d take the malted barley over the final product any day.  That stuff was really good.

west-beer-mobile-bar-hire  Glasgow OB 2013 (3)

The following night was the ceilidh at Sloans, which I’ve been told is one of the oldest ceilidh joints in the city.  We picked it up fairly quickly, which is proof that scientists can dance when forced to, and ended up in a pretty sweaty and disgusting state.  But the night wasn’t over yet.  OK, so I didn’t venture into the deepest recesses of Glasgow’s numerous pubs like some of the others, but I did take an unexpected detour around the West End at midnight, including a crepe pit-stop.  I live on the wild side …

Glasgow OB 2013 (7)  Glasgow OB 2013 (12)

The West End of Glasgow was a real revelation for me.  I loved the Oxbridge charm of the university buildings, and I’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Rennie Mackintosh, so I got quite excited going to see the Mackintosh house.  I love that whole school of design, so it was really cool to see it cropping up all over the place.  I want to be a literary squirrel too.

Glasgow OB 2013 (9)  Glasgow OB 2013 (10)

All in all it was worth the entire day of train travel there and back.  It reminded me of what conferences could be like, after my somewhat disappointing time in the States.  You could say it restored my faith in science, or maybe I should say in scientists.  I’d definitely go back to Glasgow again.  I’d consider moving there for the gingerbread made by Kember & Jones alone.  Best I’ve ever tasted, and their sandwiches were divine too.  In fact, I might just go check whether they do mail order …

The life scientific – Thesisitis

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19 days to go until I need to be handing in my thesis …

There’s only the small matter of a 4 day jaunt to Somerset for a hen do and 3 days in Glasgow at a conference slap bang in the middle of it.  Nothing to worry about.  It’s not like I’m organising part of the hen do or have to present at the conference.

I suppose that makes it 12 days to go until I need to be handing in my thesis …

At the moment my life generally consists of this:

Graze

My growing dependency on tea and bourbon biscuits to make it through each day is starting to get alarming.  The whole process of being cloistered away seems to have led to me developing several curious symptoms, which I’ve collectively decided to call thesisitis.

Now what exactly is this terrible condition, I hear you cry, and how can I tell if I, too, am suffering from the dreaded thesisitis?

The main symptoms are as follows:

  • Exceptional lethargy when confronted with any form of Word document or PDF
  • Aching joints from sitting at what approximates for a desk for hours on end
  • An inability to perform simple everyday tasks, such as food shopping, without forgetting something
  • Uncontrollable cravings for wine when working in the evening
  • And verbal diarrhoea when in any form of company – postmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses … you name it, I’ll talk to it, for hours

As you can see, it’s a terrible affliction to be faced with.  There is a treatment available, but it comes at a heavy cost.  The only thing that works, apart from actually completing your thesis, is going into the big scary world outside and doing something fun.  I have been trying to take doses of this treatment from time to time, in the form of visits home, weddings and coffee with friends, but the price I’ve paid for these excursions has been great.

Cheddar Gorge (2)Kate & Steve WeddingHampton Court (1)

The awful thing about thesisitis is that any form of fun is now accompanied by an overwhelming amount of guilt.  I hope someday to be free of this, but until then I shall be chained to my keyboard.

The life scientific – The delicious smell of procrastination

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12 weeks to go … The countdown to my thesis deadline has begun.  This is supposed to be crunch time, days of endless drafting and re-drafting, living like a hermit and backing up my work onto 5 different devices, just in case.  The beautiful sunshine must be shut out to stop my house from turning into an oven, and all history-making tennis matches avoided. (Yeah, that didn’t happen.  You can’t ignore Wimbledon when you live round the corner from it.  Even the local supermarket has changed it’s sign over the last week from Morrisons, to Murrisons, to Murriwins!)

Why is it then, that despite my best intentions, I decide that now would be a really good time to start baking my own bread?  I’m not even trying to shoe-horn some quasi-scientific theory about kneading dough being therapeutic or the smell of baking bread releasing endorphins and therefore making you more productive.  I just woke up, ran out of bread and decided that baking my own was a better option than just buying some.  And this is despite the fact that I still had to go to the shops to buy the ingredients.

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Ah well, when it comes to procrastination I am a champion (the house is looking pretty clean these days), and at least you get to eat this, as well as making the neighbours jealous as yummy smells waft out of the window.

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Especially delicious with my home-made version of Austrian Cream of Herb soup.  Knorr used to make it as a packet mix, and it was my absolute favourite growing up (classy, I know), but one day they stopped making it and seem to have obliterated all trace of it, as I can’t even find a picture online.  I LOVED that stuff in all of its luminous green glory, complete with freeze-dried sweetcorn and mushrooms.  This is one of those sad occasions where the home-made version just doesn’t quite cut it.  Sigh.