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).

 

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The life scientific – LAB, isn’t that a bar? Oh, science lab

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Let’s face it, for the majority of the population the science lab is a place of myth and mystery.  It either evokes memories of trying to surreptitiously melt rulers over the Bunsen burners at school, or brings to mind images of shiny laboratories filled with people in lab coats doing unspeakable things to animals.

In reality, the average biology lab in a university looks like a cross between an Edwardian dispensing pharmacy, and a computer repair shop.  There isn’t usually enough funding to have the amazing shiny lab spaces found in the pharmaceutical industry, and any money that does come in tends to be spent on boring things like plastic tubes; so you’re left working in a lab that is slowly collapsing around you, buried amid old notebooks, cables for long-lost equipment, and out-of-date chemicals.

Sometimes I’m amazed at the quality of work that comes out of laboratories like these!

I’m sure you would be too if we spent any time or effort actually communicating what we do with the lovely public that funds our research; but we’re not very good at that.  Research published in scientific journals is often difficult to understand even if you work in the same field, so no wonder the majority of the public bases their ideas of the average scientist on The Big Bang Theory (Just so you know, biologist are, on the whole, much less socially awkward than physicists, as we work on issues relating to animals and people.  Really we’re rather nice and easy to get on with, and won’t often ask you to take part in our experiments.)

Recently, some scientists have started to buck the trend and are finding ways to communicate their findings in nice de-jargoned, public-friendly ways.  One of the best of these is TED, whose 15 minute talks from experts on just about everything are an excellent way to train your mind for the next pub quiz.  Check out one of my particular favourites on the evolution of beauty.

However, the elitist entry criteria of the TED conferences means that access to these great minds stays firmly behind closed doors.  What we really need to do is to leave the labs and the conference centres and get out among the people who our research is supposed to be helping; and we need to be able to communicate our ideas and discoveries in ways that you don’t need to have a doctorate to understand.  Working on this theme, it is my pleasure to announce the Pint of Science Festival, which is being organised by a colleague of mine.

Taking place over a few days in May, scientists at the tops of their fields will be giving talks on all sorts of interesting topics in pubs around London, Oxford and Cambridge.  Take a look at their lovely website for more info http://www.pintofscience.com/

So, if you ever fancied sharing a pint with a Professor, now’s your chance.

The life scientific – The things we do for science

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So I’m sitting in the office at work getting on with some data analysis when this email lands in my inbox …

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I’m used to receiving requests for volunteers for various studies; it’s part of daily life in a large research University, but I had never seen a request for volunteers to snort cocaine in the name of research before!

This started me thinking about the things “healthy volunteers” will do in the name of science.

The most obvious example is that of Dr Barry Marshall of Perth, Australia.  Having discovered a kind of bacteria capable of living in the human stomach, he was dismayed to find that the majority of his peers did not share his views that this may be a cause of stomach ulcers.  In the tradition of true mad scientists everywhere, he then proceeded to drink some of this bacteria.  Sure enough, he developed a stomach ulcer, which he then went on to cure with antibiotics, thus proving his point and earning himself a Nobel prize into the bargain.

My own experience of aiding and abetting the scientific community has thankfully been less adventurous.

I had only recently started as a PhD student when I was first asked to “help out” with an experiment; and in my department, that means one thing and one thing only – blood.  Before you start wondering if my department is science’s answer to Twilight, let me explain that I work in Immunology and Infectious Diseases.  We basically study how your body fights infection, and what happens in autoimmune diseases like Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis, where your body starts to attack itself.

This means that the majority of our work is carried out on white blood cells.  And what’s the best source of white blood cells?  Nice fresh blood of course!

Every time we want to do an experiment, someone has to get stabbed with a needle and drained of a hundred ml or so.  This is probably less damaging than having to snort cocaine, but it does lead to interesting questions when, having donated at work every other week for 3 years, you end up having to explain why you have the scarred-up veins of a drug addict.  But what are a few scars when you know you’re helping to discover new ways to diagnose Diabetes, or why some people can be infected with HIV, but show no signs of disease.

Research would simply grind to a halt if it weren’t for the “healthy volunteers” of this world.  I feel like they deserve so much more than the vague pat on the back and maybe a biscuit (if they’re lucky) that they currently get.  So, on behalf of all researchers everywhere:

THANK YOU NICE PEOPLE THAT VOLUNTEER 

YOU ARE BRILLIANT