Sunday, 26 July 2015

One week old baby

The other day I commented to the father of my child that having a baby is a little bit like going to prison. Not the ‘nice’ sort of prison where they let you do Open University courses and try to make you a better person. A Victorian-style prison where the inmates are forced to turn a crank thousands of times a day or walk on a treadmill for hours and hours with no end product to show for their labours. You do your time and then you’re released into a world you no longer recognise, having lost half your hair and a year of your life.

You know, writing that makes me realise why my partner looked at me with his ‘What the fuck?’ face. Yes, yes, I have a one year old miniature human to show for all those hours spent pacing to and fro sob-singing Somewhere over the Rainbow while the baby screamed because she was so flipping tired that she just couldn’t sleep. And, yes, all that panic-Googling because said baby has a highly disturbing habit of rolling her eyes over white when it’s windy wasn’t entirely wasted. I now know more about neurological disorders in infants than the average neurologist.

But I can’t say the first year of my baby’s life has lived up to my expectations of motherhood. Don’t get me wrong—it’s been totally worth it. My child really is the best baby in the world, even taking into account that month-long phase where she got so fat that all our baby photos look like we’ve dressed a small pig in human clothes. Or that way she hisses and bares her teeth whenever there’s a bright light nearby, like some blood-sucking vampire grub. Or the time she gave me Hand, Foot and Mouth disease that adults totally aren’t meant to get, which I totally did get, and am in fact currently typing with a fingernail that is totally going to fall off any day now, and urggggghhh.

I know what you’re thinking: if this is Kathryn’s first foray into Mummy-blogging then, Dear God, nooooo. You’re alright, don’t worry. I am fully aware that, while I’ve somehow managed to find myself in possession of a predominantly happy and healthy toddler, it has not been thanks to any previously dormant Mother-skills that need to be unleashed upon the world. I barely know what I am doing when it comes to my own child, so I am most definitely not in any position to offer parenting advice to others.

What I do want to talk about is how wasted time isn’t always wasted time. I worked in scientific research for, what, 8 years as a post-doc and for 12 years total if you count the time spent working towards my PhD. And of all the work I did during that time, maybe 5% amounted to something useful. Maybe less, depending on your feelings towards basic tuberculosis microbiology. All those hours in the lab, all that funders' money. You can’t be scared of failure if you want to be a scientist. 

I’ve read papers before where years of work have been condensed down into a few lines. The protein could not be crystallised. A gene deletion mutant showed no phenotype. Compounds showed poor activity in vivo. No one gets into science to spend their days performing the grunt work that provides the filler for the rare discovery that changes the status quo. But the reality of working in the lab is that taking the easy road rarely leads to the really interesting results, but taking a risk—trying something completely new—will often lead absolutely nowhere.

Now that I’ve left the lab and am embarking on a new adventure in the form of writing a popular science book, I am getting to see science from a new perspective. It’s dizzying to see how much research there is out there that no one outside the field ever hears about. Work that’s published in the best journals can still be just another drop in the ocean. Years, sometimes decades, of work. Even the biggest discoveries can sometimes look very boring from the outside. It’s enough to make my own work feel very small and insignificant.

But somehow, while you’re hunched over the lab bench, it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your time. Two weeks struggling to make a protein expression vector. Two months purifying a protein so that you can get started on the real experiments. Two years screening inhibitors only to conclude that the protein you picked at the start wasn’t the best drug target after all. Go back to the beginning and try again. From the outside, it looks like wasted effort but, along the way, there were small successes. New techniques that will improve future attempts. Students trained who will go on to do their own research. Interesting side projects that may or may not lead to something exciting.

I’d rather hoped that the lessons science taught me about the value of failure might translate into a bottomless well of patience when it came to stay-at-home-parenting. Hypothesis rejected! One of the issues is that reproducibility goes out the window when it comes to babies and there’s an inverse relationship between how much research you do and how good the outcome is. But, like my scientific career, I sometimes look back on the first year of my baby’s life and wonder where all the time went. What have I achieved? Could I have done more?

Now that I’m coming out the other side of the baby period and starting to piece back together my own life and ambitions, I can see why so many women find it so difficult to juggle motherhood and a career. Pre-baby, it seemed so simple. I couldn’t understand why some women seemed to cease to exist as an individual once they had kids. Now? I can’t decide whether those failures in the lab would feel like time that could have been better wasted at home with my daughter, or vice versa.

So instead of returning to work for someone else, I am going to attempt to carve out a freelance writing career that will let me work on something I want to work on while also being around to clean spaghetti off the walls. No doubt there will be plenty of failures along the way and I am sure there will be times where I regret wasting my time on something that leads nowhere. But, hopefully, in a year’s time when I look back, it will have all have been worth it.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

In a small chapel just outside Prague, a chandelier made from every bone in the human body hangs from a garland of skulls like the world's creepiest wind-chime. Nearby, a coat of arms features an almost comical bone bird—its wings a human hand and its neck a gnarled vertebrae—that pecks at a skull's eye socket. In each corner of the room, several thousand, maybe more, bones are tightly packed into huge bell shaped mounds.

Back in 1278, the abbot of the Sedlec monastery sprinkled some earth from Jesus' supposed burial site onto the abbey graveyard. The effect was much like the opening of a new crossrail station in a previously affordable London borough. One moment, fashionable types wouldn't be seen dead there; the next there's a trendy pub opening up with artfully stained sofas and an influx of skinny jeans. Or, in the case of the Sedlec graveyard, corpses. Suddenly, it was the place to go and die, much like Southwold only without the beach.

By the 16th century, the Black Death, or plague, had deposited so many bodies in Sedlec that there was literally no more room. So a partially-sighted monk was tasked with digging up all the bones crammed into the graveyard and stacking them up in neat little piles. The remains of 40,000 people eventually found their way into the ossuary (I like to imagine that each and everyone was moved by that one dedicated monk). Later, during the 19th century, a local family employed a wood carver to make the bones pretty. Clearly this wood carver was a distant relation of Tim Burton, and his creations were eerie and strange, and surprisingly beautiful.

Is that shameful to admit? The Black Death, after all, has to be one of history's most terrible killers, decimating huge swaths of the population over the centuries. Shouldn't the remains of all those dead invoke feelings of solemnity and sadness, not awe?

This is an issue which, as a scientist working on a killer disease, I've often wondered about. Can an infectious agent that kills millions ever be beautiful and the subject of admiration and respect, or should I have felt horror and disgust with every swirl of the culture flask, every squirt of my pipette? After all, there were days when confessing my profession to a stranger left me feeling a little like I’d just admitted to marrying a serial killer in a prison chapel.

I worked on a different type of plague to the Black Death—the White Plague, or tuberculosis. Even today, tuberculosis kills almost two million people every year. Despite this, I’ve always held a strange affection for the bacterium. There's something amazing about peering into the minuscule world of the viruses and bacteria and, like an astronomer looking out into space, feeling wonder at the complexity and elegance present in each and every tiny species.

Recently, an artist called Luke Jerram created blown glass sculptures of various killer viruses and bacteria. He didn’t make one of the Black Death bacterium, Yersinia pestis, but he did create an Ebola, Smallpox, and HIV, among others. While many people marvelled at the beauty of his art, more than one person raised the question of whether it was distasteful to admire diseases responsible for untold misery.

Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that it is the science that is beautiful. Once, we believed that the Black Death was a judgement from God or a curse from the odd lady down the road with tangled hair who talks to cats (don't we all?). Now, we can look this tiny killer in the pilli and see it for what it is—an amazing creation of nature that walks the fine line between horror and beauty. The more we understand, the less there is to fear.

When I look at the Sedlec Ossuary, I see the humanity in the careful way that the bones have been arranged, and am reminded of how fragile and fleeting life can be. I see a memorial to all the lives claimed by diseases such as the Black Death and I remember how far we’ve come since the days when the plague killed between 30 and 60% of the European population. The bones aren't beautiful because they are dead but because, once, they were alive.