Monday, 13 December 2010

Wellcome Collection Blog Part 2

Part 2 of my guest blog post on science-inspired fiction is now up on the Wellcome Collection blog, where I talk about examples of SciLit that I like, what works for me and what doesn't. A taster:

The first fiction inspired by science that I came across, and still my favourite, is Einstein’s Dreams, by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. Published in 1994, this could be described loosely as a novel-in-stories, an imagining of what Einstein might have been dreaming about as he was formulating his theory of relativity. Each chapter or story conjures up a different theory of time – it moves slower at higher altitudes, disorder decreases with time instead of increasing, it works in a groundhog-day fashion where people are doomed to repeat the same day again and again. Einstein’s Dreams is not only thought-provoking but beautifully written:
“In this world it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains. At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the centre of the earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains…Height has become status. When a person from his kitchen window must look up to see a neighbour, he believes that neighbour will not become as stiff in the joints as soon as he, will not lose his hair…”

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Wellcome Collection blog

I've been fairly silent here recently, mostly due to a recurrence of my repetitive strain injury! Hands feeling somewhat less sore now, so here's a quick update... I have Part 1 of a 2-part blog post up on the Wellcome Collection blog, on science-inspired fiction. A taster:

Whenever I tell people I’m writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, they look puzzled. What are you actually doing? they ask. They assume I am reporting in some way on what goes on, or helping the scientists to write. They don’t imagine – especially if they are scientists themselves – that I am writing fiction inspired by being in the labs. When I explain this, if it is a scientist I am talking to, a funny look comes over their face. But what we do is mostly boring, they say. Oh no, I say. You have no idea – every little thing in the lab is fascinating to me, from the purple latex gloves to the sandwiches people eat in lab meetings. It’s a different world.

If you Google ‘fiction inspired by science‘ many of the results you will find are actually science inspired by fiction, or science inspired by science fiction....

Read the rest here. Comments welcome!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Tania's Tales from the Lab: Drink Me

I was commissioned to write a piece of "nanofiction" for the abstracts programme for the Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre's recent nanoscience symposium - something a little odd that might stop people in their tracks as they realised it wasn't quite what they were expecting! This is the result:

Drink Me

He did and then he felt himself, felt himself, felt himself, down and down and down and there he was, on that pinhead, there he was. Looking around he found it all adjusted to his newly shrunken state and all was forests that had been only molecules and atoms. He in himself felt sameness and he walked amongst the tiny now turned giant and he saw the things he'd never seen, he'd only dreamed of when he was the one who probed, the one who studied. Look! he shouted but his shouts were not even squeaks of fruit flies, no-one there to hear, expect perhaps an ant but not here, not in this clean clean quiet room. 

After a while of wandering he saw himself to be some nanometres high at most and he delighted in this. Some others might have wept or sunk into some kind of blueness but he, being ever curious and scientific in his ways, knew that his journey here would teach him everything and so he did not look to grow again.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

"Roche Continents: Arts and Science" - a PhD student's experience

I am very lucky in that I landed in a lab that already has a lot of interest in arts+science, primarily through pHd student Becky Jones, who organises the annual Art of Science contest in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Science. The competition calls for researchers to submit images from their work that they think have artistic merit, and this year it has widened applications to include postgraduates and staff as well as PhDs.

Becky recently flew to Salzburg to take part in the "Roche Continents: Arts and Science" program which, says Roche, "has been created for students and post-docs aged 20 to 29 from across Europe. Through “Roche Continents” you can experience performances of contemporary music and try to uncover the common ground of creativity in the arts and science." I asked Becky to tell me a bit about the week:

Tania. What made you apply for this workshop? What did you think you might get out of it?

Becky: I wanted to experience a) the working of a pharmaceutical company b) the world of opera c) the fusion of fantastic arts brains with science ones, all things I had no real knowledge of, but a great intrigue and even a slight fear of. I also liked the mystery that there was so little said about what the week would entail and what to expect, so it was blind, exciting. Jetting off to Austria, all expenses paid, to shmooze with artists, it seemed very mysterious and glamorous and a fantastic contrast to the life I was leading as a PhD student

T. What was your first impression when you arrived?

B: There was a kind of dead awkward opulence when I first arrived at the Tourism school in Salzburg for Roche Continents. The first thing I noticed was a small man with a video camera on a tripod filming our arrival, I felt slightly like royalty but also slightly uneasy as to what to expect from this week and the level of intrusion and voyeurism. I quickly got the impression we were there to be worked into a mold for a good Roche employee, whilst also being lured to possible job opportunity by the lavish reception, food, wine, compliments to a credentials etc. But then they were also incredibly generous and thoughtful - the lady organising saw I had a sore throat and gave me a set of throat sweets (Roche brand of course) and told me to look after myself. She had learned all our names and faces by heart (also slightly odd and big brother), but seemed to really care how we were are would do anything for you. I think the awkwardness in hindsight of the proceedings is possibly an Austrian/Swiss thing, the manner is stand-offish but polite and efficient, and as I eased into their way of doing things I felt a lot more comfortable.

T. What was the thing that most surprised you about the whole week?

B: The speed at which everyone relaxed around each other and worked together. After the first day I already felt like I had a group of close friends. There was also a lot of freedom to create whatever you liked during the final project we were set, this made me feel like being back in school which a set of felt pens and paper in hand. Was very open to debate and criticism of Roche and the pharma industry in general. That's something I expected to be shot down, but they were very open and honest about their role in the world for good and bad.

T: What kinds of people were doing the course and what did they seem to
enjoy about it?

B: There were composers, musicologists, fine/interactive arts students, a women who sang opera in The Hague, but the majority were organic chemists, useful for synthesising drugs, of course. There were a few like me who were from a more biological background but we were in the minority among scientists. Everyone who came saw it as an amazing opportunity, many of the artists not quite knowing why Roche wanted to pay for them to come (although it became clear that although there were no jobs on the horizon for them - they could mingle with possible future investors in their concert/exhibits/galleries). The chemists were also there to scout for future jobs and be scouted. I was just there to take it all in.

T. What is the first thing you wanted to tell someone about it when you
got back?

B: "Wow what an amazing time", amazing people, amazing place, amazing hospitality, so many operas, but really great to see them and learn about the process behind the composition. The cost was the main thing I talked about, the investment they had made in us (200 euro opera tickets etc). I also felt very relaxed and confident and had a new lease of life to attack my PhD work.

T. Do you think it has affected the way you do science or the way you see
your scientific future?

B: Yes I am a lot more proud of what I do, but also more certain that the motives that drive brilliant scientists are not what drive me. Those drivers are not learned but innate and so I realise as much a I understand and love my science, it isn't my way of thinking and isn't my passion in the same way that I observed in others on the workshop. It also made me realize you don't have to dedicate yourself to one thing, as I met a girl who did a joint undergraduate course in chemistry whilst studying concert level flute and becoming a professional musician. It has inspired me to go live a life that suits me, that may not be corporate but that will allow me to be passionate about all the things I used to be when I was a child. I saw people there who just wanted a great job with great pay, I saw people who would never jeopardize their integrity or do something they didn't want to be doing. It made me realise, probably against their objectives, that I am probably not cut out to be a research scientist in a pharma company but was very inspired to think about different ways to be creative and inspired by my work.

Thank you, Becky, I have no doubt that you will be!

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Why it's useful to have a writer-in-residence

So, having a writer-in-residence in your lab is clearly good for boasting about to other labs, something a little odd, a little quirky. And maybe your writer is useful because she asks silly questions that get you pondering something in a new way. But this writer-in-residence was useful this week on a practical level! I'd helped out in the lab last week when large amounts of counting of neutrophils (immune cells) was required. I was taking down the numbers as the researcher (who'd rather remain nameless so we will say his/her name is X) did the counting under the microscope. Then X inputted all the data into the software which produced very attractive graphs. So far so good.

That was last week. I said, Can I take the post-it notes on which I wrote down the numbers home as souvenirs? Sure, said X. Then today I arrive for my weekly visit and X is not quite so happy. Do you have those post-it notes? X says, rather frantically. Of course, I say. Writer-in-residence saves the day! says X, who somehow has managed to delete the files from last week, they've been swallowed up somewhere inside X's Mac...

Writer-in-residence saves the day! Get yourself one now, while stocks last.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

There's Science in My Fiction... And Poetry

I'm running this event tomorrow night at the British Science Festival in Birmingham - come along if you're in the area! It's free... no need to book.

There's Science in My Fiction... And Poetry
 7-10pm, Wed 15th Sept, The Old Joint Stock Function Room
"What if..?" ask both scientists and fiction writers. What if a gene mutates? What if she never married him? Science is fabulous inspiration for fiction - come read out your science-inspired stories and poems to win great prizes, including a Focus magazine subscription and champagne. Science-inspired authors Tania Hershman, Sue Guiney and Brian Clegg will judge. Put some science in your fiction!
More details here.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Tania's Tales from the Lab: Lab Meditation

(I wrote this sitting in the lab recently.)

Lab Meditation

Look at a bottle.
Stare at some pipettes.
A tap.
The smooth cool bench.
No other signs of life.

Listen to the radio.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Watch a rocker.
Rock in time.

Examine a glove.
Sink into its purple.
Gaze at a clear liquid.
Listen to the hum of
the mammoth freezer.

Sit in the dark microscope cave.
Look at lit-up hair cells.
Listen to the turning of the
microscope magnification knob.
Touch the grey benchtop with
the back of your hand.

Squint as the sun floods in.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Hollywood Comes to the Lab?

I was just listening to an interesting program on Radio 4, Scientists Go to Hollywood (not available on Listen Again, sadly), about scientists who consult for Hollywood films, and it gave me an idea.

Why is it always a one-way street?

Why not the other way around?

Why not get a Hollywood director into the lab? How helpful might that be? I think it could be fantastic.
"Ok," says Hollywood Director (HD), "Who's the good guy here?"
"Umm," says PhD student, "Well, we think this protein plays a major role in wound healing."
"Great!" says HD. "So, so in Act 1 we see your protein doing his job, healing wounds, and then there's the Inciting Incident: he gets a bump on the head and he's knocked clean out."
"OK!" says the PhD student, getting excited. "So, he can't do his job. So no wounds get healed at all. And then there's the bad guy..."
"The villain, very important," says HD, who is looking around the lab and seeing dollar signs and record-breaking first weekend's takings.
"Who is wounding and wounding, and it looks like none if it will ever get healed..." shouts the PhD student, pounding a fist on the bench. "And there's only 24 hours to save the world!"
"Ok, pal, slow down," says HD. "Where's the love interest? There's gotta be attraction..."
 "Oh yes," says the PhD student. "There are the immune cells, they head for the wound..."
"Ok, ok, and one of them falls in love with our good guy..." says HD, gazing across the microscope and seeing golden statuettes.
"Um, well, I'm not sure..." says the PhD student.
"That's all we need so far, kid" says HD, putting an arm around the student's shoulders. "Now let's talk budget".  
You see where I'm going with this, right? I think this is a winning combination! Scientist is helped with plot development, Hollywood funds life-saving research in exchange for exclusivity on the story... everyone benefits! Writer-in-residence, move over, Hollywood-director-in-residence applications open soon.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Guest Blog Post: Nick Riddle Makes Friends With Science

I'm delighted to welcome Nick Riddle to the blog! Nick is a writer and editor in the University's Public Relations Office. Take it away, Nick:
As a child I had a fear of dogs. There was no very good reason - they just seemed intimidating. When, as an adult, I overcame this phobia, I started taking an extravagant pleasure in making the acquaintance of certain dogs. I’d make a fuss of them and let them lick my face, which occasioned a few concerned remarks from friends: ‘You know, you really don’t have to let him do that...’

It’s been a bit like that with science. I was your classic science-averse kid who resisted the advances of biology and chemistry, neither of which gained a purchase on my imagination. At home I was captivated by TV science - James Burke’s Connections, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos - but by then I’d dropped the science subjects and was grinding my way miserably through O-level Maths.

But years (and two arts degrees) later, as a writer working at Indiana University, I started interviewing academics about their work. One such subject was a particle physicist who tested laptops and other electronic devices for their resistance to radiation. Even now, when I read the resulting article, I can sense the relish of the younger me trying out his facility for language on a new subject. It was partly the challenge of tackling something new, but there was also a thrill involved in feeling at ease (relatively speaking) with something I used to think of as intimidating.
A neuroscientist could probably tell me which chemicals are sloshing about when this happens (dopamine? You see, I get a little kick just out of throwing the word in there), but I’m willing to bet that they’re the same chemicals at work when I’m saying hello to my friend’s beagle.

These days, as co-editor of Bristol’s Subtext magazine, I get to meet and interview a goodly number of the University’s scientists: astrophysicists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists, mathematicians - the full range of academic breeds. I don’t imagine for one moment that I’ve understood more than a fraction of their work, and I’d like to do an awful lot better, but just getting to grips with a topic and finding words to describe it can still hit the spot.

So when I knock on the office door of the next scientist - audio recorder in hand, web printout of their research summary in pocket - chances are that I’m silently repeating my mantra: Go ahead, science - lick my face.
Thanks so much, Nick, a lovely image to end on! If you'd like to contribute a guest blog post, please email me at All contributions welcome!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Genomics Forum Poetry Competition 2010

I'm delighted to pass on details of a poetry competition seeking poetry inspired by genetics and genomics. Here it is:

The Genomics Policy and Research Forum is delighted to announce a brand new writing competition for budding poets in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library.

‘improving the human’ - Humanity+poetry
The human genome has been unravelled and mapped. Genes responsible for different illnesses and conditions are being identified. Will this information improve the human and help us avoid disease and death? And does this desire to be perfect mask something more sinister – a lack of empathy for the imperfect?  Will this lead to a genetic divide between rich and poor? Do we even want to live for ever? Or, like the Sibyl, do we think that death gives life its meaning?
Thomas Hardy was inspired by germ plasm theory (the forerunner to genetics) to write ‘Heredity’;

… that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.

Are you similarly inspired?

BriefWrite a poem of no more than 50 lines on the theme of ‘improving the human’.
  • The deadline for entries is 7 October 2010 (National Poetry Day)
  • The judges are Gwyneth Lewis (Wales’s National Poet 2005-06), Peggy Hughes at the Scottish Poetry Library, and Professor Steve Yearley, (director of the Genomics Forum)
  • Poems should not have been published or accepted for publication elsewhere
  • Entrants can be of any nationality. Entrants can only submit one poem.

Send your poems to
Please send your poem as an attachment to your email, and ensure that the attachment contains only the poem and poem title (if using a title) but no other identification. In the body of the email, please list your name, contact details and poem title (or first line of poem, if you do not wish to give it a title).

Winners will be contacted in November 2010 and a list of winning entries will be posted on the Genomics Forum website by the end of November.
A selection of the winning and shortlisted poems will be published in a special publication of the Forum in 2010.
The Scottish Poetry Library will host an evening of poetry readings based on the winning entries.
First prize is £500, second prize is £200, and third prize is £100.

Copyright remains with the author, but the Genomics Forum has the right to publish winning poems on its website and in a special publication.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

"Scientists screw up their courage and jump into the communication breach."

I've just read a  very interesting article by Andrew C Revkin, Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Pace University, New York, NY, who says:
Specialized journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science. But the situation also presents a great opportunity – and responsibility – for scientists, their institutions, and their funders. Institutions that thrive in this world of expanding, evolving communication paths are those willing to engage the public (including critics) and to experiment with different strategies. The alternative is to hunker down, wait for misinformation to spread, and then – after the fact – sift fact from hype.
He ends by saying that the status quo will persist unless "scientists screw up their courage and jump into the communication breach." How do you feel about this? Do you want to jump into the communication breach?? Read the full article or read the report on the article in the New York Times and the comments that ensued. One comment says that science bloggers are filling that gap. Are we/they?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Coming soon: Review of the Oddest Titled Book of the Year!

I've been poorly this week so no lab time... but the exciting news is that I have been awarded an Arts Council grant to work on a collection of biology-inspired short stories. I will be embedding in one or two more labs, too, that are engaged in biology-related research, to inspire my writing, and will report on that as it happens.

In the meantime, I received this gorgeous-looking book in the post last week and will be reviewing it here shortly. It is Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Tamina, a maths professor at Cornell University, who I also hope to interview. How did I find this book? I saw the announcement that it had won the Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year! Yup, that makes sense. More on maths and yarn soon.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Tania Talks about Science

I was thrilled last week to be invited to take part  - along with Dr Ben Goldacre and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock - in a discussion on Radio 4's Off the Page program entitled "Blinded by Science". It was broadcast today at 1.30pm and is available on iPlayer for 7 more days.

I got the chance to talk about being writer-in-residence in the University labs, and I read out the first short story I've written inspired by being where science is done. Not sure what the scientists in the lab I am embedding in will make of it! (Comment here, guys, if you like...!)

Hope you enjoy it, I think it was an interesting discussion!

We Got Liminal....

I just wanted to write a quick blog about last week's Let's Get Liminal: Artistic Science and Scientific Art seminar (see previous blog post for details) which I found absolutely fascinating and I hope all those who came did too. The idea was to briefly showcase some of what's going on in Bristol University in that (liminal) "space between" arts and sciences - from the collaboration between a glaciologist and an artist, "artistic" images from research, and medical students' creative work about the practice of medicine.

Our visiting guest artists, Kira O'Reilly and Oron Catts, are in, it seems to me, another space entirely, a new and very exciting place where bioart is being done - artists learning about the tools used in biology labs and then using these methods and processes to produce art. 

The questions that Oron and Kira ask and then attempt to answer through their artworks are the basic questions of life that scientists  also ask. Kira, for example, says: What happens if I look at my own skin as just another type of material, just more stuff? (I am paraphrasing, forgive me). And she engages audiences with her installations, inviting them to also grapple with these issues. Oron - who gave us a detailed history of tissue culture, when it was first done and by whom - showed examples of how he and his collaborators have set up fully-functional labs in museum spaces to "grow" exhibits such as a leather jacket made from "victimless leather". 

It was a wide-ranging afternoon, and I found it both inspiring and moving, seeing these two monliths, ART and SCIENCE, so often kept apart by high walls and arbitrary definitions, actually merging harmoniously to produce something extraordinary which delights, informs and provokes. The first of many such meetings, I hope...!

Here are a few pictures of the proceedings (I didn't take pictures of every speaker - sometimes I was too engrossed and I forgot!):

Maggie Leggett, director of the University's Centre for Public Engagement, talks about plans for next year's Changing Perspectives exhibition in various Bristol galleries.

 Professor Jon Keating and Chrystal Chernwichan showed clips from the Mathematical Ethnographies films and the Science Faculty portraits, and talked about how people have reacted to using these media to put across something different about science - and about the concept of beauty and how it means something different, perhaps, to mathematicians and to artists!

Emily, a medical student, talks about a painting she did for the Creative Arts course she chose to take as part of her medical degree. I found it very moving, listening to her describe her painting of a woman with a spinal condition.

Dr Louise Younie (above) and Catherine Lamont-Robinson, artist and curator, talk about the Out of Our Heads project, showcasing creative work done by medical students. Louise talked about why she intiated the course and the hopes she has that integrating artistic practice into medical study will encourage greater empathy for patients amongst the medical students, who paint pictures, write poems, even create dance pieces inspired by their clinical practice.

Becky Jones showed us "beautiful" ( a word that had become a little controversial by this point in the seminar!) images from the labs which were entered for the 2009 Art of Science competition such as the one above, a confocal image showing communication between brain cells by Sam Lane. The 2010 competition opens shortly...

Dr Giles Brown and Emma Stibbon talked about their glacier-focused collaboration which resulted in artworks such as Emma's stunning picture, above, of the Aletsch Glacier. It was really interesting to hear how Emma went about researching her artworks, and that by drawing she is in many ways connected with the historical depictions of natural phenomena, harking back to the time before cameras, digital or otherwise. Giles pointed out that people approach and interact with Emma's 7ft drawing of a glacier hanging in his office in an entirely different way to the way they would approach a photograph of the same glacier.

Kira O'Reilly, giving us an overview of many of her astonishing and wonderfully provocative artworks and installations, and told us about her time in biology labs - how she tried to do inject something different into the atmosphere, wearing a striking crimson lab coat, for example!

Oron Catts introducing SymbioticA, A Centre of Excellent in Biological Arts, which runs workshops worldwide for artists, and invites artists to do residencies in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia ... and even grants degrees in biological arts, making it unique. He was asked afterwards whether he wouldn't describe himself as a scientist, given the lab-based work he does, but he answered that he far preferred to be described as an artist. Another interesting issue to think about...

I don't think anyone would have failed to be stirred in some way by all these presentations. It caused me to look at my time in the labs in a different way, perhaps more visual... and so here's a little "art" of my own. I took this yesterday: What is it?! Leave a comment and the best answer wins... well, much glory!


Monday, 21 June 2010

Let's Get Liminal! Scientific Art & Artistic Science, June 30th

 Mer de Glace, EMMA STIBBON
What happens in that space where science meets art and art meets science? Come along to this half-day seminar to have a look at what's going on and what will be happening, both at Bristol University and outside. Speakers will be showing films of mathematicians and scientists talking about how they do what they do, beautiful scientific images, an artistic collaboration between a glaciologist and an artist, a course on creativity for medical students and more...

We are delighted to welcome special guests Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA, Australia's artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences, and UK-based artist Kira O'Reilly, a former SymbioticA artist-in-residence. Scroll down for more information about the speakers. 

When: Wed June 30th 2010, from 2-6pm, including drinks & nibbles, 
Where: NSQI Centre, Tyndall Avenue (opposite the Arts and Social Sciences Library)

What's Happening:  
2.00 - 2.10 Welcome: Tania Hershman, Science Faculty Writer in Residence 
2.10 - 2.25 Maggie Leggett, Director, Centre for Public Engagement, 2011 Changing Perspectives exhibition 
2.25 - 2.45 Professor Jon Keating, Dean of the Science Faculty, Chrystal Cherniwchan, Science Faculty films and portraits 
2.45 - 3.15 Dr Louise Younie, Catherine Lamont-Robinson, Out of Our Heads, creativity for medical students 
3.15 - 3.30 Becky Jones, organiser, The Art of Science Competition 
3.30 - 3.50 Dr Giles Brown (glaciologist) and his artistic collaborator Emma Stibbon 
3.50 - 4.00 BREAK 
4.00 - 4.20 Kira O'Reilly, artist, SymbioticA residency 
4.20 - 5.05 Oron Catts, director, SymbioticA, art and science collaborative research lab 
5.05 - 6pm Drinks & nibbles


Tania Hershman is fiction-writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty. Find out more at

Maggie Leggett: Head of Department, Centre for Public Engagement. Maggie will be introducing Changing Perspectives, an exhibition planned for Spring 2011 which seeks to engage and alter the perspectives of a wide range of people though art inspired by science – life, physical and social science - produced by artists in collaboration with University of Bristol staff and students.

Professor Jon Keating is Dean of the Faculty of Science and Professor of Mathematical Physics.

Chrystal Cherniwchan studied photography at the Alberta College of Art & Design, in Canada. After completing her BFA, she spent several years assisting and developing her own documentary practice. Chrystal is now based in the UK, and is currently working on a series of short documentary films and portraits, profiling mathematicians and scientists at the University of Bristol.
Dr Louise Younie is aGP and teaching fellow at Bristol University's Medical School. she also delivers a 2nd year taught SSC "Exploring the creative arts in health and illness". This involves co-facilitation with artists and creative therapists where the students engage in dialogue, reflection and their own creative work. Creativity and the arts in medical education was also the topic of her MSc dissertation. 

Catherine Lamont-Robinson is an artist and curator of Out of Our Heads, a project by students and staff of University of Bristol Medical school to showcase creative work. It is often said that medicine is both Art and Science. In the modern medical curriculum there is a goodly amount of science. But what about the Art? What is it, is it important and should it be part of the curriculum?

Becky Jones is a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry and the organiser of The Art of Science, a competition in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences in collaboration with @Bristol. The challenge, open to postgraduates across the faculty, was to represent scientific research in all its aesthetic beauty.
Dr Giles Brown is a glaciologist in the University's School of Geographical Studies, focussing on glacier meltwater hydrochemistry, chemical weathering processes and rate in mountain/cold environments; snow chemistry; glacier and snow hydrology. He collaborated with artist Emma Stibbon: The emphasis of Stibbon’s research is on the relationship between the mutability of place and the process of drawing.Exploring the temporal qualities of a glacier through drawing. An artist working primarily on paper, she has established her reputation through a wide exhibition profile and a series of residencies and awards.

Kira O’Reilly is a UK based artist; her practice, both wilfully interdisplinary and entirely undisciplined, stems from a visual art background; it employs performance, biotechnical practices and writing with which to consider speculative reconfigurations of bodies.

Since graduating from the University of Wales Institute Cardiff in 1998 with a BA (HONS) in Fine Art, her performance works have been exhibited widely throughout the UK, Europe, Australia, China and Mexico.

In October 2004 she completed an artist residency at SymbioticA, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, funded by a Wellcome Trust sciart research and development award. She was concerned with exploring convergence between contemporary biotechnical tissue culturing and traditional lace making crafts, using the materiality of skin at its cellular level as material and metaphor. She has continued and expanded these investigations as artist in residence in the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, funded by Arts Council of England and Wellcome Trust where she is investigating using spider silk and bone, muscle and nerve cell cultures as biomedia, and the relations between tissue, text and textile Рas variants on the theme of techn̩ with writing outcomes.

In 2009 new works included falling sleep with a pig (2009) commissioned by The Arts Catalyst for INTERSPECIES. She presented Stair Falling (2009) exhibited as part of Marina Abramovic Presents . . . at Manchester International Festival. Her work inthewrongplaceness (2005 – 2009) was curated by Jens Hauser in the highly successful sk-interfaces, Creating Membranes in Art, Technology and Society, at Casino Luxembourg.

In autumn 2010 she beings an AHRC funded three year creative fellowship at Department of Drama, Queen Mary University of London; Thresholds of Performance: Between Body, Laboratory and Text.

Oron Catts is director of SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences. SymbioticA’s emphasis is on experiential practice. SymbioticA facilitates a thriving program of residencies, research, academic courses, exhibitions, symposiums, and workshops. Researchers and students from all disciplines work on individual projects or in interdisciplinary teams to explore the shifting relations and perceptions of life.

As a research centre within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia, SymbioticA enables direct and visceral engagement with scientific techniques. Crossing the disciplines of art and the life sciences, SymbioticA encourages better understanding and articulation of cultural ideas around scientific knowledge and informed critique of the ethical and cultural issues of life manipulation.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Tania's Tales from the Lab: Part 3

I'm in the lab again today, I won't do a minute-by-minute live blog but I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts. After two months or so embedding in this lab, I feel now I have some kind of understanding of how difficult it is to ever assert that you know anything. Looking into science from the outside it seems that scientists run experiments to see if Z happens when Y is put with X, get results and hey presto, we have a new FACT. We think scientists have cutting-edge equipment on their lab benches, ultra-fast computers, powerful electron microscopes, so that they can see exactly what's what.
I mean, this is how it is on CSI, right?

Well, no.

The first thing I now have more of a grasp of is that you need to check, if not every step then every few steps and they might be many many steps in your experiment! - that you even have the right stuff in your test tubes! As one of the postdocs said to me last week, "It all looks like cloudy liquid" so how do you know what's in the cloudy liquid?

If you are interested in molecular biology, well, you run a gel... This, says Wikipedia, is:
a technique used for the separation of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA), or protein molecules using an electric field applied to a gel matrix

and this is the equipment:

Guess when this method was invented. Well, the first reports were some time in the 1930s. At least 80 years ago. And this is still, from what I understand, one of the best and most useful methods to figure out what's in your cloudy liquid. You have a wedge of gel in this bath contraption, you have a set of little wells into which you put your different samples - tiny drops of your cloudy liquid as well as control samples just to compare - and then you run an electric current which pushes the molecules of your liquid through the gel from top to bottom. Basically, the bigger molecules get stuck moving through the gel and the smaller molecules can move through a bit faster so get further. Like a race between very fat tortoises that get stuck getting down the corridor and skinnier tortoises - and all sizes in between!

After about 25 minutes or so, your gel is "done", your tortoises have moved as far as they're going to move. You take the gel out, stick it in another machine that shines UV light through the gel and you can take a photograph which looks something like this:

Clear now? Yup... I don't really know what it means either. The bands of light are molecules and some haven't moved far from the top, and some, like the guy in the bottom left corner, got pretty far...To the trained eye, this tells you everything.

Jut for fun - and a little education! - here is a 1930s concept brought into the 21st century with this cool animation about how to run a gel that I found on YouTube (with rock soundtrack):

When your gel tells you that there's stuff in your cloudy liquid that you didn't expect to be there, or something doesn't show up that's "supposed" to be there, then what do you do? Run the gel again - which involves preparing more samples etc.., can take a day or more. And if it happens again? Check all your equipment in case something snuck in. Check and re-check. And if still not...then you might need a complete rethink.

So, to sum up, to actually "see" in science isn't as simple as looking at a sample or sticking it in your fancy million-pound desktop machine. It often means using a technique developed in the 1930s and which can take days to prepare for. Anyone want to share gel stories? And talking of stories... more about the idea of "story" in science next time. Back to the lab!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Calling all potential bloggers!

I'm in the lab again today, but won't be blogging live, that was a little stressful! I might do it once a month or so. But here's the thing: this blog is not supposed to be just me me me. Ideally, there'd be a number of Bristol Uni science folk blogging here, so if you'd like to join in, do drop me an email at tania(dot)hershman(at) (replacing the (dot) and (at) with . and @). You don't need to know anything about blogs or blogging, I'm happy to help you get started. It's great fun - I very often find out what I'm thinking about something as I'm writing a blog post on my personal blog, TaniaWrites, so it can be useful! Try it, you might just like it...

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Tania's Tales from the Lab Part 2: Live!

So today I'm the one who is experimenting - this blog post is coming to you live from the lab! Want to know what scientists actually do during the day? Or, if you are a scientist, is this lab more fun than yours? Only kidding...Please leave comments!

My laptop was stolen two days ago so I am blogging from my mobile phone, forgive any odd spelling.

12pm weekly lab meeting.

One person presents their work, everyone else eats lunch. Here goes...Ok, it's acronym city, and I've only heard of one of them so am a bit (very) lost. Like the idea of knockdowns. Sounds like cells meeting at High Noon!

Oooh, pretty pictures! Cells, I think. Hmm. Ah, once again, the word "story" is used in talking about the direction of research, what questions are going to be asked. Like this idea. And I like the word "vesicle".

Funding. It always comes down to money, doesn't it?

Meeting over, back in the lab office, and the post has arrived. What is it? Fish! M opens the square polystyrene box and there are two squarish clear containers, with blue liquid and dozens of baby zebrafish. They look happy, says M. How can you tell? And do you ever think that there are fish wandering around Royal Mail?

Having a fascinating discussion with E who is writing up her PhD thesis, and M, who did his PhD in Canada, where it took 6 years instead of the 3 here in the UK. Is a 6-year PhD an entirely different degree?


E is in a flat with three other women, all of whom are writing their PhD theses now and having such different experiences: one has a special desk assigned to her in the department so she can concentrate, one has a supervisor who won't get back to her with comments on her first chapter. E has a great supervisor but no good place to write: the lab office isn't quiet, her downstairs neighbours at home just had a baby and upstairs they are doing renovations!

Very interesting talk about supervisors - so much depends on who you get, you might even say that this relationship is vital for the course of science. If you get on well, if they are helpful, maybe a PhD student will continue on in science, or in this field, but if the relationship is fraught, difficult, your journey might take an entirely new direction.

E shows me her introduction, which is the size of my short story collection. This is just chapter 1! Am quite happy that I can sort of follow what it is talking about. We discuss how, plot-wise, the thesis doesn't really get into the action til Chapter 3, but of course that isn't the main consideration.

Am actually in the lab now as opposed to the lab office next door. When I first started embedding, Radio 2 was always on. Seemed like an odd choice. How did it affect experiments, I wondered. A few weeks later, I dared to change to Jack FM, which plays mostly 80s and 90s music and no talking! Will this affect anything? Then last week - no radio! No-one seemed to know who turned it off.... And today, Jack FM back on. Who is operating the lab radio?! (just heard Valerie by Steve Winwood. Nice.)


M has just shown me a new site he and Y recently discovered: The Journal of Visualized Experiments. It's totally amazing! It's like cookery shows for scientists:
How to dissect a fruit fly:
First, take specific-sized tweezers, then pull here...
shake twice for 3 minutes each...
And there's the postdoc, in his lab coat, being made to be the presenter, looking like he might burst out laughing as he talks to the camera. Is this the 40th time he's had to say this? Will future PhD students have to take a screen test? Next stop: Science TV? Love it! They have a Facebook group too.

B is having a bad day. She did something with gels and the result was completely baffling. Nothing appeared when something definitely should have shown up on the gel. A few week ago B had the opposite problem - too many things showed up on the gel in places they shouldn't. So M is helping out by testing the primer she used (do I sound like I know what all this means? Good!). M is just loading the gel - what will happen? Excitement is mounting! Jack FM is playing All I Need is A Miracle! Stay tuned....

bottle being filled with extra-pure water


Still waiting... M starting the electrophoresis. Will take 25 mins. Breath is bated.

Pipettes don't look like they did when I was at school. Bit scary, eh?

We head back into the lab. B watches as M gets the gel out and puts it in the machine which will show if there's something on it... And yes, there's something there!

But... wait.

It's not the right thing. Something's up. There's a stripe where there shouldn't be, and a blank space where there should be a stripe. It's inconclusive. M will have to do it all again. And this one test takes several days to prepare for.

Now this is science and it's not what you normally hear about - tests that when they work properly are "beautiful", says B, but can go wrong for so many different reasons. Some could be to do with the supplier who supplied the primer, say. Or a contaminated tube? There are so many steps involved in getting to the point where you even do the test, that doing it all again is a fairly exhausting and disheartening prospect. But there's no choice. B needs to see if a certain gene was present. She needs to know. So: one more time. Tomorrow is another day.

5.15 and I'm heading home. This has been great, but I think next time I will just scribble in my Moleskine, as I have been doing, and enjoy the tranquility involved in not being able to rush anything, having to wait. And then I will capture my reflections on the blog later. 

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Tania's Tales from the Lab Part 1

I'm one of those people who gets a thrill from the smell of a chemistry lab. Talk to me of quarks and mesons, and my stomach is aflutter! But I wasn't cut out to be a scientist, it seemed. A BSc in Maths and Physics demonstrated that I didn't have what it took to dedicate myself to research – and I also realised that I wanted to work with words instead of elementary particles. So I became a science journalist. But fiction was my first love, and in 2008 my first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published. Half of the stories in the book were inspired by articles from New Scientist, because I just couldn't leave that science connection alone. I'm not the only one: there's quite a bit of science-inspired fiction out there, check this out.

So, the next natural step? Get inspiration directly from the place where science is being done. And that's what I did. Let me introduce Bristol University Science Faculty's first writer-in-residence. Nice to meet you.

I've only just begun, so there's not a great deal to report yet. I am headquartered in the brand-new and very beautiful Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre (NSQI), but free to roam around the university, sniffing out those chemicals and large hadron colliders (alright, maybe only small hadron colliders.). The plan is to spend two days a week embedded in a lab, or perhaps several labs, asking lots of ridiculous questions, learning about how science is done, who does it, why they do it, what they do on a daily basis. And then my brain, which works in fairly odd ways, will stew on all of this, and somehow from it I will write short – and very short – stories. One of these stories will be published here each month, as well as regular blog posts so you can follow what I'm up to. I'm also aiming to get some of the lab rats writing fiction too, by running a few flash fiction workshops. (What is flash fiction? See my website here)

So far, I've been to a seminar on quantum tunnelling at the NSQI, and spent some time in the glass-walled “fishbowl” room there, intended to inspire interaction and encourage multi-disciplinary collaboration. And last week I spent a day and a half in Professor Paul Martin's biochemistry lab. I learned so much in just that time, there is so much that those outside the practice of science have no idea about. For example: how do you get to work in a lab? Do you answer a job ad? What radio station is best to have on in the background? Do scientists call themselves “scientists”? I will be visiting this lab more often, will report back on my findings! I also blog regularly about writing at TaniaWrites.

In the meantime, here's one I wrote earlier, a science-inspired flash story, The Painter and the Physicist. More tales from the lab soon. Blog post 2

The Painter and the Physicist

While I settle in to my writer-in-residence position at the Science Faculty, here's a piece of science-inspired flash fiction I wrote last year, which was read by an actress at a Liars league event in London (you can listen to the reading here) This story is entirely fictional, not based on spending any time with physicists or painters, or the two together! Just from my imagination.

The painter and the physicist
by Tania Hershman

The curtain is pulled back.
Yes? Says the assistant.
I've come... to see. To see the painter.
And you are...?
I... I'm the physicist.
One moment, says the assistant and the curtain falls back again.

The painter doesn't turn round.
Send the physicist in, says the painter, cleaning a brush.

The physicist sits on a stool, watching as the painter chooses colours.
So, says the painter, you're a physicist.
Yes, I... Theoretical physics.
Unseen. You imagine what's there.
The physicist is uncomfortable, shifting a little, the stool leg rocking. The painter is mixing two colours on the palette. The physicist watches the painter and wonders how it works, what the eye sees, what the eye knows.
I suppose, says the physicist. Yes, that is certainly one way to put it. Some might say we, umm, guess. We are just guessers. I mean, well, educated guessers! He laughs, shortly, quickly.
Electrons, says the painter. What do you think an electron looks like?
Looks like? An electron?
Does it have colour? says the painter, licking the tip of the paintbrush.
I... I don't...
Don't think, says the painter.
Blue, says the physicist, who doesn't see the painter grinning.
Blue. A blue electron.
Yes, says the physicist, whose mind is trying to ask what the relevance of this can possibly be to current research projects. Cobalt, says the physicist, unsure exactly what shade this. Or azure.
Cobalt, or azure. Very specific, says the painter. Wavelengths make all the difference, don't they.
Yes! says the physicist, who almost falls off the stool. The way a colour hits the eye. I mean.. I'm not a biologist, of course, I'm not familiar with the structure, the rods and the cones and...
Neutron, would that be white, says the painter, who has now added several brushstrokes to the canvas.
Well, I suppose so, although now that you ask, I imagine them more as, well, grey. The physicist looks at the canvas and wonders if a question would be appropriate at this point. Your painting, says the physicist quietly.
You want to know if I know what it is going to look like, says the painter.
You don't have to... please don't feel you, I mean, I just came to.. It's your..
There is something, says the painter, turning away from the canvas and towards the stool where the physicist, uncomfortable again, is fidgeting. The painter holds up the brush and then holds it out. Something. I can see it out of the corner of my eye, a hint of it. But, if I try and look at it directly, it vanishes. I have to move towards it...
Slowly, yes, says the physicist. Like a small animal, or a child. So you don't...
Scare it, says the painter. The painter smiles again, still facing the physicist. Theories, says the painter. For you, too?
Yes, says the physicist, who hasn't thought about falling off the stool for quite some time now.
Later, when the canvas is half-covered, the painter puts the brushes down and suggests they go for a drink. In the pub corner, the physicist has a single malt, the painter a glass of dry red. The painter picks up the physicist's glass and holds it to the light.
Look at that, says the painter. The shades of gold.
The way the photons hit the liquid, some are reflected, some pass through.
It shimmers, says the painter. Hard to capture that, hard to express the movement, the angles, the flow.
I could, says the physicist, tell you about flow, give you equations, write it down on a napkin.
Xs and ys, says the painter, grimacing.
Hey, says the physicist, tongue loosened. Those are my colours.
What colour is an X? says the painter, sipping the dry red, thinking of ochre, scarlet, black.
Green, says the physicist, who has never imagined it before, but now, once the word emerges, sees it all over the blackboards, the whiteboards, the pages of notebooks.
And if I said to you, X must be pink, says the painter.
No, says the physicist. Wrong.
Aha! says the painter.
Oh, says the physicist, and grins. I see. And if I said to you, paint the sky brown...
It's been done, says the painter, who doesn't like to be predictable. The physicist nudges the painter's elbow and then wonders where the boldness comes from.
Are you telling me, says the physicist, that there is no wrong?
Oh, says the painter. I don't... well. I couldn't. I mean...
Aha! says the physicist, getting up. Another round?

The next day, the painter paints; the physicist teaches a class. The day after that, they sit together again, in the pub. The following week, the painter visits the physicist. In the space between them, colours flow.

To read more of my short and short short stories, please visit