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