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.