Tuesday, 30 June 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Where Did It All Go Right? Growing Up Normal in the 7os
by Andrew Collins

"With the help of his diaries (kept from the age of six) Andrew delves back into his first 19 years. With tales of playing out, bikes, telly, sweets, good health, domestic harmony and happy holidays, he aims to bring a little hope to all those out there living with the emotional after-effects of a really nice childhood."
This was a huge trip into nostalgia, as I was born just under a year before Mr Collins and have some of the same memories of Tempo pens, Mouse Trap, Haunted House, Colditz, and the Molesworth books. In fact, remembering the Molesworth books makes me want to get hold of them and read them agane. chiz. (a chiz is a swiz or a swindle, as any fule kno.)

Image of the book cover
by Connie Willis

"Sandra Foster studies fads - from Barbie dolls to the grunge look - how they start and what they mean. Bennett O'Reilly is a chaos theorist studying monkey group behavior. A series of unlucky coincidences leaves Bennett monkeyless, fundless and nearly jobless; Sandra intercedes with a flock of sheep and an idea for a joint project."
Connie Willis is an American author who mostly writes science fiction, and the first book of hers that I read was a present from sister D when I moved to Coventry, called To Say Nothing Of The Dog. I think D might have chosen it by using Coventry as the search term in Amazon, but it was a great choice, and I went on to search out other books by the same author. Doomsday Book is equally good, but others not so much - Lincoln's Dreams is about the American Civil War, and Passage is too long. I picked up Bellwether again to remind myself whether I like it or not. I'm still not sure if I like it enough to allow it to take up valuable shelf space.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

More tales from the lab

Hoods, microscopes, the centrifuge and incubators
Last week in the lab ended badly - there wasn't really enough time to run the whole experiment on Friday, and H and I were trying to double up and share the tasks, and I kept getting confused and I didn't put the right amounts of things in the right tubes, or I got distracted so I couldn't remember which ones I'd pipetted and which ones I hadn't. Centrifuging produced a waxy solid between the layers which shouldn't have been there, and in the end H sent me home and said she'd deal with it. She probably did it quicker without me, but I felt a bit guilty - except I'm not being paid so I don't feel too bad about it.

The samples hadn't completely evaporated over the weekend so I couldn't start the chromatography straight away, but I thought that would be OK because the hood wasn't booked for our experiment until 10.30. I went to check on the cells we'd prepared for this week - disaster! They had been contaminated, perhaps during our messy Friday afternoon session, and were all dead. So we had to rethink the schedule. It was further complicated because H wasn't in on Tuesday, so I had to be given something I could work on independently.

Going back to finish the experiment we'd started on Friday, things continued to deteriorate. I had trouble with my spotting on the chromatography plates, and the Prof turned up midway, criticised my technique (quite rightly), but then I couldn't remember where I'd got up to. I knocked over two of the scintillation tubes... and so it went on. We won't be using those results.

All my equipment in a sterile hood
On my own on Tuesday I got on quite well, if slowly, because I had to check at least twice before doing anything at all, which doesn't half slow you down. The very hardest thing of all, above everything else, is when you have to do something a number of times, one after another - say, add 10µl of substrate to each of ten wells in a plate that already contain cells. After six wells, the little capsule of substrate is empty, so you open another capsule that you remembered to bring, but had I done six wells? or was I just about to do the sixth? I'll never know.

I had to leave it all to dry overnight, so I finished it on Wednesday, with better chromatography technique and without knocking anything over. The results weren't too bad, so we'll be repeating the technique with slightly different materials next week.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Weekend in Cambridge

Another very enjoyable weekend. Having to work all week makes the weekends so much more precious. I'd forgotten about that feeling when you wake up in the morning, and take a second or two to work out whether it's Saturday or Sunday, and if it is - well, that's just wonderful.

Mr A had a bad morning because of an important appointment he'd missed, and we found ourselves in the car on the way to Cambridge in a bit of a low mood to say the least. Eventually he cheered up, and the Garden Party at Family JJL&J was lovely. (Manufacturing pseudonyms for friends is starting to be tiresome, but putting real names out on the Interwebnet doesn't feel right nowadays.)

View of the garden
There have been many Garden Parties at this venue, and they have changed in character over the years. Originally they were held jointly with Party Next Door, and while Family JJL&J had wine, beer, nibbles and sophisticated conversation, Party Next Door had hard liquor and boisterous rowdiness. Mr A and I enjoyed both types: intellectual and gastronomic stimulation at Family JJL&J, but adult language and rude behaviour at Party Next Door. Occasionally we were even allowed to turf the children off the bouncy castle so the adults could have a go.

With increasing age, the party Next Door has mellowed and all the children have become older and more unruly at Family JJL&J - there was a trip to Accident and Emergency a couple of years ago. This time, there was no Party Next Door at all, and many of the stalwart attendees couldn't make it - I think we were the only non-local guests. It was great fun, although J (of Family JJL&J) says she likes the bit at the end when everyone goes and she can sit down with a cup of tea.

Sunday was good too. I went to see Dr C, who had given me my first job after university the first time round. He seemed very grown up then, with a wife and small children and running a company, but he can't have been much more than 30. I remember very well that he told me once that I hadn't 'internalised the work norm'. I hadn't a clue what this meant at the time, but with hindsight it was probably that I kept turning up late for work. It was nice to see him again.

PuntersThen we went punting. This ought to be a terrible cliché, but we didn't go in the direction that takes you past all the colleges, but the other way, alongside fields and woods instead. Our hosts were experienced and skillful punters, including the children, so all that Mr A and I had to do was lie back and enjoy the sunshine. And eat the picnic: delicious leftovers from the party. We came home nicely tired, and in the sort of mood where you want to hug your friends and tell them you love them.

Oh yes, my exam results came out on Friday, and I did very well. My expectations are now getting too high - what if one semester I don't get a First? I'd be horribly disappointed. Anyway, we treated ourselves to supper in the pub to celebrate.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

In the lab

Towards the end of last week, I found myself thinking at one point, as I looked at a plastic container:
Is this radioactive? Should it be kept sterile? Should I be wearing gloves? Can I touch it? Should I be wearing a white coat or a blue coat? Do I need to take the lid off or should I keep it on? Should this be in a fume cupboard or aspirator hood? Are there live cells?

Hang on, IT'S MY LUNCH...
H said that was a good sign. I found it quite odd.

I've been doing more and more for myself, rather than watching H or being supervised by her. I haven't yet made any serious errors, although it's inevitable that I will. There are just so many things that can go wrong. On Monday my mistake was letting a solution that had been warmed to 37 degrees get cool without taking the stopper out. It was stuck fast - I had to warm the whole thing up again.

Not me with pipette in the Tissue Culture labYesterday I was going to do a whole time-course experiment by myself, which involved getting everything together and not forgetting anything, then mixing all the ingredients and stopping the progress immediately (the control) then after 1, 2, 3 and 4 hours. Then taking the resulting samples, running them on a chromatography (TLC) plate, take one of the resulting stripes and measure the radioactivity. Oh yes, and I needed to count the cells.

I got as far as preparing the samples for TLC, with a couple of small incidents along the way. I managed to splash methanol from the 0 hour onto the 4 hour cells, which didn't do them any good at all, but that turned out OK because I didn't have time to do the 4 hour bit because we didn't book the hood for long enough. H had done the counting cells last time and didn't write it down, so I improvised and it didn't work very well - my cells got a bit messy and I didn't get a count in the end.

So today I did the chromatography and then the radioactivity counting and my results plotted OK so that was good. So I'm going to be doing the whole thing all over again except only running for 2 hours instead of all the different time points, and with some different enzymes to see if they have an effect. And counting the cells properly, and being a bit more careful with the methanol.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Peace, man

View of the crowd in front of the main stage
Over the weekend it was sunny and warm, and the Leamington Peace Festival was on. A proper festival, with stalls and bands and everything, all for free and about 100 yards from our front door. All the regular stalls were there - every religion you can think of, charitable causes and pressure groups, weirdy hippy healers, clothes and hats that seem like a good idea at the time but you can only wear at other festivals, and millions of knick-knacks made from crystal, wood, glass, hemp, silver, scissors, paper, stone, gravel, porridge and elephant dung (only three of those are made up). I don't buy very much at these events, I've got enough rubbish in my house already.

A selection of people wearing hats
I did buy a brownie from a stall that makes the best brownies I've ever tasted. I bought one last year as well. Once a year is probably enough, although they are damn good. The rest of the time I sat on the grass listening to the music, trying not to get sunburned and taking photos of interesting things. I took quite a lot of photos of hats this year.

Man in tap outfitThe majority of people at these events are probably ordinary types, with proper conventional jobs and houses and families, but because this is a festival they wear the ludicrous clothes and hats that they bought at the last festival. Pink-faced, bellies bulging, tattooed arms, necks and backs (and that's just the women). Some are odd but familiar: the man who wears no shoes, corduroy trousers that are too big for him and has cotton wool in his ears was there, dancing to the music. I last saw him at a Medusa Touch gig at Kellys, long ago. My favourite, though, was the man dressed as a tap, collecting money for Water Aid. He looked so fed up, and I sympathised. It's a hell of a costume.

Mr A came with me on Sunday, but didn't really enjoy it so he went home and mowed the lawn instead. I had a lovely time, sitting on the grass or wandering about, watching people in the sunshine and listening to the music.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

An email to Lola II

Lola II has gone on holiday for NEARLY THREE WEEKS to a place where she doesn't have a phone or Internet. I am finding it difficult to cope, not only because my shtyoopEd laughter count is at rock bottom, but also because I have had no phone calls or texts to my mobile since she left the country. Except one from the dentist.

I am sending her daily updates, which she won't be able to read until she gets back. The last one went something like this:
Dear Lola II

I hope you are well. I am well, and so is Mr A apart from his hurty knee.

Today I had quite a nice day. It was another day at work, and I’m starting to understand more and more all the time about the speriments.1 I haven’t had to draw a giraffe2 yet, but I expect I will have to soon.

I made some cells grow in a flask with pink liquid and they were still alive this morning. I am a true mother. I told Mr A that his hurty knee is nothing compared to the pain of childbirth, because I am a woman and I know these things.

He went to the doctor who told him to put ice on the knee - he’s using my peas! He doesn’t even like peas! If it wasn’t for me there wouldn’t be any peas in the freezer and he’d be a cripple for ever.

I also have to learn about radioactivity because some of the speriments use radioactive things to feed the cells and then the cells make them into something else that’s radioactive then you take the cells and KILL THEM (yes, my babies, you will die) and measure how much stuff they’ve made by counting the radioactivity.

So there, you know all about it now, you can do my job when you come back so that I won’t have to go to work EVERY DAY. I can’t believe grownups only get two days off a week.

Are you coming back home soon? I hope so.

Lola xx
1. experiments.
2. graph. In my Human Biology A level one of the students at the back of the class misheard the teacher telling us that after the experiment we'd have to draw a giraffe.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

I have a job

I've been writing this blog for nearly two years, and I've finally had to create a new tag: Work. I suppose it had to happen eventually.

The first day went off like most first days - exhausting and confusing. There was a lot of admin, there was the difficulty of navigating to find the loo through corridors that all look identical, there was information, more information and so much information that my head started to gape open at the seams. I've been given some relevant academic papers to read describing the reactions I'll be looking at, which are all about the enzyme that helps to add the third fatty acid to diacylglycerol to make triacylglycerol molecules in the liver, intestine, adipose cells and elsewhere.

I'm not entirely sure what I'll be able to write here, because the research being done is being funded by a commercial drug company. If successful, the outcome might be an anti-obesity drug, which is obviously something that has a great deal of income-earning potential, and it's been made very clear that they don't want me blabbing all about it. So I probably won't write anything more about experimental results.

The work environment is peculiar, unlike anywhere I've worked before. The professor in charge has an office in the Medical School, but about ten postgrad and postdoc students share an office attached to the lab in the Biological Science area. I was introduced to just one or two, and mostly they don't talk to one another. Not because of any problem, they just don't talk very much. Except one of them has a fish tank, which is handy, because we can talk about fish. I am in the care of a lovely girl, H from Sierra Leone, who is nearing the end of her second year of her four-year PhD.

Today was the second day, and it went much better. I found my way from the front door to the lab, from the lab to the loo, to the tissue culture room and even as far as the library. I set up some cells to grow in a flask! I was under strict supervision, given that my technique was pretty hopeless. Everything is done inside an extractor hood so that it stays sterile, but I made most of the basic mistakes in this one easy operation - touching surfaces with the pipette tip, taking things out of the hood so they weren't sterile, touching sterile things with my gloved hands. At least I didn't knock anything over or draw liquid right up into the automatic pipette gun thing.

Anyway, my cells are now growing in a medium that's as nearly sterile as I could manage, with enough food for a couple of days, when they will have grown enough for us to put the colony into bigger flasks, assuming that they are still alive. By then I hope to have become qualified to handle radioactive isotopes, which we will feed to the cells, and they will make products which we will extract and measure. If my cells are contaminated or dead, I will have another try.

I didn't mention where we got the cells - they were from previous cultures that H had enthusiastically grown before she knew how much she would actually need. They were stored in a flask of liquid nitrogen, which H casually opened up, then lifted out a batch of frozen samples and picked one out without gloves (they were too fiddly to manage with gloves on). Very casual; I was impressed.

Meanwhile, the weather has continued to be terrible. Our few days holiday were at the perfect time - it's hardly stopped raining since we came back, which is great for the three tomato plants and pots of basil and rocket that I planted. I've also got some mint plants and some dill seeds, but I haven't had time to plant/sow them - I'm hoping to get round to it at the weekend, when I'm not AT WORK. I like being a student much better than this work thing - 9 to 5 every day! However did I cope for all those years?

Sunday, 7 June 2009

What I've been reading

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Bad Science
by Ben Goldacre

"How do we know if a treatment works, or if something causes cancer? Can the claims of homeopaths ever be as true - or as interesting - as the improbable research into the placebo effect? We are obsessed with our health. And yet we are constantly bombarded with inaccurate, contradictory and sometimes even misleading information."
This is compulsory reading for every individual in the country. I wouldn't say it's a classic of literature - the author's a doctor after all, and if he were a genius writer he could probably make a lot more money from writing. But it lays out how and why we are misled by journalists, which is where most of us pick up our knowledge of the latest scientific results. It's even made me want to go back and read the original scientific papers again, and believe me, they are hard going.

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A History of Modern Britain
by Andrew Marr

"From the Second World War onwards, Britain has been a country on the edge: first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world."
I was reading this for what seemed like years - it's quite a thick book, and hard going. He does try to include a bit about things like fashion in the 1960s and music in the 1970s, but the book is really shaped around the politicians, which is unsurprising given Andrew Marr's background as a political commentator. Mr A says he's going to read it now.

Image of the book cover
The Parasites
by Daphne du Maurier

narrated by Eleanor Bron
"Maria, Niall, and Celia have grown up in the shadow of their famous parents: their father a flamboyant singer and their mother a talented dancer. Now pursuing their own creative dreams, all three siblings feel an undeniable bond, but it is Maria and Niall who share the secrets of their parents' pasts."
Unfortunately, not up to her usual standard; the pace is stately and there are few excitements. It's about a theatrical family, and the three children who are allowed to run wild. Eleanor Bron is a great reader, though.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Three days in the sunshine

The thing about going away is that nobody updates your blog while you're gone, things happen and there are no rules. So you'll get just what I feel like writing. But I did take some nice pictures until my camera battery ran out, and then I took some pictures on my phone, which I haven't done before. I wasn't even certain that I'd saved them properly, but I've just had a go at transferring them to the PC and not only do they still exist, but they look pretty good too.

Drinks and sunglasses on a tableOf all the tasks I mentioned in the last entry, I managed the haircut, the jobs I'd been set by Lola II, a very small amount of cooking, and clearing the shower drain. Then I went to London and had a very lovely time in Lola II's Extremely Tidy Flat, and I'm sure I'll be reporting in a later entry on at least one of the many ridiculous activities that took place there.

Mr A and our tent with the sea in the backgroundThe mini-break with Mr A was wonderful, not least because we chose the hottest, sunniest three days of the year so far. The campsite on the first night was amazing, on the cliffs above the sea near Bridport on the south coast of England.

Despite the glorious sunshine there was a stiff breeze, and I woke up a couple of times in the night thinking "the tent's making a lot of flapping noise" before going to sleep again. Lucky I'm used to Mr A's snoring, otherwise I might have been kept awake.

We went for a walk along the cliffs in the morning before packing up and heading off for a look around Bridport. In the afternoon we visited Mapperton Gardens near Beaminster in Dorset, described as 'a unique valley garden'. It was one of the most gorgeous places I've visited for a long time, not very big but so beautiful. The time of year is obviously a great help, because most of the plants were in bloom, especially poppies, roses and lots of daisies.

Mapperton Garden

The 'fishponds' were clearly originally designed for bathing - there are ladders down into the water, and if the weeds and fish were removed it would be a beautiful spot to bathe, especially on a day as hot as when we visited. Lower down beyond the pools is a 'wild garden' full of plants not laid out formally, with the remains of the stream running through the middle.

Bathing pool/fishpondWe saw a hawk of some kind circling ominously, with a single smaller bird mobbing it, flying towards the hawk and almost knocking into it. There was an old church to look at too, and for a month in summer the house is open to visitors.

In the cafe Mr A ate a 'cake' that consisted of glace cherries, bits of Crunchie honeycomb and biscuit all held together by chocolate, and pronounced it one of the best cakes he'd ever had, mainly because it contained no cake at all.

Andy in the orangerySo that was the first half of our trip; in the second half we spent more time with friends. The Bikers were on the Plymouth-Dakar trip that Mr A did in 2005/6; the Nuclear Family used to live round the corner in Leamington until they moved to Devon about two months ago.

The Bikers live in a cottage in Somerset that has extraordinary land around it. They face the main road, but at the side of the road is a steep embankment, and their garden runs along the top of the embankment, not much more than 15 feet wide, but long enough to contain a garden table, lawn, two sheds, a large vegetable plot, a chicken coop complete with five chickens, a greenhouse, and compost heaps at the end.

Behind the house, on the next terraced level up is a patch of land that separates them from a newly built estate. There's no proper access to this land, but building plans are submitted occasionally, and nothing comes of it. So The Bikers and some of the other neighbours are putting it to good use and growing yet more vegetables. I am determined that, following their example, I will at least raise one or two tomato and courgette plants this summer. I couldn't manage as much as they do, but it shouldn't be difficult to grow a little bit of food for us...

PoppiesIt was lovely to see them again; we spent a lazy morning reading books in the shade next day before heading off to a seaside resort where we had a seafood lunch, and then on to The Nuclear Family, currently residing in a little Devon town.

As soon as we arrived we were whisked off to the beach complete with bucket and spades, rug to sit on, frisbees, and supper ready to cook and eat in the evening sunshine. We talked about how long it would be before heading to the beach at the end of the day would stop being a novelty and a treat, and what we will all do when we stop being students, full-time parents, unemployed and 'between jobs'.

Now we're back home, and the real world has replaced the sunshiny holiday world. Mr A's gone off to a meeting with a customer and I've had to update my CV, which was harder than I thought it would be. Soon I can head into town to the vegetable shop, or into the garden to sort out the compost and pots for all these vegetables I'm going to grow...