March for Science

London, Saturday April 22nd 2017

The weather is changeable as I leave the flat in the late morning. Sunny spells – dazzling my eyes clad in contact lenses – are abruptly overtaken by the English drizzle that leaves me damp and puzzled because the sun has already regained its prominence. I’m on the Westbound Piccadilly line wearing a Cancer Research UK t-shirt that reads, “I’m a researcher fighting cancer”, and I can’t tell whether I’m getting more looks than is usual on the Tube. I alight at South Kensington to meet a friend of mine, the bubbleologist Li Shen. (And yes, that is now a technical term. Li, who has a degree in mathematics, is a PhD student studying the physics of bubbles, which has far-reaching implications: from the amount of bubbles generated by different types of beer to the undesired foaming of lubricants used in oil extraction.) But we’re not just here to catch up, although it is conveniently close to his lab/office at Imperial College. No, we’re here to join the March for Science. [All of the following images were taken either by Li or by me.]

science march banner.jpg

According to the BBC, “thousands of people” joined the march, the first of its kind taking place on the annual Earth Day and organised around the world. I think the event probably got part of its boost from the Women’s Marches that took place on January 21st, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Certainly, the protesters on both occasions had much in common.

destroy the patriarchy, not the planet

One of the most notable differences between the two events, however, was that this second protest was certainly smaller and also much quieter. I suppose it’s true that scientists – and yes, the marchers were mainly scientists and their relatives, partners and close friends – are a little bit shy and socially awkward. Amongst the stewards, one was trying to get the following chant off the ground, with little success, “Scientists are good at generating questions, not so good at slogans”…

french embassy

Here’s a blurry Li in the foreground, with a sharp French embassy in the background. Walking by I couldn’t help but send what’s known as a “Stoßgebet” in German to the high heavens; roughly translates as a quick (secular) prayer. For now we can breathe a brief sigh of relief after the first round of the presidential elections. Hopefully Europe, science and European Research Council funding will be able to continue to prosper.

knowledge trumps ignorance

Speaking of Trump, the March for Science event emanated from Washington DC, where it started as a protest against fake news, alternative facts and a world in which experts are regarded as worthy of derision. Honestly, as with the Women’s March, I don’t know and can’t tell how much impact marches like these actually have in politics, but as a start there was significant media coverage. Even Buzzfeed compiled its list of top banners and slogans (some scientists do have a sense of humour). My personal favourite was this one, of course.

big brains

I do know that within three months I went to two marches, the first two of my life. Ideally, I won’t have to go to any more and will be able to spend my Saturdays in the lab, where a diligent PhD student should be (and where I know some of my colleagues were). Lastly, let’s give reason, described by Wikipedia as being “the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information”, a big thumbs up.

reason

Cancer Research UK – PhD Student Meeting

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is the world’s largest independent cancer charity (according to Wikipedia)  and funds thousands of scientists across the UK. In the latest annual report they state that more than £340 million were spent on research. Take a look at the fancy infographic here to see a break-down of how that money was spent:

annual report

The reason for writing this post on CRUK is that today the charity held its first-ever first year PhD students’ meeting in London, at the Quaker Friends House near Euston station. The attendees came from all over the UK: from as far afield as Aberdeen and Manchester to Oxford and Cambridge and finally us lazy Londoners who could afford to get up later than on a normal lab day.

The main aims of the meeting were to get to know some of the people working at CRUK’s head office in London and how, in future, we might apply for their funding. One of the first things I learnt today was that CRUK has made four cancer types – brain, lung, pancreatic (!) and oesophageal – “strategic priorities”, because the survival rates for these are still low and lagging behind those of, say, breast and prostate cancer. We also heard, from the senior research funding manager, Richard Oakley, how CRUK spends its money and what we can and are meant to do to help. Among other things this involves wearing branded t-shirts and participating in fundraising events. So tomorrow morning I will wear this to run in the park in preparation for the 10 km Race for Life happening at the end of June – please feel free to fund me and/or the maybe pink team and/or join the run! [We can start a separate conversation on the topic of the martial language used by CRUK, and other charities, to help raise the money. N.B. The back of the t-shirt reads, “Ask me about my life-saving research.”]

cruk

Since doing a PhD is all about the learning experience, most of the morning was filled with one of three workshops on either a) assertiveness, b) time management, or c) having an effective working relationship with your supervisor. I chose the first option, and although some people (especially in my lab) will argue that it would be better if I were a bit more quiet on occasion, I thought it would be interesting to see what it could offer. The basic message was, of course, quite clear: effectively communicate your needs whilst appreciating other people’s needs. Easier said than done for sure. The only thing that helps is practising being in potentially awkward situations and putting oneself outside one’s comfort zone, which is where learning can happen. Possibly the most helpful information was to realise what isn’t assertive behaviour (e.g. being too passive, or too (indirectly) aggressive) and making sure to recognise those behaviours in oneself and learning to avoid them in future. We’ll see how that goes.

Over lunch we got to browse a few posters. I particularly enjoyed the ones on intestinal stem cells and a potential preventative treatment for breast cancer using the diabetes drug Metformin. And lastly, we were politely, with the help of beer and/or wine, coerced into networking…

Inducing PhD Students

What a feat of architecture and design: the new Francis Crick Institute on Brill Place right next to (West of) St. Pancras Station in London. Apparently the ground floor was built first and then extended up and down simultaneously; I didn’t know that was possible. If you decide to watch the video, I recommend turning off the sound and ignoring the spectres and shadows of people.

Now, sadly, I don’t have a picture of us new PhD students posing outside or inside the building because it isn’t finished yet. As far as I am aware, there have been issues with the air conditioning and parts of the basement vibrate too much for sensitive instruments, such as microscopes, to be set up. The latter is perhaps not surprising considering that the Crick is wedged right between St. Pancras and Euston stations…

Last week we were induced/introduced/inducted to the life of being PhD students. The CEO of the Crick, Paul Nurse, who happens to have won a Nobel Prize, talked to us about how we shouldn’t work too much, try to step out of our projects from time to time to gain an overview, and remember that it is a privilege and not an entitlement to be doing a PhD at the Crick. He also said that leaving academia after this four-year PhD should not be regarded as a failure and that we would receive support in doing other things. I’m a bit sceptical because he also heavily implied that we were not to disappoint the institute, but we’ll see.

As part of the degree we will also have to complete ten days of training per year, which should cover all our bases (according to the Researcher Development Framework; gone are the days of the solitary, uncommunicative, mad scientist):

RDF

In between the serious talks there were plenty of opportunities to get to know – or schmooze with, as one of the students put it – the other students over coffee/tea/beer/wine/pizza/sandwiches. During the first icebreaker session we introduced ourselves and had to provide a memorable fact: they ranged from having started a cupcake business, to being fond of planes, teaching children the piano, appearing in a television series as a child and even being Austrian (!).

We also had a lecture on scientific integrity and ethics (in research). The take-home message was, as always, to be honest. We were shown how not to manipulate or massage data. Luckily, we will be given training in Photoshop and Illustrator so that we can handle our images correctly.

Two half-days were spent listening to the leaders of the so-called Science & Technology Platforms (STPs). These are specialised labs that usually do not have their own projects, but rather lend their equipment and expertise to the other research groups in the institute to enable them to perform experiments they would not be able to do on their own. The STPs include, among others, advanced microscopy facilities (both light and electron microscopy), flow cytometry (to analyse cells at the single-cell level and even sort them), bioinformatics and statistics, DNA/RNA sequencing and peptide chemistry/synthesis. However, the one I was most surprised by was the “scientific instrument prototyping” group – they basically create new scientific machines that no company has made before. They probably conform to the crazy inventor stereotype the most. Overall, the services offered by the STPs seem absolutely incredible and hopefully many of us will actually get to work with them.

After a week of what I thought would be a relaxed introduction to the next four years I am asking myself the question how I used to be able to sit through and concentrate during lectures?! It’s really not that long ago. And also, how have I never really reflected upon the fact that most speakers/lecturers are white middle-aged men? With the exception of the administration team, the communications/engagement team, the scientists in charge of the animal facilities and the professor who gave the talk on ethics, all of the speakers were men. Bear in mind that in our year women make up almost 70% of all students.

The last activity was organised by current PhD students and called “What Mad Pursuits“, after a book by Francis Crick. A few students from each year outlined their take on scientific discovery, told us a bit about their research, gave us refreshing examples of how and how often they’ve made mistakes (e.g. putting the microscope slide the wrong way up for two weeks before figuring out why there was no image; setting gloves on fire etc.) and gave us some advice. One student recommended reading this paper (Schwartz, 2008) – The importance of stupidity in scientific research:

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. […] The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

References:

Medawar PB (1979) Advice to a Young Scientist. Basic Books, New York.

Schwartz MA (2008) The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771

PhD Interview for the Francis Crick Institute!

Despite being funded as a Cancer Research UK charity, the London Research Institute (LRI) went to considerable lengths to ensure that we interviewees were comfortable during our three-day visit to London and the institute. Firstly, our travel expenses – ranging from short intra-England train journeys to flights from across Europe and North America – were covered, as well as our accommodation at a hotel overlooking Russell Square at the heart of Bloomsbury:

image1

The first day was probably the most strenuous. First we listened to introductory talks given by the LRI Academic Director and the LRI’s Deputy Director who, incidentally, also quoted Donald Rumsfeld about the unknown unknowns just like at the departmental research day. Furthermore, as part of my destressing strategy I took a walk around the area during one of the breaks, inevitably stumbled into a bookshop and found this:

image2

The rest of the first day was filled by talks given by each of the recruiting group leaders. Eighteen times ten minutes of concentration. After that we got the chance to speak to those principal investigators (PIs) we were interested in. Lastly, we had dinner with the PIs and some of their students. And although all of this was not part of the “official” assessment procedure I think it was important to be making a good impression throughout, and therefore by the end of this first day most of us felt exhausted.

The official panel interviews were scheduled for the second day. We each had to give a presentation of a research project we were involved in, as well as a critique of a research paper. We were then asked some questions on these presentations and also had the usual questions hurtled at us, “Why do you want to do a PhD? Why do you want to do it at the LRI? What are your long-term goals?” Etc.

We were also privy to a tour of the LRI building at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. During the introductory talks they emphasised how great the facilities – DNA sequencing, flow cytometry and microscopy among others – at the LRI are. I was skeptical at first, but the tour was convincing, especially considering that probably not so much money is being invested in the upkeep of this building due to the move of the LRI into the Francis Crick Institute in 2016. At the Crick of course everything will be even better, as they didn’t fail to mention at every possible opportunity.

On the second day we had dinner together with the lab members of the recruiting labs, but without the PIs who were busy trying to work out who to invite for the third day on which one-on-one interviews would be held. We were certainly more relaxed this evening. However, the next morning between 7.15 and 8.00 am we had to come down into the reception area of the hotel to pick up a letter informing us whether we had been invited for the third and final day. It was irrational to be nervous because at this stage there was absolutely nothing to be done about the situation. Nevertheless, I, and probably many others, had difficulty sleeping that night.

Luckily, I was invited back to speak to three group leaders: Axel Behrens, Victoria Sanz-Moreno with Ilaria Malanchi, and Caroline Hill. In these sessions it became clear that I would want to work either with Axel on pancreatic cancer or with Victoria and Ilaria on melanoma. The third project was more focussed on neurodevelopment, which is interesting but my gut feeling told me to veer away from it simply because I have a stronger background in cancer biology.

At the end of the third day we had to hand in a preference list, and then all there was left to do was to go back to Cambridge and wait. But the waiting was mainly a formality since it had become clear during the day that Axel Behrens’ lab was going to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I am extremely excited! London, here I come!