Sunday, 8 November 2009


I'VE been dreaming a lot recently, some might say having nightmares: about pipetting, aliquoting and giant, man-eating flies. My mind will repeat the motions of pipetting, sometimes at a selection of probe concentrations, again and again until the point of insanity, when I realise I'm now awake and actually panicking about whether or not I have set up my experiments correctly.

I think the PhD is going to my head.

When considering whether to accept this position, my potential supervisor advised me to make a cake for my girlfriend. Many experimental protocols are much like following a recipe she said, with particular ingredients, particular methods and steps. But, like a cake, to make an experiment work you need to understand the recipe, what is most important to include or do compared with other steps or ingredients, so that you can tinker and get to the result you want: the perfect cake. You have to be prepared for many cake failures but you must continue - you must continue - until it rises precisely, the icing is uniform and the texture and flavour are, in every way, supreme. No cake: no PhD. But people tried to put me off, preparing me for failure, and thus the impression I got was that things are actually much more complicated than this.


A PhD is much like baking a cake for your girlfriend. You must follow the recipe exactly but be prepared for failure, at which point you must then play with the ingredients, timings, steps and sizes of baking trays until you achieve success. And then, just as you reach this result (or at least think you have), your girlfriend - now fiancée - is diagnosed with coeliac disease and so cannot eat the cake that you've made. You have to learn a whole new set of rules about ingredients, source more specialist types of flours, raising agents and a magical thing called xanthan gum, and start the whole procedure again.

I still haven't made Rachel a cake - I've only managed chocolate brownie, which was, in my defence, pretty darned tasty. Consequently, I suppose, I still haven't mastered the art of the PhD. Maybe this explains the dreams about fixatives, fly larvae and aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after ... aliquot after aliquot of staining solution and hybridisation buffer. After last year I have managed to detach myself from work as I return home for an evening or weekend, but apparently not in my subconscious.

I'm not sure, however, that this explains the dreams about my pet cat gnawing through my laptop power lead or being trapped in a zoo enclosure by a velociraptor.