Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A day in the lab

THE big assignment of day two of the Creative Writing Course was to describe a typical day of our research. There’s no such thing, but here’s what I wrote (slightly edited to remove details that shouldn’t be published at this stage of my project).

There is no such thing as a normal day in my research group, rather many things that happen often, all of them with unimaginable effects, masked by mundane and repetitive tasks. From one point of view, the day starts with some counting, continues on to mixing volumes of colourless liquids and ends with some more counting. But from another point of view, the day starts with the segregation of living organisms according to the manifestation of different visible, heritable character traits, the genetic combinations of which you have carefully created; continues on to the creation of specific fragments of DNA and all manner of invisible yet complex constructs, which you rely on surrogate bacteria to grow and copy for you; and ends with the day’s round up of new fly progeny, which you will use to show the effect of combining two faulty genes, one step closer to finding what you are looking for.

Every day at 9am and 5pm the geneticists in our laboratory – myself included – pour into the fly room, a self-contained unit with microscopes. With a model organism of about 2-3 mm in length, high magnification is a necessity. Fruit flies have been used for years as a genetic model, pioneered by the work of Thomas Hunt Morgan in the early 1900s, as it is very easy to trace heritable, viewable characteristics over generations. For example, if one parent has curly wings and the other spotty eyes, the laws of genetics can tell us what their offspring will look like and in what ratio. Morgan did it with eye colour, and we still use this marker today, tracing red, white and orange eyes through the generations in predictable ways until you reach the combination you desire. It’s not the eye colour or wing shape or hair type that you’re really interested in, but such markers can be associated with mutations invisible to the eye, thereby providing a way to trace a mutation of choice. These laws of genetics have never been disproven (though often elaborated), which we’re rather happy about.

And 9am? Well, this is to collect them immediately after hatching, before they get busy with the ladies! In genetics control is key: you cannot afford for true love to blossom among your young ones – not usually anyway. So, to the soothing sounds of Melvyn Bragg, Jenny Murray or whoever else is educating the world from BBC Radio 4 that morning, we sit, count and matchmake.

Then: to the lab! At the moment I am often making RNA probes and DNA constructs, trying to take a gene, of which nobody knows anything, isolating it and making copies. I use enzymes and salts and, despite the fact that I am simply mixing chemicals and occasionally heating them up, if I were to zoom in I would see the units of life sticking together in often novel sequences, proteins acting as robots on an assembly line, and antibodies scoping out a particular protein like sniffer dogs at an airport. Inside that tube is another universe, operating entirely by itself, with this scientist trying to peer in. I know what is going on only by working through established logic, hoping that I got the recipe right. All I see is one tiny bit of liquid mixing with another, but I hope for the best: I dream of magical things happening.

Sometimes, magical things do happen. After two days of hoping, my RNA probe might start glowing – for complicated reasons – inside a tiny fly embryo, revealing a distinct pattern that nobody has seen before. I can see, quite literally, what parts of the body use that gene and, reassuringly, they are exactly where I want them to be. So then I’ll spend a few days in a dark room, looking at the embryo at 63 times the size it actually is, photographing it and trying to work out what my gene does.

But I must be back in the fly room at 5pm (just in time to listen to Eddie Mair delving into the day’s news) to collect more new-born flies and separate them ready for matchmaking – which invariably happens on Friday, 3 pm, during
Gardener’s Question Time. The hour of genetics has come.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

One room: thirty realities

A MONTH or so ago, just days after handing in my 9-month report, I went on a creative writing course. My report had turned into a monster, far exceeding the suggested word and page count, and I was keen to do something different (and far less stressful) for a few days. Though the course was supposed to be linked to my PhD – which is in Biology – I hoped it would give me a break from thinking in a scientific way and provide some light relief. It did, but not without its own intensities.

Designed to help us talk about our research to a non-scientific audience, it was pitched as an invaluable training tool for communication skills. In the end, there wasn’t much science included at all, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, which is peculiar, because when I was at school I could not stand pure creative writing. I thought it was pointless. I no longer think it is pointless, but I never choose to do it. The writing I do here may sometimes be a little creative, a form of fictionalised truth, but it is always based on something that has actually happened, or something I am thinking based on actual events. But for a change, I wanted to try.

The course was run by two local writers, one an author of novels, and one a scriptwriter for The Archers. Neither knew anything about science, and that was the point.

We began with a simple challenge to describe something about ourselves in exactly six words. The bar was set with an example from Ernest Hemmingway: “For sale: Baby clothes. Never used.”

There were some excellent examples, including “I fear boredom so have friends.” Mine came to me immediately and, though not creative, I could say nothing else:

“I am getting married in September.”

After another such exercise, things began to get trickier. We were tasked with getting to know our neighbour, discovering the tale of a pivotal event in their lives and telling the group that person’s story as if we had lived it ourselves. This was quite a skill, and I relished the opportunity to tell my story as a Bulgarian–Israeli girl torn between conscription and a life of science, meeting boys and finding my identity. It was difficult to portray the emotions of another, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would learn about how I myself come across – my story was subsequently retold entirely differently to how I might have told it to the group, and indeed how I thought of it myself. The topics covered were surprisingly personal and open, and set the mood for the rest of the course.

After this came the big assignment of Day One, to write and then tell the story of either the best or worst day of our lives. The day suddenly turned from empathetic storytelling to disconcerting psychotherapy. The stories were incredible, often perfectly pitched for a film script, but always raw, honest and revealing of a great deal of private anguish. It didn’t sit right with the appraisal mechanism at hand. Take, for example, the young Chinese lady who had suffered at the hands of an abusive partner for four years, only just mustering the energy to say “hello” to him every morning. Enough was enough, and on the last day of a holiday, with their flights home separate and on different days, she stayed behind and missed her journey home to finally say how she felt. Things didn’t go well, and she was left alone and broken in an unknown place, free but feeling anything but. She passed the time until the next flight home by going to the cinema — it was showing Love Actually — amusing to all around except to her. It was only mocking to her. Two years later, he came to apologise. It was unexpected, long yearned-for and appreciated but anything but cathartic. It dragged the feelings up once more, but it was done. It was over. She went back into her apartment, letting the happiness slowly seep through the shock, and then sat and turned on the television. The first thing to come on screen was Love Actually.

The group sat in shock: the course leaders were in ecstasy. They applauded the tension, the structure and devices of the story: the film-like coincidence of Love Actually and the emotions of fear then isolation in an unknown city. But such appraisal felt wrong given that what had been told was true. The girl was almost in tears as she read it. I applaud her honesty and brevity for being able to tell the tale, but I question whether she should have been encouraged to say it at all. This was being creative, but not with a hypothetical scene or event but with the harshest or most jubilant personal emotions of the people actually in the room.

Other stories told included an escape from a car crash, the perils of the number 11 bus route, resistance against a foreign government, being stranded in the middle of the Sahara for three hours without water, finding love, the death of a mother, and my personal favourite of the academic lecturer who is a scientist and laboratory head at the university for half the year, and a shepherd on the Mongolian steppe for the remainder. As he described the sensation of waking up in the wilderness I felt a pang of yearning to escape the bustle of civilization, although I have no intention of tending to livestock. If nothing else the day was absolutely fascinating, with thirty people sharing their lives. We all live in the same place, but the stories and memories that make us who we are are all so different, influenced by so many disparate and telling experiences from all over the world. Nearly 7 billion people in the world, all of them unique, all with an adventure to tell that you would never expect.

The story I told was personal but, in the manner you may have become accustomed to if you come here regularly, I tried to find the light-hearted side of it. This wasn’t difficult, because it was about the best day of my life, so far. You might get to hear it if you’re coming to my wedding.