Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A timely kick in the ego

I spent two days last week on a fieldwork training course organised by DARN, the Dreadful Acronyms Research Network. Peter and Katy kindly offered me somewhere to crash, and apart from giving me a joke bath towel that was just a little too small to cover both base and apex simultaneously and so forced me to perform a high speed streak out of the bathroom every morning, were wonderful hosts. Many thanks.

For me the most useful part of the course was the networking session, where we got to meet people working on similar projects. Up until that point I had been feeling smugly pleased with myself; after all, I was about to endure hardship (lack of hot showers, tea deprivation, probably missing the second half of the season of Battlestar Galactica) in order to Make A Difference. Then I got talking to a woman who'd done her fieldwork in the Gaza strip, collecting medical samples in streets patrolled by tanks and sending them out of country without knowing when she'd be allowed across the border herself to follow them, and a bloke who had been studying the health consequences for scavengers in Bangladesh who recycled medical waste, ("recycling medical waste" in this context means fishing around in buckets of bodily fluids and sharps to find a few bits of plastic tubing that could be sold for a pittance) a group of people looked down upon in the already marginalised scavenger community and hence so hard to find that he'd had to invent an entirely new sampling system to get to them. Suddenly what I'm doing seems pretty tame.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


This email was sent round the Durham biology department a few weeks ago by Dr Shaw himself:

"We have a developing problem with squirrels trying to get into the rubbish dumpsters. Earlier today one of our postgrads, whilst opening the cardboard recycling bin adjacent to the workshop, was scratched by a squirrel, apparently trapped in the bin.

So a few words of caution :

1. When approaching any of the outside dumpsters, advance and open the lid with care, mindful that a squirrel may be trapped inside, and may leap out as soon as the lid is opened fractionally;

2. Always leave the dumpster lids properly closed to prevent any animal entry"

Why did I only post it now? I was trying to find that picture. There's a lot of research involved in a PhD.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Fearsome forceps

I need your help people! I have to choose some forceps to hold the sponges for taking tear samples from Gambian children with, and need to know which type looks least threatening. I'd imagine that a small Gambian sprog would be pretty upset by a crazy white woman attempting to stick something in his eye even if the forceps used were made of kittens and candyfloss, but I'd appreciate it if you could tell me which type looks least scary.



Please vote with the poll thingumy on the right, in between all the other random gizmos that I seem to be accumulating.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008


Nothing is working, and strangely I realise I like it when things don't work first time - it gives you the opportunity to figure out what went wrong then try to design an approach that'll get around it. And it's far more satisfying when you get an answer if you've had to work at it.

I realise that feeling this way is a luxury I can afford a month into my PhD. I'm sure my opinions will be very different a month before the deadline.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The wrong kind of cold

It's probably karma. After spending the last couple of weeks hoping someone in the lab would come down with a cold and start leaking experimentally useful nasal discharge, I've got ladyflu. Most annoyingly it's given me a head that feels like it's stuffed with marshmallow fluff and a cough like a Dickensian street-urchin, but my nose is stubbornly refusing to run.


Saturday, 15 November 2008

To Crowded House, for services to science

When not shopping, sunning myself or catching yellow fever some of my time in The Gambia will be spent catching flies to start up a colony in the UK, to which I can do unspeakable things. A sensible way to do this would be to catch some adults rather than trying to find eggs or maggots, but this raises the problem of what to feed them. As you are all sick to death of hearing by now, Musca sorbens adults feed on tears. Much as if you’d never tasted steak you’d be happy eating tofu all your life (or for that matter if I couldn’t remember what a baguette was supposed to taste like I’d be quite happy with Trufree sliced bath sponges), laboratory raised insects are often quite happy eating an artificial diet, but it may well be that the wild caught adults that have tasted the real thing will refuse to touch it. If that happens I’ll have to feed them on my own tears.

Empathy’s a very worthy thing, but obviously I’m not particularly keen to get trachoma myself so I’m not just going to let the flies land on my eyes, I’ll have to cry and mop the tears up. It’s actually extremely difficult to cry on demand, which is why I’m not an actress or a guest on Oprah – I spent a rather unpleasant afternoon slapping myself in the face and looking for people to give me Chinese burns finding this out. Just when all seemed lost I remembered a song that was playing when I had a very bad argument with someone I care about a great deal. This triggered some sort of Pavlovian response*, and ever since when I hear the song I start crying. This happened many years ago and I though it had worn off, but I heard the song at Glastonbury this year and had to rush off in case anyone I was with noticed. The song’s by Crowded House, but I’m not going to say which one in case everyone starts playing it at me to watch me blubbing. So strange but true, Crowded House may well play a vital role in the fight against trachoma.

*According to the great Terry Pratchett, a Pavlovian response occurs when a dog is conditioned to eat a raspberry meringue whenever it hears a bell ringing.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The strange world of the grad student

I recently received this email:

"Calling all dancing scientists!
Come on you talented people out there... here is an opportunity to express yourselves! Are you the sort of scientist who taps her toes while working in the laboratory? Didn't I see you pirouette on your way to the fume hood? You look like you're crunching data over there on the computer, but you're actually browsing 1980s music videos on YouTube. In fact, doesn't your entire scientific career feel like one big dance, like Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring <
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXVuVQuMvgA> , the Village People doing YMCA <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CS9OO0S5w2k> , or maybe Michael Jackson dancing with zombies in Thriller <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyJbIOZjS8> , depending on your mood? If so, then your name is written all over this:The 2009 AAAS Science Dance Contest Taking science to the dance and back again Submission deadline: 16 November 2008
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/322/5899/186b "

Marianne and Lou have gamely had a go, but I suspect the type of dance I'd end up doing would be better received in Soho by people of very particular tastes.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Bug shot

I've finally managed to find a semi-decent picture of Musca sorbens. This is a female laying eggs:

As you can see they're rather pretty little patterned flies, even if they are evil wee blighters. As V. G. Dethier says of another fly in his or her wonderfully eccentric book The Hungry Fly:
"If we are able to overlook the fly's scatological way of life, we see a thing of beauty, a jet jewel (.....) whose diaphanous wings bear it aloft with consummate skill, the curvature of whose eyes flows in smoothest arc, whose faceted design rivals the honeycomb in hexagonal perfection, whose hairs curve in marvelously fluted columns rivaling the best in Gothic architecture. And privately within, its softer self is laced with the exquisite silver filigree of its air-filled tracheae. There is perfection in its parts and gracefulness in all its movements."
As for what she's laying eggs on, use your imaginations people.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


I had my vaccinations today, and am now immune to pretty much every known disease.

From left to right I've had typhoid, hepatitis A and B, tetanus, diptheria and polio. I need to go back next week for hepatitis boosters, yellow fever, rabies and flu vaccine, the last of which made me suspect the nurse was just looking in her fridge and sticking anything she could find in me.


Saturday, 1 November 2008

Back on the GNER

Now that I've finally got the knack of operating Lou and Ting's front door key (you push it in all the way then pull it out slightly and jiggle it furiously, as the actress said to the bishop) it's time for me to head back down south where the opportunity to poke myself in the eye with a variety of sterile sampling media awaits me. Lou and Ting, thanks again for the bed, I really appreciate it and hope that not being able to wander around the house in your pants for a month wasn't too much of an ordeal, and that you didn't break too many ribs falling over my boots.