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

Monday 29 December 2008

All change

You know that awkward situation when you say your long goodbyes to someone you won't be seeing for a while, then see them at the bus stop ten minutes later and have to make stilted conversation until you say your long goodbyes again? That's the way I feel at the moment. I've just discovered that the LSHTM's trachoma survey won't be going out to The Gambia until April, so Jeff has had to mothball his plans for a return to batchelor life in January (the pizza menus are back in the drawer, the strippers have been hastily cancelled). Whilst the delay means I will be spending winter in Britain after all, and I had thought I could get away without buying a new pair of winter boots, it does at least give me longer to perfect my fly-rearing techniques (memo to self: animals need water) and to master all the gear.

Of course this does also mean that you'll have to put up with my wittering a little longer. While I still have your attention though, could the person I promised to lend "My name is light" by Elsa Osorio to please step forward? I've found the book now but can't remember who you were. I hope I can get away with blaming this on Aspall, and would like to assure you that your friendship means a lot to me and I greatly appreciate you as an individual. Whoever you are.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Happy Christmas/Yule/Winterval!

Here's something to put you off your turkey:

Ophthalmomyiasis in Hawaii.
Author(s): Kajioka, Eric H N; Nagao, Cherie F K;
Karas, Stefan; Hardman, John M; Navin, James J Source: Hawaii Med J
Volume: 63 Issue: 3 Pages: 78-9
Published: 2004 Mar

Ophthalmomyiasis is the infestation of the eye by fly larvae. Commonlycaused by Oestrus ovis, a female sheep botfly will accidentally deposit her larvae into a human eye, resulting in disease. Prompt recognition and treatment of this condition will improve patient care and reduce potential complications. We report a case of ophthalmomyiasis in a young man from Molokai who was infested while unloading a Christmas tree.

PubMed ID: 15124740

Happy Christmas everyone!

Sunday 21 December 2008

Bitter Oranges

This has nothing to do with my PhD, but I'm posting it here because it gets the highest readership of any of my blogs*. On my way home on Monday I noticed a group of people outside the Orange Tree Pub, waving banners and shouting. I do like a bit of shouting so I went to see what was going on. It turned out that the British Nazi National Party were having their Christmas party in there. I grabbed a placard and am proud to have played some small part in forcing some of them to spend their Christmas celebrations standing outside the pub in the freezing drizzle, attempting to intimidate us whilst icy water dripped on their shaven heads.

The BNP is, sadly, a legal political party so there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to hold their Christmas party in a pub. However, I doubt that I'm alone in not wanting to drink in the same pub as a bunch of racist wankers, who think that rape is no worse than force-feeding someone chocolate cake and that mixed race people should...actually, I don't have the strength to go on. I shall be writing to the manager of the Orange Tree to explain that I feel this way, and also to Youngs, the chain that owns the pub, and would encourage as many people as possible to do the same. A word of warning though, the manager of the Orange Tree is clearly a BNP sympathiser as they've met there before, so if you do write to the pub it'd be safer not to put a return address – just because we know their addresses doesn't mean they need to know ours.

If you have a receipt to show that you have drunk in a Youngs pub recently, include it with your letter to add weight to your assertion that you won't be drinking there in future. This shouldn't be too difficult for anyone who, like me, is a habitual drunkard** with a confetti of old receipts in her bag, but probably wouldn't be possible for someone like Imogen who I think alphabetises her handbag contents.

The addresses are as follows. There's also a Facebook group.

The Orange Tree:

Roger & Tracey Stearn
Orange Tree
45 Kew Road


Young's brewery:

Young & Co.’s Brewery, P.L.C.
Riverside House
26 Osiers Road
London SW18 1NH


Normal service will resume next week peeps. I know you're missing those flies.

*Six, and my Mum who my Dad prints it out for.

**You can delete this bit before printing Dad.

Friday 19 December 2008

Just before Predator struck...

Steve suggested that in addition to the volatiles, the flies may be using heat to home in on the eyes and having done a quick Google search for thermal images of faces (most of them nicked from here) it looks like he's on to something:

And while I have no evidence that flies are attracted to coffee cups, I thought this one was rather nice too:

Thursday 18 December 2008

Schoolgirl error

Until today I have been taking care of an experimental colony of houseflies, Musca domestica. I say until today because I took a couple of days off this week to see my supervisor in Durham, catch up with a few people and fail to get injected with a few more nasties. I made sure that the flies were at a life cycle stage that could be safely left, made sure they had enough food, and forgot to give them water.

Dead flies don't come back to life no matter how hard you shake the cage.


At least this means I don't have to come in over Christmas to feed them, but this isn't much consolation for me and even less for the flies.

On a more positive note Imogen has written an interesting blog post which I will respond to when I have a second. I'm flattered but a bit surprised to be described as articulate, as by the time that conversation took place I'd consumed half an orchard's worth of cider and started calling Richard Richmond again.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Why is The Gambia such a funny shape?

As with most oddly shaped countries in Africa, it's because of the way the Europeans went about nicking it- in this case, how the British nicked it from the French, who had in turn already nicked it from the people living there in the first place. Apparently the length of the country is the distance a British navy warship could get up the river Gambia, and the width is the distance the ship could fire a cannon. I was initially sceptical when I heard this, but Wikipedia confirms it so it must be true.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Oh shit!

I've just has my first delivery of cowshit to test for attractiveness (to flies, not to me). Problem is I was expecting a kilo at most and I've got half a steaming binbag full. I've had to put it in the insectary fridge as it won't fit anywhere else, and putting it in this shared fridge is fractionally less antisocial than putting it in the kitchen fridge. Emma suggested putting it on the windowsill as it's cold outside, like we did with milk as undergraduates in halls. The only drawback is that the milk had a tendency to fall off onto peoples' heads....

Suggestions welcome!

Monday 8 December 2008

Sticky Christmas!

This email's just gone round the lab:

"Hello everybody.
Once again, due to our unrivalled ability to breed healthy insects, we have a surplus of Giant Spiny Stick Insects (Eurycantha calcarata). These are currently at the "teenager" stage, so are a perfect size to sneak into the house without frightening your partner/children/parents.
If you are lacking ideas for a Christmas present, how about a nice new pet?! :-)"
If anyone wants one let me know and I'll get it for you. Just remember folks, a stick insect is for life, not just for Christmas.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Lost in your eyes

Having seen what it’s done to Lou’s sanity I wouldn’t want to be a medic, but it’s always fun to be a tourist and I’m enjoying reading up on the eye to get some idea of what sort of volatiles I’ll be finding in tears. Until now I’d never given tears much thought, beyond them being the soggy stuff that leaks out at weddings or when someone uses a track you really like to advertise cheese strings, but the lachrymal film (to use its posh name) actually turns out to be pretty amazing.

Closest to the eye is the mucin layer, composed of jelly-like glycoproteins (protein molecules with sugar molecules stuck on, for those not in the know). This provides a nice smooth friction-free surface for the eyelids to slide over, and holds the water layer above it in place. This liquid layer is the part I’d always thought of as tears, and is what washes away any grit that gets in your eye, as well as doing something complicated to the optical properties that I’m too dense to understand. It’s apparently a mistake to think of these as two distinct layers, they shade into one another as the glycoproteins get less dense the further you go from the eyeball. So don’t.

Of greatest interest to me though is what lies above the mucino-aqueous phase (we scientists love giving things complicated names – it makes us sound intelligent and gives us an advantage at Scrabble). This is the tear lipid layer, a thin film of oils, fats and waxes that covers the mucino-aqueous layer in the same way that oil floats on vinegar when you make fancy salad dressing. Generally smelly things tend to be soluble in fats (just think of essential oils, allowing me to get in a gratuitous plug for Jeff’s sister’s company which makes very nice bath things*) so I’m guessing that whatever the flies are smelling is coming from this layer.

The tear lipid layer is itself divided into two layers (layers are so this season, darling). The inner layer is just one molecule thick but these are rather clever molecules that have one end that dissolves in water and one end that dissolves in fats. This anchors all the fats above making up the tear lipid layer (TLL to its friends) to the vertical eyeball, stopping all the oils from sliding down to the bottom of your eye and leaking out. Which would be strange.

So what’s the point of all this? The TLL reduces the rate of evaporation from the water layer, making it last ten to twenty times as long as it would otherwise. It also reduces surface tension, helping spent tears to drain better, and catches fine dust. It contains antibacterial fatty acids and its high viscosity prevents oils from your skin from getting into your eye. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you appreciate an anatomical structure you didn’t know you had ten minutes ago, it also forms a watertight seal between your eyelids when you close them, compensating for microscopic imperfections where they don’t meet perfectly and so stopping your eyes from drying out when you sleep.

The TLL is secreted by the glands of Meibomius (why is it that only people with daft names get medical discoveries named after them? Is there a duct of Smith?). These are tiny little pin-prick glands on the lip of the eyelid, invisible to the naked eye. There are more of them on the upper eyelid than on the lower, so rather more is secreted on the upper lid margin than on the lower. This is because thanks to gravity the TLL is a little thicker at the bottom than the top, so replenishing it at the top is more of a priority. The ducts of the glands run up the inside of the eyelid, so those on the upper eyelid are longer than those on the lower, helping them secrete more. This probably explains why we blink down, why our upper eyelids are longer than our lower eyelids. I always wondered about this when I was younger, but to be fair I was a bit of a weird kid.

Glands of Meibomius, from: Lozato, P. A., P. J. Pisella, et al. (2001). "Phase lipidique du film lacrymal: physiologie et pathologie." Journal Francais D Ophtalmologie 24(6): 643-658.

Blinking squeezes more of the tear lipid secretions out of the glands, and the physical action of the eyelids smoothes it evenly across the eye, so your TLL is refreshed every time you blink. Like so much else your glands of Meibomius become less efficient as you get older, so the average adult needs to blink approximately every 20 seconds to refresh their TLL but babies can go more than a minute without blinking. This probably explains why they always have such a look of bug-eyed astonishment. If you go too long without blinking the TLL will eventually break up, allowing the water layer to evaporate and so bringing the TLL down into contact with the mucins which, in scientific terminology, buggers everything up. This leads to dry, uncomfortable eyes. So blink more people.

Did I mention incidentally that oxygen can get through the whole tear film to the cells on your cornea? Oxygen can get through the whole thing to the cells on your cornea. Isn’t that cool?

Having discovered how amazing your eyes are I am now horrified that anyone wears eye makeup. Eyeliner and mascara are full of foreign fats and oils that can get incorporated into the TLL, disrupting it. Absolutely the worst thing you can do though is use eyeliner inside the lip of your eyelid, as this can block the glands of Meibomius. If this happens there’s a good chance you’d be able to clear them with massage, but if that fails there’s a procedure I read about. Actually I read the first sentence of the paragraph then squealed, jumped back and quickly turned the paper over so I couldn’t read any more. As I was on the tube at the time this resulted in a bit of extra leg room as people shuffled away from me, but I think you get the message. Down with the patriarchy ladies. Ditch the eyeliner, your tear lipid layer will thank you.

Her glands of Meibomius probably aren't very healthy.

*OK the store part of her website doesn't seem to be up yet. Link to follow

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.

Friday 31 October 2008


It's not just flies that feed on tears. Some moths like this one, Chacopsestis ludovicae, also feed on ocular secretions by inserting their probosces under the eyelids.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Oh dear

I've just put this picture in my fieldwork plan.Hmm...

You're fired!

Anyone a fan of The Apprentice? You know those episodes where the contestants have to go out and find a collection of improbable items whilst spending the least money, like a cowskin with the tail still attached, a green alarm clock in the shape of a mosque and a single person who can't tell within two seconds of meeting them that they have the IQ of a button mushroom, wrapped up in an ego more commonly associated with people who sit in secure wards playing with their own poo and announcing that they're Jesus, wrapped up in an Armani suit? I feel like I'm in one of those episodes. I have to source a box of sterile cellulose ophthalmic sponge points, a small colony of Musca autumnalis and a regular supply of organic cow's manure. And I don't even get the opportunity to announce that I'll give 150% on national television.

Saturday 25 October 2008

The results are in

A month ago I asked you to help me make the decision on which antimalarial to take. To my astonishment at least four people turn out to have read my blog. Admittedly one of these people thinks I'm already so crazy that taking Larium wouldn't make any difference, and the response of one seems to have been "feed Jules weird things", but to my relief two think I should take doxycycline. Which I would have done anyway.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Here comes the science part!

I feel it's about time to introduce Musca sorbens, the little fly I'm planning to spend the next three years beheading, mutilating, impaling, forcing to copulate according to my whims and, frankly, doing everything to short of donning a Halloween mask and phoning it up to ask it if it likes horror movies. But it's all in the name of science, and anyway the little bugger probably deserves it.

Musca sorbens is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia and Australia. It's actually reckoned to be a species complex rather than a single species - for those unfamiliar with the term, species complex basically means "They all look the bloody same to me, but different populations won't shag when we put them together in the lab and we can't afford to do the DNA work". I can't seem to find a good picture of them on Google images, but they look like a slightly smaller housefly with two stripes on the thorax and, on the evidence of the specimens I've seen so far anyway, they have large pins with type-written names through them.

I'm reluctant to put up the pictures I have found of the flies, partly because they're so small but mostly because they make me sad, always showing them on beautiful kids:
I try to keep this blog quite light and funny, but on a purely emotional level pictures like this show why this sort of work is important. I find it very hard to understand how I live in a world with Ikea and Facebook and Angel boxsets and hazelnut latte, and on the same planet there are people living like this, who can't spare any of their two litres of water a day for washing, let alone spare 7p to buy soap.

M. sorbens adults feed on the dissolved salts and proteins in tears and snot, and in doing so transmit the bacterium responsible for trachoma. If you like looking at pictures of manky eyes (and hey, who am I to judge?) google trachoma, if you're eating your tea then don't. At first the infection seems just like conjuntivitis (or pinkeye for my American friends - who says you never learn anything from Southpark?) and eventually clears up on its own, making it pretty low on peoples' list of priorities. Repeated infections though cause scarring of the inner eyelid, causing it to contract and rolling the eyelashes inward so that they scrape the cornea whenever the sufferer blinks. As well as being excruciatingly painful, this scarring and possibly infection of the cornea leads to blindness. As it may be several decades between the initial infection and the development of trichiasis, people rarely associate the two.

The tragedy of all this is that flies seem to prefer the eyes of children to those of adults. There may be something in the tears and snot of children that's especially attractive to these flies or it may just be that, as anyone who's ever tried to get a four year old to blow their nose will tell you, kids are mucky little bastards and probably have rather more of the relevant secretions lying around. This is one of the things I'm hoping to find out. It has also been suggested in the same way that many other infections entities have evolved strategies to maximise their distribution (the cold virus makes you sneeze out an aerosol of cold viruses, the Guinea worm induces its victims to cool their burning sores in water into which it can release its young, if you have a Britney Spears song stuck in your head chances are you'll end up humming it and infect someone else), the trachoma bacterium may cause children's' eyes to water, attracting more flies to spread it. I'll also be looking at whether secretions from kids with trachoma are more attractive to flies than those of kids without (and any child found to have trachoma in the course of the study will get antibiotic treatment).

And this is the really sad thing - if you can't afford soap, you can't afford the really simple antibiotics to cure the results. As I may have observed on a previous occasion, the world's pretty messed up really.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Saturday 18 October 2008


The trouble with blogging is that, much like riding a tiger or drinking banana-onion juice, once you start you have to keep going. I am extremely flattered, and a bit embarrassed, to have had two emails and a text asking whether I'm still on this mortal coil and would like to assure you that I was certainly alive last time I checked.

Things have been a little hectic up here lately - all the fun with not having a passport meant that I missed the post grad registration day, on which I would have been offered iced beverages and canapes whilst the college secretary massaged my feet and David Bailey took my campus card photograph, and was instead forced to register along with the undergraduates. This involved being herded like cattle between department, college, Elvet Riverside and Old Shire Hall at least twice by people with an air of deperately forced jollity and a garish t-shirt with a humourous nickname like Baps or Rozzer on the back. I then queued for at least six hours behind a pashmina princess loudly informing the person next to her of how she caught leprosy on her gap year trip to India, to the general incredulity of all in earshot, before having a webcam waved in my face and coming away with a campus card photograph that makes me look like a perplexed hobbit (although this is at least an improvement on my previous campus card photograph, in which I looked like a perplexed hobbit who had just escaped from a category five hurricane).

Since then I have spent my time attending a variety of safety courses, in which I learnt that the appropriate course of action if you accidentally spill a culture of genetically modified microbes down yourself is to strip naked on the spot and autoclave your clothes (this has actually happened in the department). As I will not be working with gentically modified microbes I'm not entirely sure what the point of explaining this was, unless all female students are warned to be wary of dirty old researchers approaching them with bubbling culture bottles and a glint in their eyes. I have also learnt how to be an effective demonstrator (don't form inappropriate relationships with undergraduates), actually done a small amount of work on my PhD, and discovered that someone had attempted to buy an ipod with my eBay account. I wouldn't have minded this if they had used a) my address and b) their money, but unfortunately it didn't work out that way and so ended my beautiful love affair with eBay ("And we should care why? Customer service? You do know that we have another ten million suckers like you, don't you?").

Other than that all's well. Lou and Ting continue to be extremely generous in letting me stink up their sofa, eat their food and smash their crockery, and living with doctors is certainly educational - you know that any conversation that starts "Talking of genito-urinary medicine, I had a guy in the other day who must have been a professional welder or something" is going to be interesting. After a hairy week in which I feared I may have to change my blog title to Twit in Tanzania when the MRC decided to close the Farafenni research station, it's now looking like I will still be going to The Gambia but to the research station in Fajara instead. This suits me as it is closer to Banjul, which is apparently the only place in the country you can buy toilet paper or any safe meat other than Spam - I swear the stuff is haunting me.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Back in the hood

I'm back up north, that magical place where you don't need a mortgage just to buy a round of drinks. Lou and Ting have very kindly offered me their sofa until I'm recalled by Rothamsted or until Ting chucks me out for eating all his crisps, and I was delighted to discover that their flat is in a creepy Gothic mansion. Pictures will follow when there's some light to take them by.

I keep expecting Christopher Lee to jump out from behind the shower curtain. Thus far though the most disturbing thing I have discovered was a tin of Spam Lite in the kitchen cupboard - truly you never really know someone until you've lived with them.

I attempted to register today, a process complicated somewhat by the fact that I do not currently possess a passport as it is being renewed (or more likely used as a cup rest by someone in the bowels of the passport office). Credit cards, travel cards, and youtube evidence of me affixing a plastic cape to someone and encouraging him to dive into a pile of cardboard boxes are apparently not sufficient proof of identity. Apparently it is not possible to register as a student without some a passport or birth certificate , although heaven knows why someone would want to impersonate me for the privilege of working with filth flies for three years. However I suppose the policy does have some merits, as if instituted worldwide it would prevent people like George Bush from attending university.

I was at least able to convince the appropriate people of my existence, even if the university systems refuse to acknowledge it. This and the fact that I left the biology department with considerably more paper than I entered it with have encouraged me to view the day as a success. Tomorrow will be spent meeting a man who will tell me that ethidium bromide does not make a good novelty cocktail additive, and will then sign a piece of paper to confirm he has done so.

Durham appears pretty much unchanged, although Waitrose has closed down (it's grim up north) and it has sprouted a bead shop and an Oxfam book shop, both of which are likely to lead to considerable attrition of my grant. The God Squad is still out in force; I was collared by a pair of them on the way out of the biology department which I felt was a little unfair as I'd just negotiated a horde of people proffering leaflets with useful information such as when to register as a demonstrator or how to get your thesis bound (surely a little premature?) so it seemed quite logical to take one more. Still I'd imagine the biology department isn't their most fertile recruiting ground so perhaps they felt justified in taking advantage whilst guards were down. I felt rather miffed as taking the time to explain that no, I don't think I'm going to hell thank you very much meant I didn't reach the student union shop before it closed so couldn't get my 20p Guardian. Which was the only reason I signed up to be a student again in the first place.

Monday 29 September 2008

Not likely to launch my career as a footwear model

Thought you might like to see the jungle boots I bought (and just for Imogen, my awful eighties tights to make up for being unable to find my awful eighties jumper):

The boots cost £39.95, and I got four pairs of army tropical socks (padded underneath, thin with lots of ventilation on top) for £6.95 eack, leaving £13.25 to put towards desert boots later. Thank you again for your kindness, everyone.

Right, I'm off to steal a tank and invade EuroDisney.

Friday 26 September 2008

Putting my foot in it

Obviously there is no part of my body that I am particularly keen to see swelling up, becoming infected or dropping off in The Gambia, but the body part I am least keen to have any of the above happen to is my feet. They are also the body part likely to be subjected to the most insults; thorns, blisters and little wormy things that burrow into your soles then crawl up into your brain and make you like The Feeling or something. For this reason I have devoted more than the usual 4.6 seconds that momentous life decisions tend to merit for me to choosing the most appropriate footwear.

After a lot of research and an afternoon spent having my feet examined at great length by someone who I am increasingly coming to suspect was not an employee of the Cotswold outdoor clothing company but a cunningly disguised foot fetishist, I have decided to go for a pair of army surplus desert boots for the dry season and jungle boots for the wet seasons rather than a hugely complex monument to Goretex that might possibly be able to handle both. Not only are two pairs of army boots cheaper than one technoboot, they come in width fittings for those such as myself who are somewhat gallumphing of hoof, and I like the idea that something designed for combat will be used to help research into reducing human suffering. As a bonus I am hoping that they'll prompt someone to say to me "You're thinking it's Sunday, I'd rather be in Apocalypse Now".

Both types of boots have reinforced soles so that thorns, rusty nails and the splintered bones of your fallen foes can't impale your feet. Desert boots don't have airvents to stop sand (or in my case dust) from getting in, but are made from nice breathable suede to stop your feet from broiling. They beat sandals hands down as thorns, mosquitoes and the aforementioned wee wormies can't get at your feet, and you can wear them with socks without looking like a tit.

Jungle boots are not actually waterproof - that would just make your feet rot when water got in and couldn't get out, but instead have cunning little vents in the soles so that the movement of your feet pumps water out. They are also apparently leechproof, which rather surprised me as I had always assumed than all boots would be proof against any leech that hadn't learned to untie shoes laces (a category into which I would, perhaps complacently, have placed the vast majority of them). However as leeches are some of the very few of God's creatures I find truly repulsive (the others being David Cameron and those horrible bald cats that look like a cross between a gargoyle and a scrotum) I have decided to be reassured by this.

Choosing the right sock is as important as choosing the right boot, and can be the difference between blisters and, erm, fewer blisters. In my extensive googling I came across something called "The Two Sock System" which is fascinating for two reasons; the first is that wearing two socks over each other dramatically reduces blisters by ensuring that the sheer stress is propagated at the junction between the socks rather than between sock and foot, the second is that someone bothered to give the practice of wearing two pairs of socks a name and felt the need to teach it as a course to soldiers. Interestingly I also read that the inner, breathable sock is often made of a material "like pantyhose" - ever since when I've seen footage from Iraq on the news I've been wondering if the soldiers are wearing suspenders under their uniforms.

Where were we? Breathable inner sock - check. Outer sock - wool and synthetic, no cotton as it becomes waterlogged, padding at heel and toe but thin upper to keep feet cool - check. Waterproof outer sock to wear over a dry sock in wet boots in the evening - check. (I wonder if I've just invented "The Three Sock System", and whether I could copyright it). Right, I think that's footwear sorted. To the army surplus store!

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Killer cola

Just when I've reached the stage where I can drink a pint of coke in under an hour without twitching, wincing or complaining so much the my friends suddenly realise that they can't stay in the pub with me any longer because they have to get home to clean the oven, descale the kettle and worm the baby, the Guardian goes and publishes this.

I feel evil now.

Sunday 21 September 2008

I'd like to thank my analyst, my hairdresser...

I'd just like to thank everyone for giving me such wonderful sendoff(s) - after all the Botanist food, tea, cake, cider, more tea and single malt I won't care if I get noting to eat but millet porridge in The Gambia. Thank you also for your very generous contributions to my footwear fund, which I hope to deploy at Camden's army surplus store next weekend.

I can honestly say that it's been great fun working with every single one of you. I could come up with a funny story or a time you've helped me out for everyone, but you'll forgive me if I limit myself to thanking four people by name; Roxana for making the day fun and for the very amusing plaque that I probably won't be allowed to put on my office door (although I certainly intend to try), Imogen, always a pleasure to work with and for a couple of blog posts that made me feel all warm and fuzzy and extremely embarrassed, Dave for giving me the job in the first place, rescuing me from that hellhole of a property developer and allowing me to claim that I'd been headhunted and to Charlotte for stunning me in the pub by asking whether animal eyes acted as a reservoir, a question I had never thought to ask. Which just goes to show, even if undertaking some slightly unsavoury research you should broadcast it about as widely as possible because you never know where insights might come from (although in the context of my PhD, "broadcast it about as widely as possible" might have some rather unpleasant connotations...)

Thanks all. (Dries eyes and rides off into the sunset singing Edith Piaf songs)

Friday 12 September 2008

Lady Muck

Roxana's come up with a great nickname for me. Wish I hadn't already picked a blog title now.

Sunday 31 August 2008

Choking on Coke

I had my first hint that The Gambia might not be the Heart of Darkness type experience I had anticipated when I explained to a former researcher from the centre that I was allergic to beer and asked what I could drink instead. I was expecting an explanation of how to use water purification tablets, but was instead told that the nearby American Peace Corps training camp held cocktail nights every Friday. Beverages, intoxicating or otherwise, may be a little harder to come by however when I head into the villages to collect samples, so I’m embarking on quite the most painful and unpleasant preparations I could make for this trip. I’m trying to make myself like Coke.

I feel much the same way about Coke as I do about pesto (and my observations on that unholy substance are a matter of public record), that some sort of invasion of the body snatchers has taken place causing the rest of the world to behave in strange and inexplicable ways whilst I remain the only sane person still able to tell that this stuff they’re drinking is foul. I mean how has something that’s mostly sugar, caffeine and phosphoric acid with a few industrial byproducts thrown in become the most widely consumed beverage in the world, and the only safe substance I can be sure of getting in a tiny Gambian village?

Although it’s rather hard to get my head around the idea that I’m trying to like something that’ll rot my teeth and is made by a company indulging in some extremely dodgy practices, I’m trying to drink it as much as I can to get used to it as drinking it in The Gambia does beat the alternative. And frankly that’s about the best I can say for Coke; drinking it is fractionally less unpleasant than having dysentery.

Friday 29 August 2008


A poem about flies. Because it's Friday and my I've spent all day dealing with crazy people.

By someone who posts their poetry on Wondermentalist but doesn't seem to have put their name

I take a friendly interest in the fly
Which buzzes round me as I sit and write.
Phlegmatic fly, I wonder what there might
Be going on in you. I’d like to pry
Inside your little exo-skeleton
And look out from behind your compound eyes.
Perhaps we would be in for a surprise,
And you might not be quite the simpleton
That we have long assumed from outward signs,
But possessed of a vast intelligence
Whose breadth and scope our minds could never guess.
We plod along the same familiar lines,
And can’t make much variety of sense.
Perhaps you make far more. Or slightly less.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Postponing the inevitable

I’ve just had my jab appointment cancelled, and must admit I’m slightly relieved; the prospect of getting stabbed in the arm at 8 in the morning didn’t really appeal. This is, unfortunately , only a temporary reprieve.

Monday 25 August 2008

Goodbye Giftaid!

The fact that I will shortly be starting a PhD has finally begun to seem real to me (the prospect ofbeing given a list of jabs as long as my arm, probably with a needle that is also as long as my arm, does appear to do that). And so, after four years, three departments, half a million angry Friends, enough cups of tea to fill Boston Harbour and the opportunity to say "I'm sorry ma'am, Kew doesn't have a position on baboons eating flamigoes" I have finally handed in my notice and will be leaving Kew on the 20th of September.

While I'm looking forward to having weekends again (I can distantly recall those regularly spaced periods when all your friends are off work too), and I do anticipate the company of filth-flies being rather more pleasant than that of the great British public, I will miss the Gardens themselves a great deal but more importantly all the lovely, crazy, creative people trapped behind tills or in offices that I've had the priviledge of working with all these years.

I've managed to either time my departure rather well or rather badly, depending on your perspective, and will have to have two sets of leaving drinks, one on Friday the 19th for the people I work with during the week, which I have arbitrarily decided will be in The Botanist, and one on the 20th after my last gate shift, which'll be in the Kew Inn. Whichever department you've worked with me in though you're welcome to come to either or both (or neither if you'll be glad to see the back of me after having been impaled by a flailing knitting needle in the ticket box once too often).

Monday 18 August 2008

Messing with my mind

I’ve made an appointment to discuss immunisations and anti-malarials, and like every GP’s worst nightmare have done a bit of research before hand. Apparently my anti-malarial options are Larium or Doxycycline for going up-country in The Gambia. Larium is a lovely-sounding little pill, which has been known to cause temporary or permanent severe depression, anxiety, paranoia, aggression, nightmares, insomnia, seizures, and other central nervous system problems you probably wouldn’t want. Doxycyline on the other hand is a broad-spectrum antibiotic which has been known to cause photosensitivity in about three percent of users and so is not recommended for particularly sunny areas, rather unhelpful as malaria isn’t exactly endemic in Wolverhampton. It also interferes with hormonal contraception, which could well make El Jefe’s visit rather less exciting. However it does also offer some protection against elephantiasis, which doesn’t look like much fun.

Being rather fonder of my brain than of my skin, and given that I’ll be covering up anyway as I’ll be in a Muslim country, I’m going to try and go for Doxycycline and take the risk that I might be one of the 3% it turns into a vampire. Thanks to one of these Blogger – poll jobbies, however, I can now offer all of you the opportunity to help me make this crucial health decision. If you’re reading this on Facebook you’ll need to go to the original blog, which is here. I reserve the right to completely disregard the results. And I’m not usually a violent woman, but if anyone suggests homeopathic anti-malarials I will carefully and patiently explain the concept of evidence-based medicine to them, possibly with the aid of a cricket bat.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Creature comforts

I spent the weekend at my cousin's wedding, drinking wine, eating cheese and poking the eyes of my nearest and dearest out with a rather wonderful butterfly hat my friend made for me. We stayed in the 16th century hotel where the wedding was held, which unfortunately seemed to have authentic 16th century plumbing. I find it amazing that as a species we can send people to the moon, swap organs around without killing people and create an amazing global network that allows people of all nations to instaneously exchange amusingly captioned pictures of cats, but we can't seem to create a piece of equipment that will deliver a stream of water at a constant temperature, and more importantly at a constant temperature that the user has chosen. I stepped out of the bathroom surrounded by clouds of superheated steam and the faint stench of boiled human flesh, my inner environmentalist weeping for the ninety-five litres of water that had poured straight out of the tap and down the plug hole in order to induce two litres to come through the showerehead, and was about to launch into an angry tirade when a little voice whispered "It'll be much more uncomfortable in the Gambia".

The disturbing conclusions are as follows; firstly that I hear voices even without taking anti-malarials, but more importantly that I will never be able to bitch about trivial things again which anyone unfortunate enough to be familiar with my facebook notes will know is one of my main pleasures in life.

Incidentally, the groom takes amazing closeup photos of insects which can be found here if anyone's interested.

Wednesday 6 August 2008


Thought you might like to see where I'll be going:

View Larger Map

The fun thing about this map is that the high resolution pictures are taken in the dry season - zoom out and you'll see how different it all looks in the rainy season!

Monday 4 August 2008

How the human mind works

I recently made my first conrete step towards preparing for the trip and signed up for an online Wolof language course (although I should be able to get by fairly well with English and French I thought I should try to make an effort). Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on myself as I've only had a quick click through the first module, but the only word I've managed to remember is the number 10, spelled Fukk and pronounced much as you'd expected.

Sadly the rest of the language does not sound like obscenities, so may be a little harder.

Sunday 3 August 2008


As you are all no doubt aware after putting up with months of my excited squeaking, in January next year I’ll be heading out to The Gambia in order to do my bit for the country’s economy by buying many, many beautiful clothes, to listen to a lot of good music and to be able to convincingly assert upon my return that the scars my pet dog gave me on my leg were in fact caused by a lion. If I have any time in between these activities I’ll be working on trachoma.

For those of you who haven’t yet had it explained to you in grisly detail, possibly while you were trying to eat, trachoma is an eye infection that causes scarring of the inner eyelids, which eventually makes them turn up and under, dragging the eyelashes across the cornea whenever the infected person blinks, slowly and painfully sending them blind. It’s spread by a fly with a pretty name and some extremely unattractive habits, Musca sorbens (sounds like a grape-based iced dessert, at least to me). This fly seems to be preferentially attracted to the eyes of children, so children and the women who care for them are most at risk. My PhD involves trying to find the odour components that attract these flies, in the hope of making traps which would at least allow their numbers to be estimated more accurately than they can be at present.

I’m setting up this blog because I suspect that while I’m out there my time on the internet will be limited, so while I will try to respond to emails a blog might be a more efficient way of going about it. So point your feed readers here, ladies, gents and anyone in between in anticipation of thrilling tales of my exploits dynamiting rhinos and feeding sponges to leopards (Tintin in the Congo has a lot to answer for, in many ways). Alternatively of course bandwidth issues may prevent me from posting at all until I'm invalided back home with malaria of the toenails, in which case I apologise for the ensuing four months worth of posts you'll have to sit through on whatever drivel pops into my head. This may include knitting, coeliac disease, slug control and my incipient paranoia that I am developing hairy knees after years of waxing above and below them but shaving the painful kneecap area. You have been warned.