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

Friday 27 March 2009

Tweetness and light

As you may have noticed, a box has appeared at the top of my blog featuring a choice selection of my slightly dafter witterings. This is because I've signed up to Twitter, and while I realise that signing myself up to yet another social networking site and expecting myself to anything productive is roughly the equivalent of chucking Super Hans a big bag of crack and telling him to exercise self control there is actually a very good reason for this. It turns out that there is mobile reception in Walikunda (a rather charming article in a local paper which I've unfortunately lost boasts that it is no longer necessary to climb trees to make calls) and as I'll be getting a local phone but won't be able to afford to send too many texts Twitter looks like quite a good way of reassuring a lot of people at once of my continued possession of both a phone and a pulse. I realise that it is a slightly risky strategy to rely on third world communications infrastructure and a social networking site that apparently doesn't have any way of making money to stay in touch, but at the moment it's the best idea I've got.

Thursday 26 March 2009


So just to keep everyone (and frankly by this stage myself) updated on where I'm actually going now, I'm going to start off by travelling round some upriver villages with a team from the London School of hygiene and Tropical Medicine for the first three weeks, collecting eyeswabs from any unlucky kids I manage to catch. I'll then go to the MRC's entomological research station at Wali Kunda to collect flies and do some behavioural studies.

Wali Kunda is primarily used for malaria research, and has a number of experimental huts set up to measure how many mosquitoes attack sleepers. There's some more information on what they do there here, which I'd really recommend having a look at because it is quite fascinating. Yes she did see a snake please don't tell my Mum. Just to make you all jealous, and to remind myself that it's not all snakes, this is the view from the station:

If you want to know exactly where I'll be suffering from acute tea deprivation, here it is:

View Larger Map

The nearest town of any size (pop. 4343) is Brikama Ba. Rather hearteningly, the first things that came up when I googled it were this article, which cheered my inner Feminazi, and this video:

Holy Sh*t, it's actually real now!

I've just been given a date for my flight - the 24th of May. This is now several months later than originally planned, which is unfortunately what happens if you try and coordinate with other people, but at least the delay means I'll be able to catch the new ster trek film. It's all suddenly become much more concrete for me - I really am going to spend three months in a place without internet access, jam and toilet paper.


Tuesday 24 March 2009

Fabiola Gianotti

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when thousands of bloggers all over the world will publish a post on a woman in technology to highlight the contribution women are making what has traditionally been a male field.

Just to be perverse I've chosen a woman working in subnuclear physics, which is about as far as you can get from an applied science. But Fabiola Gianotti is in charge of one of the most impressive pieces of technology ever built – the ATLAS detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The size of a five storey building yet able to detect particle trajectories with micrometre precision, it required over 2,000 scientists and engineers to assemble its hundreds of millions of components. Rather than searching for a particular particle of a particular energy, ATLAS is designed to detect the unexpected, integrating 100 million different electronic signals in order to detect any of the myriad particles that may be created in high energy collisions in the LHC.

Fabiola Gianotti had originally planned a career in music, and trained as a pianist at the Milan Conservatory, before deciding that a career in physics could better address her fascination with the big questions of how the universe worked. She did a PhD in experimental sub-nuclear physics at the University of Milan and joined CERN, a remarkable collaboration between physicists of 37 different countries, in 1987. On the first of March this year she was elected head of ATLAS at CERN.

She is disappointed that physics is seen as a male subject and is quoted as saying: "Women have obstacles in the field for merely social reasons. Research does not allow you to make life plans. And the difficulties for women with a family are many. Something should be done, for instance, to develop more structures that would enable women with children to go through a physics career without too many obstacles, starting with nursery schools."

See other bloggers' posts for Ada Lovelace day at:


Tuesday 17 March 2009

My fragile sanity

Sometimes whilst perusing the literature (read having an excuse to hide in the office with a cup of tea rather than wandering around the lab acusing random people of nicking my petri dishes out of the drying oven) I come across a paper title that I find quite amusing. I then wonder if it would actually be funny to the average person or whether I've just gone a bit strange in the head after reading four papers on the effect of bovine serum albumen on ovarian development, after which just about anything would seem entertaining. Perhaps you dear reader can help me judge?

Behaviour of house fly, Musca domestica L., in relation to the use of transparent plastic bags containing water.
Some papers just make you think "Why?"

The effects of the aroma of jasmine on bowling score.
Again, why? Apparently it improves score by 26.5%, but the study didn't look particularly rigourous so I wouldn't start snorting flowers before breaking out Wii Sports just yet

A new model of the trap giving a cheap and ecofriendly way of reducing common house flies, Musca domestica Linn. (Diptera: Muscidae) from the homes of poor people.
A study title that could really benefit from the advice of the PC Brigade

Seven years of parasite coprology in a hospital environment in Lyon
Sounds like a lesser known novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A device for preventing houseflies from copulating
Hmm, kinky

Saturday 14 March 2009

So it turns out I’m not Ray Mears

Although I realised quite early on in this endeavour that a trip to The Gambia was not exactly going to be travels through the White Geek's Grave (not only are there Peace Corps cocktail parties to attend, but within two messages of being introduced to a friend of a friend working in The Gambia he'd invited me to a pool party) I am aware that there may be a little more risk involved than in, say, a trip to Tescos to buy some teabags. For this reason I spent last weekend on a Wilderness Medical Training course organised by the Royal Geographic Society. This is the very course that Bruce Parry (on-screen taker of psychotropic drugs and chunderer extraordinaire) attended, and now he gets paid to travel round the world meeting interesting people and lives in a mansion on Ibiza for the rest of the year. Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, but I can live in hope.

The preliminary reading certainly looked interesting if a little alarming, with its warnings to put a knotted rope down pit latrines as an emergency exit if the boards shattered. It also advised that human bites were the most likely to become infected, a useful hint in the event of zombie attack, and concluded with a stern admonishment that rectal thermometers should always be clearly labelled as such. Even a mild hangover couldn't take the edge off my excitement on Saturday morning.

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting the other people on the course to be like, but I think muscles on top of muscles covered with facial hair and Goretex featured quite prominently in my mental image so it was a relief to discover how normal everyone looked. This lulled me into a false sense of security but I was swiftly disabused of any notion I might be as tough as the rest by the first lecture on wounds. Our lecturer warned us that some of the slides coming up would be pretty horrific and that there was no shame in leaving the room, but that it was better to find out now if we couldn't deal with it than to find out in the field. "Pish!" thought I "not only do most of my favourite movies feature eyelid eating zombies but two of my best friends are a nurse and a doctor! Why, whenever they get together the conversation inevitably turns to suppurating abdominal wounds, usually around the time the food is served! Bring it on!"

This turned out to be rather foolish. I could cope with the cut thumb. The cut hand was less pleasant but tolerable. At the slit wrist I had to look down and concentrate very hard on taking extremely thorough notes, and I'm ashamed to say that the split ankle with exposed tendons proved too much for me and I fainted clean away. Fortunately as an undergraduate I did most of my sleeping during lectures so have some experience of regaining consciousness in lecture theatres surreptitiously and with minimal flailing, but it was pretty embarrassing. Luckily when I came to the slideshow had moved on to eviscerations, and I was able to cope quite well with pictures of protruding intestines by imagining them to be Cumberland Rings.

We had a practical session in the afternoon, in which we learnt the best ways to carry an injured casualty. We then split into groups to practice making rope stretchers. I proved rather good at this, impressing an ex-army Amazon in my group enough for her to say "Wow, you really know your knots!". I thanked her, neglecting to mention that this proficiency had been acquired mostly through knitting and crochet. I skipped the after course mingling session in the bar (from experience I know that such things usually end with me having to be peeled off the floor at an embarrassingly early hour) and ran home to my bloke, who spent the evening asking me if I felt faint and generally taking the mick which I thought was a little rich coming from a man who can't even watch House while he's eating.

Sunday brought a talk on common tropical ailments, enlivened by the occasional photograph of explosive diarrhoea, and then a discussion session to teach us group decision making. We were given a scenario; with nightfall fast approaching 3,000 metres up Kilimanjaro, one of your team of twelve exhausted people starts exhibiting disturbing signs of a broken brain. What do you do? What I did was recognise that nothing in my 27 years of life experience qualified me to make that sort of decision, so I sat back on the surprisingly comfortable sofa and let the helicopter search-and-rescue pilot and the woman whose friend once ditched in the sea off the coast of Chile argue it out. They quickly decided to carry her down, which just goes to show that you can't always defer to the experts as we were than told it was most important to consider the safety of the group as a whole.

The instructor asked if anyone had ever had to stretcher an injured person out of an emergency situation. A few people had, and universally confirmed that even with a group of twenty fit people even a hundred metres was gruelling. At this point I remembered that I did in fact have some experience in a similar situation, but thought it best not to mention it as the casualty in question hadn't succumbed to harsh terrain or a tropical infection but had rendered herself incapacitated at the bottom of a cliff on Herm Island through the consumption of several bottles of cheap and nasty white wine. (Are you reading this Kat? I still haven't forgotten honey). As she retained enough mobility to render the two blokes who tried to carry her back up infertile, we decided to bundle her in a blanket and carry her up. The strange thing was that we six not especially fit seventeen year olds (half of us took computer sciences A-level for goodness sake) were able to carry her up a steep fifty-odd metre cliff path and then a further two hundred metres to the campsite, all at a brisk jog because we could feel the blanket ripping, and I certainly don't remember it being particularly arduous, yet a larger group of tough outdoorsy types testified to a similar feat being exhausting. I can only attribute the difference to the amount of cheap white wine we too had consumed, and hence suggest it might be a good idea if rescue teams get completely hammered before attempting a stretcher carry off.

The course concluded with some practical CPR training, in which we were given the depressing news that the only scenario in which CPR alone can revive someone is on Baywatch – in real life it can only keep them going until paramedics arrive. In a survival situation with no prospect of help arriving CPR is pretty pointless, and we were advised to set a limit of twenty minutes just to feel that we'd made an effort then give up. At this point I stuck my hand up and asked about situations like the one I'd be in in The Gambia, where a hospital was six hours drive away but still reachable – was there any chance of saving someone in these circumstances?

The instructor seemed rather unimpressed by the question, saying that by putting ourselves in these situations we had accepted that there would be a risk of death, and that if that wasn't the case then most people in the room wouldn't want to go. I think this may have been intended as a putdown but it actually reassured me. I may not be as tough as most of the people on that course, but I realised then that I was probably a little saner than some. I'm not doing this to push the limits of human endurance or to prove something to myself. I don't relish the prospect of ending up in a situation where I may need to amputate my own toes using only three paperclips, an underwired bra and a kiwi fruit. While obviously I'm delighted to have the opportunity to go somewhere so different from anything I've experienced before, in the end I'm going to The Gambia to get as much data on Musca sorbens as possible at the least possible personal risk. Not only was the weekend good fun and the factual information I learnt very useful (although I sincerely hope I never have to use most of it), but I do feel that this course was very helpful in clarifying my motives for this fieldtrip. I may not be explorer material, but at least I now feel a little more prepared for the rigours ahead.

Bring on the pool party.

Tuesday 3 March 2009


Emma, owner of the best eyes in Rothamsted, is running off to do a month's fieldwork in Argentina and has left me in charge of the colony of bed bugs she is studying. This was probably not a wise move given my previous form, but I'm doing my best to ensure they remain well fed,
watered and contented specimens of bedbuggery.

Bed bugs are often confused with dust mites, but are completely different creatures; dust mites are microscopic, whereas bed bugs (I apologise for the obnoxiously middle class comparison but it was the best I could come up with) are about the size of a grain of quinoa. Dust mites feed on shed dead skin - dust - whereas bed bugs actually pierce skin and suck blood, causing an itchy rash. You'd know if you had bed bugs, but everyone's probably got dust mites in their bed (and if that freaks you out, you've probably got follicle mites too).

Emma's bugs are fed on sheep's blood, heated to body temperature, which they suck up through a Parafilm membrane. This is obviously a rather unnatural situation as in the wild they would be extremely unlikely to encounter a sheep in a bed (at least outside of a certain rainy corner
of the British Isles from whence my grandparents hail) but the bugs don't seem to mind. The most difficult aspect of this setup is that I have to get sheep's blood, which is red, into the feeder, which after it's been used once is red, under a red light (which the bugs can't see, so they think it's night time when they feed). Putting in too little means hungry bugs, too much means a scene from a Hammer Horror movie which at least I can't see properly because everything's red. Apparently the room looks quite horrific if the light is ever turned on.

This might sound strange coming from someone who does, after all, work on shit-eating maggots that turn into blinding, snot-sucking flies, but I don't find bed bugs endearing in the slightest. Although unlike old sorbens they're not known to transmit any human disease, they have some
decidedly unpleasant habits (I know, again the words "pot" and "kettle" spring to mind).

They mate by a proccess called traumatic insemination - as the female gorges herself on blood her adbomen swell, exposing a vulnerable groove on her side into which the male stabs his spiked penis and injects sperm directly into her body cavity which isn't exactly good for her health - mating dramatically reduces the female's lifespan. This just goes to show how evolution is undirected by any concept of fairness - if there was an intelligence in charge of it all it should by rights have equipped the female with a few spikes of her own at the very least, and probably a tiny homopteran-sized taser. Instead the female has adapted by developing a pouch with a high concentration of immune cells directly under the insemination site, to at least help deal with some of the bacteria that hitch a ride.

(Interestingly the balance of power between the sexes lies is slightly different with my flies - if a male mounts a female and she decides she's not interested she'll kick him off, often shredding his wings with the spikes on her hindlegs. As a cohort of flies ages it gets easier for me to tell the males and females apart - the males are the wingless ones walking around on the floor of the cage, and presumably wondering if she was worth it.)

Bed bugs also have some rather unsavoury habits when it comes to hygiene - after feeding on blood they waddle off to a nearby refuge, a dark, damp crack in the bedframe or the wall. Hoards of them hide there to digest their meals, and the refuge quickly becomes filthy with their excreta and crawling with bacteria and fungi, the reason a female needs such a high concentration of immune cells to deal with the traumatic insemination. Given how unsanitary their refuges are it's remarkable that they don't transmit any human diseases, but as I say no evidence of this has ever been found. It's really the poor old sheep who have most to fear from
bed bugs.