Ethyl Mae

Last Friday an email circular reminded me that I have access through the university library to lots of international newspapers, including it turns out the Washington Post, my hometown rag. Sadly not to current issues, only the historical archive up to 1991. But this allowed me to dredge up a 4-page spread on my high school and similar magnet programs for science and technology, published a couple months before we became its first graduating class.

I remembered the article quoted me a couple times, but I’d forgotten the lovely quotes from my inspirational chemistry teacher, Ethyl Mae DuBois. I’d also forgotten it included a grainy photo of us together with Kevin and Ty (Elbert), who remain good friends of mine. In senior year, we would eat our lunch every day in the chemistry lab with Ms DuBois and our other geek chic pals. Once a week we would also meet up with Ms DuBois for breakfast at Ranch House, the local cop hangout diner. The waitresses there called you Sugar while they refilled your coffee cup and brought you the 222 special — 2 eggs, 2 pancakes and 2 sausages or bacon rashers for $2.22.

I wish I could remember exactly how she earned our undying devotion — maybe it would make me a better teacher if I had studied her more closely. I know she was tough. She gave us the tools we needed to be good scientists, teaching us not just chemistry but fundamentals like how to take notes and keep good lab books, but we had to work hard using those tools in order to do well in her classes. And I know she was funny and enjoyed wit and mischief in her students. Every year she would get her class to graffiti a lab coat for her to wear. The Washington Post article reminded me that across the back that year it said “CAUTION: BREAKDANCER”.

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My Accidental Publication

Between Christmas and New Year I was tremendously bored. We were shipwrecked by the second wave of Coronavirus, forbidden to travel or see friends, and the university had shut down so I could hardly even work. So I decided to enter a short story competition with a deadline the following week, even though I hadn’t written a short story in over 30 years.

I wrote it as therapy more than anything. Instead of sulking about how much I wanted to travel and to get a dog, I wrote a story about those things turning into snowballing disasters. It was pretty rough – I only finished a first draft the day before the deadline, and I didn’t feel I could send it to anyone for a critique on such short notice. But I thought it had a few laughs and a good structure, so I sent it in.

If this were fiction, it would have won a prize, but of course it didn’t really. But then I found out that the Cambridge Writers’ Group publish a book of all the entries, not just the winners. I was torn – would my family really tell me if it was too embarrassingly bad to publish? Would any acquaintance who read it assume that the main character’s disgraceful behaviour was autobiographical? In the end, the lure of vanity publishing I didn’t have to pay for was too strong. You can purchase your copy here:

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There was a question yesterday on the Washington Post Style Invitational site on Facebook about which poems people knew from memory. The most common answers seem to be Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse  and Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride which they were forced to learn in school. I myself learned a different Longfellow poem as an assignment in American Lit in high school, The Day is Done. But for fun as a teenager I also memorized a smattering of other poems I liked: Lord Byron’s She Walks in Beauty and his Headpiece to Don Juan, Robert Herrick’s Upon Julia’s Clothes, and (embarrassingly) Tolkein’s One Ring.  At least I didn’t memorize the Elvish.

The only poem (apart from my own) I memorized as an adult was one I’ve never seen written down. My grandmother learned it in primary school from a McGuffy reader or similar and used to recite it to us. She recited many such poems, but most were about topics like the importance of doing chores without grumbling, so my siblings and I never bothered to learn them. But this was our favourite, so when she was in her 90s I committed it to memory.


Belinda was a cautious little maid

whose motto was the single word, “Beware!”

She never lost a chance to be afraid

and spent a lot of time in taking care.

Obliged one day on a railway train

to sit beside a grave, sedate young man,

a sudden terror seized Belinda’s brain:

“He’ll surely pick my pocket if he can!”

They reached a tunnel in another minute

and Belinda with her customary care

to guard her pocket, placed her hand within it.

And lo! Another hand was already there.

To show her fortitude and hide her fright,

Belinda seized the hand and held it tight.

And as the train into daylight rushed,

no wonder the modest maiden blushed.

No wonder the villain smiled a smile:

her hand was in his pocket all the while.

It’s no coincidence that nearly every poem people remembered used rhyme and meter. It’s possible to memorize poems that don’t use either, but it’s very difficult. And of course, this is presumably how poetry began, as an oral tradition. People would sit together and someone would recite a bit of Homer or Beowulf as entertainment. Neither poems rhyme, but both have very strong meters that drive the telling and prompt the memory, and I think this must have been crucial for such long epics to survive in the era before writing.

Certainly I think that after The Event, when we are all huddled around a campfire sucking the marrow out of rat bones, we won’t be reciting The Wasteland to each other, no matter how apt. Most likely Mother Goose will triumph.

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Is Humour Alienating?

An editor from Nature once came to speak at my Institute, giving us tips on how to publish in high-impact journals. The tip I remember most clearly was this: don’t try to be funny. Lots of people won’t get the joke and will be put off, particularly if they are reading the paper in translation.

I found this disheartening, because trying to be funny is a fundamental part of how I write and who I am. But it’s true that every attempt at levity has been expunged from my scientific writing through the years, by editors or by senior colleagues.

And then I became an editor myself. I was invited to join the Committee of the British & Irish Chapter of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, and then at one of my first meetings the Chair pleaded for someone to take on the job of starting up a newsletter for the organization. I knew it would be a lot of effort, but I saw an opportunity finally to use the unique qualities of my voice to foster a sense of community. After all, what is special about the British if not their sense of humour? So, I started Positive Spin, where alongside serious pieces about upcoming conferences and changes to regulations in medical imaging, I would insert the occasional joke piece.

For example, in a profile about the history of MRI in Cardiff, I wrote a paragraph about their ground-breaking work in diagnostic imaging of those aliens who fell sick on the set while filming the documentary series Doctor Who. The illustration was this MRI of tentacular torsion in the Ood. It took a lot of time to Photoshop, but this was lockdown in April 2020, so I had a lot of time on my hands plus a desire to lighten people’s mood.

Over the past few years my newsletter has attracted occasional praise, at least in part due to the fun tone and humour. But I didn’t get a peep of reaction about this particular article or issue. And speaking to one colleague I realized he didn’t even know it was a joke.

Even when humour isn’t aimed at a particular butt, it often creates divisions between people who like it, people who don’t get it, and people who get it but don’t like it. So, while I still believe in the power of humour to bring people together, I’m starting to think the Nature editor was right about keeping it out of formal scientific publications. As for the newsletter, I’ve now handed it on to students to carry on with, and I’m hoping they can keep a bit of fun alive.


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Christmas Bakeoff

For your seasonal enjoyment, here is a video I made about my friend Frosty.

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I enjoyed the National Theatre production of Amadeus streaming this week. It had an interesting blend of modern music with the Mozart, performed by a live orchestra. It was more sombre and less fun than I remember from the last time I saw it, on my first trip to London in 1982. But that first production was devastating enough – it changed my life more than any other piece of art.

I was 14 and I wanted to be a classical musician. I played flute, and I wasn’t bad – I was in the junior all-state band that year, though I was only 12th chair in it. Susie, a year younger than me, was something like 10th chair, so her mother harangued the band instructor in junior high to promote Susie ahead of me, in the middle of the school year. Ms Beard explained it didn’t work like that.

However, it was clear that I would be overtaken one day – by Susie, and by other musicians who were just that little bit better than me. I was never going to be quite the best. And it was going to torture me – that fact was borne in on me while watching Amadeus. At 14, my self-knowledge may not have been thorough, but I knew that I was no Mozart.

And what is the point of a musician who doesn’t play superlatively well? A scientist can make real contributions to society without being an Einstein, but a mediocre musician not only doesn’t shine, but also can bring down the whole ensemble. One performer’s squawked note is heard above the 34 people playing true.

The following year I entered a magnet center for science and technology, and (regretfully) dropped band from my schedule. I did still keep up the flute for a few more years, but I no longer had any thought of performing for a living. I don’t regret the decision. I now realize that my chronic lung problems would have hindered my career — and probably they explained some of the limitations I had at the time. I’d get dizzy at the end of a long phrase, and would have to try to sneak in twice as many  breaths as other people. I’m no loss to the world of music. But I can still pull out the flute and play. I’ve spent the last few days working my way through Mozart’s only two flute concertos. Actually, they’re a bit dull — I prefer Francois Devienne.

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Coronavirus Countdown

IMG_20200304_180234820March 2020 was a bad time to travel to international conferences, sight-see, and visit my elderly mother. Now that I’ve returned to England, life has become a countdown to see whether I got away with behavior which in retrospect looks foolhardy.

March 20: Two weeks since my conference at UCSF ended, my last dinner in Chinatown, my last play.

March 24: Two weeks since a visit to a crowded Baltimore Aquarium.

March 26: Two weeks since my conference in Baltimore ended with a final banquet.

March 27: Two weeks since I took the train from Baltimore to DC, and had lunch in the food court at Union Station.

March 28: Two weeks since my last visit to a crowded bar, at the TopGolf center in Oxon Hill MD.

March 31: Two weeks since my shopping trip in Waldorf MD, buying clothing and supplies since I expected my return flight to be cancelled.

April 6: Two weeks since I flew home from DC. My return was delayed by a day then rerouted via New York, where I almost got stuck due to suddenly closed airspace.

At that point the nature of my counting will change. Two weeks since I last saw my mother, my sister, my brother. Three weeks, four. Two months, four, six, twelve, eighteen. Hoping that it wasn’t the last time.

March 2020 will have been a good time to visit my family.

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Crossing the line

An American living in Britain is a gymnast navigating one of those security fields of criss-crossing infrared beams. Conversations must be carefully navigated or you risk tripping the alarms.

We took an old friend from Glasgow to see Book of Mormon. She’s a huge fan of South Park, and laughed along with us at all the humour, whether sacrilegious, sexual, racist or all three. The more grossly offensive the better.

Afterwards we discussed the racism in particular – although it’s obviously ironic, I feel a bit of discomfort that it could be enjoyed just as much without the irony. It’s like the knife-edge Stephen Colbert used to walk, where he probably had just as many fans enjoying his work at face value. But we all agreed that it’s still probably OK to love it.

Later in the conversation, I mentioned how I thought the set for Scary Mormon Hell Dream was meant to look like a vagina. She just froze in shock. There was a long silence while we all desperately considered how to deal with my crashing faux pas. I had said the word vagina to a Scottish woman. How could I do that? What possessed me? Sometimes I think a part of me must enjoy the sound of a claxon.

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Science Funding

My last blog gave reasons why women might be at a psychological disadvantage when applying for scientific grants. I didn’t have any evidence that they were disproportionately unsuccessful, it just seemed likely from my observations.

Yesterday’s Guardian confirmed that in 2016-17 women were principal investigators on 7% of grants awarded by EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the average amount awarded to women was less than 40% that awarded to men. This came out following a Freedom of Information request from Michaela Kendall, whose experiences ring some alarm bells:

In 2017 she applied for seven government science grants from the EPSRC, Innovate UK and Local Enterprise Partnership. All seven proposals were rejected though highly scored. Her father, Prof Kevin Kendall, made one proposal based on the same business case and that proposal was accepted.

I should admit a personal stake in this argument: I left UCL after failing to establish myself as an independent researcher due to a series of unsuccessful grant applications. Some were highly rated by the peer reviewers, but the funding panels still said no. The final straw was when a senior male colleague was rejected in the same round as me: he contested the decision and was awarded the money after all. As a young female postdoc, it felt like that option was not open to me.

To some extent it may be fair for funding councils to take into account the personal track record of a scientist not only the proposed programme of work itself. A high-profile full professor probably has a better chance of delivering an ambitious piece of research than a more junior colleague. And yet… if one wanted to design a glass ceiling this is exactly how to do it: anonymous funding panels with no challenge to any unconscious bias they might have.

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Science, gender, and transgressive personality

portrait-albert-einstein-16My theme this week is transgressive personality and how it relates to success in science and other fields. When I googled ‘transgressive personality’, revealingly the vast majority of hits were about Donald Trump. The consensus seems to be that his transgressiveness is a large part of his appeal to supporters. Although the instances may be vanishingly rare where his behaviour is truly helpful in breaking through convention and telling it like it is (usually he is just being a jerk), still, people respond to a renegade.

So do scientific funding panels. Nobody wants to finance work which builds slowly and incrementally on previous investigations. They want to fund the next Einstein. They want a bold new direction, even if 99% of the time it leads nowhere. In many ways that is fair enough, and clever scientists know how to sell their research as a blend of high-risk high-impact work and more incremental advances they can actually deliver.

However, I think women often have a hard time in adopting this approach, because we are raised to be more cautious than men. Reshma Saujani makes a lot of good points in her TED talk about how boys are taught to be brave while girls are taught to be perfect:

But childhood conditioning isn’t the end of the story. There can also be differences in how employers react toward transgression when it comes from a man or a woman. In my institute, people who are not in academic posts are not supposed to apply for grants. A woman broke this rule, and all the academics were up in arms about how pushy she was, how she was trying to establish herself as a group leader by default. A man broke the same rule and they reacted by saying, well done.

We don’t only need to teach girls to be more ambitious, take more risks and break more rules, we also need to teach society not to punish them for doing it.

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