Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 23 April 2012

"Are Scientists Human?"

Tania hosting the writers' workshop

Blog by Tania Hershman, Genomics Forum Bright Ideas Fellow

I had a fascinating two weeks at the beginning of April as a Bright Ideas fellow at the Genomics Forum in Edinburgh, which coincided with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. I could tell you it wasn't what I expected, but to be honest, I had no idea what to expect! On the day I arrived, I was shown my own office space, which was a first for me, a quiet room I could use to write in. And then I was swiftly invited to a conference that afternoon – organised by Gengage and supported by the Forum - on Sudden Cardiac Death in the Young.

It was a very interesting event, composed partly of speakers and partly of small round table discussions and even some voting on issues using a hand-held clicker! Participants in Aberdeen and Glasgow joined in via video conference. I learned an enormous amount about these kinds of mysterious deaths, many revealed by post mortem to be caused by symptomless, inherited cardiac problems - in the shadow of Fabrice Muamba's fortunately non-fatal recent collapse on the football field.

We heard from the Scottish Procurator Fiscal, the equivalent, I believe, of the English coroner/Crown Office; from two geneticists talking about the pitfalls and advantages of genetic screening; and from a bereaved father whose healthy 19 year old son had died suddenly mid-phone call, while he was sitting on his bed. I found that any opinions I may have had at the beginning of the afternoon pretty much underwent a 180 degree shift by the end. It was fascinating - and the next day I wrote a piece of flash fiction inspired by something the clinical geneticist said, and then a sequence of four prose poems inspired by the whole concept of genes and genetic screening.

Talking about writing, the other highlight of my time with the Genomics Forum was the science-inspired fiction workshop I ran on my last day, entitled "Are Scientists Human?" (the title coming from two members of the Forum staff!). The group - of writers, scientists and some writer-scientists - and I had a very interesting hour and a half - we did two writing exercises using science, scientific words, and extracts from New Scientist articles. We explored the session title using stimulating and fairly shocking quotes from Michael Brooks' excellent book, Free Radicals, in which he attempts to debunk the notion that science is purely rational, done exactly according to a rigid scientific method, but instead relies on insight, fudging results, hard drug use and some distinctly underhand behaviour on the part of the researchers!

The scientists in our group told us how they felt under pressure to conform to this "rational science myth", and they feel it does science and scientists a disservice, not painting a true picture of what it means to do science. We were greatly entertained by some of the highly imaginative stories written during the workshop, (I started a new story I'm excited about!), and I hope that the result of the workshop was that those who had never thought to use science in their fiction might look at it in a new light!

Back home now, I am champing at the bit to keep writing the story I started, although the imminent publication of my second fiction collection is taking up rather a lot of time... but I know I will get to it at some point. A thoroughly inspiring fortnight!

Tania Hershman is a former science journalist who now specialises in writing fiction.  Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, and has recently published her second collection of short stories: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions.

Monday, 16 April 2012

A comfortable seat

Blog by Ann Lingard Genomics Forum Visiting Research Fellow (2010 - 2011)

"Are you sitting comfortably?" is the title of my Keynote Talk at the Genomics in Fact and Fiction conference on April 23rd. My talk is scheduled for the graveyard shift, the last talk in a long, parallel-sessioned day, and immediately before the conference dinner -- so I don't want anyone to sit too comfortably or they might fall asleep.

Maybe I should consider this as the 'cabaret slot' instead and sing the The Hermaphrodite Snail's Lament  -- a disreputable but scientifically-illuminating piece of doggerel, written by the character 'Allan', in my novel 'Seaside Pleasures'. Snail genetics - what could be more suitable?

Playwright-formerly-in-residence Peter Arnott has set the precedent for songs in his blog, so try singing this one (to the tune of 'Oh dear, what can the matter be?'):

(Note: Schistosomes are the parasitic worms that cause the tropical disease bilharzia; their larval stages live in some strains of the snail Bulinus)

(General chorus)
‘Dear, dear! What can the matter be?’
‘Oh dear! Two snails with aphally.’
‘See, dear - they’re hermaphroditidae.
Can they have fun at the Fair?’

(The aphallic snail puts its case.)
‘But I don’t need another, I’m father and mother.
No sexual behaviour’s an energy-saver.
A penis is silly, I don’t need a willy!
I have fun on my own at the fair.

(General chorus)
Hey ho! We’re Bulinus truncatus.
It’s so! Our sex-life’s the greatest.
Ho ho! Cross-breeders or self-maters,
We all can have fun at the Fair.

(The phallic couple’s case)
We’re both sisters and brothers, we’re like two paired lovers.
We each can inseminate, phallus can penetrate,
Not so! I am dominant, penis is prominent.
So which has most fun at the Fair?

(General chorus)
Ha ha! Our genetics are so complex.
Ooh ah! So too are our modes of sex.
Production of offspring
Is one of our main objects,
So the species can go to the Fair.

(The tetraploid’s lament)
With four sets of chromosomes, I’m host to schistosomes,
Humans would best avoid water near tetraploids.
A larva could bore in, through my unprotected skin -
Then I’d have no fun at the Fair.

(General Chorus)
Oh dear, this water’s too fast to drowse.
Help, dear, I just want to stay and browse.
Quick, dear! Stick your foot where the rock allows,
Or we’ll be washed away from the Fair.


(The survivor’s lament)
I’m male and I’m female, but I am a lonely snail —
No-one to talk or play, they’ve all been washed away.
I’m alive and I’ll thrive, and I hope my own eggs survive.
I’ll be joined by my kids at the Fair.

I hope one or two of the audience will be shifting uncomfortably on their seats by now.

When Tony Mann, organiser of the London Maths Society's 'Maths in fiction' Oxford conference reviewed my novel, The Embalmer's Book of Recipes  - a mathematician, Lisa, who is also achondroplasic, is one of its main characters - he wrote that 'The novel is not always comfortable [reading]'. Later, when I asked him to clarify this, worried that he thought my writing was uncomfortably poor (novelists can be nervous creatures!), he explained that parts of the story had made him uncomfortable because he had been forced to "confront his prejudices" about someone with an obvious disability. Thankfully, despite this, "Lisa had become one of [his] favourite fictional mathematicians."

I say 'despite', but the right word might be 'because': perhaps if readers are challenged by a character who is outside the usual range of appearance or behaviour, due to a genetic or developmental mistakes, they have to make more effort to empathise and be interested in the character's story. (Of course, as with reading poetry, not every reader wants to make the effort: but there's no reason why an uncomfortable read should not also be a good read.)

Yet here too is the writer's challenge - because it's difficult to write about a character unless you, as the character's creator, understand him or her. For The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, the key to my own attempts to understand came when an achondroplasic friend of mine talked about the physical and metaphorical difficulties of  'seeing eye to eye'.

Without being too facetious, seeing eye to eye became very much more difficult when I was writing the stories of some of the exhibits in the Surgeons' Hall Museum, during the course of my Bright Ideas Fellowship at the Forum. Trying to understand what it was like to live as someone with such a huge developmental mistake as a third leg (so recently too - he died the year I was born), or as a woman with chronic pelvic and spinal collapse in 18th century rural Scotland, for example, was possibly the greatest challenge I have faced as a writer.

I can write about the sex-lives of snails; I could perhaps write about a lizard that lost its tail; a rook with one leg; a cat with 'wings' (google them); I've written about the 'man with three legs'. Where do you start to feel uncomfortable? And why? And is it important that you should?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Last Post from the Fly Room

Genomics – everyone keeps asking me to define what that means. I find it interesting that after a year as writer in residence with the Genomics Forum, I find that no easier to boil down into a few words than I did a year ago.

I can talk with a little more authority about a lot of STUFF to be sure. About a genetic viewpoint on the history of life on earth at one end of the field…and the industrial production of knockout mouse mutants at the other. Because genomics, I find, is a field rather than a thing, an arena rather than a single technique or idea. An awful lot depends on who you talk to.

Of course, as preminisced by Schrödinger’s “What is Life” in 1944, genomics can be said, among other things, to be the neat pink bow that unites the life sciences with all the rest of them…chemistry and cosmology included. And so it does…but so did, really, “genetics”…the atomic theory of inheritance as developed from the Fly Room of TH Morgan to the modelling of Crick and Watson (supported by the X Ray Crystallography of Franklin and Wilkins) and the phenomenology of Jacob and Monod…all the way through the beginnings of genetic engineering ion the seventies to the “sequencing” technology of the 90s…to the current unruly explosions from bio banking to Nan robotics.

What is “new” about genomics as opposed to “genetics” seems to be something to do with nuance, with a kind of holistic, “soft” appreciation of life’s interdependencies and complexities. But this may have more to do with our contemporary zeitgeist of environmentalism plus fatality than it does to do with a classic paradigm shift in Kuhnian terms.

In any case, “arenas” of different and conflicting worldviews are where playwrights live, so I’m not unhappy that I’ve ended up pretty much where I began…with the caveat that there is something disabling about being open to too many possibilities. To going down the “cabaret” line we explored last week… writing a science fiction comedy about librarians getting a few laughs and playing the harmonica…maybe…or writing a “studio” piece about the guard room outside a genetic testing centre…(kind of Kafka esque) or maybe just writing about a family where a beloved son has died for reasons that no one is able to explain…

All these possibilities are still open, an in an ideal world, I’d be writing them all. But in an ideal world no one would need to write anything, would they?

Perhaps what this year has done for me more than anything is cement the duality that afflicts me with regard to understanding stuff while living with stuff as being the common currency of science as well as “real” life – that the duality of our nature is in us and always has been; that everything lives twice; that ambiguity is what life is…and for a playwright, what could be a happier conclusion than that?

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.