Lucky Socks: superstition in science

A few weeks ago our latest paper was rejected from the Journal of Biological Chemistry (‘JBC’). It had been sent to two reviewers who each felt that the paper was unsuitable for publication in its current form without further experiments. This is quite normal and is part of the peer review process. You are then given about 3 months to revise the manuscript with the new data and respond (argue politely) to the reviewers comments. If your revised manuscript is still not deemed to be acceptable by the reviewers then it is rejected from the journal and you are then able to submit it to another journal, usually lower down the pecking order.

Yesterday afternoon I made a throw-away comment: “So just two more experiments – one more week – and we’ll be all done.” I shouldn’t have said it – immediately afterwards I tried to take it back, to apologise, but it was clearly too late. Never say “Just one more experiment” or “Just one more week.”

In my current experiments I use semi-automated microscopy to analyse the dynamics of signalling pathways downstream of the Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) receptor. I use assays that have been used in the lab my me for more than a year, and by my predecessors for many years before me. These assays work.

Today’s experiment was set to be beautiful. I used all new stocks of reagents wherever possible. My mind was clear when I carried out the complicated stimulation time course. Carrying out experiments for me is a bit like drawing: if I’m tense, stressed or pre-occupied all I achieve is a little knot of pencil lines, some grainy, dead cells.

As the InCell Analyzer chugged through the imaging, one field at a time, I hovered around waiting to see the results as soon as they were ready, filling tip boxes ready to autoclave (the downside of having an entire lab to oneself is having to do all the lab chores). I couldn’t believe my eyes when the images were completely blank – well not completely blank – there was ‘background’ staining (non-specific, low-level staining) but the cells had clearly not been stimulated by GnRH.

How could this be? This has never happened before! In those last-ditch experiments one goes all out to get the perfect results, by scaling up to a larger experiment than before, by changing all the reagents in favour of nice new ones? Those fateful words stating the end is in sight.

Sadly, as I have experienced all too many times, the end is rarely as close as you think it is. My suspicion is that the new batch of hormone I made up from powder today was to blame. Perhaps it was a really old vial (and thus degraded), or there wasn’t the right amount of powder in the vial. Hopefully I will be able to make a guess at the answer next week when I run some experiments to decide which reagents I trust and which I should bin, so pushing the completion date for the revised manuscript back even further.

These experiences make us superstitious – the old stock of hormone might have lost some of its activity (it might have been thawed one too many times by the Summer lab students) but at least it works! From here it’s only a short step to using a favourite pipette for every experiment, or indeed, wearing lucky socks.

Working with Transparency

I have been making some new cell drawings recently, but I have been unsure about how to take the drawings further. The subjects are living cells in culture viewed down a light microscope. They have no colour, and are discernible only by the shadows created when the light meets a dense structure. A little colour comes from the light itself, the cell culture media and probably some dirt in the objective, but really a line drawing is all that comes from the cells. Traditionally scientists stain cells and tissues so that their structures can be seen more easily, and this is how my brightly coloured early cell paintings came to be this way.

An opportunity presented itself recently to make a series of artworks to be hung in windows (more on that in due course). Upon seeing the space I knew instantly that the works had to be transparent or translucent. It would be such a shame to block the light and the view out of the windows, but surprisingly transparent works had not been proposed for this space before.

In thinking about the support and the materials that I will use to make the pieces, I came across some works I made about the figure in space when I was on my art foundation course. (This is the year taken by trainee artists after A-levels in preparation for a Bachelors degree. I took mine at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College – ‘Bucks college’ – in High Wycombe, where my dad went to art school in the sixties.)

Figure in Space-1 1999_whole In these pieces I drew the other students in the Fine Art studio as they moved around, made their own work, came and went. I used transparent and semi-transparent materials – polythene and tissue paper – layered with acrylic paint and permanent marker to trace the figures’ movements. Like my cultured cells, the figures here are not fixed or embedded; they do not have a solid form and the shapes only exist for a brief period of time as they are caught by the light, my eye, my brush or pen stroke.

Figure in Space-2 1999_wholeIn another piece of work, I traced the accidental markings on some stools in the art studio using acrylic paint, permanent pen and spray paint on polythene.

Stool tops 1999

Groynes and Keys: Cell drawing

I realised I could re-introduce drawing back into my hectic schedule by making use of the five-minute trypsination reaction. I am currently using three cell lines in my research: HeLa (a human cervical cancer line and first cell line created), MCF-7 (a breast cancer line), and HEK-293 (a human embryonic kidney line). All three are adherent cells, meaning that they spread and form attachments to the plastic of the culture vessel. When confluent, that is to say when the cells are completely covering the plastic surface and have no space left to grow, we use the trypsin enzyme to cut all of the little attachments to the plastic to dilute the cells so that they have more space to grow. The reaction takes five minutes in the incubator, and often I find myself checking my emails on my phone or staring out of the window. At art school we would do one-minute drawings as a way to stop thinking about drawing – to stop worrying about the quality of every mark. I used the five-minute biro sketches of my cells to feed into this larger drawing.

'Groynes and Keys' 2014, pencil and watercolour on paper.
‘Groynes and Keys’ (2014), pencil and watercolour on paper

The images we now recognise as cells are so often made using fluorescent tags and dyes. However, cells seen naked using a light microscope are very beautiful. The HEK-293 cells I am growing at the moment have spiky protrusions that make the cells look to me like islands with bays, harbours and jetties.


Firing Across the Synaptic Cleft: Back to Work

It seems this blog has been neglected over the past year. I had a baby 18 months ago and everything changed. In his first eight months I found I had a lot of time to read while I was breast-feeding, which meant this blog became philosophical and sadly less creative. This came to an end when I sent a book proposal out to some publishers and agents without any takers. It was time for a change.

My previous contract in the Bristol Heart Institute came to an end while I was on maternity leave, and I was really worried that, particularly with a baby, I would not be able to return to research. However, I not only managed to find a job, I found the perfect job at the University of Bristol, working on a systems approach to the analysis of signalling pathways. (You may remember I wrote excitedly on this subject for my first blog post back in September 2011, having just returned from a course on systems biology at the University of Nottingham.)

On the interview day, I sat on a chair underneath this painting in the Dorothy Hodgkin Building. I knew I was in the right place. Incidentally, if anyone has any information about it, particularly who made it, I’d love to know. I should ask around at work.

Synaptic Cleft


Science Presents a Rich Picture of the World

I have been making my way through some key philosophy of science texts recently. It is quite intense. Once I got past the feeling that I was reading a foreign language, I found it easier to skim-read a little and to skip the long examples so as not to get too lost in the detail. Perhaps like actually reading a text in a foreign language, cracking a code or solving a hard maths problem, once I did begin to grasp the essence of what was being said, I found the experience quite exhilarating.

This is a nice excerpt from Bas C. Van Fraassen’s ‘The Scientific Image’ (1980; p.59):

Science presents a picture of the world which is much richer in content than what the unaided eye discerns. But science itself teaches us also that it is richer than the unaided eye can discern.

Once again this week my thoughts have returned to my Cell Paintings. It all keeps coming back to them, since they were where my path into molecular biology really began. I was in my first year of art school and I remember feeling like these paintings really held something, but that I couldn’t understand exactly what that was. The paintings were copied or inspired by images I’d found in physiology textbooks, of cells and histology specimens. Not only did I not understand what I was looking at, I also was unable to create the original images for myself – to see the full field of vision and define the composition.

I came across the Foldscope project last week. A group of scientists at Stanford University have developed a series of microscopes that can be printed, cut out from a sheet of paper and assembled like a piece of origami. An aim of the project is to develop a method for diagnosing diseases such as malaria, rife in the developing world and whose treatment requires an accurate diagnosis of the species causing the disease. The research group have launched a project to test and develop the microscopes, ‘Ten Thousand Microscope Project’, with the aim of beta-testing the microscopes, generating stories and experiences of people using the microscopes to produce a manual for their use. I’ve applied to take part, with the aim of creating some new cell paintings.

In making art (or doing science), I am often confronted by the ‘why’ question. In the post-photography era, where is the point in depicting a group of objects in a still-life in meticulous detail for example, or, in this case, copying a photograph taken using a microscope of some cells? Van Fraassen’s words could also apply to the making of these cell paintings, which I like. My paintings in a sense illustrate that “Science presents a picture of the world which is much richer in content than what the unaided eye discerns.” As images in a textbook they are a teaching tool, but by making them into paintings, I am adding depth and detail through the materials I have used. By changing the platform (moving the images from the textbook to the gallery) I am bringing them to viewers who might not previously have seen them. Moreover, I am asking them to be viewed in a different way – not for the information they hold (to the learned viewer) but for their aesthetic and philosophical properties.