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

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Funny paper titles #2

Just found this gem:

Microbiological studies on mammary glands of one humped she-camels in Egypt

It's in the JOURNAL OF CAMEL PRACTICE AND RESEARCH, which sounds like a guest publication from "Have I got news for you"

Now resuming normal service

Sorry about that folks, every blog needs one morosely self-indulgent post and that was mine. I'm going to leave it up though, firstly because writing it made me feel better and secondly because there aren't enough pictures of weebles on the internet. Anyway, I have an excuse; according to the Oxford Handbook of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine, which has been my bedtime reading of late, I'm depressed. Apparently the symptoms are low mood and energy in the mornings, which I don't think anyone who has every encountered me in my blundering zombie-like pre-caffeine state could deny that I suffer from. Of course according to this definition I've been depressed for the past 27 years without noticing it. I had to stop reading the book before I diagnosed myself with sixteen tropical diseases I'd never been exposed to and prostate cancer, which made me wonder why doctors don't collapse into a quivering heap of hypochondria on their second day. Oh wait, yes they do. I've met Lou.

Thanks for your concern everyone, I was just feeling quite exhausted after a particularly difficult week and my second cholera vaccine, which really knocks the stuffing out of you. Umm, quite literally actually. I made a couple of really stupid mistakes but am now able to appreciate the funny side; the sample I contaminated the machine with was actually my own snot which I'd forgotten to filter. So now everyone is running around telling each other not to touch the machine because it's got my bogeys in, because scientists are grown up like that.

I am feeling nervous about my ability to get as many useful results as I want in The Gambia, but am looking forward to the trip and certain that I'll come away with at least something useful. I am also reassured by the number of people who've said that no one ever feels completely prepared for fieldwork, and in any case the best way to feel more confident is to do more preparatory work, which'd probably be a more productive use of my time than blogging about my jitters. So I'd probably better go and do that now then...

Thursday, 16 April 2009

A wobble

I have in my possession airline tickets from Brussels to Banjul and an email confirming my gluten-free lunches, guaranteeing that I'll be able to get at least two meals out there. I fly out on the 24th of May in the company of one of the world's leading trachoma experts (which I'm not especially happy about as if we hit turbulence there's a very real possibility that I'll be sick all over him) and return on the 26th of July. All my life I've wanted the opportunity to go to Africa and actually do something useful rather than just gawping, six months of preparation and anticipation have gone into this trip and I feel, well, terrified to be honest.

I'm worried about the fact that I'll be taking nearly £5,000 worth of scientific equipment to a third world country. Not so much out of fear of theft, as it's all pretty specialist stuff and I wouldn't have thought a tangle of PTFE tubing and carbon filters would look particularly enticing to the average thief who would in any case probably only be able to fence it to us. It's more to do with the likely result of combining harsh terrain and high humidity with my notorious propensity to break anything that can't take evasive action quickly enough. It's all been field tested and is pretty robust, but I've been known to snap taps and cut my own earlobe on my headphones so I'm not feeling too confident.

It'll also be the longest time I've been away from my bloke in five years. Last year he went to Trinidad for three weeks, which was ample time for our cooking styles to diverge to the extent that on his return he couldn't stomach my bland British stodge and was cooking meals apparently designed to provide our entire five veg a day with chillies. If our tastes could change (or perhaps revert to type) so dramatically in three weeks, what could happen in nine? He will of course be coming out to visit me, but I'm worried about my ability to keep him entertained as two weeks watching your girlfriend tweezering dead flies out of traps is likely to bore any man.

Then there's the guilt I'm feeling about how much anxiety this trip is causing my Mum. We've had a long talk about it and straightened a few things out, but I still feel very bad for putting her through this when her health isn't great. In my defence I never expected her to react so badly, but looking back I've been surprised by my Mum's reaction to quite a few things I've done, which makes me realise I probably didn't understand her as well as a considerate daughter perhaps should have.

I'm also starting to question my ability to carry this out as a scientist. Since Christmas I haven't made as much progress in the lab as I would have liked for various reasons, and I'm worried that I'll get out there and not be able to make anything work, frightening as I only get one shot at this preliminary fieldwork. It's been a bad week, which is especially depressing considering that I'm only on the third day of it, in which I made two extremely stupid mistakes. One of wasted a lot of reagent and destroyed one of my samples, but worse one contaminated a machine (embarrassingly, with a sample of nasal mucous) and ruined somebody else's sample, and I am acutely aware that he's working to a very tight deadline so the time taken to clean the machine and rerun the sample would really not have been welcome. He, and indeed everyone else, was extremely nice about it and said I was still learning, but in truth I knew exactly how these operations should have been done and for some reason just forgot to carry out a crucial step in the process in one case and even more inexcusably just forgot to switch something off over night in the other (doubly shameful for an avowed treehugger).

What I think has really thrown me was a technical writing course I did a couple of weeks ago. I'm no Victor Hugo, but I don't think I write badly and I seemed to know more about where apostrophe's shouldn't go (there) than anyone else on that course. The rest of the class seemed genuinely shocked when, having been asked about our writing experience, I said that I wrote for pleasure and the whole focus seemed to be that writing was, for scientists, an unpleasant chore that it was vital to master for career advancement. I suddenly realised that a lot of my success in science wasn't down to Earth-shattering insights or innovation in the lab, but simply down to the fact that I was able to present what I had done better than most. Writing is an extremely important "soft skill" in science, but in the end it's the "hard skills" that'll get you ahead and although I'm not a complete incompetent in the lab I realised that I'm not Nobel Prize material and no amount of "soft skills" will compensate for that.

I'm a little saddened by the way I always seem to manage to turn things I love doing into a chore. I genuinely love my PhD, find the areas I'm researching fascinating and feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to do something that I believe can make a difference to peoples' lives. And I've dreamed of going to Africa ever since devouring the WilSlard Price books (if it gets 'em reading, don't knock it) as a kid. Somehow though in the past month I've managed to turn it into something I'm stressed about. I think I may just be a bit tired out from long hours, long commutes, lack of time for exercise and a hefty dose of cholera toxin.

Maybe I'll go and eat some jam. Jam makes everything better.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Bug Girl's Blog

If anyone is reading this blog because you're actually interested in insects, rather than just to find out when you'll finally get rid of me (soon, I promise), you might like this blog. It's what mine would be like, if it was a lot better.

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Attenborough’s Eye Worm

In a recent interview for the Radio times, the great David Attenborough discussed his opposition to creationism and was asked why he didn't give "credit" to God for the design of living things. He replied:

"They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

I'm not putting that quote up to get drawn into a discussion of what that implies for the existence or otherwise of a benevolent creator (if pressed I'd say there's been a lot of arrogance and intransience on both sides of the debate and I'd like to leave it at that*) but because, quite understandably, a lot of people have now heard of this blinding disease spread by flies and think it's what I'm working on, when in fact I'm working on an entirely different blinding disease spread by completely different flies. Confused yet?

The disease David Attenborough is referring to is Onchocerciasis or River Blindness, caused by parasitic worms spread by blackfly of the family Simuliidae. These blackflies are found close to running water as the larvae feed by anchoring themselves to stream beds and then straining food out of the passing currents with little fans. The female flies feed on human blood and are able to pierce human skin to get it. In doing so they are able to pick up baby worms (microfilariae) living under the skin. The worms then penetrate the gut wall and migrate to the flight muscles where they mature into juveniles, then travel to the poor fly's proboscis (they don't do the fly much good either incidentally) where they mature again into infectious juveniles and are able to enter the human body in saliva the next time the fly takes a meal. They then set up home in the subcutaneous tissue where they become adults and start churning out more microfilariae. This may all sound a bit complicated but the take-home message is that both humans and flies are needed for the worm to complete its lifecycle. It is the microfilariae that cause all the problems, provoking strong immune reactions especially when they die. In the skin this can produce irritating or painful dermatitis, but if the worms migrate into the cornea they can cause blindness.

As you should all know by now, because I've been banging on about in incessantly for the past six months, the disease I'm working on is called Trachoma. It's spread by Musca sorbens, which nasty as it is is not actually able to pierce skin to drink blood but instead laps secretions off the skin, most commonly tears. Unlike River Blindness which is most prevalent near the running water its blackfly vectors need (the clue is in the name!) Trachoma is most prevalent in dry, dusty places where people don't have water to spare to wash their faces. The disease is caused by a bacterium not a worm, and it infects the inside of the eyelid not the cornea – the damage to the cornea is caused indirectly by scratching from the inturned eyelashes. And unlike the worm that caused River Blindness, the bacterium that causes Trachoma doesn't need the fly to complete its lifecycle; whilst flies are a very efficient menas of dispering the bacterium, it could equally well be transmitted by dirty fingers or towels. The worm couldn't, as few towels have either flight muscles or probosces.

Hope that's cleared things up. Here are some nice pictures of nasty things from the Carter Centre:

*If pressed really hard, with pointy things, I'd say that there may or may not be a God but it'd be more productive if we all stopped bickering about it and got on with doing what God wants us to do/doing what we have to do because there is no loving guiding force, which is making the world a better place. And that really is the end of what I have to say on the matter.