Getting into science


The interview is in London on a torrential day in early March 2020. That morning Ali woke up at 5.30am from a nightmare in which she had left the -80 ° C freezer in the lab open. She is disappointed that her sleeping brain hadn’t been more inventive. “Such a nightmare for a stereotypical scientist. Such a cliché.

She memorized her five-minute speech, practiced it over and over again, and had three mock interviews with colleagues. Members of her lab have given her a good luck card and she wears a locket with locks of hair from her daughter Ada and others from Dan.

She left her lab in a state of flux. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has taken hold in the UK; Cases of COVID-19 are steadily increasing. The university has yet to decide on a course of action, Ali says, but she and Dan are looking to the future. “Potentially, they will close the university, which they did in Italy. “

For now, she is concentrating on the task at hand. What is the first line of his presentation? “My lab studies slow axonal transport,” she says without hesitation. “I hope that once I get in, everything will come out. “

And this is especially the case. After the interview, she is giddy with relief and quite happy with how it turned out. “I didn’t say anything that I regret,” she said, her phrase dissolving into a shrill laugh.

Ali barely has time to think about how his interview went before world events interfered. COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and Ali is starting to talk to his students about the possibility of shutting down the lab. “You could see what was going on in Europe,” she says. Finally, on March 17, the day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a televised address advising people to stop “non-essential contact”, she closed the lab. That day, his department emailed the same advice. (It would be another week before the lockdown officially begins.)

Before and After: Ali’s lab group tweets about the shutdown on March 17, 2020.

“I don’t think anyone has started to understand how massive this is going to be,” she said on a video call the next day.

It’s frustrating for Ali to see scientists from large lab groups say on Twitter that they’ll make the most of the forced break by writing articles. “If you’re sitting on papers like this, you’ve got too much money for research,” she says, looking at it from the point of view of her own group, in which two doctoral students are just one. six months into their projects. “It’s going to have such a damaging effect.”

Ali starts video calls with his team. “I want to make sure they’re doing okay.” And she’s upset that, it seems, universities still expect researchers to be as productive as ever. “This concept that we can continue to work from home while caring for sick people or taking care of children. What fantasy land do people live in who can imagine we can do this? “

That day Dan goes to work to give his talk in an empty theater – filmed for the students. “My jokes are generally flat anyway, so no difference in that,” he says. Lockdown is necessary, but for Dan and Ali, it means uncharted territory for their science, lab group, and family life. Ada only had six months in school – and she knows she will close soon. “She put on her red boots today to stay cheerful,” Dan says.

On the afternoon of March 25, Ali prepares a sandwich for Ada when she checks her emails on her phone and finds that the grant decision has arrived. The subject line is the same as in her decline email. But when she opens the message, the content is different: “Dear Dr Twelvetrees. I am pleased to confirm that your application has been accepted. She won £ 1.26million, a grant that saves the lab.

“That’s all I worked for,” she tells us after a loud call with her lab group. “We can do all the things that we’re passionate about for five years. It is the greatest certainty you will ever have in a scientific career. It’s like winning the science lottery.

“It’s not just science. It’s also the security it brings – it’s so precious. To have Dan and I both have it now. We’ve never had this before.

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