I’m not one to boast but…

…I’m a Doctor!  Don’t worry, not a useful one, unless you want someone to look over your ancient fossils (not your grandmother). On Monday I passed my viva voce, a three hour examination that marked the end of the four year trial by science that was my DPhil. Given leave to supplicate, you can apparently now call me ‘Dr Leila Battison’.

The last few months have been completely crazy.  After my last post, I spent another month at NASA, made some truly unforgettable friends in San Francisco, then skipped town with a friend from England to tour around the western USA.  I came home at the beginning of October, and sat still for just over a week before I skipped of to tour the UK and Ireland with a friend from the US.  It’s just been one long adventure, and the date of the viva completely crept up on me.  Best way probably, as I didn’t have time to get worried about it until about half an hour before!
Anyway, with all of that out of the way, I’m finally starting to catch up with the many things that I’ve abandoned over the last 2 months of adventuring.
Also expect a flurry of updates over here.  Having travelled around ten thousand miles in the last month in the name of adventuring, I have stories to tell and photos to share.
a very relieved Dr Leila.
(here’s a picture of me looking drunk and happy with my lovely friends who celebrated the day with me)
me being drunk and looking smug

me being drunk and looking smug

Moving Out and Moving On

Not enough posts from me in the last month or so.  Well, none at all.  But I do have the best excuse of all.  Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email.  Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.

Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers.  After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life.  A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.

The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years.  This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years.  An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet.  Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure.  On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe.  Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months.  The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere.  I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli.  I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.

Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco.  Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there.  I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything.  Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!

As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco.  So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.



The gulf between the green economy and me

When I was 17, I fancied myself as a bit of an environmental activist.  I was devastated by the devastation of the Amazon, and choked by the choking of the oceans with plastic.  I joined Greenpeace and got an activist’s pack, including a stencil which I dutifully cut out.

But that was about as far as it went. I never sprayed my stencil onto anything, never did any flyering, and never chained myself to any railings.  It would seem my sense of self-preservation was a little bit stronger than my cares for the World’s preservation.  I’m a little ashamed to admit that, but I don’t really believe I am alone.  If I was in the minority, maybe we wouldn’t have the environmental issues we do, and I would be admitting a much more heinous crime of selfishness.

Would everyone in my position admit such self-preservation?  Not without producing a few excuses: we didn’t know; we didn’t know what to do; we didn’t know how to make a difference.  Not everyone wants to hijack an oiltanker to make a difference, and they shouldn’t have to.  For us to be able to deal with the climatic and ecological changes to our planet today, the baton must be carried by more than the few, fierce, selfless activists, but by all – as a part of everyday life.

UNEP’s World Environment Day (5th June), will address this issue with this year’s theme: ‘Green Economy: Does it include you?’

Like the majority of people in the UK, I am not intimately involved in forming our country’s economic policy, but I am environmentally minded. But what are the opportunities for an ordinary person to be green, without being an activist?

So I thought I would assess my own greenness, eight years on from my Greenpeace days. What has slipped unnoticed into my world?

Light bulbs: When I get home each night, I go through the same ritual.  I switch on the light in my room, and then I go and do something else for 5 minutes.  Why?  Because my house has been imperceptibly infiltrated by energy-saving bulbs, producing a laughably small amount of light when switched on, and taking hours to ‘warm up’. Apart from this very minor, first-world irritation, energy saving bulbs are one of the triumphs of subversive green policy making.  Have you tried to buy a tungsten bulb recently?  They might as well be illegal, for the trouble you have to go to.  Low energy bulbs are now made easier on the eye and on the pocket, and are a shining beacon of successful, if small, steps to greenness.

Green Energy: Wind turbines!  What a wonderful way to make use of Britain’s prevailing southwesterlies.  Personally, I find wind farms some of the most graceful, beautiful and striking examples of green engineering, but they attract a surprising number of antagonists – mostly on ecological grounds (surprisingly not on grounds of impending invasion). But are we close to meeting renewable targets, or are we even trying? Can I have my own wind turbine? Please?

Sustainable and Organic: Many foods and products now proudly tote logos proclaiming their sustainability. The Red Tractor for British farms, and FSC for sustainable wood are both fairly ubiquitous in the marketplace, offering green alternatives at no expense or inconvenience.  The Organic revolution is still floundering though, with organic goods prohibitively expensive for all but the lavishly rich or the more pressingly green-conscious.

This is a pretty small list.  Although it could be made longer, it would begin to include options, like organic food, that require a strength of will, awareness, or purse, that most people don’t have time or inclination to invest in.

Does the Green economy include me?  A bit, I suppose, if you count my light-bulb ritual and my love of wind farms.  But until all unfriendly solutions go the quiet but definite way of the tungsten lightbulb, I won’t hold my breath for willing or active advocacy.

This blog post is submitted as an entry to the UNEP/WED blog competition.

Are you ready for SciVoxPops?

It is December, and I couldn’t think of a better time to start a new project.  New Year’s resolutions are for sissies (sp?), and not only have I started my Christmas diet preemptively, I have also decided to start some of my new projects early to give them a run up before the dreaded January swamp…

So let me introduce SciVoxPops – a chance for everyone to have a say about a hot science question.

The project will not only pose these questions and relay the doubtless fascinating answers, but use these voxpops in ways they are unaccustomed to.  I’m going to analyse them.

Gist: A scientific question or issue will be posed, comments and replies will be obtained, the results will be collated, presented, and analysed.  You will find out fascinating facts as well as some diverse opinions.

What I will do: Each week, I will pose a scientific question across various social media outlets, and also to real people in the real world.  I will collate the comments, present them, and try to tease out some sense or trend which, hopefully, will throw up some surprising results. These will be presented in a weekly blog. If this trial goes well, YouTube will be conquered.

What you will do: Watch out for the question each week.  On twitter, search for the hashtag #scivoxpop. Send an honest or witty reply, then wait to find out how you fit in or out in a blog here at the end of the week.  Tell everyone you know, and send me suggestions for future SciVoxPops.

First question tomorrow (Fri 9th Dec).  Hint: it will be a subject close to my heart to get the ball rolling.

VoxPops – literally Vox populi or ‘voice of the people’, is commonly used to describe the so-called man-on-the-street interviews carried out by TV and Radio journalists.  Whilst they often provide a light relief from the professional and often cutting reporting of journalists and people trained in public speaking, they are usually left at just that.

I would like to use a large volume of these to try and tease out trends in opinion, especially about scientific questions or issues. Sometimes it will be a matter of opinion, sometimes it will be a matter of communication.  Will we find the Higgs Boson?  What is the best source of energy? How old is the Earth? Which sci-fi movie taught you most? All of these questions can be addressed and gauged by YOU, the man (or woman or undecided) on the street (or in the lab or on the internet). I can’t wait to see the results.

In fact, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – what we use these days in croudsourcing the best kind of DVI cable to buy and other Very Important Issues – was a concept first postulated by Sir Francis Galton way back in 1907.  He published his research in the journal Nature entitled, coincidentally ‘Vox populi’.  So this is my hundred-year-old tribute to Sir Francis, in attempting to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds’, using the VoxPoppery of today.

UPDATE: This week’s SciVoxPop is ‘Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?’ Answers here or on twitter, or if you’re shy email me…

All change at pen and ink

I started my blog and my website over a year ago, while I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010.  Having just returned from the 2011 Fringe, and with some unprecedented time for reflection, it seems that, useful though it is – my website can’t really reflect what I do any more.

More and more I find my activities are not scientific enough to fit under the moniker ‘science in pen and ink’.  Morris dancing plays such a big part in my life now (don’t laugh) and I feel I can’t talk about it.  Journalism is a big focus of my writing, and not always scientific, so if that is to be represented, an about turn in theme is necessary.

And so here – A Life in Pen and Ink is born.  Or rather, reborn, or revitalised, or bastardised or something.  Here I will write not only about my scientific pursuits, but also anything else that might be occupying my mind at the time.  Narcissistic you say?  Perhaps.  i will still write original long articles for my blog, but this will also give me the chance to blog more regularly and more readably.  In particular, as I start a two month fellowship at the BBC courtesy of the British Science Association, I hope to be able to talk about my experiences there.

Look forward to a new revolution in pen and ink.