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Interview

It's good to SciTalk

Ann Lackie on her life, her novels and a new organization that brings writers and scientists together

8 November 2005

www.lablit.com/article/57

Lackie and friend on the farm in West Cumbria. Photo copyright Wellcome Medical Photographic Library.

I’ve always been almost evangelical about getting scientists, writers and artists together to talk to each
other.

Ann Lackie performed scientific research for many years in Britain in the fields of parasitology and zoology; more recently, she has published novels of science-related literary fiction (under the name 'Ann Lingard'), acted as a science consultant and has vigorously promoted science-art interactions. We will be reviewing one of Ann’s most recent ‘lab lit’ novels, Seaside Pleasures, soon. In the meantime, LabLit.com recently caught up with her for a brief interview.

When did you decide you wanted to become a scientist? Who or what was your inspiration in this decision?

I suppose I didn’t think about becoming a scientist until I was dissuaded by my school from applying to vet school – girls could be ‘small animal’ vets, but I didn’t want that, I enjoyed going out with our local vets to farms in Cornwall, where I grew up, and working with large animals. I was mostly just an observer, though the vets and farmers had a lot of entertainment from getting me to do the jobs like holding the piglets up by their hind legs while they were castrated, and sending me into the pen of cattle to jot down ear-tag numbers during TB testing. But I really enjoyed it – and it’s odd, I’ve only just realised this, and how this has provided the background to the novel I’m writing at the moment – those visits must already have started opening my eyes to the ways other people live their lives. Small-scale farming was a tough life then, as it is again now. But I do remember being especially interested in the diseases of animals and keeping a little notebook. Anyway, I was persuaded that reading Zoology would be the next best option – and in fact it turned out to be a good decision because I then discovered the joy of lab- and field-based research.

You read Zoology at the University of London’s Bedford College. What was the atmosphere like there? What is your favorite memory of those days?

It was a small college in a beautiful setting – Regent’s Park – and yet in the heart of London so you could go to the theatre and concerts and films – if you looked around there were a lot of free or cheap tickets available. The department was small and many of the staff were very committed and enthusiastic. I was fortunate in that there were several other committed students and I suppose we stimulated and helped each other – that makes us sound like stereotypical geeks but it wasn’t at all the case, though I’m not going to tell tales! And in those days we were able to go away on quite lengthy field trips with the department, paid for out of County Council student grants. A major part of the field trips, and of the final year of our degree, was in devising and carrying out research projects – and that’s when I began to realise how much I enjoyed that questioning approach, with the whole intriguing business of working out how to answer a question through experimentation, the long hours you had to put in, and the disappointments and small triumphs. It was exciting and challenging, and I became hooked.

You performed your Ph.D. research at the Department of Parasitology in Cambridge, then continued at Cambridge for a couple of years as a Research Fellow, still in Parasitology, before moving to a Lectureship at Glasgow. What was the main thrust of your research, and why did you go into that area?

After my Ph.D., which was on parasite physiology, I moved into a much more exciting area, looking at how parasite larvae survive in insects. This may sound esoteric, but many parasitic worms that cause serious diseases in humans have a larval stage in an intermediate host, most often an insect or a mollusc. The immune system of insects is different from that of mammals but is quite capable of detecting ‘foreign-ness’ – yet for some reason, it very often fails either to recognise the parasite as foreign, or does recognise it but is unable to respond. Of course, this varies between species and strains of both the host and the parasite, and whether or not a parasite can evade or subvert the insect’s immune system has huge implications for the epidemiology of the disease. I and my group investigated how the insect immune system could be switched on and off, particularly the cellular immunity, by a range of parasites including tapeworm larvae and malaria, and we uncovered some very exciting and intriguing scenarios. Parasites are very clever, and evolution of the interactions between parasites and their hosts is a continuous process.

You left your academic career to devote yourself to writing and broadcasting. Was it difficult no longer being an active scientist? Any qualms or regrets?

Having decided to make this rather dramatic change, I didn’t waste time even wondering if I felt any regrets! Luckily, even though we had two small children at the time, my husband was very supportive, even though it meant our income halved. I still occasionally find myself missing the buzz of a busy research lab, and the university environment – especially having the undergraduates dropping in to do their own projects or ask questions or generally to socialise and clutter up the place! Writing is of necessity a solitary occupation. I make up for that, however, by travelling around to give talks about modern bioscience, and the basic science behind the hyped headlines. There are two truisms, ‘Once a scientist always a scientist’ and ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’.

When did you first start writing fiction, and why?

I didn’t start writing fiction until I left my university post! That probably comes as a surprise, that I should give up a safe career without even knowing if I could write fiction. I started with short stories, which is actually rather a difficult path to take – but three of them were commended or short-listed for national competitions, so it seemed that I was probably doing something right, and that gave me the courage to start my first novel.

Which do you prefer writing, short stories or novels, and why?

I’m not sure I enjoy writing at all. Researching the background is always the easiest and most interesting part. The actual writing is a long hard slog, when the real world disintegrates and is an annoying intrusion. But it has to be done, the pressure to write builds up – I put it off as long as possible with all kinds of work-avoidance strategies, and then suddenly, one day, I know I have to start.

You’ve lived in various places around Britain, some of these appearing in your fiction. Do you find yourself compelled to write stories in the settings of your past? Which have the greatest pull?

Scotland, the Highlands and islands, without a doubt. I went back for a long weekend recently, and it was – as always – like coming home. I noticed that I was observing again, really looking, and more important, stopping to think. Even in rural West Cumbria, where I live now, I don’t have that strange feeling of belonging. It is curious, because I’m not a romantic and I’m not interested in spirituality or insipid wishy-washy ‘feelings’ about things. One place that I have never visited appears in one of my novels, though – Madras and the hill-station of Ootacamunde in the 1930s. My father’s family lived out there for a long time, and I knew that there was a church in Madras, in fact a Scottish Kirk, that had the stars that you see over Scotland painted inside its dome. I very much needed this for the story and eventually tracked down someone who lived in Madras, a Mr. Murthi, who arranged for someone to go and take photos inside the Kirk for me – and when the photos arrived, his note explained that the dome had been re-painted. Sure enough there were stars there, but they looked more like golden sperm – tailed comets, I suppose!

It’s very difficult to transmit complex scientific information in a novel or screenplay without using undue amounts of exposition or informative dialogue, or without boring the reader. What is your favorite strategy?

Science should not be overt. You don’t want the reader to think, ‘Oh, that’s where she did her research.’ My strategy is to use scientists as major or minor characters, in which science just happens to be their job, and to take them wherever it suits me as author to send them – scientists are very adaptable as characters. The novels are not ‘about’ science. For example, one of the characters in The Fiddler’s Leg is a postgraduate finishing off his PhD in biochemistry: we can learn a little about what his lab looks like and what he does, because he has to work long hours tidying up his results for publication. And meanwhile he’s neglecting his girlfriend. In Seaside Pleasures, on the other hand, the science is slightly more overt, deliberately. One of the main characters is a retired malacologist – she worked on snails in Ethiopia, snails that are the intermediate host of the parasite that causes the human disease bilharzia – and she, like me, was suddenly keen to show the visiting art student that parasites are all around us. She made him collect live winkles from the shore and took them home – and the beautiful little parasite larvae came wriggling out of the snail, and swimming upwards in the jar of sea-water. Now, how many people would have known that? I’m sure your life is now immeasurably richer!

Do you feel strongly that the science always has to be absolutely accurate, or would you advocate fudging the data somewhat if it made a better story?

Since the science is not the reason for the story, it doesn’t dictate what happens. But I would never fudge data. One of the problems that science confronts daily is the public’s mistrust of scientific data and scientists themselves. It is imperative that we depict science and how scientists work accurately and fairly in fiction and plays.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

She has to be 'Dr Mary Malone' in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy: she's warm, intelligent, active in research, can talk to young people, works on particle physics ...

Can you tell us anything about the novel you’re working on at the moment?

Its title is The Embalmer's Book of Recipes. It's the story of the interaction between three women – a taxidermist, a research mathematician and a Cumbrian hill-farmer. It's also interspersed with essays, written by the taxidermist, about the family and work of the Dutch anatomist Ruysch and other related topics – the reasons for which slowly become clear to the reader.

Great title! We're looking forward to reading it. Let's turn now to SciTalk, your exciting new venture. When did you first have the idea to found an organization to put writers in touch with scientists, and how is it going to date?

I’ve always been almost evangelical about getting scientists, writers and artists together to talk to each other. I organised the two ‘Words & Pictures: explaining science’ conference to do just this, the first in Oxford in 1998, with generous grants from the Wellcome Trust, amongst others. And I work with playwrights, novelists and secondary-school children, helping them to use science themes. Some time back I talked to Katherine Mathieson, of NESTA, about setting up some sort of database of scientists who were willing to be contacted by writers. And Katherine – who is wonderfully clear-minded – picked up on the fact that I really enjoyed going out to talk to people about science myself, so she suggested I set up a website and recruit other scientists who wanted to meet and talk to writers. And that I should also ‘get out there’ myself and tell everyone about SciTalk – through articles, and newsletters and, more importantly, through talking to writers and scientists about it.

My collaborator Peter Normington, who is a physicist and information scientist, designed the excellent website and database. We started the design phase in March 2005, then went live with an Inaugural Group of high-profile scientists and some very warm endorsements from people like Philip Pullman and John Sulston in July. I then spent a couple of months publicising SciTalk amongst scientists in as many ways as I could, until we had at least 50 registered as Contributors and with their own pages set up. In mid-August I started publicising it as a resource for writers’ organisations – and it has taken off! Scientists are registering all the time – I spend a considerable amount of time checking and editing new pages – and writers are emailing scientists with all kinds of queries already. And I now have a series of invitations to give talks and workshops about the delights and benefits of SciTalk!

Have you had any reports back yet from any writers who’ve used SciTalk to get information for their stories? Has anyone well-known used the service yet?

Two writers have said ‘I feel like kid in a sweet-shop!’. Many writers have emailed either me or scientist contributors to say things like ‘What a fantastic idea’, ‘What a wonderful resource’, ‘Thank you for setting this up’ and so on. It has been very cheering to see this warm and enthusiastic response.

The novelist Clare George [author of Cloud Chamber, a novel about the atomic bomb] met with neuroscientist Jonathan Cole in October, and Anna Fazackerley at the Times Higher Education Supplement just wrote a delightful article about their 'first meeting'. One of the characters in the novel that Clare is starting to write has a neurological disorder that affects the muscles of his face and Jonathan was the perfect 'match' to talk to her about the range of possible conditions and how they affect patients. The two of them had an excellent meeting, from all accounts. And there's already been another meeting between a novelist and a particle physicist in Liverpool, so things are starting to take off!

What do you see yourself doing in five years’ time?

Oh, that’s easy. Back-packing with my husband, into remote parts of Scotland – and then heading off to New Zealand or Australia with our walking-boots and a campervan. Science? Writing? It will be time for a change. But I shall make sure that SciTalk is still flourishing and funded and left in good hands.

Related links

Learn more about SciTalk, or sign up to get involved as a writer or scientist, here.

Ann also wrote a recent article on SciTalk for the Guardian, which you can read here.

Read Ann Lackie’s NESTA profile here.

Visit Ann’s website (under her pen name ‘Ann Lingard’) here.

Amazon links to all of Ann’s science-related novels can be found in the Lab Lit List.