The author: Jim CarylMENTAL indigestion. Let’s be honest, we’ve all suffered from it at one time or another. Some of us however, have a chronic case. Indigestion is characterised by mild to severe discomfort caused by rapid consumption, and when consuming knowledge, you have to process it and do something with it. My approach, my intellectual Alka Seltzer, is to release the inevitable brain farts in here. For those worried about the stuffiness, there is air conditioning available at an extra cost.

In simple terms, I am safe, edible and contain no artificial colours (not even tan in a can), flavourings (well, only occasionally) or preservatives (regular gym goer). I have no perversions and am toilet trained. If you want to know something about me, then it helps to know a little of what I do. I am a professional research scientist working at a research institute in a British university. At one level, notionally an expert with a PhD in bacterial molecular genetics, and at another, a broadly-read dabbler in all the sciences. When not in the lab I write a lot, take lots of photos, practice calligraphy, and train in Krav Maga. My idea of recreation is dragging friends either to the beach, to go power-kiting, or up into the mountains, where I grew up.

Perhaps the best way to describe what I do in my day job is by way of analogy, and in keeping with my discipline, this is one of a notional experiment. The experiment is to find the best of a range of jams, but we’ll call them “conserves”, because scientists like using robust names for simple things. We’ll test our conserves by spreading them on toast and tasting them, then scoring them for various qualities. This is the experiment, but how do we get there? In order to carry out this experiment, we spend most of our time baking bread. However, it goes further than this. We not only have to make the bread, but we also have to grow the wheat, harvest it and mill it. Of course, this needs to be done reproducibly, and to create the best possible flour.

We might be able to source some of the other “ingredients” readily prepared, though this depends on how good your grant is! In previous years I would be making my own yeast extract, but these days I’d buy it. So then we need to prepare the butter, make the toast and identify appropriate conserves to spread on the toast. All this must be coordinated, such that we have uniformly reproducible ingredients. What invariably happens is that the toast burns, or gets too cold, or the bread doesn’t rise, or the condiments don’t arrive. So despite our hard work, often taking days or weeks, we don’t get to do the experiment.

Eventually, we will get to do the experiment, and it’ll probably take just an afternoon. Of course, after having conducted the taste test, and cleared up, we might then discover that the set of taste parameters we have been using are total tripe, and we need to start over. This is when you discover that you’ve run out of butter, or the toaster has stopped working.

Such is the life of a researcher: 99% preparation, 1% experimentation; an incessant series of failures punctuated by the occasional meaningful result. However, the goal of many research groups is to develop a “bread making machine”, so you need not bother with the preparation, then it’s just taste testing. Or, if you are working in a well-funded pharmaceutical R&D lab, you might get given the bread straight up.

To add insult to injury, if you don’t write a review of you conserves, and get published in a journal that contributes to your departmental REF score, then you’re unlikely to get another taste testing position. So in research, there is such a thing as a permanent record.

So this is a little about me, or at least what it is that I do; for the rest, you will just have to read through this blog.


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