DIARY: Sick days, crick days & dark days

Some scribbling on May days and maladies.
DIARY: Sick days, crick days & dark days

Cough, splutter, sneeze and cough some more. Such is the pattern these last weeks as the Jermy household stumbles from one malady to the next. One might have expected that an editor working in the microbiological sciences, with (at the very least) an elementary knowledge of what makes infectious agents tick, might stand a better than average chance of minimizing exposure to contagion. Alas with a now 3 year old vector dashing hither and thither determined to sample every surface in sight (“I wonder what the grime on this unwashed car tastes like?”, “Wow, a train window covered in condensation, better give that a lick!”), being even slightly forearmed in understanding is no defence. With noses that stream more reliably than Netflix, Jermy minor and his chums are walking bags of bugs. Parental petitions for them to share are intended mainly for toys; by all means keep your microbes to yourselves!

So it is then that the three of us have been laid low with what seems like a single endless and evolving illness but in reality is likely two respiratory infections sandwiching a torrid two-day bout of gastroenteritis, about which I will not share the gruesome details. In days BC (before children) this diarist was a picture of health but now as we enter year three AD (afflicted with diseases), the likelihood of repeating a five year stint without a single day off work owing to illness is nil. Of course I wouldn’t for a second trade it all in to become child- and infection-free again, although if the question had been asked last Monday, the double-bucket-doldrums might have tested that resolve a little.

That the front door to casa Jermy has a large red cross daubed across it to ward off visitors, lest they be plagued by pathogens, is not entirely the fault of our darling (if disease-ridden) son, however. After all, it was not his decision to spend a week’s vacation enjoying a ‘Just for Tots’ break at Butlin’s holiday resort, although enjoy it he did. For those less familiar with the traditional British seaside break, Butlin’s has come a long way since the days of knobbly-knee contests and hi-de-hilarity, although the redcoats remain. On what was to be our final vacation as a three-piece, we opted for a stay in the well-appointed Shoreline hotel and all the fun of the fairground rides, activity classes and on-stage entertainment. For four days Jermy minor delighted in dragging his parents around the resort come rain or sunshine, although if truth be told two days would have been sufficient. Where a ride was the climax of his life on one day, enthusiasm had evaporated the next and the potential roster of activities was exhausted early. Only the water park’s allure remained undiminished for our tot, and so each day several hours were spent diving, swimming, splashing, sliding and marinating in a collective toddler microbiome. Illness was inevitable.

Despite the vexatious viruses, as ever the show must go on. In large part publishing is about meeting deadlines and while at each stage there will be a little wiggle room built in, failing to deliver a piece on time for a periodical ultimately means failing to publish, more often than not. Thus, it was that with increasing infirmity I found myself pushing right up to the deadline in penning a review of Powel Kazanjian’s monograph on the life and work of early US microbiologist Frederick Novy (see ‘Pitching the big tent of modern microbiology’). I won’t re-tread the same ground here, aside from recommending that if the reader is interested in the history of our field, I would suggest borrowing rather than buying in this case. Writing a review for the Nature magazine editors is always a fearsome challenge. After 10 years as an editor at Nature Research I am no stranger to developing the writing of others, yet submitting a piece to the scrutiny of the Books and Art editor at Nature still daunts. Success in this case however, as despite the amount of red splashed across the edited text upon its return, my summary of Kazanjians work was seemingly well received and the main-thrust of my arguments survived through to the published text. Bearing in mind that physicians often make the worst patients, I try to ensure that this editor doesn’t fall into the same trap given a writing task. Almost all recommended changes were thus adopted without fuss (the exception being the attempted deletion of the word ‘curious’ in the opening passage) and the is deadline met. Phew.

Unfortunately a deadline for my own journal is missed at the very nadir of the months ailments; easier to do when the wiggle room is your own, although it did make me itch. Fortunately despite near delirium I was able to deliver a draft of an editorial only two days late; the production editor and I remain on speaking terms too. The piece grew from a fascinating (and brilliantly titled) interview published today in Nature Microbiology in which my colleague, Emily White, spoke with microbiologist of the moment Dr Kate Rubins (@Astro_Kate7) about her experiences working as a virologist, making the move to NASA and spending several months last year working aboard the ISS. The interview is Emily’s first (kudos) and a must-read for anyone interested in microbes or space exploration.

In one of two recent examples of convergence between our journal and the activities of the American Society of Microbiology, unbeknownst to us at the time of interview, Rubins is to give a keynote address at next weeks ASM Microbe 2017 meeting in New Orleans. A great idea is a great idea, so it is no surprise that those clever people at ASM also settled on Rubins as someone whose story is going to excite broad interest at their meeting. [A quick disclaimer – I have served on the ASM Microbe meeting planning committee for the past 3 years, but have not been privy to knowledge of keynote selections]. The other convergence relates to the impending launch of MicroNow, ASMs new online community due to be launched at the upcoming conference. Well, imitation is indeed the best form of flattery, especially since the Nature Microbiology community has been a Micro WOW!!! for nearly 18 months now. Of course, we were not the first journal to have a community blog platform and so sour grapes are not on the menu, instead we look forward to being joined by the ASM in pushing science communication in the microbiology field in this new and interesting direction.

One area of significant divergence between Nature Microbiology and the ASM became clear this week, with the news breaking on Twitter (where else these days?) that the majority of its conference programme had been axed owing to financial constraints. Like many microbiologists out there, I have attended and taken part in several of these excellent conferences and so it is obviously disappointing to see ASM have to withdraw its support for them, but clearly no organization can run at a loss without seeking to make changes, however unpalatable. Why is this a divergence you may rightly ask? Well, following on from Nature Microbiology’s first foray into conference organization with 2016’s highly successful Nature Conference on Viral Infection and the Immune Response, we had already begun to look at what other meetings we might be able to pull together in the coming years. After the forest fire, new growth always returns. Watch this space.

Also this week was the second trip in a month to that new cathedral of UK science, the Crick Institute, for an engrossing symposium on the gut microbiota and germfree models. Despite watching how the latest neighbour to join Nature’s rapidly developing Kings Cross patch has grown (and grown, and GROWN) for several years now, the sheer scale of the Crick only becomes clear upon entering the building and gazing up and through the central atrium. It truly takes ones breath away. On my first trip I visited a number of groups at the institute to learn about their on-going work, how they are adapting to life in the new place and the inevitable cultural shift from previous dwellings. In kind I presented a seminar about our approach to publishing at Nature Microbiology, and took questions from the firm-but-fair audience about the journal and publishing in general. Of course my ramblings were a pale shade compared to the vivid display of research on offer during the symposium on my return. Fingers crossed for many more scintillating symposia at the Crick in the years to come.

In step with my last entry, this post will unfortunately finish on a more sombre note, in light of events in Manchester this week. The bombing of a concert venue full of innocent teenage music lovers is as heinous and cowardly an atrocity as can be imagined. As an alumnus of Manchester University and resident there for 9 years, this dark day saw an attack on a city that I both know well and love dearly. With family, friends and colleagues living in Manchester, the bombing has been in the forefront of my mind since learning about the tragic crime early on Tuesday morning. It is stunning, sickening and just so, so sad. My thoughts are with all affected. In the immediate aftermath of the obscenity, the swell of sorrow and anger were perfectly understandable, but also evident was an outpouring of empathy, charity, community, tolerance and love that speaks volumes for a city and its people. THIS is why terror will never be the victor; there is no future in which the people of Manchester, or any other city or town targeted in this manner, will be cowed into changing their way of life. Yes, the wound is painful, and for a few may never fully heal, but as a community we remain undivided, unaltered, unconquered. Every single time we will get right back up, dust ourselves off and go back to life just as before. Every. Single. Time. With its highs and lows, the halcyon and the humdrum, a return to the regular routine IS the win. Just as we have unfortunately discovered far too frequently elsewhere, terrorism will not prevail in that most resilient of cities, Manchester is greater.

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