A land down under

I seem to have done nothing but travel and give talks this month.  By the end of the week in Aug I will have been to San Diego, LA, Melbourne (Australia) and Boston.  I am getting to the point where I dont know what time or day of the week it is!!

I have never been to Australia so when the invitation came in to go to the International Congress of Immunology in Melbourne I decided to go especially given Australia is significantly closer to San Francisco than Cambridge.  None the less it was still a long flight and we crossed the date line which totally defeated me mentally (I arrived before I left on the way back!).  I flew with Quantus who were really good and made a long flight relatively pleasurable and I even got some sleep which is unusual for me on flights.

Its winter in Melbourne and surprisingly cold, but much like a summer in SF (to misquote a supposed Mark Twain comment).  It is a lovely city which sits on the Yarra river which is a beautiful place to run in the morning


The conference started with some 3-4000 people.  I was chairing a session, talking then taking part in a debate (more on that later).  This is an unusual conference for me as I am not that keen on huge meetings as I find it overwhelming and this trip was no exception.  On the other hand I went to a number of lectures outside my main area of interest and learnt a lot, I was asked some very interesting questions after my talk and I was really looked after by my fabulous Australian colleagues Ash, Matt and Kate.  I have huge respect for my Australian friends now as I now realise just how far they have to travel for scientific meetings which they do regularly with great grace and cheerfulness.  Ash and I sneaked off for an afternoon of wine tasting and we went to a brilliant vineyard (Yarra Yerring) where the wines were outstanding.  The Yarra Valley was just beautiful.


One of my buddies, Luke, had, however, dropped me right in it.  As I was on the tarmac at SFO (the airport at SF) I got an e-mail asking me to participate in a debate which sounded OK to me.  The instructions then arrived and boiled down to a team of 4 of us taking it in turns to argue that adaptive immunity was unnecessary (we work in a different area of immunity- the innate immune system).  This would be fine except the instructions specifically stated we had to be funny and entertaining: in other words we each had to do 4 mins of stand up immunology comedy in front of 4000 of our colleagues.  Fortunately I did not fully understand what was required until about 2h before hand so after frantically scribbling some notes I had no time to be nervous and I made a few comments about “sledging”.  This is a favorite pass time of Australian sportsmen and something I was expected to do about my opponents, but I made the point that GB sport managed pretty well with out it (27 Olympic golds for us vs 8 Australia) so I was not going to do it which got a good laugh from pretty much everyone! It was pretty intimidating but a glass of wine before it started helped and I am pretty glad I didnt know what was involved beforehand so I had no time to get nervous.  I am not sure a new career in stand up comedy beckons however!

I found a little time to go to the beautiful botanic gardens and got confused by flowers again.  This time there were daffodils and red hot pokers out at the same time: how does that work?!?!??!



I definitely want to go back………..


A land down under

The quest for gold

I have been a bit remiss in my blog writing because I have been traveling for the last couple of weeks (partly work, partly holiday).  The CEB lab SF has reached the mid-way point of Charlotte and Milton’s internships (see below with the Genentech founders), which also means I will return to the UK from SF very soon


(I am more than a bit in denial as I love it here, but it will be great to spend time with Mike, my family, my friends, the lab and, of course, my cats).

I decided my quest last week was to find suitable locations for Charlotte to do a postdoc in California (its a hard job, but it’s obviously my duty) so I am off giving talks and location spotting at the same time.  First up I travelled to La Jolla, San Diego where I met up Guy who is an old friend of my Cambridge buddy Nick.  We had some really interesting discussions and found we were working on a similar project from different directions so we will collaborate to get it finished, which is fabulous.  La Jolla really is not a bad option for a postdoc as far as I can see- lab uniform is shorts and T-shirts, the weather is warmer and sunnier than SF, but still not humid and the labs overlook the beach so lunch time surfing seems to be an option!  Off to LA next week to scope out another postdoc site, then I fly to Australia for a week so the blog will go AWOL again.


Mike arrived on Thurs and we decided not to travel too much although we spent a fabulous weekend in Santa Cruz with Susan and Andy (another great location for a postdoc), then we took a short trip up the north coast to Mendocino- very lovely, if a little touristy, but much less so than Carmel.  We stayed closed to the sea and the seal toyed with us!

We had one of the best meals of the year (wild-fishcafe.com) and I finally found great value, as well as the usual great quality, American wines in the Anderson Valley (Handley wines had a great range of lovely wines)


I am now enjoying watching Team GB compete for gold as the time difference is working in our favor, although it’s limiting the site seeing in SF, but we did manage a walk up Twin Peaks this am (I am so going to miss this town).  It’s the first of my leaving parties tonight with my cycling friends and I can’t believe my time is running out…


I can’t sign off, though, without mentioning Karl the Fog (who has his own twitter feed) who today would not let go of the Golden Gate bridge today.  Can you spot the tops of the bridge?


The quest for gold

They think its all over…

When I woke this morning and listened to “Today” on BBC Radio 4 it was all about the 50th anniversary of England winning the soccer world cup against Germany (the quote is from  Kenneth Wolstenholme‘s BBC TV commentary of the final “They think its all over! It is now”).  I can’t quite understand why they were celebrating England’s failure to win the football world cup in the 50 years since 1966, but maybe that is because I am not a soccer fan, and there is so much else to celebrate in British spot that I have never understood the obsession with football.  There is an obscene amount of money paid to premier league footballers in England and yet they seem unable to perform for their national side.  Minnows such as Iceland and Wales are able to play much better in soccer international championships it appears!!  Roll on the Olympics where hopefully British sport will give us all something to celebrate, following on from Froome’s Tour victory, because things seem to be very difficult at home at the moment from everything I hear on the radio and from family and friends.

Here in sunny SF we have had a fantastically productive week, with a substantial amount of help from our friends here in Genentech.  I finally cracked a technique I have been trying to get working since January, Milton has found two new phenotypes and Charlotte is powering her way through new molecular techniques that will transform our work in the lab at home.  My imaging experiments are coming along too so between the three of us we are building a substantial body of work that will underpin what we do in Cambridge for the next five years.  We have made many new friends and collaborations which will be critical for the future as well.  For me these new friendships and collaborations are as important as the new technologies.  I am in close contact with many of the people I worked with in the past on sabbaticals and its completely transformative for my life (both professionally and privately).  The lab back home is mid-way through a desperately needed refurbishment thanks to a Royal Society Wolfson grant so we will have a brand new work space to populate on our return.  It also means the three of us avoided the lab clear out and, here I hang my head in shame, my office clear out (Betty please forgive me!).  I am eternally grateful to Pani, Lee, John and Betty for all their hard work.  This is the cleared out lab and the last time it looked like this was when it was converted 20 years ago!


We have been doing the editing for Milton’s paper, most of which was tedious, but straight forward (for poor Milton I hasten to add, not me!), except for when we were asked to convert our written english into american english.  As many of you will know my spelling and grammar is terrible, but I cannot bring myself to make the kind of horrible language changes the editors want so I said no to that one (they will do it anyway, but I have to take a stand!).  Horrible words will appear like accordingly, aforementioned, therefore (in the wrong places) and I will cringe when I read the final version (many years of Duncan and Nick correcting my terrible writing has rubbed off on me after all).

This week has also been sad for me as my granny is finally slipping away at the age of 99.  She is a remarkable lady who lived on her own until she had fall about 12 months ago.  Before I left for the USA I went to see her and she told me how tired she was especially as she had lost her hearing and a lot of her vision so she could no longer see or hear much.  She has recently had a big stroke and is now slipping away.  My sadness is tempered with fabulous memories many of which revolve around food.  She was a fantastic cook making and icing the family wedding cakes up until a couple of years ago.  I remember a huge parcel arriving at my student house on my 21st birthday which was a magnificent iced cake from Grandma!  She has always been there for me and I am struggling with the fact that I am in SF and not there for her now.  Unfortunately I have often been a long way away when close family members have died (Uncle Freddie and Aunty Ave both died whilst I was away) and its very, very hard.  This is one of the reasons I think I have not made it to work abroad long term because, whilst in theory it should be easy to hop on a plane and get home, actually it is not that simple especially when you are working.  My only concern is that Grandma does not suffer and, whilst I am sad, it is amazing to me that I have been lucky enough to have a grandparent for so much of my life.  I knew three grandparents very well as well as remembering clearly 4 great grant parents (including the terrifying (to a small child like me) Mam).  Few people are that lucky.

They think its all over…

Le Tour de Marin

It seems fitting on the day when Chris Froome looks to have secured his win on the Tour de France to write the blog for this week principally about cycling.  The more I cycle the more I love it: yes I get a bit scared by the traffic, the injuries, the idiotic drivers and the descents (more on that later), but it is such fun especially with a great group of buddies.  First I must introduce Eddy: many people have asked me what Eddy looks like so here he is in all his glory!  For those of you not as cycling obsessed as myself the reason he is called Eddy is because he is a Merckx bike, the bike range developed by one of the greatest cyclists ever Eddy Merckx.

IMG_0181 (1)

Its been another great week in the lab with the results pouring in, we had a paper accepted into Nature Communications and my pile of reviewing grew (but it all looks interesting).  I knew, however, that the highlight of my week would be on Sat when I was going to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge and around the Marin Headlands with some of my Genentech cycling buddies.  This has been on my “to do” list for my sabbatical, but I had somehow not got around to it so James, Courtney and Daniel agreed to show me the Alpine Dam route on Sat (their patience is unending as I am still a slow climber, but things are improving).  The weather was predicted to be beautiful and we set off from the Rapha cafe with the sun shining at 9am.  The bridge was relatively quiet and, yes, I did get goosebumps as we cycled over it: it is truly magnificent


We cycled on to complete the Alpine Dam route: remarkably beautiful with some brutal, but rewarding, climbs and incredible views of the sea


Obviously these kind of views require selfies!


And I can’t tell you how much I am going to miss these guys when I return to Cambridge


We returned over the bridge after the best part of 50 miles in the heat: this time it was carnage with people on foot or on hired bikes all over the place.  It was the scariest part of the ride (even more that the descents)!


I did see two of the most bizarre things today.  Firstly two people descending on their bikes going at least 30mph without helmets: this is completely beyond my comprehension.  Secondly on the SF side of the bridge a man in a spiderman body suit (mask and all) with a bike.  He came and asked me for directions (that is also bizarre considering how useless I am at finding my way around), but I was so bemused I missed the golden opportunity to ask him why was he wearing the suit!  One of the guys we were cycling with did ask him why didn’t he just use his web to get across to the other side of the bridge!!  This was a true moment of SF bizarreness.  It was a magical day and I even found I was enjoying the climbing (well mostly)! The day was supposed to end with a dinner with Milton and Charlotte to celebrate the paper, but they both had some clam chowder that disagreed with them at lunch time (poor things) so we will have to celebrate another time.


Le Tour de Marin

The steamy east…

Since last Friday I have been on America’s east coast catching up with collaborators who are now great friends.  On Friday I met up with Eric and Jane to spend the weekend in Sherwood Forest, Annapolis.  Its not much like Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, especially the steaming heat (100 deg and 100 per cent humidity), but beautiful none the less.


Eric did a sabbatical in Cambridge 14 years ago (we worked this out and then took a deep breath wondering where the time had gone).  We discussed a lot about Bordetella (the bacteria that he works with, one strain of which causes whooping cough in children), I twisted my ankle running with Eric (he got me started on running and was hugely encouraging when I ran the marathon), we ate crabs and corn (its that time of year in Maryland), I chatted a lot to their children, grandchildren and dogs as well as spending some time on the water (kayaking and on the speed boat).


It was fabulous to see them all.  The grant funding situation in the USA is very difficult so we talked a lot about that too.  Things are tough in a lot of places for science it seems.

On Monday I left for the NIH in Bethesda, Washington DC where I supervise 2 PhD students and have a number of excellent collaborators.  The NIH or National Institute of Health is a remarkable place.  It is a central hospital in the USA that treats patients for free that have challenging conditions.  The patients have to agree to give samples for research in return.  The net result is a remarkable center with a huge number of patients and patient samples.  The fact that they take patients from all over the USA means that they can archive a lot of samples from a large number of patients with rare diseases so their research makes a significant impact with a real potential to identify new treatments for seriously ill people.  This is really hard to do if you only have one or two people which can happen in smaller countries like the UK.  My two students, Liana and Sam, are flying and it was really great to catch up with them and their supervisors, Steve and Iain.  I always love visiting the NIH: I get to talk a lot of science with my collaborators in autoinflammatory diseases which really helps me to place a clinical context on everything we do and gets my brain really rolling!

From DC I fly to my friends Jim and Cynthia and their lovely daughters in Athens, Georgia (where its even hotter, but very beautiful).


I spent my first USA sabbatical here, having been encouraged by Duncan (my mentor) to go, in the vet school at UGA.  Jim now works in educational research with medical illustrators and the tools they have developed are nothing short of remarkable (http://www.vmerc.uga.edu/web/index.html).  The vet school has recently been rebuilt and I walked around the new site with real fascination as we are currently thinking about the shape a new vet school in Cambridge might take.  As always I am refreshed and fascinated by visiting a new academic environment.  There is plenty of great stuff here to take on board for the future and to help take my mind off the troubles at home, not least the horrors of the atrocity in Nice.

The steamy east…

Bryant Lab-SF

The Bryant Lab-SF has arrived.  Charlotte and Milton are already hard at work and its really great to have them around.  We have already made big plans and it feels like the sabbatical has been supercharged by the new arrivals.  They share an apartment near the top of Bernal Heights (this is where my nemesis, the Folsom hill, is) so I think about them every morning when Eddy and I stop at the lights and view the cycling terror ahead (although it is getting more manageable I have to say!).  We saw a cayote at the top of Folsom the other day at 6:45am from the bikes which was amazing although I am not entirely sure what he was doing there, but he was very beautiful.

This week has been a tough one as we have all been bemused by the UK meltdown.  Its hard to know what to think from here other than all this turmoil was totally avoidable.  The booing of Farage in the European parliament made me smile though!

Last weekend was eventful.  Charlotte, Milton and myself wondered down to the Castro where everyone was warming up for the Pride parade the following day.  It was buzzing with every sight you can possible imagine (and some you could not!).  We had a glass of wine in a little wine bar on the way back and then promptly put the world to rights over food and more wine.  Vanessa took me off to Point Reyes to following day: its an amazing headland, part of which runs along the San Andreas Fault (you can stand in the gap that was made by the last big earthquake: see below the space between the fences)

San Andreas

We then went out towards the headland and I experienced the true bizarreness of the weather here.  On one side of the point it was bitterly cold, grey and blowing a gale.  On the other side it was still windy, but the sun was shining and it was positively barmy.

Point Reyes

On the way back we say another cayote: thats 3 on my trip so far!  So the last couple of weekends I have seen some beautiful sites (I was at Berkley Botanical Gardens with Cedar the weekend before: see below)

Berkley Botanical

Finally I remain mystified by the flowers: we still have magnolias, wisterias, roses, agapanthus, irises, jasmin and so forth all out.  Some of the trees are incredible.  I have no idea what the one below is but I fancy one for the garden.  There seems to be a similar blue/purple one too.

Mystery tree

Well its the 4th of July weekend.  This is always an entertaining time to be a Brit in the USA and I have a packed weekend of socialising ahead starting with a trip to the wine bar with Milton and Charlotte so its time to go!

Bryant Lab-SF

Be careful what you wish for

I had hoped to write today about the Bryant lab offshoot (SF) because two of my graduate students have joined me here and its great to see them.  The awful result from the EU referendum yesterday though has quelled any joy in my soul.

I went to dinner last night with Kim (from work) as the result was starting to turn to Brexit and I took solace in wine fearing the worst.  I got home to find that I am no longer European (which, if I am asked, is my first response to my nationality).  It got so much worse this morning.  Genentech, like Cambridge, recruits the best people from all over the world which is a major reason why they are both so successful.  Will Cambridge still be able to do this now?  I doubt it from what I have seen at work today.  The distress in my newly arrived UK graduate student and the European postdocs is even greater than the distress I feel myself.  Many of us admitted to crying.  Several had been considering coming to the UK either as returning UK citizens bringing their amazing scientific skills with them or other nationalities to do a postdoc in a British lab: not any more.  Comments included “why would I want to come to an isolated little country like Britain”, “suddenly staying in the USA looks like a much better idea”, “what will happen now without EU funding” and “how could the older generation do this to us: they won’t be here to see the consequences”.  I have no answers because I don’t understand the Brexit result myself and I am worried about returning home to the mess that rapidly is appearing.

My colleagues in Cambridge will now have to waste a massive amount of time on damage limitation with no guarantees that they can protect the University as one of the world’s top research and educational institutes.  British science is likely to suffer dramatically: I don’t see any government being able to, or being willing to, match the funds we gain from the EU.  The knock on effect from this is less research = less ideas for biotech companies and industry thus having a very negative impact on one of the few success stories in the UK economy.

I don’t understand how anyone could find Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson believable or trustworthy: already their promises are shown to be founded on sand (see Farage admitting the “£350 million NHS pledge was a mistake” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/video_and_audio/headlines/36624697).  There is only one thing that is potentially worse than Brexit and that would be Donald Trump as president.

No photos, no jokes, no more this week.

Be careful what you wish for