Science Writes to Life

Principal Investigator(s): Professor Steven Matthews

About us

In this project, poets and students associated with the Poetry Centre were given the opportunity to work alongside colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, to learn about their research and teaching, and then to create new work of their own in response. The response from both 'sides' was enthusiastic, and writers from the Centre engaged with work on cell division, blood and genetics, plant classification, microscopy, bees, and much else. The project was drawn together by an evening on 11 May 2012 at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, organised by Dr. Anne Osterrieder, Research and Science Communication Fellow, Health and Life Sciences, and Professor Steven Matthews, Director of the Poetry Centre in the Department of English and Modern Languages.

The event also featured the prizegiving for the winners of the poetry and science competition, launched at the annual Oxford Brookes Science Bazaar.

In the second part of the evening, the new works from the science and poetry engagement were performed for the first time. The T.S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted poet, Fiona Sampson, read from her new work at the event, including work which itself spoke to her own conversations recently with Brookes scientists.

These pages showcase the scientific research being done by colleagues in Health and Life Sciences alongside the artistic responses to their work, as well as a number of reflections by the participants.

“[a]s organisers we had a blurry vision of where we wanted our participants to be at the end of this collaborative project: on a theatre stage, ideally holding a sheet of paper with a creative piece of research communication. I think it is safe to say that the process of getting there was as much of a surprise to us as it was to the participants. Seeing it all come together at the evening event and enjoying everyone's work was an amazing experience.”

Dr Anne Osterrieder

“I was glad when the team at Oxford Brookes contacted me about the Science Writes to Life project. Aeons ago, it seems now, I held an AHRC creative practitioner's fellowship at the university's Poetry Centre: something that gave me a wonderful breathing space for which I continue to be grateful. But there's a deeper reason for my enthusiasm for the project. I've spent quite a lot of my working life within, or in dialogue with, the medical humanities; and I've found interacting with clinicians occasionally frustrating but often mutually rewarding. Researchers, of course, have by definition more time for, and more of an obligation towards, reflection on what it is that they do. I'm just finishing a residency at the Sanger Institute for the Human Genome in Cambridge, and am full of respect for the thoughtful, responsive approach of the terrific minds at work there - as well as for their openness to dialogue. It sees to me that a fundamental task of poetry is to transform and to humanize whatever it encounters. The consequences of much scientific research are of real importance to all of us; but the methodology can appear alienating. It's not really, of course: it's a human endeavor. But anything which allows us to see its essential humanity, and how it fits into the lives of non-specialists, seems to me to be important. Poetry doesn't have to be applied, like this, to be valuable; but it's a bonus to work in such a context. I find scientists talking about their motivation - about why rather than how they do what they do - the easiest way in to thinking about this field. And I enjoy human dialogue. So my poems responded to - are about - Brookes's research scientists themselves.”

Fiona Sampson

David Evans and Rebecca Moore

Professor David Evans's work concerns the proteins of the plant nuclear envelope and their interactions with Chromatin and with the cytoskeleton. The work has led to a number of collaborations and has significance to crop protection and food security as the nuclear envelope is very important in plant responses to stress and disease. The nucleus is the cell's 'brain'. It stores the chromosomes and protein elements which structurally organise the DNA, similar to sewing thread wrapped around several spindles. This entity of chromosomes and organisational proteins is also called chromatin. The spatial arrangement of chromosomes – e.g. tightly coiled versus opened up – can for example determine whether a gene is accessible to be switched on and transcribed into a protein which then subsequently functions in the cell or organism. The nucleus is encapsulated in the nuclear envelope, a tightly controlled membrane structure. Proteins in the nuclear envelope are, for example, responsible for transport in and out of the nucleus or for forming bridges between the cell cytoskeleton and the nuclear skeleton. This is important for sending signals across in both ways or affecting the position and movement of the nucleus in response to signals. These proteins are also important during cell division, when the nucleus (and nuclear envelope) break down and chromosomes rearrange to be distributed into daughter cells. 

Rebecca Moore graduated from Oxford Brookes with a degree in English in 2012, recently completed her masters in English Literature at the University of Oxford, and now works as a writer in Oxford. As well as attempting poetry, and short stories, she writes a column in the Oxford Mail, and features for other publications. Given strict instructions to 'meet a scientist, and write something inspired by the experience', Rebecca met with Professor David Evans, who analyses plant mitosis. Following this encounter, she happened to watch many Al Pacino movies. David Evans' research on plants interested her because she enjoys watching small, seemingly irrelevant organisms dance around on film. Al Pacino interested her because she enjoys watching small, seemingly irrelevant organisms dance around on film. 'Al Pacino's Theory of Osmosis' is the product of these two types of organisms. 

Is it real?

  Are mice real?

   Yes.

   Are dragons real? Joe wriggles his feet under the duvet.

   No. Dragons are just in stories.

   Are dinosaurs real? Joe lifts his head and squints at his mum from suspicious eyes.

   Yes, they were real, but they’re all dead now.

   How do you know?

   They all died thousands of years ago, we don’t know how, but they did and now all that’s left are bones.

   Dead bones?

   Yes.

   Joe rests his head down on the pillow.

   There is silence for a few moments before Tina, Joe’s mum, smoothes Joe’s duvet on top of him and goes to sit in the chair. Can I start the story now?

   Yes.

   Tina opens the book.

   Are lobsters real? Joe has lifted his head again.

   Tina sighs, Yes.

   Like Larry the Lobster? He’s real, yeah?

   No.

   What?

   He’s just in a story. Tina closes the book, places it on her lap and shoves her hands into her hair.

   But lobsters are real? But not Larry?

   Yes. He is just a made up lobster – real lobsters can’t talk.

 

   After they’ve finished the story, Tina gets up to go downstairs.

   Monsters aren’t real, are they, Mummy? Joe directs wide eyes towards her.

   No, darling, that was just a dream. Sometimes we dream about things that aren’t real.

   Not always though, I dreamed about the park, and that’s definitely real. Joe is sitting up in bed now.

   Joseph you have to go to sleep, it’s getting late.

   I know, but what would happen if it was real?

   What?

   The monster. Joe is holding tight to the edge of his duvet.

   It is not real, Joe. Monsters do not exist. They aren’t real.

   Okay. But what if it was?

   Tina goes to the bed and covers him up again. She doesn’t turn off the bedside lamp. She smoothes his hair. What would you say to the monster?

   Go away, monster, you’re not real!

   And what would he say?

   Nothing, because he’s not real. Joe turns onto his side and closes his eyes. Right, he says.

   Right, says Tina. I’m going downstairs now, but I’ll leave the light on, okay?

 

-------------

 

   Did you close the back gate? says Tina to her husband Chris, when they go to bed later.

   I think so, he says. I haven’t been out there since I got home from work.

   Okay. Tina turns onto her back. Because I saw that thing on the news about people breaking into people’s gardens.

   Chris yawns. Don’t worry.

   Tina lies still and looks up at the ceiling.

   I can’t remember if Joe’s window’s shut. He was asking me about monsters.

   Chris pulls the covers up over his shoulders. Monsters aren’t real.

Deborah Fielding  

Louise Bunce and Deborah Fielding

Dr Louise Bunce is Lecturer in Psychology in the Department of Psychology at London Metropolitan University, and looks at children’s cognitive development and their awareness of what is real versus what is pretend or fantastical. Her recent projects include looking at the ability of very young preschoolers to make distinctions between reality and fantasy to determine whether they base their judgments on perception or conceptual understanding. Her work at Brookes involved her working closely with Brookes Babylab. See more details of her work can be found on her profile, and you can see her talking about her research in child development here.

Writer and sometime illustrator, Deborah Fielding specialises in short stories and flash fiction. She has had several stories published in the writing magazine, Vintage Script, and London's Litro Magazine. More recently, having completed a series of hand-bound single-story chapbooks (or pamphlets), Deborah has written for .Cent Magazine. She regularly reads at events across the country. You can find out more about Deborah’s work from her website, and you can follow her on Twitter.

Helen Dawes and Fiona Sampson

Professor Helen Dawes’s research focuses on optimizing performance of everyday activities through rehabilitation and on enabling physically active lifestyles in adults and children with disorders affecting movement such as stroke, Parkinson's, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

Writing about her poem and Helen’s research, Fiona Sampson comments:

Helen Dawes’s team look at conditions that affect the nervous system and muscular control. I have long been interested in such issues: I used to be a violinist and spent hours a day concentrating on precision of movement; but at the same time I would say I am at least mildly dyspraxic. My handwriting has been sneered at all my life! I’m also aware that those who live in villages like my own are at disproportionate risk of Parkinson’s Disease; my assumption is that this is because of the use of chemicals in industrial farming. Combine this with the sense of atoms as constantly in the motion and you begin to have a feeling of the countryside’s trembling intensity.

The deer racing across a field…

            for Helen Dawes

The deer racing across a field
of the same clay and tallow
colour they are - if they are,
or could they be tricks of the light? -
must feel themselves being poured
and pouring through life.  We're not built

but become: trembling columns
of apprehension that ripple
and pass those ripples to and fro
with the world that shakes around us -
it too is something poured
and ceaselessly pouring itself.

February shakes the fields,
trembles in each yellow willow.

Fiona Sampson

Andrew Lack and Aneurin Rees

Dr Andrew Lack, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Biology at Oxford Brookes University, specialises in the area of plant reproductive ecology and genetics, especially pollination, tropical rainforest ecology, and the history and philosophy of the interaction of humans with the environment. He is the author of Redbreast: The Robin in Life and Literature, published in 2008.

Andrew writes that:

[t]he research that I talked about with Aneurin Rees was on pollination of flowers and my studies on plant populations and genetics that resulted. We got onto some of my concerns about the disappearance of bee populations, both bumblebees and honey bees. They are such important animals directly for our welfare, and, of course, because they are a vital part of the country. Imagining a countryside without bees is a terrible thought. This is what inspired Aneurin to write his song based on some of the things I was mentioning about the new insecticides known as neonicotinoids that appear to be doing a great deal of the damage. I have not researched this directly myself.

I learned from [Aneurin] and much enjoyed talking with [him] and hearing [his] responses. Writing is a large part of my research at present and the thoughts generated are affecting how I write.

Aneurin Rees graduated with a Music and English degree from Oxford Brookes in 2012, and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in modernist literature and culture at the University of York. His first singer-songwriter album draws upon a broad selection of musical and poetical influences, driven by a passion for both art forms. Alongside composing and studying literature, Aneurin enjoys acting, and writing poetry and prose, with a strong belief that influence comes from every direction. For more information on current projects or to contact Aneurin, visit his website.

Of his collaboration with Andrew Lack, Aneurin writes:

The writing of, 'Don't Dance This Way' was inspired by the emotional impact of the decline of the Honey Bee and the endless inspiration to be drawn from nature. Dr Andrew Lack's passionate botanical expertise were a great motivation for this. On meeting him, the conversation flowed without plan and invoked some moving ideas. One that stands out is the plant's ability to 'slow down time'; to bring growth with no force. This, in my opinion, resonates perfectly with the nature of songwriting. The collaboration did not just help create the song, but also encouraged me to learn more about the subject myself. The whole experience was very motivational. 

Tracy McAteer and Fiona Sampson

Tracy McAteer completed her BSc. Degree in Psychology with Honours at Oxford Brookes University and went on to complete an MRes degree in Psychological Research with merit. She is a graduate member of the British Psychological Society and an associate fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Tracy is currently reading for a PhD in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences receiving a scholarship from the PF Charitable trust in collaboration with Helen & Douglas House Hospice in Oxford. Her research study is focused on the experiences of young adults growing up with life shortening conditions. She is particularly interested in how they transition through adolescence into adulthood.

Considering her discussions with Tracy, Fiona Sampson writes:

Tracy McAteer was very moving in her discussion of work with young people with life-shortening conditions. One can only comment with pieties on such work; but I thought about my own years of work in hospitals and hospices and tried to conjure up the lost, even dream-like sense I got from some of the people I worked with.

The Paperweight     

            for Tracy McAteer

Homesickness -
           here

and everywhere,
ungraspable
            like the smell of rain
on bright mornings.

You've learnt things flicker and change
inside
            and outside you.
The village is its own world,
tiny under glass,
shake it
and snow falls
                        like blossom on pavements.

One day you'll pass through
the shining membrane -

                                                 imagine it.
One of those spring days
when thought blurs
in reflections
and the sky's scurred with cirrus.

Fiona Sampson