As the old saying goes, never work with children, animals, stem cells, or blokes in white coats. Well, I have worked with them all and have the nervous tic to prove it.
I wasn't pushed into science; rather I stumbled. After school, I was accepted into university to drink cider, watch daytime TV ... and study psychology. After university, a generalised apathy and unwillingness to find a real job led me to complete a 1-year master's degree in neuroscience, and suddenly science started to get interesting. There were big experiments, brain dissections, and ridiculously unflattering safety specs.
Then there was the PhD, a 4-year learning curve of Everestian proportions, during which I repeatedly swung from working hard to working hardly. Long periods of procrastination were more frequently replaced with shorter periods of panic as the funding began to slip away. But I learned loads. I learned how to play pool like a diva and how to make bombs from card ice. I learned that seniority in the scientific community is inversely proportional to communication skills, but directly related to the thickness of trouser corduroy. Best of all, I learned how to make forgetful rats remember. I 'made' and grafted genetically modified stem cells into the brains of absent-minded rodents, which, shortly after my meddlings, went on to develop the cognitive capacity of a London cabby. But, at the same time, my own attention began to wander.
The bright lights of the London stage were calling. Well, maybe not so bright, more the faded glow of a 40-Watt table lamp in a seedy, smoke-filled room that claimed to be a Comedy Club. I joined the so-called 'London Comedy Circuit', naive, nervous, and dying on my arse on a regular basis. For the next 5 years, I cultured stem cells by day and audiences by night! Like most comedy newcomers, I opted for the safe option of pedestrian, mainstream material that was guaranteed (you hoped) to please the crowd. As time went by, the cells kept growing and the ratio of good to bad gigs began to tip more in my favour. I was soon doing big sets in little clubs and little sets in big clubs next to faces from the telly.
In the meantime, life in the lab was changing. PhD over, I managed to acquire the letters 'DR' in front of my name, as well as after my bank balance. Time to sell out to the world of commercial science. I was employed to do for dotty Aunt Doris what I'd done for my forgetful furry friends--to make stem cell lines that could fix broken human brains. Whilst corporate science pours cash and man-hours into medical research, its downfall is that it is driven by business plans. Experiments are motivated less by curiosity, and more by money. I felt disappointed and confined. I wanted to communicate science. I wanted to write about science. I wanted out.
So I formed a one-woman escape committee and started digging a tunnel. I enrolled in the Birkbeck Science Communication diploma, found like-minded friends, and began to realise that there was a whole other world out there which would be mad to pass my talents by. I was offered a BA media fellowship and spent two wonderful months writing and producing funny science films for Einstein TV. I plucked up the courage to sell my freelance science writing ? to anyone who would have it! I whored my wears to radio, to print, and to the Internet. I left the lab and went to work for the Royal Society--my role, to find ways of making science groovy again (not the official job description).
Leaving the lab brought with it a new sense of optimism and, to a young girl, anything seemed possible. So when an e-mail dropped into my inbox offering me prime-time stage space at the Cheltenham Science Festival to do stand-up comedy about science, I glibly agreed. No sooner had I sad yes than the panic set in. Science, as we all know, is serious stuff. Einstein's theory of relativity does not a one-liner make. I enlisted the help of friend and fellow comedian and writer Timandra Harkness and several pints later, The Comedy Research Project (CRP) was born.
The CRP is a live stage show where Timandra and myself count down the "5 Best Things in Science Ever". Members of the audience find themselves joining in with the formula for nitrous oxide, volunteering to catch a scientist recreating early experiments in flight, and singing along with Elvis about black holes. Our motives, however, go far deeper than the surface frivolity of a comedy double act. The CRP aims to scientifically prove the hypothesis that 'science can be funny'. We are methodologically sound. During each show, a control audience is locked in an identical, adjoining room without comedians. We then assess whether this control audience laughs more or less than the experimental audience who are exposed to jokes about science. Preliminary data gathered from shows around the country looks promising, but we plan further repetitions next year to achieve statistically significant results. We're also working on two spin-off shows, a CRP radio script, book, T-shirt, tribute band, and ultimate global domination.
For me, a life in science has given way to a life of writing about science, because as Shakespeare once said, "the pen is mightier than the pipette". Leaving the lab was scary but not as scary as the prospect of staying. My advice, should you be contemplating making that leap, is to make like a lemming and JUMP! I've finally realised that I may never work out what I want to do when I grow up, but I'm not that worried because I've also realised that I may never grow up. Life has a wonderful way of chucking opportunities at you, generally when you're at your busiest and most hungover, but you'd be mad to pass them by.
If you'd like to find out more about future Comedy Research Project performances, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.