After a short break after Spotlight September, Scientist in the Spotlight is back for it’s third year. I am thrilled to be able to share even more stories about real life scientists around the world. And I couldn’t be more excited to feature this month’s scientist as she has helped me and taught me so much this year. So, I am thrilled to introduce you to my lovely friend Charlie E.
This self-confessed tattooed punk rock science journalistic chronic procrastinator is currently researching the intestinal parasites of Arctic foxes in Iceland. I’ve heard one of the fox stories but I am pretty sure that hasn’t even scratched the surface. But I have learnt so much from this lovely lady this year – not just about science journalism at New Scientist Live, but also not to take life too seriously thanks to her ‘No regerts’ tattoo – yeah you read that right! Charlie shared that she hid it for a while but now it is her favourite. It teaches you to live with mistakes – after all they make the better stories rather than things just going to plan. But without further ado, let me introduce to Charlie E.
So, let’s start off at the beginning. Tell us more about your science journey.
Charlie: I always knew I would be a scientist, I guess that part is cliche. But I didn’t want a chemistry set. I wanted to dissect dead animals I had found on the road. My earliest memory of parasitology.
I used to be fascinated with head lice when I was really young and wanted to see them and measure them and see the blood they had eaten in their abdomen. Bugs, blood, and bodies fascinated me so much, so I wanted to be a doctor. But no university would take me because my grades weren’t great.
I thought I had really screwed up, and moved to Ghana in West Africa with no real plans. I remember laying in a hammock and staring up at the trees and thinking ‘Shit!’. But I was confronted with parasites again when I was here. This time it was intestinal worms and the flies that lay eggs under your skin. They weren’t the type of parasites you can just get rid off with the help of your Dad and a nit comb. These parasites would stop kids from going to school and impact their entire lives. Seeing this became everyday life. It still didn’t click that medicine wasn’t the career for me. So when I arrived back to England, I applied for courses that I could transfer into medicine and started my bachelors at the University of East London in Human Biology and Toxicology.
I never ended up transferring because my love parasites cropped up again. There was a lecture on intestinal worms by Dr. John George in my first year and I was hooked. The rest of my academic life I was in the search of the creepiest of the crawlies; the ones that eat brains or bury under your skin.
So, I know you are writing your Master’s thesis. Tell us some more about that research?
Charlie: After my bachelors, my girlfriend at the time moved to Iceland, so I went with her. My university was good – they accepted a proposal for a self funded study in the parasites of the Arctic fox using these fox carcasses stored at the Natural History Museum.
In Reykjavik, I started a job at an awful Chuck Norris themed restaurant until a job as a marine biologist came up. I found an apartment and dragged hundreds of fox intestines with me up to this remote village in the North of Iceland in the middle of nowhere. I converted my spare room into a laboratory.
So I was sort of accidentally in Iceland. Everyone else loved it there, but I was just cold, and away from home on this frozen sub-Arctic research station. But my research was great – I spent months dissecting. The smell was horrendous, I tore off the window of the spare room in desperation to have fresh air in there, which meant I’d be working as snow flakes whirled around the room.
My work was identifying what species of parasites were in Iceland, how many foxes had they infected, and how infected with parasitic eggs were the foxes. So I picked through the faeces and identified all the worms and counted the eggs. Super time consuming. My Dad said it was character building. I’m much more patient now, and I have a really strong stomach.
What is it that fascinates you about parasites?
Charlie: I think it’s the lifestyle. It’s that they have evolved an admirable level of niche environment. Why hunt for your own food when you could literally just sit in someone else’s intestinal tract? That’s what gets me. They’re so sly!
Some worms can wear proteins from your own cells as this gruesome disguise so your body can’t detect them, and others can change mice brain chemistry to make them attracted to the smell of cat’s urine so make it easier for the parasite to jump into their next host. Parasites are like something from outer space.
Whilst you were doing all this research for your Master’s, you also worked as a science journalist. How did you get that role and manage both?
Charlie: I wanted to be free. I wanted a job that I didn’t have to sit in an office all the time. So I started writing between night shifts flipping burgers at Chuck Norris. My theory was that if I wrote for long enough, I would get enough experience and have a good portfolio and would be able to get into freelance writing. So I started this blog called ‘The Mitey Bitey’ about parasites, and when I saw the advert for Staff Writer at How it Works, I knew that was my opportunity. And I’ve been there for the last year and a half now.
I’m very passionate about writing and research, so it’s quite easy to manage both of my big projects. I write in the day, and write my thesis or do a bit of lab work in the evening. You never really stop working when you work from home though, but I like that.
What are the best and worst things about being a science journalist?
Charlie: The best thing about being a science journalist is the people I have had the chance to meet and the friends I’ve made while doing this. I am allowed to travel a lot. I’ve been to BlueDot festival, Cheltenham Science Festival, I’ve held pieces of lung from Spanish Flu victims, seen a single atom under an electron microscope, that’s all incredible. And I have met some of the greatest minds in science and technology, so that’s a huge highlight.
I’m not sure if there is anything I really don’t like about my job. I can find it hard to be glued to a computer all day. It’s also hard to tell what I do for fun and what I do for hobbies. I spend almost every minute of the day thinking about science or technology, whether it is writing or researching or interviewing. So I’ve sort of lost my science related hobbies I guess, like going to festivals or watching documentaries or attending talks, because they are things I do for work now. I’ve got around this by getting into some new hobbies that get me away from the computer too – so I’ll go boxing or windsurfing when I need a break.
I know you have got to interview some amazing people in your job, but I want to know who your favourite interview and why?
Charlie: That’s really difficult. I think my favourite must have been Dr John Oxford. I think because it was such a surreal experience to be at his house, and he was my hero when I was a kid.
You remember all those virology textbooks you had at university? One of them was probably written by Dr Oxford. I interviewed him at his house in January, this beautiful old house in London, filled with books and taxidermy, wooden floors, antique furniture. It was filled with artefacts he’d collected from all over the world, African masks, and maps. He had his childhood pet parrot stuffed and sitting on his desk. I really liked that.
He also has an African grey parrot that would shout out his name in his wife’s voice every now and then. He made coffee in brass pots on the stove and heating cream for it. And we sat in armchairs, while he told me how he had excavated corpses that had died from Spanish Flu by dropping TNT into the ice. That was incredible.
What is the most interesting or memorable thing that has happened in one of your interviews or that you have learnt?
Charlie: My first interview was with Dallas Campbell, and I was terrified. I had only just started my job, and nobody had taught me how to interview, and I had two days to prepare. I had a copy of his book; Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet. I figured I would just read the book, and turn up, and not fret too much about the questions to ask, and just be genuinely interested. And that worked great, so I have made it a habit.
I have never prepared questions because I think it’s too forced. I was so nervous though. I accidentally spilt really hot coffee on my crotch about 10 minutes into the interview because my hands were shaking. I had to stop myself from yelping in pain, and then sat with the coffee seeping through my jeans for the next hour. We also calculated how long it would take for us to reach the moon, and we accounted for delays on the tube and having a drink once we arrived in the US. That’s all pretty memorable.
What advice would you have for any budding science journalists out there then?
Charlie: I think to be brave with things. Be brave with your own interests. I write about parasites a lot, and algae and my passion for the subject comes through. Just write a lot and reach out to people. It’s cliche, but be yourself. I didn’t think I’d fit in in this industry. I thought journalists were all super smart and sensible and wise. But it’s super important not to just fall in step with everyone else. Keep your character, keep your accent, keep your weird quirks. You’ll find angles to stories that are more unique like that.
Some people think science blogging and science journalism are much the same thing. What’s your take? Or do you think they perhaps complement each other?
Charlie: I think it’s the same thing, I don’t see it as any different really. We’re all writers, we’re communicating research. But I think the difference comes from freedom. I’m lucky that because I’m contracted with How it Works, I can do this full time. But it means I can’t always write exactly what I would like to write about, where bloggers can focus every article around something they’re really passionate about. But what you gain in freedom there, you lose in job security. At the core, it’s the same, with the same intentions.
Ever since our chat at New Scientist Live, I know you are keen to write a book all about polyamory, but I was curious if there was any interesting research out there about it that you could share?
Charlie: Yes, I do really want to write a book about polyamory. I’m really keen to write about how people can open their relationships. I’ve been doing a little bit of writing between my work and my thesis.
There’s really limited research out there. I think polyamory is quite a taboo in many places so it is hard to research. And because polyamory means different things for different people, so it’s hard to define around the world. That makes it hard to research too. Polyamory for some people might be casual sex outside of relationships, or it might be romantic long-term relationships with more than one person. Consensual, of course. Ethical non-monogamy is centred around trust and around communication, it’s certainly not the same as cheating.
A few interesting pieces though include the Ethnographic Atlas by George P. Murdock which reports that of the 1,231 societies around the world, only 186 are monogamous. This is because in many communities polyamory makes sense in terms of extra support, more loved ones around you, multiple adults helping to raise children rather than the pressure on just one or two people.
The Journal of Sex Research sometimes has some interesting papers. You’d think that being particularly happy in one relationship might impact another relationship, but research shows that polyamorous relationships are relatively independent of one another. The same as loving one friend doesn’t take away how much you love your other friends. Another study in PLOS One suggests that a couple that opens their relationships to romances or sex with other people can make their relationship stronger.
Don’t get me wrong, polyamory isn’t for everyone, and there is certainly nothing wrong with monogamy. But I think that it’s something that isn’t considered as much. People leave a relationship when they have feelings for another person, and then think they have failed.. but I think we should sometimes try asking ‘why not both’?
I hear it so often that people couldn’t do polyamory, but I know they’ve cheated in the past. They’ve kissed another woman in a nightclub, or they have deep feelings for a man in the office. They beat themselves up over it. They think they’ve done something wrong. But really, their only crime is that they’ve broken a contract – this contract that parts of your body and emotions you only share with one person. There is nothing wrong with changing that contract, if it suits you.
I also learnt after meeting you that you speak Icelandic, so would you ever use your language skills to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of your scicomm or writing?
Charlie: I think a better attempt needs to be made at doing scicomm in different languages. My Icelandic isn’t really good enough to communicate my research anymore, I haven’t kept up with it as I should. But I am making sure that my thesis is written in Icelandic too, some of it I’ll be able to do alone. I think it’s important when we are in a country for our field work, that we make an attempt to make our results accessible to the people in that country.
So, I am a bit of a language geek, so is there any simple Icelandic phrases you can teach us?
Charlie: Icelandic is hilarious, I think people think I am winding them up sometimes when I use phrases. I like ‘Það er rúsínan í pylsuendanum’ – that is the raisin at the end of the hot dog! It means something is a surprise. But if you really want to get along in Iceland, master breathing your words in. ‘Ja’ (pronounced yow), but instead of breathing it out like in English, breathe it in. That’s done a lot, on lots of words, but on ‘yes’ it is usually expressing sympathy or agreeing with someone. If someone says “It’s been a long day”, you could breathe in a ‘ja’.
So, what is next for you? Where do you see yourself in 2, 5 or 10 years time?
Charlie: There’s so much I want to do. A PhD one day for sure. Maybe I would like to move towards TV presenting. If that came up, I’d do that, but I haven’t really explored enough to take a really settled job right now.
I have thought about joining the military as a biomedical scientist or working for the United Nations or Doctors Without Borders or something. I don’t know! I have no real plans, I just keep saying ‘yes’ to opportunities, seeing what is out there, and the rest of it will fall into place.
And finally, where in the world should be my next holiday destination?
Charlie: Visit Iceland, but don’t stay in Reykjavik. Go up to the Westfjords, find a log cabin with a hot tub and watch the Northern Lights. Visit the Arctic Fox centre and watch my favourite movie upstairs about the relationship between foxes and fox hunters. Curl up with a hot chocolate there. It’s my favourite place in the world.
Huge thank you to Charlie for taking the time to answer these questions for me, and I want to thank you once again for all the tips and tricks you have shared with me this year. I am truly truly grateful. If you want to know more about anything to do with parasites, science journalism, Iceland or anything in between you can follow Charlie on social media via the links below:
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Have you ever studied or worked in a different country? What was your experience like? Or are you a language geek like me? What language would you be fluent in if you had a choice? And what is one question you would ask about parasites? Anything you like. Share it all in the comments below.
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