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This is my entry to the “DPhil Slam” competition put on by the Medical Sciences Division. Each year, the Division opens a call for DPhil students to present their research projects in 5 minutes to a voting audience - either as part of a traditionally scientific stream, or as part of a creative stream. The quote and direction given to those pondering the creative side of things, is “Anything goes!”, leaving the imagination free to consider any format from a rap battle to ballet.

Normally this is the type of email that hits my inbox and triggers the “My multiverse twin should absolutely do that” reaction, but not this year. In May of 2020, I found myself twiddling my thumbs at my dining table, staring rather enviously at my partner whose computer science profession allowed him to continue running experiments from home. I had a lot of writing do, but spent much of my free time flip-flopping between wondering to respond to this challenge long-term as part of a laboratory-based community, and ruminating over the struggles and hardships everybody else around the world was facing. It felt increasingly like the time to start thinking creatively about my D.Phil. studies. Looking back across the table at Luca, I deviously proceeded to plan a way by which I could rope him in to my new “experiment”.

Don’t get me wrong, us medical research scientists find ways of using our time wisely from our computers too, but experiments are our bread and butter. Without them, we feel speculative, and a nagging desire to generate data slowly seeps into our subconscious. For where would we be without data? Within the medical sciences, as many other sciences, we rely on empirical data to support our hypotheses. But medical research is not just about doing experiments. It’s the integration of our empirical data into theory, that truly progresses the field. 

From data scientists seek a possible explanation, that is the pinnacle of what we do. And along with reasoning, this requires creativity. Creativity allows scientists to imagine possibility, and to think of ways to find out why. How we design experiments, how we communicate our research – need not be bound by status quo. Creativity can lend a hand to the reframing of concepts, crossing boundaries in perception.  In other words, creativity feeds the ability to contextualise empirical data with theory.

In honour of the role for creativity in science, but not in the theoretical sense – rather in the Broadway sense – I chose an alternate way to represent concepts embedded within my research project.  It is a semi-theatrical presentation of the song “Memory” by Barbara Streisand, re-written to humorously romanticise the life experiences of a particular immune cell found in the lung. For my actual D.Phil. studies, I investigate the function and response of resident memory B cells (Brm) in the lung to secondary immune challenges. In particular I’m trying to identify what mediates their mobilisation towards sites of infection upon re-challenge (for more a more detailed explanation of the lyrics, please click here). We use a reporter mouse model to label Brm in the lung, and 2-photon live imaging to track their mobilisation. Ultimately, our findings may have direct implications on how we consider administering immunisations against respiratory infections. Perhaps writing this song was a way to contextualise the signals Brm may encounter which direct their differentiation towards their ultimate cellular fate.

I’d encourage you to check out the creative submissions by other contestants in the MSD Slam as well, all of whom devised poetry, drawings, and many other artistic representations of their exemplary research at Oxford. You can even vote for your favourite in the final competition July 30th, 2020.    

And if there are any lingering hesitations for the role of creativity in science, one needs only to look at the recent transformation of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein amino acid sequence into a melodic symphony by MIT bioengineer Markus Buehler, for added inspiration. 

 

Thank you for reading.

Niamh