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Citizen-led science: Time, Contagion and Immunity

by on February 8, 2014

HIV virus attacking T Cell

I grew up collecting newspaper articles on viruses, specifically, HIV and the influenza virus. I have no idea how or why this started. But soon I had many images of viruses, and the articles talking about them, filed away in a red box, separated by index cards. I probably have it somewhere, stored amongst old photographs, letters, music certificates and lego bricks. It wasn’t the text that interested me but the images – like this one above – HIV virus attacking an immune cell.

I had this dream that somehow, collecting these viruses and looking at them from time to time, would take my mind somewhere.

It is no surprise then, that i ended up a scientist, in a lab, looking at cells and taking photographs of them down a microscope. When you work in a lab, you often do timelapse experiments, at hourly intervals 0h, 3h, 8h, 16h, 24h and so on, which also means you have to repeat these experiments over and over, to see the story the experiments tell you over time – at each time point, is the same reading recorded?


Being tied to time in this way, means you have weird hours, you are taken out of the 9 to 5 of everyday life. This, is something, now i think back to being a kid, is very ‘me’. One christmas, the whole family was given a ZX81 Computer by our next door neighbour, a teacher. It plugged into a black and white tv. This gift opened up a whole new world for our family. We could now watch TV in a room other than the living room (and watch anything we wanted!?) and at night time, when everyone else was asleep i could plug the TV into the computer and play computer games. The ZX81 was pretty limited in terms of the kind of games it could play (i yearned for a ZXspectrum and a commodore 64) and in the end what was more fun, was programming the computer to play games.

As time went on, it needed more memory, to be able to do what i wanted it to do, and eventually, i don’t know how, it became infected with some kind of virus. It meant that you could only get so far, programming, working something out and then … crash the virus would take over the screen… This was before the time of anti-virus programmes and that kind of thing.

Inbetween my timelapse experiments, i would go to the cinema and watch movies at the cornerhouse cinema. I remember coming out from watching pictures glowing in the dark, to returning to darkness and going into an empty building to harness cells, to stain them and make them visible and taking photos. And then counting the living and the dead cells and recording that in a lab book.

My other hobby, was photography – again, taking pictures, going into a dark room, doing some kind of alchemy to make an image reveal itself – the invisible becomes visible.

I am wondering about the gesture in this – science aside – and where it leads a person – working in the dark, obsessed with the pattern of what happens, not the feeling of what happened or the people in between.

And now i am facilitating citizen science (see related links to similar projects run by others – i am not alone!), where the public not only shape scientific thinking, collect and create meaning from data, but come with their own questions, own experiments, and perspectives. I wonder about the gesture of this.  Could it be transformative? What do ordinary folk, non-scientists, bring to science that the scientist might not? What does the scientist glean from this? How are we shaped by this? And of course, i am looking for patterns in the gesture, the dance, the rhythm, the language that develops, and maybe some kind of revelation that a ‘people’ virus, infiltrating scientific thinking and practice, might bring… something i hope scientists won’t try to develop immunity to.

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