Why do we call it a vaccine?

Introduction

The world is currently holding its breath, awaiting the development of a safe, effective vaccination that will deliver us from the constraints of the coronavirus lockdowns. There is a flurry of research activity across the globe evaluating numerous contenders, and there is growing confidence that the solution to the pandemic is in sight. Of course, such a strategy is not new.  When it comes to infectious diseases, modern prevention is built upon the use of well-tested vaccines.  But why do we call them vaccines and what might have been their origin?  To answer these questions, we have to go back over two centuries to the work of an English country doctor.

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire in 1749. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and at 21 he moved to London to complete his medical training under the charismatic and influential John Hunter at St George’s Medical School.  At the age of 23, Jenner returned to his birthplace to set up practice and would remain there for the rest of his life.

Like others of his time, he was man of the Enlightenment and pursued diverse interests.  He was a musician, poet, balloonist, geologist and his interest in ornithology earned him his Fellowship of the Royal Society when he worked out that it was the cuckoo hatchling that evicted the eggs and chicks from its foster parents’ nest and not the adult bird.  But it is not for the study of the cuckoo that we best remember Jenner today; it is his contribution to the prevention of smallpox.

Smallpox and its prevention

Smallpox is a viral disease that has had devastating effects on humans throughout history.  It is associated with a high death rate — particularly in infants — and many survivors are left blind or with disfiguring scars.  However, it was well known throughout the ages that survivors of smallpox were immune to re-infection.  It was perhaps a small logical step to think of deliberately infecting non-immune individuals with a mild case of smallpox in order to render them immune to a more serious and potentially life-threatening one.

Such a practice had been carried out since at least the 17th century and probably much longer before that, and included the inoculation, or grafting, of pus from smallpox lesions under the skin of non-immune subjects.  This form of inoculation was also known as variolation from the Latin for smallpox: variola.  Jenner himself had been variolated as an eight-year old boy, as had countless others.  Variolation was of course potentially dangerous — not only did 2-3% of those inoculated die from smallpox as a direct result of the deliberate infection, others contracted blood borne diseases such as syphilis from the procedure.  However, its widespread use did significantly reduce the death toll from natural infection.

Cowpox

It was also widely known that cowpox, a much milder infection that milkmaids and farmers might contract from their infected cattle, could protect against its more deadly viral relative, smallpox. The usual version of how Jenner came to be acquainted with this idea is that, while a surgical apprentice, he heard a dairymaid say, ‘I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.’  However, it was not only milkmaids who were aware of the protective effects of a cowpox infection; the medical profession was also well-acquainted with this form of prophylaxis.  Indeed, in 1765, the Gloucestershire surgeon-apothecary John Frewster presented a paper to the London Medical Society entitled, Cowpox and its ability to prevent smallpox.  Frewster also recalled discussing his findings at a local medical society dinner attended by a surgeon and his young apprentice, Edward Jenner.

Jenner then was undoubtedly aware of Frewster’s work, but he may have been ignorant of that of the Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty.  Jesty was as aware as any dairy farmer of the link between cowpox and immunity from smallpox.  When a smallpox outbreak threatened his own family, he decided to put his observations into practice.  Rather than having his wife and two toddler sons variolated, he took the bold step of inoculating them himself with cowpox.  All three survived the smallpox outbreak, but Jesty was vilified locally for what he had done to his family.  This was in 1774 — some 22 years before Jenner’s experiments. 

Jenner’s Experiments

In the spring of 1796, a local milkmaid called Sarah Nelms had contracted cowpox, and Jenner found her to have fresh lesions on her hands.  The responsible cow was called Blossom, whose hide and horns can be seen today in St George’s Medical School and The Edward Jenner Museum respectively.  There are, however, a number of other antique cow horns around that purport to be Blossom’s, and unless she was a very unusual cow, we might conclude that not all are authentic.

On 14 May, Jenner took pus from Nelms’ lesions and inoculated the son of his gardener.  The boy, James Phipps, was 8-years old at the time, and he subsequently developed a mild fever and discomfort in the axillae, but quickly recovered. Almost seven weeks after the cowpox inoculation, Jenner inoculated the boy again, this time with pus from a fresh smallpox lesion. Phipps, despite this challenge, did not develop the disease and Jenner concluded he was immune.

Jenner wrote jubilantly to a friend,

“…I have at last accomplished what I have been so long waiting for, the passing of the vaccine Virus from one human being to another by the ordinary mode of Inoculation…  But now listen to the most delightful part of my story.  The Boy has since been inoculated for the small pox which as I ventured to predict produced no effect.  I shall now pursue my Experiments with redoubled ardour.”

However, he first decided to publish this single experiment and submitted a paper to the Royal Society, which was quickly rejected as being too premature.  It took Jenner another year to get over his initial excitement and subsequent disappointment and to apply that ‘redoubled ardour’ to further experiments.  These included inoculating another dozen subjects with cowpox.  These were mostly children and included his own one-year old son.  Jenner now felt he had enough to publish and prepared a report, which this time he chose to self-publish.  It was far from clear or well-written, but it made him famous.

The process of cowpox inoculation was soon after termed vaccination (from Latin vaccinus, of cows) by Plymouth surgeon, Richard Dunning and almost 80 years later, Louis Pasteur proposed that all immunisations for infections should be termed vaccinations in honour of Jenner.

In the years following his publication, Jenner tirelessly promoted vaccination as a preventive measure and although he was lauded in some quarters, he received nothing but ridicule in others.  Undoubtedly, professional jealously played a part in the latter and after a decade Jenner decided to withdraw from the public debate and return to his roots in rural Gloucestershire.  When he died in 1823, his first vaccinee, the boy Phipps, was now a married man and served as one of Jenner’s pallbearers.

What began in a country doctor’s home with the inoculation of a young boy would end 184 years later in 1980, when it was declared that, following a global immunisation campaign led by the WHO, smallpox had been eradicated from the world.

Conclusions

Jenner, was not the first to suggest, nor the first to try out, inoculation with cowpox as a prevention for smallpox.  Why then do we celebrate him as the innovator? Perhaps we choose to honour Jenner because it is easier to focus our attentions, however erroneously, on a single investigator rather than acknowledge the disconnected teams who have contributed to an achievement.  The myth of the lone genius making a medical breakthrough is compelling, even in science. 

However, if we try to evaluate Jenner’s contributions a little more objectively, we see that he took what was merely folklore and anecdote and placed it on a firm scientific footing through careful experimentation. Furthermore, he also told the world about it and worked hard for it to be implemented.

Covid-19 is just the latest viral disease to ravage the world and unfortunately it will not be the last.  But, once again, modern medical science is following in Jenner’s footsteps. By developing, evaluating and implementing an effective prevention strategy through vaccination, we hope to see the end of this pandemic.

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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A New Year — A New Writing Habit

Some say we need to do something everyday for more than 21 consecutive days for it to become a habit. Some say it’s 66 days and others 90. I rather suspect it depends what the something in question is.  I mean, if you eat beans on toast every day for three weeks, quite apart from the gastrointestinal consequences, are you really going to keep on doing it?  And no matter how long I practice my triple Salchow, I doubt it will ever become second nature.  

We talk about habits as automatic actions — the habit of brushing our teeth every morning, or looking both ways before we cross a road, or switching off the news as soon as Trump’s face appears — although the last example might be more of a reflex than a habit.  Some habits are good for us — others not so.  But we often identify things we want to do, and that we know we should do regularly but which always seem to fall off the bottom of our daily to-do lists.  For many people, writing is one of those.

In academia, the importance of being able to write well and effectively cannot be overstated.  Quite simply, we and our work are judged by our writing.  Qualifications depend on writing essays, dissertations and theses and promotion is contingent on being able to produce the published goods.  But all that necessity doesn’t make it any easier, especially for those who despair about their writing abilities. “I don’t know how to start,” they tell me.  “I don’t know where to start.  I don’t know how to make it better.  I just don’t know how to write at all.” Writing for them has acquired some mystical quality.  It has become a skill that they feel others have somehow managed to learn but which has eluded them.  

Well, here are two simple truths about academic writing. First, everyone finds it hard and second, anyone can learn how to do it.  No one is born with the ability to write good academic English, and everyone who does has had to learn it the same way we learn everything else — through work and practice. Everyone in academia knows how to work, but for some reason the importance of practice, when it comes to developing our writing skills, seems to have escaped them.  And that’s where the habit comes in.

When we are faced with a task that we perceive to be difficult, awkward, or challenging many of us simply put it off.  As we procrastinate, however, that task starts to swell in our imaginations.  Its perceived difficulty doubles as does the effort we think we will need to take it on. With every day that we postpone the inevitable, the magnitude of the task grows.  Finally, of course, we have to face it or miss the deadline.  At that point, we are left with no choice but to start, but the effort involved and the anxiety that it provokes can be deeply unpleasant.  How much easier might it have been if we had only done a little every day, instead of frantically cramming it all into the last possible hours before the deadline?  Of course, that would require a habit — the habit of writing something everyday.  If you don’t like writing, or you don’t enjoy it, why would you choose to do it every day?  Simply because it will make your life easier, your job more fulfilling and your day altogether sweeter.  

So, how do you develop the writing habit?  Not too surprisingly, all that is required is for you to start.  But you should start slowly and easily — no need to fall at the first hurdle.  Decide that you are going to write something short every day.  This can be a single sentence to begin with.  Choose when you are going to do this — first thing in the morning or maybe last thing before you go home.  Choose what you are going to write about — usually your own work or some aspect of your professional life.  But just start with a sentence.  Some like to write about what they plan to do that day, or perhaps reflect on what they have done.  It might be a thought about a conversation had, or a paper read or a lecture attended.  Whatever it is, confine yourself to one sentence.  Very quickly, you will find that you want to write a second or even a third sentence but don’t, not yet.

Start to realise just how easy it is to write that one sentence every day.  Of course, at this stage you are asking what the point of this is — after all, a sentence a day is hardly going to get the thesis written or the report finished.  But we’re not trying to do that yet; we’re trying to develop a habit.

After a week, treat yourself to two sentences a day and again keep doing this until it’s effortless.  The quality of these sentences is unimportant at this stage because all that can come later.  Remember, all we’re trying to do is become a habitual daily writer.

Before the second week is up, you will be finding it so easy to write two sentences a day that it will seem trivial. But it’s far from that — it’s the beginning of a habit.  Try three sentences or four, or perhaps you will aim for a paragraph a day.  Needless to say, if you take it gently and train yourself, it won’t be long before the thought of writing a page of 500 words a day will no longer seem daunting.  On the contrary, it will just be something you do.

Once you can generate text on a daily basis, you can stop worrying about finding time to write and concentrate your efforts on improving and refining the quality of what you get down on paper.  No one gets it right first time and all academic writers should live by the age-old adage of writers everywhere: there is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.

Editing, redrafting and working to improve your writing style are all important skills that we need to acquire, but somewhat irrelevant if we have nothing to work on in the first place.  It all begins with getting words on paper and doing that on a daily basis.  And for that we need a habit.

“When do you write?” they will ask.  And you will be able to say, quite truthfully, “Everyday.”


© Allan Gaw 2021

If you want to read more about getting started with your writing and how you might make it effective, try my books, “WriteEasy”, “WordEasy” and “Abstract Expressions”. All are available on kindle, and if you’re on Kindle Unlimited, they’re free to download.

And check out my other writing related blogs on the Business of Discovery:

Who’s afraid of the big blank page?

This is a golden opportunity to make a start with that writing project, but how do you get started?

https://wp.me/p2v7Al-hr

Tell me a story

…but what’s the story you have to tell?

https://wp.me/p2v7Al-cf

Last words of a fool

…and make sure you do your work justice by getting the grammar and punctuation right.

https://wp.me/p2v7Al-1i

And if you are struggling with English grammar and punctuation, take a look at my YouTube channel — Writing Space:

Include, Involve, Inform

For us all to reap the benefits of research, we all need to be part of that research.  When it comes to healthcare research, the stakes are particularly high, and we cannot afford to get the wrong answer.  But given the diversity of the human population, will there only be one answer to every question?

In other words, if research studies only include select patient groups, how can we be sure that any results will apply to everyone?  With even a cursory glance at ongoing research studies, it is clear that modern clinical research is not as inclusive as it could be.  Some groups of the population are poorly represented in studies and the reasons for this are complex and overlapping.  If there was a single strategy we could put into place to solve this, we would, but there is not.  The reasons lie in part with research staff and their training and their attitudes, in part with potential participants and their level of  understanding and their prejudices. There are also more overarching reasons involving the funding and governance frameworks within which we work, as well as very practical considerations, like whether a patient can read and understand the participant information sheet, manage the stairs at the clinic or afford the bus fare to the study visit.  The reasons are a mixture of misunderstanding, imperfect communication, and the consequences of cultural, ethnic, religious and economic diversity.  And, as with many problems, there is often at the root of it all, ignorance of the very problem itself in the first place.

One group that is especially affected by many of these issues is the elderly.  We know from many studies that older adults are consistently under-represented in trials, with many study protocols having upper age limits for recruitment.  Another problem across the board is gender bias.  Although this was a larger issue in previous decades, where more men than women were regularly recruited into studies, it is still a recognised problem today. Disability in its various forms is also often a barrier to clinical research as is socio-economic status.  And of course race and ethnicity are not only poorly reported when it comes to the results of clinical trials, but many minority groups are systematically excluded from studies.  This may be because of geographical, language, religious or cultural barriers that need to be overcome before they can be included.

Although challenging, these are problems that we must address. How can we use the findings from a study that has only recruited men to inform the healthcare of women, or a study that has only recruited Caucasians to help us find the best treatments for patients of African descent?  What about Australian Aborigines, elderly Japanese, African-American children, Middle Eastern women, wheelchair users, those living in poverty — would a study done exclusively in, say, a middle-class, white British population provide the right answer for all these groups?  Of course not.  The one thing we know about the human population is that we are all different.

So, we need to start by openly acknowledging the imperfect design of many modern studies when it comes to inclusivity and, at the very least, treat broad healthcare recommendations that derive from narrow studies with some degree of caution.  Next, we have to examine the specific reasons why different groups are underrepresented in research and address these, as best we can, one by one.  Do we not recruit older people because we simply don’t ask them to take part? Do we ignore certain ethnic groups because of a perception that they will not wish to participate? Do we fail to include those with physical disabilities because of the inaccessibility of our clinics? Do some groups shy away from research because they are frightened of it, because they misunderstand what it is all about, because they cannot afford to participate in it or because they have never heard about it?

To be inclusive we also need to involve more people in research, and by this I mean ensuring that as diverse a group of people as possible are involved at every stage of a trial’s inception and delivery.  There has been a growing movement in recent years to promote greater involvement of the public and patients in research. This may include study participants, patients and members of the public helping to identify research priorities — the questions we should be trying to answer — as well as working with researchers in the design and delivery of such research.   While this is an important step forward, we must also ask how representative such involvement is and whether the resulting studies are better and more meaningful to the general population as a result.

Ultimately, we all want the best studies that we can deliver.  This should mean the safest, most efficient, most relevant studies, and it is likely that we will only achieve this goal if we strive to improve levels of inclusivity and involvement in research.  To ensure this, perhaps the single most important thing we can all do is to work at improving the level of information available about research.

We all acknowledge that meaningful decisions can only be made by people who are informed, people who understand and who are unburdened by the myths perpetuated about healthcare and about research. But how do we give that information? Again, there is no single answer to this question.  We need to ensure everyone — and that includes healthcare professionals, researchers, patients, the public, all of them — have easy access to relevant, accurate information about modern research.  We should begin in schools, we should work with the media, we should be involved in the training of professionals and ultimately we should strive to build a research literate population aware of the opportunities as well as the challenges in healthcare research and who are able to play a meaningful part in it all. And that doesn’t mean necessarily taking part in a research study for everyone has a right to decide what’s best for them.  But perhaps with that right also comes the duty to be informed and to understand the importance of research in healthcare.  Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, research belongs to everyone, affects everyone and should involve everyone.

© Allan Gaw 2020

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

Also available on kindle:What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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BIS Cover copy
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Please also check out the new YouTube Channel — Writing Space. Short animated videos to help you with your writing.

Networking in Lockdown

Networking is one of those words that make people cringe.  The notion that in some Machiavellian way you need to “work the room” satisfying your barely concealed ulterior motives along the way is, to many people, an anathema.  Their thoughts turn to the embarrassment of being pushy at the drinks reception, or disturbing someone else’s peace during the coffee break.  Or maybe they think of the awkwardness of cold calling, or more likely cold emailing — fawning over a complete stranger before asking for their help. Even those who see the advantages to their career that such an approach might bring are still uncomfortable, and very few actually claim to enjoy it.

But is this what networking is really about?  Is it a spider weaving a web to catch advantage and patronage?  No, it’s not about cunning and intrigue. Neither is it about idle chit-chat, nor aggressive intrusion, and it should never be about asking for things.  Networking is about building a nexus of people with whom you share some common ground and who can help you, but more importantly whom you can help.

Networking begins by making contact, but it doesn’t end there.  All effective networking is built on sustained nurturing of relationships.  And whether a network is a traditional one, forged through face-to-face contact, or a virtual one created at a distance, the same principle applies.

Before lockdown, we may have bumped into someone at a meeting or a conference or by chance at a social gathering. We may have been introduced by a mutual contact.  Now, with social distancing in place and traditional avenues for meeting people closed off, at least temporarily, we might wonder how we can “bump into” anyone.  Fortunately, we have the biggest drinks reception in the world and the largest room full of strangers that we could ever hope “to work” at our fingertips.  It’s just a few clicks away, and it’s called the internet.  But its very scale makes it unmanageable, and we would do well to narrow our focus for the sake of efficiency.  Platforms like LinkedIn are essentially global professional networking sites, but just how useful they are in building a meaningful network is questionable.  Yes, you might have more than 500 contacts, but do you really know any of them? Would you help any of them; could you expect their help in return?

Perhaps smaller is more beautiful, and it will certainly be more useful.  For many of us, our professional network will be built, in the first instance, from those we work with and then, as we move around, with those we have worked with in the past.  Add to these the people whom you meet in the course of your work — those based in other companies, institutions and even other countries — and quickly the network is built of people you have met and interacted with in person or with whom you have some professional history.  In a virtual setting, we can still activate many of these past contacts that we have let slip.  Most are only an email, or a short video call away.  This is not cold calling, but a reheating of a previous relationship that has simply been allowed to cool. 

But we also need to add new blood to this network and not simply rest on past laurels.  How can we “bump into” the right people without leaving our desks?  The conference is one excellent opportunity.  Many professional conferences are now going online, and they will usually offer networking opportunities for attendees.  Here you will have the chance to connect with like-minded people, perhaps to exchange contact information specifically with a view to keeping in touch. And you might even get the chance to work together on some conference activities with people you have never met.  All of this allows you to meet, albeit virtually, with new people.  With some your paths will never cross again, but with others you may build the contact into a lasting professional relationship.

But how do we nurture the relationship?  Well, we need to keep in contact, but we should not rely solely on email to do that. Contact of any kind is good — to remind people who you are, where you are and what you’re up to — but human relationships are built on more than words.  We need to see each other, so if circumstances preclude any physical meeting, make sure you get on zoom to have your next chat. However, although nurturing is about continuity of contact, it’s not about overpowering— take it gently and be guided by the level of enthusiasm you receive for your suggestion that we might “meet up and have a chat.”  And remember the most important thing about networking is not to ask the question, “what can this person do for me?” but rather, “what can I do for this person?”

Most of the awkwardness and embarrassment that infects our idea of networking are based around the premise that it’s about asking people for things.  Turn that on its head and you will find that networking suddenly takes on a new, fresher and significantly more fragrant feel.  If you approach any encounter with this, “what can I do for you?” attitude, you will quickly find that people respond very differently.  They will recognise your worth to them, but more importantly they will naturally offer you their help in return.

Giving of yourself without any expectation of return is the surest way to receive.  And the things you thought of as apparently small and insignificant that you do for people may result in what seems to be overwhelming generosity.  For example, you send someone a simple piece of information and in return they recommend you for a job.  But of course, although what you gave was only of little value to you, it may have been priceless to them.  Just as although their recommendation cost them nothing, it could change your career.

So, what practical steps can you take?  Here are what I consider to be the five key things:

  • Be active — networks don’t build themselves and you need to put the work in to make new contacts and to keep those you have alive.
  • Be genuine — you don’t want to be associated with someone who is untrustworthy, indiscreet, or fails to deliver, so why would anyone else?
  • Be kind — there are already plenty of unpleasant people working in every professional sphere, so why not distinguish yourself by refusing to be one of them.
  • Be valuable — work at helping the contacts in your network, give of yourself and your time and don’t simply activate relationships when you need something.
  • Be thankful — good manners cost nothing, but they go a long way to lubricating human relationships.  Say thank you, send thank you notes and publicly acknowledge your gratitude when someone helps you.

Putting these into practice in an online setting is just as easy, or just as difficult, as it is in a traditional one.  But if you manage it, you will find yourself effortlessly expanding your professional network and will in turn reap the benefits.

It is possible to live and work without a network, but it is neither as easy nor as fulfilling.  We all achieve much more when we work together; we go further when we pull in the same direction.  Just because we are now working from home, apparently bereft of new contact opportunities, does not mean we cannot work to build our professional networks.  And perhaps now more than ever we might need them.

© Allan Gaw 2020

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

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Also available on kindle:What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 21.22.11

“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

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Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.16
Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.58
Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.20.06
Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.43
Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.00
BIS Cover copy
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Please also check out the new YouTube Channel — Writing Space. Short animated videos to help you with your writing.

Putting it together — key aspects of project management

They say that no matter what our role is, we are all project managers.  However, no one ever says that we are all equally good at it.    In reality, many projects fail to complete on time and on budget, and some may struggle even to get off the ground.  In considering how best to meet these challenges, it is useful to define very broadly what we mean by a ‘project’. Yes, it includes those specific pieces of work that we are allocated or get caught up in by chance, but it also includes almost every one-off thing we do—buying a new printer, writing a dissertation or even organizing a family holiday.  All are projects, and all can succeed or fail.

Here are my top tips for ensuring that your project, whatever it may be, will get started, get finished and create as little stress as possible.

  1. Actively manage your project

We know that dinners don’t cook themselves, buildings don’t build themselves and similarly projects don’t manage themselves.  All successful projects need to be actively managed, so the first key to success is simply the recognition that you need to take a very active role. This requires effort, attention to detail and often simply being around to ensure the pieces are fitting together as they should.

  1. Plan your project

The first step in all project management is the planning stage.  To plan well, you need to know where you are going and what it is you are trying to achieve.  This may be easy and well-defined, but often it can be vague, especially if you are trying to put into action someone else’s idea. If the latter is the case, then the first job is to formulate a clear objective. As one wag put it, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.’

  1. Keep your objectives SMART

You may be familiar with the little acronym SMART, standing for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.  Put simply, unless your objective is SMART—as specific and measureable as possible and with a clear time-line attached to it—it is unlikely ever to come to a successful conclusion.  Many people have vague wish-lists—think about your New Year’s resolutions—but how many of them ever come to fruition?  That’s not the approach we should take in successful project management.

  1. Recognise the tensions between resources, quality and time

In planning and carrying out your work, remember that in every project there is a tension between the amount of time you have to do it, the available resources you have to complete it and the desired quality of the outcome.  Change any one of these factors and it affects the others.  For example, if you suddenly find you have less time, this may impact upon the quality of what you can achieve, or if the quality cannot be compromised, force you to look for additional resources—often more money or more resources.

  1. Plan for time

Especially with longer and more complex tasks you may have to put particular efforts into keeping the project running on time. It may help to use scheduling tools such as Gantt Charts and approaches such as critical path analysis, but, most of the time, it involves much simpler strategies.  These invariably include making sure you have the bigger picture in mind while also attending to the details, and simply keeping a close eye on the project, especially if you are relying on other people to help out.

  1. Break down projects into small manageable parts

How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time.  No matter how big and daunting the task in hand is, by breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps we can tackle just about anything.  And if you’re working in a team, having a series of discrete tasks is always easier to allocate and monitor.

  1. Consider the opportunity costs

Sometimes when we are planning a project, we delude ourselves into thinking something or someone we plan to use is free, just because the resource is already in place and available.  But, someone is paying for that piece of equipment or that staff member, so to cost a project accurately we need to recognise this and be familiar with the notion of opportunity costs.  What else could you have spent that money on, or used that equipment for, or had that staff member working on?

  1. Be realistic

This last point is probably the most important and tends to come with experience, often painfully so.  The knowledge that almost everything you’ll ever do will take longer, use more resources and cost more than you originally planned will allow you to make better, more realistic plans and ultimately help you complete your projects.

© Allan Gaw 2020

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

Also available on kindle:What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

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The Fading Rainbows

 

Like many of you, I’ve spent hours during this lockdown walking.  If I had kept going in the same direction over these weeks and now months, I’m sure I would be in Australia by now. Or at least Cornwall.   I’ve watched the seasons bloom and change, and I’ve seen my fellow walkers change too.  At the start, as we side-stepped each other to avoid any close contact, we would smile and nod and exchange a cheery greeting to soften the distance we had so rudely placed between ourselves. In recent weeks, perhaps as the fatigue of it all has taken its toll and as some seem to think it’s all over and back to normal, those smiles and nods have noticeably diminished.  And what has also changed are the rainbows.

In the spring, when all this began, the windows of many of the houses I walked by on my daily trudge to get my steps done, started to be adorned by brightly drawn and painted rainbows.  Most, I’m sure, crafted by eager young hands, but surely at the urging of their equally eager parents.  It was a show of solidarity for the NHS in a time when everyone suddenly realised just how important health was and the relative unimportance of just about everything else.  But, over the months, these rainbows have slowly lost their colour.  And one today in the front window of the corner house on my morning march, was almost gone completely.  As the coloured felt-tips of our four-year olds fade, it might be the moment to contemplate what might be on the other side of that rainbow.

I have worked in or closely allied to the NHS for the last 36 years and I am not a hero.  Indeed, I have never met any.  Nor have I encountered any angels or saints along the way.  What I have met are women and men who work tirelessly at doing an often very difficult job.  They train long and hard and continuously for their diverse roles and most of them are paid less for their work than the person who fixes your computer, your roof or your leaky tap.  During this pandemic, the NHS workers have been at the forefront of people’s minds, or at least they were.  Now the clapping on a Thursday evening has ended, and much of the news coverage has quietly shifted away from scenes of exhausted staff overladen with the burdens of poorly fitting protective clothing and long shifts.  There is understandably a great desire to get back to the normal we took so much for granted only six months ago, but need that normal include taking our NHS for granted all over again?  We watch the hypocrisy of politicians rhapsodising about the selfless sacrifice of NHS workers and almost in the same breath denying them free parking in their hospitals. And we will undoubtedly see no reflection of this national outpouring of appreciation in the pay packets of the most poorly paid in the NHS or in the funding for newer, better facilities in which to work.  Indeed, we are hurtling towards a very different NHS, if our present administration has its way.  Those NHS services that can be readily monetised will be and are almost certainly on any negotiating table for future trade deals with the United States.  As well as working in the NHS, I have also lived and worked in the US, where I have been a user and observer of healthcare.  Let me say in simple, unequivocal terms that their whole approach to healthcare will mean the end of our NHS.  No matter how ill my child was, I had to provide my credit card details before I could get through the locked door of A&E; the patients I saw would sit in the waiting room wondering which of the two drugs they had been prescribed they could afford to buy; and I witnessed people and their loved ones bankrupted by their cancer care.

Because almost everyone alive today in the UK has lived their entire adult lives in the security of the NHS, we have all but forgotten what it was like before.  It is up to everyone to make sure that no one is under the illusion that something from America must be better.  Better for financiers, for investors, for commercial healthcare providers, yes, but not for anyone who ever gets ill, and that of course is everyone.

The NHS staff do not want rainbows, although I’m sure few objected to the bright drawings of countless children up and down the country.  What they want is acknowledgement of their worth in tangible ways and the pledge that the NHS is safe from outside interference which will ultimately destroy it.  And it’s not simply altruism, NHS workers are just people and they need the NHS too. Let’s ensure those fading rainbows are not a metaphor for what’s to come.

© Allan Gaw 2020

 

 

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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Academia in Lockdown

Learning at universities has become increasingly virtual posing challenges for students and their teachers alike.

During lockdown I have been thinking a lot about my students. As a university teacher, I am in a very privileged position in that I get to interact on a regular basis with people who are mostly younger than me, mostly more intelligent than me and mostly more energetic than I have been for some time. These interactions are designed for me to teach them something, but invariably I am the one enlightened and energised, and occasionally humbled, by our meetings.

Now, as we find ourselves working in the half-light of this virtual world of lockdown, it would be easy to lose interest and become weary and disillusioned, but that’s not what my students have chosen to do. Robbed of many of the traditional opportunities to learn, they are turning out in what I can only describe as droves to take part in virtual learning sessions. They are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic, if not more so, and they are always thankful for what is on offer.

We are facing unprecedented challenges in higher education, but every university is trying to invent their way out of these difficulties. When the story is written of this pandemic, the victims will not only be those who have died or been debilitated, but also the young. Their lives, which depend so heavily on the oxygen of social interaction, have been asphyxiated, their educations have stalled and their job prospects evaporated.

All teachers and all students have had to work harder in the past months to achieve some semblance of normality. Everyone knows it’s no one’s fault, but equally we all know that we have to make extra efforts sometimes even to avoid going backwards.

There are upsides to education in lockdown — no travelling, reduced costs of teaching delivery, the possibility of larger groups in an online setting — but there are also real challenges through the lack of human interaction. It is easy to deliver educational content in a virtual environment, but it is much harder to nurture an inquiring mind, to develop scholarship, to excite and even to inspire. And it’s harder to listen to your students. Many who are new to learning online may find the form of engagement difficult. Those who would not speak in a tutorial are perhaps even more reluctant to post a virtual question, and online teachers need to find ways of involving everyone. Every student has a voice, but even at the best of times these are not always heard. In an online setting, it’s even easier for the shy, the uncomfortable, the daunted to hide.

Good teaching has never been about staging a gladiatorial contest in the classroom, but it should also never be a mere spectator sport. For me, higher education has always been a group activity — a cookery class, if you like. Put some clever people together, add in someone who has been down that particular path before, sprinkle in a few problems and place on a low heat. And the final product is usually a surprise. Just because I cannot look into my students’ eyes, and allow their body language to fine tune my expectations, does not mean we cannot work together. It does not mean that we cannot find a connection and a synergy with each other or with the rest of the group. And it should not mean that we turn the experience into a purely passive one.

I remain grateful for my students even though I haven’t been in the same room with any of them now for months. We cannot do everything we did previously, but there is so much we can do and we need to focus on that to maintain the momentum of their education and development. We can learn new things online and we can explore new ways of interacting together. But, we can also read more and write more. So much academic work is done outside the classroom through reading and writing, and lockdown should not be stopping us doing either of those. In fact, if anything the relative lack of distraction, the solitude, the time we are afforded should be an advantage. I have been placing greater emphasis during the past months on just that, especially encouraging the development of a writing habit, if there was not one there before. Write every day, I counsel my students, reflect on your reading and on your work, question it all, challenge it, critique, learn and grow.

Education in a traditional sense has been interrupted, but it should not have stopped. The student, whether under or post graduate in every university, will have online learning opportunities that should be seized, and many are doing just that. Fortunately, they also have their own initiative, their energy and their enthusiasm for the work to rely upon. Ultimately, we need to take control, and we need to use this lockdown, for however long it lasts, rather than endure it.

© Allan Gaw 2020

 

 

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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Lessons from a Pandemic

 

We are not the first to live through a pandemic and there is much to learn from the successes and the failures of those who have gone Before

 

A world awakens to a global pandemic, as cases of a new and poorly understood virus grow almost exponentially. There is confusion, mixed public health messages and a lack of international co-ordination and collaboration. Conspiracy theories about its origins start to circulate, and the headlines report that even the rich and famous are affected, from Royalty to those in Hollywood. Newspapers are full of complaints about the Government’s slowness to take the disease and its impact seriously. Medical students are mobilised to assist in frontline hospital care. Social distancing measures are put in place and face masks become a normal sight on the streets. And the British Prime Minister contracts the virus.

However, this is not Boris Johnson, but David Lloyd-George and not 2020, but 1918. Evidence, if any were needed, that history does repeat itself and can offer lessons for those who chose to learn them.

Today, in the midst of a new pandemic, we are inundated with graphs showing infection rates and death rates. On the nightly news there are coloured lines that soar and flatten, that compare and contrast, that dispute and justify. But, almost the same graphs, albeit hand-drawn and now looking yellowed and somewhat quaint, were produced in 1918–19. They tell the story of that other pandemic, of its spread and of its toll. They chart the weaknesses in their defences and they record the successes and failures of different ploys used to “flatten the curve” a century ago.

The figures are stark. In 1918, as a world at war was at last seeing the possibility of an end to hostilities, a new enemy emerged—influenza. We still do not know where the new virus came from despite its common name of Spanish Flu, nor, despite decades of research, do we fully understand what made it so deadly. Over a two-year period one-third of the 1.5 billion global population were infected and somewhere between 50–100 million died—several times the number that had been killed in the Great War. The death toll in the UK alone was almost a quarter of a million. One of the most striking things about that pandemic was the impact it had on apparently healthy young adults aged 20–30. Young men and women were often reported to be healthy at breakfast and dead by the evening.

Of course, the world in 1918 was very different to that of today. Despite a wealth of everyday experience, there was a much poorer understanding of infectious diseases. There were no antivirals, and penicillin would not be discovered for another decade. Intensive care in hospitals was unknown and the mainstay of management was general supportive therapy. Today, we certainly have much more in our acute medicine arsenal, but from a public health perspective the responses to the 1918–19 pandemic were not so different to those we have put in place a century later.

Schools, shops and theatres were closed. Social gatherings were limited, quarantines were put in place and face masks became a common sight. However, the unevenness of how these containment policies were applied and how erratically they were followed provides a useful lesson. For example, in the United States, different cities adopted very different approaches to the pandemic, and, even those that put in place strenuous measures to limit the spread of the disease, did so on different timescales. Those cities, such as Seattle, that reacted quickly and held firm to their policies, were the ones to fare best, with the lowest numbers of influenza deaths. Those that responded well initially but chose to relax their lockdowns as soon as they saw a downturn in the disease, such as Denver, would see subsequent new waves of infection. And those, such as Philadelphia, that delayed in putting any meaningful measures in place, and thus allowed the infection to take hold in their populations, saw the worst death rates of all.

The politicians in 1918–19 also faced the same dilemmas that our policy makers do today. They had to balance public health concerns with the economic impact of a shutdown, and they had to deal with incomplete and often conflicting scientific advice along with growing public outcry over the consequences of their policies. A century ago, just as there are today, there were some very vocal groups hostile to the strategies. Many flouted the preventive measures, with some calling them unnecessary and draconian and others expressing their outrage at the infringement of their personal liberties. Different administrations around the world followed different public health strategies with little, if any, co-ordinated effort and the global infection and death rates were equally variable.

Today, in a society with wall-to-wall news coverage, we are acutely aware of how the complex story of a pandemic unfolds. New data informs as well as distorts the picture. Policies based on the latest information quickly become obsolete, and all the time we are expecting the best decisions to be made about our lives and our livelihoods.

In 1918–19, those having to deal with a disease they barely understood were eager to try any treatment that might work, irrespective of evidence. Interestingly, one of the main contenders was the anti-malarial drug quinine. In 2020, in another startling parallel, one of the main treatments that has been advocated, with equally little evidence, is the anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine. The notion of evidence-based practice was not strong in 1918 and perhaps the headlong dash to use untested treatments might be understandable. However, in 2020 it is nothing short of unforgivable. In a matter of weeks, the collective global research project has turned all its energies and resources towards discovering an effective treatment, a viable test and a safe vaccine for Coronavirus, but already concerns are being raised about the speed, quality and ethics of some of these studies. We must ensure that the immediacy of the challenge will not be used to justify a descent into poor research practices.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from history, but as the philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Our collective memories may be dimmed by the passing years, but every line on those old graphs, despite their fading figures, represent men and women who lived and died during a pandemic a century ago. And their ghosts speak loudly and eloquently. Let us not give credence to the words of that other philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who noted pessimistically that, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Given the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, perhaps it might do us well to try. History is an open book; the lessons are there if we choose to heed them.

© Allan Gaw 2020

A version of this article appeared in MDDUS Insight, June 2020.

 

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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Conference Season Goes Virtual

 

As more academic conferences go online, how can attendees make the best of them?

The conference is one of the cornerstones of academic life. Assembling with our peers to learn, share, network and sometimes even to carouse, usually in a pleasant location away from the distractions of home and our everyday work, has become something that most academics look forward to with relish.

We write abstracts and craft short presentations of our work, design posters and slides and pore over the agenda of the meeting working out what can’t be missed, and when there might be a space to meet with old friends or the time and opportunity to make some new ones. We attend conferences not just because it is expected of us, but because they can be a rich source of professional exposure, opportunity and feedback. They might even be inspiring and we all need that. And, of course, they provide a change of scene and of pace, adding colour and interest to the oftentimes drudge of solitary scholarship.

However, all of this depends on often hundreds of people travelling to a venue, maybe in a foreign city, rubbing shoulders and shaking hands and doing everything possible not only to encourage the spread of ideas but also of Coronavirus. As such, the current pandemic has forced a speedy rethink on how and whether the academic conference can continue. In truth, even before the world awoke to the need for social distancing, many were already sounding the death knell of the traditional conference. Can we really justify flying half-way around the world to deliver a ten minute presentation of our research work, either economically or environmentally? And even if we think we can, there are a growing number of researchers who can no longer find the financial support to make it a reality.

Already, many academic conferences were reinventing themselves as hybrid events — a traditional face-to-face extravaganza, but with online options for those who could not attend in person to share the experience. This undoubtedly democratises the academic conference ensuring that anyone with an internet connection can take part, not just those who can afford the plane ticket.

Now, however, conference organisers are being compelled to overhaul their whole approach and deliver entirely virtual events. Of course, this presents a number of challenges, especially when we think of all the things that conferences do. But, might it also offer some opportunities — could the entirely virtual conference be an even better experience for attendees?

 

Learning

We go to conferences, probably first and foremost, to learn. All conferences, whether traditional or online, will be judged by the quality of the programme and the speakers. In every field there are top-tier events that everyone would like to attend largely because they know that’s where the real action will be —the leading lights in the subject presenting their latest findings. But there are also a host of smaller, second-rate, maybe even third-rate, events that you might think twice about putting the effort in to attend.

This aspect of the academic conference is probably the one most easily translated into an online format. After all, how different is it to sit at the back of a very large auditorium listening to a recent Nobel Laureate explain her latest discovery while looking at her slides but barely being able to see her face, than to watch the same presentation from the comfort of your own desk? Alright, you can’t put your hand up and ask a question, or corner her afterwards to strike up a discussion — or can you? Most virtual learning environments will not only allow you to listen and view a presentation, they will also allow you to ask questions and interact with speakers in a variety of ways. And as for cornering the speaker afterwards, you will have her contact details and if your question or comment is compelling enough, you might even get an answer. Of course, one big advantage the online conference has here is that all the presentations can be recorded and made available asynchronously to attendees. No more worries about falling asleep in the middle of that keynote lecture because of jet lag.

 

Presenting

What about presenting? We go to conferences not just to listen to others but also to talk about or display our own work. We do this partly in the hope of getting valuable feedback, but also to raise our academic profile — to become a player in our field. Many virtual conference organisers are trying a variety of formats to offer online substitutes for this aspect of the conference experience. At the low-tech end of the spectrum, you will still be invited to submit a written abstract of your work, which will be curated and made available for all attendees to read. A little further up the scale, you might be invited to submit a virtual poster or a short stand-alone slide show. And at the top-end you might be asked to record a short presentation or even deliver one live. Again, if the conference has your presentation recorded, it can be made available to a much larger audience than you might ever expect to address at a traditional conference. If you do have to deliver an online presentation, do take the time to learn how to do it (have a look here).  Remember, as with all academic presentations, the quality of your work will often be judged by the quality of your talk.

 

Networking

Probably the next most important reason for going to all the bother and expense of attending a conference is to network. Meeting your peers and mixing with the great and the good in your field is an essential first step to building those lasting professional relationships that will form the scaffolding of your career.

But, if you can’t meet anyone, look into their eyes, offer them your hand and your smile, how can it work? Well, networking at its most basic is about making contact and then nurturing that contact. Many virtual conferences are currently making use of all sorts of different apps to allow for networking. Some of these are undoubtedly better and easier to use than others, and I suspect we will see a few becoming the dominant tools of the trade as we gain more experience with virtual conferences. You may, for example, be put randomly in a virtual meeting room with several other online attendees and asked to introduce yourselves and discuss a specific issue. This forces you to meet and interact with new people. Another app acts rather like a speed dating service where you are serially assigned to other attendees, one by one. You both have a few minutes to discuss who you are and what you do and in each case at the end you can agree to exchange contact details for further follow up, or not. Not quite Tinder, but almost. Some conferences encourage virtual community groups to form before and during the conference with a view to extending those new-found contacts after the event is over. If the conference makes available lists of attendees and their contact details before the conference, you can also identify those of interest and contact them ahead of the event.

In every case, you are being given an opportunity to make first contact and forge new professional friendships, but the ongoing nurturing that is so important to effective networking will be up to you, and that requires being pro active, just as it does at the traditional conference.

Closely related to this networking are the social aspects of conferences. At meetings, we eat and drink together, we chat about matters other than work, we sometimes enjoy entertainments, especially if the organisers wish to showcase some of their local culture, and we may even get a chance to see the sights. Some conferences are working hard to replicate these aspects of conference attendance in the virtual environment. Why not have coffee breaks with forums dedicated to non-conference chat? What about an inspirational speaker, such as an Olympian or an Astronaut to close the day? What about a virtual walking tour of the local art gallery? What about some national singing, dancing or even a cookery class teaching you how to make a local delicacy? All of these and more are being explored in an attempt to flesh out the programme and to provide virtual conference attendees with an experience far richer than just a series of poorly delivered webinars.

And of course, let’s not forget the freebies that you might spend your conference time hunting down. If there are conference sponsors, they may have trade stands where you might delight in picking up that free pen, post-it pad or even key ring. Can’t fill a swag bag online, can you? Of course you can, it just has to be with digital freebies. Useful downloads, free apps, discount vouchers, zoom backgrounds, clip art libraries for your slides — the list is almost endless, and I am sure virtual conferences in the coming months will surprise you with digital delights that you never even knew you needed.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, attitude is everything for the attendees at a virtual conference. All the opportunities are there but you do have to engage with the conference, and you do have to work at ensuring you get what you need out of it. If we approach the virtual conference with a preset notion that it will be a pale imitation of the last face-to-face meeting we attended, then it will be. But, if we sign in and really take part, making full use of all that is on offer, we can get as much, maybe even more, out of the virtual conference than its traditional alternative. It will certainly cost us less money to attend, it is likely to be a more efficient use of our time, we will be able to revisit presentations we found particularly useful as often as we like and there will be a host of networking opportunities there for the taking.

Going forward, we can expect huge variability in the style and quality of online conferences — as disciplines vary the emphasis they place on different aspects of the conference to suit their own specialist needs and as different virtual platforms are tried and tested. The organisers of such events are, of course, also still learning how to do it, and mistakes and missteps will inevitably be made. But, while the pandemic will come and go, the virtual conference is certainly here to stay. No, it won’t be quite like getting on a plane for a three-day conference in Edinburgh or Florence or San Diego or Kyoto, but it will be cheaper, greener, smarter and quite possibly better for your academic career in the long run.

© Allan Gaw 2020

 

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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A Better Normal

Physically, most of us are relatively unscathed by the circumstances we find ourselves in, but the same cannot be said for our psychological well-being.  We are all suffering some form of loss—the loss of independence, mobility, interaction, touch, intimacy.  But there are also deeper psychological issues at stake.  Many of us are frightened.  We are worried about our health and that of our loved ones, and about our livelihoods. We are scared to go out, to meet people and, as the lockdown lifts, even to re-enter the world. But, perhaps the most significant impact has been on our internal lives.

We have all been forced to spend time with ourselves and our thoughts, and we have been compelled to reflect on what might be most important to us.  There are those who crave a shopping trip, but there are also many who ache just to be held.  There is a hole in many people’s lives that busy restaurants and bars occupied, but there is also a vacancy in others that might only be filled by a shared moment of silence between friends, or even strangers.  Some are trapped by lockdown; others feel liberated.  Some are angry and frustrated and desperate to get back to normal. And others are questioning what that normal might be.  They are examining their lives in the space that this hiatus has afforded, and they are redefining what that life should look like.

We look at those things we are unable to do and question whether we really miss them, especially as we balance them against those things we can still do.  We bemoan the fact that we cannot pop to the shops when we want, either because those shops are closed or because we are being strongly encouraged to limit our travel and exposure to other people. But, are we really missing those little ad hoc spending sprees or is it merely symptomatic of our curtailed freedom? Are we really just railing against the straitjacket of lockdown? When we are free to do as we please again, what exactly will please us?

On the other side of the balance sheet are all the things we have spent more time on—the walks, the spring flowers, the butterflies, the cleaner air, the silence, the skies unwrinkled by jet trails. There have also been moments of remarkable humanity as the vulnerable and the elderly are finding support from those whom they thought of before as strangers.  There are helping hands and moments of grateful acknowledgment, smiles, nods and words of kindness that were not there before. And there is a growing realisation that this is how we could be all the time.

There are golden opportunities in every situation, irrespective of how difficult the circumstances are.  Humans rise and respond to challenge.  Indeed, that might be our defining feature as a species and now is no different.  We will invent, create, and think our way into a new way of living.  There will, of course, be a natural desire for a simple return to a stable, familiar normal—everything just as it was.  But, if this period of enforced reflection has taught us anything, it might be that our lives before the virus were not all they could be.  We are asking not for a return to the old normal, or even a new normal, but a better normal.  This pandemic has brought enormous human tragedy, but it is also the kind of opportunity that will unlikely be afforded us again in our lifetimes. It has been responsible for the kind of social and psychological upheaval that usually occurs only in war and natural disaster, and, on a more personal level, life-threatening illness and deep personal loss. Let’s seize the opportunity to find any silver lining.

So, what does your better normal look like?  What changes have you had to make during lockdown that have allowed you to learn a little more about yourself? How will your life be better from now on?  I do not say “after this” because despite what the politicians and the media might have you believe there is no “after”, no “when it’s over”. We will have to learn to co-exist with this virus and with the others that will likely come after it.  We have had a century of respite between this and the last major pandemic, but there is no assurance that we will have that kind of time again.  In the space of a few months, humanity has been reminded of its fragility and we have seen just how quickly a society, its institutions and its economy unravel. And we have all been given an opportunity to think again.  The important thing is not to squander this chance.

 

© Allan Gaw 2020

SlideEasy and The Business of Discovery are now published and available on kindle and they’re free to download if you’re on Kindle Unlimited.

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician

Also available on kindle:

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