So long, Counterbalanced

5 August 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in end transmission

After a fantastic 16 months of blogging here at Scilogs (and at Nature Network before it), I'm finally off. I'm moving into some new Head Quarters over at the Guardian science network, along with Chris Chambers, Molly Crockett and Thalia Gjersoe. It's a bit of a dream come true - when I started writing Counterbalanced, some of the people that I looked to for examples of great science writing were writing for the Guardian - folks like Mo Costandi and Jon Butterworth. I'm really honoured to be joining them.

At the same time, I'm really sad to be leaving Scilogs. I'm incredibly grateful to Lou Woodley and Laura Wheeler for originally giving me a spot at the Nature Network, and for their help and infectious enthusiasm. I also want to thank Khalil Cassimally, the community manager here, for his help in setting everything up when Scilogs originally launched, and for his continued support and encouragement. They're all great people, and I'm looking forward to working with them on other stuff in the future. If you're an enthusiastic new science blogger who's looking for a home, Scilogs is definitely the place to be.

I hope you've liked what I've written here at Counterbalanced. It's really been a testing ground for me, where I've tried out different ways of writing about different sorts of topics. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but I'm glad that I had so much freedom to experiment and learn. I can't wait to see other writers try the same.

I'll sign off with my favourite post from my time here at Scilogs. It was my most popular piece, but also the one that was the hardest to write, and the one that meant the most to me:



Why I hate neurons

Originally posted 20th November, 2012.

Who inspired your original spark of interest in it in the first place? Did you hate it at school, only to throw yourself into it as an adult? Was your physics teacher the one who really made you think about life, the universe and everything? Maybe it was a book you read? It doesn't even have to be about science - how did you first get into whatever it is that you love doing? For me, the inspiration was my Dad. He's also the reason that I singularly, stupidly, unreasonably, hate teaching about neurons with a zealous vigour. Let me explain why.

Circa 1998, I was a fat, sickly 14-year-old living in a cold, damp, foggy town on the outskirts of Manchester. I was fat because I ate too many potato crisps, and I was sickly, well, probably because I ate too many potato crisps (I kid). Being sickly meant that I had a lot of time off ill from school, which was an odd state of affairs, because I actually really enjoyed it, and my grades were pretty good. Whatever the reason for the funk I was in, it was my Dad who snapped me out of it. Not by shouting at me or cajoling me, not by bribing me or by forcing me to do anything. He did it by doing what he'd always done; he asked questions, and listened to the answers. My answers, inevitably, were always lame excuses, but in a sense that wasn't really the point. He didn't judge, he just listened, and gave me the time to figure out an answer myself. When I got there, he'd be there with a smile on his face.

And that was one of the most useful things that my Dad ever taught me. It's all well and good asking questions about things, but if you don't listen to the answers, you don’t get anywhere at all. My Dad was one of those people who was immediately likeable and approachable, and always had time to listen to whatever it was that you had to say (within reason, of course). Whether you’re a scientist or not, I think that’s a hugely important trait to have, but I feel it’s something that’s all too easy to lose as a researcher. We like to ask questions, we don’t always give enough time to the bits that come after that.

So why did my Dad also inspire an irrational hatred of neurons? Because fourteen years ago today, on a freezing, dark, miserable day in November, my Dad died, two years after being diagnosed with a form of Motor Neuron Disease (MND) called Progressive Muscular Atrophy. MND is an odd sort of disease, because although it is (thankfully) relatively rare (with an incidence of about 2 in every 100,000 people), because of people like Professor Stephen Hawking, the American baseball player Lou Gehrig, or the book Tuesdays with Morrie, quite a large proportion of people have probably heard of it. Progressive Muscular Atrophy (PMA) is a very rare variant of the disease, accounting for about 4% of the total number of MND diagnoses. It’s important to get the diagnosis right with different sorts of MND, because the prognosis is better in some cases than in others - for example, the 5-year survival rate for PMA is 33%, compared with 20% for the more common form called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). In a nutshell, MND affects the motor neurons, which are the cells that send out signals to the muscles and hormonal glands in your body, and control things like walking, speaking, breathing, swallowing, and basically anything that involves movement in your body. Different types of MND affect different groups of motor neurons in different ways; PMA selectively affects what are called ‘lower’ motor neurons, which are the ones that connect the muscles to your spinal cord (‘upper’ motor neurons basically form the link between the brain and spinal cord). We don’t really know all that much about what causes PMA, just that it causes motor neuron degradation, which in turn causes the muscles to waste away. And while the facts and numbers are interesting and all that, they cloud the fact that PMA is an utter twat of a disease.

Generally it starts with things like reduced dexterity in the hands, feet or mouth. In my Dad, it progressed to his legs, such that he couldn’t walk, or drive any more. Given that his job required that he drive all over the place (he was a surveyor, and went to assess people’s houses), that basically put an end to that. Nearer the end, he found it tremendously difficult to move his arms (he loved to paint, so there went that hobby), and had difficulty breathing and swallowing. Heartbreakingly, PMA doesn’t affect your cognitive functioning, so my Dad was just as bright, alert, interesting and interested on the last day as he was on day one. All the way through those two years, he remained incalculably strong. Of course, there were times when he was scared and upset, but I always thought that if it had been me in his position, there would have been a hell of a lot more of those moments. During it all, he still led by example in demonstrating a vigorous sense of curiosity about things - he devoured every piece of information about the disease that he could get his hands on, and in the end probably wound up knowing more about it than his consultant. As much as I miss him, I am very thankful for the time that I had with him, and I am thankful for our many chats about everything and nothing.

Please forgive me this personal indulgence today, because this anniversary of his death is a particularly poignant one. Tomorrow will mark the moment at which I will have spent the greater proportion of my life without my Dad than I did with him, and in all honesty, that completely, utterly sucks. But without my Dad, without his guidance and his interest, I would never have ended up on the path to eventually becoming a research scientist. That initial spark of curiosity, that sense of wonder and intrigue about the world around you, and why it works. To me, that is the mark of who a scientist is; not what sort of qualification they’ve got. And it’s a quality that you can’t teach people, you can only learn it from those who have around you, those who instill it in you. So I hate teaching about neurons, because it reminds me why I lost my Dad in the first place. And yet the very fact that I’m there, at the front of a lecture theatre, teaching students about it in the first place, is a testament to the gifts that he left behind, and hopefully, one day, I can return the favour by passing it on to someone else.

4 Responses to “So long, Counterbalanced”

  1. Lou Woodley | Permalink

    Good luck in your new home! I loved the post you highlighted too - I clearly remember reading it on the train on the way to work one morning and finding it really moving. Have fun over at the Guardian and look forward to seeing you at SpotOn London, if not before!

  2. Khalil A. Cassimally | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention in there, Pete. And all the best at the Guardian. I'll still be reading of course. That post, by the way, teared me up. Lou read in on the train. I too remember where I read it: on a sofa somewhere in Newcastle.

  3. Pete Etchells | Permalink

    Thanks both! I really appreciate all of your help and guidance over the past 16 months :) really glad the piece had such an impact on you.

  4. aek | Permalink

    Longtime lurker (not stalker, I promise). Best wishes to you on new horizons and adventures! I was going to write that the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree, but you know what? The apple is still growing and flourishing on the magnificent tree that is your father's memory and legacy!


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