Fluffy Friday – Growing Up

My radiator exploded tonight. Which is a convoluted lead in to the Syrian refugee crisis.

I didn’t intend on writing this post. I intended on spending tonight doing some fancy things for our upcoming MOOC. As it was a bit chilly, I put the new radiators on high and sat down to keep designing thumbnails . . . until hot water started spraying out the top of the radiator.

A few frantic googles told me what I’d already guessed, turn off the radiator and the boiler, and I phoned my amazing installation company to get their voicemail. They called me back immediately, on a Friday evening as well, and promised to be over soon.

I waited for the engineer, anxious and upset. This was so unfair, I thought, what have I done to deserve hot water spewing all over my floor? And then the engineer arrived, and very kindly completely turned my radiator off, restarted my boiler, and drained the broken radiator. This wasn’t the engineer’s radiator, or their installation, this was entirely their kindness showing up on a Friday evening to do something that any self respecting adult should have been able to figure out for herself. They calmed me down and reassured me, promised to get in touch after the weekend.

And I was left with the strange realisation that my whole life I have been coddled and protected, lived in a world where hard work is rewarded with help, and where fairness and justness matters.

The refugees fleeing Syria have tried everything they can, and there is no fair reward, no kindness shown to them. My greatest upset today, something that brought me close to tears, was having some hot water stain my carpet. The strength of my emotional reaction to a silly radiator problem is shameful, when children are drowning trying to escape a war.

I have no reference for how these people are feeling. My personal disaster scale is so completely skewed to the other side that their experience is almost infinitely impossible for me to grasp.

The Guardian has a practical advice list. I will write my MP. One of my colleagues is collecting resources to donate. But I feel very sober today as I wonder if there’s a Syrian postdoc out there, wishing that the worst problem in her life is a leaky radiator.

Learning Objects and Politics

I’m a big fan of learning objects, as I’m sure we can probably all agree on. They’re a great way to teach, giving the user a lot of flexibility and the ones that give a result you can share online are particularly cool.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we have a general election coming up. I’ve seen some great learning objects in the lead up:

The BBC’s Create Your Own Manifesto

What works about this one is the roleplay aspect. If you were one of these waffling politicians, how would you waffle? I love the puzzle piece aspect to it and the way you can pick and choose your key issues. Makes it a very flexible object that you can take a lot of time over, or just fly through if you want to see where various parties stand on the issues that matter to you.

Unlock Democracy’s Vote Match

This is more like a standard ‘personality test’ style quiz, and it’s the sharing aspect that really works, as well as the level of detail they’ve gone into. Splitting the quiz into the four home nations is so important in this post-devolution, post-referendum world. It immediately saves people from turning off, but still allows the full range of political views to be expressed. I particularly like the neutrality in this one (not that you’d expect anything less from Unlock Democracy). Unfortunately you are required to give an email address and they do collect data on you.

ThoughtPlay’s Who Should You Vote For?

This is like a simplified version of Unlock Democracy’s LO, and I do think it’s simplification hurts it’s appeal. It’s not as glossy or good looking as the others, and the unwieldy ‘Choose England vs Scotland’ drop down menu is an irritant. That being said, their results do reflect your personal politics (even if at the expense of any tactical voting you have in mind).

As for accuracy, I felt the pick-and-mix BBC option expressed my feelings best of all, Vote Match got something VERY wrong, or perhaps I should have added another party to the “I would never vote for this party” line up, and one thing I felt all three lacked was the element of trust. How much do you trust the politicians?


And then as a bonus extra, the BBC have a ‘Form Your Own Coalition

Depending on random (within a margin) election results, you can choose your own coalition government. Almost all options equally depressing!


All in all, though, it’s nice to see learning objects get out there. I always use the BBC as an example of good practice in producing learning objects, and if there’s any topic that needs being made accessible, it’s politics!

I Lectured to 27000 Students This Week

Please do forgive the bragging in this post’s title. But I have. I have lectured to 27000 students this week.

Our MOOC went live on Monday and people are still signing up, which is all kinds of mindblowing. From the moment that button was pressed on Monday morning, people have been meeting in the forums, watching our videos, working through our interactive sessions and this has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.

The diversity of people on the course has amazed me, from the school kids who help out in animal shelters at the weekend, to people who have real power and influence on a global scale, and what’s more – these people are talking to each other in the same thread.

I have a confession to make. Before this week began, this post was going to be full of summary numbers, bragging, essentially, about our reach. Because I’m really proud of that. But I had always seen the MOOC as a bit of a ‘flash in the pan’. I was pleased it was on my CV, and pleased that it was running, and I was sure our students would enjoy it and would learn something, but I thought MOOCs as a concept were going to fizzle out.

I’ve changed my mind. While advertising the MOOC a little while ago I said it would ‘democratise education’. I was using buzzwords, but I don’t think I was far off. The discussions we’ve been seeing on the forums has shown me that people are genuinely interested in learning science, and will be passionate as they engage with that science. There are people logging on from areas that are threatened with terrible violence. Little girls in countries that don’t have equal rights for women. Yes, it’s ‘just’ an introductory course, but its real strength lies in its community, in the learners who are taking it and using it to build their support networks. MOOCs have a huge amount of power, not because they allow universities to share their research, but because they invite universities into peoples homes.

As somebody who has lived with universities for all of my adult life, I had underestimated this. We might complain about student fees and the business like nature of the modern university, but they are still places of tremendous innovation and power. And I am so, so proud of what our students are doing.

Fluffy Friday – Fashionista

The letters after my name grant me a small selection of inferior superpowers. Cheaper car insurance. Better tables at restaurants. And the ability to go to very important meetings dressed quite casually.

In the land of animal behaviour and welfare, we don’t really do suits. This week I met the CEO of a very well known animal welfare charity in jeans and a shirt. I met a Board of Trustees in a summer dress. And in all four of the meetings I had this week I didn’t wear make up once (which I possibly should have done because stress spots are popping up on my nose).

The thing is, my colleagues complimented me on looking smart, and we all commiserated with one another about how we don’t own smart clothes. It’s just not in our nature. Oh sure we can look nice, but we’re not good at smart.

When you start at Glasgow Uni, at least back in the early noughties, you had an initial meeting with an advisor. Mine was a lovely microbiologist named Ailsa who wore amber jewellery and beautiful silk scarves. I sat in her office with three other students and clutched my maps of the campus on my lap. One by one she asked us what we planned to do our Honours in, all the time telling us that we could change our course right up until fourth year. Most people never took the Honours they started with, according to her.

What was I planning on? Zoology. She laughed when she heard and told me to buy a woolly jumper. “That’s what we call the zoology lot. The Woolly Jumpers.”

I still think that should be the name of my band. In the zoology museum of the University of Glasgow there was a truly staggering array of woolly jumpers. There’s also a lot of handmade jewellery, a lot of interesting tattoos in unusual places, and people trying soap hair shampoo from Lush.

I tried the soap hair shampoo from Lush. I have thick, dark hair that feels greasy within hours of washing. I used the soap shampoo. I tried the no-shampoo at all approach. I tried the compromise ‘natural type’ shampoos from Lush. I tried the shampoos from the independent little sellers in the studenty areas of Glasgow. In the end I went back to the shampoo that comes in plastic bottles. Greasy hair triumphed over my ethical concerns.

Working with animals and in the fields that I do, vanity becomes a very strange thing. How can you take pride in your appearance when you wear a pair of mucky overalls and steel toecapped boots? Is it appropriate to wear a summery skirt to the office if you might have to jump to the farm? Sometimes you can pay the price for a little bit of style. Once I was rocking a chunky knit jumper over a denim mini skirt one day when I had to pop to our beef unit. I slung some overalls over the top and completely forgot I had hiked the miniskirt up to do so. When we’d finished I was animatedly chatting to colleagues while stripping from the overalls, miniskirt still around my waist.

I have half a dozen little fashion faux pas to mention. Like the undergraduate student of mine who used to move cows with one great dangling earring (she only ever had one – it was when I realised I was no longer ‘down with the kids’), or the time I decided to wear a smart skirt to a conference and ended up sitting in a non-air conditioned lecture theatre sweating through a dry-clean only skirt beside a very important gentleman from another well respected animal welfare charity. Or the time I accidentally wore a top that had very large arm holes and exhibited my bright red bra to my brand new workplace. Or the time I was sitting in my supervisor’s office and pulled a swan louse from my hair. I could go on.

I’m not sure we make it easy on ourselves either. Most of us were the weird kids at school who wanted to know why home economics didn’t use free range eggs, or cried because they missed their dog when they were at camp. All our lives we learned how to pride ourselves in our differences, and I think there’s an element of that pride which tempts us to reject the more classical notions of ‘looking good’.

If you think I’m tarring the good name of scientists unfairly here, I can count two incidences in the past few months where scientist friends of mine have outright criticised or expressed shock at some basic sartorial choices I’ve made (basic in the dictionary, rather than the Tyra sense). At a sushi restaurant, I defended an £80 hairdressers bill to some of my very good friends who laughed at my expense while we all ordered a strange dessert we knew we wouldn’t like just to taste it. At tea break, a month or so later, some colleagues broke off on a discussion about how much they’d spent on their bikes to ask me how I could justify what I’d paid for a Shellac manicure.

In our field we place terribly arbitrary values on what’s considered appropriate. It’s fine to order tempura battered ice cream just to try it (don’t, it was disgusting), but it’s eyebrow raising to have nice nails for a few weeks. We will happily turn up to a meeting that could hold the key to millions of pounds worth of funding in a pair of jeans, but we wonder why the world thinks scientists are scatter brained and odd balls.

My superpower is the power of not needing to care about my appearance. But like all good superheroes, sometimes I try to hide my power. Sometimes I like to look good. Sometimes I like to retro it up, or blow out my hair, or get Shellac, all because I can.

And if you like a little bit of Fluffy Fashion in your life sometime, may I recommend one of the most stylish women I know who launched her Etsy store last week. HauteDog Couture is a geeky, handmade collection of dog collars and other pet accessories. It’s a new store, just starting out, but Armita is one of my favourite people and is a demon with a seam ripper, so check her out!

Fluffy Friday – Keep a Pen Handy

At the end of 2007, I was sitting on a high plastic stool in the feed prep area, scribbling with a biro on the corner of the admittance card of C390. The radio in the corner played inoffensive, slightly out of date pop music through a soft veil of static and in the corridor beyond one of my colleagues was folding freshly tumbled towels into the linen cupboard. It was called a feed prep area because it was for animals, a food prep area would be for humans, though having worked in both I was equally squeamish about eating meals in either. We just called it the kitchen.


In the far corner beside the bin, which stank in summer, I had learned how to skin, de-limb and de-yolk day old chicks in three quick hand movements. It was remarkably easy to do. You could use scissors, of course, but that involved finding scissors. In the middle of summer in a wildlife hospital, scissors are not always in ready supply. In the middle of summer there’s not enough of anything, not enough time, not enough staff, not enough food, not enough dry towels, not enough clean cages. And far too many orphaned animals. But right now it was winter, and I was wrapped up in a blue mac over blue overalls, my fingerless gloves tucked into one pocket, my latex gloves crumpled on the table beside my elbow. My boots were muddy and so had been left by the door. I’d have to sweep and mop the lino at the end of the shift, no sense in making it harder for myself by tracking animal shit through the kitchen whenever I came in to do some paperwork. So my be-socked toes were curled around the support of the stool as I worked on the biro. The ink would not flow.


At the time, I was sick of it. I earned decent money in child care, my part time job, and the animal work was fun but not nearly as rewarding. Less responsibility too. My first week into the internship, my boss sat me down and gravely intoned that if I didn’t do my job properly, animals would die. Sitting in the hot, stuffy little office, I thought back to the job I was going to leave for wildlife. If I didn’t do that one properly, children would die. But I’d a get a Masters, so I nodded and agreed and now, with a little over four months of placement left, I had been given a new project to turn into a master’s thesis.


There was considerably less shit involved with children. People who think babies make a lot of mess should work with orphaned animals. Or ill animals. Or animals. My hair, just growing out from an ill-advised short crop, was a regular refuge of feather lice and other beasties. Though never yet a bat, despite the myths. My hair, which I was growing long on the self-promise that I’d wear it down more often, was pulled back in a tight ponytail to keep it out of the way. This look, blue overalls, navy mac, welly boots, hair up high, a faint dusting of shit on my face, had become de-rigour for me.


Irritated as the project had made me, there were aspects of the wildlife work that I enjoyed. Namely, the clinical stuff. Dressing wounds and administering drugs were like a balm to my ego. Look at me, look how casually I wield these implements of miracles. Injections were the best, intramuscular the most fun, especially for birds. Do it in the wrong place and you stab through the heart. Working outside there was little opportunity to give an injection, but when you did, the joy of walking purposefully outside with a syringe gripped in your teeth, or gingerly placed atop the feed in a bucket, was unmatched. More often, outside drugs were continuations of antibiotic courses. These most often took the form of tablets. In the winter, I would stuff each animal’s dose down a separate finger of my latex gloves and write the ID number of the animal that needed the course on each plastic coated digit. This was less glamorous. Swans were the most common offenders. There’s nothing purposeful about chasing a large, grimy white bird around a fully enclosed paddock, cursing when it makes it into the water, only to catch it in the mud, hold it down and squat above it, wrestling with your glove to get the tablet out, try not to drop it in a puddle, and then stuff it down the bird’s very long throat. BD (bis in die) was worst. First thing in the morning and then at the very end of your shift, so you’d have to go out after you’d swept and cleaned, to return and clean after yourself again. The ineffectiveness of it grated on my soul.


Inside there was much more opportunity to look important. Microwaving saline for example. Hedgehogs, the little bags of disease, were always needing saline. That involve sub-dermal injections, so easy you could do it in your sleep, but impressive looking enough to any observing students. Changing a dressing involved a mechanical challenge, a puzzle component that was always fun, as well as the need to assess the progress of the recovery. There was also tube feeding, which was a pain if only because it was so tricky. It also looked more like torture than TLC and I did not enjoy it. Although, tube feeding a snake once was fun, if only for the mechanical challenge.


Working in the isolation unit looked very important. White overalls and white wellies, lots of drugs too. All kinds of clinical procedures, as well as assessments, and also a good chance there’d be a vet around to let me try some more advanced techniques. I had decided against the veterinary life but the intravenous injections and blood sampling I did in isolation did make me wonder if I would have enjoyed the veterinary life after all. These procedures could only be done under veterinary supervision, and only because we were working on wild animals. I enjoyed the physical challenge, sensing the pressure of the blood flow beneath the needle, trying not to blow it, trying to deliver the whole dose before the animal got too stressed. The  physics of blood flow, the chemistry of hormones, and all of it slotting together to form an animal who feels something. I still love that puzzle.  After the solution makes itself known you feel invincible, right up until your cheap Biro fails as you try to write it on the admission card. It’s a hard fall back to earth.


When you need to gear yourself up to every encounter in your day you want the little things to go smoothly. When you’re wiping sawdust from your eyes and spitting out feathers from your mouth, scooping up an admittance card from the freshly mopped floor – that would have to be cleaned again because you’re currently dripping blood on it – the ability to simply write on the card your name and the time you administered the medication is like a small miracle you have tamed and made your own.


After my masters project, I returned to university to complete my course. The backwards way that my university functioned not withstanding, it was odd to go back to the life of lectures and exams after working day in, day out. Lectures mean pens, you need at least three pens to make sure you can continue to follow the discussion leaping around taxonomy. The main writing colour, the highlight colour, and a back up just in case. I became a fan of the gel pens that stained my hands terribly but smudged on the paper less than biros. For all my love of laptops, tablets and phones, I will always have an inkstain on my right ring finger’s knuckle.


I write in my lab books, I write in post it notes, I write on papers to review, I write on my own papers. Pens are part of my trade, cheap pens, branded pens, giveaway pens. My one advice for working in animal welfare . . . keep a pen handy.

Fluffy Friday – Office Romances

“And they’ll try to mount you.”

Jenny, an affectionate Irish woman, a guru at my new work place, nodded vehemently as I stared at her. “Oh yeah. Especially at certain times of the month. You just feel this big head on top of yours. It’s horrible. All the girls on the farm talk about it.”

Before my PhD I’d never worked with cows. Seals, deer, horses, but never cows. My knowledge of them started and ended at big black and white things that stood beside country road accidents, and big black and white things talking about humans in a Gary Larson cartoon. So it was thought, a general opinion held by all involved in my PhD, that I should do a little work on the research farm to get used to handling the animals.

“And the heifers are the worst.” Jenny’s briefing was an informal one, I’d popped into her office to ask about something else and cows, as they always did, came into the conversation.

“Yes,” Jenny observed, mistaking my regret for disbelief. “It’s scary!”

As I slunk from her office, I didn’t need her to tell me that being mounted by a 500 kg animal was scary. I had enough problems shaking off my friend’s dog.


Office romances don’t come easily to people like me. In child care, you’re surrounded by the end result of flirting and it does put a dampener on things. There’s also a limited amount of romancing that can be done among brightly coloured Ikea plates and sweaty faced children. Animals lend an entirely different atmosphere. All that energy and unabashed sex. It’s carnal. Unfortunately, those that work with animals are usually covered in shit and their own sweat. It’s not a good look.

Despite this handicap, I can recall a few great love affairs. There’s the tragic love affair, the beauty and the beast situation between an RTA goose and a lead poisoned swan. That goose spent many a warm autumn evening chasing the swan round and around the pool, while she serenely floated away with a couple of flips of her black webbed feet. The fact she was on a course of antibiotics and so had to be captured twice a day was of no small concern to the goose, and he defended her virtue rigorously. I’m not sure she ever noticed, or appreciated those attentions. The staff at the wildlife hospital noticed. The goose had a powerful bite. One evening, after my colleagues watched me fend off the erstwhile lover while simultaneously stuffing an antibiotic tablet the size of my thumb down the swan’s gob, I returned to the kitchen picking white feathers from my hair. “It’s cute,” said one of my colleagues. My supervisor, shaking his head sadly, managed a morose: “It’s wrong,” which we all felt was rather unprogressive of him.

Swans lend themselves to love. Even in old age. They mate for life, so people tell me, and I try not to bring up the literature that says otherwise. The biggest problem about working with animals is how often people will tell you things they know to be true. I’m guilty of it myself, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. That same autumn, working the isolation unit, I opened up a swan’s pen and stepped onto the sawdust covered concrete. These pens are roughly 2m by 1m square and painted a soothing, hospital-y shade of green. I don’t think any of the animals appreciated that. The swans were bedded on sawdust, which could flake and get into your eye with alarming frequency. In two big, black plastic bins we kept protein pellets for ducks and corn mix for swans. The ducks and ducklings would get their specific kind of pellets in a shallow bowl. Swans would get their corn in a plastic basin filled with water, occasionally with a garnish of lettuce on top if we had some going. Carrying these basins into the pens was sometimes a balancing act, as the decaying plastic threatened to split from its heavy, sloshing load. This evening I gave the admission card a once over, noted the treatments on the back of my glove, and entered the pen.

The swan was lying with her head submerged in the bowl of water.

While birds, particularly diving birds, are capable of going without oxygen for considerably longer than humans, my initial reaction was to dread the impending paperwork. I plucked the animal’s head from the water and gave it a little shake on the end of its long neck. It rolled one yellow eye in my direction and gave a little flutter of its wings.

Just let me die, it seemed to say.

I cleaned the pen, medicated the bird, and made a slightly facetious note that the bird should be kept on suicide watch. On a more serious side of things, I recommended the vets upped the dosage, as her lead poisoning was severe.

On my final round of the night, I popped my head round once more to find her submerging her whole head. As she had plainly ate nothing, before I left, I made sure to move her bowl a little further away. Do animals have a concept of suicide? Did the poor bugger feel that bad? That didn’t matter. I was three shifts in to my four nights on the isolation ward and I hadn’t lost a single animal yet. The day shift had, but I hadn’t seen them, so it didn’t count.

The following evening I found her again, drowning herself. The day shift had written “seems to like submerging head in bowl” on her card. “Have moved bowl away”. I studied the sawdust shavings. Had the listless animal dragged herself closer to the lurid orange bucket in order to end her days? Could I really justify snatching that chance at swan heaven yet again? Maybe swan suicide was against swan religion. I couldn’t take that chance. Besides, the vet had upped her EDTA dose so surely she’d start feeling better after the double injection I was going to give her. Was this not what we lived for? The healing of poor, innocent animals?

EDTA solution needs to be diluted in saline, so the higher dose resulted in two injections, one in each leg. Despite her attempts at drowning, she was massively dehydrated too. Already feeling as though I was taking this far too seriously, I popped my head out of the door and tried to catch the attention of the vet nurse as she walked by.

The vet nurse was a dedicated woman who lived on site and, seeing the state of the bird, she went to set up a saline drip. I lifted the bird from its sawdust bed and saw, for the first time, its terrible case of Angel Wing. Her wings drooped at the ‘wrist’, she was probably flightless. I mentioned, gently, to the vet nurse that it might be kinder to euthanize. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. There were plenty of ‘sheltered housing’ lakes we could rehome her to. The next morning, the swan was sitting on the sawdust, head up, a drip sellotaped to the wall above her.

I watched her recovery over the next few weeks and it was with some delight that we released her into the outside pen where she wasn’t even tempted to drown herself in the large pool. And a large one-winged male swan took one look at her and in the golden light of the sun setting over the aviaries, reflecting off the algae tinted pond and the fluffy yellow backs of the last of the year’s ducklings, he fell in love.

We rehomed the pair together in a stately Cheshire home where they could be flightless and happy together.


Not all love stories end well. Particularly when I’m involved. 813 and I had known each other for a little over two months. I was working on a farm in Friesland, a land so flat it gave me vertigo. 813 hadn’t paid too much attention to me until the unfortunate few days my hormones happened to spike at the same time hers did. Suddenly I was irresistible. Some things, like laughing at small women being pursued by amorous cows, transcend language barriers, and I never had quite such a good relationship with the guys on farm as when I was the subject of their amusement.

For this particular experiment I spent a lot of time in the pen moving cows, selecting cows, and for a whole week I was also avoiding 813. Sometimes I was even physically fleeing from her. I’d be checking out my notes to find out what cow I wanted next when I’d feel a slobber-covered chin alight upon my shoulder. 813 was nothing if not ever hopeful.

Alas, when her hormones subsided she wanted nothing further to do with me and all that remained of our love was a long drool mark down the right side of my overalls.

I’ve given up on office romances. It’s all very mooving at the time, but it seems best left to the birds and the bovines.

FluffyFriday – WolfQuest Part Four!

Oh Fluffy – it’s been such an epic quest, I am almost sad to see it at an end. Warning, some images may be distressing for anyone who got overly attached to Fluffy and her little family.


So overall, what are my final impressions of the WolfQuest game?

  • The game represents a large block of ‘learning time’. My final save-game was over two hours long, which is a decent amount of investment from the player.
  • There are lots of little touches. In Episode Three you’ll spot some lovely play behaviour from the pups.
  • The game was pretty difficult in places, not just because I’m a poor gamer, but the balancing of demands like time, food, chasing away predators was quite nicely nuanced in my opinion.
  • While it’s great for an educational game, the production values are a problem. It was very frustrating at times constantly having to correct Fluffy’s trajectories.

But overall I really recommend it for kids who are interested in wolves or animal behaviour. The interactivity, the role play and the community over on WolfQuest.org are all plus points in the game’s favour. It’s a great example of animal behaviour learning, so it gets the Fluffy Sciences stamp of approval . . . which I’ve just now invented.

The Selfie Cancer

Have you taken your make-up free selfie yet? Or are you rolling your eyes at the very thought? The split between the two camps is pretty much 50:50 on my Facebook wall.

Let me start with this. I am terrified of cancer. There are few diseases that frighten me. As a biologist, and with a family that comes in the medical flavour variety, I tend to view disease with more fascination than fear. But this obsession with the mechanics of the body breaks down when I’m confronted with the C word.

It’s not that I have bad experiences with cancer. The worst thing cancer has done to me is present a few non-malign tumours in close family members, which causes a few months of unease until the offending lump is excised. A grandfather died of an unknown primary tumour, a quick decline after a surprise diagnosis. And a grandmother who died of cancer before too many memories of her formed. Family lore says her radiation badge from her days working as a nurse in radiology was too often blackened, and that she ignored the signs for too long. I’ve been told we have the same hair.

But it still frightens me. Is it the chaotic nature of the disease? Cells which divide forever, heedless of the proper order of the body? Yes, I am a bit of a control freak. Is it the way it lurks? The lumps and bumps that might seem normal. Is it that, despite being shown by a nurse and looking at the diagrams, I’m still very unclear on whether I’m doing a breast exam right? Is it the vestigial cultural taboo of the C word?

But as a scientist, cancer holds other problems for me. If you forced me to give you my contribution to the world’s scientific knowledge I’d tell you I enhanced our understanding of how personality affects animal behaviour. Anonymous internet commenters have asked me why I didn’t spend my time curing cancer instead.

Build a Large Hadron Collider – why didn’t you spend that money curing cancer?

Define our theory of physics – why don’t you use that time to cure cancer?

Launch a telescope into space – shouldn’t you be curing cancer?

Work in cancer research – shouldn’t you be curing cancer faster?

I’m sure most of my fellow scientists will have had this accusation levelled at them once or twice. Never mind that markets don’t work like this, that scientific progress requires more than one discipline of study. Never mind that I’d be useless in a lab because my natural talents lie towards the empathy and big-picture-view that make me a good ethologist. Why don’t we all go cure cancer right now?

Here I direct you to another wonderful science communicator: Jorge Cham. As the creator of PhDComics.com he has plenty to say on the experience of being a scientist. When he visited a cancer centre he had to ask: why were they listening to him and not off curing cancer?

Please do visit that link. It’s one of the most informative links I’ll ever point you towards. To call this monster simply ‘Cancer’ provides a smoke screen that disguises the true problem. There are many, many cancers and there are many, many hurdles on the way to curing, or even treating, those many, many cancers.

This brings us to the selfie trend. Take a photo of yourself without makeup to raise awareness of cancer. The Telegraph reports the trend has already raised a million pounds. The Independent editorialises the death of vanity. And Closer magazine thinks we’re all missing the point (they helpfully tell me the point is to donate money).

It’s always easy to criticise. I’ll start my criticisms by saying this no-make up selfie bandwagon sensationalises women who choose not to wear make up. It is somehow ‘brave’ to appear as you do when you wake up in the morning. I have apparently been subjected to ‘horror’ if I’m to believe the self deprecatory captions on each selfie.

This is perhaps what offends me the most about this whole trend. I’m an avid selfie taker and I wear make up perhaps once a month. Last weekend I posted about five make-up free selfies in the course of a football match. Is this horrendous to you? Am I brave? No, I am not.

Because I am afraid of cancer.

And this is why the selfie craze is brave, just not quite in the way people might think. It’s not brave because you contravene some ridiculous preconception of beauty. It’s brave precisely because you frighten me. You remind me there is a terrifying disease out there. Stephanie Boyce is brave for reminding me that the disease is survivable.

The bravery is the same bravery that prompts people to stand on the street collecting money for cancer research. It’s an irritant. They know I don’t want to hear about it, they know I don’t want to confront the fear today, but still they ask for money.

When we talk about a ‘cancer awareness’ campaign it may seem like we’re implying there are people out there who are somehow unaware of our plague. Nobody is unaware of cancer. But there is still a desire to sweep the disease under the rug. It is so big, so complex and so terrifying that it’s easier to think that if all scientists simply put their heads together we’d have it kicked in a week.

It bothers me that your make-up less face is worthy of comment. It bothers me that we picked this method of getting people talking. But it bothers me that cancer is still so prevalent.

What’s the bigger evil? The disease, or being reminded that it exists?