11 March 2011 (Friday) - Malaria and Cards

To Margate. I wasn’t sure where Ursuline College was, so I sparked up my phone’s sat-nav, which got me to Margate with no problems. I saw the place I was aiming for on the other side of the dual carriageway, and the sat nav said to take a U-turn. So far, so good. A few hundred yards before the college the sat-nav said to take a side road. I assumed the college entrance was this way. The sat-nav led me along various back streets before leaving me in a cul-de-sac with the announcement “you have arrived at your destination”. To be fair to the gadget I could see the college behind a brick wall, but I was hoping that it would have guided me closer than it had. But it didn’t take me too long to get to where I was supposed to be.

Ursuline college was holding a careers fest today, and I was there to run a stall extolling the merits of a career pathological. Much as I (occasionally) moan about it, it’s not a bad old job, really. The idea was I would set up a microscope with some slides, some Petri dishes, some grouped bloods and a tapeworm in a jar (yuk!). The kids would then come round, look at my exhibits and talk to me about working in a path lab. The students would also have the chance to talk to a lady from the NatWest bank, a policeman, a magistrate, some soldiers, some builders, some civil servants from the European Commission, and people from half a dozen different colleges. On reflection I would love to have had such a careers opportunity when I was younger.
In retrospect I was treating the event as a bit of a jolly, a morning off work, and a bit of a skive. The twelve year olds (who came round first) had the same idea about the event, and weren’t really interested. But as the morning went on, the children coming round were older and older, and towards the end of the morning I had several kids who were quite interested in what I was showing, and several who asked about how one goes about becoming a biomedical scientist.

Mind you, there were several not-so-gifted children. At least twenty of them, on hearing that the slide under the microscope was showing cancerous cells, asked if they could catch cancer by eating the microscope. A particularly geeky-looking child accused me of bringing MRSA infection to his school. Another child asked me all sorts of questions about the navy, having mistaken my employer (NHS) for the prefix of the ship on which his cousin served (HMS Ark Royal).
But perhaps the sweetest child of the day was a small quiet girl who politely asked me if I could answer her question; but warned me her question wasn’t about blood. I said I’d have a go. The poor child was interested in emigrating to Australia, and wanted to know what job she should do. I suggested she contacted the Australian Embassy. In a very small voice she asked what the Australian Embassy was. The poor child had no idea what an embassy was - she hadn’t been told the first thing about emigration. I suggested she looked up “Australia House” on the internet: they would have all the answers to her questions. Her face lit up – no one (up till now) had been bothered to help her in the slightest. So I suppose my morning wasn’t entirely wasted.

However the highlight of the day was when the school’s biology teacher got wind that I was there, and came to find me. She liked my microscope, was fascinated with the tapeworm, and hung on my every word about leukaemia and blood groups.
We never had biology teachers like her when I was at school. Much as I liked old Mr Reeve, he never wore stockings like those. I’d swap him for her at the drop of a hat. She could teach me biology any day (woof!)

After a spot of lunch I then drove up to the Margate hospital. It had been alleged that my malarial identification skills were not what they might have been. I am still of two minds about this allegation, but having been offered an hour or so’s tutorial with an expert, I thought I’d take up the offer. I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost authority on creatures of the genus Plasmodium, and any chance to learn more is always good.
I was presented with six cases of malaria which had been prepared for me. I was to perform a species identification on each slide. I got five right and one wrong. So seeing the idea of the session was for me to learn, I held my hand up, admitted I was (probably) wrong, and asked if I could have another go at the one I’d (supposedly) got wrong. I also asked if the expert could watch what I was doing, listen to my reasoning, and explain where I was (arguably) going wrong. So we revisted the case I’d (allegedly) got wrong. We both agreed with my initial observation that the infected cells were round, large and not ragged as would fit a case of Plasmodium vivax (which was what I said it was originally). We also both agreed that the infected cells were not elongated, small or ragged as would be expected in a case of Plasmodium ovale (which was the answer the expert was expecting). The expert looked at me, looked down the microscope, looked at his crib sheet, and went red. And then changed my score from 5-1 to 6-0, whilst muttering about having words with the operative who had prepared these slides.

Engaging “smug mode” I drove home. With the troops rallied we all descended on “chez Chip” for a game of cards. An hour or so of “Texas hold ‘em”, followed by an hour or so of “Omaha hold ‘em”. And again I engaged “smug mode” with a straight flush that literally could not be beaten. It makes a change for me to win at cards. Usually I’m rubbish at it…

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