Tell them stories…

The goodbye and thank you cards that I get from students at the end of the summer term were particularly poignant this year. Not only were we all deprived of the usual farewell rituals of Leavers’ Ball and MuckUp Days, the actual classroom teaching was abruptly cut off so that many of the things I would normally do with classes I won’t see again didn’t happen. This included, as one Year 11 student lamented, The Malaria Story.

No worries! If I can’t tell the story as part of a lesson, I can always put it in the burbles. But before I launch into this particular tale, I think there’s a general point here about teachers and teaching. In fact, if I had one bit of advice to give an aspiring teacher, it would be this: go and do something else first! In other words, don’t go into teaching immediately after leaving college. Travel the world. Do voluntary work in another country. Work at another career. And do this for at least 5 years.

I would actually recommend this to any young person who is not sure what to do with their lives – go and explore life while you are still free to do so. Mortgage, marriage, family, can all come later. Life is short and you don’t want to get to the age of 30 and think, “If only…”  As, for the specific benefits to a teacher, these are many. Entering the profession in your mid to late 20s means you have more maturity, greater gravitas, a vital sense of perspective, a better idea of who you are and, crucially, a deep fund of stories… If you go in to teaching straight after college, then all you will have every known is school, university, school….

I tell the Malaria Story to my Year 11s or 12s as part of their work on Disease and Immunology. In fact, my time in the tropics has yielded lots of useful stories that can enliven or illustrate this particular area of biology. The time I literally saved someone’s life by correctly diagnosing and treating bacterial dysentery. My brush with bilharzia. The tropical boil that tells you all you need to know about neutrophils. And so on. As an aside, I think it’s a great shame that there isn’t much more of this on the A-level spec. and lamented the passing of OCR’s Health and Disease module, even if the dietary stuff was pretty grim, as it’s a topic that is always relevant and always fascinating to students.

But I digress!

My Malaria Story

So I had been in Uganda about 6 months, working as a research volunteer on the Uganda Kob (look them up!) project. I was 23 years old. We were based on the Mweya peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the south west of the country, a spectacular section of the Great Rift Valley. And for 6 months I had been dutifully taking my malaria prophylactics, which back in those days consisted of 2 paludrine pills a day and 2 chloroquine pills a week. Every evening, after a busy day of driving round the park to study the kob and their bizarre lekking behaviour (look it up!), we would come back to our ramshackle research house and have supper out on the veranda, listening to the hippos rumbling in the Kazinga Channel, or moving through the yard on their way to graze on the airfield. There were the sounds of hyenas and elephants and leopards and lions, the constant noise of cicadas, and the whine of mosquitoes.

On the evening in question, Fred, the project house manager, had cooked one of his amazing spicy bean stews with rice and sweet potato and avocado. I was half way through this when I suddenly had an attack of what I believe is termed “fecal urgency”. In other words, I had to go to the toilet NOW!!!!

I was able to stagger past the table of researchers, into the house – lit only by paraffin lamps, there was no electricity – made it to the loo, experienced really quite dramatic diarrhoea, and then passed out. If you’ve ever fainted, you’ll know that regaining consciousness is the most unsettling part, your brain is still fuzzy, you are completely disorientated, and, in this case, I was on the floor of  a toilet in the pitch black. I remember feeling completely lost, unable to tell up from down, and having not a clue where I was. Eventually, I pulled things together sufficiently and, feeling extraordinarily weak, I crawled to the bedroom and collapsed on my bed.

The next half hour was this scene repeated every 5 minutes or so – torrential diarrhoea followed by fainting. As I tell my classes, it was good that it was in this order…

… and then the diarrhoea/fainting combo stopped, and I suddenly felt freezing cold. This, remember, in the western rift valley, on the equator, where the night time temperature was about 25’C. I piled on blankets and sleeping bag but could not stop shivering. This lasted, I don’t know, another half hour? Long enough, at least, for people to start noticing that I hadn’t come back to the supper table (thanks, guys!) and come to see if I was OK. Anyway, as they found me, the shivering stopped and was replaced by a rocketing temperature that saw a fever topping out at over 40’C.

All of which made the diagnosis pretty straightforward. Leafing through the pages of our go to field medical guide, Where There Is No Hope Doctor (great book! every biology department should have one!), they ticked off the symptoms, diagnosed malaria, and promptly opened the box of malaria pills. Quinine. 2 tablets, roughly the size of depth charges, to be taken every 8 hours for 5 days.

The pills were horrible. Bitter, difficult to swallow, and with horrible side effects, including tinnitus, but boy did they work – the malaria symptoms stopped immediately, the parasite vanquished, and I just had to lie in bed for a week, feeling pathetically weak as a result of most of my red blood cells having exploded through Plasmodium falciparum invasion….

All of which sets the scene for important discussion about types of pathogen and vectors and immune responses and how many drugs are derived from plant based products and how African economic development is crippled by chronic diseases, from malaria to whipworm.

There are also some important follow up points, particularly for students planning similar adventures in the tropics!

  1. the prophylactic pills do not give 100% protection. I had not missed a dose in 6 months, but I still got the disease. Plus, as I reflected at the time, chloroquine does funny things to your eyes and paludrine makes your hair fall out, both factors I already had enough problems with (this generally gets lots of laughs). Plus, these pills might be OK for a 2 week holiday, but I was going to be in Uganda for at least at year (it ended up being 5 years) – the cost would have been astronomical. So I made the conscious and deliberate decision to a) stop taking the pills and b) make much more stringent efforts to not get bitten by mosquitoes. It worked. Sleeping under a mosquito net, wearing long sleeves and trousers and socks and slapping on gallons of Deet and burning mosquito coils in the evenings… and I have never had a recurrence in the next 5 years in Uganda or 2 years in Zimbabwe.
  2. I had finished the course of quinine, but still felt incredibly weak as my red blood cells were slowly replaced. Nonetheless, I was determined to call my mother on her birthday! Before the days of mobiles and satellites and internet and networks, this was a major operation. I had to borrow the project landrover, drive an hour to Kasese, just north of the equator, and book time on the only landline at the post office. Then, if the wires that ran on some improbable route from Western Uganda all the way to Truro, Cornwall, were miraculously intact, I could get a very faint connection with several seconds of delay as the conversation went back and forth. It went, I recall, something like this…

“Hi Mum! Happy Birthday!”

“Paul! How lovely to hear from you! How are you?”

“I’m OK, thanks. I’ve had malaria…”


As my poor parents melted down with helpless worry and anxiety and stress, it slowly penetrated my young, selfish brain that maybe this hadn’t been the most thoughtful moment of my life. So if you have a problem when you’re abroad, and you’re OK, but you’re 1000s of miles from home and your parents cannot help in any possible way… just don’t tell them…


Biological Book Club #9

why elephants

This book is a brilliant example of how really interesting discussion and research can follow from very simple questions. To take just a few examples: why are all the large animals on the African savannah mammals? It’s not as if reptiles can’t get big – just think of dinosaurs – but visit the Serengeti and all you will see are mammals (and ostriches). Why are fresh waters dominated by large reptiles (crocodiles) and sea waters by large mammals (whales and dolphins)? This is a brilliantly accessible and hugely thought-provoking journey through the kind of question illustrated by the title. You might also ask why elephants have trunks and are very big. Very readable, very interesting.

Biological Book Club #8

I need to be careful with this self-selected list of favourite books that it doesn’t become over-weighted by Medical Books (reflecting the preferences of most of our A-level Biology students) and Molecular Biology/Genetics Books (reflecting my own personal interests). Indeed, I was reminded of this just yesterday when a student contacted me to say thank you for the Covid-19 article, but could I suggest some Zoology reading as that’s what she will be studying at university.

So to restore the balance a bit, here’s something a bit different.



The cuckoo’s famous parasitic behaviour, laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, raises all kinds of fascinating questions. Why do the host birds accept the egg? Why, having accepted it, do they calmly watch as the newly hatched cuckoo chick ejects all their own eggs from the nest? Why do they then work really hard to feed and rear a chick that looks so grotesquely different to their own?

Nick Davies – who was my own PhD supervisor – has spent years in Wickham Fen in Cambridgeshire, trying to answer these questions and more. This wonderfully accessible book – he writes beautifully and with infectious enthusiasm – describes an extraordinary detective story whilst also illustrating just how effective very simply experiments can be. As an introduction to the area of Behavioural Ecology, it could not be better. A perfect book for a warm, sunny Spring afternoon…

Biological Book Club #7

One of the really nice things about having a list of recommended books, and a department library (well, my personal library, but I keep it in the department!) which is heavily used by the students, is that sooner or later students come back to me and make their own recommendations of books that they’ve found and really enjoyed.

So this next one comes doubly recommended! I can guarantee that at least one 6th former enjoyed it – and having read it myself, I can confirm that it’s a cracker.


David Nott is a general and vascular surgeon based in London who has also worked extensively in conflict zones across the world for MSF and the Red Cross. In this book, he describes his experiences of working in Africa, Afghanistan, Sarajevo and Syria. It is extraordinary stuff. He freely admits to being addicted to the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the danger, but he is also driven largely by compassion, an emotion that comes through clearly in his writing and which leads to the climax of the book.

His detailed descriptions of the operations he carries out, very often improvised with whatever comes to hand, are fascinating, inspiring and shocking in equal measure. Combined with his account of what it is like to work in these areas, it’s compelling stuff – essential reading for all you prospective medics – but as one reviewer comments, it should really be in every house.

You may not feel inspired to emulate him, but it will certainly put your entire life into perspective. After all, you’ve just lost your A-levels/GCSEs, but you’re not being barrel bombed or poison gassed by the Russians in downtown Aleppo…


Biological Book Club #6


Bad Science

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre used to write a regular column in the Guardian, and has a website and now he has a book. It’s a terrific read, as he explores the various ways that public ignorance of Science allows people to be conned and misled and basically ripped off. My favourite chapter is the one on Gillian MacKeith (or, to give her her full medical title: Gillian MacKeith), but the stuff on Homeopathy and the MMR vaccine is pretty good too. You lot should all read the chapter on beauty products, if only for the wonderful description of what the Barbie Liberation Front did to Action Man….PW


I think there’s quite a strong argument for making this book essential reading for all KS4 students, perhaps as part of their PSHCE courses.


Biological Book Club #5

Two for the price of one today – a couple of books by Atul Gawande who I find consistently interesting and thought provoking.



Atul Gawande

A New York surgeon by training, Gawande is also a superb writer and thinker and gave the recent Reith lectures on the future of medicine. In this fascinating book, he reflects on various aspects of medicine, exploring the practical and ethical issues thrown up by specific case studies. His compassion for his patients shines through, from the man who is morbidly obese and undergoing a stomach stapling operation, to the young girl facing amputation as a result of necrotising fasciitis. It’s gripping stuff for medics and non-medics alike.




Atul Gawande

Another collection of reflective essays, this time Gawande thinks about ways to improve medical performance. It’s worth reading just for the humbling and astonishing chapter describing people working on the front line of polio eradication in rural India. There are also chapters on the doctors who strive to save soldiers savagely injured by modern warfare and a comparison of two centres for treating cystic fibrosis. He thinks the first one he visits could not be bettered… and then he sees the second one. Thoughtful, reflective and wise.


Biological Book Club #4

primo levi periodic table

The Periodic Table

Primo Levi is best known for his extraordinary accounts of the time he spent in Auschwitz as a prisoner of the Nazis, how he lived, how he survived, and how he finally found his way home. These books, If This Is A Man, and The Truce, should be read by anyone and everyone. But Levi was an industrial chemist by training, and another of his books, un-promisingly titled The Periodic Table, celebrates this first love. Forget the title. Each chapter has the name of an element, and each is a self-contained story. These vary hugely, from pure fantasy to historical fable to autobiographical snippets. Cerium describes how his knowledge of that element’s properties help him survive the concentration camp. Lead tells the story of a mediaeval lead worker. Carbon, the best of all, narrates the journey of a carbon atom as it travels into and out of the living world. These are wonderful stories, wholly original and utterly compelling. Highly recommended. PW


Biological Book Club #3

Apologies for disappearing off the radar for a the last few days – I’ve been carrying out a bit of hands-on empirical immunological research, aka contracting Covid 19. Not a whole bunch of fun, since you ask, but I’ve come through the other side. I did enjoy the get well message from one of my students who said she felt sorry for the virus trying to take me on!

Anyway, time for another book…

henrietta lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot

By golly but this is superb. And a perfect book for OHS students. It tells the story of the HeLa immortal cell line, the first human cells to be successfully cultured in a petri dish, and how they have been used to develop, among other things, the Polio vaccine. But these cells were originally taken from a woman, terminally ill with cervical cancer, without her knowledge or consent. And she happened to be poor and ill-educated and black. So this is a wonderful combination of science, a detective story, and a modern historical tale of racial conflict. I couldn’t put it down and read the whole thing in 2 days. You will absolutely love it.


Biological Book Club #2

Emperor of all

The Emperor of all Maladies

Mukherjee, S.

What a stupendously fantastic book. It stormed straight into my top 10 over the summer when I read it, and is probably the book I would recommend you read over all others. It’s just amazingly good! Mukherjee is an oncologist (cancer doctor) and researcher. His book, beautifully written, covers the history of the disease and the early, clumsy and futile attempts to treat it. This is fascinating in itself, but he goes on to describe the research that has revealed the true complexity of cancer and the challenges we face in devising effective therapies. There are some inspiring and very moving triumphs – but it’s also clear we have a long way to go. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. PW

Recommended biology reading…

I was hoping to share with you a wonderfully effective introduction to plant asexual reproduction – yes, seriously! – and one that literally had a class gasping with astonishment – yes, honestly! – but with school now closed and lessons on hold, I’m going to save that for another post. Instead, I’m now thinking of providing a recommendation, every couple of days, of a biological book that I think students and teachers will particularly enjoy, along with my own review of the book. These are taken from the Biology Book Reviews that I provide for all my A-level students, along with access to my own personal library.

Let me know what you think!

Here’s number one….

Life Ascending book cover

Life Ascending: the 10 greatest inventions of evolution

Nick Lane

This is, quite simply, the best popular science book I have ever read, and one of the best 10 books I have ever read of any kind, up there with Pride and Prejudice, Right Ho, Jeeves, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Veg Every Day. Why is it so good? Mainly because it doesn’t duck any of the difficult questions. How did life first get started? And how did something as complex as photosynthesis ever evolve? The first two chapters, on these two topics, are incredibly exciting and compelling, as exhilarating in their own way as a bungee jump or a downhill ski run. You need to concentrate, but he writes so well that even the more difficult ideas become comprehensible and accessible. He then goes on to explore DNA, complex cells, movement, warm blood, sight, sex, consciousness and death. Each chapter is self-contained, so you can pick and mix, but you’ll want to read the whole thing. I’ve now read it three times and, yes, I can’t wait to read it again – it really is that that good.