Invisible Subjects is a series of anonymous interviews, conducted by me, with a member of the public. The purpose of this series was to find the extraordinary in strangers’ lives, to pull out the truth that we can learn from absolutely anyone. I believe the things that will drive us forward as a society are empathy and togetherness; people are all we’ve got, and I wanted to showcase people here. It’s important we do not take for granted the wealth of knowledge and experience that surrounds us each day – for in every face we pass on the street, there is an unbelievable story, something absolutely unique, that we can learn from them. To gain the riches of knowledge from others is fundamental to succeeding together. I have loved these conversations, the subjects and their subjects. I hope you do too. – Madeleine
We are in my living room, and it is freezing.
Hello, person number six! This is Invisible Subjects, we just talk about people’s lives in order to learn things from strangers. Do you want to start by telling me about where you grew up, and a little bit about you?
Sure. I grew up in Kentish Town, never moved house in my life, always in the same little flat. I go to university and study Biology as an undergrad in my second year.
Tell me about growing up in North London.
It was quite nice. The flat I grew up in, because my parents never intended to stay there, it was more like I was born and they planned to move before their second child. It’s a one bedroom flat. But then, you know, money and jobs happened, and they had to end up staying there, so I ended up living in a flat for eighteen years where I slept in the same room as all of my family. Yeah. It was kind of difficult because you never got any privacy, or a break from people. It was only if I was lucky and everyone was out, that I’d have space to myself.
Moving out was a little stressful for me, but also exciting. I finally had my own space, to do what I want – I could take a shower for, like, two hours if I wanted to! Not that I do, we don’t waste water, but I could and nobody would be banging on the bathroom door telling me to get out.
Living in such close quarters with your family – do you get on with them?
I get on with my mum a lot. My mum is nice. I don’t really get on with my brother or my dad. Being around them constantly was difficult, I don’t really talk to them a lot. We lived so close together, but we never spoke – I’d say maybe ten words to my dad in a day, because we don’t get along very well.
Why do you think you don’t get on?
My dad is from Syria. He was brought up in a very strict time, where everyone was very strictly Muslim, and followed the religion – and then he came here, and my mum was brought up as a Catholic, so they don’t see eye to eye, but for him it’s not an issue that my mum is Catholic, it’s an issue that I don’t follow religion. I don’t really believe in any organised religion. I believe in a God, something that made the universe happen, but that’s it. So with religion we don’t see eye to eye. Even with dying my hair, every time I dye my hair or have a new piercing or something, he’s like, ‘Why would you do that?’ and then it’s a full blown argument. We’re just very, very different people, and it’s really hard for us to agree on anything, because he just wants to be right all the time. He won’t apologise for anything.
Were you raised Muslim, or Catholic, or neither?
I was raised Muslim. I followed the religion until I was ten or eleven, but never really wore a headscarf or anything like that. But I’d pray five times a day, read the Qur’an, eat halal meat – all that stuff. When I got into secondary school, my mum got really sick. We all thought she was going to die, so I guess I was caught up in… I was really close to my mum, so I was constantly thinking, ‘What am I going to do if she dies?’ So I guess I kind of just… Ignored religion for a while. I was just so worried about my mum. She got better and she’s pretty much fine now, but I never got back in touch with religion. I just don’t really believe in it any more. I thought, ‘I was always good, and I followed everything as much as I could, and my mum still got sick. Why would God do that to me and my mum?’
Did you feel betrayed?
And since going to university, how’s your relationship with them panned out?
My dad was upset that I moved, because in Islam, when you’re a young woman, you don’t really move out. You need the protection of men, the world is big and scary. My dad was upset that he wouldn’t be around to protect me from things – I know we don’t see eye to eye, but everything comes from a place of protection, he thinks I need him around. But now we aren’t stuck together so much, when I go home he’s more open to me, and now we can talk and have a conversation, and not have it end up in an argument. We clashed so much, we ended up not speaking, but now it’s better.
I guess that’s a positive. Do you speak to them about your personal life?
I talk to my mum about my personal life. She’s okay with various things that I do. My dad, not so much. Going out partying, alcohol and drugs, he would go insanely mad. My mum is more open to it. My mum basically just wants to know I’m safe. If I’ve done drugs or got drunk, she wants me to know how to keep myself safe in that state, whereas my dad would just be angry.
Let’s talk about your degree. Why biology? What do you love about biology?
Um… I like biology because it’s a science. I like science because it’s fact. You learn the facts, and they’ll always be true. But biology is more creative than the other things – it’s quite chemistry heavy, but it’s not so much governed by maths, because every body works differently. There’s a basis at which everyone’s body works the same, but we all have different genes, we all react differently to certain medications, so you have to think outside the box. If I’m in a lab, and I’m working with animal tissue, not all animal tissue will respond the same. That’s what I like about biology, but I never intended to do biology. I actually wanted to study fine art. Again, it’s a parental thing, y’know, art isn’t really a subject my parents wanted me to do. I just didn’t want to have that whole conversation with them. I do like biology, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I thought, ‘OK, fine, biology is fine. If I want to make art, I can do that without a degree.’ I’m a little bit cross, because I’m paying for this, something I don’t really want to do. I was really angry about it last year, but now I think, I can’t drop out now, I’ll get the best grade I can. I can do art in the subject of biology, there are biological illustrators. So I’m just thinking of the best route for me while also keeping on this degree.
I guess art is one of those things that you can explore in so many ways, that even though you’re doing a degree in biology, you can still be an artist. I couldn’t say I’m a biologist, because I’m not, but you can say you’re an artist because you are.
Yes. My professor knows some biological illustrators, and he’s told me that if I get together a portfolio he’ll show them.
The thing about biological illustrating, is that a lot of it is about new discoveries of animals. Let’s say an archeologist discovered half a skeleton of an animal we hadn’t previously known about. They’d put it together as best they can, then an illustrator might look at it, and using their knowledge of anatomy, they might fill in the gaps, to try and rebuild the skeleton how it might have looked.
So that’s how know how T Rexes looked, right? We’ve only ever had fossils, we’ve never seen one in real life, so that’s all illustrative work?
I mean, the T Rex could have looked completely different. Its shape wouldn’t have looked different, because we have T Rex skeletons, but people draw them as scaly lizards, when they could have had hair. We don’t know! Hair doesn’t fossilise, it doesn’t leave a mark, so it could have had hair or feathers – we just assume the most likely scenario.
That’s so cool.
Realistically, though, I’ll have to do research, lab based research. I like that.
What does that mean?
It can be pretty much anything. I’ll likely end up doing parasitology, because I have a unit in that coming up next year, and I’m really interested in it.
What is parasitology?
It is the study of parasites. It’s pretty cool, kind of gross.
Parasites that live in the body? What do they do, and how do they function?
Parasites are basically organisms that live in another organism, but the organism that the parasite lives in doesn’t benefit. So, we have a lot of bacteria inside our digestive system and on our skin, but they benefit from us and we benefit from them. If we didn’t have digestive bacteria we wouldn’t be able to digest food as well, we’d get sick a lot of the time. If we didn’t have skin bacteria we’d have skin diseases. It wouldn’t be a fun time. But if you have a parasite, it’s basically causing you harm while it thrives.
How can you get a parasite?
You can get them from a lot of different things. Right now I’m writing an essay on a blood fluke called Schistosoma, you can get them from eating freshwater fish and crabs that have been infected with it. It infects freshwater snails, then the fish or crabs eat the snails, and then we eat them. We probably eat a lot of fish that have been infected with it, but if you cook it properly it kills the parasite. If it’s been improperly cooked, the parasite can live in your digestive tract for a very long time, and it causes vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches… It’s quite severe.
So when you have a parasite, and it’s now living in your body, can you get rid of it?
You can get rid of them, yes. It’s mostly drugs, a combination of certain drugs, that kills the parasite without affecting you. You have to take the drug for a long time, because its eggs can stay in your digestive system for quite a while.
That’s incredible. So if you research parasites after graduating, what will you be doing? Just testing organisms in a lab?
I’d probably just be testing tissue, to be honest. I have quite a strange view when it comes to animal testing. It’s important, because animal testing can show us a lot of how drugs can interact with us, but I don’t like it when people do it unnecessarily. Sometimes, researchers don’t need to test on animals but they do anyway, because it’s easier. It’s also not difficult to test on tissues or make computer models.
How would you make a computer model? I’m sorry I know this might be boring but I’m so interested! If you had a parasite you needed to research, and someone else was using, say, rats, how would you avoid that?
My understanding of computer modelling is that you have all the information from previously conducted animal testing, and you put it into a program, and you change the variables on the program, then it simulates what would happen to the tissue if, say, you increased the parasites, or decreased the drugs, or whatever. You need the information from animal testing first, but then you can go on and test the variables without having to do it on a live animal.
So it’s essentially reducing, not replacing, animal testing. Does it ever fail?
Of course it sometimes fails. There are many things that can go wrong in lab work and in computer models – it’s not perfect. That’s why you have backups. If you do a test, you repeat it many times, and look at the data. If you have two results that are much higher than the rest, you can take those results and repeat the test to see what happened. Sometimes it’s clear why they were different, sometimes you just don’t know. It’s a case of testing, re-testing and comparing.
I watched that movie First Man, with Ryan Gosling, and the whole movie was the preparation for him going to the moon. So many astronauts died in the run up to it, when things would go wrong, blow up, etc. It’s all necessary steps, I suppose. I mean, did we need to go to the moon? Yes and no… ANYWAY. Can you just test on flesh? I’m so unscientific. To test on an animal, do you need the whole alive animal with working functions, or not?
Well, that’s the thing. When you test on, let’s say, an arm or a leg, it’s not going to give you the same results as a living human, because they have processes going on in their body, and a dead person or animal doesn’t. So, yes, the results can come out skewed. But if you know how it should react – let’s say you’re testing a new drug for something, and you’re testing it on a piece of muscle – if you know the basics of how it reacts with the muscle, you can look at the results and predict how it would react on a living human being. Then, of course, you have to do live human trials, but it can help to eliminate the need for animal testing… I don’t know if a lot of researchers use this. It’s not used very widely, yet, but I think it’s a good idea.
I always wondered about this. I buy cruelty free products, but I always think, how are they testing these things? Lush, for example, has so many products with hundreds of chemicals in them, and I think, if they’re not testing on animals, I’m so relieved and happy about that, but how are they tested instead?
Well… Cruelty free products are obviously better, but I guess they’re not 100% cruelty free. The actual product, once it’s been made, is not tested on animals by the company. But the individual components have been previously tested on animals, so they know that it’s safe for human use.
Wow. That’s kind of depressing. We went on a biology tangent there, I’m so sorry, I got obsessed with it. One final thing about biology: how is the landscape of biology changing? This last year we’ve finally declared climate emergency, how is that interacting with your practice?
We actually had a very long lecture about the various biomes that are on Earth, and climate change. Scientists have known about climate change, the climate emergency – it’s been going on for a very very long time. It’s very depressing, but it’s very likely that even if we act now, the Earth won’t ever return to how it was, and we’ll just have to manage with what we’ve done to it. If all humans went extinct right now, give it a few hundred years, the Earth would probably be back to how it was. But as long as we’re alive, we’re going to do damage to plants and animals.
There are so many animals now that are close to extinction. There are so many animals whose extinction we caused, like the Dodo, which we hunted into of extinction. Every time I learn about this, it seems more urgent – if we don’t do something now, the Earth will become increasingly uninhabitable.
I read something about Dengue Fever, about how South East Asia that will become so tropical, so underwater and stagnant, that Dengue fever and other diseases will kill populations in those areas.
Yes, I mean, that’s a very real threat. Also, the ice caps melting – there’s bacteria that’s been locked up for thousands of years, that will be released. The majority of bacteria will probably be dead, but there’s always one or two things that survive, and they could release a disease that we aren’t equipped to deal with. We can deal with a cold or the flu, but something could be released that we can’t cope with.
That totally makes sense, but it’s so frightening. Hasn’t the black death come back in China?
I think it was China, but yes, that’s true. We can deal with it, we have antibiotics for it. Unfortunately, though, people over-use antibiotics, and they aren’t as effective as they used to be. There’s a last-ditch antibiotic, that we only use if there’s no options, because it can cause organ damage – it’s not good for you, but sometimes it’s the only option. They’ve now found bacteria that are resistant to it. We’ve not really found new classes of antibiotics for about thirty or forty years, and now our last ditch medication is now becoming resistant.
If our population decreased dramatically, the Earth could probably heal itself quite well. But that’s such a drastic solution. I don’t want people to have to die for the Earth to be okay, so our only solution is having a push for completely renewable energy. Which is probably not possible, because the technology isn’t there yet, but if people really put the money and the research into it, in the next twenty or thirty years we could have a majority of renewable energy.
Fossil fuels could be a last resort thing for certain things like hospitals, the military if there needs to be one, but your day to day person…
Our current society is built on the concept that we have everlasting fossil fuels, which we do not. We are dramatically running out of oil. There’s been oil crises going on for so long, and we have only been using oil for a short time. Think about the amount of oil on the Earth, and we’ve managed to get rid of it in under two hundred years.
For me, a lot of my political views come from morality but also scientific evidence. If we had a government who really wanted to have renewable energy, and a good NHS… I’m not telling you who to vote for, but people in this country die from a shitty healthcare system. We have a really good healthcare system, in that we don’t have to pay – my mum was sick, she needed two surgeries, if we had had to pay for that we would have been out on the street. It would have been tens of thousands of pounds. The NHS did it for free, they took care of my mum so well, even in their underfunded state. It worked – she’s still alive, and pretty much healthy. If we don’t have that, how many people will die? People now die from not getting appointments fast enough. When it comes to, let’s say, cancer – you can have one or two systems, go to a doctor, and as they’re so underfunded, they might not do a scan they would usually do. They might not recognise it as cancer. Then you wait two months, have a scan, and it should have been investigated quickly. If the NHS was funded properly, that person who had an appointment too late might have a much better outcome. People die from shitty governments.
Madeleine Goode is a writer in London and would love to be contacted for writing opportunities.