Last week Lizzie Burns watched the world première of her first play. The 50-seater Burton Taylor Theatre in Oxford may not be as glamorous a location as the National or London's West End, but for Burns, a postdoc in the University's department of biochemistry, it was an exciting moment nonetheless.
Autodestruct begins in 1972 when 25-year-old lab technician John is told he is dying from an inherited colon cancer. His way of coping is to throw himself into his work and he develops the idea of arranging for some of his cells to be preserved so that, in the future, he can be cloned to make living laboratories. Two clones, John 2nd and John 8th make an appearance as the action zips forward to 2050 and 2200. Remarkably, when Burns started writing the play 6 years ago as an undergraduate at York, human cloning was just as much science fiction for her as for John. This month's events in Rome (see 'Human Cloning Plans Decried'  on ScienceNOW) bring the plot right into the here and now.
Detail of Cancer Cells by Lizzie Burns
Despite dealing with such weighty topics, Burns wears her learning lightly. According to the play's director, Christine DeBlase-Ballstadt, a nonscientist, part of the appeal of the work for her is that "it isn't brain heavy." The science is used very much as a backdrop to the action, allowing the characters to explore the ethical issues raised. Indeed this was the appeal, for Burns, of writing a play, rather than a novel, say. In a book, she suggests, the author leads readers in a given direction. Watching a play, however, allows you to "make up your own mind."
Sitting down to write a play sounds a daunting prospect, to me at least. But it seems that, as in science, a great idea is key to the creative process. "I had this idea and it seemed so good that I just had to write it," explains Burns. Having fleshed out the characters, "they start writing themselves," she says. Getting from page to stage is a whole new challenge, though. "I didn't really want to give [the play] to somebody I didn't know," says Burns, but when it came up in casual conversation with her friend DeBlase-Ballstadt, things took off. They decided to put the play on during National Science Week, and were delighted to receive a COPUS grant  to help with the costs. This in turn meant they could donate proceeds from ticket sales to two charities, Marie Curie Cancer Care and the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC).
The play is not her first artistic triumph, however. Burns is the sort of renaissance woman you'd love to hate--if she weren't so infectiously enthusiastic. She describes her "main thing" outside the lab as painting. Inspired in this, as in her writing, by science, she has several journal covers and a commission from the biochemistry department to her name already. And she believes that her art informs her science too. Both involve "close observation" she points out, and perhaps equally importantly, stepping back to view science in a different way "reminds me why it is that I'm so interested in biology." Now that "I feel as if I've met the challenge of research," she says, she'd love to spend more time pursuing her art and is hoping to find a sponsor who will fund her to paint for a year. She believes it's an excellent way of engaging the public with science, because a painting is "something you can talk about which avoids big words."
Meanwhile, Autodestruct "is not self-destructing just yet!" Burns asserts. It may have finished its first run, but the cast is keen to see if they can take the production to the Edinburgh Fringe. A fundraiser from CRC has suggested a tour of local schools and there are plans for a one-off performance, followed by a debate, at the biochemistry department. So, would she do it all again? Definitely, but only "if I have another good idea." Let's hope inspiration strikes soon.