Scriptwriter Shey Hargreaves has written a triad of poems which explore vaccine development through plants, as led by Professor Anne Osborn at the John Innes Centre.
Anne carries out research into the natural chemicals produced by plants. Her laboratory investigates ways to access and synthesise these chemicals, and the natural pathways used to create them, for use in medicine, agriculture and industry.
Shey writes scripts, poems and graphic novels that explore thorny contemporary issues such as climate change and the challenges faced by the National Health Service.
Anne gave Shey a tour of the lab to explain her work and help inspire Shey’s creative process. This triad of short poems explores the interaction between people and plants through time. The poems reflect on traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, contemporary research into plant functions and products, and which hardy plant specimens might survive the potential changes to the planet’s climate that lie in the years ahead.
In the garden at St Giles, the sisters crush
lavender in their palms before the morning round.
Burn out plague with sage,
gather rosemary to wind the bodies in.
The village women, who do not read,
know nonetheless that a little henbane –
not too much –
can soothe the ache
of worn-out joints.
On a late summer afternoon
the professor and her senior researcher
drive home to Norfolk from Kew Gardens,
a swaying triffid in the back of the car.
Its tendrils softly touch the tops of their heads,
The tips of their ears.
They turn up the radio, and wonder
what green gold
this new specimen might grant them;
its secrets, with curious coaxing
and gentle hands,
unspooling across the greenhouse floor.
In subterranean cities of permanent dusk,
children learn the litany of past mistakes.
Turn with gloved hands the pages of picture books
shining with green grass, blue sky, glittering sea.
Tend gardens lit by plastic portholes bored up to the surface,
filtering the brutal sunlight
into the little circles of marigold and poppies,
dandelions and cacti,
rosemary and lavender.
The tough herbs
that would not die.
Shey Hargreaves is a scriptwriter and performer working across theatre, film, audio projects and graphic novels. Her most recent live show, Sick, was a funny, honest and bittersweet account of her time working as a receptionist in a busy NHS emergency department. Her first graphic novel, Open Day, was a collaboration between Shey, illustrator Charli Vince, and a group of physicists working on 3D printing with atoms at the University of Nottingham. She is currently working on a podcast, Badger Watching, about two siblings going for walks in rural Norfolk during lockdown. She is one of Norwich Castle’s artists in residence for 2021, for which she is writing a new live theatre piece about nurses caring for patients with leprosy in Norwich’s medieval hospitals. She lives in Norwich with her wife, three young sons and a tortoise.
Professor Anne Osbourn’s research focusses on plant natural products. An important advance from her laboratory has been the discovery that in plant genomes the genes needed to make particular natural products are often organised in clusters like ‘beads on a string’, a finding that has greatly accelerated the discovery of new pathways and chemistries. She has also established a synthetic biology platform that provides a new route to synthesize and access previously inaccessible natural products and analogs for medicinal, agricultural and industrial applications. Anne is a poet and also founder of Science, Art and Writing, a cross-curricular science education outreach programme sawtrust.org.