Life and machines : when diseases come home to roost


As I dial into Professor Alan Fairlamb’s home office, I am aware that before me sits a person containing a lifetime of knowledge and experience. When he asks me what I want to know, I say both in earnest and in jest, “Alan – tell me everything.” And so, we begin.

A watercolour of scientist Alan Fairlamb and artist Emily Fong as they share mobile phones, over an online meeting


Alan describes himself as a bio-chemical detective, having started out as a medical student wanting to change the world. From where he sits now, a co-founder of the Drug Discovery Unit, he’s finally feeling that all the hard work and effort is beginning to bear fruit. As well as this digital space, we share a common understanding that everything in life is connected. In relation to neglected tropical diseases, I’m particularly interested in Alan’s bird’s eye view and his ability to move swiftly in and out of the layers and scales of complexity, from the molecular to the population level.


Our vantage point is from the West and as we interact relatively safely behind our screens, Alan is quick to point out that, although Covid-19 is changing the world significantly, it is not until ‘diseases come home to roost’ that we might pause to consider the number of lives lost to diseases such as Malaria every single year. He and I talk about the effect of humans moving into untouched ecospheres, through prospecting, farming, logging, jungle clearing etc, exposing people to diseases present in the environment and in the animal population which have not previously made the jump to humans. He speaks of the impact of climate change and displaced populations moving through the landscape to flee both famine and war, resulting in warfare on another scale; within the human body. This awareness is not about comparative suffering but the necessity of dilating the circumference of our collective responsibility.

Although, in the world of science, many clinical trials have been disrupted as output and occupancy of labs has slowed, he sees this moment as a critical opportunity to review, reanalyse and reflect on key steps, direction and expansion of strategic approaches to research.

Alan strikes me as a passionate and curious person, aware of the joy and the parallels of discovery between art and science. He lights up when he tells me he sees the body as a sophisticated chemical machine and we can’t help but smile whilst simultaneously reaching for our phones in a moment of recognition that we both consider ourselves to be part machine, external to body as well. I ask Alan the question of how might we foster friendship and curiosity with science. His answer involved both wisdom and wonder, stating that life is an inevitable consequence of the laws of chemistry and physics. From baking bread, to mixing mortar and the incredible process of photosynthesis, science is all around us.