Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Teachers, Careers and Chance

Posted by Athene Donald on November 4, 2010

What gets one into working in an interdisciplinary field and what form does it take?  A researcher starts off trained in one field but then moves into interdisciplinary working via various routes. One can stay in one’s original field/department but collaborate to introduce the necessary new discipline(s);  one might be assimilated into a new one which is inherently interdisciplinary, such as systems biology; or possibly one could simply jump ship, say, from physics to biology. Is there something about people who take one route or the other that is inherent in their personality, or does it all depend on one’s training/background?

I have just been chairing one of the BBSRC’s grant-giving committees, and this particular one is inherently interdisciplinary, with most people having a foot in both camps of the physical-biological sciences divide. Over dinner we were discussing the benefits for this sort of working when it comes to taking talks into schools and trying to inspire future generations, and my mind went back to why I didn’t do biology even at O Level.  In part, as ever, this was down to the teachers: my physics teacher was on top of her subject and approachable; my biology teacher was on top of her subject and totally scary. She was very much of the ‘old school’ even in the 1960’s and I found her very intimidating. (Just for the record I should state my history teacher was on top of her subject and restless. She would pace up and down the classroom covering a fantastic distance each lesson, which in itself retained my attention. She was also the mother of the Milliband brothers; needless to say it was a state school.)

I have previously written about my work on starch, but at school it was tests on starch and sugars that were one of the things that ultimately sent me scurrying away from biology (the other thing was the test to work out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, a question I thought was profoundly boring, so it is ironic that this too is a topic related to recent research of mine in which we watched leaf stomata close in response to stress in the environmental scanning electron microscope).  The standard test for starch is iodine, and I seem to recall experiments involving iodine and potatoes that I successfully negotiated. However, the other test involving starch/sugars was that based around Fehling’s Solutions I and II. For those of you not familiar with this classic test, it consists of taking two solutions – that is Fehling’s Solutions I and II which Wikipedia tells me are respectively copper sulphate (I certainly recall the blue colour) and potassium sodium tartrate – and adding them to the substance under investigation in a test tube and then heating it up.  My vivid memory of the experiment is the sight of the plug of reactant that formed being expelled from the test tube at great velocity and flying across the room. The distaste and disapproval this act of incompetence evinced from said scary biology teacher remains clearly in my mind. OK, I thought, I’m not a biologist, and when O Level choices were to be made that was an easy decision.  There is no doubt that teachers can make all the difference, and on such little matters can so much hang. (It is equally the case that I much preferred French to German because at the end of my first year of French my teacher told me my accent was awful, so I stopped trying.).  Much has been written about the importance of having well qualified science teachers in primary schools, and specialists in the sciences in every secondary school.  However, even good teachers can be a deterrent if their frankness equates to destruction of confidence.

Research careers have a way of taking on a life of their own, and decisions taken at 15 are not necessarily irrevocable unless one is determined they should be. Chance, fate, call it what you will, plays a surprisingly strong part in shaping where one ends up.  Early career researchers reading this, please don’t believe we all had a life-plan when we set out: a certain extremely well-known colleague of mine once admitted his choice of PhD was determined by the supervisor who smiled at him, and from that simple action much has subsequently flowed.

I would imagine most interdisciplinary researchers have learnt that the discipline and topics which excited them in teenage years turn out not to be sufficient to maintain excitement as research evolves.  New skills, ideas and possibly even language (at least jargon) are required to enable the full story to be teased out. It requires an openness of mind so that the fixed views of a teenager don’t spill over into adult life, and sufficient motivation to overcome the hurdles that crossing boundaries into another discipline inevitably throws up.  However, perhaps the person who completely jumps ship to a different discipline – such as I mentioned at the beginning – does differ from the one who is comfortable sitting at an interface. Maybe the ship-jumper wants to commit to something new, but also in some senses to walk away from the old, in essence rejecting their earlier persona.  In contrast the person who is content to stay put but collaborate is keeping their options open, so that in the future other collaborations can take them in a different direction. The positive spin on this would be they are flexible, the negative that they can’t commit and, as I’ve said before, I obviously fall into the group who have commitment problems.  Chance, teachers, people one bumps into or deliberately set out to meet, all will determine one’s research path in ways impossible to predict when making those early decisions about exam choices.  Decisions are not in general immutable and taking risks is often the best way to progress.

The conversation with my BBSRC committee colleagues clearly did not cover all this ground, though it sparked this train of thought. We had a convivial evening despite the austerity measures the current financial situation impose. We had a truly dreadful meal, which could best be described as school-dinner-with-pretensions. In tune with my long involvement with starch, I think I can safely say the best parts of the meal were the roll and potatoes, the rest was barely edible.  The BBSRC staff member who sat at our table was rehearsing the long list of complaints she had for the hotel management (there was rather too much drilling and hammering going on for comfort for instance), and thereby she hoped to get even better value for money for the research council.  The taxpayer should be reassured.

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