Athene Donald's Blog

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

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Inspirational Gentlemen

Posted by Athene Donald on December 3, 2010

This week I have taken on a new role as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. School education (like so much in the UK)  is an area of much flux and I can imagine an increasing role for this position talking to civil servants and possibly ministers.  The Royal Society ‘s Education Section is a wonderful group of people, but there are times when wheeling out an FRS is probably advantageous, and I’m sure they will be judicious in their choice of when to play the Committee Chair card.  Thinking about this, reminded me of comments one of my mentors, Professor Sir Sam Edwards, made about dealing with the Civil Service: you always had to approach someone at the same level as yourself if you wanted anything to happen. To paraphrase crudely, aim too high (they wouldn’t acknowledge your existence) or too low (it was more than their job’s worth to respond) and you would get nowhere. I will discover if this advice still applies – his experience dates back to when he was Chair of the EPSRC’s predecessor (the SRC) back in the 70’s.

And thinking about Sam, I thought I would continue on one of my previous themes of what it takes to inspire, tied in with this idea of hierarchy.  As I say, Sam was a mentor of mine although I think I only ever published a single paper with him. A grammar school boy from Wales (a fact of which he was very proud) he had an extremely distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on topics such as spin glasses, granular matter (most recently) and, at the time I first knew him (when he was Cavendish Professor in Cambridge), polymer physics. One of his most enduring contributions was work he did with Masao Doi in the late 70’s,  during a spell when Doi was a visitor in Cambridge, on the motion of polymer chains via a process known as reptation. The Doi-Edwards theory is still a key approach to understanding this field, although there have been some refinements to deal with additional detail.

The term reptation was actually introduced by (the late) Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, the Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1991. De Gennes and Sir Sam were good friends, if probably also friendly competitors, and de Gennes frequently passed through Cambridge, both before and after the award of the Nobel Prize.  It is not my intention here to give a thorough description of the science either of these gentlemen did – their works are amply accessible on the web.  What I want to do is talk about their characters as exactly that, gentlemen.  Both of them to my mind exactly illustrate what I understand by the word, and are just the kind of people I would have longed for as a mentor, if I hadn’t  had the luck actually to have them in that role. (As a personal aside, I should remark that when I heard de Gennes had won the Nobel Prize, I was so excited that whilst standing at the school gate waiting for my children, I said breathlessly to a fellow mum that I was over the moon because a friend of mine had just won a Nobel; she looked at me very strangely, and with hindsight it was a bit presumptuous of me to describe him as my friend, or to expect anyone else to care much.)

One of the key qualities I identify with both these individuals is the fact that they absolutely did not adhere to the advice Sam gave about dealing with civil servants. They both were just as delighted to talk to a graduate student as to a visiting dignitary. Sam by now is very frail (de Gennes died several years ago), but right up to the time he stopped coming regularly into the department he would attend all our seminars, and always invite the postgraduate students to stop by and discuss their research. The problem was much more that some were too nervous to do so, rather than that he put them off. He used to complain that people didn’t come and talk to him as much as he would like.

De Gennes had a very similar character, as far as I could judge from his various visits to Cambridge.  I had a number of opportunities to test this. On one occasion, when I barely knew him and was a very junior lecturer, I had been sent a paper of his to referee (this was back in the days when I worked on glassy polymers and the paper was a theoretical approach to the phenomenon of crazing, a mode of failure peculiar to glassy polymers and which I had extensively studied as a postdoc).  I didn’t agree with him, not least because I had unpublished experimental data to contradict his conclusions, but I had written my referee’s report before I knew he was visiting. So when he turned up in my office wanting to discuss his ideas I had to make a quick decision. Did I admit I had just written a critical referee’s report or simply stall, cover up and not have to defend my position in conversation when dealing with this heavyweight. I chose the former strategy and he was generous and delightful as we thrashed it out. In reality, the fact that I had experimental data I could share with him was a clincher, as I should have known it would be in advance.

De Gennes spent a large part of the period following the award of the Nobel Prize visiting schools in France. He was a passionate advocate for science, and used the additional clout the Nobel Prize afforded him to push his views on the importance of science on policy-makers within France. His influence was immense and his legacy lives on. He cared passionately about education, and also about the need for academic scientists to engage with industry.  Although that is not so unusual in the UK, or indeed the US, within France – with its (as far as I can judge) rather élitist academic attitude, it was not the norm. As Director of ESPCI – which as I have written about before does have a strong industrial tie-in – he was able to be a vocal proponent for this, but because of his status in France he was able to push this concept out much further into the community.

Both Sir Sam and de Gennes had charisma and charm, both were very approachable – and wanted to be seen as such – though both could equally be formidable if crossed or when trying to push an argument.  They were gentle with juniors, but ferocious when needed to be with more senior scientists, civil servants and the like. I always found both of them immensely encouraging as I moved into more interdisciplinary areas (such as starch and food physics more generally), areas which some members of my department had trouble getting their head around.  Sam’s phrase was ‘physics is what physicists do’ – in other words quit worrying and get on with it. They were not interested in setting out to prove they were better than those around them (though quite obviously as scientists they towered over most) or scoring points. They were not, if I can put it this way, interested in demonstrating they were alpha males, although quite clearly they were. An amazing pair to have known, and people whom it was impossible not to look up to.  As role models and mentors one could not look for better (and that they were male and I am not is, in my view, irrelevant).    They were truly inspirational and, in my book, true gentlemen.

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Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

Posted by Athene Donald on November 23, 2010

Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career.  I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life.  As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.

A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha  asking  Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form.  (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all  girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher.  Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.

So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says

‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’

I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models.  I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife.  This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.

So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.

Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career  – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male?  I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status).  So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.

But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male.  So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science,  or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important.  If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.

Posted in Communicating Science, Education, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »

Stereotype Threat, Underperformance and Diversity

Posted by Athene Donald on November 18, 2010

Some months ago I came across a review in the THE for a book with the strange title of Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele and it finally came to the top of my reading list recently. Far too late to write any kind of review, I will instead write a commentary on why it may be relevant to the vexed question of women in science, and any minority’s performance more generally, under certain exam conditions.

Steele’s research has identified a phenomenon he termed ‘stereotype threat’ which is defined as “a situational predicament felt in situations where one can be judged by, treated in terms of, or self-fulfill negative stereotypes about one’s group”. In other words, when taking a test, for instance, the candidate is not simply performing according to their innate ability: this ability is moderated by the impact of contingent and situational factors deriving from generally held beliefs that people have about the performance and abilities of the candidate’s grouping – as defined by race, sex, age or whatever.

This work grew out of a study Steele made of minority (in general black) students in top-ranked US universities where they seemed to underperform on the basis of their entering SAT scores. What he discovered, by carefully constructed laboratory studies, was that blacks perform significantly less well if they are reminded in some subtle way before the exam that blacks aren’t expected to be intellectually as strong as whites. If the test is introduced as one where intellectual strength is not being tested, though it may be an identical test, the blacks perform as well as the whites. Likewise, stress the fact that girls aren’t so good at maths before a test (using of course girls and boys thought to be equally strong) and lo and behold the girls perform less well than the boys. Tell them the test has nothing to do with maths ability but is exploring how a task is tackled, or some other neutral issue, and the differences go away. A whole host of different factors were studied under test conditions and in ‘real life’ and all the evidence points to this being an important factor. When a test really matters – and the effect doesn’t seem to come into play when the test is easy or people don’t care – then being reminded of a negative stereotyping can wreak havoc with your results. Even if this reminder of the stereotype is separated in time from the actual test there still seems to be damage done.  However, give the same test but without the same contingencies, so implying that the negative stereotype is irrelevant to the test, and the underperformance vanishes.

So, how does that play out in the world? If girls are consistently told by their peers, in the media or by their teachers that girls don’t and can’t do maths or science, the evidence is that this will lodge in their sub-conscious to the extent that it will cause anxiety during tests, so lowering their performance. This effect then becomes self-reinforcing; having done badly in one test they will ‘know’ that because they are a girl they will do badly in the next – and so they do, until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and they walk away from the subjects. This could be one factor that reduces the number of girls doing physics and maths at A Level. No one makes similar comments about biology so the girls’ numbers, on this argument, would hold up – as indeed they do.

Melinda commented on a previous post that she thought there was a difference in writing style between men and women. I am not sure how true that is in the standard style of science journals, but what about essays in arts subjects? If girls are told they write less well in boys, does that translate into weaker exam performance?  Unfortunately there are indications that sometimes students are told precisely this: ‘write more like men’ is the message  – what an unhelpful piece of advice! I have no idea what it means, and probably the students don’t either.   If a teacher wants to recommend a change in style, they need to be able to state precisely what it is they are looking for.  For years, within my university as I believe in many, the percentage of women getting firsts in subjects such as History and English is smaller than men. Is there any connection? It is something that is clearly worth pursuing, because these are subjects where there is not an initial shortage of bright women entering the university and yet they appear not to thrive.

Since I started writing this (it’s been long in gestation), Imran Khan has written a stimulating and provocative piece about the whiteness of science in the UK.  He says

‘Thousands of people are being deterred from careers they would excel in, which is a loss to those individuals. But it also means a loss to society, and the economy. We’re talking about thousands of people who could be making advances, and might be excelling in their field, if it wasn’t due to the discrimination which seems to be built-in to our science and engineering establishment.’

Given that much of the evidence Steele cites in his book deals with young blacks in high schools and colleges in the US, one must wonder if stereotype threat is contributing to the paucity of young blacks entering higher education, and science in particular here. A number small, this approach would suggest, not just because of familial expectations and socioeconomic factors, but because they feel additionally challenged by the perceived stereotypical labels such as ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. Again, it would be very interesting to see this issue pursued as people try to disentangle the multiple factors which contribute to the comparative under-performance – and consequent under-representation – of certain groups of people.  I am no psychologist or sociologist, so I do not know if much research is being done in the UK on these topics, but it seems to me it could be important to check how relevant this phenomenon is on this side of the Atlantic. The more so as the evidence from Steele and colleagues is that quite simple steps can drastically improve the situation.  It is intriguing because, both the original threat leading to the under-performance, and the counter steps which seem to work, seem so slight it is hard to see that their impact can be as great as the evidence presented suggests it is.

Posted in Education, Equality, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Educational Breadth

Posted by Athene Donald on November 14, 2010

I am now off to Paris for a 2 day meeting of the ESPCI International Advisory Committee. ESPCI Paris Tech (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, one of a group of institutions which comprise an overarching but recently constructed entity known as Paris Tech) is one of the so-called Grandes Écoles in Paris, and as such is one of the elite and provides for the ‘elite’ student. The Parisian universities have very complex inter-relationships and funding mechanisms – which involve some direct oversight by the Mayor, though for ESPCI less so than in the past – which, even after 4 years on this committee, remain a mystery to me. I won’t be talking about that aspect here, but I do want to raise the issue of how broad the education is within ESPCI, and how it compares with many courses here.

The first thing to note is that students enter the Grandes Écoles after 2 years of intensive ‘cramming’ post Baccalaureate, courses which particularly cover rigorous mathematical training. They are a highly competitive bunch of students who attend, who see education at one of the Grandes Écoles, probably correctly, as a passport to a future high level job amongst the great and good. Their professional aspirations would include politics and the upper rungs of the civil service but, for ESPCI in particular, also a future in industrial management and research.  The link to industry is highly valued by both the students and the academic staff, and all students will do a substantial placement in some external laboratory, possibly abroad.

That the students can readily do such an international assignment reflects the first aspect of the ESPCI education that I want to stress. The students do a huge amount of mandatory language learning.  They are expected to become fluent in English, with 170 hours of classes during each of the first 3 years (of the 4 year course). For instance, in their second year much of the emphasis is on American movies and media, presumably because all the students are bombarded with these. Doing a third language is no longer mandatory, as I believe it used to be, but is clearly encouraged.  So these science and engineering students have already a significant additional teaching load beyond anything a UK university might expect.

During the first two years the main emphasis is on giving all students a strong base across the sciences, so that they all do the trio of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with specialization only later. This is seen as the necessary groundwork although many of the students would see themselves as future engineers; there is also a strong emphasis on experimental work including workshop design and practice. It is hard to think of comparable courses within the UK.  I think the closest would be the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, where 1st year students choose 3 out of 8 experimental subjects plus maths.

Looking at what is expected of the students at ESPCI, I do wonder if we aim high enough here. Firstly, we assume that it is not necessary for UK students to speak any language other than English. The numbers of UK students doing Erasmus years abroad from any discipline is small (in comparison with the numbers coming here from Europe), the number of scientists in particular is tiny.  Even if we assume that English  – well, OK, American – is the international language of science, there is more to life than the day job.

(As an aside, I have previously pointed out how my own linguistic shortcomings have caught up with me recently , my German O Level being inadequate to enable me to follow talks in German at a recent meeting. My French – despite the attempts of my French teacher and also stopping at O Level – is slightly better, to the extent that when I was involved with the appointment interviews for the ESPCI Director a few years back I could cope. Although I was ‘allowed’ to ask my questions of the candidates in English, I could follow the presentations and submitted material well enough.  This I should stress was all inadvertent: I had only agreed to be involved when invited by the then Director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes because he assured me the whole process would be in English – ‘d’accord’ as he said.)

In the UK, the early specialization at school is reinforced by most degrees.  That is why I find the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge so attractive; I believe Nottingham University has recently created something somewhat similar, also called Natural Sciences. It means that just because you thought Physics, for instance, was what you wanted to do at school you are not stuck if you find University Physics not to your taste or what you expected.  It means that students who had never heard of Materials Science or Earth Sciences before, have the opportunity to sample them in the first year, and thereafter move completely into these fields if it takes their fancy. For students who want to be more broadly interdisciplinary that option is also there. And for those who come up uncertain whether to do physical or biological sciences, there are a wide range of possible combinations during the first year to help them make up their mind while keeping their options pretty open.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate biology when I did the course, as I’ve said before, and didn’t avail myself of the opportunities to study any of the biological options, including the very popular Biology of Cells course. This course would have been ideal for my current interests but held no attractions for my 18 year old self.  ESPCI only introduced biology into their compulsory first year course relatively recently (it is an institution, after all, designed to specialize in Physics and Chemistry, as the English translation of its name – Industrial Physics and Chemistry  Higher Educational Institution – makes clear), and is definitely a minor component, but there is a strong push to give breadth in their education, and recently research in biology has started to be built up at ESPCI too.  Breadth is also demonstrated by the introduction of  some elements of law and management into the curriculum, again as part of the compulsory elements.  There is a very clear ethos that this training is to enable the student to have a well-rounded professional attitude to their anticipated future life in an industrial setting.

There is, I fear, too little of this breadth and well-roundedness in many British science degrees. From what I can judge, engineering degrees – because of the need for professional accreditation – in the UK are more likely to contain some of the more managerial and legal aspects than pure science degrees. It is of course possible that a knock-on effect of the Browne review will be to encourage departments to introduce more of this. For instance, as David Docherty of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CHIE) has written,  after Browne the question is

“How do businesses and universities partner more inventively in the interests of the country and develop high-quality graduates who have learned how to innovate?”

This statement resonates with the impact agenda, which is finding currency at all political levels with regard to the research portfolio. So such a changing climate post-Browne may in itself drive some changes in the content of many courses, and it could be argued that the structure of the course at ESPCI would be a good model which can be seen to work. It doesn’t compromise the quality of the education for their exceptional students and the principles could be extended to a much broader range of courses for students of varying academic abilities. But leaving that factor aside, simply in terms of breadth for educating those with either an indecisive mind, or an early identified penchant to work at the boundaries between disciplines, ESPCI also offers very attractive opportunities.

Posted in Biological Physics, Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Teaching | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Biological Physics, Education, Teaching | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »