On Circles

No, not a boring mathematics post. More circles sensu how you buy something, it goes out of fashion, you wait 10 years, it's back in fashion. Likewise, you work on something, you put that skill set to bed for a while and it wakes up again daisy-fresh years later.

Over the summer my group worked hard to support me in submitting a number of grant applications to Research Councils and gained significant industry input, along with being invited to undertake several pieces of consultancy. Straight after that (which amounted to 28 days working solidly, 16h per day, non-stop), I had a little rest for a couple of days then got seconded into the Digital Team at the University for the UCAS Clearing period to steer and manage an aspect of digital marketing - this roughly coincided with the marketing and recruitment roles I have performed for several years now (and, in fact, before that on and off for many years, managing lab websites and those of other departments I've worked in) finally crystallising into a tangible role, when I was made Recruitment & Marketing Coordinator for the School of Biological Sciences - more on that below. Straight after working around the clock for several days (Clearing starts at 0001h, after all - so one has to be ready), it was straight into manuscript writing and a few last-minute experiments and one of my Ph.D students, Lee, and I managed to get a couple of big manuscripts off of my desk by early Sept with more to follow. We're in that unfortunate situation in which Journal X has us Under Review but the paper I want to sent to Journal Y hangs on the Journal X paper and Journal Y has small-print viz. not reviewing manuscripts that hang on the unpublished - fair enough but a little irksome. 

As the new academic year is about to begin tomorrow, my coming week is mostly filled with the pastoral - seeing my tutees from all 3 years, my M.Sc and Res.M and Ph.D students, interns and staff and ensuring all is as it should be - I've worked in a pastoral role with undergraduates now for almost 15 years since managing Halls of Residence - many of those students are still in touch, I've allocated rooms that have lead to friends-for-life 10 years later, marriages and babies - I've given Cilla Black a run for her money! A lot of academics seem to fear or dismiss this part of the role but I see our role as a blend of 6 key areas these days - Research, Teaching, Consultancy, Pastoral, Outreach, Administration. In reality, the latter 3 are integrated into the former 3 and aren't separate activities. I don't mind it at all - in fact, I feel it is my duty to ensure my staff and students are adequately supported and happy - that's not a chore, it's a duty and one we should be proud of - and perhaps better trained? I have years of training from my residential days but few of my colleagues around the UK do, obviously.

I've been a bit cunning with my Timetable this year and managed to essentially teach alternate weeks - so whilst this coming week is a 0900-1800h solid Mon-Fri week of timetabled stuff (followed by a few hours of research each day), the following week is ALMOST empty!!! BLISS! THAT is where the skillset thing I mentioned comes in - I've been in the lab for the last month or so doing some protein purification so that I can give Lee a big blob of each of our pet enzymes to characterise properly - I've not done some of these methods for 7-8 years but it has all settled into place and I'm oddly enjoying it. I don't think a PI should really be doing lab work - I see us more as queen termites - we get fed data and shit out papers and grant proposals and steer the ship - we're the architects, not the builders. When I stopped doing labwork completely in late 2011, I didn't miss it. I no longer wanted to follow, I was ready to lead, and after several years of that, I'm sufficiently ready to "dabble" now and again and do odd "bits" here and there.

What is this marketing role? Simply put, I conduit in/out from my School all matters PR, Ext Rel and recruitment - I'm not the Admissions Tutor and have nothing to do with picking students, but I do get the wonderful task of sitting with the graphic designer creating a bold and vibrant suite of marketing banners and brochures for each of our degrees and I get to dig through photos to find the right ones for press releases - it's hellishly good fun and a welcome distraction from science - I'm learning a lot of interesting new things too, like how to translate Scientist-ese to Designer-ese and vice versa

On The Secret Of The Incas

It is my wont to take a couple of Interns each academic year who work for me as Research Assistants as part of a Year In Industry as part of their B.Sc. Last June a pair started working for me ("best friends" if you ask the smaller one or "I hardly know him...who even is he?!" if you ask the bigger one) - one for the whole year (the smaller one) and one alas only for 8 months (the bigger one).

Said Bigger Minion™ has now fled my clutches to Peru, undertaking some ecological research that seems to mostly involve plants, Inca Kola and eating lots of things with big lumps of tough meat in them, thus far. Thankfully, he's started a really rather wonderful blog whilst he's out there and it's very nice for showing the raw underbelly of science - the hours of blood, sweat, tears and assorted other body fluids that go into our science - particularly in the field where he has to contend with altitude sickness, terrifying weather, food poisoning, not being able to speak Spanish and an ongoing addiction to Inca Kola.

The Artist Formerly Known As Bigger Minion (or Mr Tom Hathway, to his mother). A Minion Abroad.

If you want to learn more about what happens when a scientist is in the field, you could do a lot worse than read Tom's Blog - aside from the science, it has the sardonic, self-deprecating wonder of the ilk that Bill Bryson peddles so well. He's also been known to lurk on Twitter too, if you can't handle more than 140 characters at a time.

I'm enjoying his blog very much whilst he's far away but I do miss him - particularly when the Smaller Minion needs wrangling... 

On Not Having The Time

It's been over 50 days since I last blogged. Pathetic isn't it? I mean, I've tried to - I've got 5 draft blogs ready to go but I've Not Had The Time to do anything with them. I'm currently working in physically at the University 55-60h per week Monday to Friday, plus another 15h or so in the evenings at home and 2-4h in the office on Sundays catching up with Things I've Not Had The Time To Do. That amounts to 72 and 79h per working week - I would say "that's awful" but no, that's unfortunately becoming increasingly normal in academia. Is it demanded by our employers? Not per se, no, what tends to happen is that we as academics set very high standards for ourselves and one another and we tend to say "yes" to things like editing articles and reviewing articles for journals (which is unpaid, I should add - academic editors don't get paid but bench editors do - go figure) and writing grants with other people that we'll never actually see any real output from because we know it's supporting our fellow scientists and so on and oh...suddenly there rolls by another month and the "To Do" list is still where it was!

One of my new years resolutions was to blog more...wonder if I'll keep it? Right now is a massive time of flux for me - the last 2 years have been - and I find blogging cathartic but time is a demon and always against me. Time goes so slowly when you're young but when you find out how fast it really goes, believe me it's scary. A song comes to mind - Fascinating Aida put this problem so very well to music about 30 years ago. Still daisy fresh!

Whilst I'm at it - this song is about teachers and OFSTED and as an educator, it resonates so much with me!


On Academia and Acting - Career Parallels

So, it's 2014. I'm not really sure how that happened. If I look back to 10 years ago, I am actually where I wanted to be - this time in 2014 I definitely wanted to work in research - though my ambitions were perhaps not that I'd get a permanent position quite so fast.

January is the time of year that a lot of our final year project students start to also want to work in research and this leads to a lot of discussions about "What's it like?" "Is it a secure career?" and so on and over the years of pondering the answers to such questions, I've read what a lot of other people think the answers are. A lot of people describe being an academic as being much like a teacher for some insane reason - we're not teachers and the faster people (inside and outwith the field) get this into their heads, the better. We're researchers, we're educators, we're administrators. We are not teachers. Academics have never been "teachers" in the sense that school teachers are - we don't tell people what to learn and help them (directly) to learn it - we enthuse them about a subject, introduce them to a field and act as a springboard, propelling them into the research literature, from which they learn the subject for themselves, by themselves - remember, 10 UK university credits require 100h of study, of which only 10-20h would be timetabled - that's 80-90% self-directed learning. Something that seems to be coming as more of a surprise to first year students over the years as I think they way they are taught in schools has slowly changed and perhaps their expectations aren't as aligned to university education as perhaps they should be? 

So, what do I think academia is most like? Acting. Why? Lots of reasons!

  1. Lecturing is a performance art. You walk onto an empty stage in front of 50-500 people and, using a minimal amount of props or visual aids, take them on a journey over the course of a few hours. To do that, you have to grab their attention and then hold it and that isn't teaching - there's no pedagogic theory involved in holding a room, believe it for not - it's pure theatre. Actors and comedians learning their craft are trained in how to hold an audience for hours at a time and we use identical techniques.
  2. There's no job security in either field, compared to other fields. Actors in the theatre in their early career live from one fixed-term contract to the next, often with gaps in between - and that's exactly what we do as postdocs. A lot of people in academia grow bitter that they've "been a postdoc for years" and so "should" get a permanent position, but that isn't how it works - just like acting, some people live on short-term contracts for their whole career - some people in academia do too. It's not ideal - far from it (and it's something I don't agree with - I don't think it's reasonable to expect it of people) - but it's what happens. IF you're lucky in acting, you can land a long-term role in a soap, for example, but it's rare, and that's the case with permanent academic positions too - they're scarce.
  3. Both fields rely on funding that's hard to get and hard to keep. How is research funded? Grant income usually - grants that are applied for and won about 10% of the time, statistically, in the UK - that's a bloody site higher than how many films or TV shows or plays make it from script to getting funded but it's the same principle - you have the best idea in the world but no one wants to fund it.

here are other reasons - lots of them in fact - but I want to keep something to elaborate on a bit more later this month - I'm going to cover the parallels a bit more and look at some tips from the acting world that apply to careers in academia that perhaps aren't that obvious but of which we need to be taking note!

On A Life History - Part 5

It's been a few weeks since I wrote my last instalment, owing to the end of term. I'm exhausted - mentally, physically and spiritually - truly exhausted. This happens every end of term of course but more so I feel at Christmas - the winter term always seems more intense to me - we have new students of course and a lot of admin associated to them and to existing students picking their modules, exam questions to write (yes, they're really all written that early in the year) and a million faffy admin tasks to get done that aren't time consuming per se, just the kinds of things you put off and off and which become a bigger burden every day you do so. The net outcome is that by Friday morning when I last saw most of my colleagues, everyone had bags under their eyes and a look of being wiped out but the general sparkle of "I've done my last lecture of 2013!" when asked how they were. My main pass-time this weekend has been sleeping - 24h out of the last 48h have been spent asleep. To add to the normal exhaustion everyone gets this time of year, staff with disabilities obviously get hit harder, as you'd imagine - or perhaps wouldn't - it's not obvious to everyone just how many hours of "backstage" work goes on just to get us out of bed and into work, of course. I think to think that when people don't realise this it's because I've managed to pull of acting "normal" as much as possible. But that's for another post - today's instalment is basically "how I ended up in research" and follows on from my decision to change degree, that I explained last week.

When I had to enrol for my new B.Sc (Hons) Biochemistry programme, we all had to queue for what felt like weeks to get enrolled and then had to have a meeting as a new cohort with our Director of Studies, someone who has sadly now died, but made a major change to my life on that very day, probably never realising it. Our names were called out and we had to go and see him at one of end of the room and tell him which degree we were reading (we were a Common First Year cohort of biochemists, immunologists, microbiologists, biologists [yes, people read B.Sc (Hons) Biology, not this modern "Biological Sciences" thing that's crept in] and a range of joint-honours combinations) and, for many, there was a choice of two modules - I think it was a modern foreign language, philosophy of science or computing for the health and life sciences - I don't remember now. I realised when he got to "Davidson" that it was being done in surname order and I'd not been called! Help! I waited until he got to the end of the line he then called my name out "Is there a Mr Boden here? Oh good - we need a word - we have quite a problem" "Shit" I thought - what on Earth could go wrong?! It turned out that part of the Biochemistry first year were two modules of Chemistry - quite right too - but that whilst I'd not taken those particular "for the life sciences" modules before, I'd taken their content and much more besides and so it was (quite rightly) felt that if I took them, it would be re-assessing my prior studies and thus self-plagiarism. So, I was given two options - either (a) not take them and become a part-time student for one year as I'd have a big gap in my timetable or (b) find something to replace them. I was there to learn and so (b) was the obvious choice! I was promptly handed a handbook of every module from every year group from every single health sciences, life sciences and biomedical sciences course that the College offered with the instruction "Well, you're technically at third-year level of study, so just pick anything - give me an email to let me know what you've decided on". I opted to take a second year Immunology module as it sat in the second semester so would follow straight on from the first year one this semester and would be a sensible choice, and I picked a second year "biological anthropology" module that looked really interesting.

I went to the first lecture of the latter module a few weeks later and I found myself lost within minutes - it wasn't "as billed" but was instead a very, very dry set of discussions about the evolution of the shoulder-blade in mammals - nothing human was mentioned at all. I went straight back to the Director's office and begged to be allowed to pick something else - after working out I'd've missed a lot of key lectures for most modules, he suggested half-jokingly that the final year Library Project in Immunology [in our degrees, you did a big practical research dissertation worth 1/4 of your final year and a literature-based one worth 1/8th] might be an option, since I was enjoying immunology. "Ok then", I said, thinking it looked fun. In my last year of Chemistry, we'd done a piece of literature-based coursework that was in the form of a short journal article and it had to be on environmental pollution. I'd done ergot alkaloids as environmental pollutants and had spent hours and hours up in the far reaches of the Library looking up hard-copy journal articles and I'd just loved it - so getting to do this on a bigger scale seemed great. The Director looked very confused indeed and said "yes". A few days later, he'd assigned me to the only supervisor that was available - a postdoc working on CJD and BSE as autoimmune diseases. My project was on this subject and went some way towards my first publication which happened towards the end of my degree. 

I was hooked - hooked - nothing had excited me so much in my studies thus far as open-ended research. Days and days were spent in the Library and going through electronic journals, abstract books (yes, they were still around!), ordering offprints and ILLs from the British Library and digging through old histology atlases to back up my arguments. I was enjoying it so much that I found I could not imagine life not doing this. When I eventually handed it in 6 months later, I was almost in mourning for the project for a few weeks - I missed the search and the thrill of the case and the explorer spirit and so on. Thankfully for me, it wasn't the end - the following year, I had a similar gap in my timetable for the same reason and so I took the Library Project in Biochemistry that I was due to take the following year (now I had track record of doing well in modules taken "out of year", it was allowed without question) and focussed on microbial biochemistry and predicting if/how life could occur in the putative Martian groundwaters. I kept the same supervisor for my final year practical project and found myself head over heels in love with my science - I was thrilled - I threw myself into it like nothing before and finally had found something I was good at - really good at - and I wanted more and more of it. Another paper came from this project and by this point, I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D and stay in research, but how?

I searched and searched and it became clear very quickly that if I wanted to do a Ph.D, I could not do it in London - something that upset me greatly. I loved London and my life in London, my friends, the amazing views and buildings, the atmosphere, coffee on Shad Thames on a winter morning, summer evening dinners on Butler's Wharf looking out over the Thames, the first gingerbread latte of the year bought on Hampstead High St and taken into the Tube, the view of the Selfridges Christmas Windows at 0730h from the window of an icy-cold number 13 bus (the old style Routemasters were amazing), the sound of the Northern Line train rumbling down the tunnel to a platform with only you on it...it was a place I could not imagine being away from - it was the first place I'd felt was home to me. Sometimes, however, things happen for a reason and one day, on my supervisor's office door was an advert for a Ph.D studentship at the University of Warwick (which like everyone else, I assumed was in Warwick [it's in Coventry] and I assumed for some reason was not very good [top 3 in the UK at the time] and was a former polytechnic [it was founded in 1965]) working on "one carbon" sulfur compounds - I loved both "one carbon" metabolism (my project) and sulfur metabolism (from lectures) so thought this was a brilliant chance - how could I not even apply? So apply I did and one wintery day in February with snow on the ground, I visited Warwick, was interviewed and offered the place the next day. I took it like a shot and moved there 6 months later, leaving London behind me. Not a choice I've ever regretted and I think I always knew deep down that London was there in my life for a purpose and wasn't somewhere I would stay forever.

To cut a long story short, I moved to Coventry, did my Ph.D and a couple of post-docs and then started looking for permanent academic positions. The first one I applied for (which I really wanted and had spent months preparing for) turned me down and the back-up plan was Plymouth. I will admit freely that my heart wasn't quite in it - I applied as a back-up plan and didn't really want to move 300 miles to a city I knew no one in (again) as I was very settled in Coventry by then. Then I got here and met the people who are now my colleagues and within 30 seconds I quite honestly knew I wanted to work with them - on professional and personal levels they seemed perfectly on my wavelength. They didn't particularly want a microbiologist I don't think and I didn't particularly want to work somewhere without a large microbiology presence but then I realised the huge value in being able to set things up from scratch...! To cut another long story short, I somehow got the job and 8 weeks later up and left Coventry and never looked back.

I don't know where the next 15 years will take me but I've told the last 15 years of my life in these 5 blog instalments and I hope it will give those from 'deprived' (I HATE that word) areas and 'low income' (or 'poor' as I say) backgrounds a bit more of a perspective on university and study and I hope it will show those who are thinking of changing degrees or even quitting their degrees that there is nothing at all wrong in doing so - so what's right for you alone, after all, you alone are the one who will have to live with it!

On A Life History - Part 4

Last week's instalment of this widening participation memoir of sorts got as far as my applying to read Chemistry at university. I applied to several universities but mostly to colleges of the University of London. Why? I wanted to get as far away from home as possible and London seemed like an opportunity - I put it on a pedestal a lot. I got accepted by my first choice (King's College) after interview - yes, interview. Back then everyone was interviewed for that degree and it was quite hard work - 30 people were interviewed on the day I was and only 2 of us got onto the course.

By the time I was ready to move to London, I re-read all of my A-level notes but years had passed and I felt very out-of-touch with it all. I moved to London on a very rainy day - my Father had (over)paid a 'friend' of his to drive us down in his van as my Father did not like to drive on motorways, let alone in London. My Mother cried a lot when it was time for them to go. I lived in a 1960s ugly towerblock of a Hall of Residence in London Bridge which was overwhelming, scary, loud, amazing and a wonderful place to live. The first day I wondered if the noise was all too much but I soon started to love it - a 30 minute walk to lectures along the South Bank or 40 minutes on the Tube. It was bliss in that respect. I was out most nights - theatre, nightclubs, pubs - I loved London - I went to my first proper, proper nightclub (Heaven) - and had my first proper snog in the middle of the dancefloor - something that used to come quite late to LGBT people owing to not daring to tell anyone, but thankfully the world has changed for the better. Oh yes, I loved London. But I didn't love my studies one bit.

Chemistry had changed since I'd done my A-levels. For context, my final A-level mark was >90% and I was good at the bench owing to a lot of reading of practical guides - I had read Vogel's Organic cover-to-cover during my A-levels from an old First Edition I was given by someone > 1,500 pages of it - but things weren't how I remembered them. I loved organic chemistry, for example, but everything was written in the lecture slides (which were a mix of 35mm slides and OHP transparencies - hand-written) in Kekulé skeletal projections, but I was so used to every "C" being written out. I'd spent my whole A-level being told we had to use the benzene ring diagram but now the Kekulé one with alternating bonds was required. These basics not being right really threw me but everyone else seemed to "get" it - A-levels had changed, of course, since I took mine. The intensity of study after a few years not studying threw me too - I had fallen out of habit. 

Maths came back to haunt me. I had to read Mathematics for Physical Scientists as I did not have A-level maths and it was basically A-level pure mathematics in one year - I got 19% on the exam. My worst mark ever. I didn't enjoy it. I didn't enjoy Physical Chemistry either. I liked InorganicOrganic and Spectrometry but that was about it. I missed a lot of lectures owing to hating them (physical/maths), hangovers and pain. 

In hindsight, I've always been in pain. Ankles, wrists, legs, spine, neck, jaw. I thought everyone was. I really did. When we did PE at school and we did running and people had to stop as they could not go on, I always thought that they, like me, were stopping because they were in pain in their joints and muscles. It really, genuinely wasn't until my 30s when I finally got a full diagnosis that I found out that constant pain wasn't normal after all. I was burning the candle at both ends at this stage and it was too much for me - I was waking up in severe leg/back pain and staying in bed all day because of it. I was soon lagging behind with my studies.

I was also struggling for money. Everyone else I lived with went out as often as I did. We all ate similarly. Why was I soon skint? Answer: they had savings. They had parental contributions. My parents used to post me a Vodafone top-up card for £5 every now and then so that I could phone home but that was all they could really help me with - I was on my own. Over Easter, I had no little money left (student loans only really cover a term, not the holidays) and could not find work in London so I was living on pasta mixed with 90 kcal cup-a-soup. I was on my own - everyone else had gone home and I got a lot of studying done and managed to catch up though I did drop almost 2 st in the process - it wasn't all bad, I had lovely cheekbones!

Exams came and went and I realised Chemistry was not for me. I decided that I missed life-related stuff too much - I had read a module Frontiers of Chemistry that included a lot of biochemistry and the pharmacology of the platin class of drugs (which I am now researching microbial resistance to, small world) and that module whet my appetite to go back to life sciences. I would sort it out over the summer and start perhaps B.Sc (Hons) Biochemistry in the autumn. That's what I'd do. I was doing a 4 year M.Sci at the time so that would still be funded and I would not have to pay fees. I packed my things and my Father's "friend" came and collected them at great cost once again. I then took the train back home one lonely Saturday morning after sitting up all night on London Bridge itself waiting for the sunrise, drinking neat gin - it was bliss. And then suddenly I was back in the sticks. No friends, nothing to do, it was excruciating. A friend of mine was trying to set up a .com as a rival to About.com and asked me if I wanted to get involved (which I did for few years - it ran until 2008 and did pretty well, though I wasn't involved after the first 3-4 years of its run), so that was my work for the summer. Convincing my parents that not working in a factory was going to make me more money was hard work - they could not understand that I wasn't getting paid by S as my investment to her company was my time and if it all worked out, I would earn something downstream. To them, this sounded like a con or something shady - they didn't trust the internet or computers and we only had a computer in the house for about 6 months before I left for University - I got a second hand P166 MMX for £150 from the back of the paper (and played SimCity 2000 and Pharaoh for months!) - and I used to have a telephone extension lead running down the stairs so that I could go online with Totalise.net and earnt a few hundred pounds back as shares which I sold before they went bust. I didn't need to try and convince them for long, however, as about 2 weeks after I got home from uni from the first year, my world changed forever.

I was awoken at about 0600h by my Father shouting "she can't breathe". I was up and dressed very quickly and calling an ambulance in a complete daze. My Mother was fighting to breathe and I can't write about it as it's upsetting me already but in short, she died minutes after the ambulance crew arrived. My world was shattered - my Mother and I were very close I now know that she had tried for so many years for a child and failed that I was something she just adored. It makes me sad when I think that I didn't really know that when she was alive. So she died and I spent the summer cooking, cleaning and trying to keep my Father chivvied along and teaching him to live on his own - he had never really cooked for himself or paid a bill in his life. We knew I had to go back to London - my Mother would've been heartbroken had I quit my degree because she had died and so September came and off I went back...without remembering to change my degree in the process - d'oh!

I moved to North London this time - just after the 9/11 bombings - Hampstead, which was quite a beautiful place to live. Same road as Rachel Stevens, whoever she is. I had managed to gain employment from the College as part of the residential team at a big Hall of Residence, which, in those days meant cheap accommodation in return for looking after the first year students. I worked with a brilliant team of people, many of whom I am still very close to, for 4 years and never went "home" (which no longer was) again - I helped manage the place in the summers and earnt a good living through that and bar work and for once in my life felt I belonged. This was what I wanted to do - manage student accommodation - I allocated bedrooms, dealt with complaints and major incidents, noise, illness, burglaries and far more things I can't write about as I'm still bound to confidentiality agreements over certain incidents,

But, much as I loved the "5 to 9" job, I still hated my studies. This time, I did something about it and I managed to agree to transfer to read B.Sc (Hons) Biochemistry after 2 full years of Chemistry. Did I waste them? I thought so at the time - but had I really? No - I still use my chemistry every day and I consider myself a hybrid of a chemist and biologist which is I guess what I've always been. In the meantime, I was loving living in Hampstead - it was the most beautiful place I had ever been let alone lived - going from council estate in a house work about £9,000 to a street with £900,000 flats and houses worth £1,500,000 was a massive culture-shock but I learnt to blend in and I was starting to get good at talking to people and wasn't so shy. I had a part-time bar job by this point which I just adored too - things were going pretty well on the whole and after a summer managing accommodation for a major US summer school in London, it was time for my next adventure - re-starting my studies. I was allowed to go into the 2nd year of B.Sc (Hons) Biochemistry but I was warned of the vertical learning curve and so I phoned The Student Loan Company (as was) to see if I could get funding for an additional year (so 2 years of Chemistry and 3 of Biochemistry) and, unfortunately, there was good and bad news - the good news was I could borrow a full student loan package for the year but the bad news was it was maintenance only - not Tuition Fees - and so I would have to find £1,100. I calculated that I could just about earn it from bar work if I saved all of it and if I took the bus instead of the Tube. For an 0900h lecture in Waterloo, the bus took about 40 minutes and was 70p - much cheaper than the Tube even with a student discount - but the catch was that if you tried to get a bus at 0800h, 5 would go passed full and if you did get one, it would take 1h30 due to traffic, so my friend K and I used to get the bus at 0630h or 0645h and thus just beat the rush and we used to walk half a mile away from our destination so we could get on at an earlier stop and avoid the huge crowd at our stop! It actually worked out pretty well - I would be at the College by 0730-0800h and would then study until my lectures and afterwards, go home, eat, sleep for 4h (most days, I was done at College by 1400h so by 1530h I was asleep and then get up and either go to the pub or go to my bar job, after which I'd be in bed by about 0100h and up again at 0530h - it was weird living about 6 months of doing this "split shift" of sleep every week day but I can honestly say that paying £1,100 made me appreciate my studies more than ever and I worked so hard compared to any other year of my studies, actually. I had two friends who were medical students doing their intercalated years at the same time and so we all did a year of "something new" and threw ourselves at it with gusto. I actually loved what I was doing for the first time ever and it was that year that I first caught the research bug.

(to be continued...)

On A Life History - Part 3

I'm now into the third instalment of what is turning out to be quite a cathartic look at my past in the context of "I didn't do it the way you 'should'" or "the way you think you 'should'", that should be. Last week I talked about getting in to the private sixth form and the decision that I was going to take A Levels in the three sciences, like a good little purist and how I decided I had to go to the private sixth form no matter what because, like being a good little purist, I felt it was what everyone else wanted me to do - it had gone from being an achievement and a really nice thing to becoming something I had no real say in because suddenly everyone else was more excited about it than me. I wouldn't dream of doing something now because those around me want me to when I didn't - I'm a million times more headstrong than I was 20 years ago - but back then, I didn't really know how to say no in this way. It was a fantastic opportunity and probably one of the biggest in my whole life even now but back then, life hadn't given me many opportunities - unless you count when I won a "guess how many Cadbury's Mini Eggs are in this jar" competition when I was 6...and my parents (in an example of classic working-class-etiquette and post-WW2 sensibilities kicking in) gave half of them away to the other kids on our road - part of the whole "oh we don't need these because our son has all the sweets he'll ever need (I really didn't!) so have some of them" mentality which stems from the aspiration to be what I call "Working Class Posh" (WCP). WCP people had ornaments to show they can afford functionless fol-de-rol and thus have excess income. WCP people boasted at bus-stops about their husband being "on good money" and how they themselves "only work[ed] for a bit of pin money and to get me out of the house". WCP people had scalloped net curtains and believed that people without net curtains are "sluts" (I still adhere to this mantra). WCP people had plastic coloured washing pegs and a rotary clothes line. WCP people aspired to tile-on-a-roll in their back kitchen and crazy paving in their garden. WCP people were what my parents had aspired to for almost 50 years by this point and I guess there was an element of my going to this private sixth form that they saw as a step up from the council estate and I guess it was as much a means of escape for them as it was for me. Part of our mutual but unspoken plans to get as far away from that place as possible - plans in serious danger of living only in our heads, of course.

And so, I consented. I went. I was going to write an awful lot about my experiences there but in order to do that, I'd have to say things that relate to people who are either not alive to defend themselves for their actions or that could be read as my attempting to settle scores which I have no intention or inclination of doing. There are many great lessons you learn in life and I guess I would call the top few of mine thus far (we never stop learning and I'm hopefully only halfway through!) as follows - I've used the words of others as they've put it better than I ever could!

  1. "Live your own life, for you will die your own death" - Latin Proverb. Speaks for itself.
  2. "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return" - lyric from "Nature Boy" (1947) by eden ahbez. Probably obvious to many but some of us don't trust others that easily.
  3. "Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner" Laozi. Again, took me a long time to manage this!
  4. "How can you lose what you never owned?" lyric from "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" (1931) by Ray Henderson, Buddy G. Dasylva and Lew Brown. An important thing for most of us but in science it's particularly important - why get angry or upset when a paper gets rejected or a you don't get a grant you applied for? You never had it to start with, so you lost nothing, move on.
  5. "One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood." Seneca the Younger. Another one that took me years. True friendship is much like true love - you might think you've felt it but when you really do, you know instantly, and you never forget what it feels like. I'm blessed by the friends I have. I'm a very lucky person to have them in my life.

So...where was I? I started finally at this new school. New world order for me. I'd never had to wear a school uniform before or tie a tie or get the schoolbus or sing hymns or have proper school dinners with pink custard (we had turkey twizzlers and blue pop at my secondary school!). So in those respects, it really was just like Enid Blyton, only perhaps a little less twee - I didn't hear anything about Caruthers Minor being taken to the San' with a frightful case of the croaks, unfortunately - I felt a bit short changed. It was a very pretty place though I was at an age in which you don't care about herbaceous borders and beautiful architecture - you care about two things - sex and rebelling against The System. I think I'd naively assumed that with it being 6th form, people might be openly gay as I'd read about these things called LGBT societies and they were found in universities and colleges...but I had not bargained for this being a private 6th form and thus at that time, completely backward. In that respect it was more lonely and isolating than I'd ever known my life to be. In fact, it was in every respect. I'd gone from being one of the highest-achieving pupils in quite a big school where you're easily lost in a crowd and half the teachers didn't know your name to being somewhere where my academic level at the time was considered fair to middling at best. The leap from GCSE to A Level was big - I enjoyed the challenge in most subjects but I was struggling and, as always, I didn't want to let anyone down by saying so, and I certainly didn't want to admit defeat by telling those who were looking down on me that I was struggling. I was being looked down on a lot - I didn't fit in though I tried and tried. I wasn't good at sport - I could barely run let alone catch a ball (not, it turns out, owing to "the gay gene" but to my underlying disability which was just starting to surface, though my whole life until >30 I thought people had to give up when running not owing to exhaustion but owing to hip pain as that's what made me have to keep stopping) and it was compulsory that one did some kind of sport. I ended up doing fencing - which somehow they all considered "posh" and effete. I loved it though - balletic yet lethal, graceful yet violent - it suited me perfectly...and besides, fencing britches made me look hot! I don't feel particularly attractive but back then I was just starting to emerge from the teenage ugly years we all go through and starting to find myself and work out who I was, naff though that sounds. I didn't follow the mainstream CofE beliefs that were pretty much compulsory. I would not bow my head in chapel to pray (and got told off for not praying, though as an agnostic, I found that very offensive). My beliefs were (and still are) a blend of humanism, Unitarianism and aspects of Buddhism - nothing religious, definitely Atheist but certainly spiritual...none of which was allowed. You had to be CofE and that was that. Even the pupils agreed. Everyone was straight (on the surface at least) and pretty homophobic - not in a Neonazi kind of way but in the pervasive homophobia that was just everywhere in the mid-1990s. I felt more and more ostracised and more and more backed into a corner. And I was bullied.

Physically bullied. My things thrown out of 2nd floor windows. Pushed down steps. This was all part of a warped "initiation" - destroying your property - for the kids there, destroying a few books was no big deal - your parents would buy you more, but when you don't have a lot, you fight for what you have and it upset me - a lot. I withdrew more and more "into myself" and by about the November, I wanted out. Not seeing my home in daylight didn't help (leaving the house at 0730h and getting home at 2000h Mon-Fri and at 1300h on Saturdays - yes, school on Saturdays) was taking a toll on me and my parents - they had to eat later to suit my schedule and that didn't suit my Father wanting to go to the pub after dinner or who would walk the dog and so on. All of our lives changed to suit me and to enable me to go there. The big deal was now having to tell my parents I wanted out. I spent weeks trying to pluck up the courage and almost go there when they had the most almighty blazing row. One of the worst I can remember. As my Mother sat afterwards in tears telling me how money being tight and so on was causing problems, I realised I could not quit now - they'd sacrificed a lot to let me go there so the least I could do was stick it out, right? It was, after all, only 2 years, right? A few years later, when my Mother died, I discovered she had borrowed thousands of pounds to be able to afford to keep me in the school but had not told myself or my Father. Even though all the fees were paid, little extras like stationary costs (no, you could not go to Partners or John Menzies, you had to use what they sold, at their prices) and books and trips and the cost of staying overnight when you were required to all added up - we were having to pay about £1,000 a year, which was 10% of our household annual income. Life wasn't easy for any of us.

And so, I stuck it out, hating every day. Dreading waking up as I'd have to put myself through another day of it. I didn't fit in. I was not as mature physically or emotionally as my peers, I see that now, and so I stuck out in many ways. Several of them (those I was close to grade-wise) were clearly wary of me and saw this council estate scum as a threat. I have to say in their defence, by the end of it all, they were on quite good terms with me and I guess part of it was their close-knit group had known each other years and new people were just not that welcome. 

I struggled academically with something I still struggle with. If I don't enjoy something,I physically can't do it. I just block up and my mind won't work unless it's on something else and then I become the best procrastinator ever. This happened with A-level Mathematics. Yes, a fourth A-level. How? Well. Well, you see - use "purists" were told we "should" do it to help with Physics (it was no help at all!) and again, I did as I was told. By the end of the Lower 6th, I got politely told I could not do it any more as I was not doing any work - result! 8 more free periods a week! No big loss but the Mechanics aspects were quite good fun and I still know how to work out the mass of a particle on a light inextensible string leaning on a lamela of negligible friction - the answer (like all answers in Mechanics) is 2π/sin θ. I've no idea why but I always used to put that when I didn't know the answer and it was often right.

To cut a long story short, Medical School didn't happen. I applied and failed. No big surprise but my parents went mad - the idea of my reading Medicine was out of this world to them and my failing to get it must've been my fault for "not working hard enough". Truth was, no amount of hard work could get me the AAA(A) and years of work-experience and Gold DofE that Medical Schools all wanted back then. I did manage to save up my factory wages (folding newspapers for £1.80 an hour) to go on one of those weekend courses for people wanting to get into Medicine - kind of like a two day experience of what reading medicine might be like - lectures, "on call", practicals, patient interviews...and a lot of tequila and a drunken fumble in a Hall of Residence in Sheffield that resulted in my leaving my virtues in South Yorkshire...the course was fun but again, I didn't fit in. In hindsight, I was going through the motions - "what does someone on one of these courses wear?", "what should someone doing this read on the train?" - I didn't belong and I was trying to desperately keep up and do the course. I got back for the Upper VI and again, I didn't fit in. The loss of my virtues soon got around and no, not the usual teenage boy reaction of "wayhay, well played" (NB: it was with a woman - the bloke happened much later!), I got "Oh my god how uncouth and how...strange...". Seemed no matter what I did, it wasn't what people there wanted me to do or be.

I gave up caring what they thought and suddenly life got easier. I found friends in another year group who I got on with and learnt to ignore the gossip, questioning and dirty looks. I gradually learnt to apply this to my whole life over the years and life got easier...but back then, it was still hard work.

I eventually left with 3 A-levels - Chemistry (A), Biology (B) and Physics (C - just - was almost a D) and a complete sense of disillusionment. I didn't want to go to uni any more as it would be full of people like this place was full of - narrow-minded, mean and standoffish. I didn't know what I wanted to do - I applied to medical school again and again failed. I first took a job in a factory folding newspapers which ground me down and I wanted to use my mind a bit more and eventually tried my mind and hand at lots of jobs - eventually a lab technician and then a training job as a Medical Laboratory Assistant with day-release to do a BTEC ND...and then I hit a wall after not very long. Without a degree, I was stuck as an MLA. If I had a degree, I could not just have a job but have a career. I had to go to uni. Turned out I could do any science degree then an M.Sc to specialise so I thought "What was I good at at A-level? Chemistry". And so the decision was made to study something I wanted to study and I applied for uni again - Chemistry this time.

Turned out to be a smart move!

(to be continued...)

On Not Learning One's Trade

Something in HE deeply worries me at the moment. In fact, something in education in the UK in general worries me - a lack of hands-on, practical education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This issue seems to prevail right from junior school through to HE and as an HE-based educator, I can see the effects of a lack of a practical education every day - students don't have the bench skills they used to come to university with, in my view, and I believe it's down to the removal of rigorous practical education. I want to get my views out on this subject as I know a lot of colleagues in HE in the UK feel the same way and it's starting to hit the headlines, slowly but surely, and it's not something we can hold back on - we have to keep stating this and hoping that changes get made from junior school to HE and everything in between.

When I did my A-levels, we had practical examinations for Chemistry and a research-based practical project for Biology. In the former, we had to identify unknown organic compounds in terms of if they were carboxylate, ketone, alcohol and so on and then if it was primary or secondary and so on. For Biology we spent several weeks worth of lesson time soaking potato cores in a range of solutions and measuring them and then looking at sections by light microscopy to identify what level of plasmolysis was going on. It was hard work - the exam was stressful (not least because one of my peers managed to snap a volumetric pipette and jam the broken bulb into the side of his throat and had to be carted off to hospital halfway through!), the project was hard work but given that I can remember the details of it two decades later, it must've all stuck - and it did. There is enormous value in experiential learning for all stages of education and in every subject. There is also huge value in ensuring everything we teach has some level of alignment with what employers need - essays are something only used in education as an arcane and abstract concept - sure, they have their uses in assessment but do they have any other value? Is there a value to the student?

In my field, the writing style of an essay isn't the kind of writing used in writing a journal article, a blog article, a monograph, a consultancy report, a SWAT analysis or any of other myriad of other things that an employer might actually want someone to be able to do. Why aren't we, therefore, assessing more often using real-world assessment methods? Some educators do it - for example, I've completely replaced all laboratory reports in my educational practice with journal manuscripts and essays with blog articles aimed at different demographics or consultancy reports on more applied subjects. Many of my colleagues do the same but it's not a paradigm shift that seems to be happening very fast across the sector. In an era in which employability is an enormously important metric, why aren't we helping out students to become more employable by training them in transferable skills they can actually use once they finish their education, whatever the level? It may not help them get a job per se but it might help them progress if they can hit the ground running.

Aside from the use of the essay and other arcane assessment methods, I don't understand why we're allowing practical education to be removed on the grounds of cost/space/etc. It's happening widely and it has been for >10 years now and it's now reaching a pinch point. This week I have seen an article on the BBC website about concerns over the lack of practical education in STEM subjects in schools, along with an article in the Times Higher about how unhappy students in HE are about lack of contact-hours - the bulk of cuts in this area in my field in the last decade being in practical areas - so it's clearly becoming a wider issue. As an example, when I read Chemistry at university, as a first year, you got 0900-1700h solid practicals Thu and Fri of every week in both semesters. In the second year, you got 0900-1700h solid practicals Mon and Tue, similar. This amounted to over 380h practical education per year. In the current QAA credit hour guidelines, a bog-standard 20-credit module (we didn't have credits of this type at my university - we worked in course-units) requires 200h total study on the students' part. Our >380h of practicals supported all of our modules that were practical, so about 4 x 20cr in the newer systems, which would amount to 800h study from the student - so about 50% of that time was practical education. That would these days be nigh on impossible - more students and less cash makes it hard to run such practicals - labs aren't big enough to do it and repeat-practicals aren't the best thing in the world (speaking as someone who did 16 repeats for one practical in the last month, alongside all of the rest I teach!).

So what can we do? The common solutions mooted about are to use technology-enhanced learning (TEL) and virtual learning environments to fill the void. I like the idea...it's certainly a very useful way to make lab teaching more efficient ("Watch this video on Gram staining first so you know how to do the technique before you arrive and then you can re-watch it if you need to during the practical") but they can't replace the hands-on nature of science - you can learn a lot from a good Figure in a book or a good video but you don't learn anatomy without getting your hands inside a dogfish or a rat or a person. You don't learn your trade without getting your hands dirty and this is clearly an area we should be adding to our programmes, not removing from them...the question really is how? Without all HE institutions getting more staff, more lab space and an enormous investment in STEM, we could end up with 'scientist' graduates who have yet to actually learn their trade and require almost mandatory M.Sc teaching to top up the gap before they can get a practical-job - if we did this, we're just moving the problem. We need to address the practical issue in B.Sc teaching by ensuring we add not remove practical education.

We also need to address the fact that the lack of STEM practicals in schools means we have undergraduates across the UK who have Chemistry and/or Biology A-level to whom mole calculations, serial dilutions, dissection, logs, log paper, rearranging equations and so on are almost alien - often, they have been covered at some point but forgotten as they weren't used. These are not concepts a student "needs to know" (for exam passing), they are things a student "needs to understand" as part of learning their trade as a scientist. In all levels of education in the UK, we have to ensure that understanding is gained.

Oh and while I'm on my soapbox, I find articles like this one a bit insulting - both to academics and students - we don't need to perform the Royal Variety Performance to hold an audience and keep the students interested and awake - it can be done in a standard lecture - flipped classrooms and so on have their uses but so do lectures - they're perfectly valid and useful. If you think a lecturer stands at the front and orates from behind a lectern whilst the audience falls asleep then you must've seen some bad examples - often it can be a very effective form of educating that can work in both directions without the need to "flip the classroom" and so on. Again, it's about learning one's trade and knowing one's audience. There is no one-size-fits-all teaching method that works for all students, all academics OR all students - no one method is "better" than others in my view - especially as one can't perform real controlled experiments in such areas to really test what is truly optimal - but my feeling is that different cohorts and different academics using the same method would get different results - if the flipped classroom were used as widely as lectures, it would probably be found to have failings - at present it's much of an unknown quantity - we simply haven't used it enough in UK HE to be able to really know the effects - and we probably need to - but we also need to make sure lectures are dynamic and interesting as it is - at present there are good and bad points to them but it's largely down to who's delivering them - as years of student feedback forms probably attest - it's not the technique, it's the person using it.

On A Life History - Part 2

Last week, I started writing about how I got where I am in order to let at least some students and school pupils know that you don't need to come from even a middle-class background let alone privilege to achieve something in your life. I don't claim to be any better than I should be but I've had a few moments in my life (good and bad) that have changed things (eventually) for the better, even if they were a struggle at the time. Often it's not until many years later that you realise that a difficult patch in life gave you enormous strength.

I left off last week about to visit a private school to see if I could get a Government Assisted Place to study there for my A-levels but I've not really said a lot about my 11-16 education. In Year 7, I got my (NHS) glasses stamped on and I went home crying (to be fair, I deserved this, I had told someone he had carnal knowledge of his mother in front of the whole French class - I got what I deserved!); I had my clothes thrown in the shower after PE and spent the rest of the day soaking wet; I got pinned down in the back of a Maths lesson (in full view of the teacher, who ignored it) and had my face coloured in with two permanent markers and had to go home like it as they would not come off with water and the carbolic soap they gave us in the toilets. In Year 10, I had my face slammed into a set of lockers and was spat on by 5 people. Early in Year 11, I was punched in the face in the street (same person, as it happens)... Why? Not fitting in. Being bookish, being gay (though I wasn't entirely certain of it myself back then), caring about my studies, wanting to be at school...the list goes on. Why did I want to be at school? Aside from my thirst for knowledge there was a much more pragmatic reason - I hated watching my parents struggling and I didn't want better or more per se, but I did want to be able to not have to struggle and to enable them not to struggle. I knew my best hope of this was to get as far away from the poverty of the area as I could and to do this, I knew I had to do well at school and so it was not just a form of escapism (as was reading, as I said last time), it was a means to an escape. An escape from violence and crime and poverty I had seen so much of in my childhood and the struggles of the early 1980s. It's worth noting that in Year 11, I punched one of the school bullies smack in the face in a Home Economics lesson and he left me alone from that moment onwards. I don't condone violence but he'd driven me to it over 5 years!

So, there I was. Off to visit this private school - I didn't really even know where it was, but I knew the name. That was about it. Turns out, it was quite well known in the right circles but I didn't exist in one of them. I had to go to school as normal but leave straight after Registration and I would not get back until after home-time but the school had given me special permission to miss everything in order to go. I was wearing what I considered my best clothes - the polyester black slacks I wore to school, Dr Martens shoes (with the stitching coloured in with a black felt tip because we weren't allowed to wear DMs owing to the violent connotations!) and my best shirt which was from C&A and was made of very rough, cheap silk - but silk no less - and was knock-off attempt at the voluminous early/mid-1990s height of "fashion" and was I  think dark green. I was also wearing my (torn) coat from the Kay's Catelogue, which my Mum had spread the payments for the summer before over about 3 years so I could have a good winter coat and which I'd torn the last time I ever rode a bike when I had a close encounter with a lorry in the middle of November. It was by now February I think and we could not afford for me to have a new coat as it had to last years (as coats did). Money was tighter than normal as my Father had had a brain haemorrhage just before Christmas and dozens of return trips to Stoke-On-Trent by train for myself and my mother to visit him had frittered away all of the Christmas money and their savings - my Father was then off work sick for over 6 months and things weren't easy - but I had to forget it for a day to visit this school I had no hope of getting into.

Mrs B drove me all the way there - which seemed to take forever - and I remember feeling petrified once I saw the place - this was the stuff of Enid Blyton - a boarding school with huge Victorian buildings, endless lawns covered in frost, hydrangeas and rhododendrons in the borders and so on. We got out of the car just at the point that people were piling out of the 1930s chapel, in their neat little uniforms, carrying one ofr two files across their chests, walking politely in lines, most not even speaking. It was like Stepford in school form, looking back. It was a far cry from what I was used to. Mrs B leant over and said "Don't worry - let me do all the talking unless they ask you something". Looking back, this must've all been cleverly engineered to shut up this coarse, gawkish, shy geek whose Black Country accent and mouth like a sewer could easily ruin the school's plan to ship me off there alongside H and get themselves a nice bit of kudos in the local area along the way. I remember thinking the Headmaster's Secretary was terribly posh - she had a double-barrelled surname for fucks sakes! I found out a few years later that she was as common as muck and from a few streets from me originally and put on airs big style but that's another story! We got called into the Headmaster's Study. I was expecting an office. I wasn't expecting a room bigger than our whole house, with an open fire place with crackling logs, leather chesterfields and a huge mahogany desk and oil paintings covering every inch of every wall. He was clearly very good at putting people at ease but I was still petrified! I could hardly speak - I thought I knew it all (all 16 year olds do!). In writing that, I remember, it wasn't February at all - it was January. How do I know? Because it was my birthday. Mrs B did indeed do all the talking - she knew all the things I should've known. "What A-levels do you want to do?" "Chemistry, Biology and Physics" "Oh good, a purist! Now which science GCSE are you doing?" "MEG I think...?" "No, I mean, which award?" "Oh, the Special paper?" "No, no, which award - which sort of science GCSE? Triple award, duel award..?" "He's doing duel award", Mrs B butted in, clearly realising that since our school only offered duel award, I wouldn't know there were options! Just when I was starting to relax on the enormous squeaky leather Chesterfield that was intimidating me somewhat, there was a sharp knock on the door and a very, very tall, very, very thin man who seemed about a million years old burst in, wearing a long navy overcoat and looking like he should work at my imagined Oxford - he was the poshest person I had ever heard speak and I don't think he'd ever met anyone who wasn't at least upper middle class before or since and so treated me exactly the same as everyone else - because he couldn't comprehend that I was finding anything hard/different/expensive - he was oblivious to my background somehow - not through the very modern concept of class-blindness but through just never comprehending that he'd meet anyone poor, I'm sure. I found out years later that he could not have been more than 50 that day but he swept me off to be shown around and Mrs B was to collect me "later on" and was left with the Headmaster to talk about the matters of money and grades. 

Being shown around wasn't a pleasant experience. The two sickeningly well-behaved, well-spoken kids they got to show me around could not have been further from myself in any way and all this did was make me resent the idea of going there. I didn't want to be surrounded by these people. I didn't want to be looked down on like I was now - they weren't doing it on purpose, but they were doing it. I got taken to the science block where I was relieved (and amazed!) to find some of the teachers had regional accents and were clearly not "posh". Again "Oh good, a purist!". Again and again. So there went my plans to drop Physics and do French instead then... Being a "purist" was clearly seen as something good here and I could not change really - not another reason to be looked down upon. The day dragged on and on and I wanted to leave more and more. This wasn't a good idea. H would fit in, I wouldn't. I just could not do this.

Mrs B was full of beans when she came and fetched me - she was very excited about my going here and I started to feel that my parents were excited, she was excited, everyone was excited but not me. Could I let them all down? I knew this would make a crucial part of my escape plans. It would only be two years, after all. Could I really even get in? You needed something like 6 at GCSEs at C or above to get into the 6th Form and I wasn't going to get that, was I? A few weeks later, my science teacher gently pointed out that if I couldn't get 6 C's there was something very wrong with my self-confidence. I guess until then I'd never really thought about grades, just about liking the subjects. And what about what subjects I would study? I knew I had to have Chemistry and Biology for Medical School but I hated Physics. I wanted to do French or maybe English Literature instead. But everyone said Physics was "better" so those plans went to the dogs. We're often asked if we could write a letter to our 16 year old selves, what would we say? I've always said the same "Stop worrying about what other people think of you and wanting to please others. Live your own life.". I say the same to my students now "Don't study because of what your parents want or because you're scared 'dropping out' will let people down - live your life." and most often, they do.

A few weeks went by and then a letter came. Very "posh" hammered paper (the same sort I now use myself, I guess?), written in fountain pen...a letter saying they would be delighted to accept me (grades permitting) but that they knew I could not afford it and so there was a means testing form enclosed to pre-assess if my parents qualified, basically, for the scheme. In the scheme, you were means tested. If your parents earned below £30,000 or so a year combined income (which seemed a fortune to me back then) then you were entitled to something to pay school fees but how much depended on how much they earned. We did a rough estimation of my parents income and sent the form off. A few weeks later it came back - it seemed we could get the full fees paid, uniform paid, transport paid - the lot - package - subject to a more complete means test in the summer.

All through the following months, I convinced myself more and more that I wanted to go there. I had the prospectus by my bed and I looked at it every day and made myself long for it and eventually the idea of not going there started to hurt and I worked and worked for my GCSEs to make sure I made the grades and didn't "let people down". I had our old dining table from the kitchen (we got a new one a year or so earlier before my Father was ill, and the one they'd had since the mid-1960s went into my bedroom cupboard "just in case") set up as a make-shift desk in my bedroom and I saved up my pocket money to buy the "Letts" revision books (total waste of money, I maintain, as revision is about topping up/polishing knowledge, not first-time-learning, so you don't need any books for it if you learn as you go along - the most important skill there is in education - focus on understanding, not knowing) and those white ruled index cards that libraries used to use but now only seem to be used for revising and I have no idea why - you spend forever trying to fit it all on one side and miss out crucial information. I spent hours - days - making revision timetables and then ignoring them. The exams came and went. I ate so many packets of Polo Mints I've hated them ever since. On the whole, they went ok, pace GCSE Music. The teacher was a bully, I hated him and I got an E to spite the bastard even though I loved playing the cello and still do.

My last exam was in the afternoon, I remember, and I walked home very happy indeed - a whole phase of my life was over. As I walked past our kitchen window I heard my Father (not long home from work) say "Here he is", not sounding best pleased. First thing he said when I walked in was "You can forget going to that place - you're not going and that's final" - I thought he was joking but he screamed at me "They want to know how much I earn! They're going to charge us money so you can't go and that's final!". It eventually transpired that he'd had a letter that contained the means testing paperwork we had been told we would get. Of course, it said you may be required to pay a contribution because those who earned over a certain amount had to pay something but the earlier letter had told us we would not have to pay at all - far from it. Once he eventually went to the pub, my mother and I read the forms and filled them all in and posted it the next day, without him knowing, with a copy of his P60 enclosed. I remember very clearly that their combined income was just under £10,000 - this was before the National Minimum Wage came in, of course - this was pretty typical in terms of how much my friends parents earned - those who had jobs. A few weeks later we got final confirmation - I had a free place to go, uniform paid, travel paid, everything - and the pressure was now on higher than ever before - everyone wanted me to grab this chance and use it to get out of the sink estate and the cycle of generations in poverty, crime and unskilled labour. Any thoughts I'd had about changing my mind and going elsewhere had to go completely now - my mind was made up. I had to go.

I spent the summer months working in factories for an employment agency as a summer temp - my first job was putting teabags into cups on a conveyor belt for those hot drinks machines for a month, then I went to another factory and packed rolls of greaseproof paper and clingfilm, then I went to the warehouse of Fruit Of The Loom, in the end, which was really not a bad job. Very physical but back then I still had muscle tone so it wasn't difficult for me to do  though I was clearly a "wimp" in the eyes of the men who worked there and a bit slow at packing wagons but I was good at picking orders in the warehouse and the money was a lot better than elsewhere I'd worked as it was the twilight shift (must've been about £2 an hour). I spent my wages all summer on clothes from Clockhouse at C&A, CDs and books mostly and I loved it - all of my income was mine, aside from £30 per week I gave to my Mother for board and lodging. Yes, my parents charged me rent from the moment I was legally old enough to work and in work and they did the same in every holiday period that I lived with them - if I was able to work, I should work, was the attitude and I think that's a very healthy one. Their parents had charged them board in the same way back in the 1950s-60s when they got married and left home and so they just did the same thing. I think it's a good thing to do and I would not hestitate charging my own child board at the age of 16, after they had left school. Free rides teach you nothing in life. 

The summer came and went quickly, as all summers do. I didn't see my few "friends" from secondary school much as we were all working in different factories - me just for the summer, the others as their first proper job. I don't say "friends" with any disdain - just that friends at school are just people who'll put up with you 0900-1530h each day and who you might see at weekends. It felt like a living hell when the didn't speak to you or you fell out or they "dropped" you for someone else (and they were thus a "user") as you were lost without them but friends? No. Not by the definition I've come to know anyway. By that definition, they weren't even acquaintances, I guess. I last saw 99.99% of them on GCSE results day. Mother had to go shopping in the Somerfield. She always called it the "Key Market" as that's what it was called in the 1960s. It's been pulled down now, so I'm told. She walked slowly around the supermarket whilst I went to the school to get the flimsy pieces of paper in an envelope that gave grades for my GCSEs. To cut a long story short, I got what I needed to get and then some. I had quite a few A grades and I was over the moon. Seeing everyone else really pleased with G and F grades, even with my lack of social skills back then, I knew I could not be happy too publicly so I rushed off to the supermarket and told my Mother. She was enormously proud of me and managed to find lots of her old friends and tell them on our way home!

So, this was it - off to a new start in just 3 weeks time...

(to be continued...)

On A Life History - Part 1

Another month has been and gone and the weather is now distinctly autumnal here in Plymouth - the sea is choppy, the weather cold and gloves and hats and scarves have all come out to play. Life is rolling on and so are my various research projects. I've finally had time to pick up MAsC where Liz left of when she left - there's only a little bit of money left for the postdoc on the project and I can't realistically expect anyone to take a job so short-term so I'm going to do the bulk of the lab bits myself and pay an existing postdoc to do the analytical work, which is the opposite way around to the plan, but then nothing in research ever does  go according to plan! Nor does anything in life and I've been thinking about that recently.

I was thinking yesterday about life and plans - prompted by wandering about a book shop and seeing one of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series on display - it was one of her books, Postmortem (1990), that first made me think seriously about a career in science, but not as a bacteriologist or as a University lecturer, but as a forensic pathologist. To do that, you need to read Medicine and then do an awful lot of postgraduate study and have a certain amount of experience under your belt and, looking back, that was never for me. I was never Medical School material and I think I knew that when applying. I didn't want  to read Medicine, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist - Medical School and working as a medic were just stepping stones to me and of course that meant I took no real interest in getting into Medicine but the truth was, forensics at that time was the only thing I wanted to do and I had not considered anything else. I've had a lot of conversations lately with students who want to know how I got where I am and some of whom were surprised by my route and background, so here's the first instalment. Why am I telling this story? Not for my own benefit really but to hopefully give some hope/inspiration to my students who think their background might hold them back. My own background certainly hasn't held me back.

Houses close to where I grew up. These were identical to the one we lived in. Copyright © 2009 Richard Law. CC-BY-SA 2.0. 

Houses close to where I grew up. These were identical to the one we lived in.

Copyright © 2009 Richard Law. CC-BY-SA 2.0. 

I grew up in the West Midlands on a sink-estate built in the 1960s to take "overspill" as they called it locally from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow slum-clearance and inner-city demolition projects that were in vogue  in the 1960s - replacing tenements with tower blocks and ripping hearts out of communities. The plans were to relocate people to "a new life" on a modern estate that was better than what they'd come from - then for some to stay there and those who didn't settle to move back to the modern tower blocks that replaced the "slums" they came from. By the early 1980s when my parents bought our house, the estate was starting to become a slum - drugs were a huge problem, as was unemployment and crime. Our house was vandalised a number of times and we had a few attempted break-ins and we could never afford to repair the damage - we could not even afford house insurance. My Father was a former miner who lost his trade due to Mrs Thatcher's dissolution of the local mining industry which put thousands of people out of work in a small town that was built entirely on the backs of the coal and ironstone industries. Through the 1980s, he went from job to job, usually working for about 6 weeks before another factory went bankrupt and then we spent long periods with him on the dole and my Mother, a trained seamstress, doing piecework from home sewing everything from cycling clothing to drysuits, earning a few pounds for several hours of work - but it was the only work that there was. I was on free school dinners for much of the time though the stigma attached meant my mother would rather scrimp on other areas and send me with a packed lunch. My parents weren't the "idle poor" that Mr Cameron talks about so often - they were back then, like so many families in 2013 still are, happy to work - desperate to work - but unskilled, untrained (well, my Mother was  trained but in corset manufacture - an industry that had since died out due to lack of demand) and with no ability to get  any training, there were no open doors. We lived on very little money in the 1980s and 1990s and life wasn't easy for any of us. I didn't know it at the time but we were well below the poverty line. Of course, all of my friends' families were too and so it didn't feel like we were any different from anyone else for much of the time but then a window was opened to me into another world.

A teacher from my secondary school (the local comp - no uniform as no one could afford to buy one), Mrs B (who becomes more important later on!) mentioned the book Postmortem  not very long after it was published in the UK and I remember her reading a section from it. I asked my Mother if I could buy it and a few weeks later, she gave me a copy. Books were my main hobby as a child and still are - they kept me sane many times and the local Library was my home from home. Every Saturday morning I would go to the shops to help my Mother with the heavy shopping (no car, buses were expensive, we walked two miles each way, as did everyone else) and whilst she was doing the shopping, I was allowed up to the Library which was on top of the indoor market to take my books back and get some more. I was allowed 6 books at a time and they often involved the "choose your own adventure" series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston - being an only child who loved high fantasy, they were a game I could play without the need for siblings or similarly interested friends! I devoured books - I had read the entire Lord of the Rings  series by the age of 10 and I can remember my Mother buying me surplus books from the library including a set of Maud Jepson's Biological Drawings With Notes  which I treasured for years until I was broke as a student and had to sell them. She gave me second hand books when she could afford them and was very keen on the Enid Blyton books of her own childhood - I still have her 1940s editions of the Faraway Tree  series - good old original copies full of absolutely revolting levels of racism and characters called "Dick" and "Fanny". They've all been censored now - gollyw*gs are now goblins and "Rick" plays with "Franny" - this is a bad thing in my book - the abject racism is an important lesson the children - "this was acceptable in the 1930s-1950s when the books were written but it's very wrong and this is why". I don't believe in re-writing the past to pretend casual racism wasn't commonplace.  

When she gave me Postmortem , I was thrilled by the book, the science - everything. I was soon on to books about Jack the Ripper, true crime, forensics and so on and I remember when I was about 13 I wrote to Professor Bernard Knight, who was the Forensic Pathologist for Wales at the time, to ask him how to get into forensics. He replied - I've still got his handwritten letter that, now knowing how busy academics are, was very nice of him to write - and is why I always reply to schoolkids who email me to ask about careers in science. I wanted to do forensics but how - I now knew from Prof Knight that I had to go to to medical school and so I went to the local careers service to find out more. All we got in careers education at school was a go on a careers questionnaire thing on a 286 PC that told you that you were suited to being a dog walker or a fireman or nothing else really. The careers service was in a suite of offices above the former Job Centre, which I think was empty at the time after they moved into a new build around the corner. They had lots of information sheets on BTECs and GNVQs and a few  on A-levels but nothing about medicine or university either - the highest you were expected to aspire to was a BTEC in the local area. Most kids left school with no GCSEs and went straight into a factory, if they were lucky. I was stuck for how to get to the next stage - I didn't even know what A-levels were needed for Medical School let alone what an A-level really was (no secondary school in the area went beyond age 16) or where to do them. I knew there were two 16-18 colleges in the area and one was more technical than the other but that was about it.

I didn't really get very far with finding out but when I was about 15, a new pupil joined our school (H, one of my first crushes!) and was deemed by the teachers to be somehow worth pairing up with me as we were the only pupils likely to do the "Special" GCSE papers that allowed you to get grades above a "C". We were never destined to be good friends - different class, different background, different aspirations - plus he was very sporty and I was very not. He was only in our school because a far, far better one had expelled him and his parents had divorced so his mother had moved to a nearby estate to conserve funds temporarily. One day, Mrs B caught me after a lesson and asked me to meet her at lunchtime. She explained to me that H had won a Government Assisted Place to do A levels at a private school nearby. I knew the place existed but wasn't sure where it was or anything about it, just that it existed and of course wasn't  full of people like me! She said the school felt if H could get in then so could I and it would do me a lot of good to at least go and visit it and think about it. She gave me a small blue leaflet about their 6th form which I took home and read. An Assisted Place was a way for the then Tory government to pay for the School Fees so that "bright" children from state schools could go to a private school from all or part of 11-18 to give them a step-up in life. I now think the money would've been better spent improving state schools but when you consider the cost of the 5 pupils the school took in this route amounted to about £75,000 per year for quite a large catchment area that contained dozens of state schools, it wouldn't've gone very far! I took the leaflet home and my parents laughed at first - people like us  didn't go to places like that ! They knew I was "bright" (I hate that term - I was and am just hard-working and think a bit differently from some, maybe, but I'm nothing special) but this was going too far - or was it? They started to seriously discuss it with me and it was decided I should visit. In order not to put off the Headmaster with my parents who "might be uncomfortable there", Mrs B felt that she should take me as she would know what to say and do and could make sure I didn't put a foot out of line or say the wrong thing. Looking back at the visit, I now cringe, but whatever she said, it clearly worked...

(to be continued...) 

"Where did that summer go?"

A question I ask myself every autumn and which I'm sure will be the title of my memoirs should I ever have enough free time to write such a thing when I am Very Old...though if I have enough time to do that, I'll certainly not spend it writing after a career of it! 

Since the last time I wrote I've been an a NERC meeting to kick off the BioORE project and gotten most of my undergraduate project students under way on their projects, along side a blur of teaching - most of which I've delivered before at some point but I'm still writing a few lectures a week de novo.  

I found last year that spending 6-7h a day on my feet teaching in practical labs is no longer an easy thing for me to do as even with my stick, my ankles dislocate on their own, as do bones in my feet and chest and wrists and my spine is a complete mess. Thanks to Access To Work , my employer and a lot of work on my physiotherapist's part, I've now got a suite of braces for everything from my ankles to my neck to be used on days when I need to be stood up all day or in which I might sleep sitting up - planes and trains and so forth. I've done a road-test of the major ones today and yeah - they'll take some getting used to and the first test will be next Thursday. I'm self-concious about them as the spinal one is pretty obvious so need to investigate some scarves and cardigans to hide it a bit more. I won't be using it often anyway - if I do that, my already stretchy, tear-able, prone-to-spasming weak muscles will lose the little tone they have so it's just a means to an end to make it easier on my joints.

There's not a lot else to report right now - my Ph.D student Lee and I are finishing up his physiological studies for his first paper at the moment - I'm currently translating a Dutch Ph.D thesis from the late 1940s which used the same organism and similar conditions to see if we had the same outcomes. I love the random nature of my job sometimes! 

Nothing Comes Without Going

Halfway through Induction Week and I'm pretty exhausted - such is the folly of working all weekend to be ready and I'm now on my 10th working day in a row - nearly the weekend though! Monday morning was our graduation ceremony for the School of Biological Sciences and School of Biomedical & Healthcare Sciences - formerly School of Biomedical & Biological Sciences until 1st August 2013, when we got divorced, but we're happily divorced and have joint custody of the children and property to think about so it's not been a clean divide, there's a lot of overlap and that is A Very Good Thing in my book - we don't have enough cross-department collaboration in the UK, other than a current trend for a very inorganic, forced "interdisciplinarity" that is done to attract funding and which I hate - it's contrived.  

Anyway, the ceremony! The weather was awful all weekend and on Monday morning and I felt awful for the students as one of the wonderful things we have is that they get their final "Class of [Year]" photo taken with the Plymouth Sound and English Channel as their backdrop and it's really very beautiful. Throughout the ceremony itself, the wind was pretty high which kept making the beautiful solid-sided marquee we have on the Plymouth Hoe for the week of ceremonies and I was marginally concerned that the place was going to collapse but it was fine in the end, of course. As well as our own students being awarded qualifications ranging from DipHE to BSc to MSc to PGDip to PGCert and PhD on the day, the artists Gilbert & George were awarded Doctorates of Arts on Monday too, which was interesting as we don't usually get to interact too much with the arts, as scientists, and their perspective was interesting during their speech - within which they read out their 10 Commandments, most of which apply to all disciplines and certainly do to biology:

Thou shalt fight conformism
Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
Thou shalt make use of sex
Thou shalt reinvent life
Thou shalt create artificial art
Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
Thou shalt not know exactly what thou dost, but thou shalt do it
Thou shalt give thy love
Thou shalt grab the soul
Thou shalt give something back

It's always nice at Graduation to see students do well - I was particularly proud of one of my project students who had done exceptionally well and it was lovely to meet his parents (always interesting to see how different people act around their families!) - but it's also nice to see students who've managed to get to the end of their programme against the odds. I spent the best part of a decade managing Halls of Residence at two universities in the UK and saw a lot more of the dark underbelly of universities than many academics ever do and I think it's made me appreciate just how difficult some peoples' lives can be.

Dr Rich Billington inducts some undergraduates (he's not quite that small in real life!). Copyright © 2013 University of Plymouth (Dr Rich Boden). All rights reserved.

Dr Rich Billington inducts some undergraduates (he's not quite that small in real life!). Copyright © 2013 University of Plymouth (Dr Rich Boden). All rights reserved.

On Tuesday, we met our new undergraduates - the first class of the School of Biological Sciences - all four of our degree programmes met together for a welcome by the Head of School and a quick word from me about websites and Twitter and then we took the BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences cohort off for a separate welcome talk in detail, which I live-tweeted. It's great when you've worked with someone enough to know what they're going to say before they say it - I managed to post everything he was about to say before he'd even said it and a lot of our students have started to interact with us on Twitter which is a new way for us as a School to communicate with our students formally so it's a bit of an adjustment on both sides, I think, but we're going to keep the momentum up as it's clearly a useful platform for this. 

Tom's enrichment cultures, looking for moderately thermophilic lithoautotrophs growing on (as two groups): thiosulfate (left), tetrathionate (middle) and elementary sulfur (right). The left-hand group and right-hand group were inoculated from different locations and all were incubated at 50°C - the left-hand group have grown more, based on the presence of visible biomass and a yellow-ish colour. The right-hand group are purple-ish - this is due to a pH indicator, which changes from purple (pH 6.73) to yellow (pH 4.50) when the pH falls due to sulfuric acid production during growth. Copyright © 2013 University of Plymouth (Dr Rich Boden).

Tom's enrichment cultures, looking for moderately thermophilic lithoautotrophs growing on (as two groups): thiosulfate (left), tetrathionate (middle) and elementary sulfur (right). The left-hand group and right-hand group were inoculated from different locations and all were incubated at 50°C - the left-hand group have grown more, based on the presence of visible biomass and a yellow-ish colour. The right-hand group are purple-ish - this is due to a pH indicator, which changes from purple (pH 6.73) to yellow (pH 4.50) when the pH falls due to sulfuric acid production during growth. Copyright © 2013 University of Plymouth (Dr Rich Boden).

After that, meetings, meetings, meetings and then managed to spend a few hours in the lab yesterday teaching Tom (Research Assistant) how to perform a cerimetric titration of ferrous iron in a culture of Leptosprillum ferrooxidans , which we are using as a control for some bioleaching work. I then spent a bit of today managing to do some reading on co-oxidation of metals alongside ferrous iron in what we now call Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans , which I have a project student this coming term working on for his dissertation.

Tomorrow is my joint postdoc with Dr Mick Hanley's last day - Dr Liz Franklin is moving on to a technical post in Bournemouth after an eclectic time doing a PhD in ant behaviour at Bristol then spending time with myself and Mick on two projects - firstly looking at how bioenergy crops effect farmland, basically, and then working for me helping to get the groundwork done for MAsC, showing amazing dedication to finishing it all off ready to hand over to her replacement shortly. 

From Graduands To Graduates

My doctoral robes (Copyright © 2012 University of Plymouth [Dr Richard Billington])

My doctoral robes (Copyright © 2012 University of Plymouth [Dr Richard Billington])

This coming Monday (16th Sept) is the graduation ceremony for our School - our current graduands (having completed their degree but having not yet formally graduated to become a Bachelor of Science) will be formally awarded their degree and conferred the rank of Bachelor of Science. This is quite a nice day of the year because not only do we get to dress up smart and don our doctoral robes, we also get to say goodbye to our students as they return to Plymouth once more to accept their degree and then go off into the world. Last year, I only knew one student who was graduating - he was about to join me to start his Ph.D a week later - but this year I know a whole two - my 2012-2013 dissertation students. I was on a slightly reduced teaching load for 2012-2013 academic year in that I didn't have to take the full suite of project students but next year, I'm happy that I'll know most of the students graduating, which will be nice. It's a very odd experience being there as basically an observer - I'm looking forward to being more of a part of it next year. The first time I ever wore my doctoral robes was at someone else's graduation ceremony - in fact, I've not been to ceremonies for either of my two degrees - couldn't be bothered (it's not something I regret, to be honest) but it's nice to be there for my own students. 

What else have I been up to in the last few weeks? Well, BioORE has had it's first team meeting up in Birmingham and is now well under way - it's very exciting to be leading my first major Consortium Project and I have a wonderful team behind me who are all very giving and supportive and producing some really nice science. I've mainly been preparing for the new academic year in many ways - module websites, lecture slides, handouts, making sure it all suits my disabled students, trying to organise myself for an exceptionally heavy teaching load in the next few months so that I can walk through that side of things and keep my focus on BioORE. I'm exhausted - really I am - but I've never been happier professionally than in the last 18 months and I get to work with some lovely, warm, sharp, hilarious, intelligent people who're making me up my game every day - for the first time in my life I feel like I'm "a biologist" or even "a scientist" rather than being blinkered and thinking narrowly as a bacteriologist that only focussed heavily on two or three things - I'm still heavily, heavily focussed on them but my sight has been widened and I'm able to work on some fascinating projects at the moment. 

On pre-term buzzes and cursed projects

The University is just entering my favourite part of the academic year - the start! In about 3 weeks, the place will be alive with students again and I'm really looking forward to it. This is undoubtedly the busiest part of the year for most academics - prior to term starting, we have to get through the marking of replacement examinations (these are when students have Exceptional Circumstances and can't sit their summer examinations and, if the Exam Board agrees, they can try it again as a first attempt in late August), which have a remarkably fast turn-around; sorting out Module Handbooks and Programme Handbooks, lecture content, tutorial content and so on - all ready for when term starts - new signage (we're a new School after all!)...and we're still on the tail end of Clearing and accepting the odd person here and there at the moment.  A lot of academics are still cramming in a last-minute holiday before term starts but the bulk of my colleagues leave shortly for the annual field-trip to the Azores for our second year undergraduates. At present, I'm physically incapable of managing it and so I'm not involved but I would love to be and I hope in future we may be able to find a work-around that will allow me to be more actively involved - I'm speaking to my Access To Work Advisor on Monday to see what options we have - they've been pretty amazing in the last 18 months with helping me backstage to enable me to do the same as everyone else, more or less. They'll all be back from the Azores just in time for my favourite week of all - Induction Week.

Plymouth Sound. This is the view we're treated to during Graduation each September! Copyright © 2007 Kate Jewell (CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Plymouth Sound. This is the view we're treated to during Graduation each September! Copyright © 2007 Kate Jewell (CC-BY-SA 2.0).

We have one week for our new Undergraduates to get settled, which begins on the Monday with us spending the day with our old  Undergraduates! We have a day of the Graduation Ceremony - the one day of the year you'll see academics in suits. We're very, very fortunate here in that ours has the spectacular backdrop of the Plymouth Sound as it's all done in an amazing venue on the Hoe. It's always nice to get this final goodbye to our graduands as they become graduates and to see how proud their families and friends are. We sit of course on the stage and are watching the audiences as much as they are watching us. Whilst it's a long ceremony, every smile and clap from us is as genuine as those from families and friends - we're enormously proud of our students regardless of their degree result - if they've worked hard then that's enough for us. You get out of university what you put into it and the same goes for the staff - the more you give, the more rewarding the job is, in my opinion.

After that, the next morning we meet our new students for the first time - this is the point when our Tutees are assigned to us and we're then their first port-of-call for the three or four years - it's a very valuable relationship and I wish more students understand that we are almost always  on their side and want what's best for them, but, like parents, they may not always agree with us at the time, but might thank us later, I find! Sometimes years and years later. The rest of induction week is a range of activities arranged to teach basic lab methods and a bit of introductory bonding and then we take them all over to Mount Edgcumbe in Cornwall to do some observations of wildlife and some basic ecology experiments to help ease them into university-level science. After that, it's wall-to-wall teaching-and-research for us until next June, really.

On a final note, I think MAsC is cursed. Every postdoc on the project has managed to get a permanent or long-term post within days  of joining my team! One's gone to Australia, one's going to the USA and the other's off to Bournemouth very soon. Thankfully, I've someone waiting in the wings and as MAsC hasn't started yet, it's not a big deal. But, if you're a postdoc and want a permanent post in an exotic location, simply join the MAsC team and you'll get one the next day, it seems!

Re-writing, Re-writing, Re-writing

That's what I've done thus far this week - rewriting. I've not done anything de novo , I've just rehashed stuff. I've decided I'm now fatigued enough to warrant a week or two off but if I'm going to do it, I've got to do it soon, so I'm trying to get all my teaching stuff that needs doing by mid-Sept ready now so that it's all done and dusted and out of the way. And so the annual cycle of re-examining last year's lectures, looking at the student feedback, looking at what does/doesn't work in the eyes of the students and re-writing/re-jigging/cutting/replacing/discarding/starting over - the process that's probably not really appreciated by our audience as of course each year of students has no knowledge of the history of the module or the changes that have been made based on what did or didn't work well last year. Contrary to popular belief, every single bit of feedback we get - good or bad - is listened to, acted upon and things do change every year as a consequence.

This morning, I had the inevitable panic of going through my timetable for this coming year (which has now all been downloaded into my Outlook Calender through a complex process of syncing as a second calender on top of my main one, exporting it and then re-importing it into my main calender as a non-syncing set of static dates/times - it's the only way to get it all into one calender it seems...ahhh technology!) and finding not just one session I couldn't remember booking but a whole bunch of first year practicals I had no idea about...! After a few phone calls I managed to remember that these were part of some teaching I've taken over from a colleague who recently retired and when it came to booking the sessions I said "Oh just give me whatever length sessions G used to have and I'll sort it out later" (which explains why the class was a length I'd never normally go for!) and so now here I am - I know why I've got them scheduled but not a clue what G actually used them for ! Quite a few conversations with colleagues and technicians later and I've now got his notes for the technical staff so I know what they were  but now I need to finalise what they are . Taking over content that someone else used to teach is something akin to taking over a leading role in a play - you want to make it your own but you've got a limited range of movement in which you can do it - the blocking and the costumes are still all theirs but you do what you can with re-emphasising the lines and seeing if you can have a different wig - that sort of thing. Ok, we get a lot more freedom than that but it does take a few years to make the role your own - a few cycles of lectures, exams, exam marks, feedback, changes, lectures exams... And similarly, just as the new starring role you've taken over might require some daredevil stunt or fire-eating or nudity, this one involves something I don't like much either. Fungi. I have to teach fungi. I hate  fungi. Well, ok, I don't hate fungi, I hate their bizarre taxonomic system and, just like certain bits of mathematics and physics make my brain just go "ARGH" and panic and refuse to play, fungal taxonomy does the same! Thankfully for both myself and my students, I'm covering their physiology which is actually quite enjoyable and a subject I know pretty well but it's just a bit too  near to fungal taxonomy for me right now and I'm hoping this isn't like doing a topless scene being the start of the slippery slope towards ending up on Channel 5 late at night in some manner of 'documentary' (ahem!) and that I don't end up doing fungal taxonomy any time soon!

Other than that, most of this week has been spent dealing with our lawyers to finalise the legal agreements on our BioORE project and spending inordinate amounts of time reading through the Brunswick Long Form agreement which is just thrilling . Today at about 1730h, I realised it had been exactly 3 weeks since my surgery to remove my non-functional gallbladder which meant that (a) I had been back at work for 2 whole weeks and (b) I could now lift things again without very high risk of damage/herniation...so I celebrated by moving my desk at work - I've been meaning to - since March - flip it around so that I could enjoy my view of the English Channel without having to stop work and turn left to do so...today I finally go around to it. It's made me a lot more room for various things and I've gained a lot of storage space in the process. Nothing like a change ready for the new academic year!

On the evolution of a research project

The BioORE Logo, designed by Lizz Score for the University of Plymouth Document Production Centre.

The BioORE Logo, designed by Lizz Score for the University of Plymouth Document Production Centre.

Last month, I got an email I had both been waiting for and dreading in equal measure - the email to tell me the outcome of a grant application to the Natural Environment Research Council for something called "Catalyst Funding". A Catalyst grant is a small grant - less than £125,000 in this case - that basically gives you time and assistance with getting together the people, the information and the resources to apply for a much bigger grant down the road. This particularly Catalyst is part of the Security of Supply of Mineral Resources call and is only available for work involving the so-called "E-tech" it happened, the email was good news - we had obtained funding and the project officially starts on 1st September 2013 and runs for 9 months. I thought it might be of use to undergraduates, postgraduates, early-career scientists and the taxpayer (who basically pays for this kind of research) to understand how these projects come about, evolve and get funded and so that is what I am exploring today.

I'm never completely sure what those outside of research management think the origin of projects is like - I think they picture either high-powered meetings in boardrooms with suits sometimes but it's more often than not the corner of a crowded pub, writing on the back of an old bus ticket! In the case of this project, known as BioORE [Biogeochemistry, Bioextraction & Biorecovery of Rare Earth Elements], it was mostly born by email but I guess the conception was sitting on some steps overlooking St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, eating lunch, in February 2013. As is often the way in life, some plans fall through but they gain us valuable knowledge, experience and contacts and for me, that happened a few years ago now when I was trying to get a job at the University of Birmingham, which wasn't to be, but in the process, I met Prof Lynne Macaskie who I share a lot of research interests with and we're pretty much on the same wavelength. We'd discussed biogeochemical issues of the rare earths back when we first met but since I'd moved to Plymouth, I'd opened a programme of research dedicated to understanding and exploiting their biogeochemistry, so when we met for lunch several years later outside the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, sparks of ideas started to fly.

I was in Birmingham that day because Lynne had invited me to present some of my rare earth work at a meeting she had organised, funded by and attended by the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency as part of their REIMEI initiative. I managed to collar Lynne and ask if I could join her and others for lunch and once we got talking we realised a lot of what I was already doing and she was already doing could be put together and we started to discuss putting in a grant in December 2013. A few weeks later, I got an email from Lynne to say that NERC had a call for Catalyst projects in exactly the area we were already starting to think about and would I like to join her and others to form a consortium. Little did I know that when I said "yes", within a few weeks I would end up as Director of said consortium and end up writing the grant over a very hectic few weeks which, as luck would have it, marked Lynne's first holiday in a decade - some holiday - we were emailing at midnight as she was in Australia! But to cut a hectic, not-the-right-way-to-do-it-really story short, we got it in on time, thanks to some seriously hard work and patience on the part of the Research & Innovation teams at all of the institutions involved. These are the people who perform the thankless tasks of calculating grant finances, working out overheads, working out salaries and generally beavering away behind the scenes to pull it all together for us - like all Support Staff in all companies of any type, they're often amazing at what they do but seldom seem to get recognition for it.

Monazite from Østfold, Norway. A REE phosphate mineral that also contains thorium and uranium. (Image Copyright © 2010 Rob Lavinsky/iRocks.com CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Monazite from Østfold, Norway. A REE phosphate mineral that also contains thorium and uranium.

(Image Copyright © 2010 Rob Lavinsky/iRocks.com CC-BY-SA-3.0)

I should probably explain what the grant is all about really. The rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of metal from the f-block of the periodic table - that weird bit down the bottom where they all have stupid names or are radioactive or both. Only a few of the REEs are radioactive, however, and those that are release like one alpha particle a week so present no real hazard. The REEs comprise the lanthanide series along with yttrium and scandium from the d-block of metals, usually. They are very important metals and if you own a mobile phone, a modern car, have every had an MRI scan or x-ray or own a TV, you are pretty dependent on the REEs. They're used to make all sorts of things from car body alloys to MRI contrast fluids to x-ray detectors to LCD screens to electronic components and even ceramics. Irritatingly, for metals so useful, they're only found in decent amounts in a few places around the world, but, they are found in smaller amounts elsewhere. The essential goal of BioORE is to look at where REEs are found and in what form and to exploit several biotechnologies to extract and refine them in a clean, green manner.elements - those essential for environmental technologies. 

So what does research funding actually provide? In this case, it mostly pays for staffing costs - some of my time (and that of the other academics and researchers in the UK who are involved) is ring-fenced so that I can dedicate about 10% of the next 9 months to this project. We also have travel money for various meetings and some money to undertake a little bench research to get some pilot data for the bigger grant application downstream. Yes, by May 2014, I need to submit a longer, larger grant application for a much bigger project based on BioORE! Scary stuff...!

Reflections on Clearing Week

Stunt planes over the Plymouth Hoe, Friday 16th August 2013 - about 1800h.

Part of the deal with getting my research team a better lab presence is that I've promised myself that I need to start blogging again and I've decided to focus on my work, my work-life balance and bits of my life that are relevant, for this new blog. 

Well, what a week. Every year the A-level results week seems to become more of a big deal in my life and longer hours but greater overall reward. 10 years ago, I was managing a Hall of Residence in London and would've spent this week signing students' contracts, allocating their bedrooms - trying to make communities of people who would get along well (I am responsible for several marriages and at least four children, all the product of people who fell for the boy/girl next door during their first year of university!) and shielding literally hundreds of phone calls a day from parents upset about where their child had ended up. It was long, hard work and it's pretty tiring explaining for the 57th time in one day that someone's son/daughter can't have an en suite  bedroom because the College doesn't have any en suite  bedrooms left to have as they are all already full. 

Ten years later and I'm still involved in the A-level results process but now more of a managerial/backstage role - in my Communications Officer role in the School of Biological Sciences, part of what I deal (jointly with one of my friends and colleagues) with is our online presence through various different media and over the Clearing period, I lead quite a large (though I can only see that in hindsight) online marketing campaign to push our science programmes. There's nothing like a busy, stressful week to make a team pull together and the amount of conversations I've been party to this week in which people were just giving one another a kind word and a bit of encouragement was amazing - I think everyone all too often forgets to do this day-to-day so when you're hearing it all the time it seems very odd - but it's very genuine. One of my favourite things about my job is working with such a tight, supportive, well rounded team of individuals in my School and our recently separated School of Biomedical & Healthcare Sciences - until 1st August 2013, we were all one School, but in a University restructure, we've separated though at present only on paper - they're still my corridor mates and they're still (hopefully!) our pub-mates on a Friday evening. It'll be strange not working with them but we'll still be working near them for the time being and that's a good thing: 

You don't know what you've got till it's gone

as Joni Mitchell once sang.  Restructuring is one of those things that unis like to do, it seems, as everywhere I've ever worked has done it lots of times. It's not a bad thing but it does mean change and humans aren't very good at change but, as changes go, I think this one is very positive and our new School has got a real chance at present and I for one intend to try very hard to make sure we flourish.

The main working week finished for me about 1800h on Friday. For once, I eschewed the pub in favour of finishing up some paperwork and going home for an early night (which didn't happen) as my spinal pain was playing up (I was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and a very mild type of spina bifida)  from having spent a few weeks desk-bound owing to not being able to do lab work for a while following some major surgery at the end of July - all a long story but in short, I wasn't in the mood for the pub. About 20 minutes before I'd intended to leave, I happened to glance out of my office window and saw a really amazing sight. Just as I looked out of my Portland Square office, over towards Mount Batten, a group of 5 or 6 stunt plants (not sure which ones) were doing formation flying down over Mount Batten and along the water of the Sound, inside of the Breakwater. By the time I'd gotten my camera out, they'd moved on to looping the loop over the Sound - I just about managed to get one awful snapshot of them as I spent a lot of time just staring in awe. The view from my window of the Sound is extraordinary and I can't get over still how relaxing and inspiring the Sound and Channel can be. I love the sea very much and I find visiting it very relaxing - even better when it's a 10 minute walk from my house! So after a good 10 minutes staring out at the Sound and watching those amazing planes, I packed up and went home. 

Clearing Week must've exhausted me - I'm not great on my energy levels at the best of times and I've learnt to work when I have energy and not try and work when I have none. It's not tiredness, it's not laziness, it's fatigue.  Fatigue caused by the constant pain and the presence of hardcore pain relief in my blood 24/7. Fatigue caused by pushing against my body's failings so that I can do the job that I enjoy so much. With A-level results coming out at 0001h on Thursday, if you're doing any kind of online marketing, you need to be there at 0001h seeing peoples' response as it comes and responding to it - which is what I did. Quite a few big swigs of my trusty Metatone and a lot of cups of coffee got me through it...and when I finally went to bed on Friday night, I slept for 15h solid. Had I overdone it? Hard to say - I know my limits and I had not knowingly gone beyond them but when you love your job and you're having fun, it never seems so bad. Besides, we work hard and play hard in the team I am in and we managed to slot in a much needed trip to the pub on Thursday night for a bit of R&R after a long and busy day for a lot of people.

Worth it? Hell yeah! I used to enjoy, back in my Hall Of Residence days, knowing I'd found someone a place to live, knowing I'd made someone's day by finding their daughter a place in another Hall that was better suited to her disability, knowing I'd helped someone's first steps at life in London just a little bit easier. I rediscovered some of that feeling this week - though I didn't speak to any students on the phone, just via Twitter and other social media, I know from our statistics that I helped in some way through what I was doing backstage to help a lot of people find a place at university that they'd perhaps given up hope of finding. That's what Clearing does - it clears the panic of not quite getting the results you were hoping for by giving you alternative options and if I've helped one person this week find themselves a place on a degree programme then the hours put in by the hundreds of people involved in Clearing here were worth it.