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 Inorganic, Organic 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...)