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!