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Do you want to be a bona fide scientist? (Part 2)

My PhD life was, admittedly, not nearly as much fun as had been my time as a technician. Nonetheless, I sustained the rather nerdy “Dungeons and Dragons” club I had founded, grew in my role as a “Friend of the Bar” (the parties we had are the stuff of legends – and there are stories that could be told that would have people hunting me down), and overall thoroughly enjoyed the life of a scientist at Colney Lane. It was a community that shared a love for discovery with the freedom to have fun.

I had always been blessed by the communal idea at the John Innes Centre that, if you contributed to the work (even as a technician), you got on the paper. So, publishing was not so much of a new thing – although being autonomous and fully responsible for the work was a new experience, as was presenting it formally to audiences of people I always thought smarter than me (I still cringe over public speaking, or “pontificating”, as I call it).

Similarly, the enhanced stresses of not only doing the wet-lab work, but of figuring out what work had to be done and why; and ensuring that it all fit into a vast and expanding puzzle board of projects; that was something of an acquired taste.

But, I felt that I had made an informed choice and had an obligation of honour towards those that had fought to give me such a ground-breaking opportunity. So, I exerted myself mercilessly to complete my work, insisting on dozens of multiples of replicates in each experiment, and dozens of repeats for each experiment. I was constantly horrified at the thought of putting my name to something that was not as “proven” as humanly possible.

In this matter, three thoughts always guided me:

Phases of my PhD

(1) Nothing in science is ever really “fact”. Nothing is ever “proven”, it is only repeatedly demonstrated with the same result and, possibly, the same conclusion – but, it would only ever take one person with the right experiment and the right controls to prove it all wrong.

(2) “You can never cheat in science, as someone will find out eventually. You might be dead by the time they do, but they will catch you in the end – and who wants to ruin their reputation when they are past recovering it?” These words from my ‘O’ level biology teacher ring and echo in my ears to this day.

(3) The faith of my colleagues and friends – so many of whom had put themselves on the line to put me within reach of becoming that “bona fide scientist”. This “debt of honour”, combined with the prickling sensation that I was being carefully watched – by the university, the government sponsors, and the veritable ghost of John Innes himself, was perhaps the most pressing force on my mind!

So, I worked and worked and became friends with the campus security – who would bring me coffee in the early hours, “tsk” and “tut” at me for not going home to sleep, and debate over the pros and cons of holding unofficial gay marriages at the campus Recreational Centre.

It all took its eventual toll, and I was granted a six-month extension to complete my writing whilst recovering from surgery.

This rather daunting time, again the stuff to perhaps fill pages of my memoirs, highlighted once more the qualities of the people with whom I was privileged to work. With their support and patience, everything came together to produce a thesis of which I am still immeasurably proud (and so was my mother)… Although it is now sitting in a box in a cupboard somewhere, and I heard that Andy has lost his copy…

Ultimately, the John Innes Institute (as it was known back then) was the place that made manure – or so my non-science friends always joked, but it is also the place that nurtured me for a decade: running oligosynthesis machines, transluminators, sequencers, centrifuges, microtomes, a bar and a role-playing club! At John Innes, I discovered that science is as exhilarating, as fun and as populated by amazing people (some running around nude, some in diapers and lingerie, some just screaming in rage – I told you I had stories), as I had ever thought possible. Of course, I also popped a few Eppendorfs with dry ice, and threw the odd overcooked Brussel Sprout…

Life at John Innes was, to me, the fulfilment of a childhood ambition – nurtured in my box chemistry set, playing with sulfur and magnifying glasses and toy rockets, and ants. History shows that I became that “bona fide scientist”, but I also found many lifelong friends, experienced a bookcase worth of stories with which to bore my daughter, and made a few interesting discoveries; even if, as anyone in a lab will attest, some of one’s discoveries will always be published by someone else first!

As a newcomer to John Innes, I was given a chance. As a technician at John Innes, I was given responsibility – over millions of dollars of equipment, as well as the reputations of my colleagues. As a student at John Innes, I was given my dream. So, what happened next?

Well, whilst at Colney Lane, I had also found the lady who would later become my wife, and that discovery encouraged me to step further out of my comfort zones and eventually travel to a tiny Red Dot in South-East Asia – a newcomer largely unproven at the time in the sciences: Singapore.

Many thought I was making a poor (and, perhaps, emotionally-driven) choice, because a PhD studied at John Innes was the key to the doors of labs almost anywhere, and I chose somewhere that didn’t really even have doors at the time. Of course, my wife (well, girlfriend at the time) being a visiting student from the National University of Singapore might have tipped the balance somewhat, I guess…

Nonetheless, I relished the idea of proving myself again, in my somewhat egotistic belief that I could help somewhere unknown become known. And, sometimes, a gamble pays off: many that then called me mad, today seek to join my asylum in the Tropics.

At my farewell party, Andy presented me with a somewhat prescient gift – a brief case, and referred to me as “the longest serving non-permanent member of the institute”. To this day, I wonder if that was a complement or a sigh of relief…

Arriving at temporary facilities in Singapore, and helping in the development of a new institute, I continued to expand the toolkit my alma mater had birthed for me, but this growth also gradually pulled me further and further from the bench. I founded and edited an institutional magazine, established staff benefit systems, mentored students at both post-graduate and pre-university levels and, eventually, became a “cursed administrator” full time when I moved from the bench to pure academia – heading a school of life sciences.

As we all know, evolution is an on-going process, if not a consistent one. Mine continued in academia, but further and further from the wet-lab of plants and viruses, and into the wetter one of student minds. I continued my training, obtaining secondary qualifications in psychotherapy and natural medicines, and expanded my interests and networks by, amongst other things, publishing business pieces and even poetry!

Such eclecticism seems to be a hallmark of John Innes alumni – we had opera singers, photographers, cartoonists, dancers, actors, musicians (including a bagpiper who is still at Colney Lane today); and it was both fulfilling and illuminating to see such clear evidence that biology truly is a discipline of and for art and science in arguably equal measure!

Today, having been the bench geek and the unusual academic nerd – variously heading a life sciences school, a magazine and a student development team – I have ventured out on my own gamble as an independent consultant working with industries as diverse as commercial research organisations, recruiters, governments, schools, fuel companies and even restaurants.

I had always felt that, having “frittered and wasted my time in an offhand way” (to paraphrase Pink Floyd) and doing so poorly in my ‘A’ levels, I had missed any chance to gain access to the Ivory Towers of science. The John Innes Institute showed me that, although an appropriate degree is an admirable key to the main gate, the tradesman’s entrance and windows can work at a pinch and are no less “honourable”. I was given a chance at JII and I had the time of my life proving I deserved it.

From that chance, I coined a motto I try to embed deeply into the minds of all of my mentees:

Accept criticism, complaints and failure. Warmly embrace them. We usually only make progress after we make mistakes – that’s why it’s called “screwing UP!”

Too often students seem to believe that they must follow the worn path: ‘O’ levels to ‘A’ levels to Bachelor’s degree to PhD to postdoc to Group Leader and Professor.

Don’t be fooled!

The path of your life is not a railway line – you can always make course corrections anywhere along the way.

The study of life science can be a “life tool” for anyone regardless of how badly they may have “screwed-up” before and no matter what their aspirations might eventually be. Gird yourself to hard work, lots of fun, and the pure fire-in-the-belly passion to properly acquire new skills and new knowledge, and to suitably apply yourself in everything that you do. Listen to those around you at all levels and in all disciplines, you never know who will best enable you to conduct the symphony of careers your life will inevitably entail.

The experiences, education and training that can be gleaned from a time of youthful exploration will not only provide the keys to many doors, but also the ladders to enable the climb to the top windows. And, the best bit is, the house against which the ladder is leant is but a matter of choice.

The path of your life is not a railway line – you can always make course corrections anywhere along the way. So, never despair and never feel that you are “only” anything. We are defined by more than our careers alone, and there is very little we cannot achieve if we truly make the effort, seek out and openly accept the help we need, and always endeavour to send the elevator back down.

Success comes to those who believe, aspire and make the effort… But, of course, it helps to be given a leg-up at times!

Read part 1 here

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