Taking the Chair

Robert Macintosh recently wrote an article in the THE about how to chair a meeting. This is a topic that I have dealt with before on my blog in light-hearted vein – describing those chairs you really hope you never have to serve under, beautifully illustrated in cartoon form on the Upturned Microscope blog – but it is a topic I feel strongly about. And, in part, I disagree with what Macintosh writes. So, let me revisit the issue in a more serious vein than my earlier post. (Apologies, I know it’s meant to be the festive season but, despite what Jo Johnson and Lord Adonis may think, most of us academics have serious things to do even after the students depart).

Image result for miss triggs

This Punch cartoon from 1988 is an excellent example of how not to run an inclusive committee meeting.

When I wrote my previous post, I really had grant-giving or promotions panels in mind, since those are the sorts of committees with which I had had most prior experience.  Since then the sorts of committees I’ve had responsibility for have diversified. It is clear that ‘judging’ panels have certain characteristics that don’t apply so much to, say, the sorts of local departmental committees I think the Macintosh piece refers to. Nevertheless, there will always be common strands. So let me counter Macintosh’s article with my own set of recommendations for the novice chair.

Timing and Logistics

Most important I think is the issue about timing. Whether the meeting is scheduled for 1 hour or 8 (or even more than one day, as grant panels often are), knowing where you should be on the agenda at each stage is crucial if the business is to be completed effectively. That also means you can factor in ‘comfort breaks’ at convenient – and regular – intervals. A committee member whose legs are crossed will not be at their best. For those who need caffeine to stay awake, regular coffee breaks are often of assistance. Biscuits may also be constructive, bearing in mind the study that said people were less prone to unconscious bias if they were topped up with sugar. It may be bad for the teeth and waistline, but if good for minority interests and fair play I’m all in favour.

In advance of any meeting I’m chairing likely to take over a couple of hours, I ask the secretary to give an indication to me of approximate anticipated times on my briefing paper. In particular this can be vital if the chair of some subsidiary committee, or any other external member, is expected to turn up to some specific item on the agenda. It is rude to ask them to turn up at 1530, only to find you don’t get near their point on the agenda until 1645. But it happens, the more so without due planning.


Where I strongly disagree with Mackintosh is in his recommendation ‘sack the minute taker’. I think this is unwise. If the chair is to make notes throughout the meeting, they are less able to concentrate on making sure all voices are heard. The chair should be watching body language as well as listening to verbal language. If they are concentrating on scribbling they will miss many of the nuances, such as the slight twitch of body or eyebrows which indicates someone silent is wishing to make a contribution; or the clenched fist or jaw hinting at strong disagreement; or, perhaps most common, the tapping pencil highlighting impatience and boredom. Sometimes it is necessary not just to have a one line summary of the conclusions reached, but a careful record of who said what. Not all committees require that, but in many cases – particularly if the committee in question feeds in to another one, for instance helping a higher level one  understand the strength of feelings on some topic and how these vary from faculty to faculty – these sorts of details are required.

Even if that is not the case, a chair who writes the record of the meeting is much more likely to impose their own slant on to the wording in ways that may not reflect what actually happened, but be hard to correct by circulation after the event. Such a person may amount to the Benevolent Dictator Chair I described before, or could be someone much more Machiavellian. In any case they could be perceived as drafting the record in ways that did not do justice to the subtlety of the discussion.  So, I would say, give me a neutral secretary every time to take the minutes. In any case, this paradigm of efficiency and excellence is the person I expect to prepare me a briefing, remind me of previous decisions or papers, make sure we have dates for meetings going forward….all the crucial details that I am prone to forget.


Mackintosh uses the curious phrase ‘avoid room meat’ as one of his instructions. I have not heard committee members referred to in this way, but I know what he means. Members who turn up and never speak are a concern. Sometimes people are there because they represent a particular constituency, for instance the student body. As such, it is important their views are heard and a chair should be trying to draw them out to make certain this happens if at all possible. Sometimes nerves may overwhelm a person, particularly if they feel out of their depth or outclassed by the seniority of others. All the more important, then, to try to get them to speak in those situations, but if this still doesn’t work it may be sensible to talk to them outside the meeting so that you know if their silence means acquiescence, indifference or strongly-held views they don’t know how to express in front of others.

A chair may or may not have responsibility for selecting committee members. Often not, although they may have input into the sorts of people needed to cover the breadth of topics. Either as a new chair, taking over an existing committee, or when the entire committee is new, it is important for the chair to have some sense of the membership. It isn’t always possible to know in advance that two members loathe each other and will oppose each other come what may; or that one member is the ex-partner of another. But if you can get any sense of where people are coming from in advance that can be helpful, although not always possible. By the end of the first meeting or two it should be possible to tell where friction is lurking or who is going to attempt to dominate any conversation (and needs to be politely told to shut up). After that, in my experience chairing is likely to get easier once you are no longer operating in the dark.

Learn from Others

Since the Macintosh article was clearly written to help those aspiring to fill the chair’s role at a later date, I will take that stance too. I believe the most important way of learning is by watching others. When first invited onto a committee, any committee, observe your colleagues. Observe the chair, what they do right and what they do wrong. Often it is the latter that is most important to pick up so as to avoid it in the future. My previous blogpost identified some ways in which chairs can get it wrong. Previously I have also written about the bad habits of committee members themselves, of which dominating the debate or waffling indefinitely are the two I consider most egregious for the well-being and success of the committee’s work. Finding ways to prevent such behaviour tactfully is never easy, but is a crucial skill for the chair to learn. I was touched to receive a Christmas card this year from a student member of a committee I chair saying how much they had learned from watching me. They could, of course, have meant about how not to do things, but I chose to take it as a compliment.

Chairing a committee is undoubtedly a skill that needs work; one never gets it entirely right. Anyhow, every committee has its own dynamic so that what works in one situation – light humour, for instance, or rigid time-keeping – may be disastrous in another. Macintosh’s advice seems directed towards efficiency, which is not necessarily the same as effectiveness.  I feel there are other skills required to get the most out of a given bunch of well-intentioned if inexperienced colleagues. This post should be read in tandem with his advice. And then, when that moment comes when first you adopt the Chair’s chair, you need to find what works for you with your own particular committee membership and brief. Good luck!

Correction: Apologies for consistently mis-spelling Rob Macintosh’s name when first posted: now corrected


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Assertively Asking Questions

Different sources pointed me towards a paper appearing on the Arχiv this week discussing when and why men and women ask questions after a seminar presentation. A brief write up even appeared in The Economist, a sure indicator that a piece of academic research has resonated way beyond its home turf. Asking questions at the end of a public talk (seminar, conference and so on) is bread and butter in academia. For some people it seems to come naturally, be it the elderly professor who looks like he’s slept through the entire talk and then asks a killer question, or the confident new hire who asks a question at every seminar all term whether it is appropriate (or pleasant) or not. However, other people – myself included – don’t find it so easy.

I’ve said this before: asking questions at the end of talks is one of the activities that (still) makes me most nervous. However, I have also noticed that if I am chairing a seminar or conference talk, so that it is incumbent on me to be ready to fire off a question or two if there is silence from the floor, I have no qualms. At one level this makes no sense: a question is a question is a question. But my physical reaction does not indicate my body or brain think this is true. Internally I feel I have carte blanche to be challenging when I’m in the chair, but not otherwise apparently. As the Arχiv paper makes clear, we all will have internalised gender role stereotypes including about what constitutes an appropriate level of assertiveness. If asking questions carries the implication that one is stepping beyond an acceptable level of this for one’s gender, then the inference would seem to be that one shuts up.  Whatever anyone may think when they meet me about how assertive my behaviour is, it would seem that I too have internalised this gender stereotype when it comes to asking seminar questions.

The lead author of the paper I’m referring to, Alecia Carter, is a former Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College, and the last time I heard her talk was in the College and it was about primates; specifically it was about foraging and the dissemination of social information amongst baboons based on work in the field in Africa. It could be argued she is still working hard on primates, even though you may not consider a seminar audience in that light. Indeed, as was said to me, her work continues to be about ‘display behaviour in male primates’.

Her research, along with her three international co-workers, studied what the pattern of questions at the end of a talk was. They used observations ‘in the field’ at seminars in Cambridge and elsewhere, across 10 countries and 35 institutions in total. What they found was that by and large men asked proportionally more questions (i.e. after allowing for the percentage of men and women in the audience) than women. However, perhaps most interestingly, she also found that if a woman asked the first question then other women were far more likely to join in. Again, this looks like a case of ‘permission given’, the title I gave to my earlier post. A role model of a woman asking the first question appeared to make it easier for other women to chip in and ask additional ones. Indeed, if a woman asked the first question then essentially the questions distributed according to the gender split in the audience; if a man asked first, the questions were skewed strongly in favour of men. The team also explored the reasons given for not asking questions. Women, far more than men, were likely to say they couldn’t ‘work up the nerve’ or that they weren’t ‘clever enough’. Men suffered from these anxieties much less, demonstrating why they felt much more confident to ask.

It is clear that the authors were hoping to come up with not only insight into what was going on, but what might help to turn things around. They postulated that allowing longer question time might give women more time to get their courage together to open their mouth. The two occasions when they tried to manipulate the situation to provide this extra time, though, this didn’t seem to happen. The crucial thing seems to be, the clear message that session chairs should bear in mind, is that giving the woman the microphone first may make all the difference to the women in the audience. And if those women find they can ask a question and the floor doesn’t open up and swallow them, it can only aid their development as researchers.

It is interesting that a single lead-off female role model makes such a difference. In careers more generally, the evidence supporting the importance of role models is actually quite sparse, whatever anecdote may suggest and however much younger women swear that meeting or seeing Dr Jane Doe was really important in providing inspiration to them to keep on keeping on. But in this specific, carefully studied example it seems clear that a real difference was being made by a woman kicking question time off as a role model. Will seminar organisers and hosts take note? It would be a very interesting turn-around if they did, but it will still require that first woman to pluck up her courage and stick up her hand.



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Inclusive Leadership

This week I attended an event in the University exploring, broadly speaking, how we can do ‘inclusive leadership’ better. Kicked off by a talk by  Barbara Stocking, President of the women’s college Murray Edwards, who was talking about the various pieces of research her college has instigated and been involved with (Women Today, Women Tomorrow and Working with Men, both well worth a careful read). We also heard from Angela Strank, Chief Scientist at BP, about their own work. What particularly resonated with me were the ‘clippings’ she produced from her personal file, illustrating how – however slow, however frustrating – progress for gender equality is inching forward. As a geologist, after her PhD in the 70s she was not allowed to go to Antarctica or on offshore oil rigs. I recall a contemporary of mine, an engineer, complaining of these same problems: women were categorically not allowed (possibly legally not allowed) to do these things back then. But what really struck home, for a slightly different reason, was an article from 1988 hideously entitled ‘Women can manage if they really try’ (rather implying that up till then the poor weak women hadn’t been trying hard enough at all to juggle children and career), written upon her return to work at BP after a period of maternity leave and illustrated by a photo of her holding her child.

AMD with cropped children

1988 was a year I had a child too, in my case my second. It was also a year in which I won a prize from the Institute of Physics, receiving the letter while I was still on leave – all of 16 weeks paid leave, plus the (unheard-of-for-an-academic at the time) extra 2 weeks I took of unpaid leave to fit in with nursery and term dates. When asked to send a photograph to illustrate the story in their publication I duly did, with my children. You can see what was published above (grainy and black and white thought it is). Where are the children you might ask? I did. If you look carefully you can see a corner of the baby’s head at the bottom right. All other traces of my maternal activities were deliberately excised. It wouldn’t be appropriate, I was told, it would give the wrong impression. A woman who had just given birth and won a prize was apparently conceptually too difficult for the editors to get their head around, so the children had to be expunged. I was furious then; I still am when I think about it, but it amused Angela Strank when I told her and she was keen to be allowed to use the story herself in the future alongside her own with its worse title but more accommodating photograph.

Leaving my personal reminiscences on one side, the event was a stimulating occasion. Challenged to come up with suggestions of activities and initiatives that the University could undertake, we collectively were not short of ideas ranging from working with schools to remove stereotypes, to introducing reverse mentoring for heads of department (reverse mentoring being a tactic favoured in the Working with Men report). I think over 40 ideas were tabled at the time, some of which will be more feasible than others; some of which offer immediate traction and impact, whereas others may be less likely to do so. I am looking forward to seeing the outcomes, both in the reporting but also the real outcomes that matter. Changes in behaviour (still required in some quarters) will be even more important than changes simply in policy.

The other recent activity on this front that I have engaged in was an afternoon exploring ‘Recruitment Essentials’, a training programme being rolled out to all those involved in interviews and selection across the University to get us to focus on good practice and avoiding pitfalls such as bias. Despite the fact that I was greeted by one of the attendees at my particular session with ‘like you really need this’, I disagree. We can always learn from others and, although I perhaps turned up with a slight feeling that I was unlikely to hear much that was unfamiliar to me, what I did learn from the sharing of experiences – usually of bad practice each of the 15 of us in the room had observed – was that there are plenty of new angles to consider. One totally expected common experience was the asking of completely unacceptable questions, usually somehow involving children but in one case about faith.

Another sort of bad example arose from appointment panel members not simply sticking up for ‘their’ candidate but deliberately trashing another one’s. This tactic can of course lead to a ‘compromise’ candidate being appointed that no one really was championing, simply for that reason when departments are too riven by internal competition and strife. My particular experience of this approach was a bit more personal, when another panel member decided to trash my own qualifications so that my views could be the more easily discarded. (I was a professor at the time.) I never knew whether the fact I was the only woman on that particular panel had any bearing but it left a very sour taste in my mouth. SO much so, that I raised it at my next appraisal, only to be told the ‘offender’ was waiting for me to apologise to him. The logic for that proposed course of action escaped me then as it still does now.

Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion was around one’s own internal biases, trying to tease them out and come up with strategies to make the unconscious conscious and therefore more easily avoided. There is no point pretending that unconscious bias, implicit bias, call it what you will is not liable to get in the way of good decisions and it was drummed into us how much setting out precise criteria and experience/qualifications early on in the process is crucial for any kind of job. Most importantly this needs to be done before the advertisement is drawn up to make sure there is no way of fiddling the outcome to suit one’s prejudices later. Otherwise there is nothing sufficiently clearly written down in the abstract to guide the process before a flesh and blood person turns up, triggering positive or negative but irrelevant reactions.

The University is working hard on its equality and diversity agenda. October saw the launch of the Breaking the Silence Campaign, offering support and structures to ensure those who have been the victim of sexual misconduct feel confident enough to speak up. An increase in reporting of such incidents in one sense should be a source of encouragement that the campaign is working, however discouraging every single incident report may make one feel. In the present global climate that is being revealed post Harvey Weinstein through #metoo and much more, it is more important than ever that long-term offenders are not allowed to ‘get away with it’, and that anyone who thinks academia provides a cosy way to prey on others more vulnerable than them is forced to realise no, it isn’t acceptable any more: their victims will speak up, their own future is at risk.

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Industrial Strategy and the Pipeline of Talent

It was unfortunate that the Industrial Strategy White Paper was released on the same day as the Royal Engagement became public. It may not have been intended to be published on a ‘good day to bury bad news’, but it was very noticeable that as far as BBC Radio 4 News was concerned, it went from being top of the headlines at 8am – before it was published – to not being mentioned at all in the headlines by 6pm when everything was about Harry and Meghan. Despite the BBC’s sense of priorities, it is not difficult to work out which is going to have more long-term economic impact within the UK; you can only sell so many commemorative mugs.

At least, I have to hope that the White Paper will have impact on the UK’s economy and, to be more specific, on its productivity. Things are not looking good on that front. By comparison with our EU neighbours we are faltering badly ever since the 2008 crash. Many changes are required in our infrastructure, training, support for businesses (be they small or large) as well as our research base if this is to be turned around. That the Government looks willing to get more interventionist on this front, which has been a no-go area for many years, demonstrates how worried they are.  Brexit is most certainly not going to improve the situation as we lose ground on being able to export  the few things we do still manufacture here and when we cannot rely on easy exchange of labour at all levels in the job market.

Amongst the 255 pages of not very dense text accompanied by some pretty graphics, lurk some important recommendations about school education in the STEM subjects, as well as some warm words aimed at resurrecting some meaningful careers advice for school children (I wrote previously about the inauspicious and dismissive views of previous Secretary of State Michael Gove on this important matter). Given the clearly-identified shortage of skilled workers for the digital economy, these plans are important for our future. Since in the document there is the subtext that much of our low productivity can be attributed to businesses not ‘upskilling’, moving with the interconnected world we all live in in the way they handle orders or automate their production processes, training everyone better (and starting with schoolchildren) has to be an important strand of any strategy in improving our productivity, even if only one amongst many.

The two headline actions I want to highlight – beyond the welcome comments about careers advice –  relate to additional money aimed directly at the STEM agenda. Firstly, there is to be a £600 premium per student who takes maths or further maths at AS/A level or post-16 Core maths. Since the recent move towards funding per ‘course’ – which meant, for those studying A levels, a set of three – further maths, often taken as a fourth subject, has been hard hit. In the school year starting this past September I personally knew of two very disappointed 16 year olds, in different parts of the country, who had been denied access to further maths teaching because of funding issues. One – a budding computer scientist – managed to find their way into a class (the parents were so worried they were exploring options of a private tutor had their fight with the school not led to a successful outcome); the other did not. No doubt up and down the country many fell into that same category of finding their path blocked.

Whatever direction a career may take a young adult in, strong quantitative skills (including statistics) really, really matter. It is clear that many struggle with some of the basic concepts and others may be competent but not wish to commit to an A level in the subject. They may be willing to progress a little further with Core Maths, so the funding for this subject too is important. Maybe fewer children would struggle if primary schools were better equipped to install the basics right from arrival, so additional money to support primary school maths teaching is also extremely welcome. An extra £27M has been promised to support expansion of teachers working with the Mastery in Maths Programme, to bring it to a further 11,000 primary (and secondary) schools over the next 5 years.  But for the purely STEM sectors the further maths A level funding is a big step forward.

Digital literacy is another area where our schools have not kept up with the times, in part for entirely understandable reasons: a lack of teachers (and a previous over-emphasis on low grade ICT skills). It is encouraging to see the White Paper promise funding to the tune of £84M over 5 years to improve the teaching of computing. Amongst the plans are the

‘upskilling of 8000 computer science teachers – enough for one in every secondary school.’

This goal is very much in line with the Royal Society’s recent report After the reboot: computing education in UK schools, which called for government to tackle the undersupply of teachers of computing, noting that during 2012-17 only 68% of the recruitment target in this area was met. For teachers of physics, similar schemes – and money – designed to address low numbers entering the profession have not met with success. Recruits just don’t come forward. One has to hope that the story has a happier ending for computing.

Another key recommendation in the Royal Society report, indeed its first highlighted recommendation, was to work towards redressing the gender imbalance in the field. This too is identified in the White Paper as a primary focus. Again, this is not a new issue and organisations such as Stemettes have a good track record in stimulating interest amongst girls. However, with horror stories endlessly coming out of the tech industries, it may take work way beyond the UK education sector to turn this around. Think of ‘that’ awful Google memo or death threats against Anita Sarkeesian when she analysed the portrayal of women in video games, and it isn’t perhaps so surprising that taking a computer qualification in order to enter the tech industry may not appeal to all girls (of course, computing and digital skills in general are useful way beyond the tech industry, as the White Paper makes very clear, but that message may easily get overridden).

The Industrial Strategy is about far more than education, but without an appropriately educated pipeline many of its aims cannot be met. I wrote about the importance of our population’s ‘absorptive capacity’ (in advance of the White Paper) in terms of being able to make good use of the promised uplift in R+D spend in general, and the White Paper echoes this in the importance it places on this issue. I will leave it to the others who will, and the many who already have, commented on the importance of ‘place’ when we think about how to regenerate parts of the country not currently thriving; or the importance of ‘clean growth’ as we in the UK and far beyond attempt to transition to a low carbon economy. There is much to commend in the White Paper – but, as with the supply of computing teachers and far beyond – does it really have the means to deliver? Time will tell.

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Joining the Dots

I’ve been in Paris this weekend, talking to a ‘Global Cambridge‘ event for alumni. Paris is a city of which I am inordinately fond – one of my unfulfilled dreams was to spend a sabbatical in the city so I could finally gain an ability to speak the language properly – and over the years I have visited it not infrequently both for work and pleasure. My brief stay gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on my development, as a scientist and a person; to consider more fully, in a phrase I tossed out during my talk, the issue of joining the dots.

At the formal alumni event I was in discussion with Tim Lewens, a memberof the department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge, on the topic of scientific developments and ethics.  As a former member of the Council of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, he is well versed in the issues surrounding so-called three parent babies, and talked us through the issues involved with great authority.  Inevitably impostor syndrome struck me as I talked at a much more superficial level about issues I had been indirectly involved with during my career, starting from the time I was studying starch, working with researchers who themselves were carrying out genetic modification to alter the enzymatic pathways involved in the production of the starch granules. I got well-versed in GM’s pros and cons for the consumer during the time I was working on this and serving on the Governing Body of what was then known as the Institute of Food Research in Norwich around the turn of the century. GM was a lesson in how not to approach sensitive, ethical issues with the public. In the UK, the approach to the three parent baby problem was handled with far more skill and awareness.

Beyond the purely ethical issues, though, we also discussed how scientists could and should get involved with policy issues. Getting more bright young scientists thinking about policy is an issue close to my heart.  In Cambridge a new Institute for Public Policy is about to launch. This is a group with which I hope both to be involved both personally and at college level, enhanced by the recent election of Diane Coyle to the Bennett Chair in Public Policy (focussing on Inequality) associated with Churchill. The college is also working closely with the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) on this front.

So where did the phrase ‘joining the dots’ turn up? It turned up in this context of science and policy. My knowledge of many issues may not be as deep as others who have specialised in policy issues, but the ability to make connections due to the – perhaps slightly bizarre – route I have taken through my research science I think means I have something to offer when it comes to science policy. Seeing things afresh because one hasn’t followed a well-trodden route, can be beneficial, a conversation I continued over a dinner with the Churchill alumni. It is so easy, given the current state of the academic world and career ladder, to imagine that the ‘right’ way must be to specialise and stay specialised, and it is something with which I profoundly disagree. Too often (but clearly not inevitably) specialisation can encourage a narrowness of thinking that doesn’t allow so easily for ‘thinking outside the box’ or, indeed a joining of the dots between ideas from areas apparently far apart. Physicists now talk in terms of emergent phenomena when this applies in systems, but I think it applies more abstractly too to the way ideas, as well as phenomenology, develop.


The weekend in Paris gave me much more than simply the opportunity to interact with alumni. As I say, it is a city I love and which I have regularly visited. A visit there inevitably takes me back to the heady days of my honeymoon (my first visit), when travel there was much more convoluted than Eurostar currently makes it. I well remember the bewilderment I felt when disembarking the ferry at Calais after a 2-3 hour crossing, and trying to find the right train to take us on to Paris. Eurostar makes it all so simple. I have been back for various trips of pure pleasure, and also sneaking pleasure in (as on this trip) on the sidelines of business trips. My involvement with the L’Oreal/Unesco Laureate awards – first as a jury member, subsequently as a prize-winner in 2009 – gave me opportunities to spend time in the city with my husband (at L’Oreal’s expense) and explore the city, along with the work I needed to do in the context of the L’Oreal prize

But, perhaps what struck me most forcibly on this visit was memories of my association with the Nobel prize-winning physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. There was the heady visit when he was so encouraging about my work on starch at a time when many physicists were still viewing this work with grave suspicion as not ‘proper’ physics. His words were encouraging, along the lines that I should dare to be different and proud of it. Of course words from a world leader such as him, alongside of those of my more local mentor Sir Sam Edwards, carried a lot of weight.

Perhaps inevitably, though, such words of encouragement ultimately came with a ‘price’. When de Gennes asked me to take on responsibilities that, if asked by others I would quite likely have declined, I felt I owed it to him to accept. One was closely associated with his own role at ESPCI: would I help to choose his successor as Director? I replied I would if the interviews were in English and was assured ‘d’accord’. But of course they weren’t! Perhaps that fuelled my (unfulfilled) desire to spend time in Paris so that, the next time such a request came my way, I would have been better equipped to follow the political niceties of what  turned out to be an appointment with a political dimension, somewhat tied to the Mairie of Paris. Instead, when Jacques Prost was duly appointed, I found myself still connected with ESPCI as a member of its international advisory panel. Through that role I got to spend significant amounts of time in Paris, working hard but also being taken to some delightful restaurants and notable sites: restaurants up the Eiffel Tower and on a Bateau Mouche for instance. (But the Eiffel Tower has other, more personal, associations for me: the only time I have been to the very top was with my family when the children were still small. While they were busily spotting the highlights of touristic Paris I was merely seeing flashing lights and zigzags across my vision. What a moment to be struck down with the aura of a migraine!)

From the time I visited de Gennes way back when as a young and nervous lecturer, through the time when I had to negotiate my way into the Collège de France (where he also held an appointment) in my ‘execrable’ French past a belligerent and obstructive porter, to the time when L’Oreal were feting me as a winner of one of their Laureates I can look back and see just how the young me has transformed. As I say, impostor syndrome can still lurk as I prepare to open my mouth, but simultaneously there is an underlying feeling that my experience, from starch to policy, from hands-on research to holding a leadership role, allows me to make connections, both obvious and, I hope, those less so: to join up the dots and offer insights not necessarily always evident. And, as I look back at the unseasoned PhD student on her Paris honeymoon and what that young woman might have expected for her future, it is useful to remember life is rarely predictable.



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