Will Biography be a Lost Art?

As a young postdoc I arrived, fairly literally penniless in the USA in October 1977. I had flown with the forerunner of today’s low-cost airlines, Freddie Laker, on his new invention of ‘standby’ fares. You turned up on the day and took the chance of there being a spare seat. So it was that, very early in the morning I went to somewhere near Victoria Station and paid, if my memory serves me right, £60 to fly to New York that day. I then went to the railway station to buy a cup of tea since the flight was a long time away and managed to leave my wallet there. So my last phone call to my mother for about a year consisted of urging her to ring the police to report the loss so I could get a crime number to allow me to claim on my insurance. That was why I got to New York without any cash on me, only travellers cheques (a medium of cash that is pretty well obsolete now). Somehow – I forget how – I negotiated an onward flight to Ithaca, where I spent the next four years working at Cornell University

As I flew into JFK last week, approaching over the suburbs of New York, I was reminded of my first sight of the USA way back then. The fact that every house had its own plot, separated from its neighbours by an alley with no terraced houses in sight struck me as an indicator of the space in America that hits me afresh every time I return.  I was also amazed by the blue squares of personal swimming pools, such a rarity in the UK that it took me a while to work out what I was seeing. However, I certainly was feeling very uncertain about life, arriving with no cash in hand and that feeling of scale and space did nothing to make me feel at home.

Laker is no more. I don’t think standby tickets are a ’thing’ any longer. And if I had turned up last week with a viola in hand – as I did then – as well as the rest of my luggage I suspect I would have been told it was outsize luggage and had to go in the hold; or that I had to buy another seat. Times have changed. Furthermore, the idea of only phoning parents once a year (because of the huge cost; the technology did exist) must be an alien idea to today’s postdocs with their ever present smartphones, at least if they have good parental relationships.  The absence of easy access to the internet when crossing the Atlantic (or the American continent itself) can feel like real deprivation to some travellers, as is immediately apparently from the sound of all the phones pinging on as soon as the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign is turned off upon landing. People can’t wait to find out what their Twitter feed or email is telling them (although, sometimes, one would probably rather not know).

But with all this electronic messaging what will future biographers do? When I landed in the USA and had finally managed to make my way to Ithaca and locate my husband (all complicated by the absence of ready cash; travellers’ cheques don’t work well for a phone requiring a mere dime; I had no credit card usuable in the USA, and my husband had no idea of which day I’d arrive since I’d flown standby) I settled down to write to my mother with my experiences. During the four years I was in the States I probably wrote to her a couple of times a week, proper hand-written letters. I likewise received letters back from my UK-based family. Sometimes the writing was more legible than others, sometimes the news – about progress or otherwise in electron microscopy and the state of my interactions with colleagues unknown to her – must have bored my non-scientist mother senseless, but it was the act of putting pen to paper and the contact when no other method was available that counted.

When my mother died I found she had kept some – but only some – of these letters: there is a hefty bunch from 1980 when I was still at Cornell, plus some from considerably earlier around the time I went to university as an undergraduate, but the first letters I wrote upon arrival in the USA are gone. Hence I cannot quote from them to tell you accurately how acute the culture shock was, but I remember feeling it all too vividly. I certainly thought of it as ‘two nations divided by a common language’, words usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

I have been told, by a well-known biographer of scientists, that there is a ‘dark period’ when neither letters nor emails exist that will challenge future biographers. The dates for this will be the 10-15 years around the turn of the century. Email existed, so letters drifted out of meaningful existence for a subsequent biographer’s fact-finding, but email correspondence was not archived. Those years will have no tangible record to tell us about the individual’s state of mind, their response either to big world events (9/11 perhaps) or to the trifling consequences of moving house or finding their feet in a new role or country. I suspect this may be less a problem for the political figures whose ‘papers’ Churchill College Archives tend to house, than of the currently un-noted scientists who become the Nobel prize-winners of the future whose records we might want to acquire. Nevertheless for the College Archivist I know the question of how best to preserve email records (those of more recent vintage that do still exist) is a vexed one. What will be available to future writers who want to tell the personal or professional narrative of the men and women of science, or those folk who lurk in Whitehall corridors, for future generations to contemplate?

Because the past was so rich in tangible material, in the Archives we have many amazing artefacts from the life of Winston Churchill, such as his annotated speeches (including markings where to pause for maximum effect, or highlighting his changes as his rhetoric developed e.g. see here for a ready example; many of the papers can be studied on line in the Churchill online Archive).  Or, for a different sort of politician, one can study Maggie Thatcher’s papers, also available online through the Thatcher Foundation. (The College even possesses some of her handbags. As the first female Master of the College I thought it only appropriate that I should have a look at one of these, but unfortunately – archivists being what they are – as is apparent in the photo at the top I wasn’t actually allowed to touch the still-boxed- up gift to her brought out for my delectation.) But, handbags aside, what ‘artefacts’ will we still have in the future? I am sure there are strict rules about maintaining the records of a member of the Cabinet, but for scientists who do everything at speed and by email, possibly influenced also in the future by the new  GDPR legislation, what kind of illuminating insights will remain for the biographers of the future?

The reality is the concreteness of hand-writing letters meant that the content was very different from the tossed off emails. I may have sent an email back to my family daily throughout my recent trip, but they were very different beasts from the letters I’d written to my mother. They merely recorded where I was and perhaps an outline of what I’d done and who I’d met. They did not discuss anything in detail of my thoughts on what I’d been getting up to.  Email is such a different medium to a letter and we have lost the art.

In my talks to alumni during my travels I was able to quote a few of Sir Winston’s thoughts on first visiting the USA in 1895, such as this wonderfully snobbish and snotty view of the press:

But the essence of American journalism is vulgarity divested of truth. Their best papers write for a class of snotty housemaids and footmen ….I think mind you that vulgarity is a sign of strength. A great, crude, strong young people are the Americans – like a boisterous healthy boy among enervated but well bred ladies and gentlemen.

(These were captured in a letter to his brother.)  What will be left for tomorrow’s biographers of our leaders to digest?



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Are Women Underpaid?

The deadline is past for companies in the UK employing more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap. The numbers are not pretty and the University sector is no different from other types of employers in manifesting an average or median hourly difference of around 20%.  (Wonkhe have published the data for universities, and there is also an account of all the Oxford Colleges data here, although I haven’t yet seen an equivalent for Cambridge. My own college, Churchill, is pretty typical I fear.) However I think it is very important to unravel what this really means. It looks bad, it is bad, but what exactly is it telling us?

Firstly, it does not tell us whether men and women are being paid a 20% discrepancy for the same work. Of course, I hear you say, it is illegal to pay men and women differently for doing the same role, but despite this being enshrined in law it is clear – for instance from the latest stories from the BBC – that the law is not always applied. Personally, I would have liked the new Government reporting requirements to have been put into a form where this sort of unequal behaviour had to be made explicit. That is not what we have. Nor do the requirements actually force greater transparency. Again, to single out the BBC (not because they are clearly the worst offenders, but simply because they have been extensively analysed so there is more information about their weaknesses than for most other organisations) it is obvious just how much the lack of transparency makes it easy to obscure what is going on, thereby making it hard for legal challenges to be made.

I wish institutions were required to report by grade (or role), so that intrinsic differences in how men and women are paid for equivalent roles became clear. The University of Cambridge does report like this – has done so for around a decade – and, back when I chaired the relevant group, we tried to understand why, for instance, it seemed that new male appointments were typically made at higher points within one particular grade than women. We got some answers – since grades actually cover a variety of roles which have different typical starting pay – but I’m not sure it was satisfactory enough and I hope in the years since I stepped down from the role such investigations continue.

However, what the government has chosen to make mandatory for reporting is simply the averages across all grades. These figures raise an entirely different set of issues and problems which may be much harder to resolve. Which is why I wish we had answers to the first set for which it should be much easier to effect a cure. What averages over all grades show is what was anyhow already obvious to everyone in the sector: that there are more male professors at the top and more (frequently part-time) female cleaners at the bottom. This grade segregation has its roots in part in our society and its values and in part – but only in part – in university practices. The trouble is that the first set of issues are essentially outwith any particular university’s control so that they alone cannot remove all the discrepancies.

For instance, in Cambridge, my memory is that the highest paid professors tend to be in the sciences and engineering schools, not the arts, humanities and social sciences. But where are there more women? Of course in the latter group not the former. That there are a low proportion of female professors in Physics or Engineering is not, I believe, down to inherent bias (even if that may play some small part, although I have no evidence it does even that) but has its roots in the low numbers of girls ever starting to study these subjects due to problems pre-18 in our schools and in our societal expectations and norms.   There are proportionally more female professors in English but, on average, all the professors in English are paid less than in sciences. Even if we only looked at professorial salaries, then, we would find a marked gender pay gap, but from that it couldn’t simply be concluded the University might be misbehaving.

That is not to make any excuse for the ca 20% overall gender pay gap that the University is showing. There will undoubtedly be work that can and must be done to facilitate progression for women to the higher grades. We should also be doing all we can to make it easier for men to opt into part-time working associated with childcare responsibilities. Only if a working world, where equality of choice for men and women regarding caring responsibilities is facilitated, can we hope to see a world where the domestic onus is not simply seen as the ‘woman’s problem’. To my mind, removing the stigma – which appears to surround men taking six months of parental leave, even where an employer makes it financially viable – is a key part in making it easier for women to progress. I suspect that too often the only focus of attention is on ‘fixing the women’, but fixing the system is much more broad-ranging.

Of course every university should be scrutinising the wording of advertisements for implicit messaging that may deter one gender or the other; they should be considering whether an appropriately diverse range of candidates apply for any job – and if not why not; if the pool turns out to be badly out of kilter with the pool from which they should be drawing they need to start again; they should be sure panels are well-versed in the dangers of unconscious bias and that they know how to decode any symptoms of gendered wording in letters of reference; they need to check whether shortlists are balanced; and they need to be wary if selection panels always rank the brilliant woman just behind the also brilliant man when making appointments. And those are just the issues relating to academic appointments. An equivalent list could be drawn up for appointments to every kind of job in the organisation and equally for issues around promotion and progression.

Finally, what the Government reporting does require is an analysis of bonuses by gender. Bonuses are often awarded for recruitment and retention purposes. Particularly in the latter case this means that people essentially ask for them: up my pay or I’ll leave to go to Harvard being the typical line of argument. As things stand (often related to the issue of childcare I allude to above) men are more likely to be mobile and therefore willing to contemplate a Harvard approach, hence men – at the top of the tree – are more likely to be the ones getting the bonuses. Instantly one has moved away from equal pay for equal work. I think this whole system of academic bonuses needs to be scrutinised because it introduces great inequalities unrelated to academic worth. I don’t know what the answer is. but I think too often the mantra of ‘ask and it shall be given’ applies in a not very considered way that introduces unfairnesses across the board.

I guess there is a presumption that those employers in any sector which have come up with a massive gender pay gap will be shamed into doing better. How long it will take to root out some of the systemic problems I would not like to predict, but until society reconsiders many issues about how we perceive men and women, that gap is likely to remain.

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Guilty of Rambling On

As a PhD student it is an exciting moment when you know you’re off to your first international conference. Whether or not you get to present (either orally or via a poster), there is still a thrill in just being part of the larger scientific family. I can still remember the stand-out paper from the very first conference I ever attended – the Electron Microscopy and Analysis’ Group of the Institute of Physics meeting in Bristol in 1975, at the end of the first year of my PhD. The paper (formally written up here) was on the structure of purple membrane and was delivered by Nigel Unwin, with Richard Henderson as the co-author. This was an early paper in the steady stream of electron microscopy developments that led to Richard Henderson being awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The paper was much talked about during the conference I attended because it so clearly represented a very significant step forward in methodology.

I can’t imagine I knew this paper was coming or would necessarily have appreciated beforehand just how significant the work was. At the time Nigel Unwin himself, I suspect (but it’s a long time ago) would not yet have been seen as a leading light.  Other students may be better clued up and/or feel eager anticipation at the thought of listening to some founding father of their field give a keynote. It may feel like a fantastic opportunity to worship at an idol’s feet, perhaps. However….too often there is a ‘however’. Some such speakers may have passed their sell-by date or be bored stiff by delivering the same keynote at yet another mega-conference in some soulless conference centre through which they are briefly flitting. Their boredom may ooze from every pore. Some grand old men (and statistically it is still likely to be a man) like this are actually not the best speakers. I remember listening to Bristol polymer physicist Andrew Keller give a much-built-up talk, in which he struggled with the overhead projector and dropped his acetates on the floor in his confusion. He ended up talking for far too long in a rather unfocussed way.  It was a dispiriting experience. Or Sir Charles Frank, also as it happens a physicist from Bristol, who laced his talk with much vitriol directed at other speakers at the conference. It wasn’t the same conference as Keller’s talk, but these sharp comments – if my memory serves me right – included a reference to the said Andrew Keller. Frank was 14 years his senior (although at the time both were probably retired) but he trivialised Keller’s work, calling him a ‘young man’ in a tone of contempt. This was not edifying.

So perhaps it is with those memories and in that spirit that I read a recent paper considering the extent to which speakers at different career stages were prone to over-run in conference speaking slots. As a session chair it is always difficult to know just when to intervene when someone shows no sign of winding up their presentation as the clock ticks on. I tend to be quite a fierce chair, but different conferences have different attitudes to the issue. Undoubtedly, if the first session significantly over-runs it sets the tone and makes it much harder for later chairs to step in and halt a late-running speaker. Often, though, the audience is very grateful if one does. After all it allows time to drink some coffee, network and get a comfort break or even lunch.  Curiously, the paper I refer to by Edlund et al, found that a female chair seemed to provoke better behaviour of both male and female speakers, with fewer over-running talks, than when there was either a male chair or a male/female pairing.

So who are the worst offenders at conferences? It will probably come as no surprise that the most junior speakers are the most law-abiding and the senior folk the guiltiest of exceeding their time limit. Only just over a quarter of PhD students exceeded their allocated time; approaching 50% of postdocs and PIs who over-ran. I am perhaps not surprised to learn that women were less likely to talk too much than men, but that may be thought of as tending to stereotyping. The least prone to offend were female PhD students.

But perhaps the result that surprised me least was what happened at big (audiences greater than 150) conferences. These are the ones where there are big name keynote speakers. These are the ones where people who are used to being lauded typically choose to speak. I am sure they envisage eager young students hanging on their every word and therefore they probably assume you can’t have too much of a good thing so they can talk as long as they want. They probably don’t expect to be cut off by the chair – male or female – when they are in full flow. So the worst offenders are male speakers at big conferences, of whom a whopping 60% over-ran. We don’t get told by how much, but I have too often seen such people talk for 10 minutes too long in a 30 or 40 minute talk.

What annoys me about such speakers is that it implies a complete lack of interest in those ‘lesser’ people who come thereafter. Programmes can get hideously derailed by over-running talks, particularly if one follows hot on the tail of another. Ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and the contributed papers (typically where the PhD students or junior postdocs will be found) get squeezed and squeezed so that, either people walk out (because they want their dinner) or the question time gets obliterated.

Many senior scientists give wonderful talks but, part of giving a good talk is sticking to time. It is also part of good  mentoring of the entire community. I hope some of the guilty speakers will read the data in the paper by Edlund et al and blush.


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The Potholes in Life

As regular readers of this blog will know, I rely on my bike to get me around to the myriad committee meetings I need to attend across Cambridge. It is my lifeline to get me speedily to the railway station (often, I suspect, faster than car or bus during peak rush hour) where the (relatively) new bike park at the station – increasingly filling up though it is – is a huge improvement. Our previous bike parking was an ill-lit, unsurfaced, outdoor mess of bike racks of different vintages attempting to serve the Cambridge population but totally inadequately in terms of numbers. My regular weekly shop is done by bike too, with the recently-opened Sainsbury’s in the new district of Eddington a welcome addition. I can judge my declining muscle strength by the increasing challenge I face in hefting 12 pints of milk each week into my voluminous bicycle basket, or the difficulty I find in springing up from locking my bicycle to a ground floor handle when wearing a rucksack. But I will need to be a great deal more decrepit before I stop cycling for convenience, even if my average speed drops steadily year by year.

Potholes are big news these days and a massive problem for cyclists in Cambridge as elsewhere. Possibly a sign of austerity measures, they rarely get patched. They often turn up in surprising places. I can think of two roads where there is a long line of potholes down the centre quasi-equally spaced, each maybe 30-50 cm across as if some giant had tossed a large boulder into the road and it had bounced like a pebble on water. I assume (the materials scientist lurking inside me says) that, since roads are usually tarmac-ed in two halves, to minimise disruption to traffic, that actually this is a cohesive failure at the join between the two halves, where sites of weakness abound easily torn apart by freezing water expanding. Nevertheless, since the very centre of the road gets less impact from traffic than the two lanes each side themselves, I still find this mode of failure surprising.

More common are the potholes at the side of the road, in the gutter particularly around drains, that cause so many problems for the cyclists. The drain issue is no doubt another problem of cohesion, where a small hole rapidly causes additionally stresses and the hole soon becomes substantial (this materials science problem of stress concentration around cracks is of course well known; I have discussed it previously in the context of airplane crashes.) Last week I encountered a recently created crater – it was above average size – of this sort at a particularly dangerous corner on my route to the station. Imagine my surprise when, 24 hours later heading off to the station again I found it had already been mended. That is an unusual occurrence, at least in Cambridge. It is the longevity of so many of these potholes that is now being highlighted as a contributor to our nation’s health, or rather lack of it. Potholes are being blamed for discouraging cycling and hence a factor in the very obvious obesity crisis we face. So, getting them sorted is perhaps a higher priority than local councils have previously appreciated, although the budgets dealing with the two very different burdens will not be meshed in any way.

However, since potholes alone are not enough to deter me from relying on this convenient mode of transport, the question has to be how best to negotiate these gutter-based potholes. What is the safest way of doing this? And, as I was cycling down yet another road full of its own suite of potholes this week, I realised that there is a not too-laboured analogy between the other parts of an academic’s career and the pothole negotiation strategies one chooses. So here are some familiar scenarios to ponder.

1 Pushed into the kerb

On the road this would correspond to a large bus alongside you making it impossible for you to swerve away from the pothole. Instead you have to bump into the hole, facing the danger of being thrown off your bike or into the kerb (or both). Either way it can be painful. In the lab the equivalent would be the alpha (fe)male who bears down on you, trampling on whatever you’re doing and making you feel rubbish. There is no place to retreat to in many cases, so again it often turns out to be a painful, bruising experience. All one can aim for is a defensive strategy – perhaps by slamming on the brakes or, in the lab, simply keeping out of the way. In the workplace, though, there are other solutions such as forming a network of support or finding ways to stand up to the offender (I can’t think standing up to a bus is likely to lead to anything good). If they are your supervisor this is when the problems get really painful, but peer group support, alternative mentors and (if it is bad enough) turning to HR may all be helpful.

2 Hitting a pothole hard at night

When it’s dark it’s all too easy to fail to see the pothole at all. This can lead to hitting it at full speed. If, as has happened to me, your front light bounces off as a result, you truly are left in the dark.  A situation not unlike that which happens when the unexpected turns up in your in-tray (which you have not a clue how to handle) or you find an unwise prior acceptance of some task pitches you into the high stakes unknown. Exactly what will propel you into this dark corner will depend on your discipline, your seniority and your prior experience. But all of us have, from time to time, found ourselves accidentally taking on a role or responsibility that was certainly not sought, planned for or indeed desired. Those situations may be thought of as perturbing but not necessarily dangerous. However, to take the pothole analogy a little further, there are times when you fall hard into a departmental fight (for instance) without meaning to take sides yet finding your words are claimed by one side or other and the fall out can definitely be pretty dark.

3 Swerving

In daylight it may be possible to see the pothole a few yards ahead and swerve (in the absence of buses) to avoid it. This is obviously the ideal strategy: no bruises, no darkness. But, in practice in daily life, in one’s anxiety to avoid a foreseen obstacle, the swerving may take you a long way out of the path you thought you were following. Sometimes, if the obstacle was large and unpleasant enough – that alpha (fe)male perhaps – by dodging the obstacle an entirely new route may appear which offers fresh opportunities (e.g. a new supervisor). I have come to realise that this is the strategy that – consciously or, more often, not – I have used to overcome what have felt at the time to be major setbacks. The potholes in this case would correspond to grants not won or jobs not offered (to cite some specific experiences of mine); the new directions taken have included getting much more heavily involved in gender work: not exactly planned, but something that has given me much satisfaction alongside the inevitable frustration.

So, I have probably answered my question above. When a pothole looms – and you have seen it far enough in advance – when some immovable obstacle is in your way, swerving to find new directions and new strengths is probably the most constructive solution.


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Sold for a Mess of Pottage

A couple of weeks back I undertook another trip to Europe. A trip that got extended by nearly a day due to snow which disrupted my travel plans, thereby making it impossible for me to get back to the UK as planned.  The trip was another opportunity to ponder what we are losing as we head off into #Brexitshambles. Once again I was there in my capacity as a Scientific Council member of the ERC and this time the visit was to EMBL in Heidelberg where the Plenary Meeting was held. There is absolutely no doubt that every time I attend one of these meetings there is something new to provoke a focus on the myriad undesirable consequences of that vote in June 2016.

I flew into Frankfurt Airport. On the flight, when the joys of editing some text had failed to keep my concentration fixed, I turned to the book of the moment on my Kindle. This was Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War by Virginia Nicholson. Having just been reading some searing accounts of the Blitz and how women coped in London, flying in over a city that too had been heavily bombed and looking at all the buildings constructed in the 70 odd years since, I couldn’t help making the connection with the fate of so much of London. The buildings, lives and loves lost in Frankfurt by the UK’s forces; a medieval city centre destroyed.  A clear parallel.

For many of those who survived the war, the European Union (under its different names over the years) was a way to ensure neither side could bomb the hell out of the other again. I think of my mother, like so many of the women in Nicholson’s book, a woman whose life was utterly disrupted and reshaped by the war, surviving the death of friends and family and the roles and education she was and was not allowed to assume. No active service for her – she was too young – but she was proud of her role in the Royal Observer Corps where, certainly at one point she was one of only two women who achieved the level of Master pass in aircraft identification. Not, as I discovered towards the end of her life, that she got much opportunity to tell a Messerschmitt from a Junkers, as German planes rarely got to her part of the country, but even when I was a young child she would pepper her conversation with tales of the Master Test and the planes. Those names were, now I look back to my childhood, curiously often mentioned. I found her test papers amongst her belongings after her death: this was, as for so many women of her generation, an incredibly formative period for her despite its horror and stresses.

But flying into Frankfurt it seemed to me that we have forgotten that history of nations tearing each other apart. We are scrapping our post-war idealism, selling it for a mess of pottage* that is worth little to many of us (though possibly a lot to a few of the politicians who are pushing Brexit so hard upon us).

EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) itself, where the ERC meeting was held, is equally testament to shared visions. Created soon after the war to be a centrepiece for biological sciences in Europe under EMBO (the European Molecular Biology Organisation) it, like CERN, sits outside the EU and will still be accessible to UK scientists come what may. While the rest of us try to deconstruct Science Minister Sam Gyimah’s remarks and the latest Government position paper as regards access to the next Framework Programme, UK researchers attached to the various institutes associated with EMBO, of which EMBL is one, do not need to worry. In the UK the key institute is the EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute), located close to Cambridge. Until recently this was headed by Janet Thornton, a fellow member of the ERC Scientific Council. EMBO itself is currently headed up by Maria Leptin.

Janet at EMBL
Janet explained all these different relationships to us over an informal dinner.

Close to International Women’s Day it is perhaps worth pausing to note that here are two female leaders in (molecular) biology who have made so much difference to their field. And, to round up the strong female presence during this trip I should mention the speaker at the formal dinner held in Heidelberg:  Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, pictured below and 1995 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology or Medicine, (shared with Eric Wieschaus), who spoke to us about skin patterns in fishes.


I come away depressed that all the scientific community stands for and appreciates in terms of internationalism and of  mobility of researchers; all the joint efforts after the war to bring peace to the continent, seem to be heading for the scrap heap. Once again it is clear that, to organisations like the ERC, the UK’s scientific strengths are so obvious they would love to find a way to keep us within the fold. With the Government itself so tied in knots over everything from the Irish Border to financial passporting, it is hard to see them wanting to pay much attention to science. They should. Of course they should. But their troubles over trade and immigration take centre stage and the science community can only press as hard as they can and try to remain optimistic that the structures that make our research thrive are not carelessly destroyed as ideology wins out.

* Spelling of pottage corrected March 18th 2018!



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