In the run-up to Easter I happened to catch part of a broadcast of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. This is a work I was steeped in as a teenager, attending the annual Bach Choir’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London several years on the trot, as well as other performances around the country. To begin with I loved it but, for various familial reasons, it got intertwined with things that were less pleasant and by the time I was about 21 I had consciously turned my back on it. Ever since I have deliberately avoided listening to it and hence when, by accident, I caught an hour or so if it for the first time in more than 30 years I was taken off guard and heard it with fresh ears. Once more it was glorious. But I also heard things in it that I had been completely unconscious of in my youth. In particular I heard the voice of the chorus in a new way. Instead of it just being the bit that I might have sung myself (although I only ever participated in a performance of the St John Passion in fact), I finally realised it was the conscience, the reflective participatory voice – for instance, staccato as it sang ‘loose him, free him, bind him not’ after Jesus was captured. Not that this indicates my religious predilections so much as it made me realise that maturity brings with it all kinds of new insights and emotions.
Simultaneously, though, maturity brings with it as often as not cynicism and a jaded palette, literally or figuratively. This applies as much to books one rereads after a gap of many years – I cannot finish Middlemarch now, a book I adored as a teenager, possibly because I now identify myself with a different character set, but ones who irritate me – as to how one sets about life. Which all goes to show how important it is to have a wide-ranging group of people making fundamental decisions, be it in a company’s boardroom or setting up the Steering Committee for an Athena Swan award. Diversity matters. Depending on the sort of decision-making in hand, representation across geography, gender, (sub-) discipline, seniority, sexual orientation, parental status, religious beliefs….any or all may be relevant. This simple fact should constantly be borne in mind.
This equally applies in the research lab. If you work in one area for long enough a certain mindset develops. You do things one way and since they have always worked you continue to do things in that same way. A new postdoc turns up whose background is different, subtly or in much larger ways, and they bring with them fresh eyes and hands. Their previous supervisor tackled things differently, perhaps, and there may be a brief clash of cultures. They want to continue doing it their way, the resident group may resist. Any decent postdoc will persist, mix in some of this and some of that – in other words a bit of what they used to do with a bit of what everyone around them is now doing – and something new may well appear. Something unexpected, a twist no one saw coming. That is the fun of research, highlighting the way novelty and creativity often appear via serendipity and not via the carefully written-up linear stuff of grant applications. It highlights the importance of not being set in one’s ways too firmly but responsive to variation. It could almost be called the evolution of research. It is particularly important in the interdisciplinary world of research I inhabit. I may approach things with my physicist’s hat on, but a biologist or a chemist may come along and say ‘but you’ve completely ignored the fact that a cell in pure water is osmotically stressed’ or something equally obvious to them and quite obscure to a naïve physicist (I have at least learnt that one!).
Of course, just as maturity means you may get jaded, it also means you may have ‘seen it all before’ in a more constructive way. You may have a new postdoc who comes in wanting to try procedure X, which you know already will fail because you had a student try it for 3 years without success for reasons you eventually tracked down; you want to prevent the new postdoc wasting months similarly, but you want to do it in ways that don’t squash their initiative. So it’s a fine line to tread between encouraging lateral thinking and originality and merely reinventing wheels; and it’s a fine line for the supervisor between holding to dogmatic expectations and allowing unbridled but unwise enthusiasm to run amok. Nevertheless, personally I’m a great believer in letting those at the start of their careers have their heads. The acknowledgment in one of my student’s thesis which said that I had allowed him
‘the freedom to pursue the work down whatever alleys it led me, without which I am sure this thesis would have been much less interesting’
I took as a great compliment. Maybe not everyone would react the same way.