Recently I participated in a so-called ‘speed dating’ event for schoolgirls, organised under the auspices of Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women campaign which this event was launching. Spearheaded by Miriam Gonzalez (aka Nick Clegg’s wife, who is an international lawyer in her day job), she had invited a further 9 of us to join her as the ‘mentors’ to the girls in the speed dating event. The way it worked was that we each sat with a table of 8-10 girls, 15-16 years old, who rapid-fired questions at us for about 10 minutes before we moved on to the next table. These girls were bright and sparky and the questions were no-nonsense and searching including how we had got to where we were, the obstacles (if any) we had faced, what made us choose our particular paths and what advice we would give them. I was the only scientist amongst the lot, Bettany Hughes was the other academic, plus Barbara Stocking recently appointed President of Murray Edwards College in Cambridge; Fiona Bruce was probably the best recognized face of all. Strange company I keep these days, was one of my reactions; sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself I’m really an academic physicist.
Each group had its own character: I think I talked to five in all, but it became a bit of a fast-moving (not to mention exhausting) blur. Some conversations worked better than others: the fact that I was a scientist may have deterred some from relating to me, whereas on other tables there were several girls who expected to progress to A levels in the sciences. The group that stood out for me was the one which asked me if I had always known what I wanted to do. The answer is of course ‘no’ and when I pointed out that most successful people hadn’t got to where they were in a straight, inevitable and unerring line the group visibly relaxed and said that was very encouraging to know. It is a message I think that can’t be said often enough. Whereas it is reasonable to encourage those setting out to have dreams and ambitions, we shouldn’t convey the message that if you don’t have clear goals you are already a failure and your life will be rubbish. On the contrary many visible success stories, in all walks of life and way beyond academia, have fallen into what they are ultimately respected for doing by a series of accidents or a bit of good fortune.
Goodness knows what the young women who participated in the event will take away from it. They were girls from fairly underprivileged schools (as far as I can judge from the percentage of free school meals we were told each had as a proxy for any other form of characterisation) and at the very least maybe they will feel encouraged to pursue their dreams and to aim high. None of us, the mentors, will ever know if we said anything helpful to them or not. That is of course a prevalent issue. You never know what the impact of your words can be. Sometimes they can come back to haunt you many years later. Sometimes (as a previous post shows you) people will remember you in ways that are completely unexpected. But, when talking to those just setting out, perhaps the responsibility is all the greater.
For those of us in academia, feeling frustrated by the REF’s last gasps, David Willett’s latest comments about us not spending enough time on teaching, or having just received some insanely vitriolic comments from the referee of your latest paper, it is too easy to let this frustration show. If at the time you are talking to this year’s new intake of graduate students the frustration may spill over into comments with more of an edge than is desirable. I have never forgotten the time, many years ago, I talked to a journalist when I had just had a row with someone in the department. All my discretion vanished and the stories I told had more than an edge. Luckily only a fraction of that showed through in the actual published article but that was more than enough to be regrettable. In that particular case the whole story was so inaccurate that the central player (not me) in the piece demanded its removal online so there is only a lingering ghost of the offending quote from me still traceable but it has taught me to be more careful.
Such an occasion, involving a journalist, is one that is reasonably well-defined and is of the kind that should immediately raise an amber warning light. Occasions when you are just engaging in conversation with random people are harder to maintain constant vigilance over – after all, you really don’t want to have to be constantly vigilant. Yet, the reality is things we say may stay with people and, when it comes to students, we should be aware of this. So often with interviews, with scientists or anyone else, there will be a quote along the lines of ‘my teacher/parent/priest/lecturer/great aunt told me I should….’ but I wonder how many of those people will actually have intended their words at whatever that particular point was to be taken so to heart.
As it happens, by a not very fortunate coincidence of timing, the day after the speed dating event I found myself talking to another bunch of school children. This event was part of the Speakers for Schools charity’s push to get speakers into schools, this being a sister charity to Inspiring the Future and spear headed by the BBC’s Robert Peston. Standing up, talking to a group of 15 year olds about what life in science is like, one is concentrating on the message one wants to convey. It is a moment to offer pearls of wisdom that maybe you do hope will remain with them, comments along the lines of research is about not knowing the answer to the experiment you are about to do and that science opens up many different career directions.
However, what some of my recent experiences have shown is that you simply don’t know when you will happen to say something that will strike a chord with the listener (or raise a hackle) and so the words have a lasting impact that was not anticipated but which may have many unintended consequences. These may range from the trivial (so that 20 years later they are thrown back at you over the dinner table), to the more significant when you set a child off on a career direction – or equally deter them from taking up something that up till that point had seemed a possible future for them. We, as practicing scientists, should not forget this.