Laying Ghosts to Rest

Many years ago I was invited to give one of the keynote talks at a conference in the USA. I was  young and I was flattered. It was a Conference on Polymer Physics held on the east coast of America. It was a big deal to go, not least because it was the first time I had been away for a week from my young children (then aged 2 and 4) and I was really excited. I had some work I was proud of and all seemed set for a great time. In fact, I came back feeling deflated and very much cut down to size. It had a big impact on my self-confidence over an extended period of time.

Was I really a polymer physicist after all, or was I simply a materials scientist masquerading as a physicist? Was I working in the wrong area, an area no one else found of interest? Was I up to giving a high profile talk or was I simply an also-ran? These were the sorts of questions that went through my head over months, if not years, of soul-searching, activities that did not do my ongoing research activity any good as I wasted my energy on these unanswerable questions.

So what went wrong? There were two slightly distinct but not unconnected reasons. Firstly there was the issue of the general tenor of the conference. I presented a talk on liquid crystalline polymers, an area I had been active in for a number of years at this point. Almost everyone else talked about block copolymers. It isn’t necessary to know what those different types of polymers are to recognize that if 90% of the audience and speakers are interested in one area, however hot a topic it might be, but you come from and talk about the other 10%, the conference may provide limited satisfaction. As the coach took us back to Boston Airport, the late Andrew Keller and I commiserated with each other. Andrew, a leading figure and indeed founding father in the field of polymer crystallisation, was the only other UK representative at the meeting. He also was not presenting a talk about block copolymers and like me found the whole meeting extremely frustrating. We both thought the fact that it seemed that the entire community of US polymer physicists had been seduced into this one very specific area was not healthy (or indeed very interesting). I found it consoling that Andrew, who was such a leading light in the community, felt the same way as I did. It did provide a little chink of light in my tunnel of dismay.

However, the second reason I felt wretched about this conference was the way my talk was received. Or rather, the way one particular US professor received it. Let me call him Professor XY. He interrupted me constantly, challenging what I was saying and causing me to lose any fluency as my train of thought was constantly disrupted. His interventions undoubtedly caused me to deliver a talk much less polished and probably much less comprehensible than I would have wanted. It felt as if he had set out to put me down.

At the time I was returning to the USA for the first time in a number of years. I had left it about seven years before, at which point I thought I had known, and was  known and respected by, the community. Suddenly it seemed there was a fresh generation of (male) professors, roughly my contemporaries but whom I hadn’t known and who seemed determined to sideline me. Although there was only one resolute questioner, they all huddled together and made me feel distinctly unwelcome and excluded. After all, I wasn’t working on the area of block copolymers they had all made their own. Even my former mentor, Ed Kramer, who had himself moved into the field – and had, I suspect, supported many of this generation as he had equally done for me in the past –  seemed to be on what looked to be the ‘dark’ side, keener of interacting with the majority than me, his former protégée. The challenges, the sense of being an outsider in a community I had once felt accepted by, left me with a great feeling of failure and rejection.

Time passes. In due course, my own research flourished sufficiently for me to put this bad experience behind me. For the last 10-15 years I don’t suppose I had given the failure much thought. It had become irrelevant. So I was very surprised to be accosted by Professor XY at a recent conference. I had met him a few times in between. He had continued to strike me as someone who was overfull of confidence and determined to prove he could do anything he put his hand to, though maybe I was prejudiced. He was the competitive professor par excellence as far as I could tell, though others who knew him better tried to assure me he was perfectly decent at heart. I just wanted to keep my distance.

However at this last meeting, his first words were ‘do you remember that conference at which I interrupted you constantly?’ I answered with a guarded ‘yes’, wondering where on earth this conversation was going to go. Indeed, I remember thinking how odd that he remembered it 25+ years on, since I assumed this was his usual way of going about his business. He went on to apologise for his bumptious and unsuitable behaviour. He wanted me to understand that he had been only interrupting me to understand better what I was doing but, in the succeeding years he had come to realise how inappropriately he had acted and it had been preying on his mind. He wanted to apologise.It had clearly marked him to some extent too, remained as a sore because he felt his behaviour had fallen below that which he would later have expected of himself. Now we were both in our 60’s it was possible to discuss and, I suppose, forgive and forget.

The conversation proceeded into other areas. How much he tried to support young women in his department, the importance he placed on diversity and support for early career researchers, how interested he had been in what I had said (in my talk at the conference) about gender issues. Had I been asked to predict topics of conversation between him and me in advance, I would never have come up with these topics. I must accept that how he came across to me all those years ago really did not reflect the man he became. Whether or not he had had sexist intent initially is irrelevant.

I didn’t particularly spell out to him how much his behaviour had shadowed the succeeding years. Cui bono? But I was nevertheless glad to lay this particular ghost to rest, even though its short-term impact can never be erased in retrospect. I suppose the lesson is twofold: for the younger me it would have been not to take an individual bad experience so much to heart. For him, and other Professors of the XY persuasion, it must be to think harder about how you come across. Otherwise the scars can persist over the years in ways that weren’t intended.


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One Response to Laying Ghosts to Rest

  1. Could you, at the original presentation, have tried something that I learnt about making presentations? That is to take questions at the end. That would have aided your flow, kept you in control of YOUR presentation and he may have got his answers as you went further.
    Advise your younger followers to hone their presentation skills: would help to deal with obnoxious others.