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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