Telling A Life Story

It has been a while since I last posted on my blog. In part that was down to the Easter holidays, but more than that I think it was a combination of the exhaustion of the previous term, coupled with horror over the unfolding Brexit debacle at the end of March (like many another in the UK, I think following the news slavishly was upsetting my mental equilibrium) followed by, as the new term started, a deluge of ‘stuff’ to get through. This lead to what I think of as overload paralysis.

Although there are times when having many tasks to do can lead to greater efficiency, since there is always something to do that fits into the mental and temporal space available, there comes a point when the overload is just too great for any kind of efficiency at all. Instead, one is constantly pulled in multiple directions, each neutralising the other so nothing gets done. If the time slot is simply the odd half hour between meetings (with, in my case quite often, receptions and dinners at the end of the day removing that time from the equation), then it is all too easy to find that there is no time for anything beyond deleting some spam emails and reading the committee papers.

It should be remarked I have yet to turn up at a committee meeting without having read the papers; it is more common I turn up simply without the papers (or device) on which I have scrawled my notes probably because I’ve grabbed the wrong batch. Anyhow, those are my excuses for my relative silence. Whether this term will ultimately turn out more conducive to regular posting remains to be seen.

I am sure long-term readers of this blog will have formed their own view of my character and life, which may of course be accurate to a greater or lesser extent. In the wake of the recent ruling regarding whether Caster Semenya is allowed to run in women’s races, there have been interesting articles written about identity and what defines it. I would refer you to Angela Saini or Gaby Hinsliff for some compassionate and thoughtful writing. Our identities are composite and complex. How much of it we choose to share is – for most of us for most of the time if not for Semenya – something we can decide. This is as true on my blog, as in my talks about my life or in my conversations with my friends. There may be parts that I choose to share when trying to encourage those setting out on their careers. You will never know about those parts of me that I am determined no one will ever discover (if of course any such there be; I’m giving nothing away). That is my choice.

When presenting a ‘careers’ talk’, as I did last week at UCL’s Institute for Healthcare Engineering as part of their ‘Adapt to Thrive’ series, it seems to me to be helpful to present the passage of my life in a variety of ways to show how different strands weave together to make a whole. There is the ‘standard CV’ format: the dates I moved from one role to another and where I did them. That is familiar territory to anyone who has ever applied for a job. I overlay on that the times when my research made some (relatively) abrupt change either deliberately or – as often in my case – driven by circumstances. Circumstances which varied from needing a new job to extend my visa in the USA after my first postdoc, to ‘inheriting’ a grant from my predecessor who’d left the country. I feel this is an important version both because it stresses the importance of luck and chance and because the belief that it is not necessary to go in a straight line with a siloed attitude to research to thrive is also something I feel strongly about. As I tend to put it, seizing opportunities is good, at least most of the time.

The third version of my life, equally important and an equally important message to give out, is the more personal: marriage, children and most recently elder care, clearing a house after death, becoming a grandmother. All of us need to recognize that ‘stuff happens’ and not always according to plan, but life beyond the bench matters hugely. Denying this, trying to squeeze everything into the standard CV format and forgetting our humanity, is destructive on all kinds of fronts. Yet listening to some eminent folk talking about their careers we are more likely to learn about the impact factors of the journals they publish in than some of this and never sense that their life might not have gone smoothly right from birth to the current day. I think some outburst like ‘pshaw’ needs to be introduced here to express my disbelief when I hear such accounts.

Of course these days I am rarely near a lab bench and my career took a turn I had not had in my sights when I moved to be Master of Churchill College. When people ask me what I enjoy most about this role I tend to say (though it does depend on the occasion and my mood) that it is the incredible variety of things I get to do and the incredible and (almost invariably) interesting people I meet, from students to Nobel Prize winners. Last weekend, in this role, I had yet another ‘new’ opportunity to seize – I went to a Rugby match. Indeed it was the final for the Cuppers Plate between Churchill and St Catherine’s*, which Churchill ultimately won fairly easily. A good match for me to start with. The rules have changed a lot since I used to watch what was then the Five Nations matches in black and white on the TV in my early teens, and I’m sure I did not follow the nuances, but it was still more than possible to get wrapped up in the game and cheer along with the best of the crowd. A crowd, I was interested to note, that contained a high proportion of women. I even got a photo opportunity to pose with the winning team. Well done Churchill!

* A Catz alumnus has pointed out that the correct spelling in Cambridge is St Catharine’s – the alternative spelling being the correct form in Oxford. I am embarrassed that after 40 odd years in Cambridge I had never appreciated that.


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One Response to Telling A Life Story

  1. Asha Gopinathan says:

    Very apt post. Especially the bit about the personal which never makes it to the CVs or only makes it as discontinuities. I wish more women and men at the top of science will be more open and honest about the struggle.

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