Why Didn’t I Become a Biologist?

The question in the title is not a rhetorical question. I find it strange when I look back at my early years, why I ended up so convinced I wanted to be a physicist, particularly as there was no family member who could conceivably have talked to me about the joys of physical science.  As I sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, everything points to the fact that I should have become a biologist of some sort. Yet I was never tempted.  I can laughingly say my biology teacher put me off because she terrified me – which she did, being a fierce, smart and independent woman of the ‘old school’, whereas I had an excellent and kind physics teacher . Nevertheless the reality is that by the time I started biology lessons I had already made my decision: we started separate physics and chemistry lessons in (what would now be called) Y8, but biology not for at least another year and I had internally already chosen.

At primary school, from around 8 years old I fell in love with ornithology. My mother, also bitten with the same bug, would take me off to Hampstead Heath after school and at weekends to see what we could find. The answer was usually quite a lot, a much more diverse set of birds than would typically turn up in an urban garden. Birds such as snipe and wheatears could be spotted at appropriate times of year, birds not likely to be found on your bird-table, or even spotted skulking at the bottom of any wild garden spots in London.

Systematically we recorded these birds. I have always remembered this, but it was brought once more into sharp focus finding the files and notebooks my mother and I (with a little help from my sister) laboriously compiled, now that I am sorting through her house. From 1962 on, for around 10 years, there are neat accounts year on year: the recordings of the first swallow or chiffchaff in spring, or the passage of skylarks overhead on a bright, clear winter’s day. It is chastening to think magpies were then sufficiently rare (!) that every single one we saw was meticulously recorded. Birds now rare to non-existent in this country – red backed shrike, pied flycatcher – are also captured in these files, noted down on the few occasions we came across them.  Also intriguing are the absences: for instance, not a single cormorant, now regularly to be found on the ponds on the Heath. No doubt there are plenty of similar London record books, but now I’ve found them again and dusted them down (and they certainly needed dusting) I don’t feel I can just toss them out.

I also found my primary school ‘project’ book, intended to be written on a topic of light relief at the end of my last school year. Inevitably it describes the birds I’d seen on the Heath, illustrated in my childish and incompetent hand. And, perhaps most strangely of all, I’ve come across a handsome tome ‘Birds in Britain’  by Kenneth Richmond, published in 1962 and bought by me, as my childish script inside the cover shows, with a Christmas book token (that early predecessor of an Amazon voucher)at the end of that year. I suspect I never read the book. Reading it now – and it turns out to be a wonderful book, written in flowing prose, describing the habits and habitats of just about every UK bird then to be found within these shores – I cannot imagine I could possibly have comprehended it let alone enjoyed it at the time. I was 9!

Take these sentences describing a duck unlikely to grace the ponds of Hampstead Heath but one I well recall from holidays in Scotland at the time:

Solid as a barge, stolid in temperament, the Eider is designed for a life full of hard knocks. Imperturbable in the heaviest swell, it rides out the worst storms with negligent ease, sleeping on reefs until they are awash, sliding off into its element, the white boil of surf at the foot of the cliffs.

A wonderful if slightly anthropomorphic description. Did it set my pre-teen heart racing, or did I just like possessing the handsome book as a means of conveying that gravitas I completely lacked? Or was I merely desperate to look grown-up when set loose in a book shop with no idea what I wanted to buy (and I do recall Christmas book-token-spending as being a dreadfully difficult task, full of indecision and anxiety I’d get it wrong: it was such a rare thing to buy a book new, rather than rely on the books already in the house or temporarily imported from the library, the latter full of warnings about not bringing books back if anyone in the house was in quarantine!)

As a practicing scientist I am also amused by the author’s irritation with academic attitudes:

Nowadays even the simplest article submitted to the editors of ornithological journals has to be laid out on the lines of a learned paper, couched in the contemporary jargon and studded with references.

Plus ça change.

So, by the age of 9 or 10 I was a clear systematiser, used to recording events (if not experiments) and with an absolute fascination with the natural world. Yet a mere two or three years later, I was absolutely clear I wanted to be a physicist. I wasn’t thinking of careers – financially rewarding or otherwise – in making that choice. I wasn’t thinking that as a female physicist I could stand out in a crowd much better than as a biologist or that I wanted to be a rarity like a red-backed shrike. Of course not. I wasn’t thinking of a career at all, I was merely following my nose. Yet never did I feel the slightest temptation to study biology for any longer than I absolutely had to, which was probably only about one year before I chose my O levels and dropped it like a hot potato.

Do I regret this? Not really. For all my physics research has steadily moved towards the biological realm over the last 30 years, the biology my generation was taught was simply systematising, labelling, recalling the names of obscure parts of plant and animal anatomy. It simply didn’t appeal. I recall I really felt I had hit the pits when we did an experiment to find out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, although why that specific investigation caused me such ire I can no longer reconstruct. The other biology experiment I recall, although it is one that caused me embarrassment rather than ire, involved Fehling’s Solution A and B and a potato. Maybe this could be thought of as an early introduction to experiments on starch, which formed so much a part of my research life from the 1980’s onwards, but it sticks in my mind due to the vigour with which the complex in the test tube shot out of the tube across the lab during overheating and the unsurprising consequent irritation of the teacher. Then, as through so much of my later career, I was a clumsy experimenter.

So, now forced to confront these different manifestations of my early days as a twitcher, reminded how much time and effort I put into ornithology (tick-lists from numerous coach trips to the best birding haunts within a 75 mile radius of London testify to the time commitment I put in) and the fun I got out of it, I am still left pondering why physics grabbed me. Asked, as I so often am, what inspired me to go into physics I simply have no convincing answer. It wasn’t a study of the night sky, or men landing on the moon; nor was it linked to Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech.  I liked it and it made sense to me. It was as simple as that.

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Stiffening the Backbone

As usual the problem seems to lie with the sub-editors. I read a piece in the Guardian entitled  ‘Struggling students are not lacking resilience – they need more support.’ Reading the heading on its own I thought that the article must be going to imply that resilience was somehow an optional extra in life and decided that was rather silly. However, the article itself made much more nuanced and important points, including the vital conclusions

“…we should never use the term when discussing mental health.

Being resilient doesn’t mean never asking for help or never being affected by difficult situations. We need to focus our discussion on boosting wellbeing, and teaching a set of skills that help students bounce back from setbacks in life and academia.”

As I have often said in talks, and probably on this blog too, asking questions should be regarded as a sign of strength not weakness, because it is the only way one is going to learn how to do things better. Asking for help is just one strand of improving. If you’re in a fog there is no point blundering on without seeking the equivalent of a spotlight to illuminate the desired direction of travel. Students should appreciate this and have the confidence to act upon it. Too many students find it easier and less threatening to hide their confusion; the larger the group being taught the easier this tends to be. One of the strengths of the Cambridge supervision system is that, being taught in a group of 1-3 means there is nowhere to hide. It is a very poor supervisor who lets a reticent or befuddled student not open their mouth throughout the hour of teaching or permits a mumbled ‘dunno’ to be an adequate response to a point blank question.

Setbacks in life are of course not limited to students. One only has to watch Mo Farah literally pick himself up from a nasty fall on the athletics track and still go on to win Gold in the Olympics 10k race to know what resilience in the face of potential disaster looks like. Or look at 58 year old Nick Shelton win Olympic Show jumping Gold 15 years after he had broken his neck, ‘retired’ and had a hip replacement before deciding to enter the fray again. That determination not to be deterred is what is required in the face of adversity, but frequently students will indeed need help superimposed upon that determination. University systems need not only to notice when students are falling behind or avoiding turning up at all because they are embarrassed by their struggling (again something that the Cambridge supervision system will naturally highlight because of the close and regular contact), but also to provide assistance with study skills, exam technique and time management. These further skills can make a massive difference to a student who has the brain power to master complex concepts but not necessarily the additional expertise required to maximise the product of that brainpower. One has to hope in the putative TEF, credit will be given for the teaching of these ‘softer’ skills.

But what of the first sentence in the quote I give above? What about those students who are struggling, not because they aren’t managing to get up in the morning or are ineffective in mastering the art of a well-reasoned essay? These are the students whose personal life is faltering and causing them distress through no fault of their own – perhaps the death of a close relative or the breakdown of a parents’ marriage – or those for whom depression or other mental health issues arise. These should not be talked to in terms of ‘picking themselves up’ and ‘trying just a bit harder’. In my own college (Churchill) we have a (part-time) counsellor who can act as a first port of call if depression beckons before a student can be slotted into to the longer term University Counselling Service. Having such a person on the doorstep as it were, available to students and staff alike, may seem like a luxury but it is one the College is willing to find the funds for because we recognize its vital importance. The tutorial team are also always on the alert to look out for incipient problems, such as eating disorders, to attempt to tackle them at the earliest stages if at all possible. Even if counselling itself is not needed, having concerned individuals in the form of tutors who look out for the students is a great resource. A tutorial team is a crucial part of the support students need, people who not only provide direct help but who can go further, for instance by organising friends to sit with a struggling student (and then provide support to the student circle itself, because caring for your friends can itself be draining particularly at times of high stress for all, such as exams).

I have come to believe that the way we bring up our children does less to foster resilience in our girls and young women than is the case for the male of the species. Cultural norms, anachronistic norms, mean that parents (and teachers) are too prone to talk to a youngster climbing a tree (for instance) differently by gender.  Girls may be advised to be careful and not to get their clothes dirty; boys may be encouraged to see how high they can climb. Equivalently in lessons girls may be more praised for neatness than for originality. Those – teachers or parents – who do this, are likely to be completely unaware of how they parse their sentences differently for boys and girls. I wouldn’t be surprised if 25 years ago I wasn’t as guilty of this as any mother because I hadn’t thought it through. But now I am deeply suspicious we ingrain habits of excessive caution and unwillingness to take risks too often in the girls and, perhaps just as unhelpfully, promote a devil-may-care and never mind the consequences attitude in many boys.

We all should think carefully about how we interact with the young and how this translates into characteristics for tackling life-challenges later on.


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Still Feeling like an Impostor?

It’s that feeling you get when your PhD supervisor asks you to give your first conference presentation. Or, at a later career stage, when someone suggests you apply for a fellowship. That feeling they must have got it wrong, you’re not the right person, don’t have the right skillset and experience and they’ll very soon find you out as incompetent and undeserving. This is impostor syndrome.  I reckon most academics suffer from it at least some of the time. It doesn’t go away with age and seniority either. Established academics may feel it about different situations – chairing a tricky committee, perhaps, or giving a major keynote presentation – but I can assure you professors most certainly can be just as vulnerable to that feeling of being an impostor, suspecting you’ve only been asked to do something by mistake, or at least by someone mistaken in your capabilities.

I’ve written about this before, stirring up a lot of comment. Notably the comments to that earlier post demonstrated that this wasn’t simply an issue for women; many men held up their hands and said that they recognized the symptoms all too well although perhaps they are afforded less opportunity to talk about it. I’m not sure if it’s getting to be a more widely appreciated phenomenon, more talked about, or simply that now I myself have learned about it I’m more prone to notice other people mention it than I was some years ago. Anyhow, if you want to hear a wide range of scientists talk about their own experiences of the phenomenon, Stuart Higgins has prepared a podcast specifically on the topic.

(Stuart Higgins himself is a postdoctoral researcher in Physics in Cambridge. He has created a series of podcasts, titled Scientists not the Science, in which he interviews scientists from around the UK, typically focussing on a specific subject relevant to the interviewee. It won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog to know that I was interviewed on the subject of women in science – plus much more –  here if you want to listen to that particular interview.)

This most recent podcast covering Impostor Syndrome shows that many highly capable researchers suffer from these feelings whatever career stage they are at. The nervous individual who may feel just a little reassured to know that they are far from the only person to suffer from these feelings, should also note that those interviewed are quite clear that however frequently they feel this way they are not going to let it stop them in their tracks. This determination to recognize the emotion and move on seems to me essential if you are going to survive in academia. If someone offers you an opportunity don’t say no immediately as soon as that feeling of panic kicks in, that fear that you’re not capable and will be unmasked as an upstart impostor. Give yourself time for reflection or you may be going to turn down an awful lot of wonderful opportunities. Doing so would mean that you are only going to hold yourself back.

Taking time for a moment’s reflection may allow you to realise that it is just that familiar inner devil piping up again inopportunely to frighten you off and that you need to thrust it out of your way. Alternatively that moment’s pause may indeed convince you that you really would be completely out of your depth and well advised to turn the opportunity down. It is important not to accept everything willy-nilly, but without taking a moment to think things through you may be going to make a very bad call. Even after that reflection you may make a bad call of course; we do all make mistakes! Nevertheless, even if you accept the challenge and were right to do so, don’t suppose that as D-Day approaches the inner impostor won’t continue to bug you. I like to think of impostor syndrome as akin to stage fright; something that never goes away but keeps the adrenalin pumping to make sure you don’t get complacent but continue to give your all.

Someone else who has thought a lot about impostor syndrome is Hugh Kearns, who has written a book on the subject.  The book discusses the phenomenon from the point of view of psychology and suggests some ways of coping. He also blogs regularly on the subject. So, if you feel you are being crippled by impostor syndrome you may want to dip into his writing to get some ideas for how to overcome your anxieties. Or of course read a selection of my own posts where I seem to return to the theme of doing things one feels unqualified to do rather regularly (e.g. here and here). Or listen to Stuart Higgins talk to a range of scientists about their feelings, their fears, and how they deal with them. Maybe doing this will reassure you both that you are far from alone from feeling like an impostor and that you should try to tread on such feelings to free you up to fulfil your potential. You’ll never know what you can do if you always assume you can’t do anything you haven’t done before.


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Playing to Your Strengths

With many fresh graduates on the market seeking jobs, the Independent recently ran an article on interview tips. They were at the basic level. Fair enough for those people who’ve never had to endure such an experience before: be on time, don’t panic, do your research, be positive not aggressive and answer the questions. One can’t fault these wise suggestions. But although they may be necessary bits of advice they are hardly sufficient. More is needed. Before I move on to some more subtle and academic-specific suggestions, I will add in another basic piece of advice: don’t answer your phone! I once was participating in an interview where the candidate had not only forgotten to switch the phone off (or at least to silent), but then had the temerity to answer the phone and leave the room for the conversation without explanation. The panel looked on in amazement. Needless to say the individual didn’t get the job.

Turning to more specific issues, the first I would highlight is the need to be able to talk about your research at an appropriate level. Showing off, by using lots of technical jargon when talking to an assorted collection of academics from different parts of the discipline, is not helpful. If this is a lectureship position, above all you are trying to persuade the panel that you can pitch your talk to an audience to demonstrate your teaching ability. Losing people in the first few minutes is not helpful. Even if it is simply to a couple of academics and you’re chasing a postdoc position, plunging into minutiae is not the best way to impress – unless you’re 100% sure the interviewers are also completely engrossed by this level of detail. Even then, it may be better to leave it to the questions afterwards.

Equally, droning on in a monotone isn’t going to win plaudits. If let loose in a lecture hall students will hate it – and so will a panel. It is important to demonstrate that you enjoy your subject, not that you’re enduring it. A little bit of enthusiasm (without excess) is likely to keep your audience awake. However stellar your results, if you mumble into your shoes the audience will fail to spot the brilliance. Furthermore it is worth thinking of the world-leading academics who have failed to impress you in their conference talks and work out what they were doing wrong. Slides with so much information crammed in they’re impossible to read? Inaudibility? And in fact just as off-putting is the booming over-excited excessively-gesticulating speaker. (Mercifully, the days of over-excited animation of Powerpoint seem to be past.) It is worth looking in a mirror or speaking to a group of friends to help identify a happy medium.

So much for the opening presentation. What about the ensuing questioning? Here I would agree with the Independent: do your research. Find out about the group/department you are seeking to join. Can you identify why your previous experience is a good match, even if that match sits in complementarity not overlap? Have you worked out some specific individuals with whom you believe you could collaborate? (This doesn’t mean you need to have been in touch with them, although the more senior the position the more that may be desirable.) Have you thought about what other skills you can bring beyond your research? Specifically can you explain your attitude towards teaching – large or small group – and the experience you can bring? Have you done significant outreach work in festivals or schools to show enthusiasm for reaching those who otherwise might not want to be reached? And if you work in a practical subject can you talk about approaches you might wish to introduce into laboratory classes, and non-traditional methods for the classroom?

It is pointless being very prescriptive in what I am putting forward here, since the nature of the job, the discipline and the department will all be relevant in working out what is likely to be on the interview panel’s mind. The point is to stress that questions beyond research will indeed be asked at an interview about a lectureship level position. Even at a fellowship or postdoc level, that someone has done some outreach or taken an opportunity to supervise undergraduate projects is likely to be of interest along with any other science-related activities that might demonstrate an excitement about science extending beyond the straight and narrow.  This could naturally include informal collaborations forged over a conference poster or overseeing and/or redirecting an undergraduate or graduate project. But In this category I would also place writing/blogging, direct interactions with schools and involvement with policy issues. I would add, at these ECR levels, indications of not simply building simply on what you have but exhibiting a wish to extend your skills base in perhaps unexpected directions in your job search may also be seen as a positive. I believe this will particularly be the case by leaders of large research groups who often want to bring different kinds of researchers together into a wide-ranging and innovative collaboration.

So when thinking about what you have to offer, think about it in the round if you can. Display the talents that have enabled you to get the exciting results you have, but put these in a wider context of how you approach your discipline and what you have done beyond the formal programme your existing job specification required, thereby exhibiting your desire both to broaden horizons and to hone your critical and analytical skills. By and large at postdoctoral level I would say the person whose previous skills most accurately match onto the job in hand is rarely the person who gets the job. If a job looks like it is simply more of the same it is not good for the postdoc’s career development and rarely brings new insight into a fresh group (I am of course referring to people who are moving research group rather than consciously continuing in the same direction with the same PI because everyone is on a roll).

Interviews are tricky things. Everything about unconscious bias comes into play if the panel isn’t careful. But, for good or ill, they are the usual way in which decisions across the hierarchy of career progression are taken (with the exception of some fellowships). As a prospective applicant approaches such a trial it is worth them considering how to play to all their strengths, not forgetting their skills beyond the laboratory bench or equivalent.


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Women on the Platform

Too often one hears of — or attends in person — conferences where all (or nearly all) of the invited and keynote speakers are male. It is dispiriting every time one comes across such an occasion. It isn’t as if people have not had their attention drawn to this form of unconscious bias when a programme is drawn up, since it is so often highlighted, and yet it still occurs. A recent study has demonstrated, in one particular scientific community, how having more women on the organising committee systematically increases the number of high level female speakers. In one sense this is excellent news — it looks like an easy solution to the problem; all you need to do is find willing female volunteers to take on this role. In another sense it is very bad news. Here is my opinion as to why.

Firstly it dumps the onus of improving the situation on the women. I have noticed an encouraging trend in committees I’ve attended in the last year or two – say a promotions panel – where it is the men who speak up about unacceptable behaviour. Specifically in these contexts I have seen men call out inappropriately gendered letters of reference and demand they are ignored, or spot when different standards are implicitly being applied to male and female candidates. In my view, perhaps sadly, it is much more powerful when men make such interventions. It is saying ‘This is a problem’ not ‘This is a woman’s problem’. If it is assumed the ‘problem’, in whatever context, is solved by roping women in then it would appear to absolve men of taking any responsibility for correcting bias and righting wrongs.  As I understand it this is what the He for She Campaign is calling for in very different spheres. Problems of a non-inclusive, non-representative slate of speakers are problems for everyone.

It is also of course the case that not all women are mindful of these issues anyhow. The title of the published paper demonstrating the effects of involving more women explicitly highlights this potential issue in its title: Not Pulling up the Ladder. Undoubtedly there is a (I hope increasingly rare) breed of women who feel no urge to support those rising through the ranks behind them. We should be very wary of parsing gender behaviour by ‘men bad, women good’. It does a disservice to both sexes. Further, gender is not the only brand of inclusivity we should be fostering. We need all conference organisers to be mindful of minorities of all sorts. Minorities of course can also include men. When I participated in a discussion at ESOF16 on gender issues recently, I was pleased to see that out of the 6 speakers, 2 were male. It is not helpful if all participants in discussions of issues around women in science are women – for exactly the same reasons as above. Inclusion and diversity mean exactly that: being inclusive and diverse.

Another downside of expecting women to ‘fix’ the conference platform is it has the potential to dump yet another burden on the women concerned. The amount of work involved as a conference organiser can vary from little more than replying to a few emails to sifting 100s of submitted abstracts and attending multiple meetings at the other end of the country. It is work that may not get you many Brownie points, although it may give you influence. However, if you are a woman already buried by committee work (since your host institution desires to stick you on every committee, big or small, due to the absence of others to provide gender balance) it may not seem an attractive option to accept an invitation to sit on a conference organisation committee as well. Then, added to all the other burdens is that of guilt that you are letting the side down by declining. Reading a paper such as the one cited at the top of this post will then only add to the guilt.

Earlier work has shown that one of the reasons conference platforms are frequently devoid of women is that women are much more likely to say no than men. They decline for all kinds of reasons, perfectly good reasons (for them) as I have written about before. So an absence of women may not equate to a lack of enthusiasm for such speakers from the organisers, whatever their gender make-up. Nevertheless I’d hypothesise that on average women are more conscious of other women’s work and hence have a larger pool of names to put forward and pursue. It may also be that an invitation personally written by a woman to another woman has a greater chance of success in getting an acceptance to speak: I haven’t seen any evidence regarding that particular idea.

However, it is hard not to believe that, for a female researcher attending their first or second conference, if the speaker line-up is overwhelmingly male the message received will be that they don’t belong. That message is pernicious if accidental. (I will leave out of the equation all considerations of whether an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition also conveys that message at the conference bar, or indeed any other form of harassment which might also occur.) Role models probably matter more in this context than in most others because that part of the audience not already jaded by attending too many conferences will be trying to imagine themselves standing there in front of a sea of unknown faces delivering their super-exciting-hot-off-the-press results. For the health of the discipline we need all potential talent able to picture themselves doing just that, not deciding that their PhD was a dreadful mistake.

So, let us collectively make sure that this study in PLOSone becomes almost instantly out of date; that its findings act as a wake-up call to men in the community and not just place another load on those women whose shoulders are already buckling under the expectation of commitments.



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