Will I not be ‘Important’?

This is the troubled question Jeremy Baumberg asks rhetorically in his recent book The Secret Life of Science when he discusses the vexed question of what happens if he decides not to attend some conference, along with

‘Will I no longer be seen as a significant actor in the discipline?’ and

‘Will I not be party to conversations that build a mutual support club?’

Jeremy – a colleague of mine in Cambridge – has a pretty jaundiced view of conferences, but I am troubled by this list of questions which are all about where he (metaphorically, as I’m sure he is asking these questions as the universal scientist rather than as himself specifically) stands in some mythical pecking order rather than whether better science will be done. I feel this is a dangerous viewpoint. Throughout this chapter Jeremy is highlighting the pitfalls of the conference, but his words throughout do seem to convey a sense of ego being the motivation for conferences rather than the joy of science and the wish to move it forward.

I share his somewhat jaded view of conferences – but then that’s easy to say having ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) a lifetime of them. I feel this chapter (and I haven’t finished the whole book yet, so I can’t comment on what comes next) would be enough to deter any but the keenest PhD student or postdoc from wishing to attend a conference of any sort. Yet these researchers are exactly the ones who should go, while they are still expanding their horizons, when they haven’t already heard the eminent keynote speakers give the same talk fifteen times already and when some friendly challenges around their poster or oral presentation may be most helpful to them. The early career researcher has much to learn from interacting with others like them, sharing experiences (good and bad), or getting informal low-down on techniques when their green fingers aren’t as experimentally developed as researchers in a different lab.

I remember the heady days of my first poster session, when older scientists whose papers I had carefully studied stopped by my poster to see what developments I was laying claim to. I got to put faces to names, and began to realise that being famous did not mean (when I attended their own talks) necessarily being charismatic or crisp in presentation style. It is good to realise one’s hero(in)es may not be perfect. I remember the first oral presentation I gave – when someone (a stranger, although they may have been very eminent) came up to me afterwards and said they’d never heard anyone talk so fast or try to compress so much into 20 minutes; useful criticism, although I suspect my pace of talking is often still too fast.

Jeremy seems to dislike conferences because there are too many of them. That is doubtless true, and some of them are predatory and some are pointless. But, for established scientists I really don’t believe it’s necessary to trek around the world just because some organising committee has invited you. I decided, once my children came along, that travel was one of those things that just had to be jettisoned in order to make my life work, and I stuck to that for many years until it just became a habit. If my reputation was diminished because of this I felt it was a price worth paying.

As I wrote some years ago in an early blogpost

‘Some travel is vital, much may be as much about ego-stroking and having interesting experiences in exotic parts of the world as actually being productive for your career. Don’t assume more is necessarily better.’

I still believe that, and that perhaps is where Jeremy and I differ. Staying in the lab, talking to your students and writing grant proposals has much to recommend it compared with some conferences I have attended. The mega-conferences mean you often can’t catch the one person you really wanted to see. Parallel sessions which get out of sync mean you may also miss the one talk you absolutely wanted to hear because the session you were trapped in overran. And, at one particularly frustrating conference I recall in Boston, people were mainly just sitting in the corridors dealing with their email rather than actually attending anything – which makes the travel even more pointless. It’s healthy to remember there is a real cost – in carbon, in bucks – as well as an opportunity cost when spending too much time on the road or in the air.

Of course, as a later stage scientist we all have a responsibility to organise conferences sensibly. Not to convene conferences just for the sake of it, or to fix them annually merely to get to interesting locations. We should not see them (to quote the analogy Jeremy uses), or our appearance at them, as

‘fantastical displays made to woo potential sexual mates (of either gender).’

There must be a clear reason for them.

I have some fond memories of conferences here at Churchill College, long before I had any association with the college otherwise. There was the triennial international conference in my field where I could note my progress from nervous novice, through to being invited onto ‘top table’ at the conference dinner to joining the organising committee. As it was only triennial it was a big deal and all the major groups would come along. Discussion was, as they say, robust, but there was a palpable feeling of the field moving forward. And when it seemed like the field had matured the conference ceased, or at least it moved to a new home in the Netherlands with a new emphasis (and I never attended it again).

Then there was a different conference that a triumvirate of us dreamed up to bring researchers in starch from many perspectives together, from physics and computational model to biotechnology to plant science. We mixed the sessions up so that people would not just attend talks in their own fields. It succeeded beyond our dreams and we held a second conference four years later also here at Churchill. At that second conference one of the keynote speakers offered me a hundred mutants of maize starch. At that point I realised as a physicist I had done what I wanted in starch. Recalling Lord Rutherford’s alleged quote

‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.’

I felt I was in danger of entering stamp collecting territory and moved on.

Meetings come in many sizes. I prefer the smaller meetings where there is time to share ideas, talk to the newcomers in the field and generally profit from the people around. In the UK national meetings in a particular field are often small enough that the discussion is fruitful and students and postdocs are encouraged to talk.  We need such meetings. We need to ensure students find their voice, learn what works and how to engage with questions of all sorts, from the simple and the silly, to the truly challenging and worrying.  We should definitely encourage students to attend such meetings, even if the surroundings are not as glamorous as Hawaii or Acapulco but a mere ‘60’s hall of residence.

But, above all, we should not use conferences or meetings simply as display of our glorious colours with no thought of the science itself. Jeremy is right to be jaded, but I think he maybe is overfocussed on motivations that are good neither for the individual nor the discipline.


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Our Bullying Culture

Many of you will have already seen the OpEd I wrote in the Guardian last week on the subject of bullying and harassment in our universities. I was heartened by the response it received, in so far as it was in part intensely personal and, since it is always uncomfortable to lay oneself open, I was encouraged to receive many messages thanking me for writing it. But in other ways the responses were predictably deeply disheartening because they highlight the pain so many of our students and colleagues – be they academic or other members of university staff – are subjected to. I received messages ranging from a former head of department whose health broke down so that he retired early after receiving no support in attempting to deal with a department member who was clearly harassing female students, to the parent of a student who knew how close their child had come to dropping out because of ongoing bullying. The stories were tragic. The cure so elusive.

meaning of success

It is easy to think bullying is straightforward to spot and if only people stood up to it, then it would go away, but – perhaps unlike sexual harassment – bullying is not always easy to define. At what point is it appropriate to lose one’s cool with a student who is being lazy and partying too much? Does a one-off shouting match amount to bullying? Shouting may always be regrettable, but we are not all saints all of the time. I know this week I became, shall we say, brusque with a member of my department over a trivial administrative hiccough and I felt ashamed (and subsequently apologised) as a result. But I hope that wasn’t bullying! On the other hand ongoing shouting matches with anyone, especially when the shouting is deliberately designed to humiliate or force the other person into submission, that is definitely bullying.

In academic science, there is plenty of this latter sort of behaviour. The power imbalance can be poisonous. It does not have to be the supervisor themselves who is the problem either (although it often may be), but perhaps a more senior student or postdoc. The student who is working together with such a person, let’s call them Dr A, when everyone else has gone home, and who finds a clumsy pass is made, may find it difficult to know how to extricate themselves without upsetting the other’s amour propre. If they fail – as was recounted to me by one now mid-career researcher – they risk Dr A being completely unhelpful from then on.  Nothing needs to be said but suddenly the help is no longer available, sarcastic comments become the normal mode of Dr A’s communication and in seminars they belittle what the student is presenting. Such behaviour is enough to undermine confidence but hard to quantify to other people.  But, when Dr A is the supervisor it is even more pernicious. Everything hangs on this person’s good opinion: letters of reference, names on papers (and the position of the names) and general support.  How can you answer back?

Sometimes I do believe people behave stupidly rather than maliciously. We are all capable of being blind to our own behaviour. I gave one example of this in the Guardian article, but I know plenty of people who can be very supportive in one situation –perhaps exactly those where their amour propre is not being threatened or they do not feel the individual is important enough to challenge them – yet deeply unpleasant in another. I’ve had a book thrown at me in a temper across a table by someone who, in other circumstances – as independent witnesses have testified to me completely out of the blue – is delightful and understanding. I’ve seen people who expend enormous energy on the Athena Swan process yet still intimidate their colleagues on a daily basis.  I know those who are enormously helpful to young (in the cases I know, female) students yet as these students reach independence the interaction suddenly changes to something more hostile. Such people may also never recognize that the administrators are worthy of respect at all.

Every reader will have their own stories to tell – of bad behaviour they have observed or suffered – but perhaps in some ways the most depressing story of all I heard was the one describing a systemic problem when, as part of an Athena Swan Action Plan, a department came up with a clear plan of action to offer support to any student bullied. I quote in part from the email I received (with permission)

We ran a local survey on bullying and harassment, which revealed the extent of the issue, particularly for PhD students. Importantly, we found that students were not reporting it, because they did not trust the [institution] in supporting them. We therefore set-up a local committee of “confidential advisers”, which received training to provide support and advice…

However, far from this being well-received by colleagues this person went on to spell out that when this and other related work was attempted to be further rolled out

I have been stopped from running a local survey on bullying and harassment; I have been stopped from sending a welcome letter to our ECRs, which mentioned (amongst a range of other resources) [this] support & advice scheme …, but has not been adopted by the other department I was sending the letter to (their HoD therefore censored that specific bit of information – was it to stop people requesting the same in their own department??)…

If heads of department try to suppress supportive efforts in their department, what does that say about them? Or their views of their juniors? Such behaviour should also be called out – but that is not easy to do. As the topics of bullying and harassment get more attention I fear we will see some people in such positions of power learning how to use the right words without directing either attention or resources to resolve the issues. No doubt some of these will still pat themselves on the back for their ability to spout the requisite phrases. It is vital that initiatives such as Athena Swan not only incorporate well thought-through action plans covering these topics, but that the institutional structures permit them to be carried out. There are many thoughtful and caring folk at the top of organisations, but bullying young women – yes this was another story I was told – into taking on the substantial workload of preparing the Athena Swan non-trivial paperwork will not be the work of people such as those.

Our university culture facilitates bullying because it is inherently competitive and too many people see it as a zero sum game: if you lose, I gain. It needn’t be so. The stories we heard during the course of the Meaning of Success project makes that very clear. Examples from Cambridge of women (all the interviews were with women; this isn’t meant to imply there aren’t men who do the same) who have manifestly succeeded while still treating their teams as humans include Ottoline Leyser and Jane Clarke (now President of Wolfson College), both of whose interviews are included in the book. There is no need to bully anyone to get to be an FRS! I feel that might be a useful mantra to pin on lab doors. There is no need to bully anyone to succeed on any front, yet some people seem unable to recognize that basic fact and think that the pressures of the REF, the TEF and (perhaps yet) the KEF require senior management to rule by intimidation and so on down the line, till the office cat gets kicked.

Over Twitter I see people mourning how much time and effort they feel obliged to put into contesting those who bully and demean others and yet we need these people more than ever. The more of us who mobilise, the more of us who publicly point out to those who bully that their behaviour is noticed, and the less institutions look the other way when such actions are drawn to their attention but offer support to victims and sanctions for the aggressors, the more productive everyone will be enabled to be. I hope that organisations and individuals grasp this nettle, but I am not sure I am optimistic that my hope will be realised.


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Resilience and the Nobel Prize

In case you’ve been asleep, this week has seen the number of scientific women winning Nobel prizes spike: two won this year. I don’t consider this simply as a moment of pure celebration for the cause of women in science, as I wrote elsewhere, pleasing though it may be. It means that the number of women winning in Physics has increased to the grand total of three, and in chemistry to five. Marie Curie features in both those totals. In Physiology or Medicine the number of women winners is the truly astonishing number of twelve. Across all the awards women represent just under 6%. On this rating, equality remains an elusive goal.

This year’s winner in Physics is the Canadian Donna Strickland, a woman whose Wikipedia entry had to be put out fast on Tuesday, when it turned out that the last attempt to get her a page had been rejected (just last May) because she wasn’t regarded as significant enough. Is this another example of the Matilda effect? This concept was introduced in 1993 by Margaret Rossiter who contrasted it with the more familiar Matthew effect (‘to him that hath shall be given’)stating, in the abstract to her paper

‘Recent work has brought to light so many cases, historical and contemporary, of women scientists who have been ignored, denied credit or otherwise dropped from sight that a sex-linked phenomenon seems to exist…’.

That Strickland, at 59, had not ever made it to the rank of full professor might look like her institution not honouring their own, although she confesses the fault is hers for never bothering to apply (and presumably no one thought to encourage her to do so: no mentors or sponsors).

However, her path to a Nobel may have been less uncomfortable than that of a former winner, the 1983 recipient in Physiology or Medicine Barbara McClintock. I’ve just been reading her biography, written by Evelyn Fox Keller just before the prize was announced (A Feeling for the Organism) all those years ago. I have my own memories of the prize, when my father told me that ‘only a woman’ could have had the patience to do what she did. (Goodness knows what he, an unsuccessful accountant, understood of what she did but I do know at the time how riled I was by the gendered remark. He did not live to see me become a professor!)

McClintock’s life seems to have been fairly extraordinary on many counts. Reading the Keller account it is striking what inner resources she must have had to cope with, not just academic insecurity, but insecurity arising from the fact that the universities in the 1930s really did not expect to hire women in research roles as faculty at all. Happy though she was at Cornell, she would not be a ‘lady scientist’, condemned to teach but not research, but insisted on

‘her right to be evaluated by the very same standards as her male colleagues’,

as Keller puts it. That might seem to be a reasonable thing to do, but oh no, it made her ‘problematic’ to her male colleagues who saw her as ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ and with ‘personality difficulties’. How far do readers think we have moved on? Modern female scientists (please not ‘lady scientists’ now as then), neither want favours accorded to them as women, nor to be suffering under the weight of the Matilda effect or any other bias, conscious or otherwise. With Cornell not willing to offer her a faculty position McClintock moved to Missouri as an Assistant Professor but left when she believed they would not grant her tenure, ultimately spending many years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she was the only person to be working on maize genetics.

McClintock managed to gain the respect of her colleagues, becoming just the third woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, but her best work – and most testing times – were still to come. Over many years, by analysing the pattern of pigmentation in maize ears, she was able to ‘see’ how genes were being switched on and off, and what factors controlled this. From this she came up with the idea of transposition just at the time molecular biology and the ‘central dogma’ was taking hold. Her ideas about the ability of elements to move around were simply not comprehensible, let alone accepted by her peers during the 1950s, who were focussing on prokaryotes rather than the eukaryotic maize; these seemed simpler to understand but of course had their limitations for genetic study.

For years she seems to have stopped publishing – but not stopped researching – and worked in isolation with few supporters. Of course, we would not really appreciate all this if ultimately she had not triumphed, with her ideas becoming mainstream culminating in the Nobel Prize. Reading the biography, though, I kept thinking how did she keep going? Resilience is much talked about now and she had the advantage of already being accepted at one level. But that did not stop dismissive comments such as

‘just an old bag who’d been hanging around Cold Spring Harbor for years’

being tossed in her direction. It is hard, as anyone who has had to do it knows, to battle on in the face of negativity and lack of support. Having once been a respected scientist may make it easier in one sense, but the hurt will still be there. Yet she kept going until the field, as it were, caught up with her and was capable of understanding what it was she’d been trying to say for all those years.

Because the book was finished before it was known McClintock had won the Nobel, how she reacted to finally proving her detractors wrong is not discussed. Given the way she comes across throughout the book, I suspect consideration of that would not have been uppermost in her mind. What mattered to her was the science. Understanding what was going on using old-fashioned techniques was her passion; techniques that allowed her intuition, experience and understanding to flourish as she pieced together the jigsaw that ear after ear of maize revealed. Her (interim) tragedy was that she could not convey to her colleagues the intricacies of the inner workings of the genes that her deep knowledge gave her, developed from countless well-thought through experiments.

Resilience, determination, insight, patience, critical thought….the list of attributes a successful scientist requires to change a field, to introduce a paradigm shift, as McClintock did, is long. It does not include the word lady, woman or female. One hallmark in reaching equality in science will be when the newspapers do not have a field day around the gender of prize winners because it just isn’t interesting. There are good male scientists; there are good female scientists. It is only the adjective ‘good’ that matters.


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What Does Creativity Mean to You?

When I was at school, careers’ advice – at least at my girls’ grammar school – was essentially non-existent. Perhaps boys’ schools did better; after all, for my generation of women, ‘careers’ weren’t a matter for serious concern. I certainly believed, as I expect many of my peers did, that going to university would lead to a few years of random work followed by marriage and housewifery with a child or three to keep me busy. The pictured advertisement from my school magazine illustrates neatly the sort of expectations that were implicit in society around 1970, if not in my actual school where we were at least encouraged to get a degree. Get yourself some nice high heels and a tight skirt and girls like you could become ‘cashiers, supervisors, income tax specialists and officers in the Executor and Trustee Department.’ As even more of an inducement this ad added ‘Barclays has two women branch managers’.

School magazine

My own life didn’t turn out like that. I neither became a Bank manager nor settled down at 25, but that wasn’t because at any point I was offered serious careers advice other than from mentors once I was already on the path of research. It would be nice to think that schools were able to do rather better than on this front these days, but it all seems incredibly patchy. Following the 2011 Education Act

‘responsibility for careers education was transferred from local authorities to schools and colleges, but without any associated extra funding’

according to the introduction to a recent House of Lords debate on the topic, introduced and championed by crossbench peer Lord Aberdare. This shift in responsibility has led to fairly disastrous consequences for years of students in many schools. Reading the report of the whole debate in Hansard gave a gloomy picture of what has been, but more optimism about current changes.

As Lord Aberdare said, with the best will in the world

‘Teachers are not the right people to deliver careers education; most have neither the skills nor experience needed. That is why schools need access to independent, impartial careers guidance from trained and qualified professionals.’

A new organisation, set up in 2014 the Careers and Enterprise Company, seems to be moving things very much in the right direction. Bursaries are available – although not necessarily enough –to help schools identify and train their careers leaders.  Skilled help should be becoming available to the children coming through the system now and in the future.

Speaker after speaker in this debate talked with passion about the importance of appropriate advice and the recent past failures in the system. Some considered the issues around inequality, inclusion and the path for those destined not to go to university. Others looked with optimism towards the future with its new structures. However, I spotted another problem starting to raise its rather ugly head. If we want to believe CP Snow’s Two Cultures are a thing of the past, that such boundaries between Art and Science have vanished in our brave new world, I see a parallel division being introduced in some speakers’ minds from this debate hinging around the word ‘creative’. Creative is now used to mean something very different from what I might wish.  The overall and alarming sentiment is perhaps best captured in the brief sentence

‘As we have heard, there is a growing need for STEM skills, but not at the expense of creative skills’

a remark made by LibDem Peer Baroness Garden of Frognal. Science is, apparently, not creative!

This is of course not a new sentiment. William Blake perhaps was the first guilty party, with his 1826-7 engraving of Laocoön including the words

‘Art is the tree of life.  Science is the tree of death’

quickly followed by Thomas Carlyle in 1833 with

‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration.’

A couple of centuries later we have the novelist Lucy Ellmann claiming

‘The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.’

I wonder how many ‘dumb points’ she has benefitted from generated by ingenious and creative scientists around her.

Nobel Prize-winning Peter Medawar had it right when he said in 1968

‘All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.’

His views have clearly fallen on deaf ears. We are still up against the idea that scientists need to be segregated from the creatives of the creative economy (you know, people like those who design and write computer games  – not techie STEM folk of course). Who believe that our schools cannot teach creativity in science as well as in art or music (although to be fair the curriculum may not make it easy to do so, but that’s not the fault of the science).  It was reassuring to hear from Christopher Frayling (in a private conversation over dinner last week) – former Chair of Arts Council England and Rector of the Royal College of Art no less – that he too was deeply irritated by this  abuse of the word creative. I hope more people will speak up about this travesty of the use of our language, as well as a complete failure to understand how science operates.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should ensure all our school children get exposed to the whole spread of disciplines. The government’s emphasis on STEM education is absolutely part of a drive to ensure our children are equipped to deal with the world as it is, but it definitely should not drive out the richness of the other subjects. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to wonderful musical opportunities at my school and I did 3 languages at O Level as well as History for my humanities dose. I loved most subjects (with the exception of biology).  Careers advice may have been non-existent in my school, but I certainly got what these days would probably be termed an excellent STEAM education (with the added A being arts). Let us push for a world in our schools that recognizes the reality not these false dualities which limit choice and imagination.


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The Buzz of the New

The start of the academic year brings its own opportunity for new year’s resolutions. All the usual: drink less coffee, snack less between meals, waste less time reading peripherally-relevant websites and answer all emails within 24 hours. Just like calendar New Year’s Resolutions they are unlikely to be adhered to. But this time of year – and yes I know Cambridge terms start later than most so many readers will have long since passed this point – also is the point when you know that last bunch of resolutions you made at the start of the summer have also not been met. All those grand ideas about manuscripts written, hours spent in the library and grants submitted. Just like drinking less coffee they are likely to have bitten the dust, at least in part. And the end of summer rams it home just how few pages have been written en route to the next REF submission, grant application or job application. In that sense, it is a dismal moment of closing-off of options. I seem to feel it more than usual this year, perhaps because I sense I have no excuses for failing to meet my own self-imposed goals. No unexpected deaths or accidents marred my summer, and I can’t even use the excuse of being demoralised by the referendum. That sense of impending Brexit catastrophe is now a permanent state of affairs yielding a constant DC level of gloom, only shifting – in the wrong direction into spikes of even worse misery – whenever I attend an ERC meeting to remind me of what specifically scientists are about to lose. (I wrote about this previously on this blog, and most recently here.)

For a different generation, however, the start of the academic year brings all kinds of excitements coupled with fear. As new students arrive in College with newly acquired coffee mugs, duvet covers and well-established mascots or other mementos of home, the academic cycle starts again. New skills must be learned. Skills such as learning to cycle successfully down Trinity Street whilst avoiding other cyclists going the wrong way along the one way system while simultaneously swerving round tourists taking selfies in the middle of the road. Skills such as balancing sleep requirements with a social life and working out the right number of corners to cut when writing essays. All skills which – literally or metaphorically – remain valuable throughout one’s life, whatever direction it takes one in.

For these students I hope there will be a real buzz as they put down their roots in their new homes and work out whether the person in the room next door is going to turn into a lifetime buddy or an evil pain whose loud, thumping music regularly keeps them awake at night. (Churchill Porters can, however, be quite fierce about late night noise.) That buzz should carry them through the first week or two while they find their way around the nooks and crannies of the university’s older buildings as well as acronym soup; keep them going when they realise that their capacity for drink in the bars around the college and city is perhaps less than they’d like to imagine when trying to impress their friends and that glasses of after dinner port at the Matriculation Dinner carry quite a kick: fortified wine does mean it’s stronger than the usual stuff.

As an undergraduate at Girton all those years ago – that former all women’s college which was built a long way out in 1869 because it really was not a good idea to have the young gentlemen in close proximity to the maidens of Girton – I also had to learn the hard way that Cambridge winds (currently particularly strong) are always in your face, whether cycling into town or out again in the small hours. Colleges closer in have less of a battle on this front although Kings Parade does have its own particular version of vicious winds at certain times.

The start of the academic year should be a time of new beginnings for young and old alike. How long does all that enthusiasm last? I wrote previously about ‘sixth week blues’ and that is probably about right. Six weeks, for the student, is long enough to work just how far behind reading and problem solving has fallen, that no clean jeans can lead to sartorial disaster so leaving the laundry that long is a mistake and that a cumulative lack of sleep does not improve mental capacity. All those strands of life collide and bounce around. By the second term balance should have been (re-)established, but that first term before Christmas can feel inexorably long. For the staff member six weeks is also long enough to erase all memory of any putative freedom to write that the summer conferred yet to render the approach of Christmas without time to buy the family presents a constant reproach.

Like the natural world, the academic world ebbs and flows around the year and years. It has its periods of rapid growth and slow decline into senescence and decay. Moments of sudden beauty and others of mould and fear. At 18 one hopes the student feels each moment is to be seized because there may never be another such. As an old hand the daily routine can feel like a familiar friend.






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