Last week I took the train through a snowy landscape to Warwick University to give a seminar at the Department of Chemistry. I arrived a little early to catch up with a couple of virologist friends; in the coffee bar we chewed over funding politics and hot topics in viral replication. I met my hosts for lunch and a pleasant chat about common interests in serum albumin. That was followed by an intense couple of hours talking to several of the chemists in the department about drug synthesis, catalytic mechanisms, analytical tools for studying membrane proteins and the intriguing transport properties of albumin. My head was buzzing with information by the time I stood up at 4 o’clock to present my talk on the structure of the 3C protease from foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV). Sociable to the last, we repaired to the bar for a drink before I got a cab back to the station.
A very good day all-in-all. I do enjoy getting out and about to give seminars. There’s great stimulation in meeting the demands of explaining your work to the wider scientific community (a good time to start thinking about what the results really mean!) and in engaging with new people and new ideas. It’s the very stuff of science.
But it could all have been so different. My visit reminded me that twenty years ago, as a fresh-faced graduate trainee with the National Health Service (NHS), I attended management training courses at the Warwick University Business School. Having completed my PhD, the roads ahead diverged: I was at a loss as to what to do next in science and so decided to take a completely different route. I thought running a hospital might be a worthy and challenging alternative.
I was right. But at the same time, completely wrong. The management courses at Warwick were fantastic—hugely stimulating—but hospital management was not for me. Too much wheeling and dealing with people to get even relatively simple things done. I was no good at it and, for the first time in my life, hated going to work. The job was certainly worthy and challenging, but that was not enough—nowhere near.
So after a few months I started applying for postdoctoral positions and eventually found myself at the Institute for Animal Health where I made my first acquaintance with FMDV. I was home again and have not looked back. Until today.
I think if I had joined he NHS after my first degree, I might well have stuck with it and made my career in hospital management. But doing the PhD spoiled me, in both senses of the word: although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, I was infected by science and that has made all the difference.