Wednesday, 2 July 2014

I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness...

Today I not only attended my first school assembly since around 1977, but I was invited by the Vice Principal, Mr. Parry to say a few words of encouragement to the Y12 UTC students. I am used to presentations to Science funders, from charities and research councils to hard-nosed business people. I have learnt to dodge the bullets from academic colleagues when trying to get them behind a challenging Departmental decision, but I wasn't sure at all how to approach the end of term motivational talk to address some of the concerns students have about balancing their investment of time in their curriculum work over their general and science related enrichment sessions, as we approach the summer holidays. Should I go for the Brannagh version of Sir Tim Collins Iraq War speech? Should I attempt (always badly in my case) the Sir David Attenborough approach, or take on the mantle of Jon Butterworth for 20 minutes, delivering his Smashing Physics presentation? In fact only yesterday, I sat through some of the Society of Experimental Biology session in Manchester, on Public Engagement listening to seasoned campaigners like Alice Roberts of TV and Birmingham University fame, and Alf Game, an old hand at guiding academics through the minefield of the "impact agenda". But then I though, no, just talk about why I am utterly convinced by the UTC's approach to training a new generation of scientists, from my own experience.

Starting with my primary school teacher, Mr. Kennedy (10 months in, I am getting used to calling teachers Mr. again! But holding out on the suit and tie, you'll be pleased to know). He introduced us to the insides of pigs, the cross section of a sheep's eye, Mozart and the world of maths including that wonderful ratio called pi. He opened doors that I never knew were there. He was followed by teachers who educated me as best they could in Science, but it was the music teachers and the English teachers (Brian Young and Matthew Brown) who sparked my interest in Shakespeare, literature and languages (hence the Henry IVth Pt I reference). I think it was their collective approach of opening my eyes to the wider body of knowledge that worked for me, rather than formal curriculum material.

And then came the Science. After a short hiatus, I met my undergraduate tutor at Sheffield, where I had signed up for Biochemistry. But first, I must mention the boot camp Chemistry course offered by the University of Sheffield in 1977), which preceded the Biochemistry course, which I now look back on fondly, not least because of the inspirational teaching of Michael Blackburn (shown left). I can remember Mike (who I would come to appoint to teach enzyme mechanism to second year undergraduates about 30 years later when I became head of the department!) interrupting his lecture on some fundamental aspect of organic chemistry, to show us all a thermal print from a mass spectrometer of the small peptide enkephalin. At the time neuropeptides where state of the art and the endorphin story had earlier been the subject of a BBC2 Horizon documentary. Again I was hooked on science, but not through the formal course material, but more on what lay beyond (what my daughter always refers to generically as "Narnia").

Returning to Bill Ferdinand, I recall my first tutorial...but not until one term had elapsed. I was feeling badly treated by the Department, although the tutor who held the fort was very good, he wasn't my proper tutor. We realised when we met Bill for the first time, that he had returned early after having a lung removed: he was a smoker! I think the first session with Bill was a consideration of transition state theory in the catalysis of some well studied enzymes. After a few minutes, it became clear that in Bill's eyes, without a sound appreciation of Galileo and Plato, we couldn't get down to transition state theory and the Hammond postulate! Of course he was right and again he had unlocked another set of doors! But this time, I was ready to repay him. I buried myself in the history and philosophy of science, I read every classic paper on enzymes and I hung on his every word. Tutorials and lab classes (less so lecturers apart from Drs. Fowler, Watts, Ainsworth and Sykes) were the reason to get up in the morning. Bill, a brilliant young protein chemist who came from Liverpool and ended up in Sheffield via Oxford and the Rockefeller Institute in New York, sadly died before I graduated (his last few tutorials were given to his students at his bedside!). But, Mr Kennedy and Bill Ferdinand provided me with a passion for knowledge, Science and Biochemistry. But as I said this morning if I was smarter I would be applying maths to address the Natural Sciences. Oh well, there's still plenty of time left!

Back to the title, the young prince has at this moment in the play realised that the time for fun is over and the mantle of responsibility lies ahead. There comes a point (as I found with Bill) when you have to put something back and that's what I want you all to focus on! I have left out so many people who have made and continue to help me and inspire me. Rest assured they will appear here before too long!

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