How I fell in love with science

Our undergraduate students returned to university a few weeks ago and the autumn terms is now firmly underway. I am not doing a lot of teaching this year as autumn is my traditionally quiet time and after Christmas I am fortunate in having a sabbatical period to refocus on my research. Still, I’ve spent some time with our new first years and the third year undergraduates and also with my new crop of PhD students. The one thing that really comes over strongly is the enthusiasm and keenness to engage (with the exception of the young lady who slept through most of my lecture on Thursday- yes I DID notice…). With the reflection that comes with age (actually I am mere youth of 48- but grandfatherhood has made me feel very different) I have been thinking about my own journey to where I am. Naturally being editor of JHND is the pinnacle of achievement, but there have been a few other highlights along the way (see my other blog for details…).
Until I was 13 I loathed science. It was just dull and confusing and (I guess) badly taught. I was actually a bit of a history buff instead. When I went to secondary school I was inspired by a teacher called Mr Porter and that was the turning point for me. Mr Porter was a particularly talented communicator and he captivated me with what I now see as very simple demonstrations of chemistry and physics. The cloud-chamber which revealed the movement of atomic particles, the generation and ignition of hydrogen in the lab and the marvellous view of the blood vessels of a living tadpole under a microscope (alas things ended badly for said tadpole when I racked the objective lens down too far). These things were thrilling and Mr P, in a way that was particularly enlightened for the 1970s, used to set homework that was basically “go away and find out about X”. And there my first research skills began. Hours in libraries looking for information. Sitting in the garden running my own experiments to see how insects behaved. Brewing up wine in a jam jar. Innovative uses of chemicals in a chemistry set. Happy days.
Mr Porter moved on after two years and his successors did not match his ability to inspire. But, the seed was sown. I had acquired a love of knowledge and discovery and the skills and confidence to find out for myself. I was not a great listener in class. I did all my learning in my own time. I read the text books long before we had the lessons. I dissected worms, pig hearts and once even a tortoise. I built sophisticated pyrotechnics that today would land me in court on terror charges, I set fire to my parents garage several times and I loved it all. And now, decades later I am in my current post and I guess I should just say thanks Mr Porter, wherever you are. I might otherwise have ended up as a historian and somehow I don’t think that would have suited me quite so well.
For those readers who are students now- I hope that you have teachers who can inspire you and that your love of learning drives you along to achieve great things. Don’t get too caught up in the web of coursework and exams and forget why you started doing science in the first place. Love what you do, discover something new, and make a difference.



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