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Little Science Talks: Season 1, Episode 4

by | Sep 30, 2021 | Little Science Talks Podcast | 0 comments

The first season of the Little Science Talks podcast focuses on generational influences in STEM. Little Science Co Founder, Heidi Gardner will be joined by her co-host Anna Kebke, along with a different guest for each episode.

You can listen to the episode in full using the Acast player above, the full episode’s transcript is below if you’d prefer to read along.

In our fourth episode we’re joined by John Baird, a Lecturer in entomology and infectious disease at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. John grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, and education was not at the top of his agenda – he was ultimately asked to leave school after an incident with a tractor. He went into the air force and ended up in military prison after a drunken quest to sell a tank to Colonel Gaddafi… Out of boredom, he headed to university, doing an access course before graduating with a BSc and PhD. He moved to the University of Aberdeen and is now a much loved member of the teaching staff. John’s keen on encouraging his students to be creative, and we discuss the course he set up with the aim of cultivating imagination, creativity and curiosity within his students.

Heidi 
Hello, and welcome to Little Science Talks. And today we are joined by the very lovely John Baird. John, do you want to introduce yourself?

John 
Well, I’m glad I’m lovely. Yes, I’m John Baird, I work at the University of Aberdeen. I’m a Senior Lecturer. Most of the stuff I lecture on is on insects or infectious diseases. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. I’m a trustee of that society as well. And that’s my professional side. And perhaps it’s worth saying that I love dogs. That’s probably me summed up really.

Heidi
This is why we have you on the podcast because I love dogs too. Anna, are you a fan of dogs?

Anna 
I am a fan of dogs but I couldn’t keep them I don’t think because I’d just be sad, you know if they died or when they die? Oh, yeah, see you’re already sad.

John 
It’s terrible. But it’s but you get over it like we all you know. It’s you never really quite get over it. But it’s like all grief. Apparently, psychologists tell us that everybody has a period of grief. And then they come back to the same place they were before the grief. Everybody has this stable level of happiness part right if you believe the psychologist is but it is really sad when they die. 

Heidi 
The worst. Literal worst. I would definitely rather nominate certain members of my family. Oh my god.

John 
I think I’m with you, Heidi. I’ve never cried for a human the way I cried when my last dog died. So uncontrollable. It’s the worst. 

Heidi 
I remember when my first dog died. I think I must have been like eight or nine. And as a family like we went into mourning. I had a week off school. My dad had a week of work like we just like, stayed in the house for a week and just sobbed. It’s the worst, absolute worst time. But then we got another and it was great.

John  
That’s so there to back up to that level again. But it is searing pain. What I find was that I’d never experienced people wailing at funerals. And I didn’t know what that meant. Until the last moment of my dog and he died. And it was uncontrollable. I could not control my emotions at all. So that was a bit of a revelation. I didn’t realise that. 

Heidi  
It’s the absolute worst. I love that we have pro-dog people on the podcast. This should be like now a caveat that you can’t come on unless you’re a dog person. Anna, as long as you’re not a cat person, should be okay.

Anna  
No, no, no, no, no, no cats.

Heidi 
Can’t do it, too scared, terrified of cats. Anyway, John. So apart from dogs, insects are your thing. And infectious disease you mentioned. So how did you get to where you want to what was your kind of career trajectory?

John  
Well, I mean, how long have you got. So I got asked to leave school when I was 16, which I did. And then I’ve had various jobs including in the RAF Regiment. I was a steel erector, all sort of physical jobs if you like, and then but they were very boring. And so I went to university when I was 27 and did well and then did a PhD on predatory flatworms of all things, which are the New Zealand flatworm, which people may have heard of. This is an invasive species and it was good, it went well. And then I got a job at Aberdeen University working on vaccines in two labs, which didn’t go as well didn’t really work. To be honest. It was very, I took over a project from someone else. It’s a very ambitious project, looking at using single TCE and antibodies, which are half an antibody that you can do all sorts of interesting things with. And then I did you might remember Mary Cotter, Heifi. 

Heidi
Yeah, Mary is a legend. 

John  
Yeah, Mary Cotter was a legendary Professor and Physiologist at the University of Aberdeen and, really much of the teaching is really good in Aberdeen, particularly in the biomedical sciences, and really is still a legacy of Mary Cotter. And Mary Cotter, I taught a course with her. I was lucky enough that she liked what I did. And sort of through that I ended up getting a permanent position at Aberdeen, I still have a very short, potted history of why I’m here, I suppose. So I was lucky. I was very lucky that Mary liked what I did.

Heidi
She was an actual legend. I remember she came into one of my first-year medical sciences lectures, and everyone was like, No, you gotta know, the mumbling of whispers throughout the lecture theatre, and I was like, this woman. I know what you’re talking about. And then she started and I was like, Oh, Okay, I get it. She’s fantastic. She was. Yeah, absolutely amazing. And I think most of the lectures that I did in the first year, at least would be based on what she was doing and teaching at least. 

John 
I think so. People like this are so influential. We stay with Mary and her husband, Norman, who was also a Physiologist at Aberdeen. Excellent. We haven’t been able to see them for a while but, but they’ve become close personal friends. And it’s lovely to have people like that in your life. And a lot of the processes that we have, still I see Mary’s touch on all sorts of different things. And she loved students, she cared in a really profound way about students and I think that’s, that rubbed off on a lot of us so. So hats off to Mary Cotter.

Heidi 
Alright, we’ll just dedicate this episode. She’s definitely like her legacy. That was pretty major because I heard Gordon McEwan talk about her. So yeah, everyone, basically all of the really good lectures that like students can go to, it feels like they’ve been coached by her, her influence and stuff, which is very obvious.

Anna 
I’ve heard the same about John, as someone who’s recently graduated, everyone’s like, oh, wait till you go to John’s lecture. Oh, John’s the funny one. Oh, John is always so nice. So honestly, I think you know, people are saying the same about you.

John  
Well, that’s really lovely to hear. And I and maybe I’m a good learner that cuz it was Mary taught me so so that’s lovely. 

Anna 
Full circle. 

John 
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Heidi  
That’s cute. Okay, so we just skipped over the bit where you got asked to leave school. What did you do? How did that happen?

John
Oh, so I’m from a loyalist or unionist housing estate in North Belfast. So you know, the housing estate I was brought up and had lots of people who were not there because they were in jail for armed robbery or murder. It was during the troubles in Northern Ireland and North Belfast and West Belfast where most people were murdered. So, I passed my 11 plus to go to a grammar school. And then I sort of fitted the role to my background became sort of like a disruptive. I was bored and I didn’t really do my schoolwork like I was supposed to. And I was always in trouble. And then the thing that really set it off, I didn’t smoke but most of my friends smoked. We used to go to the sheds that they kept the tractors and that they cut the rugby pitches, and I don’t know we started we broke into the, to the shed one day and someone started it. Of course, we didn’t know what we were doing. And there’s like leavers tractors drive, you know, put your foot on the pedal the way you do in a car, and someone just put the lever forward, we were all hanging off it and off we went through the shed door and the tractor, it keeps going so you don’t the tractors if there’s a lever in the front and you just put it in and it goes you don’t have to keep your foot on the title so off the tractor, we jumped off at the tractor went off across the fields and ended up in a ditch somewhere. Anyway, we got caught for that and they just sent me home with a letter to my mum saying that we think John should find an alternative place to be educated.

Heidi  
Nice wording of it “we think John should leave us alone.”

John  
They let me stay to finish my exams and then and then they said go away. So I didn’t. Yeah, that was that for me.

Heidi  
I think that was a fair reaction. Yeah, tractor ditch.

John  
Yeah, maybe, probably. I was wasting my time at school, it was pointless, I didn’t have any drive to do anything meaningful or useful.

Heidi
So what made you go back to uni? Obviously, you said that you were bored and stuff when you were in the armed forces. But what was you know what made you go Okay, maybe I’ll go and get a degree? What made that spark happen?

John  
Boredom? Well, lots of things, actually. So I got in trouble when I was in the Air Force as well, I did. This is gonna sound like I’m making this up. But I’m not. It’s a very long story. But anyway, me and two of my friends, one who’s Irish and the other ones from Bath. We were in Germany with our tanks, my Squadron had tanks. And we got really bored. And then we got drunk. And then we stole one of the tanks when we were in Germany, and drove it all around the Air Force Base over nuclear shelters up the runway. And then we broke out through the fence and went to Holland. And we were so we’d actually packed our bags. There was a guy called Colonel Gaddafi. You might not remember he was the leader of Libya. We thought we were going to be able to drive to Libya and sell him the tank. We were very drunk.

Heidi  
What had you been drinking? 

John 
Jagermeister

Heidi  
Of course. 

John  
Yeah. And the reason why we were going to see Gaddafi is that I’d been seeing a girl who was half Libyan and half Irish. And I don’t know. Anyway, there are lots of strange chats. And we had Talking Heads on through our headphones, Psycho Killer. I don’t know that song. But it seemed very apt at the time, I was commanding the tank, Bernie was driving it. And eventually, we started sobering up and thought this, what do we do?

Heidi
At least that realisation came eventually

John  
Yeah, eventually ended up being arrested by the Dutch Border Police. And so I, I did a month, 48 days for eight days in military prison for that, which wasn’t all that bad. A place called MCTC. Military Corrective Training Centre. So it was kind of fun, I suppose. 

Anna  
The things we do when we’re drunk.

Heidi
We always end up in military prison.

John    
Yeah, and the things you do when you’re bored? Yeah, absolutely. So I get on the Air Force and I just fell into jobs. It was the early 90s. And there wasn’t, there wasn’t much employment around at this time, actually. And so worked on building sites working on the roads, putting up the crash barriers you see on a motorway, which was a horrible job. The last shift I did on there was three days solid, can you believe digging the holes putting up steel, because it was all price work. And there was no health and safety in those days. So the quicker you got it done, the more money you got. And if you didn’t get it done in time, they took money off. So this urge to get things done and doing it dangerously. So I was just a really, I just had enough of doing stupid things. And I decided that I wouldn’t do stupid things anymore, or much less. And then I thought I’d go into an access course because I didn’t have qualifications to go straight to university, and then went to Queen’s University in Belfast for my undergrad and PhD.

Heidi  
And you’ve just been fully on the straight and narrow ever since. Little glint in your eye.

John   
Oh, yeah. I haven’t stolen any vehicles for a long time.

Anna    
Haven’t been caught by any border police

John    
Yeah, no, no. None of that. Yeah, I’m more sort of mischievous than a troublemaker

Heidi    
I hope, Aberdeen hopes!

John  
Absolutely. It’s no secret. I don’t keep my past the secret, quite happy to sort of, you know, most people I know have got sort of, I do feel sorry for young people at the moment because I was able to put those things behind me and I do wonder about young people being recorded and and and demonised for things that they’ve done when they’re young really disturbs me.

Heidi  
Yeah, it’s difficult to make a mistake. Now when it be a genuine mistake. It tends to be something that repeats and loops over

John    
I think so it comes back to haunt but young people do stupid things. I mean, maybe not as stupid as me. But, you know, young people are full of hormones and maybe they’ve had an unstable background, or they’ve had trauma, and it sort of there’s their behaviours related to that, that isn’t always excusable, I suppose, but it shouldn’t ruin someone’s life or follow them around and stop them achieving. At least I don’t. So, I think it’s tough for young people. And I think some older people perhaps aren’t as patient or our understanding or forgiving, or perhaps their memories aren’t all that good. So it’s easy to point the finger, isn’t it? So I’ve got a lot of empathy for young people. I hope I do anyway with their circumstances.

Heidi   
So what about when you so obviously, you did your access course and stuff, and then you went into education became an insect man.

Anna    
At 27. So that’s pretty late by today’s standards.

Heidi    
It’s not old, I’m saying that because I’m 29. 

John    
It’s so old, so old. I didn’t really know Do you know, when I first found a university, I can’t remember where it was. And they said, what sort of degree do you want to do? This is how clueless I was. I said, like a modular degree, because I thought you could go and I didn’t know what I thought, really, I just thought you’d like to choose bits and pieces of stuff that you were interested in, of course, doesn’t really work like that

Heidi 
They meant subjects. And you’re like, no bits of stuff.

John  
Yeah. Biology. You know, I was so clueless. So, but I just had to think about what I was interested in. And there were many things. But biology was the thing that was most interesting to me at the time. And then when I did my degree, it’s just usually random things can be there was a people from the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland use come down and lectures and they would have I like the, they were very didactic, very pragmatic. They didn’t prance around and sort of make you feel small or anything like that. And they were entomologists. And so I ended up where I did most of my PhD. Well, I did half my PhD at the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland, and had such a great time, I loved it there, it was bit mad, but it wasn’t stuffy. And so I’ve really felt like I could get on with things without without sort of, been really, I don’t know, irritated, I suppose by, by stuffy academics talking down. To me, it’s quite hard.

Heidi
Academics to do that. I won’t, I won’t name names. But you’ll know. They do. Like they just kind of it as if you are literally like nothing to them. Whereas a lot of the time, the PhD students or the postdocs or whatever, like the driving force behind the labs that they’re the head of, and so you just kind of look at the gap of like, but they’re actually doing a lot of the legwork and why are you talking to them? like crap? Absolutely. Yeah. And that is everywhere in academia.

John
It’s unfortunate. And I there’s many, you know, that you can have many explanations for it, I think there’s, some of its lack of confidence. Some of its higher, it’s always been done and how they were treated. I think some of it’s a lack of respect, lack of ability to reflect, and perhaps or some of its people who are very sort of driven towards a single goal in their research, perhaps they just don’t really think very much about the things that other people think about it in terms of how they are they deal with people.

Anna
A lot of scientists, I guess, are very, they don’t have a lot of empathy, I suppose. For people, you know, they say as, as it is, and you know, I guess that’s a backside of being super clever sometimes. So, I mean, I’m not speaking about myself. But I honestly thought some people so, you know, like Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory and stuff like that. He doesn’t care what he says. And if that hurts someone, well, that it hurts someone. So I think I agree with what you said, John. 

Heidi 
It’s become really obvious as well. I said we weren’t going to talk about COVID but throughout the pandemic, like the lack of respect for like other views, and just kind of, if a scientist has a view, then that’s the correct view, correct and backwards. And anybody else that disagrees is wrong or stupid or whatever else in it. There’s no kind of, I feel like it’s really it’s showing me anyway, like the science communicators, I actually think are any good and the ones that I just think No, it’s not a dialogue, it’s just a one-way thing that you actually want. It’s not a two-way challenging discussion that you want. It’s just it’s a ‘tell’ thing rather than a discuss thing.

John 
Absolutely. That’s exactly what’s happened. And it’s unfortunate that the conversations have been closed down. And, you know, science is supposed to be a big community that, you know, people very honest and about, you know, their reasons for doing things, but actually isn’t really, people are motivated by selfishness, often, or with a trying to protect their position. And not, you know, that their position that they’ve taken in terms of, you know, the reasoning, but also their position in, in a university or a research group? And I think, yeah, I completely agree, only COVID has really exposed the sort of soft underbelly of science. And, and I wonder what we do about that. I mean, there’s, there’s a group called retraction watch, which you may have heard of, yeah, we’ve been sort of looking at sort of some of this over the years and the rubbish, that’s, well, people will be making things out and getting a published for personal gain. So it has been going for quite a while. And maybe this will be maybe there’s some good to come out of COVID. 

Heidi 
Something has to happen.

John 
Something has to happen. I thought it was really interesting, what Anna said as well, about, you know, people who are really smart, and maybe there’s something about there’s a trade-off. Actually, you know, a lot of the people that I met who really super successful researchers actually are some of the nicest, I guess it’s a mixed picture. 

Heidi 
Yeah, it’s different, isn’t it? I think when you get a nice researcher who’s like, not only, I guess, like academically smart, but they’re also like, emotionally smart. It helps. And it’s, it means that they lift up everybody around them as well. They give credit where it’s due and they support early career researchers and all that kind of thing and that it’s frustrating because that’s rare you find a good one and everyone’s like, oh, magnet go to them stick with there, and it makes things tricky.

John 
It does seem rare, doesn’t it? And of course, the whole system whereby everybody’s fighting for the same money. I think it can turn people unpleasant. turns people, rabid man.

Anna 
like the politics of it. 

John 
Yeah. Yeah.

Heidi 
It’s wild. Like so. My PI, he was my PhD supervisor. fantastic to work with. And I was literally like, Well, I’m not leaving, I’ll make the tea. So if you want to pay me, that would be an absolute bonus. So I’m just gonna say here, yours like, Oh, god, she’s serious. I’ll find some money. Don’t say in the staff kitchen. And I stay and then the more you speak to people about like career progression and stuff. Everyone’s like, Well, you know, you really should go to a different institution, you really should go to a different lab or a different pa and you’re like, but in comparison when so many of them are so awful. Why would I do that to myself? Like mentally? Why that might help my career but it might also break my brain. 

Anna 
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

John 
Yeah, I think sorry. Yeah, you don’t want to go and break yourself. Sorry. It’s hard to know you know, these things I suppose on reflection, you know, you can’t do your controlled study, unfortunately. People value people who move around a bit, but it’s quite difficult for people to do that sometimes.

Heidi 
Yeah. Especially when you got a dog, man. I don’t want to uproot the dog he’s got friends, he knows all the local dogs. That’s not the reason but it definitely plays a part get your bearings, or if you have kids, partners, if you’ve settled somewhere and you’re happy then why don’t you should have to move but it ends up being you got to run around. 

Anna 
I’m just muting myself because my daughter is running around downstairs 

John 
Is this your young one?

Anna 
Yeah! 

Heidi 
Superwoman I don’t know how you do it.

John 
Yeah, good on you 

Anna 
Oh, well. This is about John. It’s all about John.

Heidi 
On an actual serious note, though. I don’t know how academics with kids do that thing. 

Anna 
I don’t know in the UK. I’ve grown up in Sweden. And here it’s like childcare. Of course, everyone has basically free childcare. You know, you go back to work you put the kid in childcare, and then you just live your life, but in the UK like it’s mad. It’s really, really mad that the child gets or I think in Scotland, at least, the child gets free childcare after three. But you only have maternity leave or whatever until the child is 12 months old. So in that gap, I mean, you’re, if they’re in full-time childcare, I you pay a lot of money.

Heidi 
That’s mad. Yeah. I think a lot of people like, plan them as well. So you’ll have the first one and then go back for a little bit and then have the second one to make sure that you like get it out in one go. 

Anna 
But then you know, you can’t go back to work. What’s the point? Yeah, something has to change. So backwards

Heidi 
So in Sweden is it free? 

Anna 
Well, basically, it’s like a percentage of your salary, but there’s a cap to it, so you can pay more. So yeah, I just don’t get it.

John 
I think Sweden is ahead of the UK. Well, the Scandi countries are ahead of the UK in so many aspects. Really?

Anna 
Yeah. Well, yeah. Most aspects.

John  
It’s an interesting subject, though. Because you know, PI’s employ a woman who’s of reproductive age, then the woman goes and has a child, and the PI can then feel exposed because the lab works not getting done. And I’m not sure that the problem has been addressed properly, either. Because my feeling is it can work against the PI, but it goes could work against the woman. probably aware of this, you know who maybe they won’t be at the top. Now, nothing will be said, because nobody says anything, do they? 

Heidi 
Yeah, can never be written down. But no, you know,

John 
There’s a tension there. Isn’t there? There’s a conflict. And yeah, I don’t I don’t think that’s been resolved properly.

Heidi 
It’s just kind of been left, I think where everyone’s kind of assumed that. Now that’s the law, then everyone’s cool with it. Like everyone allows you to adhere to the law. And they’re like, Well, uh-huh. But you can adhere to the law and, like, by very varying degrees, yeah, just don’t write it down. And then I think that’s why we’re in a situation that so many people are in

John 
How do you feel that if you, Anna you’ve got a child, Heidi you might, but how do you feel that’s gonna hold you back? Or is are you going to be able, to pursue your career in the way that you want to?

Anna 
In my blog post for Heidi’s website, I wrote something about, there’s never the right time to have a child, and you just have to just deal with it and do what you can. And of course, you have to prioritise, there are some things I’ve had to take away from my to-do list and everything. It just saddens me that, you know, people hold off going to uni and getting an education, because they might be pregnant or when I was pregnant someone asked me, “oh, when are you dropping out?” And when are you coming home? I’m like, I’m not dropping out. And I’m not coming home. I’m finishing my degree. Which, yeah, there needs to be more like support. The University of Aberdeen was actually really supportive. But I know other unis haven’t, may be been as supportive to students with kids and that hinders people because sometimes you fall pregnant, and you decide to keep the child and just a lot of obstacles. But also, like, it’s not, it’s not a bad thing to choose to have a baby when we’re adults. Like, it’s not even like mature students and stuff like you, you can choose to have a baby whenever you want, and it doesn’t, you know, you fall pregnant. And you should just be able to deal with that. If it’s such a horrible situation where it’s something that should be so happy for you. And then you’re suddenly asked with, like, you’re faced with questions like when you’re going to drop out when is this good thing that’s happening to you, you’re going to ruin this other thing that’s happening to you. 

Heidi 
Yeah, it’s strange. I think. I don’t want kids I’ve been quite open with people around me that I don’t want kids and my mum was like, fantastic. I’ve got a grandchild. And so yes, as Barney is a dog. And she now refers to him as like her grandchild. That’s the only grandchild she’s ever going to have unless I convince my partner to get another dog, which I’m working on it. But yeah, like the women around me have been, in an academic sense, the women around me have been fantastic career women with kids, and there’s been no issue. So I don’t necessarily think it’ll be an issue for me. But I do wonder if I interview for like postdocs and fellowships and stuff in the future, will it will somebody on the interview panel be thinking is she a safe bet because, you know, she’s been with her partner for a while and she’s at that age, ticking bomb, ticking time bomb and a lot. It’s just like that women choose and it that does go into things where I’m like, I’ll be so open about not wanting kids, because I do think it will probably benefit me at some point in the future which is awful. But you just that sometimes you just have to do what you’ve got to do. 

John 
That’s how it is at the moment, isn’t it?  I’m not sure can change the world, unfortunately, I suppose in a sense, you just got to look after yourself for the moment until processes improve, it’s not a very satisfactory thing is it but I guess I don’t know what else you do really? 

Anna 
Just seek support where you have it and you know, yourself be open about it. 

John  
I’m glad the University looked after you Anna 

Anna 
Yeah, no, some fantastic support. I remember sitting in an exam, very pregnant and had to go pee, like every 15 minutes. And they were totally fine with it. And then when she was born and stuff, I just came, and fed, and went back to learning and then, you know, I took a break a year out of just to be a Mum for a year. And then yeah, back to it. So it’s just a puzzle. But I think I had amazing support, like from family and then some people might not have that. So I think it’s it’s good. Like, I think the universe has a parents student network that people can join if they’re, finding themselves pregnant, I suppose and just get some help. 

Heidi 
Did Thomas get help as well? Like, obviously, you had a bump, that was, it was kind of obvious

Anna 
Yeah, I was kind of hiding it. I’m not sure how well I hide it John, but in lectures and stuff, and practicals I kind of got excused from dissecting the rats and stuff.

John 
Yeah, I think I knew you were pregnant. I don’t know if I didn’t know. I’m pretty sure I knew.

Anna 
Yeah, pretty sure I told I think lectures, but then you’re new, you’re a new student. You’re supposed to be living the student life. And you know, maybe no one wants to be friends with a pregnant teenager. 

Heidi 
Student life is grim anyway, the number of ill-advised hangovers that you have to go through in freshers week like, man, the fact that he might have missed out on some of that is a blessing rather than anything else.

Anna 
Well, I vomited anyways. 

Heidi 
Oh, God! 

I guess if we come back to John. So I guess if we ever think about the outside influences, because this whole series is about, like, generational influences and how people end up in STEM and what their journey is like and stuff. Obviously, you didn’t have a necessarily like a prophet in the house. But what was your like influence or outside? Like when you told your family and stuff that you’re going to go back to uni? Like, what was their response?

John 
What do you think I even like, Did I tell ya, I don’t really, I haven’t, we haven’t got a close. I haven’t got a close family. I don’t think my dad was dad. I told my mom and she’s supportive. But she left school when she was 14. You know, she valued education. But she didn’t. She didn’t understand that, in fact, but it really, I think I was flying pretty solo, in that sense. influences. I don’t know, I think probably being in the RF was useful. The RF regiment sort of taught you a lot of resilience, or other inspirational people that, you know, you might like David Attenborough, or you know, it’s a bit cheesy. I think it was really more for me, it wasn’t so much aspirational, as aspirational, sort of trying to, you know, I didn’t have this big thing that I wanted to do, necessarily, I just wanted, I knew what I was doing. wasn’t for me, I needed something to get my head into. That’s so yeah, I don’t really have a very inspirational story.

Heidi 
It’s just so many. Yeah, there’s so many like fairy tales of, I saw this, you know, I saw David Attenborough. And then I wanted to do this. And that was like, my life’s goal. And I don’t think it’s like that for most people. I think it’s more like, Oh, God, I should probably go to uni. And I’ll study this thing because I’m not crap at it. And then what will happen afterwards? I don’t know. Like, most people just sort of fall into it in different ways. So I guess we’re probably more of a realistic reflection. And, like, saw David Attenborough on BBC Two and assumed I would be one day like him.

John 
I mean, there’s a bit of that is there because you, you know, we grew up in these programmes, and it sort of influences you.

Anna 
I remember asking a lecture once, like, also, why did you become an I can’t remember why I asked this, but I was like, why did you become a lecturer in this assembly? She was like because I needed a job

John
Yeah, it’s a good job. It’s a lovely job. I feel so lucky, really privileged. And I suppose that that is a driver once you start to see what the job can be, can carve out your own niche if you’re lucky enough to be in a quite a progressive university or school. And that’s marvellous. I just thought Love that as long as it works, and you get a, you know, you don’t mess things up. But you try it, you know, you try new things, and they work and the students like it, then then you get to try other new things. And that’s, that’s amazing.

Heidi 
So what are the best bits about your job now? Like, obviously, you’re kind of well known in the Union like you’ve cemented it, you’ve got some freedom because people know you’re good. What extra bits of freedom have you got? And what are the good bits? 

John 
The best thing I’ve done probably recently, or maybe ever is the course Anna was on the creativity course.. And of course, you’ve presented this year Heidi. It’s a short course. And I didn’t really know how I could make that course, work in a short period of time. My ambitions have to be limited. But I think it’s it’s worked in a way for me in the way that I wanted it to students make products and the course as you know, they’ve got a very short period of time, some like 30, or three zero wars to make these products. And they are more or less successful in terms of being marked. But I think it’s been successful for all of the students that I’ve talked to you to in terms of just understanding how difficult it is to create a make a product. And do you remember Elliot? 

Anna 
Yeah, he’s got the pop-up winery 

John 
Yes. So that’s our course. So that really makes me extremely happy. Because I’ve been training biologists for a long time. But it’s nice to know biologists can do should be creative, right? So they should be able to do other things. They’ve got so many skills, so they can do other stuff.

Anna 
Just for context. Do you want to if you feel comfortable just telling us about the course because I think listeners might not know? 

John 
It’s a short course, at level three or level four honours year where students have some workshops to try and sort of free their minds up a little bit and think a bit more creatively. And then they’ve got a few weeks to come up with products and the products can be almost anything and that that is great freedom for the students, the title of the course, the first word in it is imagination. And so that’s what I want. I didn’t want to stoke the fire imagination, I wanted the imagination to go. But it makes it extremely difficult. And it’s not an easy course, I don’t think it’s an easy course it might, you know, I think there was a lot of sniffing from some of my colleagues about Oh, silly, cool course. And I’ve you know, they can help Come and have a go and see how they get on. And the students have really stepped up and we’ve had some extraordinary interesting products that you were involved in. For an adult audience, I think that’s reasonable to say, maybe we don’t go into details, We’ve had wonderful movies, kids books, but you can’t just have a kids book, it has to have a purpose. And it has to be useful, which is really put an extra layer of difficulty I think into this year, we had a device from a student who’s based in Hawaii. So it was all remote, of course, so last year isn’t it. And her device was she was fed up, going to the toilet and being afraid of the noises that might occur in the toilet. So she had a multifunctional device that would be able to check for any sort of germs, everything’s a UV light, there was a wiping device on it. And also it made a noise. And if you really wanted to, it would create an odour just like a small, small sort of phones type device. And so if she was a bit worried about what was going to happen, then we could make a big noise. And anybody who’s in the vicinity wouldn’t feel to hear anything that she was up to up in the market. I think there’s a market for it. So without that, that’s the course. And it’s been twice highlighted by the external examiners. I was actually supposed to get down to Westminster Can you believe the Royal Society or GE and tell them about the course. But unfortunately, COVID got in the way. But I hope to I hope to do that. 

Anna 
What I loved about the course is because what I was complaining about the kind of at the start of my degree was it’s all biology, there’s nothing you know, I took extracurricular courses about I want to learn more about finance and economics, just basic economy stuff, and you kinda you had guest lectures come and tell us about entrepreneurship and how to start a company what you need to think about. There are lots of creative people. I mean, unfortunately, Heidi couldn’t come. 

Heidi 
Yeah, that was the year that I couldn’t do it. 

Anna 
So yeah, I think it’s it’s the perfect course for scientists just to not having to think inside that little tiny box that we usually get stuck in quite easily. 

Heidi
Because scientists often sort of get in this like rut of data collection making projects and collecting data, right? And it’s just this big cycle of dryness. But it doesn’t add anything. And even, when I was setting the business up, I did it because I was missing creative stuff, like I was, I was doing the PhD, and I was missing creativity, and speaking to my boss about it and stuff. And he was he always knew that I had a business on the side, I was never secretive about it. He was always like, but you do creative stuff in the office. And it’s not the same, it’s not the same doodle for my PhD, then it brings in knowing stuff within the business now people know me for making badges or you know, doing public engagement or whatever. And people can then bring that into the academics and it strengthens your science strengthens, your network strengthens, all of the projects that you’re part of, because that creativity is so important, and often it’s just left by the wayside. Like we didn’t really get any of that in my degree programme, I think I did a module on like bio business, but that was an optional extra and honestly – not that great.

John 
Yeah, that was very much business, I think you need to know about business. Whereas this was almost the opposite that was about the sort of nuts and bolts things you have to get in a place where you want to be. And the creativity, of course, almost the I wanted to be the opposite end of the spectrum, where you let your mind go. Having said that, I think it’s going to be extended, I want to extend it through the university. It looks like we’re maybe going to be doing some first and second year, to start students off thinking creatively from the get-go. You guys have missed the boat a little bit for the full package.

Heidi 
We were there at the beginning!

John 
I think you said Heidi, I think you touched on it – it’s good for your head. Your head needs it. There’s some outlet to being creative. It’s you know, it’s hard, we are, maybe some people aren’t

Heidi 
I just don’t believe people when they say they’re not creative, maybe for you it’s playing swing ball or it’s just Pokemon cards! Yeah, it’s just kind of the more opportunities to think differently. That will strengthen the way that you think about the way the science that you do,

John 
It has to, surely. It must do. Scientists, supposedly a creative process. Certainly, if you look at the early side, or the philosophers or the early, I mean, the early for the Greek philosophers, they were coming up with all sorts of weird ideas turned out to be some of them wrong. And some of them turned out to be not far off Democritus and the theory of atoms and, and all sorts of other things and that was just through creative thinking. And ethics stopping you.

Heidi 
Yeah, no, it is though. It’s kind of the more creative things you do. The more creative things you do, like it, just spirals and suddenly your science becomes more creative. The projects that you think have become more creative. The data collection methods become more creative, like it all just, it just gets better. And it’s nice. It’s also sometimes like science can be lonely. And having a chat over like a coffee with someone about something harebrained idea that you’ve got is a nice way to break up.

John
I think so, you’d almost think within a PhD perhaps or, they should maybe they should be creative. We notice and yeah, maybe like away from the PhD or only tangential. But of course, it would be seen as a waste of time, wouldn’t it? 

Heidi
Of course, it would. Because it doesn’t do anything for you. Doesn’t write your thesis. I think most PhD students I know have ended up doing something. So another person from the uni so the Krista Morton did a PhD within the epidemiology unit. And now she’s got a side gig as a potter, a ceramicist, she’s got kiln in her house and she’s four days a week and in epidemiology doing a great job being a research fellow having a great time. 

John
I did a pottery course, ceramics course before I did the creativity course to put myself out of my comfort zone. And I made these pots and I made a glaze, and then I actually put my pots in – which were not very good, I can tell you, but I put them into the degree show. They were the worst parts of that show. But that didn’t matter that. And that was good actually because I had to stand by my pots and say, that’s what I did. I made this thing. It’s not very good, but I like it. And I’ve had fun doing it 

Heidi 
Good is subjective. So there might have been someone looking at and being like, gee how did he do that? 

John 
They were representing rave culture in pots. That’s what they were. 

Heidi 
I’m doing a book club tonight, which is why we’re recording before it. But the book is by Anna Ploszajski, who is the author of a book called Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning through Making which you will love. If you haven’t read it each chapter is split into a different thing. So clay, glass, sugar, plastic that goes all the way through. And she basically tells like a bit of her life story and a process of making with that thing. So in the play chapter, she goes to make a clay pot and figures out what her PhD is like how she’s going to recover from a PhD with clay. The sugar one was really good because she’s talking about like, she swam the channel and you find out so much stuff about Mini rolls that you would never expect. The outside of them is hydrophobic. So they float when you’re doing the channel, you can just put one in the sea, catch it. That’s your sugar, it’s fab. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book. But you should read it because, by the sounds of it, it’s fully up your street.

John 
I’ve just it written down! Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning through Making

Heidi 
She’s doing a creative nonfiction storytelling course and stuff. Now she’s just gone freelance. She was a material scientist, so fully creative. 

John 
Yeah, I think that sort of, I think it’s one of the things that are also PhD students, I suppose it’s not always talked about very much is there’s not a job in science for every PhD student, certainly not a job that they might want to do. They might have to take those skills and adopt them and I take on other skills and do something else. 

Heidi 
It’s just understanding of if you want to stay, it might be hard. There’s a graph that someone shared on Twitter, the other day, and it was like one of these exponential ones where this, you know, there’s this many PhDs coming out of the Academy. And then the line of PI’s just stays really stagnant. Like, oh, crap, why do I go in there? Basically, just saying, being outside of academia is not an alternative career path anymore. It’s, it’s probably going to be the default for most PhD students.

John 
I think it is one of my PhD students, although I was the sort of junior sort of supervisor. She’s got into patenting legal patents in science, and she works for a law firm. And she’s really, super smart. And maybe that’s a better challenge for her, I think. And I think she’s made a good decision, I think she’s gonna be she’s a brilliant writer, and I think she’s a really quick thinker, to the PhD helped her. I think it was great for her. 

Heidi 
It’s just kind of figuring out what you want. And using if you’re going to do a PhD, or even like a Master’s or an undergrad, using it as a way to explore a bit rather than it just being caged. You do the science you live to live by this is like, no, maybe think about doing something else at the same time. Yeah, undergrad was great. But yeah, I think up until this point in my career, I’m just like, wow, I could have been so creative. And yeah, it was never given an opportunity. You never like taught how. It’s very much like everyone go, go do that ceramics course. You’ll enjoy it so much. Even if you don’t produce something that’s satisfied, or you don’t particularly like or whatever, the Pro, it’s the process. And it takes away the perfectionist side, I suppose as well a bit. Get used to not being perfect all the time because science will bite you in the ass. 

So usually we ask everyone for a top tip or a pearl of wisdom that they wish that they’d learned at some point earlier in their career. I can see you don’t let it be about time. Is there anything that you wish you’d learned earlier?

John 
Yeah, if someone was going into science, after a PhD, I would do a lot of research. If you can’t, if it’s possible, about the group into which you’re being parachuted. it’s hard to get those secrets of what’s actually going on in a lab, with a PhD, any anything, I think undergrads different, you can quite easily to get information, as you go further up, sort of through the levels, then it becomes quite difficult, and people aren’t necessarily open about everything that goes on. Now. You won’t that it’s, it’s too much to expect that. But I think, you know, as a younger person, and you really want to have a career in science, or you think you might want to, I would do a bit of research. And how do you do that? Well, you might look online, there’s more information on the NIH, you might look at the civil form or find out for my students by career conference because you can talk to people to see what’s going on, then I think, time get as much information as you can and choose carefully. When I got my degree and I did well, I was phoned up by professors asking, do I want to go and do a PhD with them and all the rest of it. But I was old enough not to be seduced by that. Because you feel flattered that they want you. Whether I took the right choice, I don’t know. But anyway, I think that that would be my advice, don’t take anything at face value. Have a look behind the scenes. 

Heidi 
Yeah. That is some sage advice. Yeah, always go for the supervisor. Go for the good team, it’s not necessarily about the topic. Because if the topic is good, but the team is horrendous, you’re going to have a horrendous time anyway, even if you like the topic. 

Previous students are good as well. If you play him a coffee, right? Yeah. I think stronger. gonna come out for a beer and dinner like, let’s, let’s see what happens. Yeah, yeah. Some, some of it’s tricky. And it’s, the politics of academia is so complex in certain places. Yeah, there’s bits of, or I’m just like, I’m not going anywhere near that, because I can’t even fathom the politics of how complex that is. So I’m just gonna stay here in my little bubble, where it’s nice. I know what’s going on. I know. I know, like the dynamics of the situations and I get it, and that’s fine. It’s hard when you’re first new, like going into places and figuring out where you fit. And like, who’s going to be loyal to who and where those allegiances lie, and that’s really hard.

John 
Yeah, especially I have a tendency to gamble, you’re better off to keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut, it’s probably not too bad, at least for the first while in a lab, just to see what’s up. And you will feel, I constantly feel stupid. I’ve always felt stupid through my life, but never quite so stupid as you do doing, a PhD or postdoc. You know, because just you go from I think we go from your undergrad degree and you think you know something because you’ve done well and then you feel like you don’t know anything.

Anna 
And that was like the biggest shock ever, finishing my undergrad I got first I was like, given this award thing. And then like the first couple of days of my PhD I phoned my Mum like, I don’t know what my job is, I think I did work today but I have literally no idea. I write some stuff, answer some emails. But it is like the more you know, the more stupid you realise you truly are.

John 
I think so, I think that’s quite useful once you deal with it. I deal with that sort of like the undergrads are smarter than me and I’m cool with that. They are better looking they’re more talented, smarter. You know, I should hate them. 

Heidi 
But you never want to be the smartest person in the room, that would be a crap room to be in!

John
Yeah, awful! My Mum used to tell me it said it takes a wise man to act the fool. I don’t need to act but still, it’s not bad advice.