Pioneering for her pupils

15th January 2010 at 00:00
A candidate for the top science teacher in the UK was once `condemned' for being a polymath

Margaret Ritchie was once "condemned", as she puts it, by an academic specialist for being a polymath.

"Up until that point, a few years ago now, I hadn't realised I was a polymath! It was meant pejoratively but, on reflection, I took it as a back-handed compliment," says Dr Ritchie, a science teacher at Arbroath High, where she has been pioneering the new baccalaureate in science.

She regularly encourages her pupils to take part in research in science and health-related issues, and one of her pupils, Adrian Pritchard, was recently a runner-up for the SQA Star Award for School Candidate of the Year, having already published a research paper and presented it at an international conference (TESS, November 27, 2009).

Dr Ritchie's senior pupils meet and work with graduate, post- graduate and post-doctoral researchers. Some have authored or co-authored scientific abstracts and papers; and they have attended symposia and conferences in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland as well as those hosted nearer home by the Royal Society in Edinburgh and Dundee University.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Ritchie has recently been put forward for the Royal Society Award for top science teacher in the UK. She is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a regional member of the Royal Society of Medicine, an honorary research fellow and director of research study at Napier University and a registered nutritionist - among other things.

Her own research activities have involved collaborations with universities and teaching hospitals across the UK, Europe and North America and she is the principal author andor co-author of more than 40 scientific, medical, nutritional and educational papers and abstracts.

Something of a polymath, indeed. Dr Ritchie is also proof extraordinaire that professional achieve- ment can go hand-in-glove with raising a family. She is married with six children aged from 12 to 25.

In the early 1980s, she taught for four years in Tayside Region and then, while starting her family, began studying homeopathy, herbal medicine, clinical aroma therapy, reflexology and acupuncture.

In the 1990s, with a growing family, she ran her own complementary medical practice from home, taking many referrals from Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, and from local doctors.

"I decided then on a PhD, because I felt it would give scientific and medical credibility to the use of plant compounds in the management of patients with disease," she says; and in 2003, she received her doctorate (in measuring plant chemicals in blood, associated with reducing breast and prostate cancer) from St Andrews University.

In 2006, she returned to teaching, specifically to help develop the baccalaureate in science.

"There were only two things I wanted to be as a child - except, of course, a ballerina - and that was either a doctor or a teacher," she says.

Despite her international status, it is difficult to get Dr Ritchie to trumpet her own virtues and even more difficult to get her to stop talking about her pupils. But it is apparent her pupils find her not only inspirational but also unusual.

"Unusual because I go beyond school and university and have a real-life experience they can identify with," she says. "Pupils like the unusual and they pick up on the desire to do something worthwhile in life for others."

Dr Ritchie sees herself as a bridge between school, university and "the real world" beyond.

"If I can give pupils a chance to do something real with their lives, that's the greatest compliment and satisfaction in my teaching.

"I'm never happy at one thing. I like a lot of things on the go that I can bring together, which means getting pupils to work together - and to work with professional and university people - so they can achieve much more than they could on their own. It is amazing how they rise to that challenge."

Her ambition now is to work at an inter-school level to raise achievement through similar collaborative work.

"It's about pupil empowerment," she says.

There is no doubt that Dr Ritchie is a communicator first and foremost. There's no earnestness and nothing of the frenetic high achiever about her. She will happily chat about her love of music, hillwalking, reading and shopping ("I adore looking at clothes") and about her family, which also now includes a rabbit.

"Tufty lives in the parlour and loves chewing through the post when it arrives," she says.

And what breed of rabbit is Tufty?

"A long-haired, lion-headed, dwarf, lop-eared breed."

Well, one can't help thinking, that will probably be the rabbit equivalent of a polymath, then.


Research fellow Aidan Pritchard (below) presented a paper to the World Conference in Dosing of Anti-Infectives in Nurnberg, Germany, on the use of phyto-oestrogens to combat tumour growth. Written jointly with his teacher Margaret Ritchie, it has since been published.

Aidan was invited to the conference as a guest of honour, to broaden his understanding and appreciation of science in healthcare. He had already helped to set up a diet and health research group at Arbroath High and is the principal author on one resulting abstract and co-author of another three, which were presented at the 2009 Nutritional Society Conference at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in April.

In Nurnberg, he was introduced to Nobel Prize nominee Mansukh Wani, who discovered and pioneered the use of chemotherapy drug Taxol and who asked to meet Aidan.

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