In praise of slow starters

26th April 2013 at 01:00
The academic stars who overcame early failure

When Sir John Gurdon was awarded a Nobel prize with Shinya Yamanaka last year, journalists became fascinated by the Eton school report displayed above his desk at the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge.

The report, dated 1949, described Gurdon's ambitions to be a scientist as "quite ridiculous" and warned that his endeavours in that direction could turn out to be "a sheer waste of time".

Gurdon nevertheless went on to carve out a top-flight career in science, conducting groundbreaking research on stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of cell within the body.

"When you have problems like an experiment that doesn't work - which often happens - it's nice to remind yourself that perhaps, after all, you are not so good at this job and the schoolmaster may have been right," he modestly told journalists after being awarded science's best-known accolade.

Here, the Nobel laureate, and four other academics at different stages of their careers, reflect on their schooldays, the schoolteachers who had, or did not have, faith in their charges' ability and the extent to which they think the teaching they received at school influenced the academic path they eventually followed.

Contrary to the preconceptions of some, being the school swot is not, it turns out, a prerequisite for an academic career. And, in many cases, these accounts suggest, things could have panned out quite differently had it not been for an inspirational teacher, a taste of what lay outside the core curriculum or the driving force of a natural interest in their subject.

Sir John Gurdon

It is surprising to find oneself with a Nobel prize after a crippling school report. How could I have done so badly at school in the only subject that really interested me?

As a child I was fascinated by biological things. At the age of 10, I monitored the growth of each plant in the bit of garden allocated to me by my parents. I became obsessed with collecting butterflies, then moths, whose caterpillars I used to grow while at school. Later I had a temporary job in the Natural History Museum in London, describing the genitalia of tiny "microlepidoptera" moths, to tell the species apart. I liked to use my hands for delicate operations under a microscope.

At the age of 15, at boarding school, I had my first term of science. The master dictated facts that we had to note down because, in 1947, there were no textbooks. I had not been taught to take notes, and failed all the tests, ending up bottom of the bottom form of a year group of 250 students - in biology.

The schoolmaster's report, which sits above my desk at the Gurdon Institute, said: "It has been a disastrous half . His prepared stuff has been badly learnt . one of such pieces of prepared work scored 2 marks out of a possible 50. His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous."

I was taken off science for the rest of my school life, and was put on ancient Greek and Latin. I took the university entrance exam in Classics. After much negotiation by my parents, and a year of private tuition in science, I was allowed to start a zoology course at university. Even this went badly; my tutors said I would never get any better than a third-class degree. Later I was rejected for a PhD in entomology.

My life was saved by a lecturer who offered me a place in his research group in developmental biology. Under this wonderful supervisor (a Dr Michael Fischberg), my aptitude for doing operations under the microscope thrived, and within a year I had largely succeeded in the work that was ultimately accorded a Nobel prize.

I was lucky to be given a chance by my eventual PhD supervisor. Above all, I was at last doing something that fascinated me and played to any talent I might have had.

What lessons can be learned from this story? I later discovered that the schoolteacher in question was well known by the other staff to be intolerant and a poor teacher. It could have been noticed that I spent nearly all my free time at school studying textbooks of entomology and growing insects. My mother could see where my interest lay and pulled all the strings to enable me to start a career in science. Today, even with huge parental help, it would probably be impossible to get back into science aged 18 having given it up at age 15.

Maybe the lesson is this: if you are motivated by a particular subject, you can eventually make a career in that field, even if your exams go against you. Teachers should look out for students' aptitudes and interests, and give them a chance to flourish. It is never too late to end up doing what you really like.

Sir John Gurdon is a distinguished group leader in the Wellcome TrustCRUK Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge. In 2012, he and Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on stem cells

Martin Willis

At 16, I was good at geography and made a fair fist of physics. I played in the first XI in football and made a nuisance of myself over 800 metres on the athletics track. Yet English was the subject I ended up studying at the University of Edinburgh.

I was taught English by Mr Gerrard in my final year of school. He was renowned for imposing a strict code of conduct and stood out in the relaxed atmosphere of an ordinary Edinburgh comprehensive. Most of us passing his classroom did so in silence, casting a sympathetic glance at a fellow student stood outside his door, ejected for a breach of the infamous rules. I do not remember what we studied in the first few weeks. I remember only the fear of finding yourself stood outside his door.

Slowly, the study of English became a challenge eagerly looked forward to. Mr Gerrard did not inspire, neither did he engage the imagination. Instead he made me work harder than I had ever worked in school. And he made me enjoy it.

Perhaps he understood better than I that the best way to engender a sense of value in a working-class boy like myself was to play on something I recognised as valuable. Discussions of the imagination and aesthetic beauty were for the middle classes, but being made to work hard to grasp how hard Charles Dickens had worked, well, that was something.

English became my best subject. Mr Gerrard would talk about writers he admired, and read to us from the figure he regarded as the master of narrative: the Scottish historical novelist Nigel Tranter. This showed me the pleasure of reading a text, especially aloud, something I still use in my own teaching.

Mr Gerrard's word had become law, so when he suggested I apply to university to study English I simply accepted it. No one in my family had been to university and I didn't know anyone who had. But Mr Gerrard told me to do it and I did. Everything else followed from that.

Martin Willis is professor of science, literature and communication in the department of English, University of Westminster

Alice Bell

We would often joke that the science teachers at my school were either communists, Christians or ex-Army. It was probably only about 80 per cent true, but the experience probably helps to explain my career poking around the edges of science.

This was a North London comprehensive in the 1990s. Sociology GCSE was compulsory. The bomber jacket and tracksuit uniform was designed by a student. History lessons involved Wat Tyler re-enactments. School trips were also unusual in that they included a drive through Eton to see "the 1 per cent" up close.

Our GCSE science teacher, who sported a Mao badge, was a Bulgarian brought up in Moscow and had settled in Tory Britain for personal reasons. We learned that Ohm's law was the most beautiful thing on Earth, that boys were fun but largely bastards, that science and technology could save the world, and that Tony Blair wasn't to be trusted. She also told us biology wasn't really a science, a prejudice I didn't shake off until my mid- twenties.

I moved on to A-level chemistry. My teachers were a couple of the Christians, another commie and a teacher who didn't fit into either bracket. We would talk about faith, and whether it might interact with science, and we would talk about science's connections to jazz music, economics and politics. However, one of these new teachers also made it clear that she saw little point in educating me if I wasn't going to do chemistry at university. In response, I largely switched off.

In the run-up to GCSEs, meanwhile, we had stints with a couple of the ex- Army science teachers. Their occasionally haunted looks when we bugged them about their old jobs were probably one of the reasons I spent a teenage summer working at CND. There I became fascinated with the politics of science and technology, found I enjoyed writing, and rediscovered how meaningful science could be when woven into other topics.

I finished A levels barely bothering with formal chemistry exams but boasting a final fine art piece inspired by hydrogen bonding, English literature coursework exploring fictionalised physics, and having studied a history syllabus largely devoted to nuclear proliferation. I've hardly looked back since.

Alice Bell is a research fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex

Nick Petford

I left school at 16 with no interest in pursuing an academic career. My form tutor's report from July 1976 says it all: "Nick will have wasted many opportunities which he may come to regret later unless he settles down to hard work next year. He is still prone to bouts of disruptive behaviour and his manners often leave something to be desired."

I went to a large, "bog standard" comprehensive. In the 1970s they were mostly places where you would go during the day to plan for the football on Saturday, watch the odd fight and obsess about who would be on Top of the Pops. Unfortunately, the teachers would try to disrupt these activities by holding lessons.

I wish I could single out one teacher over the years as a positive influence on my science education but none comes to mind. What sparked my interest in science was the Apollo Moon missions. I kept a scrapbook of press cuttings and had posters of the Apollo 11 astronauts on my wall, along with grainy images of the surface of the Moon. It still fascinates me now and one of my proudest moments in science was when, years later, I got to work on a Nasa-funded project on meteorites.

Inspired by press and television, I ploughed a largely self-taught furrow into astronomy, guided by Patrick Moore and the Observer's Book of Astronomy. By 13, I could recognise most constellations in the northern hemisphere, name a large number of stars and developed a sense of awe at the scale of the Milky Way. For me, the disappointment was that none of this learning was ever available at school. I have since met others like me motivated to pursue science - despite their formal education - by the Apollo programme, its boldness and unbelievable success. I know from my own children that schools now capitalise on "big science" - but teaching alone, no matter how good, will not capture and excite future generations like Apollo did. Sign me up for that ticket to Mars, please.

Nick Petford is vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton. His previous academic posts include pro vice-chancellor at Bournemouth University, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Kingston University and Royal Society junior research fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge

Will Brooker

Kidbrooke School was a challenging environment for learning. Until 1980, it had been an orderly, well-behaved girls' school, and the decision to accept boys seemed to upset the balance. It was a big place - 1,700 students in total - and there was a constant sense of rushing, pushing, barely controlled rowdiness in the corridors and classrooms.

Most of the time, I just tried to keep out of trouble, and didn't distinguish myself from the other 1,699. Miss Marquis, the maths teacher, might remember me - she used to stand me at the front of the class when I just couldn't grasp algebra and ask: "William, what are we going to do with you?" But I doubt that Mr Cook, the PE teacher, could pick me out of a line-up. I spent PE lessons on the outskirts, fielding or in goal, while Mr Cook trained Rodney Wallace, the star student who later played professional football.

I met Roger Martin - Mr Martin, of course, to me - on my first day. With hindsight, I doubt he was older than 22, and there was something eager and edgy about him, the sense of a slightly nervous new teacher apparent even to me as an 11-year-old. I remember that he had a colourful blue, yellow and red T-shirt visible under the collar of his white shirt, which - combined with his fresh face and dark hair - made me think of Clark Kent concealing his Superman identity.

"You obviously have a flair for writing," Mr Martin told me. He always used the same phrase, until he almost sounded bored of my flair; as if it had become predictable, as regular and familiar as the "pips" on the tannoy that sounded the end of each lesson.

In our final term of O-level English, though, after teaching me and my class for five years, Mr Martin introduced us to something new. We analysed a film that I'd never seen before and have never seen since, called A Jury of Her Peers. I realised you could study the mise en scene, the lighting and composition of an image, the way you could read the words and rhythm of a poem. You could interpret the relationship between a figure and a building, between foreground and background, shadow and focus.

Mr Martin seemed to come alive, too, in those final classes. He brought out stills from Citizen Kane and asked us to predict what was going on, to deduce the story from a single picture.

I was good at English, but I was also good at French and German, and A- level French and A-level film studies clashed, so I didn't get to pursue that interest in cinema until I went to university.

The last time I saw Mr Martin was at the end of a school party, after several glasses of cheap wine. He was singing Hurry Up Harry by Sham 69 to a maths teacher, Harry Slater. I never got to thank him.

Will Brooker is reader and director of research in the school of performance and screen studies at Kingston University.

Original headline: I wouldn't be where I am today.

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