Friday 20 July 2012

Summer Homework 1: My Life In Science

Introduce yourself (to the extent that you are willing to be identified). Write about your earliest memories of science. How have these influenced you to study the sciences? Do you wish to continue to study sciences at university? If so, what made you choose this subject? If not, what has captured your mind more than science?
I am Julia Anderson, biology lecturer. I used to be Julia Heathcote, palaeontologist.

I was fortunate, growing up, to have parents who were pretty progressive in terms of gender stereotypes. I had as many trucks as dolls, a Fisher Price tool kit and doctor's kit. I pretty much lived in dungarees as a baby and toddler.

I was already perfecting That Look, though I think my hair looks better now.

Dad had cause to visit London at weekends, and would often stop off at the Natural History Museum when it was free for the last half hour or so. And he bought me a plastic dinosaur. It was a dark maroon injection-moulded Tyrannosaurus. This was swiftly followed by a beige Triceratops, yellow Iguanodon and green Megalosaurus. I was hooked.

From then on it was all about the science, and even more so, it was about the dinosaurs. My junior school teacher was impressed that, at the age of nine, I could spell the word "palaeontologist". My dad was convinced I was going to be his "Ellie", and that I would be a great scientist. There was a whole-family outing to see "Jurassic Park" when it came out in the cinema. On our first and only holiday as a family to the USA we went round an obscene number of museums. They endured afternoons fossil-hunting on beaches in Scotland and Dorset while on holiday.

I was academically excellent, so I won a scholarship to Nottingham High School for Girls for the sixth form. It was the only way I could do four A-levels (how times have changed!). I applied to, and was offered a place at Gonville & Caius College, the same Cambridge college my father had attended. I got the three A grades I needed, and spent a moderately miserable four years at university, before doing a Masters and being offered a PhD place in the US. That didn't work out so well, and I returned to the UK. I spent five years drifting from admin job to admin job, before taking a leap of faith and figuring I may as well become a teacher.

I was fascinated by the unknown, the other worlds that had existed on the Earth, completely unrecognisable. Dinosaurs and other large, mostly extinct taxa, have captured the minds of people in this way for centuries. I was particularly enamoured of sauropods, the ones with the long necks and tails. The evolution of gigantic forms was fascinating. Nothing like them has existed since. What was it about the Earth's environment that enabled this size increase? I remember a common put-down from my PhD supervisor being "You're not curing cancer". No, but sometimes knowledge for knowledge's sake makes human beings better people. Sometimes understanding the past can help us avoid disastrous conditions in the future. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But in the end it wasn't for me. I tried to combine teaching with a reboot of my PhD part-time, but couldn't combine the two successfully. In the end, my students won. I have never regretted this decision. I get to work with clever, funny, curious, irreverent, kind youngsters every day. I get to help them see what a wonderful and awesome universe we live in. I get to raise their aspirations and create the scientists of the next decade.

I will never lose my curiosity and enthusiasm for science. I love to read up on new discoveries and breakthroughs, and I love to share that with my students. I will never be Dr Julia Heathcote, but as Mrs Julia Anderson I get to be Miss, Jules, Mum (!) and Prof - all genuinely things I've been called by students. And one day, maybe, a student who has been inspired to study life sciences at university by me and my teaching, whether it's an A-level, BTEC or HND student, might cure cancer.

638 words


  1. I like this. I'm tempted to take this homework assignment on as my own.

    I always loved dinosaurs as a kid... Space won in the end, though!

    1. Go for it - I'll be interested to see what you write.

      We could have dinosaurs IN space...


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