I had a conversation recently about what I studied at university. The person asking me knew I had intended to study marine biology*, but ended up specialising in biophysics of transport systems and animal physiology. The reasons for the change of direction were simple. Inspirational lecturers.
In my first year, I did nine different course modules per week. They covered lots of things from statistics (hence my suspicion I might have been defeated), mathematics, plant physiology**, several branches of chemistry (a sitter for me, since I was a bit of a whizz), cell biology, loads of things. This was fun if hard graft.
It was during this phase that I got inspired. One of the lecturers was a Gillian Rich. She was the despair of some of the giddier female undergrads, since her partner was the faculty heart-throb, and she herself would be described by the jealous women as ‘a bit mousy***.’ I thought she was terrific, because though she was a bit self-effacing she had a brain the size of a planet. It was because of her that I got into cellular transport systems. She made a dry sounding topic both interesting and understandable.
You may get bored now, so skip if you wish. We spent a lot of time debating the effect of cholesterol on the stability and porosity of lipid membranes. Yeah, I know. Top notch geeking. I did a research project that required me to spend 12 hours in a cold room at 4 Celsius. This also involved use of radioactive isotopes, so double jeopardy.
Charmingly, Dr Rich was puzzled by the fact that what I was measuring was Cherenkov radiation (I did warn you to skip this bit), which is light emitted when fast moving atomic emission particles move faster than light in a given medium. Think the blue glow beloved of moviemakers in any film about a water-cooled nuclear reactor going off the reservation. She couldn’t figure out why we could measure this light when the containers were pretty much opaque. She actually asked me, a humble undergrad, if I could explain it. I had a ponder, and went, ‘Maybe they’re opaque to visible light but not to the frequency we’re looking at.’
In the end, my research blew one of her pet theories out of the water, but she didn’t hold that against me.
The second inspirational lecturer was Graham Shelton, and it was directly because of him that my last term before finals was spent on animal physiology. He was a Yorkshireman, but I didn’t let that put me off. He had a crafty and wickedly dry sense of humour, but that didn’t conceal the fact that he too had a brain the size of a planet. He was also a big fan of The Wombles.
He was pretty eclectic in his research topics too. I was pretty much restricted to working with cockroaches (Good news/bad news. Good, I got to cut their heads off. Bad news, I had to shove my hand into a sweet jar in which they lived and bred), though we also did a lot of buggering about with human physiology, which involved some pretty hefty exercise routines while hooked up to breath analysers. Graham eventually ended up sodding about with the respiratory physiology of some aquatic South American animal I’d never heard of.
There were loads of others. George Duncan. The madcap Dave Aidley, he of the prolific use of Plasticine in his lectures. Another eccentric Dave, Aikman, with the Einstein hair and catchphrase , ‘Hell. That makes sense.’ Too many to mention. But they all had one thing in common. Not one of them was so up themselves that if they didn’t grasp something, they would be unwilling to ask us humble students if we had an angle. That inspired me too.
*The statistics side might have defeated me, anyway.
**I had another lecturer point out that, ‘Plants don’t have physiology. They just stand there and do biochemistry.’
***Her hair was the inspiration for Constance’s barnet in Charlie and Me.