I don’t write about this kind of personal topic very often. Reflective thinking and writing goes against 30 years of British culturization. However, eleven years of living in the US may be wearing down my resistance. After all, Americans have been in therapy since before I was born and are great at navel gazing. So why not join in? It might be of interest for others to see how I got started in science.
1) Having encouraging secondary (high) school chemistry and biology teachers.
2) Watching BBC TV shows such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon
3) I am dyslexic and find learning languages hard
This post is mostly about the first reason and some general impressions. The third is relevant as you will see later in this post. The second probably deserves a post (or two) of its own.
All my teachers were very encouraging, not just in science. Not to be too arrogant about it, but they were probably delighted to have a keen, intelligent well-behaved pupil in one of their classes. In particular, my chemistry teacher encouraged our enthusiasm for his subject. If I remember correctly, he even held a lunch time chemistry discussion club. My biology teacher was also very encouraging. She did not want me to drop biology – at in England, fourteen years old we decided what subjects to take for the public exams in two years time[*]. My biology teacher was able to persuade my mum to let me give up German and take biology instead. (Luckily – see (3) above)[†].
Interestingly, even at secondary school I always found chemistry the most interesting science. Physics was, for some reason, always difficult and I often felt on the edge of understanding. Biology was interesting but required a lot of rote learning or so it seemed. Additionally, as I lack any drawing ability, this meant that I struggled with many of the labs in Biology. I loved biochemistry – one of my favorite books as a teenager was Stephen Rose’s The Chemistry of Life. (Link to 3rd edition – I read a used copy of the first).
Two of my courses, Chemistry and History, were not O-levels but 16-pluses, which were the forerunners of GCSE. I’m not sure if that is why I did best in these subjects. I passed all of my courses, except French (see (3) above)[‡].
I left secondary school after O-levels to go to a local technical college (Matthew Boulton) and there I continued chemistry, biology and maths. In England at sixteen, if you continue in education, you typically narrow down your studies to science or humanities. I would have liked to continue history but none of the other humanities interested me[§]. Chemistry continued to be my strongest subject. I struggled a lot with maths. I was doing Pure and Applied (Mechanics) Mathematics and once I got my head round pure math – again thanks to a great teacher who recommended that I did lots of practice calculations – I found it fun. I never really got my head around mechanics. I was told that I should be seeing the forces on objects but I just saw legs on tables holding them up and feet on accelerators causing trucks to go faster up hill. One of the challenges with mechanics was that my class was mostly all-male and they were mostly taking physics, chem. and maths. Physics seemed to feed into the mechanics and I didn’t have that.
This is a good place as any to mention the fact that I never experienced any overt sexism nor was I aware of any invert sexism. When I struggled academically, the struggle was my own, not because I was being treated differently, as far as I could tell, as my male peers. Maths was difficult for me because I couldn’t “see” it. Perhaps, I was penalized because I took biology rather than physics because biology appealed to me as a woman. There was a definite divide, men did physics; women did biology. If a woman was studying science at A-level she typically seemed to take biology, chemistry and physics; most seemed to want to be medical doctors or to study biology. Science men did physics, chemistry and pure & applied maths; most seemed to want to some form of engineering. I am generalizing a bit – I had male friends who wanted to be doctors and a women friend who wanted to study ophthalmology.
I needed an extra year on biology and maths A-levels to get the grades that I needed[**]. In my third year, I took pure maths with statistics, which made more sense to me given my career path. It also made more sense to me mathematically. For biology, I was overloaded with information. I found essay writing hard and probably just needed more time with the material.
When making the decision for university[††], I ended up deciding between biochemistry and nutrition. I chose nutrition in the end because I wanted the applied science aspect. The biochemistry departments I visited disapproved of nutrition because of its applied perspective!
One possible moment of sexism came when visiting universities. We were touring a biochemistry department and the guide talked about how they killed mice quickly by throwing them into liquid nitrogen. I was the only woman in my tour group, and I was the only one asked if I felt all right after hearing that.
I’m not sure if I could have made a better decision, given my current desire to use more physical chemistry, because I essentially had no careers advice. After my first meeting with a careers’ councilor I did not seek any further help. I was unimpressed to be told to study medicine and then after medical training, to specialize into virology (my interest at sixteen). Medicine was/is one of the hardest undergraduate degrees to get accepted into (veterinary medicine being the hardest) and I would not be able to specialize for more than six years and I would have to do all that medicine (studying illnesses and dealing with sick people) that really did not interest me. Coming from an academic background I knew I could specialize in biochemistry and then take postgraduate work to specialize in virology. So I never saw a career’s adviser again. All my career mistakes have been my own. My parents were very good at filling the gaps; Dad found colleagues for me to talk to about science careers and I got to visit their departments and labs.
I loved my undergraduate degree, I would have liked more biochemistry and less physiology but I am very glad that I studied nutrition as an undergrad. At the time, I remember that we had the feeling that we were Jacks (or should that be Jills as we were all women) of all trade and masters of none because we did not have the depth of some one concentrating in biochemistry or physiology for example. Today, I am glad that I had that general overview. This is interesting because at the time we were concerned that nutrition was too specialized and biochemistry would be better because it would give me wider training.
The only sexism in my undergraduate years was how spoiled a man studying nutrition would become. In my year there were no men. There were a few studying for a Masters degree and a few in the years above and below us.
[*] This system has changed since “my day”. O-levels are no longer having been replaced with the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). From my understanding there are two science GCSEs – which are a combination of bio, chem. and physics. See here. I’ll find out in a few years when my nephew gets to that age. Also Wikipedia: GCSE.
[†] It was more complicated than that. I wanted to take the nonacademic subject of Drama – I wanted (still want?) to be a playwright. My biology teacher suggested that I dropped that to take both German and biology. Fortunately, Mum knew that dropping Drama was not an option. She had wanted me to take both French and German because she had. However, my biology teacher’s praise of me had good effect.
[‡] I retook French as an evening class when I was a post-doc. I got an A! As a postgraduate student I learned Russian. I decided to go back to French as it counted as a European language which I would need if I wanted to work for the EU.
[§] I’m not sure what the system is now post-16. Wikipedia has a fairly good article about A-levels.
[**] Ironically after my second year of A-levels, when my grades in biology and maths were too low for nutrition, I was invited by the same college to consider taking food science with chemistry. However, I decided not to take up their offer and to improve my grades to get into nutrition.
[††] There is none of this “undeclared major” or “university studies” nonsense in Britain.