How to make an ecologist #5

Hindsight, curiously, confuses this exercise of looking back over my career, rather than aiding it. Looking back, I see a linear pathway from Harold Wood through to the present, losing sight of the crossroads where chance could have taken me off in entirely different directions.   Contemplating my visit to the site of the former Westfield College (see “How to make an ecologist #4) jogged my memory and reminded me that the process that brought me to Durham was, actually, far from straightforward.

My undergraduate project had convinced me that I wanted to do a PhD, and my first choice of a supervisor was Professor John Harper, at Bangor in North Wales, whose book Population Biology of Plants had been influential in determining the course of my project.   However, he had recently retired and my letter enquiring about opportunities had bounced around his colleagues.   I did go up to Bangor to meet someone in the Agricultural Science department with a view to doing a taught MSc leading into a PhD on the overlap between population biology and grassland agronomy. There was funding for the MSc but, after that, the situation seemed rather vague.

It was not until after I graduated from Westfield that I saw an advert in New Scientist for an MSc in Durham.   Though not concerned with population biology, it fitted in with my undergraduate studies in two ways: the focus was mosses (picking up on my work on Sphagnum) and heavy metals (a specialism of the department in Westfield).   There was also a strong likelihood of the MSc being converted to a PhD.   I applied.   I had never heard of Brian Whitton (my undergraduate years had involved a single first year lecture on algae) but Connie Allen, a postgraduate student in the lab where I had worked on my project, whooped with delight when I told her that I had an interview. He was, she told me, the leading expert on blue-green algae in the country.   I seem to remember that my application included a hand-written, photocopied CV which included a spelling mistake.   That I got the studentship probably says as much about the other candidates as it does about me.

This was one of those crossroads in my life where chance could have taken me off in several different directions.   It is not a simple process of finding a supervisor whose interests dovetail with your own.   You needed financial support and, in the sciences, that came mostly via a studentship that the supervisor had already been awarded.   It is supply-side economics: there was a pool of studentships, and a larger pool of candidates.   The candidates may have their own ideas on what they want to do, but there was no guarantee that a project on that precise topic would come up at the right time.   At the time of my interview I seem to remember that I was not wholly convinced that this was the right project for me but it seemed like the best opportunity at the time.   I booked a train ticket and headed to Durham for an interview.


Durham: the view from the station.

Durham entrances you before even leaving the station.   The train approaches through a wooded cutting, before the landscape drops away; the final approach to the station is across a viaduct, giving panoramic views of the ancient city, with castle and cathedral perched on an incised meander above the River Wear.   I walked down from the station to the town and through cobbled streets winding up towards the cathedral.   Several years later, when I visited Tuscany for the first time, I was struck by the similarity between this small northern English city and the Tuscan towns clustered on hillsides around a basilica.   I think I knew that I would accept the studentship, if offered, even before I got to the interview.

The science laboratories were a short walk away from the town centre, a zone of prosaic architecture to offset the glories of the peninsula.   The Botany Department was based in the Dawson Building, the oldest building on the site, which had once contained the entire science faculty and which is now home to the departments of Archaeology and Anthropology.   When I arrived, Brian Whitton had a suite of labs on the first floor, plus two satellite laboratories elsewhere on the site, relicts of a period just before I had arrived when the research group was much larger.   Although the work I was doing followed on from topics I had studied as an undergraduate, the Botany Department in Durham was a contrast to Westfield in many ways: an air of frantic industry pervaded the corridors in contrast to Westfield’s general serenity.   Research groups were larger, postdocs were more numerous and I got the sense that Durham academics were researchers who taught, rather than teachers who researched.


The Dawson Building on the University of Durham’s science site.  The phycology labs were at the right hand end on the first floor.  

The interview must have been early July 1983; one condition of the studentship was that I started on 1 August, so that I could get started on fieldwork straight away.   When I watched other postgraduate students turn up in October, and then read and plan experiments through the winter months before starting fieldwork the following Spring, I realised the sense of this step. It did mean, however, that I arrived in Durham at the quietest time of year, was dumped in the unprepossessing Parson’s Field House (now demolished), the postgraduate residence, and had little to do in the evenings. In those days before personal computers, however, Brian Whitton encouraged that all his students learned to type.   I bought a manual typewriter and a book on touch typing and spent the summer evenings banging out exercises to develop strength in my fingers.   The first transferable skill that I learned during my postgraduate days was, therefore, the ability to type without looking at the keyboard; a skill that has proved very useful over subsequent years.

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