From 'no hope' to Nobel

Nobel prizewinner Sir John Gurdon, who famously did not have his potential recognised, and five other scholars recall their school days and the characters that inspired them one way or another

March 21, 2013

When Sir John Gurdon was awarded a Nobel prize with Shinya Yamanaka last year, he told journalists about the Eton school report that is 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 five 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

Sir John Gurdon

It is surprising, to say the least, to find oneself with a Nobel prize after a crippling school report. How did this arise? If the school report had not happened, would it have made any difference? How could I have done so badly at school in the only subject that really interested me?

Looking back at my childhood, I always had a fascination for biological things. Even at the age of 10, I liked to monitor the growth and flowering of each single plant in the bit of garden allocated to me by my parents. I became obsessed with collecting butterflies, and then moths, whose caterpillars I used to grow while at school. Later I progressed further down the scale to “microlepidoptera”: moths less than 1mm in size whose larvae live between the surfaces of a leaf. I had a temporary job in the Natural History Museum in London describing the genitalia of these moths to tell the species apart. I realised that I liked to use my hands for delicate operations under a microscope. I also remember spending a long time building a sailing boat in a walnut shell.

At the age of 15, at my boarding school, I was given my first term of science. The master used to dictate 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 frequent tests, ending up bottom of the bottom form of a year group of 250 pupils - in biology. Hence the report of the schoolmaster, which still sits above my desk at the Gurdon Institute. It said: “It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. His prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; 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, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

In view of this, I was taken off science altogether for the rest of my school life, and instead was put on a watered-down form of ancient Greek and Latin. I took the entrance exam to university in Classics. After a great deal of negotiation by my parents, and after one year of extra private tuition in science after leaving school, 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; he must somehow have seen a glimmer of light in the gloom. Under this wonderful supervisor (a Dr Michael Fischberg), my apparent aptitude for doing difficult operations under the microscope thrived, and within a year I had largely succeeded in the work that was ultimately accorded a Nobel prize.

Without doubt I had a lot of luck. Being given a chance by my eventual PhD supervisor was one. There were severe technical difficulties at an early stage in my research work. “Luck favours the prepared mind,” as the saying goes, and I was certainly very ready for any such luck that came my way. Above all, I was at last doing something that really fascinated me and that played to any talent that I might have had. From that first year of research my career blossomed, and I did not have to pass any more exams.

What lessons can be learned from this strange 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 complex textbooks of entomology and growing insects. My mother could see very clearly where my major interest lay, and was kind enough to pull all possible strings to enable me to embark on a career in science. Nowadays, I suppose this would be impossible. Even with huge parental help, not available to most, it would probably be impossible, now, to get back into science aged 18 having given it up at age 15.

I had an uncle (no blood relation) who took a job in the House of Commons because it gave him three months in the summer, during parliamentary recess, to study an ecological project that had always intrigued him. Eventually he became recognised as an “amateur” and was appointed as the first director general of The Nature Conservancy. In his case, he needed some 30 years to finally do the job that he really liked.

Maybe the lesson is this: if a person is really motivated, or perhaps obsessed, with an interest, you probably can, eventually, make a career in that field, even if all your exams go against you. Perhaps schoolmasters and university teachers should keep a lookout for an aptitude and huge interest, and give it a chance to flourish. Perhaps it is never too late to end up doing what you really like.

Sir John Gurdon is a distinguished group leader in the Wellcome Trust/CRUK 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, University of Westminster

Mr Gerrard did not inspire, neither did he engage the imagination…Instead he made me work; harder than I had ever worked. And he made me enjoy it

Martin Willis

At 16, I was rather 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. This is the summary of my first effort to produce a curriculum vitae, written out in best (it was 1987), for a job I wanted at the local greyhound track. There is no mention of English, the subject I was, within 18 months, to end up studying at the University of Edinburgh.

I was also four months away from meeting Mr Gerrard, who would teach me English in my final year of school. I should say “being taught by” rather than “meeting”: Mr Gerrard didn’t need to be met, he was a figure of considerable repute at school. Renowned for imposing a strict code of conduct and manners, only vaguely understood by the pupils, he stood out in the generally relaxed atmosphere of an ordinary Edinburgh comprehensive. Most of us passing his classroom did so in silence, sometimes casting a sympathetic glance at a fellow pupil stood outside his door looking down at his shoes, ejected for a breach of the infamous rules.

Only when I first entered his class in that final school year did I understand the source of this infamy. Mr Gerrard did not instil discipline - rather it seemed to emerge from his very being like some gothic miasma that none of us could resist. I do not remember what we studied in the first weeks of that year. I remember only the fear, the possibility of falling foul of class etiquette, the ever-present danger of finding yourself stood outside his door looking at your shoes.

But slowly, over the course of a term, the study of English began to make sense; to become a challenge eagerly looked forward to. This was strange, primarily because Mr Gerrard did not inspire, neither did he engage the imagination (all those things said of the best teachers now). Instead he made me work; harder than I had ever worked in school. And he made me enjoy it.

This ethic of hard labour has never left me, and is a good part of my successes since. Perhaps he understood better than I that the best method for engendering 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 (oh, I felt those things, but you didn’t speak them), but being made to work hard in order to grasp how hard Charles Dickens had worked, well, that was something.

English became, in the parlance of schoolboys, my best subject. This, of course, meant I enjoyed it and had an aptitude for it, although you would never say that. As the year wore on, Mr Gerrard loosened (a little). He would talk about writers he admired, and would read to us from the figure he regarded as the master of narrative: the Scottish historical novelist Nigel Tranter. This was all off-curriculum, but for me this put on to the barest of technical bones a pleasure in reading a text, especially aloud, that I still try to emulate in my own teaching.

Luckily for me, 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 else who had. Even to conceive of going required a complete about-turn in the perceived progress of life. Yet, at the same time, it was simple. Mr Gerrard told me to, and I did it. Everything else followed from that.

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

Alice Bell, University of Sussex

I found I enjoyed writing, something I’d previously found alienating, and I rediscovered how meaningful science could be when woven into other topics

Alice Bell

We’d 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 goes some way towards explaining my subsequent career poking around the edges of science.

This was a North London comprehensive in the 1990s. Sociology GCSE was compulsory. We didn’t sing hymns but the steelpan group was legendary. The uniform was designed by a pupil: bomber jacket and tracksuit. History lessons involved Wat Tyler re-enactments and a lot of Mary Seacole. School trips included a tour of Westminster by Ken Livingstone and a drive through Eton to see “the 1 per cent” up close. Lefty teachers weren’t exactly rare in this Daily Mail nightmare, but our GCSE science teacher was particularly unabashed about it: she was known to sport a Mao badge.

A Bulgarian brought up in Moscow, she’d settled in Tory Britain for personal reasons and would reminisce about life back in the USSR. Her approach was best described as a healthy disrespect for authority. You have to learn the rules to know when and how to subvert them, after all. She spotted early on how much of a hoop-jumping exercise science education had become and taught us how to jump those hoops, leaving time to concentrate on the fun stuff. We learned that Ohm’s law was the most beautiful thing on Earth, that boys were fun but largely bastards, that basketball was the greatest game known to womankind, that science and technology (well managed) 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’d talk about faith, and how it might or might not interact with science, just as we’d talk about science’s connections to jazz music, economics, the environment, colonialism, politics and a host of other things. 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 discovered a fascination for the politics of science and technology. I also found I enjoyed writing, something I’d previously found alienating (I was later diagnosed with dyslexia), and I 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 lit 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, University of Northampton

What sparked my interest in science was nothing to do with school. It was the Apollo Moon missions. I had posters of the Apollo 11 astronauts

Nick Petford

I left school at 16 with no interest in pursuing an academic career of any kind. My form tutor’s report from July 1976 says it all: “These [subject reports] do not make encouraging reading: 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.” And that was one of the better ones.

I went to a large, “bog standard” comprehensive. For those who missed out, 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. The song Baggy Trousers by Madness captures it perfectly. I’m not sure if things have changed much today except girls probably don’t walk around in gangs wearing tartan scarves and singing Shang-a-Lang. Unfortunately, the teachers mostly didn’t understand this and would try to disrupt these creative activities by holding lessons. Occasionally you bumped into people who had been to one.

I wish I could single out one teacher over the years as a positive influence on my science education but none comes to mind. There were memorable ones nonetheless, but for the wrong reasons. One head of science had the letters S.P.A.M. embossed in gold on his black leather briefcase. What would possess anyone to advertise to the world their initials as luncheon meat?

What sparked my interest in science was nothing to do with school. It was the Apollo Moon missions. I was so besotted 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 and name a large number of stars. I grew familiar with the Greek letters used to denote apparent magnitude and developed a sense of awe at the scale of the Milky Way and its ancient quality. 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. That’s why we need a manned mission to Mars, leaving tomorrow, 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.

Emma Griffin, University of East Anglia

Miss Morris encouraged research and independent learning. She got me out in my wellies measuring a river bank on Saturdays in order to understand erosion

Emma Griffin

My parents were very pro education and I went to “good” schools, but none of that helped to inspire me with a love of learning or to guide me towards a life of scholarship. My primary education was at a convent school and some of the teachers were hitters. Mostly you were hit for bad behaviour but I remember children being hit for getting things wrong in classes as well. I was small and young for my year and didn’t flourish. I just kept my head down and made sure not to get in any trouble. On reflection I can see it was not a place designed to bring out the natural abilities of each child.

Secondary school was more humane. There was at least no more hitting. But it was still a mass system designed to get 100 girls through their GCSEs each year without much attention to the individual. I do remember a wonderful geography teacher, Miss Morris, who (I can now see) encouraged research and independent learning. She got me out in my wellies measuring a river bank over a series of Saturday mornings in order to understand erosion. But mostly school was about copying down and learning the information presented by our teachers. It was boring and I just coasted along. I didn’t know that learning could be a pleasure.

The sixth form was better again. Classes were smaller and the other pupils more interested in what was being taught. I was enjoying maths at this point, which involved lots of figuring things out by oneself. A-level maths taught me that learning could be fun but I didn’t see any way that history could be fun. I had good teachers but, beyond the occasional set text, the reading of books wasn’t encouraged. It just wasn’t necessary. The teachers knew they could teach us everything we needed to know to pass the A level - and they weren’t wrong, people did get excellent results. The content was also quite dull. It was all kings, queens and presidents. It didn’t touch on the lives of ordinary people at all. I left school having no idea that the kind of history I now write even existed.

I haven’t thought much about my schooldays since but, looking back, I see that the education I received was completely different to what university had to offer. At Queen Mary and Westfield College’s history department, I encountered fascinating subject material and inspirational teachers. Nobody had preconceived ideas about who were the “bright” ones and anything was possible. I don’t resent my schooling. It gave me the ticket to university that I needed. But it didn’t give me any more than that.

Emma Griffin is senior lecturer in the school of history at the University of East Anglia. She is one of Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers.

Will Brooker, Kingston University

He had a colourful blue, yellow and red T-shirt visible under his white shirt, which made me think of Clark Kent concealing his Superman identity

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 pupils 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 pupil 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 scène, 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 try 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. l

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

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Reader's comments (1)

This all rings horribly true. At my school in the mid- late-1970s (single sex, voluntary aided, ex-grammar comprehensive in Kennington, South London), there was a division between those who could "do" maths and science (proper boys) and those who couldn't. The ultimate achievement was getting a place to study engineering at Imperial. Being engaged with science and maths, in the sense of finding these subjects fascinating, was not enough. You could either solve quadratic equations or you couldn't; and if you couldn't (like me), there was no hope and no support. You were ignored. There was no effort to provide a way in for students who were generally intellectually engaged but lacked the skills / mindset for an academic or professional future in science. I recall reports describing me as "innumerate", "incapable", "weak". (It seems to me now that the standards then were extraordinarily high, even at O level, since my mental arithmetic and ability to do things with number and statistics is actually quite good). And the effect of these damning judgements was alienation from anything to do with numbers - to my eternal regret. It's great to see these stories here - inspiring stuff!

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