Leading a double life: academics with extraordinary second careers

Academic work is typically all-consuming, but some scholars still manage to combine some eye-catching sidelines with their day jobs. Here, five tell their stories

October 12, 2017
Pietro Boselli

The model

I began my modelling career when I was six years old, so it formed part of my identity as I was growing up. I never questioned whether it could affect my education, or take priority.

I always loved reading, but it was only in my teenage years, during a hiatus from modelling, that I discovered the full extent of my passion for learning. Literature, philosophy, physics, mathematics, history and art all became important to me.

At the same time, I cultivated an almost fanatical enthusiasm for training and physical exertion. I went by the motto mens sana in corpore sano (healthy body, healthy mind). And while I had sufficient awareness of my exterior appearance, what led me to pursue my modelling career at the time was more habit than a belief in my potential to be successful in the industry – despite strong hints that I could be. My ambitions were mainly focused on intellectual development, and, when I started university, I tried to keep my modelling hidden from my lecturers. I always had a feeling that the academic world would look down on a career apparently based solely on appearance. I wanted to prove myself on my intellectual ability, and be recognised for that alone. And I succeeded, consistently getting the highest marks in my class.

But one day, at the end of my undergraduate degree, I was compiling my CV and realised that I was omitting the only work experience that I had ever had. I had always deemed modelling irrelevant but, upon reflection, it had been a long career; I had managed several industry relationships, worked long hours, travelled and even financed a large portion of my studies with the proceeds. How could I not recognise that my interpersonal skills in business and my approach to work were formed by that experience?

So, during my PhD, I slowly learned to be more open about my modelling career. Some of the more senior academics would smirk in an almost condescending way, and my years as a researcher, teacher and, eventually, lecturer were peppered with occasional negative remarks. But most of my colleagues found my modelling fascinating and rather exotic compared with our shared routine within the bounds of the University College London engineering research office. I slowly learned it was actually special that I could have two careers.

When I started teaching mathematics to undergraduates at the age of 21, I never considered that my appearance would raise great interest but I soon discovered that students were taking sneaky pictures of me and creating social media pages about my classes using my modelling photographs. In general, my response was to request that the sites be taken down because, more often than not, I felt misrepresented by them. In these situations, where people would “objectify” me, the confidence that I had built in my own intellectual value meant that I couldn’t just see their reaction for what it was: a natural impulse. I took no offence but I definitely went through a phase of mild denial of what was happening. I was completing my doctoral work at the time and was determined to stay focused on that.

I eventually learned to appreciate what it means to get recognition for simply going on with your daily life, working hard and pursuing all your interests and passions, without trying to fit a stereotype. It might mean creating a complex identity, but that identity is ultimately a richer one.

I believe in embracing all our talents simultaneously, no matter how incompatible they might seem. I love what I am doing now as much as I loved the years in academia. Even though those years are over, reading, studying and learning are always part of my daily life, and science and engineering remain great passions. They will definitely become part of my life again in the future.

Pietro Boselli was, until 2015, a visiting lecturer at University College London, where he received a PhD in mechanical engineering. He is now a model for Armani.

The Last Kingdom
Courtesy of Carnival Film and Television

The TV historical adviser

Sometimes great opportunities get passed down the line.

A historian whose work I greatly admire emailed me a few years ago to say that a TV production company had been in touch about a planned drama series based on some novels by “someone called Cornwell”. Was I interested in advising on it? Going on location to Hungary in the late autumn for an as-yet-undetermined number of days wasn’t on the eminent professor’s retirement list and I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s early medieval novels since I first encountered them as a graduate student. So, yes, I was very interested.

A meeting with some producers (who I later discovered were pretty high level: I had a lot to learn) was enough to convince them that I had what it takes, and it gave me a sense of how we could work together.

The Last Kingdom is a drama series set in 9th-century England, in which the protagonist, Uhtred, exiled from his home fortress of Bamburgh during the Viking invasions, deals with conflicting loyalties to Danes and Saxons, and saves the kingdom of Wessex along the way. The conflict between the real figure of King Alfred the Great and the fictional figure of Uhtred plays a central part in the drama, which is essentially a story of “England” emerging from political opportunism and intrigue, rather than through some divine providence. Messy politics is something that I buy for this period, although I can’t pretend to take credit for the storyline.

The secret to being a historical adviser, or indeed any adviser on a drama production, is to appreciate your role and its limits. It is fun to say that something’s not right, but if you don’t offer an alternative that works with the script, you might as well not bother.

Story is key, and it was a great pleasure to get to see the scripts and watch how the story developed through the various drafts. Even from the sidelines, I could at least offer input on certain aspects of it. For example, a Viking army launches a surprise attack across Wessex, ending up at Wareham in Dorset. The novel simply reports news of the invasion while Uhtred is elsewhere, but the need to keep the pace in the TV adaptation required Uhtred to identify the hostile army on the march while he is at his Wessex estate. Cue lots of discussion about where exactly Uhtred could be placed to spot an army bound for Wareham, with the result that the book’s Devon estate needed relocating to a suitable place in Dorset.

Fortunately for my family life, I didn’t need to spend the whole of the late autumn on location in Budapest, where some of the series was filmed. But a little time spent on set added a certain amount of glamour to the role. There, I enthused suitably (the sight of the sets was breathtaking, particularly when one of them was deliberately torched for an epic scene) and gave a few tips when required.

But I’m more helpful being on call somewhere I have access to books and articles. Indeed, for the first season’s filming, answering the producers’ queries via phone and email became a full-time job for a while. The priority is to provide workable answers, understanding how the detail in dispute can help the development of the story. But sometimes something more concrete is required, such as a workable text for a contemporary document, which can be copied out by a calligrapher ready for the next day’s shooting.

Long essays with footnotes and a discussion of the range of possibilities aren’t needed by production companies, but I always try to be able to justify things to my own satisfaction. I still have my academic pride – but it’s certainly a different way of looking at the past.

Ryan Lavelle is a reader in early medieval history at the University of Winchester.

Anna Ploszajski
Steve Cross

The stand-up comic

For the past four years, I’ve been writing a thesis on the high-action drama of polymer-hydride nanocomposites as solid-state hydrogen storage materials. Or, rather, that’s what I have been doing by day. By night, I’ve been on stage in London’s comedy basements, telling jokes about the absurdities of materials engineering.

I don’t understand why every scientist isn’t doing the same thing. I’ve developed my comedy skills alongside some truly brilliant people through comedian Steve Cross’ Science Showoff Talent Factory, which supports science communicators, and I’ve met other public engagers at the top of their game, such as neuroscientist Sophie Scott, chemist Andrea Sella and materials scientist Mark Miodownik (all from University College London). Beyond the capital, I’ve also been to the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as the Green Man music and arts festival in Wales, and Dr Jiggs Bowson’s science cabaret night in Brighton.

Believe it or not, there is unlimited comedic potential in materials engineering. But while my comedy depends on my science, doing stand-up has also made me a better academic. In particular, it has helped me to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking. And it takes the same skills to make fracture mechanics side-splittingly hilarious as it does to make a splash as an academic conference presenter. In both cases, the secret is to understand your audience. Delegates still want to be entertained, and punters still want to be informed.

Despite this symbiosis, though, my persona as an academic researcher is completely separate from my brand as a science communicator. Dr Anna Ploszajski the academic is all about her publication list. On stage, though, I’m just Anna, the female materials engineer with a filthy sense of humour, who is fiercely competitive and looks like she’s just stepped out of her mechanical workshop.

The public need to see scientists and engineers as normal people. Our interests amount to just another take on those that everyone else has. This is why my comedy tends to be about the materials engineering of something – such as sex toys, or money counterfeiting. It’s liberating to be decoupled from my academic side, free to subvert expectations by talking about these slightly taboo topics. It also helps me to pursue the holy grail of modern science communication: to reach beyond traditional audiences.

Leading this double life can be tricky, however. Evenings are taken up by either writing or performing, and it is difficult not to get distracted by email and social media during the working day when they are part of your other job and could bring in work. And I’m yet to master the art of blocking out pre-gig nerves on the day of a comedy set.

But put down your air violins; I know I’m not unique. These days, everyone is the parent, the chief executive and the triathlete all at once. That’s why I’ve left it to the final paragraph to tell you that I also play the trumpet in a funk band and am training to swim the English Channel next year. This information is not directly relevant to my life as a science comedian, but it is sort of on-brand.

Anna Ploszajski is a materials scientist studying for an engineering doctorate in hydrogen storage materials at University College London. She was recently named a 2017 Royal Academy of Engineering Young Engineer of the Year.

Alex Lathbridge
Steve Cross

The rapper

Over the past three years, I have been playing high-octane shows across the UK, from dimly lit pub basements to massive stages at huge music festivals.

My goal? To become a better rapper and comedian – while also working my way towards a doctorate in the intricacies of protein-protein interactions in cancer pathways.

Listen to my music and you’ll hear a lot about my scientific life. My songs are equal parts hip hop and peer-reviewed science. They’re like Professor Green meets Professor Hawking or Dr Dre crossed with the British Medical Journal. I often joke that when my mixtape drops, it’ll be played on both BBC Radio 1Xtra and Radio 4. The closest I’ve come so far is a freestyle featured on Radio 4’s Inside Science.

This journey has been an extraordinary one. I have been given world-class comedy mentoring from the Science Showoff Talent Factory, had my rapping studied in an MRI scanner by neuroscientist Sophie Scott and, earlier this year, was named winner of FameLab UK – meaning that I am the best science communicator that the UK has to offer – until someone else wins next year.

People ask me if it is difficult being both a scientist and a performer. I remind them that I’m a mixed-race Ghanaian-British man, brought up in South London but schooled in Surrey. My entire life has been a stream of identity issues and different masks.

It would be easy to think that these career paths – scientist and performer – are somewhat mutually destructive. “Real” researchers don’t spend their free time lyricising, and no “real” rapper has a PhD (Kanye West’s honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago notwithstanding). Yet I have found it the exact opposite – becoming a better performer has helped me to become a better researcher, and vice versa.

The creative mindset needed to write a song is the same mindset used to create narratives when writing papers or grant applications. And it’s far easier to shake off impostor syndrome at a conference when you’ve just come off the high of a weekend in the shadow of the UK’s biggest radio telescope – Jodrell Bank, site of the Bluedot music, science and arts festival – with several hundred people shouting your song’s chorus.

The balancing act can be precarious, though, and I do try to keep my two lives separate. Research, by its nature, leads to unsociable hours. Performing is similar in this respect. It doesn’t help that I’m currently based in Bath and many of my gigs are in London. But I have adapted to the cross-country commute, and some of my best research ideas have come to me as I’ve been half-asleep on the last train back from Paddington.

I don’t do this because I secretly hate my doctoral work (it’s actually really cool), or because I need an influx of cash (open mic gigs rarely pay). I do it because I think that it is incredibly important for the public to see scientists as human beings. I do it because there aren’t many scientists in the media who look like me (I recently founded Minorities In STEM, a network for BAME people within science, technology, engineering and maths, to tackle this). And I do it because music and comedy are just as much a part of my life as science. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alex Lathbridge is a biochemistry doctoral student at the University of Bath.

Jennifer Rohn

The author and communicator

“Work-life balance” used to be something that you weren’t allowed to admit you wanted,  let alone managed, to achieve. Thankfully, times are changing, in the UK at least. In my field, biomedical sciences, the “24/7” researcher who keeps a camp bed handy among the test tubes and centrifuges has become a rare breed.

But while it is now more socially acceptable for scientists to pursue interesting sidelines, some double lives are not as equal as others. And the more out-of-the-ordinary your second life outside academia, the more conspicuous it is. I became embroiled in a double life when I took an eight-year hiatus from academia, first to work in a start-up biotech company, and later when I reinvented myself in scientific publishing. Having a more 9-to-5 job meant that I could explore my long-standing interest in writing during evenings and weekends. I launched LabLit.com, a web magazine devoted to science in culture and fiction, and I wrote two novels about scientists. I also began a sideline in science writing, journalism and communication that continues to this day.

There are tensions inherent in leading a double life. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that I’m more well-known for my extracurricular activities than for my academic research, which can be frustrating at times. It also invites some scepticism; well-meaning senior colleagues have taken me aside, insisting that I can’t be “serious” about science because I’ve appeared on the BBC or written a book. Others have  asked why I don’t just drop out of science altogether to pursue those other interests full-time – obviously not appreciating how much I love my day job, nor how little novelists, communicators and writers actually get paid.

These snipes don’t add up. I am surrounded by academics who also spend time – much more time, in some cases – pursuing other interests. There is the friend who takes swathes of annual leave to follow cricket. There is the lecturer who plays tennis every morning, and the renowned professor who can be found most evenings in the pub, “networking”. And let us not forget the average Brit, who reportedly whiles away an average of 30 hours a week watching television. All of this is somehow acceptable. But write regularly for broadsheets or appear on the radio and you’re “not serious”.

There are special issues inherent in being a writer. Writing can be exposing: you air your deepest opinions to the world, and in an era of anonymous commenting, you can find yourself at the epicentre of a storm of abuse. Female writers are known to be especially targeted. Novelists have problems, too: people always assume that your fictional works are autobiographical, which can lead to awkward misunderstandings.

But the number one enemy is time. The higher up you get in academia, the more your responsibilities grow. My third novel, Cat Zero, is coming out in January, but it was finished long before the birth of my son four years ago, and nearly a decade passed before I finished editing it. Since I became a research group leader, I have not had time to create and publish anything longer than a short story, blog post or article.

These days, the bulk of my double life is spent in the garden, battling with slugs and weeds. But I still carve out and fiercely defend a few hours a week for my writing and other communication activities. They keep me stimulated and grounded, and give me a badly needed respite from the scientific problems that don’t resolve themselves until you look the other way. An academic who doesn’t have a robust out-of-office life is not going to be as effective. It probably matters little what you’re actually doing in your double life; knitting, learning tae kwon do or perfecting your Lindy hop will all re-energise limited stores and make you into a more well-rounded individual.

Jennifer Rohn is a principal investigator in University College London’s Centre for Nephrology.

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Reader's comments (2)

This makes me feel rather tame... when not thinking about the role of group work in promoting the development of a community of inquiry amongst distance learners curled up here in Computer Science, I am thinking about my 'other' study - of orders, decorations and medals around the world - and adding pages to a world-leading website :)
And of course, there is Brian Schmidt - Vice Chancellor (Australian National University), Nobel prize winner and vineyard proprietor!