Even a social animal had to learn to use the schmooze

December 16, 2005

Wary of parties? Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers advice on avoiding faux pas, while Anna Fazackerley discovers the secrets of a supreme networker

When scientist Nancy Lane graduated from Oxford University wearing black leather, she made headlines across the world.

"It was nothing kinky," she insists. "I had to wear a black skirt for the graduation attire, and that was the only black one I had. But the press got hold of the story. My mother had come over for my graduation, and when we flew back to Canada we were mobbed by reporters. I did not really understand all the fuss, but it meant I was invited to do some radio and television programmes, which was interesting."

Dr Lane is now a senior neurobiologist in the zoology department at Cambridge University. With an OBE to her name and a husband who is master of St John's College, Cambridge, she is a fully paid-up member of respectable academic society. But she remains far from typical, not least in her renown among students, postdocs and senior scientists for her unrivalled ability to network.

"My mother was very concerned that no one should be left out. She always said if you see someone on their own at the edge of a room, you should bring them into the group and introduce them," she says. "Similarly, if you meet someone and you hear something about their life that, it occurs to you, means that they must meet person x, you should take them across the room to meet that person x."

Living in the impressive master's lodge at St John's College, which comes complete with waiting staff, Dr Lane is in the ideal position to use her social skills.

She holds luncheon parties for students, including the Flamingo Society - the women's sporting society of which she is an honorary president, which has a pink pashmina in place of a club tie. And she and her husband regularly mix fellows from different disciplines at big gatherings.

This mixing is is vital to the academic process, Dr Lane says. "Tea and coffee breaks are vital in labs here because you talk to people from other areas. This is how you do lateral thinking - you get inspiration or new ideas from people doing totally different things. Scientists are creative people, just like artists; and we need inspiration, too."

Dr Lane readily admits that she is an unusual sort of scientist who refused to fit neatly into any of the traditional academic moulds. At university in Canada, she studied history, literature and Latin as well as the sciences.

She chose a career in science partly because she felt she could keep up her interest in the arts under her own steam. She loves painting, has danced in a ballet company and did so much acting while she was at Oxford that her supervisor worried that she would not finish her DPhil (she did).

But as a woman, she found it far from easy to launch a career in science.

"Many of my friends were Rhodes scholars, but in my day those scholarships were not open to women - that was infuriating," she recalls. "I was dancing, acting, doing journalism and playing sport, as well as doing well academically, so I thought I would be able to fit the bill. Instead, I won a scholarship to Oxford from the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire, to whom I am eternally grateful. But for them I would not be here today."

After Oxford, she did postdoctoral research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and at Yale University. She says: "I was certainly outnumbered as a female scientist doing my postdoc. People assumed you were the technician or the secretary."

She married and had two children early in her career, but she took only a few months off for maternity leave so that she did not get left behind in the research publication race.

As a result of her experience, Dr Lane has made it her mission to help other female scientists climb the career ladder. She was one of the founders of Athena, a government-sponsored project that aims to propel more women into the top posts in science, engineering and technology in the UK.

And on a local level, she directs Wiseti, a networking initiative for women in science at Cambridge.

Yet Dr Lane says she worked out the real value of networking only quite late in her career.

"I began to realise that often you get on in life only if you have established the right contacts, awful as that sounds," she explains. "You have to do good science. But I realised you also had to be seen to be doing good science, which meant confidently asking questions when attending meetings and telling people about what exciting research you were doing. That was initially unnerving."

She recognises that many women - and probably also many men - struggle when walking into a roomful of seemingly confident strangers.

"I always tell young women about my carapace concept. I see myself as having a soft centre that can be hidden by a confident exterior. That is what the world sees. It is like acting - you have to perform the part of a confident scientist."

Dr Lane takes a rigorous, scientific approach to networking, which is why she arrived early to research the guest list at a recent lunch at Buckingham Palace - and why she ended up meeting Harry Potter's creator, J.K. Rowling. "It is a big world," she says simply. "Different parts of it should talk to each other."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

MEET AND GREET: NANCY LANE'S PARTY ADVICE

  • Arrive early and read the guest list or the name badges on the table. Look for people you know and refresh your memory about what they do so that you don't have a panic when you see them. Then decide who you would like to meet
  • If you want to meet someone but don't know what they look like, ask the host to point the person out or to describe them to you 
  • Have a business card. There is nothing worse than giving someone your e-mail address on a grubby bit of a paper that they will lose anyway
  • Take other people's cards. On the way home, write on the back why you want to remember them and anything you need to follow up. Also note a characteristic about their appearance that will help you to recognise them againn Always give your name and affiliation when saying 'hello' to people, even if you have met them before. This means that if they are having trouble placing you, they won't have to admit it
  • Don't stand on the edge of the room looking pathetic and thinking: 'No one is going to talk to me.' Walk up to a group of people and say 'hello'. Make your move immediately. And smile.

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