Reunited: 'rather uncharitably, i feel cheated'

June 11, 2004

Sue Nelson studied physics at University College Cardiff from 1979-82. She is now a BBC science correspondent

Five years ago, I filmed at Cardiff's hands-on science centre, Techniquest, for television news. Brian Delf, one of the interviewees, was a former physics lecturer of mine and professed no surprise at my chosen career. "I remember asking my tutorial group what they wanted to do after graduation," he chuckled. "You said Blue Peter presenter."

Sadly, that opportunity never arose, but it's fair to say that becoming a BBC science correspondent owed a lot to both physics and performing. As a member of Drama Plus, the university's showcase for show-offs, I appeared at Cardiff's Sherman Theatre in a number of guises - from a singing waitress and dancing nymph, to Rita, the proverbial tart-with-a-heart, in a semi-professional production of Billy Liar . The last's two-week run was in the holiday break before finals, so I revised during the day and cycled to the theatre at night. Removing an actor's roving hands from my buttocks - with the line "Eh, Bolton Wanderer, keep your mucky hands to yourself" - proved the perfect antidote to quantum mechanics.

Today the Sherman is no longer part of the university, but the 1970s brick building has been much improved by the addition of windows and a colourful café and has reinvented itself as a youth theatre.

Apart from shedding its drama department, University College Cardiff has also changed its name to Cardiff University. But the physics department presents the greatest surprise, not least because it is now in an entirely different place. In 1979, all my studies were in the 19th-century Portland stone main building, with its wood-panelled corridors and marble interior - which is why the department's new home, in an aesthetic-free 1960s box half a mile away, was such a shock.

Fortunately, appearances, as we all know, can be deceptive. Physics department head Mike Edmunds summed it up: "We're much bigger, more successful." Inside the refurbished building are modern lecture theatres, spruce laboratories, PC rooms and even clean rooms for constructing instruments on European Space Agency missions. Everything looks brand-spanking new, as opposed to a Victorian gentleman's scientific experiment. Rather uncharitably, I feel cheated.

The only aspects of student life I don't envy, however, are loans. I was the first member of my family to attend university. This was possible financially only because I received a full grant and worked in pubs during the holidays. Ian Merrick, a third-year student, is typical of today's undergraduates. He's juggling several jobs throughout the entire year but still has debts.

Professor Edmunds is also concerned. "Some students get into difficulties," he admitted. "They are tired at lectures and can't get the work done. In some cases, it can even depress their degrees by up to two classes." Plus, he adds, students miss out on other activities - such as drama.

Cardiff remains a beautiful city, and the physics department has undoubtedly prospered. But whereas the combination of no university theatre, better science facilities and the uninspiring location of the new physics department might have left me a better student, I wouldn't have gained the performing skills so vital for my job as a science broadcaster.

Or the chance to get my bottom felt up on stage, of course.

Sue Nelson will be speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival at 6.15pm on June 10.

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