I read Yana Weinstein‘s Biography post here, and it rang many bells with me, so I decided to put together something similar. This is really for me, and I doubt many people will be interested in it. I also thought I’d better put it on this site, rather than the school blog site that I co-ordinate, as it’s a purely personal reflection.
At school, I was used to doing well at stuff. Apart from sport! (I was rubbish at sport). But academically, I was used to excelling.
I also did a lot of music. This was good because, despite being socially awkward, self-conscious and shy, I craved attention, which is odd because my parents were incredibly supportive and proud of me. It wasn’t like I was looking for attention I wasn’t getting at home.
But I loved the attention I got when I performed. And I’m a flautist, so I got to perform a LOT: I played in orchestras, and the flute part is often really exposed. I loved this and hated it all at once. I loved the attention and the praise, but I hated the nerves and the fear of failure that came with each performance.
When I was 13, I entered the local music festival. The adjudicator was Lady Evelyn Barbarolli, and she rang my flute teacher afterwards to tell him I should audtion for music college. Later that year, I started studying at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music.
Yana had a few common threads in her Bio. I would say mine is probably all about how you respond to knock-backs and failure. My mum always used to say to me that I only ever learned the hard way, and decades later, this still very much appears to be the case!
My first “failure” came when I got a B in my maths GCSE, which I took a year early (there were no A*s in those days). It was the same year I’d started at the Royal College, and music was basically all I really cared about at the time, so I didn’t prepare for my exam beyond turning up for lessons and doing the bare minimum homework. That B shocked me, and it shocked my friends, too. One of them still reminds me that she got an A and I got a B…. We still talk about it nearly 30 years later!
So the next year, when I did all the rest of my GCSEs, I worked super hard, because I wasn’t going to allow that “failure” to happen again. However, I was knocked back again, when I developed something called tenosinavitus in my wrists. I couldn’t play the flute (the activity I held most dear, and at the time formed much of my self-identity), I couldn’t play the piano… and I couldn’t write: I had to dicate all my exams to an amanuensis. However…. this time I got straight As in my GCSEs.
But, believe it or not, I still hadn’t really learned my lesson! When I did my A levels, I found everything (apart from school) too exciting : going out and dancing, orchestras and music, my first serious boyfriend…. and so I got another shock at the end of my Sixth Form, when I got BBC in my A levels, rather than the AAA that I had always assumed that I would get. (Yes- I might have been shy, but I was evidently a rather arrogant deep down, too!)
Luckily, the shock factor from those A level results lasted long enough this time for me to graduate with a 1st in Chemistry. I was NOT going to allow myself to fail again!
I’m not really sure why I did a Chemistry degree. I’d chosen to study Chemistry at A level rather than the subjects I felt I was “good” at (languages and music) because I thought I wanted to study Medicine. Also, my dad was a language teacher, and he’d told me I could always study languages later if I really wanted to…
So I still don’t really think of myself as a Chemist, and I regularly suffer from imposter syndrome when I read about, and talk to, other Chemistry teachers. They’re obviously real Chemists! I’m just pretending to be one…
So I finished my degree, took a year out and worked for a while (and completed a Raleigh International expedition). I also turned down a graduate job at a large pharmaceutical company and decided to do a PhD instead. This was my “sensible” PhD. One of my supervisors was from the same large pharmaceutical company I’d decided not to work for as a graduate, and they were supporting me with equipment and periods working on their site. But I was miserable for all sorts of reasons, and so I found a job (in marketing! Yes really!) and told my supervisor I was leaving.
So the university offered me a change of direction and a new project. Also a new project supervisor. We retained a few words from my first project title in my second project title, and I spent the next two years wading in the sea, which is much more up my street! I did complete my “second” PhD.
And then I drifted a bit more: I travelled a bit, worked a bit and taught English for a bit before starting a post-doc. Again, my post-doc was never part of any grand plan: I saw an advert for a job that involved going to sea twice a year, and thought it sounded amazing. I was lucky enough to get the job, even though I wasn’t from a marine background, and it certainly did turn out to be amazing! Going to sea was truly life-affirming, and it was also life-changing.
But here I was back in imposter zone. I was a post-doc in a completely new area of Science. This was not just a new area of Chemistry: I was having to assimilate and understand things that I would’ve counted as Biology and Marine Biology, and possibly a bit of Geography, too… and I was entirely out of my comfort zone. At the same time, I was working with PhD students, who had studied all this new (to me) stuff for years, and this only fuelled my insecurities. I was supposed to be the post-doc, but everyone else knew more than me!…
I also massively mucked up my first cruise. Some of the reasons for this were out of my control, but some things weren’t, and everything was heightened because I coped badly with sleep deprivation. I’m proud that I got through this time, but it was a real low point in my life. I remember sitting in my Performance Management meeting with my line manager and asking: how on earth am I going to get past this? He gave me the best advice ever: forget the things you can’t change, learn from the things you can. Stick your head down, move on, and for God’s sake make sure you show everyone what you’re made of on the next cruise!
So I did. The start of the next cruise was tough. People that had been with me on the first cruise were rather cautious around me at first (to say the least), but I just stuck my head down and worked as hard as I could. By the end of the second week, people were literally begging me to leave the lab and join in with the fun stuff! I completed 3 more cruises after that, and I am really proud of what I achieved. I gained a reputation as a solid, reliable, hard worker, but also as a supportive team member, and a mentor. I had learned the hard way! But I really feel I learned so much that it was worth it.
I met my (now) husband on my penultimate cruise. At the time, he was living in the USA, and working at Princeton. For a while, we actually managed to see each other fairly regularly (often every 2 weeks or so!), but then he moved to Norwich (UK).
Around the same time, I was beginning to enjoy the mentoring and outreach aspects of my role. I’d spent various periods of time in my life before then teaching English (in England and in Italy) and I enjoyed it all so much that I thought I’d train to be a teacher….
Maybe one day, I’ll write a part 2 (about that part of my life…)