Do you want to be a bona fide scientist? Introducing alumnus Dr Andrew Lucy

Dr Andrew Lucy joined the John Innes as a technician in 1987, by the time he left he had earned a PhD, discovered science to be exhilarating, fun and populated by amazing people and become Dr Lucy.

This is his incredible story.

“There has been a great deal of discussion in Singapore over the years encouraging everyone to achieve their fullest potential. Indeed, this was a key component of the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech back in August 2014 (when this article was originally penned):

“…you can progress by acquiring deep skills and knowledge throughout your career and there are different ways to deepen your skills and knowledge, by learning on the job or by going for higher qualifications as you work, and progressively, or both. And you should look for the best ways to learn, learn what is relevant, apply that.

Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career.

It is never the last chance. You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go…

At the same time, employers must value your staff and develop them to take on higher responsibilities and with the right support at work, you can advance in your careers, whether or not you are a graduate…graduates get into jobs for which they were trained and have the right skills because very often, they do courses, they come up well-qualified in engineering or in building management or in design or in childcare and then, they go and do something completely which is not related.” ~ exerted from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally 2014 Speech (in English)

Much of what Mr Lee expressed in that speech echoed my own long-held beliefs about variable pathways, the continuity of learning and the absolute need for each and every one of us to “pay it forward”. Although somewhat vilified today, Kevin Spacey quite eloquently and succinctly conveyed this idea when he said:

“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

Personally, I have sensed reflections of these themes throughout my own lived experiences, and I hope that, by sharing the following somewhat autobiographical essay, those experiences – and the lessons I have gleaned along my passage through them, might dissolve the dark shadows many of our youth feel so permeate their own futures:

Late in 1985, having tried and failed many (MANY) times to get an interview at a very prestigious research organisation in my hometown of Norwich, I had the good fortune to meet one of the technicians from the John Innes Centre. Her name was Leonie, and she and I happened to be studying for the same vocational qualification at the local college. However, whereas she was undertaking those studies to gain the requisite validation of her technical skills, I was taking the course because I had disgraced myself in my ‘A’ levels but still harboured a childhood dream of working in a lab.

My new friend eventually succeeded in convincing (“bullying”, I later heard) a number of group leaders at her institute to see me for several open technical positions and, in early 1987, I was offered the chance to make my choice amongst them. This was my first significant encounter with two facts of life:

If your CV sucks, you are pretty much screwed – unless…

Who you know really does count…

I chose a project in the Department of Virology because it offered an interesting mix of molecular biology and pathology – and gave me the chance to do weird stuff to plants. I never really liked genetics or biochemistry anyway, and the mycology classes at the College had pretty much soured me to microscopes for a while (but only a while).

In full disclosure, the guys in virology also scared me less – maybe that had something to do with the huge panel interview by sombre-looking megabrains that the other jobs had entailed. Nonetheless, I think I chose well, even though I later swapped to genetics, then back to virology, over about seven years in various technical roles – and I am proud to have remained friends with my first boss ever since (the screaming and swearing at each other up and down the virology corridors notwithstanding – but, that would make a whole book of other stories…).

Thus followed a series of technical roles in two departments at John Innes, with my final pre-PhD placement arriving in synchrony with an offer to later assume a senior technical appointment in the Cambridge Laboratories (newly arrived at Colney Lane).

First, though, my goal was to help train a visiting scientist from China in the tools of the molecular trade – a scientist that ultimately graduated with his PhD alongside me, and who is now leading his own group in Scotland. The wonderful lady that offered me that interim opportunity (Dr Margaret Boulton) was a great friend already, but it was still somewhat of a shock when she came up to me during my brief contract in her lab to ask if I had “ever thought about doing a PhD”? Why a shock? Well, because, as might be deduced from my opening paragraphs, I did not have a science degree.

So, how could I respond?

I told her that it wasn’t funny to tease me about something she knew was out of my academic reach, but which nonetheless ate at me every day. After all, much of my work revolved around the training of new graduate students – whose ranks I was convinced I could never join.

To my everlasting gratitude, Margaret was not joking and told me that she would back me if I was prepared to fight for the chance. Hence began a very odd time of indecision and wavering: take that potentially permanent (what a rarity) technical job I had been simultaneously offered in the Cambridge Labs or gamble everything to follow my dream of becoming “Dr Lucy” and, clichéd as it sounds, make my mother proud?

Three months. That’s how long I “ummed” and “uhhed” over the options – until one day the Head of Department, Professor Jeff Davies, called me to his office and told me (with a hint of justifiable impatience) it was a simple matter of passion. He then posed a single question:

“Do you want to be a bona fide scientist?”

Jeff’s impatience at my faffing around gave him a keen insight, and my choice was made. But, that was only the start of the process! After a thorough vetting by the University of East Anglia and a sort-of “prove you are worthy” interview with my ultimate boss – the Director of the Institute, Profesor Dick Flavell (another scary chapter in another book of stories), I was told that my work experience, publication record and basic academic training, supported by the not-inconsiderable backing of Professor Flavell, would be considered equivalent to the bare minimum of qualifications necessary to embark upon a PhD. However (why is there always a “however”?), I still had to satisfy several “special conditions”:

  • Submit a full report every term on my progress
  • Accept that I was “not really a PhD student yet”, but would remain registered on an MPhil until deemed worthy…
  • Present papers at every opportunity to my peers and at conferences
  • Get some poor schmuck of a supervisor to accept the risk of taking me on as a student

Well, in truth, that last bit had already been decided: Margaret had one studentship open, as did Andy Maule (later to become Professor Andrew J. Maule); and it was agreed that Andy’s project best suited my more vocationally-derived capabilities.

Now, I use the word “schmuck” with immense irony. Andy was and is one of the smartest people I have ever known – he also scared the bejeebers out of me. But, he was brave enough to accept the gamble and offered me a place in his lab. And, eventually, with Margaret’s continued guidance, we learned how to manage each other: whenever we disagreed, he would debate with me for a while and, once it was obvious I was too dogmatic to see sense, he would simply turn his chair around, start typing and ignore me until I stormed off in a fury – only to come back later realising he was, more often than not, right.

My PhD life was, admittedly, not nearly as much fun as had been my time as a technician. Nonetheless, I sustained the rather nerdy “Dungeons and Dragons” club I had founded, grew in my role as a “Friend of the Bar” (the parties we had are the stuff of legends – and there are stories that could be told that would have people hunting me down) and, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the life of a scientist at Colney Lane. It was a community that shared a love for discovery with the freedom to have fun.

Moreover, I had always been blessed by the communal idea at the John Innes Centre that, if you contributed to the work (even as a technician), you got on the paper. So, publishing was not so much of a new thing – although being autonomous and fully responsible for the work was a novel experience, as was presenting it formally to audiences of people I always thought smarter than me (I still cringe over public speaking, or “pontificating”, as I call it).

Similarly, the enhanced stresses of not only doing the wetlab work, but of figuring out what work had to be done and why; and ensuring that it all fit into a vast and expanding puzzle board of subprojects; that was something of an acquired taste.

But, I felt that I had made an informed choice and had an obligation of honour towards those that had fought to give me such a groundbreaking opportunity. So, I exerted myself mercilessly to complete my work, insisting on dozens of multiples of replicates in each experiment, and dozens of repeats for each experiment. Almost portentous of my life-to-be in South-East Asia, I was already “kiasu” (afraid of losing face) and therefore constantly horrified at the thought of putting my name to something that was not as “proven” as humanly possible.

In this matter, three thoughts always guided me:

Nothing in science is ever really “fact”. Nothing is ever “proven”, it is only repeatedly demonstrated with the same result and, possibly, the same conclusion – but, it would only ever take one person with the right experiment and the right controls to “prove” it all wrong.

“Never cheat in science, it only causes harm all around, and you will get caught eventually. You might be gone by the time your cheat is realised, but you will be caught in the end – and who wants to ruin their reputation when they are past recovering it?” This sage advice from Mr Brody, my ‘O’ Level biology teacher, rings and reverberates in my ears to this day.

The faith of my colleagues and friends – so many of whom had put themselves on the line to put me within reach of becoming that “bona fide scientist” of Professor Davies’ query. This “debt of honour”, combined with the prickling sensation that I was being carefully watched – by the university, the government sponsors, and the veritable ghost of John Innes himself, was perhaps the most pressing force on my mind.

So, I worked and worked and became friends with the campus security – who would bring me coffee in the early hours, “tsk” and “tut” at me for not going home to sleep, and debate over the pros and cons of holding unofficial gay marriages at the campus Recreational Centre. It all took its eventual toll, and I was granted a six-month extension to complete my writing whilst recovering from surgery.

This rather daunting time, again the stuff to perhaps fill pages of my memoirs, highlighted once more the qualities of the people with whom I was privileged to work. With their support and patience, everything came together to produce a thesis of which I am still immeasurably proud (and so was my mother)…Ironically, while copies are probably still archived in the libraries at UEA and John Innes, mine is now sitting in a box in a cupboard somewhere, and I heard that Andy lost his copy entirely…

Although my non-science friends always joked that the John Innes Institute (as it was known back then) was just “where they made manure” (it wasn’t); it was, ultimately, also the place that nurtured me for a decade: running oligosynthesis machines, transluminators, sequencers, centrifuges, microtomes, a bar and a role-playing club.

Of course, I also popped a few Eppendorfs with dry ice, threw the odd overcooked Brussels sprout, and engaged in many other activities I’d never put in writing…

Suffice to say that, at John Innes, I discovered science to be as exhilarating, as fun and as populated by amazing people (some running around nude, some in diapers and lingerie, some just screaming in rage – I told you I had stories), as I had ever thought possible.

Life at John Innes was, to me, the fulfilment of a childhood ambition – nurtured in my box chemistry set, playing with sulfur and magnifying glasses and toy rockets and ants, and culminating in a thesis defence that began with a demand to justify my acknowledgements page – a memory that still makes me laugh and quiver at the same time.

History shows that I became that “bona fide scientist”, but I also found many lifelong friends, experienced a bookcase worth of stories with which to bore my daughter, and made a few interesting discoveries; even if, as anyone in a lab will attest, some of one’s discoveries will always be published by someone else first.

As a newcomer to John Innes, I was given a chance. As a technician at John Innes, I was given responsibility – over millions of dollars of equipment, as well as the reputations of my colleagues. As a student at John Innes, I was given my dream.

So, what happened next?

Well, while at Colney Lane, I had also found the lady who would later become my wife, and that discovery encouraged me to step further out of my comfort zones and eventually travel to a Little Red Dot in South-East Asia – a newcomer largely unproven at the time in the sciences: the “Lion City” of Singapore.

Many thought I was making a poor (and, perhaps, emotionally-driven) choice, because a PhD studied at John Innes was the key to the doors of labs almost anywhere, and I chose somewhere that barely had labs at the time. Of course, my wife (well, girlfriend at the time) being a visiting student from the National University of Singapore might have tipped the balance somewhat, I guess…Nonetheless, I relished the idea of proving myself again, in my somewhat egotistic belief that I could help somewhere unknown become known. And, sometimes, a gamble pays off: many that then called me mad today seek to join my asylum in the Tropics.

At my farewell party, Andy presented me with a somewhat prescient gift – a briefcase, and referred to me as “the longest serving non-permanent member of the institute”. To this day, I wonder if that was a compliment or a sigh of relief…

Arriving at temporary facilities in Singapore, and helping in the development of a new institute, I continued to expand the toolkit my alma mater had birthed for me, but this growth also gradually pulled me further and further from the bench.

I founded and edited an institutional magazine, established staff benefit systems, mentored students at both post-graduate and pre-university levels and, eventually, became a “cursed administrator” full time when I moved from the bench to pure academia – heading a school of life sciences.

But, as we all know, evolution is an on-going process, if not a consistent one.

Mine continued in academia, but further and further from the wet-lab of plants and viruses, and into the wetter realm of student minds. I hold resolute to the ideal of lifelong training and have obtained secondary qualifications in psychotherapy and natural medicines, whilst expanding my interests and networks by, amongst other things, studying towards becoming a junior instructor of QiGong, and publishing articles outside my primary domain (business pieces and even poetry).

Today, having been the bench geek and the unusual academic nerd, and afforded the honour of Chartered Fellowship with the Royal Society of Biology, I have ventured out on my own gamble as an independent consultant working with industries as diverse as commercial research organisations, recruiters, governments, schools, art houses, fuel companies and even restaurants. Such eclecticism seems to be a hallmark of John Innes alumni – we had opera singers, photographers, cartoonists, dancers, actors, musicians (including a bagpiper who is still at Colney Lane today); and it is always satisfying to ponder upon such clear exemplifications of biology as a discipline truly of and for both art and science in arguably equal measure.

Nevertheless, having “frittered and wasted my time in an offhand way” (to paraphrase Pink Floyd) and doing so poorly in my ‘A’ Levels, I always felt that I had missed any chance to gain access to those Ivory Towers of science, and much less any chance to perceive the amazing vistas of opportunity such access ultimately permits. Thankfully, the John Innes Institute showed me that, although an appropriate degree is an admirable key to the main gate, the tradesman’s entrance and windows can work at a pinch and are no less “honourable”.

I was given a chance at John Innes and I had the time of my life proving I deserved it. From that chance I coined a motto, the essence of which I try to embed within the hearts and minds of my mentees:

  • Accept criticism, complaints and failure. Warmly embrace them. We usually only make progress after we make mistakes – that’s why it’s called “screwing UP”

Too often students seem to believe that they must follow the worn path: ‘O’ Levels to ‘A’ Levels to Bachelor’s degree to PhD to postdoc to Group Leader and Professor – Don’t be fooled.

The study of life science can be a “life tool” for anyone regardless of how badly they may have “screwed-up” before and no matter where their aspirations might eventually lead. What is most important is the tenacity to gird yourself to hard work, and to have lots of fun doing it.

Hold on to that pure fire-in-the-belly passion to properly acquire new skills and new knowledge, and always resolve to suitably apply yourself in everything that you do. Listen to those around you at all levels and in all disciplines; show respect and engage in the spirit of mutuality – as you never know who will best enable you to conduct the symphony of careers your life will inevitably entail.

The experiences, education and training that can be gleaned from a time of youthful exploration will not only provide the keys to many doors, but also the ladders to enable the climb to the top windows. And, the best bit is, the tower against which the ladder is leant is but a matter of choice.

The path of your life is not a railway line – you can always make course corrections anywhere along the way. We are defined by more than our careers alone, and there is very little we cannot achieve if we really persevere. So, never despair and never feel that you are “only” anything. Seek out and openly accept the help you need, and always endeavour to send the elevator back down.

Inevitably, success comes to those who believe, aspire and make the effort… Of course, it helps to be given a leg-up at times”.

This blog was originally published by Andrew on LinkedIn and is reproduced here with permission.

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