Thursday, 26 May 2016

Blessed and Humbled: a celebration

A little over a month ago, just before 10 am on a decidedly damp day, my wife and I arrived at the venue for a one-day conference and evening meal. There was nothing unusual about the subject matter in terms of my being there: it was on ‘Partnerships in multidisciplinary studies of disordered materials and biomaterials’ – right at the core of my ‘nomadic’ scientific interests, which I’ve written about often (e.g. here and here). No, the profound difference here, and what rendered the conference unique, was that it had been organised by a friend and ex-colleague (Gavin Mountjoy) specifically as a means of “celebrating the scientific career of [yours truly] at his retirement”. What follows is a brief personal reflection on the day.

The formalities of registration and the ubiquity of accessing Wi-Fi at a modern conference are thankfully followed by …
…the first chance for all of us to meet, greet and start the process of catching up over a drink and some biscuits.
I am, and will remain, immensely grateful to Gavin for coming up with the idea and translating it into reality; it really was very kind of him, and given how busy I know him to be I dread to think how many hours he must have spent on it. However, the closer I got to the day itself the more trepidation there was alongside the enthusiasm for catching up with past members of my research team and with friends and research partners throughout my career. As one of the former members of my team noted in the emailed reply to Gavin’s invitation, which I got to see afterwards, and in her typically discerning fashion: “That's a long day for him to be the centre of attention, he may do some grumbling!” As is so often the case, no sooner had I collected my copy of the timetable and my name badge – yes, amusing in the circumstances – than the nerves disappeared and I found myself enjoying again the ebb and flow of coffee-fuelled, science-oriented conversation. What struck me almost immediately was the spread in those able to be present: 
° in terms of scientific background, with a fairly wide range of the sciences represented together with a few who’d not really call themselves scientists at all;
° geographically in that they were folk there not only from all over the UK but also from The Netherlands, Japan and as far afield as Beijing in China (an ex-postdoc in my team who’d flown over just for this event – with a gift to enhance my tea drinking life!);
° with regard to their various pathways in life, with some from my old research team having stayed in science and others moving into new fields of endeavour. It was an especial pleasure to meet spouses/partners for the first time, and in one case their lovely six-month old baby;
° and in terms of time. The latter, time, gave some unexpected and delightful twists. For instance, it was lovely to be able to introduce people to each other who, simply because they’d worked with me at different stages in my three decades as an academic research scientist, had never before met. Hearing recent co-workers describe me as, in essence, calm, wise and measured – which was very flattering – and then folk from the earlier days of my research team pointing out that this didn’t quite match their memories was glorious. Thus, although it was a little frustrating to have insufficient time to spend with each and every one of these wonderful people, there was something rather special that emerged from the conversations within small groups. After all, that’s the way we’d often spent the long hours waiting for data to come in (or the x-ray or neutron source to be repaired and be switched back on); science can be a very social pursuit (see also here). If nothing else, this offered evidence of change and perhaps of growth. If so, that’s a good thing I think; either way, it was very amusing. 

The simple pleasure of spending time with people ought never to be under-estimated; this is as true for scientists as for anyone else.
The talks, delivered by people I admire, trust and like, included much on the area of work I have written about before (e.g. here, here and here). One of the nice things about the topics covered, speaking for myself you understand, was that research was admixed with thoughts on science ethics and philosophy, with the need to communicate our work effectively through engagement with diverse audiences, and with more than a little time spent on the importance of supporting what one might call the community of scientists. It was good to hear about research developments since my departure from the scene and I took great pleasure in the thought that these kind folk still had before them so much of what I have been privileged to enjoy of the excitement of discovery and the camaraderie that can accompany it. Interestingly, my blog posts were cited far more than I would have anticipated; I found this a little curious, but also gratifying. However, out of all these riches I took away as a key point, and one I hope is diffused throughout my blog: it’s people, real people, who do science. Indeed, the speaker I have known for the longest time, since the early ’80s in fact, said as much and I’m grateful to him for encapsulating the thought so well.

The talks were a real pleasure to listen to (this, left, on synchrotron x-ray methods by Silvia Ramos, late of the Diamond Light Source); Julian Jones asked me to pose for a picture with him before the talks got underway – and then edited it into his slides on bioactive glasses, along with a cute Simpson-esque image to mark our meeting in 2002.
It is inevitable, perhaps natural, to hear decisions, events and outcomes described through the lens of post hoc rationalisation. There is a risk that history gets re-written. What may seem, looking back, to have been associated with a logical progression of thought and planning might in truth owe more to serendipity and ‘trial and error’, and to have relied upon individuals and the team as a whole being able to discern and sift the useful from the rest. Having said that, we can learn from the generic lessons revealed through hindsight – and we should value them accordingly. Apart from the central importance of the fact that it is people who do science, I also believe that one needs to be as open and generous with one’s co-workers as one is with ideas; sharing matters. Moreover, honesty and integrity are of course ideals always worth striving for – in professional life as elsewhere. Out of these things come the ethos of a research team, and of the partnerships and wider community in which it operates. However well or poorly I have learned or lived up to these tenets myself, I count myself as fortunate to have worked alongside many who themselves have shown a deep appreciation of their worth. My own contribution and legacy, whatever that is judged to be, will disperse and diffuse – as it must: I am moving on to new things, content in the knowledge that excellent people continue the work. 

One of many images captured by Gavin or my wife during the day: this one was taken after the dinner and captures the group who worked so well together during about 15 years of research on bioactive glasses (see here). The four ‘principal investigators’ are central to the front row – Julian Jones, Mark Smith, me and Jonathan Knowles; we were once described in connection with one of our funding bids as The Dream Team: a label that’s hard to forget.
And this brings me to the title of my post … at the end of the meeting, prior to the entirely enjoyable evening meal that was still to come, I was given the chance to say a few words. I had prepared nothing; my hope was that the events of the day would put words into my mouth. What came out as my heartfelt thanks to everyone was pinned to the two words ‘blessed’ and ‘humbled’: blessed to have been able to get to know and to work alongside some utterly amazing people, and humbled that they had given of their time (and money) to participate in this day of celebration in my honour. Those same two words still hold true as I complete this reflection. A day of celebration? Yes, certainly; but to my mind it was a day that celebrated us all, and did so through the relationships that bind us together across the globe, through time and in umpteen other ways.

Taken by Gavin, the event's originator and organiser, this image captures many of those who participated.

I recently completed a series of posts in which I reflect on a few themes associated with my life and career as a research scientist and university academic; these may be found at:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)
9b) Flipping Lectures – teaching at a university (part 2)

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