In 1993, I started my third and final season of summer work on a pig and arable farm close to home in Devon. It was hard physical labour and the only pure job I’ve ever had, where I was only doing it for the money. As I write this, in summer 2022, I look back on that time fondly, there’s something more honest and less mentally corrupting about doing a job purely for the money, with social life, enjoyment and those slightly bollocks modern concepts of ‘self-improvement’ and ‘networking’ completely separate from the day job. After the summer, before embarking upon my 1 year long industrial placement as part of my four year ‘sandwich’ degree course, I had no career plans; no idea of what I wanted to do and no real sense of what my future had in store.
In September 1993, except for my summers working on the farm, I had spent most of the previous two years ridiculously drunk. And I’d not done enough work. I had coasted through my course prioritising parties, socialising, drinking and exploding from my sadder, posher and more isolated teenage years. If Dad hadn’t died, I may not have become obsessed with becoming a 1950s GP and consequently may not have chosen chemistry, biology and maths A levels, and may not have ended up studying chemistry (with a bit of business) at university. I enjoyed the chemistry part of the course much more than the business part. I found the business content rather vacuous and lacking in substance. My mind wanted feeding with academic meat and detail. But, arguably, there was too much meat. I was drawn towards physical, analytical and environmental chemistry and both befuddled and disinterested in the interminable curly arrows of organic (carbon based) chemistry and the multicoloured magic of inorganic chemistry; but none of the endless dissemination of facts and concepts, nor the never-ending illustrative practical work filled me with incandescent joy.
Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) had visited Kingston (now – in my second year – a new University, I think I preferred the Polytechnic moniker) to do some preliminary interviews for third year placements earlier in the year. Mine went well, I remember discussing the concept of polarity as the means of separation in liquid chromatography. This led to an invite to Ware in Hertfordshire for a second interview, and my first experience of the stultifying hell of the technical interview. I crumbled. Someone else was offered a place and I was put on hold and not rejected. I was holding out for an offer, when my tutor suggested that I went for an interview with SmithKline Beecham (now also GlaxoSmithKline) in Tonbridge, Kent. I was very relaxed, as I was still hoping to hear back from Glaxo. I had a great day and still remember my three interviewers, Dr Mike Webb, Brian Stockton and Mike Kingswood. Mike Webb was a real character and a huge Rolling Stones fan, which somehow came out in my interview. I had a good feeling about the day and wasn’t surprised when I was offered a position the next day.
On my first day, in early September 1993, I was assigned to the mass spectrometry section of the Analytical Sciences department within the Chemical Development division. Initially, and momentarily, I was disappointed not to be in the chromatography section, having excelled in that part of the interview, but once I met my supervisor and the brand new, carpeted mass spectrometry laboratory it was clear that I had landed on my feet.
The whole site housed only about one hundred people: about thirty analytical chemists; about thirty synthetic organic chemists; about ten chemical process engineers; some HR, finance, maintenance, catering and support staff and eight undergraduate placement students, including me. On my first morning coffee break in the canteen, there was a real buzz. The previous year’s students overlapped with us for a week and there were a few summer students and CASE (sponsored PhD) students kicking about, so the room was filled with a younger and cooler crowd than I was expecting.
At coffee, sitting around a low table, the cool kids assembled. I’d met Marion, (who hailed from Omagh in Northern Ireland) from the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) lab next door, but all the other early twentysomething faces were new to me. There was very friendly Neil, from Sheffield, who was the IT (information technology) student, but it was a tall, dark-haired girl from Nenagh, in Co. Tipperary who caught my eye. Cathriona had twinkling blue eyes, a pale complexion and was dressed all in black, including a pair of black leggings accentuating the slender, sinewy anatomy of her legs. They were crossed tightly, the top one rocking gently as she demurely uttered sparse, dry comments in a soft, southern Irish accent to die for. I fell in love instantly.
Three weeks later Cathriona, Marion, Neil and I were living together in grotty student digs on Goldsmid road in Tonbridge, the girls on the top floor, Neil and me on the ground floor and the kitchen and living space on the first floor. Cathriona finished her brief summer fling with a departing student from the year before. She worked in one of the upstairs chromatography labs and we flirted via MSDOS email whilst controlling our respective scientific instruments via computer software. We got together on a drunken night in October, my first proper girlfriend of more than one month. She was lovely and beautiful and my first true love. But I was a twat. I was still a playful, drunken, exuberant puppy and not emitting serious relationship vibes. I really, really liked her but getting pissed, talking bollocks and not ‘settling down’ seemed more important at the time so, in late January, I finished with her. A regret, as I type this, but not back then.
Outside the lab, there were some riotous house parties and lots of drunken Friday nights in Tonbridge, or back in Kingston, less than an hour to the West. Two weeks into my tenure, and before Cathriona happened, I managed to get myself onto the Tonbridge and Walton Oaks ‘It’s a knockout’ team at the annual SmithKline Beecham R&D fun day. This was a huge, heavily subsidised event, in the grounds of a stately home in Kent – I think – which hosted employees and their families from the seven R&D sites dotted around the M25. The merger of American company SmithKline & French and British Beecham’s only occurred in 1989 so, SKB was still relatively fresh in 1993 and still trying to unite its research and development scientists across their legacy sites by sponsoring them to get drunk and behave like idiots, all compered by Stuart Hall, long before he was convicted of multiple sexual assault crimes.
My superviser, Dr Duncan Bryant – a pretty good party animal himself, was both astonished and amused by my antics. It was the late, great Duncan who properly turned me on to Science. Before meeting him and others that year, I had presumed the stereotype – of most scientists being socially inept nerds who listened to heavy metal and attended Star Trek conventions – to be true. It was this pernicious stereotype, and the onerous curriculum content of GCSE, A level and undergraduate Science courses which rather put me off the idea of science as a career, but Duncan and a few others completely changed that.
Duncan was only seven years older than me, and had only started working as a mass spectrometrist the previous December. He had a chemistry degree from Imperial college, where he started a PhD (3 year full time post graduate degree) studying the chemistry of Nitric oxide (NO, sometimes called Nitrogen oxide) which he finished at the Open university in Milton Keynes, as his supervisor moved. Then he spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He was a seriously bright guy and highly respected by the entire Analytical Sciences department, across many sites and the synthetic organic chemists too. But he wasn’t just a brilliant scientist, he had a broad, deep intellect across many fields – almost a polymath! He was a keen pub quizzer with deep knowledge of geography, music, literature, art and sport who’d appeared on University Challenge. We used to do a weekly Sunday and Wednesday night quiz together. Culturally he was an oxymoron – a huge fan of The Jam and Queen, deeply into dub reggae – especially Scientist and King Tubby but also a keen purveyor of the great 20th century symphony composers of Sibelius and Shostakovich. Apart from Queen and The Jam, he introduced me to all these things. He was funny and silly too, very tall and bendy with an elastic face – frequently impersonating John Cleese’s Ministry of Funny Walks and Alexei Sayle’s stand up act.
There were some quite good teachers at school and the odd lecturer at university who didn’t make me yawn but Duncan was in a different league. The single most inspirational, brightest, and down to Earth scientist, nay human, I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. We became good friends, he came to my stag do and wedding in 2000 but his life was cut tragically short in 2005, from a recurring heart condition. He was only 40 when he died, leaving a second wife and two very young boys, the second born after his death. I miss his wisdom. And his humour. Before the end, he was chair of the Molecular Spectroscopy group at the Royal Society of Chemistry and The Duncan Bryant Award in Molecular Spectroscopy for a novel research paper for a promising young scientist was set up in his honour.
If I hadn’t met or worked with Duncan, I may not have pursued science as a career. The respect was mutual – I was his first industrial supervisee, and the first student to be trained to operate the Sciex-API-III atmospheric ionisation, triple quadrapole mass spectrometer. This state-of-the-art instrument cost £330,000 in 1993 and looked like a small jet engine mounted on top of the WOPR computer from the cult 1980s film, War Games starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. I realised from early on what a privilege it was to work with Duncan, and use such pioneering technology. Having coasted through my second year of university, on for a third, and been perpetually pissed in my first year, distracted by head of house and extra-curricular activities, not studying hard enough and still grieving Dad leading to suboptimal A levels I was starting to believe that I wasn’t particularly bright academically. Duncan changed all that, he made me realise that I was sharp and communicative and quick to learn and that I understood perhaps more than my grades and efforts inferred. He made me realise that I was, or could be a scientist.
The experience of doing science was so much more fulfilling than learning science. All those endless derivation of equations from first principles in physical chemistry lectures; all those curly arrowed reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry lectures; all those befuddling complexes and oxidation states in inorganic chemistry and the never ending illustrative, procedural chemistry practical sessions never filled me with joy. But I found preparing an unknown sample for characterisation by mass spectrometry, using the data to elucidate the molecular structure and reporting the results back to the synthetic chemists (not manmade people, rather people specialising in the chemical synthesis and chemical process development of organic drug molecules and intermediates) – face to face – immensely satisfying. Sometimes it was routine, but often there was problem solving and discussion and deep thinking with Duncan, or the group leader Brian, or one of the chemists.
It was an exciting and very casual environment to work in too. Most people were a little quirky, with a story to tell. Duncan wasn’t the only inspirational colleague. Mike Webb, Kingston alma mater and head of the wider spectroscopy group, was great fun…he went on to become head of Chemical Development in GlaxoSmithKline at Stevenage. Dave Lathbury, one of the more senior chemists moved to Astra while I was there, to head up their Chemical Development group. Soon after he poached Dave Ennis, then a young post doc chemist who I learnt a lot from, who has since climbed the ladder within AstraZeneca, now heading up their Chemical Development group, who my ex-Pfizer friend and colleague Dr Stefan Taylor now reports into. Some great, internationally renowned, synthetic and analytical chemists coalesced at SKB Tonbridge in the early 1990s and it felt good to be a part of.
As well as being a fully integrated member of the mass spec team, under Duncan’s tutorage, working on real world projects and problems, I got to carry out a two month mini research project, which provided the data and inspirational for my final year dissertation. Duncan modified the Sciex ion source, introducing ND3 gas (deuterated ammonia – normal chemical formula NH3, with each hydrogen atom replaced with a deuterium atom). Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen which contains 1 proton and 1 neutron in its atomic nucleus, meaning that it still has the chemical properties of hydrogen but instead of a relative atomic mass of 1, it has a relative atomic mass of 2. So the [M+D]+ molecular ions entering the mass spectrometer have a mass 1 unit greater than an [M+H]+ ion. We used toggled the ionisation gas from ammonia to deuterated ammonia to collect spectra ionised with both hydrogen and deuterium and used it to study labile (easily exchanged) protons (hydrogen ions) in organic molecules, peptides (short chains of amino acids which constitute larger proteins) and proteins. The most exciting data came from comparing the relatively few labile protons in native (folded in its natural state) bovine Myoglobin (the protein which stores oxygen in muscle cells) with the far greater number found in denatured (unfolded, like cooked egg white in comparison with raw egg white) Myoglobin. I found this immensely exciting. Analysing and interpreting new data that no one, knowingly, anywhere in the world had seen before was immensely exciting.
I didn’t find it exciting enough to study for a PhD in mass spectrometry, partly because after graduating I was keen to earn some money and rather bored with university life. Is this a regret today? Not really, I think I’ve learnt that I’m a storyteller with broad interests; easily distracted too – so dedicating myself to a niche field of research for three years wouldn’t have suited me, but I learned from Duncan that I was more than capable of it and that I had the intellect, the curiosity, and the capability to become a research scientist in industry. I also learnt that I needed to go back to university for my final year and work my socks off to get a good degree, to renounce the coasting demons of my first and second years, cut back on partying and drinking and turn up for lectures on time, as multinational science companies only employ graduates with PhD’s, 1st class or upper second class (2:1) degrees.
My year in Tonbridge was more than the year that I accidentally became a scientist, it was the year I grew up and became an independent adult. I enjoyed earning money and spending it all on gigs, CDs, beer and stereo equipment. It enabled my first life enhancing trip to the Glastonbury festival. I found love for the first time. And I had a brilliant time – working hard and playing hard. Looking back, as a science teacher who’s rather anti our GCSE system and sceptical of the excessive conceptual, factual and theoretical content of Science GCSEs, A levels and degrees, I wonder how necessary all that rote knowledge is. And how indicative grades at GCSE and A level of in our potential in specialist careers. I’m obviously blessed with a high capacity for facts and their recall from memory, but I genuinely didn’t learn a huge amount at university. What I could do, and still can, was learn fast, ask questions and engage with experts. I find the idea that to become skilled or capable or expert or creative in anything, we first have to become a walking encyclopaedia in that discipline – deeply flawed. I don’t believe you can teach anyone to do anything, but providing that you are competent in maths, English and most of all interested in finding out then I believe – and I’m good evidence of this – that you can become a scientist if you want to. Unfortunately, our current education system alienates too many people from this possibility with our ever-increasing obsession with exam grades at 16 and 18, and the excessive amounts of prescriptive content in the school and university science curricula. Also, my year in industry taught me, that knowing stuff and studying stuff and being interested in stuff isn’t always enough. We need to be inspired, we need to be enlightened and have our minds opened to the wonders of science, of life, of art, music or whatever. And for me, that person was the late great Dr Duncan Bryant. R.I.P. you wonderful, brilliant, funny big wonder of a human. And thank you.