Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Here I am in Oxford, working for 10 weeks in the lab of a very distinguished neuroscientist. So I get the opportunity not only to learn sharp electrodes, do uncaging experiments with the latest equipment, and get to know some very clever people, but also to go punting on the Cherwell, browse in Oxford's extensive bookshops, and investigate the local ale houses. I feel very privileged.

In fact my whole neuroscience career to date feels like an enormous privilege. Doing a full-time Neuroscience Masters at KCL was a wonderful escape from a career that was slowly choking the life out of me. While I was there I was lucky enough to get a lab project  where I got some great mentoring in patch-clamp electrophysiology. Next came a frustrating period of knocking on closed doors, but eventually I was offered an RA job at UCL which swiftly metamorphosed into a 4-year PhD studentship, in a friendly lab doing a project I'm really excited about. And all the nice things that came along with that! – the SfN meeting in San Diego, the microelectrodes course in Plymouth, the imaging conference in Roscoff, and now Oxford. And all this funding! – my BBSRC studentship, a topup from GSK, travel grants, funded places.

Which brings me to the question that sometimes troubles me: is all this wasted on me? After all, I'm 53. I'd like to work until I'm 70, but even so, that only leaves me 15 years or so into which to cram a neuroscience career. Even if things go very well, that's hardly enough time to get my own lab. Not that I'm too worried about the own lab thing – I'd be very happy indeed with a few post-doc positions doing some cool work on synaptic plasticity. But still, the people who provided all this funding probably had 20-somethings not 50-somethings in mind – bright young people who could be trained up to provide a full working lifetime's contribution to the scientific life of the country. So what the hell do I think I'm doing here?

Well, I could wave my hands and talk about life, work and business experience, maturity and ability to get along with people,  habits of organisation and self-management. And you might respond with the distractions of family and property that accumulate with age, the increased risk of health problems, the tiredness and cynicism that sometimes cling to the middle-aged. Then I would talk about the huge proportion of science PhD graduates who do not go on to a career in science – it must be at least 50% I would guess – and that I have shown my commitment to this path by giving up a well-paid career in IT to follow it. So the return on my funders' investment might be smaller but it's also a lot more safe.

That's how I justify myself to myself. So, I'd better knuckle down and make this project count for something.


  1. Yeah, they kinda wasted it on me. Who's "they" though, and what exactly do they think they're buying? At least partly as you say it's an investment toward a new neuroscientist, but it's also an investment in research per se, a large part of the cost of which is grad-student labor. Against the hourly costs of other kinds of skilled labor, including the PIs themselves, grad students are deal, which funders are guaranteed whether or not you go on to impale cells for a living.

  2. I admire your enthusiasm, by the way, which makes me nostalgic. About your age, a liability that my own experience brings to mind is stamina toward long and late hours. At least in my own work, whenever and for however long the cells were ready, I had to be too. I suspect my mental competence drops nowadays more precipitously as the day gets long, and the folk wisdom is that as you age you're slower to bounce back from being rundown and stressed--so that ala summing EPSPs you'll reach threshold before you can recover under cultural conditions that assume the kinetic response of 20 somethings. Still, I think there were oldies who could outwork me as a youngie, and maybe you're one of them.

  3. Peter, with your dedication I suspect that you will achieve more in 15 years of research than most people do in a lifetime.


  4. Hi Peter,
    I think the most important quality of a true research scientist, (apart from precision, integrity and dedication) is creativity. I know you as a true artist, and bringing your prodigious intellect and your ability draw from various streams of knowledge into an inevitably narrow academic niche, means that a breakthrough is much more likely from you than from a younger person who has been selected mainly for organisational skills. I believe in you!