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The Clangers and Star Trek inspire a life in science

29 May 2014

The Clangers, Star Trek and broccoli are just some of the things that have inspired British researchers to pursue a career in science according to a collection of video interviews launched by the Royal Society and the British Library today.

The videos aim to highlight the diversity of people working in science, and are extracted from over 60 hours of interviews with scientists which will be held in perpetuity in the British Library’s Sound Archive.

Describing her passion for science in one of the videos, space scientist and BBC Sky at Night presenter, Maggie Aderin-Pocock says: “People often ask me, ‘You’re a black dyslexic kid from a broken home in London. How come you’re so interested in space?’ And I think it’s because of a number of things. The first one is the Clangers. I fell in love with the Clangers when I was probably about three years old and they live out in space, so I wanted to go and visit them.” She adds too that she was inspired by Einstein and Star Trek.

Researchers at National Life Stories [NLS] at the British Library conducted the interviews as part of an oral history project commissioned by the Royal Society. Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science records the life stories of ten British scientists with minority ethnic heritage and covers topics such as being a minority in science, influences in their childhoods and the fun and importance of science both to themselves and to the wider community. 

Professor Harry Bhadashia FRS invented the steel used for the train rails that pass through the Channel Tunnel. He has also developed the world’s strongest armour – called ‘super bainite’ – in part through the discovery of a steel that ‘seemed to sing’. In his video he says: “In science there are no barriers as to where you come from, what your background is, what your nationality is or what your age is. You basically try and pursue your curiosity to some goal and once you succeed, you know, it drives you forward.”

Points that have emerged as a result of the interviews are:

- The scientists interviewed for the project described little or no evidence of direct or indirect racism in the British scientific workplaces they worked in.
- Many of the interviewees did not regard science as an obvious, ‘normal’ or easy career choice for someone of their ethnic background.
- In the case of the female interviewees, it is difficult to separate the effects of ethnicity and gender in accounts of being in a minority in scientific workplaces.
- Particular kinds of mentoring may encourage ethnic minority scientists to remain in and progress in scientific careers.

One of the interviewees, Mah Hussain-Gambles, describes herself as a biker, a rock music fan and a pharmacologist. Her childhood began in Pakistan and ended in Hull, where she was the only pupil with Asian heritage at her comprehensive school. She spent many hours as a child role playing scenes from her favourite television programme, Star Trek, with her brother and neighbours.  She says: “Whatever I’ve done, whatever I’ve applied science to in my life. It’s – it’s about exploration. It’s like – about being, like Captain Kirk, but instead of exploring different planets, there’s so much to explore here.”

Dr Donald Palmer, an immunologist at the Royal Veterinary College in London, says in his interview: “My background has not been a disadvantage in terms of my progression. I think – because what you have to remember about science: science is an international sort of language in itself. You know, when you go to conferences you’ll see people from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

Mark Richards is a scientist and a DJ (DJ Kemist). He was born in Nottingham in 1970 to parents who had emigrated from Jamaica and remembers successfully ‘battling with the boffins’ at his comprehensive school, often coming top in chemistry. Richards says that friends from his local community have often asked over the years why he was the ‘one’ to succeed. His answer: “...regardless of your background or what your upbringing is, if you have the aptitude and the attitude, then I say you should definitely go for it.”

Charlotte Armah was born in London to parents who emigrated from Ghana. She helps run experiments at the Institute of Food Research involving human volunteers to learn whether eating particular foods -- especially broccoli -- can protect us from diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Armah says: “Basically working as a scientist as I am is a brilliant job. It’s varied – one day is never the same as another. I get to travel. I get to meet all sorts of people.”

The full audio interviews which range from 6 to 10.5 hours per interviewee are available on the British Library Sounds website: http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science

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