Working Lives

The Scientific Administrator (1969-2005)

Location: Norwich

Anne wanted to be a secretary from the time she was 13. After a few clerical positions in local businesses she got to expand on this role at the John Innes Centre and push for technological advances side by side with scientists and students.

From the convent school to Technical College

I came to Norfolk in 1969 from Portadown, Northern Ireland. This was right at the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that was not why I came to Norwich. Probably like a lot of women, I came because of my husband. He is English, from Tunbridge Wells, and was moving to Norwich to take up employment here.

Because of where I come from in Northern Ireland, my education is very limited. I have no secondary education experience; I went to the Convent School at 5 and I left it at 16 to go to Portadown Technical College to do my secretarial course. I had taken no exams in that time. I had been doing a secretarial course at the Convent, but it was very poor. So, my father who was a very good father and saw education as being very much the key to people’s success, took me from the Convent. And I mean ‘took’ – in those days there was very little discussion.

I was very happy there; I enjoyed school because I enjoyed learning and being with my friends, but he could see that it should also be leading to something, whereas I hadn’t quite got to that stage yet. I think in those days we certainly were much more childlike, and we were allowed to remain childlike for a much longer period. Our career prospects had not come on the horizon yet. I just knew I wanted to be a secretary from when I was about 13, so I was told one afternoon that I was starting the next day at Portadown Technical College and that I would be there for my two-year secretarial course.

The typing pool and secretarial work

When I first came to Norwich, I took up employment at what was then Norwich Building Society, now called Norwich & Peterborough Building Society. At that time, I worked in the typing pool as a shorthand typist. Typewriters in those days were fairly cumbersome things and were all manual. I worked with about thirteen or fourteen other girls. A lot of people feel that typing pools were very bitchy places, but in fact I had the opposite experience: I worked with a fantastic group of girls. We had a great time, were very supportive of each other.

The Building Society itself was quite small in those days, and for historical context,  my pay in those days was £30 a month; that was take home. I was 18 at the time and in those days, it was quite normal to be paid according to your age, so this was indeed why I earned £30 a month.

The work itself was very boring, and after a little while I left the Building Society. I worked there for only about two years and went to do what I would consider really more secretarial work for a very established family firm called Percy Howes & Co. That particular firm had quite a high regard within Norwich because Leonard Howes had at one time been the Sheriff of Norfolk. It was a nice firm to work for, but the pay was terrible!

They were Estate Agents and Land Management. I worked for Christopher Howes, the youngest son of Leonard Howes, and he was the youngest partner of the firm. Christopher was also into public service and was a councillor in one of the Norwich wards. He was very much into land management, into development of retail parks, which were just starting to come about in Norwich. He also was very much involved in setting up the Bowthorpe Estate and was representing two very elderly ladies who owned the grounds and the estate that Bowthorpe is now built on. So, I have seen quite a lot of Norwich history through that particular firm.

Looking forward to Equal Pay

By that time my husband had moved to a job at Wymondham College, which is between Wymondham and Attleborough, and as I didn’t drive, I wanted to be a bit nearer to home, so I managed to get a job at a small firm called Farmhand UK. This was a wholly owned subsidiary of an American Company, and I worked for the Managing Director and two of the other Directors of that Company.

Although it was a small company, because of the American aspect, it was quite a dynamic and forward-looking company. We exported a lot of machinery all over the world and I was for ever on the telex, telexing places, Africa, Eastern European countries. It really was quite exciting to work there. I used to go to the big agricultural fairs as part of the company. We went to the Royal Show at Stoneleigh in July, and the Smithfield Show in London in December. It was very hard work but very enlightening.

While I was there the Equal Pay for Women Act came in, and that helped to increase my pay quite a bit. By this time, I was also responsible for compiling the pay for the Directors and the staff members of the firm, so I think actually if it had been a man doing that job the pay rise would have been much more than I got. But at least I did get some rise and I actually was well paid there.

It actually surprised me when I went from working in the city with Percy Howes & Co out to Farmhand, because I did think I would have to move at a level. In fact, I managed to get myself quite a significant rise. Because Lotus was just down the road and being a fairly recently established firm was still offering decent wages, they had to compete, , so I think that was why. It did amaze me! I remember going home and telling my husband I got the job but was more excited by the salary than the actual job!

I worked there for about six years, between 1972 and 1978, and very much enjoyed it. When I left in 1978, we were in a recession and there was a slump because of the pound to dollar ratio. Because we imported the machinery from America, we had to pay in dollars, but we had to sell in pounds, so there was quite a problem, and the firm did actually go into decline. It was bought by a Finnish Company and I left round about then.

A new horizon at the John Innes Centre

I’d seen a job advertised in the paper, at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, for a secretary to the Genetics Department. I applied for that job and much to my surprise I got it. At my interview I did stress to the Head of the Department who was interviewing me that I knew very little about science, but that I was very interested in the world and in technological and scientific developments.

My husband and I always watched Horizon and that type of programme on the television. In fact, when the Head of Department asked me if I knew anything about the John Innes, I was actually able to tell him about the work that I knew they had done on leafless peas, and he was absolutely amazed! This had been on a Horizon programme just a month or so before.

In those days you couldn’t google something and find out what a company did; you didn’t have that advantage. Maybe if you knew someone who worked there, you’d be fine, but I didn’t. The John Innes hadn’t really been in Norwich very long then; it came to Norwich in 1967 with the arrival of the University of East Anglia, so it was only just starting when I came to Norwich in 1968-69. In fact, the John Innes funded three Chairs at the University, and they were given to the Director, the Head of the Applied Genetics Department and the Head of the Genetics Department. They were the three historical Chairs; that has changed now.

So, my interview was very good, he said he’d liked how my letter of application was written and he liked my English grammar – I still had quite a Northern Ireland accent in those days. Most of it was just sort of general talking… I liked gardening and I said that I was growing beans, so he started to talk about beans fixing nitrogen through association with rhizobium and I thought ‘Oh my God, what am I taking on?’ but he assured me that I would soon learn the terminology as I went along.

Maternity and maternity leave

I started in October 1978 and within about four or five months of being there I discovered I was pregnant. There were three of us within the department that ended up being pregnant round about the same time, so as in a lot of places, there was talk about ‘that chair’ that you had to avoid!

David, the Head of the Department, was very forward-thinking and he didn’t want to lose me, so he very much encouraged me to come back to work after I’d had my son. He made everything possible for me. At that time the maternity pay had only just come in, but you had to be in employment for two years with a company before you got it, and of course I wasn’t, so I had no right to it. But David went down to the Human Resources department and sorted it out.

My baby was due on the 2nd of September and my last day at work was the 31st of August! I would do the same thing again; I was very healthy, everybody was very good and very kind, and I just carried on. The baby arrived on the 10th – he has the same birthday as myself – but within those ten days I was busily making things to go in the freezer, dinners and things like that, for when he arrived. You only had three months paid maternity leave in those days and there was no such thing as unpaid leave, you just went back. So that again was another reason why I worked right up until the very last moment.

The other problem was that the idea of working mothers was really in its infancy and trying to get a childminder was a real problem. A friend of mine said she would look after my son for me, but when it actually came to it, I had been at work 3 days and she rang me up at work and said, ‘I just can’t cope’. She had a small child of her own, and other children at school, so I had to go and get my son and find a childminder. Luckily, the Head of Department was away in India at the time, so it gave me a little bit of leeway.

I had a discussion with one of the other secretaries in another department, and she said that her department was not busy at all and she thought she could cope with a part-time secretary. So, when the Head of the Genetics Department came back from his trip to India, he had a new secretary, and I was working part-time in what was then the Department of Ultrastructural Studies. They were working on the structure of organisms, and even in those days they did quite good, ground-breaking work.

Introducing new technology at the Purchasing Department

Having said that, on the admin side I thought they were really quite backward. Having been used to having the telex as my form of communication with companies outside of the UK, they hadn’t got anything at all like that there. You just had your electric typewriter and the telephone. I really did miss that type of communication when I moved from the Department of Ultrastructural Studies to the Stores and Purchasing Department.

I had to make that move because the Head of Ultrastructural Studies was retiring, and they were having a new, dynamic Head of Department who wanted a full-time secretary. My son was only three years old at the time, and I didn’t want to do full-time work. As they were expanding the Stores and Purchasing and setting up a new computerised Stores system, I was asked to go and work in that department. It was relatively early computing, and the system was a bit cumbersome, but I have always enjoyed learning, and I’ve always enjoyed technology. I do find it fascinating; I’ve always enjoyed working things out, working through things, and I think maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed myself at the John Innes so much – there’s always something going on.

There was a lot of change, and I was very lucky to be part of that change. Within the Purchasing department it wasn’t long before I persuaded the Purchasing Officer that she should get a telex machine, particularly for giving some sort of written confirmation of orders. So, we got that, and it was situated up in the reception area, so the receptionists could take off any incoming messages and things like that. It wasn’t long before everyone was using it.

About that time the first word processor came into the John Innes, but it was a very cumbersome thing. The lady who had taken my job in the Genetics Department was sent for training on this machine and was then to come back and train everybody else. Unfortunately, she was not technically minded and – she’ll admit it herself – she just didn’t have a clue. The problem with that machine was that there was a tickertape attached to it and every line was numbered; if you wanted to change anything you had to first input the line number. It was a very complicated thing, and to be honest it was never really used.

The scientific manuscripts

It was quicker to do it on a typewriter. In those days, while typing the scientific manuscripts – which is the way in which the scientists communicate their work to the wider scientific environment – you had your top copy and two carbon copies, which enabled the first author to give a copy to the second author and third author on the paper. There’s never just one author; it’s a group, and so they also get to say and to change things. Normally you would do a first draft and then a second draft. Sometimes that second draft only needed two or three changes, so you produced your draft in double line spacing and the changes in the final copy were typed within that double line. That was accepted in those days.

The manuscripts are sent to speciality journals of each field. When it gets to the journal the manuscript or paper is then sent out to other scientists within that field of study, for peer review. The paper is critically read by these peers and the comments are sent back through the journal to the author of the paper. If they are very minor comments, then the paper is usually accepted at that point, subject to just these few things being amended. If the changes and the queries are more significant, then the paper is rejected, and the extra work has to be done before the paper can be resubmitted. To this day that is still how it is done, although submission now is online.

In-between the typewritten method and the online submission there was what they called camera-ready submission, and some of the American journals went in for this, Nature in particular. It was an absolute horrible job to do; you had a special shiny paper with a blue border, and you weren’t allowed to type outside that border. The blue would disappear when it was reproduced because blue doesn’t copy, and of course you couldn’t make a mistake. You were typing using an ordinary typewriter and you had to produce highly technical information and also quite complicated tables. The scientists would also have to produce some very highly complicated graphs and diagrams to illustrate their work.

You get used to it, like in any job, and you do sometimes become absorbed in it. The longer I was there and the more I understood of what I was typing, the more interesting it was. That was why I preferred that era to the word processing era of today; because I knew all of the scientific research that was going on in my department. If a call was put through to the department to speak with someone who was working on a particular line of work, as the departmental secretary I knew who to put them through to; I knew the different buzz words and technology. Now there isn’t a departmental secretary anymore, but a departmental administrator.

The scientists now type it directly onto the word processor themselves, but I don’t think that saves an awful lot of time, and some of the older ones don’t either; they feel that writing it longhand was a better thought process for them. I think it’s perhaps what you start off with; I have two very dear friends who were what we call group leaders, and the two of them have never come to terms with typing.

The Director’s Office and the word processor

We had a change of Director and Professor Harold Woolhouse, known as Harold to everyone there, came in. He knew everyone; he would wander round the glasshouses, onto the plots, and he would talk to everyone, ask them what they were doing, how they were getting on, talk about their families. He was a really fantastic person. And he’s the one I give credit to for pulling the John Innes Institute from the era of the gentleman scientist to the modern science era. He was very dynamic, he worked very hard, and I don’t think the John Innes would be what it is today if it wasn’t for Harold.

Every five years we had what was called the Visiting Group – a select group of scientists who were specialists in fields that corresponded to the different departments at the John Innes. They would come round as a group with some admin people from the Agriculture and Food Research Council, because we were a publicly funded institute; the money to fund the basic strategic research came from the government funded money, while the land and buildings were owned by the John Innes Trustees. Harold’s first Visiting Group was coming up and he needed to produce a report that had to detail every single scientist that worked there, all their CVs and their publication lists. So, he took me from the Purchasing Department and asked if I would produce this report.

This report brought the first real word processor to the John Innes. It was a Philips word processor, and it was a really fantastic machine; I went for a full training programme on it. The size of it was just huge compared to today’s computers; the main deck where you had the drives was a column the size of a small chest of drawers.  Either side of that column we had two terminals where you typed away and there were two slots for the discs to go into, which were sort of like paper discs, seven or nine inches.

Once you powered down the machine it lost its memory because it couldn’t hold the programme. Instead, you had a programme disc and every morning after you turned it on you had to put the programme disc in and re-programme it. It was much more akin to what we know today as a word processor, and in fact in those days, in the early 1980s, it had a printer that could underline as it went along, which was quite an achievement. The significance of that for scientific work is the fact that any Latin terminology which has to be in italics or underlined could be automatically produced.

I worked with Harold and another secretary, until the secretary who had taken over my place in the Genetics Department came up to her retirement. At this time, my son was about seven so I agreed to do full-time work. I worked mornings in the Director’s Office and afternoons in the Department of Genetics for about six months and then I went back to the Genetics Department full time.

Caring for the students at the Genetics Department

It was a very difficult transition because they were very different people, the Director and the Head of the Genetics Department. The Head of the Department liked to be in control, whereas the Director, because he had so many things to think about, and liked people to develop themselves and to use their own capacity, would let you do whatever you wanted to take on. It was up to you: if you wanted to draft his letters for him, if you thought you were capable, he was fine with that, whereas the Head of the Genetics Department, at that stage anyway, certainly was not.

As his influence on the scientific world in which he worked increased and he became more in demand for visiting other institutions and giving scientific seminars, he had to let go, so I gradually took more and more responsibility. I would draft letters for him, so that when he came back from journeys, they would be ready for his signature.

The great thing about working at the John Innes, I think, is the fact that the science is always changing and so the place is always changing, and my responsibilities certainly changed a lot within the time. In those days, my job was not only the secretarial side; there were a lot of young PhD students in the department too. We had nine group leaders and each one would have a PhD student start every year. Each student would take three to four years to complete their PhD study, so you can imagine we had a lot of people within that department; I think the highest number of people it got up to was 102.

So basically, I had all of those people to look after; my office was like a mini personnel department. I was the hub of the wheel, and in some ways, it didn’t matter if the Head of Department wasn’t there as long as I was there, because everything came through me. My Head of Department was very good; because it was such a big and productive department, I had to have extra help, so I had a typist who did some of the papers for me as well.

I also was asked to manage the recruitment of the PhD students. They did their research within the John Innes, but they were registered for their degree at the University. I was responsible for gathering the details of the projects, organising the adverts for the different scientific journals – Nature and New Scientist were the two that we used – and then arranging the interview programme.

The interview programme was a bit of a nightmare because I had to ensure that the candidate only came to the Institute once even though the student might actually have applied for more than one project and needed to be interviewed by different project leaders. It was like organising a school timetable the interview period had to take place within the Easter break, and the scientists themselves might be away in that period at meetings; it really was very stressful, but it worked, and it was great!

I got to meet some lovely people and then was able to see them right through their study. It’s a little bit like being a mother; when they came back it was always my office that they would come to. I’ve got a number of silk scarves in a drawer, from India and China and places like that, because they always bring you back something. It’s really lovely.

Organizing meetings for the Head of Department

Because the Head of Department had a high scientific standing, he used to organise a lot of highly influential meetings. The largest one we ever did was the International Congress of Genetics, and it was just huge! That was five years in the planning; I went with him to the meeting of the managerial board, at the Birmingham Conference Centre, where we held the conference in the end.

Around the year 2000, the Head of the Genetics Department retired, and the scientific community wanted to give him quite a big send-off. So, my final job with David was to organise his retirement party with the Deputy Head of the Department and two other group leaders from the Genetics Department. Over 200 people came to the event. The Microbiology Society also wanted to mark his life’s work and held a symposium at the University. People came to that and then to our event more social event.

He was a really remarkable person and there were a lot of people who owed a lot to him. He was the first person really to do genetics work on a group of soil-based organisms called Streptomyces. When it rains on a warm, damp, sunny summer’s day, you get a smell of earth after it’s rained; that smell is produced by the Streptomyces bacteria in the soil. The bacteria can also produce antibiotics and it’s these naturally occurring antibiotics that David started to work on, he was the father of that research. I feel very proud and very humble that I worked with such a person; he ended up as Professor Sir David Hopwood FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society].

After that the Deputy Head became Head of Department. By this time the John Innes had gone through three Directors, and the Director at the time, Professor Chris Lamb, had to oversee two restructuring episodes. During the first of these restructuring exercises, they took the opportunity to reorganise the departments and to reclassify the way the research was handled, and so, effectively, there was no more Genetics Department. A lot of the people moved over to the Department of Microbiology, which already existed, and so I basically was redundant.

Leaving a mark with the Quality Assurance Programme

A new department was created, called the Department of Metabolic Research, and so I went to work there. The Head was Professor Alison Smith and we worked together to get new systems up and running for that department. I was there for about four years and then the foot and mouth outbreak occurred, and within that outbreak there was the mix-up of samples. Because of that mix-up the funding agency, which was now called the BBSRC, along with the other Research Councils set up a new code of practice and there were various systems that had to be put in place.

By this time, I had been at the John Innes about twenty odd years and had gone through a lot of departments, so I talked myself into becoming responsible for coordinating the Quality Assurance Programme. Not to oversee the vigour of the research, because that was overseen by the peer review system and by the Visiting Groups, but to get systems going that would ensure that samples were labelled, that their lineage was recorded and that they were stored properly.  There were systems before and there were records, but there was no uniformity accepted so this was an attempt to bring everything together. It really did depend to a large extent, not on the project leader but on his scientific assistant, and some of the assistants were very good and were very well organised, but some weren’t – it’s human nature.

I took on that job and I worked quite closely with our Computing Department, to get a lot of databases brought up to date. It was all quite time-consuming, because someone’s going to have to sit down and in-put data at some stage and usually it would fall to the technicians, who were the scientific assistants of the group leaders, because they were the constant. The others around them were forever moving on; the post-doctoral researchers who would only come for as long as their funding lasted – might be three years, might only be two – and the PhD students who were ever-changing.

I tried to work as much as possible with the technicians to find out what they needed and how to make their life easier, while at the same time trying to have these systems in place. The one thing that I did say at the very beginning was that it was not going to be retrospective and I think that did win me a lot of brownie points. That and my understanding of how the scientists worked. That was my final job at the John Innes. I enjoyed that because it involved the computing side, and it involved a lot of thinking, of problem solving, and I was able to stamp my mark and to leave something for posterity in a way.

Unfortunately, once again around that time we had a second restructuring and by this time I actually I wanted to go. My husband is a lot older than myself and had already retired, so I had asked to go on the previous restructuring. But at that time, they couldn’t lose my post in that department which was crucial to the running of the department. This time, although they couldn’t lose the post, they used the post to redeploy one of the scientific assistants. So that was in fact what happened; one of the other girls redeployed into my post, and I was able to take early retirement, because I was about 52 or 53 at that time.

I had a very varied life work at the John Innes. I saw a lot of changes within the science field and a lot of technical advances. DNA sequencing that is common now is very different from when I first went to the John Innes in 1978. At that time the rhizobium group within the Genetics Department was doing what they called DNA fingerprinting of beans, to try and enhance the uptake of nitrogen within the beans so that out in underdeveloped worlds they could grow with less nitrogen while fixing nitrogen within the soil when the crop was harvested. So that technology was just starting and being developed. It always has been a place that really leads the world. I really feel very grateful that I worked there.

For about the last ten years of my working life at the John Innes I had been very involved in the Trade Union side. Not just at the John Innes but for the national branch of the P.C.S. Union; we had branches in Wales, England and Scotland, and I had travelled to all of those places, and got very much involved in a lot of political and industrial relations within the scientific group. That was very interesting too.

Working with students at the University

I retired in 2003 from the John Innes Centre but it wasn’t quite the end of my working life as I took up a part-time post at UEA in the Volunteers Service. I can’t say I really enjoyed working at the University. I think for me it was too big. The section I was in was not an academic section, I wasn’t seeing very many students on a day-to-day basis, and I really missed that. The post was only for a year but after about three months I was told that there was enough money for a full three-year post if I wanted to stay on.

That post was to work with the students; we acted as a go-between between outside organisations and the students who wanted to volunteer. The students would come in and talk to me about what they wanted to do; perhaps they wanted to work with an organisation that could help them to enhance their CV, like some of the students who were doing social work. We would then go through various organisations like BILD or Age Concern, and I would help them to make an application.

Sometimes they were quite happy to just ring up and to use the website to get the details but some of them liked to come and talk. Because I put the information on the programme, I knew all about the organisations and I was able to guide them, but also to explain to them that if they were going to take up this volunteering role what their responsibility to the organisation was. I think one of the main problems was that they thought they could just go along that day and say to the organisation ‘Oh, I want to work with you’, and they would be in the next day. They didn’t understand, especially for those doing social work where they worked with vulnerable groups of people that they needed CRB checks.

The project that I really loved that I managed and was mine, was a thing called Global Voices, which was an educational project that involved getting local primary schools and international students together. The international students would go to the schools and give a presentation about their country. These overseas students were absolutely fantastic! They would do anything to help these youngsters. Because of its success, in the last year that I ran it, we were actually getting contacted by secondary schools as well. We had Wymondham High School, and I had seven students go in there to help out in a Language Day they were running. Obviously, that was moving the project into a higher gear and the demand on the students and their presentations was much greater. So, when I left that was handed over to the Dean of Students’ Office.

I think it reached a pivotal point you would almost need a person full time to run it when I finished. The first year I was doing it I had six school visits and the last year there were forty; that was quite a lot to organise. I always organised a small event at the end of the year that brought them together, and the students got a certificate to say what they’d done for their volunteering. The schools were brilliant as well, and very appreciative of what had been done, and the children absolutely loved it. That was the end of my working life. I could have stayed on but enough was enough, so I stopped. Now I’m a lady of leisure!

Anne (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive in Great Ellingham on 28th October 2009.

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