Starting out in secretarial work
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. I was 18 at the time, and when I first came to Norwich took up employment at what was then Norwich Building Society, now called Norwich & Peterborough Building Society. I, at that time, 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 The Building Society itself was quite small in those days, and – just for historical content – my pay in those days was £30 a month; that was take home. As I said, I was 18 at the time, and in those days it was quite normal to be paid according to your age and 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. – it was only about 2 years I worked there – and really went to do what I would consider 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! (laughs) It was very bad!
What did they do?
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.
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. The firm imported and fabricated agricultural machinery from their parent company. 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. I worked there for about 6 years and very much enjoyed it. They exported a large quantity of their machinery. I also used to go to the big agricultural fairs as part of the company. We went to the Royal Show at Stoneleigh in July, we also went to the Smithfield Show in London in December. Very hard work but very enlightening. Very entertaining – I did enjoy that. Again 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 would have been much more than I got, but at least I did get some rise.
Would you have regarded yourself as well paid or badly paid compared with other people working there when that Equal Pay Act came in?
I actually was well paid there, and it actually did surprise 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 did actually manage to get myself quite a significant rise even then when I first went out there, because, don’t forget, Lotus was just down the road, and so they had to compete with Lotus, and Lotus, being a fairly recently established firm, was still offering decent wages, so I think that was why. It did amaze me! I remember going home and telling my husband I’d got the job, but was more excited by the salary I’d got than by the actual job! (laughs) So that was very good.
Although Farmhand was a small company because of the American aspect, it was quite a dynamic and forward-looking company. We exported 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.
So this is mid-70s by now?
Yes, it is. I worked there between ’72 and ’78, so I left there in ’78, and we’re in a recession and a slump now. That also was a time of a recession particularly with regard to the pound and dollar ratio and because Farmhand imported the machinery from America, so we had to pay in dollars, but we had to sell on in pounds. So there was quite a problem, and the firm did actually go into decline. It was bought by . . . I think a Finnish Company actually bought them, but I left round about then.
The move to John Innes
I’d seen a job advertised in the paper at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, for a secretary to the Genetics Department, and I applied for that job and, much to my surprise, I actually got it. My education I think .. . well, I don’t think, I know . . . because of where I come from in Northern Ireland, 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. My father was a very good father, and also saw education as being very, very much the key to people’s success. So he took me from the Convent, and I mean “took” . . . in those days there was very little discussion. I was told. 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. I had been doing a secretarial course at the Convent, but it was very poor, and he had seen that, although I was very happy there. I just enjoyed school, because I just enjoyed learning and I enjoyed being with my friends, but he could see that it should 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 careers, or our career prospects – certainly for myself – had not come on the horizon yet. I just knew I wanted to be a secretary, but I’d wanted to be a secretary from I was about 13, so, you know, there was nothing new in that. So anyway I went there.
But at my interview for the job at the John Innes 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 world developments and technological developments, and scientific developments in general. 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! (laughs) But this had been on a Horizon programme only just a month or so before. Of course in those days you couldn’t google something and find out what a company did. You just didn’t have that advantage. If you knew someone who worked there, OK, fine, but I didn’t. So he said he’d liked my letter of application, he’d liked how it was written, he liked my English . . . my English grammar. I still had quite a Northern Ireland accent in those days, but he had come down from Glasgow . . . he was English, but he had actually come down from University of Glasgow, because the John Innes hadn’t really been in Norwich very long then, because it was only just starting when I came to Norwich, so that was about ’68 / ’69. And it came about with the arrival of the University of East Anglia. It was very much linked to that, and in fact the John Innes funded three Chairs at the University, and they were given to the Director of the John Innes, the Head of the Applied Genetics Department and the Head of the Genetics Department. So they were the three historical Chairs. That has changed now.
Genetics would be a relatively new Science then?
Bateson had coined the term Genetics, and he had been, I think, either the Director or certainly had worked at what had been the John Innes Institution at Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire, which was where John Innes was before it came to Norwich. I have a friend who could go into more historical details, but that really is about as much as I know of it. I never really got into that aspect of it very much. I just know from listening to her that that was where it was before it came to Norwich.
So my interview was very good – most of it was just sort of general talking, to be honest. I liked gardening then and I said that I was growing beans, so he started to talk about beans fixing rhizobium and this sort of thing, and I thought “Oh my God, what am I taking on?” (laughs) But anyway, it was very good. He assured me that I would soon learn the terminology as I went along. So I got that job and I started in the October – so that was October in about ’78. Unfortunately 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!
That’s exactly what we said! Exactly what we said! But David – this was the Head of the Department – was very forward-thinking, and he didn’t want to lose me, actually, was one of the things. So coming back to work after I’d had my son was one of the things he very much encouraged me to do. He made everything possible for me. Again, a little bit of historical fact: 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 stay on there, but he went down to the Human Resources Department and sorted it out, and so my baby was due on the 2nd of September and my last day at work that I worked up to was the 31st of August! But I would do the same thing again. I was very healthy, everybody was very good and very kind, and I just carried on.
Did he arrive on 2nd September?
No. He arrived on the 10th. He has the same birthday as myself. So, no, but within those ten days I was busily making things to go in the freezer; for dinners and things like that (laughs) for when he arrived. Anyway, again you only had three months maternity leave in those days, paid maternity leave. There was no such thing really as unpaid leave. You just went back. So that again was another reason why I worked right up until the very last moment. But again the other problem was 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 was at work two days and she rang up and said … she actually rang me at work . .. and said “I just can’t cope”. She had a small child of her own, but she also had other children at school, so it wasn’t as if she was a new mother, but I nonetheless 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. One of the other secretaries in another department, we had a discussion and she said that her department was just not busy at all and she thought 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 another department.
And you’d arranged that all yourselves?
Well, we had arranged it with the Secretary of the Institute. We had spoken to him, and my friend, Meredith, who became the secretary to the Genetics Department then, had originally been secretary going back . . . it’s not relevant to what we’re talking about; it was a long story . . . but she had come full circle and was now working back in the Genetics Department again. So I then worked part-time down in the Department of what was then Ultrastructural Studies. They were working on the structure of organisms, and they were the first department to decipher the structure of the ‘flu virus, the influenza virus. So even in those days they did quite good, ground-breaking work.
Having said that, on the admin side, on my side, they were really quite I thought, backward. Having been used to having the telex as my form of communication with companies or anything outside of the U.K., they hadn’t got anything like that there at all. You just had your electric typewriter and the telephone, and I really did miss that type of communication when I moved ultimately 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 changing. He was retiring. They were having a new, dynamic Head of Department coming along, and he 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. So they were expanding the Stores and Purchasing and they were setting up a new computerised Stores system, and so I was asked to go and work in that department.
That was relatively early computing?
It was relatively early computing, yes it was. A bit cumbersome, the system, but I have always enjoyed learning, and I’ve always enjoyed technology, and 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 with the John Innes so much. There’s always something going on.
Lots of change.
There is lots of change, and I was very lucky to be part of that change, and again by going through different departments as well. So within the Purchasing department it wasn’t long before I persuaded the Purchasing Officer that really she should get a telex machine, particularly for giving some sort of written confirmation of orders.
Seems odd to have a computerised system and no telex.
Well, I thought it was quite weird. So anyway 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. So it wasn’t long before everyone was using it.
Also about that time the first word processor came in to the John Innes, but it was a very cumbersome thing. The lady I mentioned just now, who had taken my job in the Genetics Department, she was sent for training on this machine, and was then to come back and train everybody else. But unfortunately she certainly was not technically minded, and she came back and really .. . I mean, she’ll admit herself . .. she just didn’t have a clue. And the problem with that machine was that there was a tickertape attached to it, a punched tape attached to it, and every line was numbered, and 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 used. It really wasn’t used.
It would be quicker to do it on a typewriter.
Well, it was, because in those days, with 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, because that enabled the first author to give a copy to the second author and third author on the paper. Because there’s never just one author; it’s a group, a team event, and so they also get to say and to change things. So normally you would do a first draft, a second draft. Sometimes that second draft only needed two or three changes, and you produced your draft, your copy, in double line spacing, so that on the final copy you typed within that double line, and then that would go off. That was accepted in those days. That would go off to the journal, because these manuscripts are sent to specific journals. Each field has its speciality journal, and so you would send this off. When it gets to the journal it’s then sent out to other scientists within that field of study, and it’s called peer review. So the paper is looked at and is critically read by these peers, then the comments are sent back through the journal to the author of the paper, and if they are very minor comments, then the paper is usually accepted at that point, subject to just these few things being done. . being amended. If the changes and the queries are more significant then the paper is rejected, it comes back, the extra work has to be done and the paper resubmitted. So to this day that is still how it is done, although submission now is very much on line. Actually the in-between piece, between just the typewritten thing and the on line submission was what they called camera ready submission, and some of the American journals went in for this first of all, Nature in particular, and it was an absolute horrible job to do. You had special paper, shiny paper, and there was a blue border and you weren’t allowed to type outside that border, and of course the blue would disappear when it was reproduced, because blue doesn’t copy, so that all disappeared. But, of course you couldn’t make a mistake, and you were typing, you were using an ordinary typewriter on the thing, and you did have to produce . . . it was highly technical information you were putting on there, and also quite complicated tables. Also the scientists would have to produce some very highly complicated graphs and different diagrams that they would have to use to illustrate their work.
This is high level concentration.
Is there a time limit on how long you can go on typing papers like that?
No, because it’s your job and you just get on with it! You get used to it. I think it’s like in any job. You do sometimes become absorbed in it as well. Certainly the longer I was there and the more I understood of what I was typing, the more interesting it was. And that, to be honest, was why I really preferred that era than the word processing era of today, because I knew what was going on in my department. I knew all of the scientific research that was going on. If someone was put through to the department and wanted to speak to someone who was working on a particular line of work, as the departmental secretary I knew who to put them through to, because I would know the different buzz words, the different technology, whereas now the departmental .. . . it’s not a departmental secretary any more, it’s a departmental administrator, and that is what they are. They are clerical people. An administrator may not be aware of which scientist is doing which work.
Because presumably the scientists now type it directly onto a word processor themselves?
Yes, they do, but I don’t think that saves an awful lot of time, and I know certainly some of the older scientists don’t either. They feel that writing it longhand for them was a better thought process.
It’s a bit like novelists who when interviewed on the radio will say either “I word process” or “I’d never. For me it’s a pad and a pencil”.
Or some will say “An old typewriter”. I think it’s perhaps what you start off with. But certainly I have two very dear friends who were what we call group leaders. They led a research group and the two of them have never come to terms with typing it.
So effectively you’re saying your job no longer exists? Certainly not in the form . . ..
Not in the form in which I did it. No. No, it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t. The department as a unit is a very different unit now as well. In those days my job was not only the secretarial side. There were a lot of young PhD students in the department too. Every project leader, every group leader – and we had nine group leaders – would have a PhD student start every year, and each student would take three years to complete, at least three years, maybe four, because of writing up, to complete their PhD study. So they’d be there for four years, and each year there’d be another person taken on, so you can imagine we had a lot. 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. It was like a mini personnel department, my office and my role.
You were the hub of a wheel.
I was the hub of the wheel. I mean, 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 and through my department. My Head of Department was very good because it was such a big and productive department, and really was the leading department in .. . .
We’re back in Genetics now . .. ?
We are in Genetics now. Sorry. Because that department was so productive I had to have extra help, so I had a typist who did some of the papers for me as well.
So you moved back from the Stores Department at some point to Genetics?
Yes, thank you for that! I’d forgotten about that. I didn’t go back straight like that. I came from the Stores through the Director’s Office. We had a change of Director, and we had a new Director come. His name was Professor Harold Woolhouse, and he was known as Harold to everyone there. He knew everyone, he would wander round the greenhouses, the glasshouses, go out 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 man that 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 certainly I don’t think the John Innes would be what it is today if it wasn’t for Harold. That’s always been my contention and I’ve never kept it a secret, and a lot of people – I would say 90% of people who knew Harold at the John Innes – would agree with that. He was really well liked.
So I worked in his department, because every five years within the scientific community, and I think I can say probably within public funding, because I know Universities have a very similar system, . .. but every five years we had at the John Innes what was called the Visiting Group. So there was a select group of scientists – again we’re back to peer review – who were specialists in their fields, and those fields corresponded to the different departments at the John Innes, and 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. We were what was called grant aided. The money to fund the basic strategic research came from Government funded money, but the land and buildings was owned by the John Innes Trustees. And we were quite unique within that AFRC group. So Harold’s first Visiting Group was coming up, and so he needed to produce a Report to give to the people coming. That had to detail every single scientist that worked there. So we had to produce all their CVs, their publication lists – so that’s their publications going right back, because this was the first Visiting Group. So he needed all of this put together, so he took me from the Purchasing Department and asked me if I would produce this Report. This saw what was really the first word processor at the John Innes, and it was a Philips word processor. It was a really fantastic machine. I went for a proper, full training programme on it, but the size of it was just .. . . when you think of today’s computers . . . it was huge. The main deck, where you would have your drives, as we would know them today, was probably the size of a small chest of drawers, and we had two terminals, so there were two slots for the discs to go into, but these discs were sort of like paper discs, and I think they were either seven or nine inches, these discs. The other thing was that once you’d powered down the machine, once you’d switched it off it lost its memory. It couldn’t hold the programme, and so you had a programme disc. So every morning you had to turn it on, put the programme disc in and re-programme it. Just remind it what it had to do. And then either side of that column there were two terminals, so you typed away on there. But it was certainly much more akin to what we know today as a word processor, and in fact in those days, which I would think was probably early ‘80s, about ’82, ’83, it had a printer that could underline as it went along, which believe me, it sounds quite silly today, but it was quite an achievement in those days. And the significance of that for scientific work is the fact that any Latin terminology has to be in italics or underlined. But in those days those machines couldn’t do italics, so it was just ordinary print but had to be underlined. So that was why that was so good and so significant.
So I worked with Harold and another secretary, Jeni F., until the lady I spoke about earlier, Meredith L., who was the secretary who took over my place in the Genetics Department, she came up to her retirement and so she wanted to leave. At this time my son was about 7, 6 or 7, and so I agreed to do full-time work, and I worked mornings in the Director’s Office and afternoons in the Department of Genetics. That was just while Meredith got into the way of weaning herself off full-time work. That went on probably for about six months and then I went back to the Genetics Department and worked down there again. 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 Genetics Department, he liked to be in control, whereas the Director, because he had so many things to think about, but also he did like people to develop themselves and to use their own capacity, he 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, you thought you knew you could do it, he was fine with that, whereas the Head of the Genetics Department certainly – at that stage anyway – certainly was not. But again as his influence on the scientific research world in which he worked . .. as that increased and as he became more in demand for visiting other institutions worldwide, for going to different scientific seminars to talk, he had to let go. He just couldn’t keep it all up, so I gradually took more and more responsibility, even on his side, on that side of his work. I would draft letters for him, so that when he came back from journeys they would be ready there just for his signature, and things like that.
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. I also was asked to manage the recruitment of the PhD students that I spoke about earlier, because every department had students within. They did their research within the John Innes, but they were actually registered for their degree at the University, so that was how that worked. So I was responsible for gathering the details of the projects, for organising the adverts for the different scientific journals. Nature and New Scientist really 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, as far as I could, that the candidate really only came once to the Institute. Now that might seem a bit strange, but the student might actually apply for more than one project. Because of the generalism, if they were doing Biological Sciences, that generalism might span three departments, so they could apply for three . . four . . . so they would want to be interviewed by the project leaders. So I had to try and ensure .. . . . It was like organising a school timetable, because in those days as well the Universities were arranged around term time, so the interview period had to take place within the Easter break, and it was just a nightmare! Also the fact that the scientists themselves might be away in that period at meetings; it really was very, very stressful. I had to get them up, but it worked and it was great! I did enjoy that again. I got to meet some lovely people and then was able to see them right through their study, and in fact you never lose them. It’s a little bit like being a mother: When they came back it was always my office that they would come to and see. I mean, you wouldn’t believe the number of silk scarves that I’ve got in the drawer from India and China and places like that, because they always bring you back something. It’s really lovely. So I did enjoy that.
Also, because the Head of Department, as I said, had a high scientific standing, he used to organise a lot of highly influential meetings. The largest one that we ever did was the International Congress of Genetics, and that was just huge! That was five years in the planning, and I had to go with him to the meeting of the managerial board, normally in Birmingham, and it was the Birmingham Conference Centre, which was actually then only being built, where we held the meeting in the end. And that was very interesting as well.
Then I think the Head of the Genetics Department retired in, I think just about 2000 … roundabout then, and the scientific community obviously wanted to give him quite a big send-off. So my final thing with David was to organise his retirement symposium with three or four other scientists from the Genetics Department, the Deputy Head of the Department and two other group leaders. There were over 200 people who came to the event, but then also their wives came as well, so I had to organise accompanying persons’ events (laughs) as well. And one of the international scientific societies also wanted to mark his life’s work and his retirement, and they held a symposium, which started on the Monday at the University. People came to that and that ran until the Wednesday, and then our event, the more social event, the more personal and intimate event, then took over and we had something from the Thursday right up until the Sunday.
That’s quite a retirement!
It was. It was. But he was a really remarkable person and there were a lot of people who owed him a lot. He actually was the first person really to work on a group of organisms called streptomyces, and these are soil-based organisms. When it rains on a warm, damp, sunny summer’s day and you get that funny smell after it’s rained, that smell is from streptomyces. It’s the bacteria in the soil that makes that smell. But it also can produce antibiotics and it’s these naturally occurring antibiotics that David started to work on. That was his specialism, and he was the father of that research, and so I feel very proud and very humble that I worked with such a person, because he ended up as Professor Sir David Hopwood FRS, and I think remarkably and truly so, and I would have liked to have seen him go on to be Lord Hopwood, because I think again he deserved it. But we had a fantastic four days, really great! He enjoyed it, his wife enjoyed it. They’re a great couple, they enter into everything. It was really good.
After that there was a new Head of Department. That was the Deputy Head, he became Head of Department then, and by this time the John Innes also had . .. well, they’d gone through three Directors, and the Director at the time I’m speaking of would be Professor Chris Lamb, who unfortunately died very suddenly this year, about two months ago, and a great loss to the John Innes, because he’s been very good. Unfortunately he’s had to oversee two restructuring episodes – a term I don’t like – and 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. There was a Department of Microbiology, which is where a lot of the people moved over to, but this department already existed, and so I basically was redundant. I didn’t have a department. But there was a new department created, and that was the Department of Metabolic Research, and so I went to work in that department. The Head of that department was Professor Alison Smith, and Alison and I worked together to establish a new department, to get new systems up and running.
I was there for I think probably about four years . . .three or four years, and then, you may remember, the foot and mouth outbreak, and within that foot and mouth outbreak, I don’t know if you remember, there was the mix-up of samples had occurred. Now because of that mix-up of samples the funding agency which was now called the BBSRC, that, with the other Research Councils set up this code of practice that all of the Research Councils had to work to, and there were various systems that had to be put in place. Because I had by this time been at the John Innes a long time, about twenty odd years, and had gone through a lot of departments, and basically because I talk a lot as well, I seemed to talk myself into becoming responsible for coordinating what they called the Quality Assurance Programme. So this was a programme to oversee and ensure the quality of the research that was going on. Not so much the vigour of the research, because as I said earlier on, that was overseen in other ways, by peer review, by the Visiting Groups, by that sort of thing. This was to get systems going that would ensure that samples were labelled properly, that their lineage was recorded properly, that they were stored properly. More sort of admin, ensuring that any administration that was there and anything that could be done to enhance the assuredness of what was being done to the samples and to their storage and this sort of thing, that it was uniform throughout the whole of this Research Council, and so I had a lot of systems to set up.
Is it surprising that there weren’t such systems prior to the beginning of the 21st century? As an ignorant lay person it sounds to me like something you would have expected to have been in place a lot earlier.
There were systems there and there were records, but because there was no uniformity accepted .. .
So it was standardisation?
Exactly. It really did depend to a large extent, not on the project leader but on his assistant, because every project leader had a scientific assistant, and some of the assistants were very, very good and were very well organised themselves, but some of them weren’t. Just human nature. And so this was an attempt to bring everything together. So I took on that job. I worked quite closely with our I.T. Department, with our Computing Department, to get a lot of things, databases, brought up to date and new ones initiated. I tried to work as much as possible with the technicians, who were the scientific assistants of the group leaders, to work with them, 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. And, of course, they’re all quite time-consuming, because someone’s going to have to sit down and in-put data at some stage, and it’s going to have to be somebody who understands it, and usually it would fall to them (scientific assistants), because they were the constant. The others around them were forever moving on, because there would be post-doctoral research people who would only come for as long as their funding lasted – might be three years at the most, might only be two – and then you had the PhD students who, as I said earlier, were ever-changing, three or four years. So the technicians or the research assistants were the ones that were constant. It was a lot of work for them. But the one thing that I did say at the very beginning was that it was not going to be retrospective. I think that did win me a lot of brownie points (laughs), and I think my understanding of how the scientists worked and their thinking, the fact I knew them all, not only within my own department, because I’d worked with them all through the recruitment of the PhD students – I knew them all through that, and again because I’d been there a long time.
You were ideally placed.
I was. So that was my final job at the John Innes, was setting that up. That was good, and again I enjoyed that, because it involved the computing side, it involved a lot of thinking, of solving problems, being able to stamp my mark and to leave something for posterity really in a way (laughs)
There’s something very satisfying about putting functioning, well organised systems into place isn’t there?
Yes, I really enjoyed that part of it.
Unfortunately once again around that time we had a second restructuring. By this time I actually thought that I wanted to go. My husband is a lot older than myself and had already retired, and I had actually asked to go on the previous restructuring. But because restructuring is about losing posts, at that time they couldn’t lose the post in that department. It was crucial to the running of the department. This time, although they couldn’t lose the post, what they could do was to use the post as a redeployment post for one of the scientific assistants to come into. 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 / 53 at that time.
Also by that time and for about the previous ten years of my working life at the John Innes, I actually had been very involved in the Trade Union side, in industrial relations. This wasn’t just at the John Innes. This was for the national branch of the P.C.S. Union, and because of the BBSRC, of the Research Council, it’s nationwide, so 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 things within the scientific group, and that was very interesting too.
So I had a very varied life work at the John Innes. I saw a lot of changes. We saw a lot of technology changes. I saw a lot of changes within the science field as well, a lot of technical advances coming in. The DNA sequencing that we talk about now, when I first went to the John Innes in ’78, the rhizobium group within the Genetics Department at that time was doing what they called fingerprinting. This was fingerprinting of the DNA of beans, of phaseoli beans, and this was to try and enhance the uptake and development of nitrogen within the beans, so that out in underdeveloped worlds they could not only grow the beans but use nitrogen . . with no nitrogen input, but again they also left that nitrogen within the soil when the crop was harvested.
Is that what they call nitrogen fixing?
Nitrogen fixation. Exactly. So that technology was already just starting and being developed. The chap who developed a technique called electrophoresis, which is one of the things which helped the DNA gels to be produced, we managed to attract him to the John Innes very shortly after he developed the technique. It always has been a place that really leads the world.
It has that reputation.
It does, and it certainly, I think, deserves it. I really feel I was very grateful that I worked there.
Working with student volunteers at U.E.A.
As I say, when I did leave it wasn’t quite the end of my working life, because 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 and I wasn’t seeing very many students on a day to day basis, and I really missed that.
So you retired in 2000 and …?
2003, I think it was, and took up this post. The post actually was only for a year, but when I went there, after about three months, I was told that there was enough money, if I wanted to stay on, for a full three year post.
So what would the nature of that work be?
That work was to work with the students. I did see some students. They were mostly foreign students that would come in to us, and we acted as a go-between between organisations like yourselves and the students who wanted to volunteer. So they would come in and they would talk to me about what they wanted to do. I would try to get from them whether they wanted to work with an organisation that perhaps could help them to enhance their CV, like some of the students who were doing social work. If that was what they wanted to do we would then go through some of the various organisations that we had, like BUILD, like Age Concern, some of those sort of organisations, 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, because it was all on there. But some of them, and I don’t blame them, liked to come and talk to you – much better on a one to one. And because I put the information on, and it was my responsibility, 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 was as well, to the organisation. I think one of the main problems was the fact 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. You know, they didn’t understand. And, of course, the biggest problem, specially for those doing social work type things, where they worked with vulnerable groups of people were the CRB checks.
But the project that I really loved, that I managed and was mine, was a thing called Global Voices, which was an educational project, and that involved local schools and international students getting together. The international students would go along to the schools (at the school’s invitation)and would give a presentation to the school about their country. They would work with students, and these overseas students were absolutely fantastic! They would do anything to help these youngsters. The schools they went into were mostly primary schools, although, because of the success of it, in the last year that I ran it, just before I left, which was in May of this year (2009 ) we were actually getting secondary schools contact us 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. And obviously that was moving the project into a higher gear, and the demand on the students and their presentations was actually much greater. So when I left that was handed over to the Dean of Students’ Office.
You said it was mainly overseas students who volunteered. Is that a reflection on British students?
No, it was because it was called Global Voices.
Yes, but more generally .. .?
It was because it was to fit into the curriculum within schools, and so the school had a particular country that they would work on in a particular year. You’d always get the same thing, and also you got the different religious festivals. . . so you’d get the Chinese New Year and. .. .
I think I misunderstood you. I thought you meant that within the whole Volunteer Bureau at the University it was mainly overseas students as opposed to your Global Voices project.
No, it was just within the Global Voices project, for ones going into schools. So, as I say, that responsibility has now gone to the Dean of Students’ Office, and they’re going to be developing that. I think it reached a pivotal point where they’re going to have to limit it, because it was getting that you would almost need a person full time to run it when I finished. I went from six . .. I think the first year I was doing it I had six school visits . .. and the last year I did it there were forty, and that was quite a lot to organise. The schools were brilliant as well. They were great, and then 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. And certainly the schools were very appreciative of what had been done, and the children loved it, absolutely loved it.
So May this year, that was the end of my working life. I actually retired for ill-health, but also that was the end of my funding at the UEA. I could have stayed on. There was a part-time admin post, but enough was enough, so I stopped.
So now you’re a lady of leisure!
So now I’m a lady of leisure! And I’m able to sit here and talk to you about all of my working life. As I say, I have been very privileged to work in some very interesting environments. I’m not the sort of person who moves around a lot. I don’t like change for change sake.
But there’s been so much variety within what you’ve done that you might as well have moved around and not found as much variety.
Well that is it. The John Innes really gave me that scope. It was a nice size. I think that’s the other thing I didn’t like, or couldn’t come to terms with, with UEA was the fact that it was very big, and you felt there wasn’t any way in which you could influence any change. I mean, maybe I was lucky at the John Innes, in that, because of the department I worked in, which again was pivotal, I always had, or felt I had, an input into the overall work of the Institute.
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