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How I ended up in science

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I hated science when I was a child
Martin Raff Scientist
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So when I was a child my interest was almost 100% sport. I lived it, I played it, every minute of every day. I went to bed with a football in my hand, or a hockey stick. I mean, there wasn’t a moment when sport wasn’t dominating my life, until I was in my late teens and into my 20s, so there was no question of science in my life. When it came time after I finished my science degree, a degree in… did a degree in… a bachelor degree in science, I mean, that wasn’t really science. I did history and English and philosophy and blah-blah-blah. I did a little science. I did physics and maths, but basically it was a humanities dominated degree.

I went into medicine because my father was a doctor and all my friends were going into medicine. I didn’t have that much interest in it. I didn’t know anything really about it. I’d done almost no biology, I’d done very little bioscience at all, but I went into medicine. Now, to me this was terrific because all of this was new. I didn’t even know where my heart was, let alone what my heart did. The only biology I had in school was they taught us how to brush our teeth when I was about six years old. I’m not kidding. We had no choice. There was no option to do biology at any time until I entered university and I chose not to do it at university, for whatever reason.

So I’m one of those people who fell into science. There was no curiosity really, deep curiosity about how the world works at all. So how did I get in… Oh, I should say something more, is that I felt I hated science and was no good at it because the only experience I had was in laboratories as an undergraduate and as a medical student. So I’d done chemistry labs and physics labs and physiology labs, biochem… and I never knew what the hell was going on. I never understood what the purpose of these labs were. I hated them, as did most of the other people in these labs.

So they’re not only useless I would say, because they go on today indistinguishable from the way they were then, they’re actively destructive. They are actually telling people you don’t like science, you’re no good at science, and the odd part is that this isn’t science at all. What these labs are have nothing to do with science. You’re not trying to discover how the world works. You’re trying to discover what your teacher has put on the paper as the right answer. That isn’t science, for god’s sake, and that’s why these laboratories were so awful and destructive and why people come out like me thinking that science is awful and not for me and I’m no good at it.

So when I came to Britain, I came to get shot of the Vietnam War and I thought I’d go into a lab for two years, have a great time in Europe and go back into a clinical neurology department in the States. That was the plan. But then I get into this lab and this is wonderful. I mean, I go home at night and I’m thinking about what does all this mean? It was just like diving into a fresh lake when you’ve been walking through a desert for a year.

Secondly, my colleagues, instead of being gung-ho warmongers as many of my medical friends seemed to be during this war – you know, we ought to nuke these Vietnamese because they’re putting us to shame – suddenly all these people thought the way I thought, so you find yourself among soulmates. So this was just too wonderful, and… and Europe… coming to Britain was the first time I really felt at home. I don't know what it was, but it just… this was where I belonged. So it was Europe, it was science, it was soulmates and, yeah, I became a scientist at age 30 overnight with no background.

In fact, I had an anti-background. As I was saying, I had a medical education which is the worst, certainly among the worst educations I think you can have for science. So I just happened to end up with a spectacularly good mentor that was perfect for me and in a very rich environment that enabled me to… to thrive very, very quickly. That was a fluke, it really had very little to do with me. That whole… all the early success just fell into place with very little contribution from me, so it was just luck, absolute luck, and if I had been almost anywhere else my suspicion is I’d be a neurologist today in the United States of America, probably with several myocardial infarcts behind me by this time.

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death. Recently retired from his professorship at University College, London, these stories were recorded in 2000.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Vietnam War, UK, Europe, USA, Vietnam

Duration: 4 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 13 July 2010