Like many schoolchildren in the 1950s and 1960s, I was forced to choose between arts and sciences at A-level at the age of 16, having taken lots of O-levels the previous year. I passed more than 12 O-levels, all with reasonable grades, and to be honest wasn’t at all bothered about arts versus science since I was interested in all of these subjects.
So sad to say, I wasn’t enthused at this stage by a leading scientific icon. It wasn’t the insights of Charles Darwin insight or the taxonomic skills of Carolus Linnaeus that led me down the path to the biosciences. I suppose that if there was one subject I would have chosen had I had to, it would have been genetics. But you couldn’t study genetics at A-level then, so I chose botany and zoology. Chemistry was thrown in as well, since DNA had been discovered a few years earlier.
After A-levels, it was all one-way – some might say downhill. At university then, it was still not possible to read for a degree in genetics. But by studying botany at Sheffield, I got pretty close to it. In the honours school, I was permitted to do my summer undergraduate dissertation at the end of the second year in the genetics department, then under the leadership of Professor Roper, who had recently gained fame and recognition for his work on the parasexual cycle of fungi.
My project on gene mapping in yeast got me enthused, and fortunately I was able to answer 12 of the 15 questions in my finals on genetics, even though it was a botany degree that was awarded. To cut a very long story short, my later PhD was in fact in biochemistry, but in the last 10 years of my career I was able to return almost full time to genetics. I led a research team at a government research station on genetic modification of fruit crops, in which gene expression studies were key to the programme.
So I started with genetics and ended with genetics, and yet I still do not regard myself as a geneticist, and my visiting professorship at the University of Greenwich is in plant biotechnology.