The long-haired student came from Birmingham University, where he was doing a degree in botany. But the summer job at Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory was one of his first real experiences of research. It was one of his earliest encounters with distinguished scientists too. Every morning he would drink his coffee, awestruck, as he listened to the authors of his university textbooks make light conversation.
His project was to get some difficult seeds to germinate by treating them with cycles of heat and cold, light and dark. It was not technically difficult work, but the student loved the way the results of one experiment helped him to design the next. It began to dawn on him that research was a narrative, as powerful as that of any of the novels he liked to read in the gardens during his lunch hour.
This summer, the eventful summer of 1968, he was ploughing through James Joyce’s Ulysses. Truth be known, it was far more difficult than the difficult seeds. So sometimes the student would give himself a break by marking his page with an oak leaf, taking his shirt off and dozing in the sunshine. Soon, he would invariably hear the shouts of a warden, outraged by the illicitly bare chest of this long-haired visitor. Being chased around the gardens by the elderly official, hiding in bushes and behind trees before disappearing as if by magic somewhere near the Jodrell Laboratory, became an enjoyable daily odyssey.
Over 40 years later, thanks largely to the generosity of donors, Kew is still training young scientists. As for the long-haired, bare-chested student, he was eventually knighted for his contribution to science, awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics and elected president of the Royal Society. And, although Sir Paul Nurse swears that he finished Ulysses, the Kew oak leaf is still to be found at page 332.
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