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Nobody could have been more surprised than I when I found myself nominated as an academic role model at UCL. I had to answer a few questions. It is not obvious to me what the object of the stunt is, but the person who asked me to do it seemed to find the answers amusing, so I’ll reproduce here what I said. I apologise for the temporary lapse into narcissism.

The final version has now been printed [download a copy]. Sadly the printed edition was “corrected” by someone who replaced “whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society” (as written below), with “paper by Hawkes and I”. Aaargh.

DC 2013

Your nomination – Why you were nominated as an Academic Role Model?

"David Colquhoun has made major contributions to our understanding of how ion channels (proteins which allow charged ions to pass across cell membranes) function to mediate electrical signalling in nerve and muscle cells. This work elegantly combines experimental and theoretical aspects, and resulted in David being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. David Colquhoun played a key role in resisting the notion that UCL should merge with Imperial College in 2002, by running a website opposed to the merger. He thus facilitated the continued existence of an independent UCL. He is also well-known for his principled opposition to therapies that are not based on scientific evidence, and for his blog which comments on this issue as well as on university bureaucracy and politics."

Role models’ questions

1.  What is your response to being nominated?


We are interested in giving people a very brief ‘snapshot’ description of their career trajectory, to help a broad range of people see how you got to where you are:

2.   What has your career path been?

My first job (in 1950s) was as an apprentice pharmacist in Timothy Whites & Taylors (Homeopathic Chemists) in Grange Road, Birkenhead.  You can’t get a more humble start than that.  But it got me interested in drugs, and thanks to my schoolmaster father, I got to the University of Leeds. 

pa 1955
My father (1907 – 2001), in 1955

One of the courses involved some statistics, and that interested me.  I think I made a semi-conscious decision that it would be sensible to be good at something that others were bad at, so I learned quite a lot of statistics and mathematics. I recall buying a Methuen’s Monograph on Determinants and Matrices in my final year, and, with the help of an Argentinian PhD student in physical chemistry (not my lecturers) I began to make sense of it. 


I purposely went into my final viva with it sticking out of my pocket. The examiner was Walter Perry, then professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (he later did a great job setting up the Open University).  That’s how I came to be a PhD student in Edinburgh. 

Although Perry was one of my supervisors, the only time I saw him was when he came into my lab between committee meetings for a cigarette.  But he did make me an honorary lecturer so I could join the Staff Club, where I made many friends, including a young physics lecturer called Peter Higgs. The  staff club exists no longer, having been destroyed in one of those acts of short-sighted academic vandalism that vice-chancellors seem so fond of.

The great university expansion in the 1960s made it easy to get a job.  The most famous pharmacology department in the world was at UCL so I asked someone to introduce me to its then head, Heinz Schild, and asked him if he had a job.  While interned during WW2 he had written a paper on the statistics of biological assay and wanted someone to teach it to students, so I got a job (in 1964), and have been at UCL ever since apart from 9 years.  Between 1964 and 1970 I published little, but learned a great deal by writing a textbook on statistics.

That sort of statistics is now thought too difficult for undergraduates, and the famous department that attracted me was itself destroyed in another act of academic vandalism, in 2007.

I have spent my life doing things that I enjoy.  Such success as I’ve had, I attribute to a liking for spending time with people cleverer than I am, and wasting time drinking coffee.  I found a very clever statistician, Alan Hawkes, in the Housman Room in the late 1960s, and we began to collaborate on the theory of single ion channel analysis in a series of papers that still isn’t quite finished.  He did the hard mathematics, but I knew enough about it to write it up in a more or less comprehensible form and to write computer programs to evaluate the algebra.  When I got stuck, I would often ask Hyman Kestelman (co-author of the famous mathematics textbook, Massie & Kestelman) to explain, usually in what was then the Joint Staff Common Room at lunch time (it is now the Haldane room, the common room having been confiscated by unenlightened management).  Before leaving for the USA in 1970, I, in league with the then professor of French, Brian Woledge, eventually got through a motion that allowed women into the Housman room.

I’d also talk as much as I could to Bernard Katz, whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society. His comments on the first draft led to the published version making a prediction about single ion channel behaviour before channels could be observed. 

The next step was sheer luck.  As this was going on, two young Germans, Neher & Sakmann, succeeded in observing the tiny currents that flow through single ion channel molecules, so it became possible to test the theory.  In series of visits to Göttingen, Sakmann and I did experiments late into the night.  Neher & Sakmann got a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1991, and I expect I benefitted from a bit of reflected glory

The work that I have done is nothing if not basic.  It doesn’t fit in with the current vogue for translational research (most of which will fail), although I would regard it as laying the basis for rational drug design. My only regret is that rational drug design has proved to be so difficult that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime (please don’t believe the hype).

We’d also like you to take a slightly more personal view:

3.  What have been the highs (and the lows?) of your career so far?

The highs have been the chance to work with brilliant people and write a handful of papers that have a chance of having a lasting influence.  Because I have been able to take my time on those projects there haven’t been too many lows, apart from observing the continuous loss of academic integrity caused by the intense pressure to publish or perish, and the progressive decline in collegiality in universities caused by that pressure combined with the rise in power of managerialism.  Luckily the advent of blogs has allowed me to do a little about that. 

I’m saddened by the fact that the innumeracy of biologists that I noticed as an undergraduate has not really improved at all (though I don’t believe it is worse).  Most biologists still have difficulty with even the simplest equations.  Worse still, they don’t know enough maths to communicate their problem to a mathematician, so only too often one sees collaborations with mathematicians produce useless results.

The only real failure I’ve had was when, in a fit of vanity, I applied for the chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, in 1984, and failed to get it.  But in retrospect that was really a success too.  I would have hated the flummery of Oxford, and as head of department (an increasingly unattractive job) I would have spent my time on pushing paper, not ion channels.  In retrospect, it was a lucky escape.  UCL is my sort of place (most of the time).

We would like to hear what our role models have to say about the next generation:

4.  What advice would you give to people finishing off their PhD?  

My career course would be almost impossible now.  In fact it is very likely that I would have been fired before I got going in the present climate.  There were quite long periods when I didn’t publish much.  I was learning the tools of my trade, both mathematical and experimental.  Now there is no time to do that.  You are under pressure to publish a paper a week (for the glory of your PI and your university) and probably rarely find time to leave the lab to talk to inspiring people. If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense, not in algebra.  That is one reason we started our summer workshop, though bizarrely that has now been dropped by the graduate school in favour of Advanced Powerpoint.

The plight of recent PhDs is dire.  Too many are taken on (for the benefit of the university, not of the student) and there aren’t many academic jobs.  If you want to stay in academia, all I can suggest is that you get good at doing something that other people can’t do, and to resist the pressure to publish dozens of trivial papers. 

Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters).  That may or may not be enough to get you the job that you want, but at least you’ll be able to hold your head high. 

Finally, we want to give a balanced impression of our role models because many were nominated for their ability to motivate others, and to balance life and work:

5.  How do you keep motivated?

Work-life balance is much talked about by HR, though they are one of the reasons why it is now almost impossible, In the past it wasn’t a great problem.  I’m fascinated by the problems that I’m trying to puzzle out.  I’ve had periods of a year or two when things haven’t gone well and I’ve felt as though I was a failure, but luckily they haven’t lasted too long, and they occurred in a time before some idiotic performance manager would harass you for failing to publish for a year or two.  The climate of “performance management” is doing a lot to kill innovation and creativity.

6.  What do you do when are not working in SLMS?                                                               

I’ve had various phases. For a while I carried on boxing (which had been compulsory at school). When I was first at UCL in 1964 I bought a 21 foot sloop (and as a consequence could barely afford to eat), and in 1970 (at Yale) I learned to fly. I had a lot of fun sailing right up to the early 1980s, when I found I could not afford a son as well as a boat. That was when running came into fashion and that could be done for the price of a pair of shoes.  I did marathons and half marathons for fun (the London in 1988 was great fun).  And that was supplanted by walking country trails in the early 2000s.  

There is never a clear division between work and play, especially with algebra. You can continue to struggle with a derivation on a boat, or even get a new angle on it while running.  That, of course, is why the transparency review is such total nonsense.

The main cause of stress has never been work for me. Stress comes mainly from the imposition of dim-witted managerialism and incompetent HR policies.  And that has become progressively worse.  I doubt that if I were a young academic now I’d have the time to spend the weekend sailing.

I’m not sure whether the blogging that has taken up something like half my time since my nominal retirement in 2004 counts as work or not.  It certainly depends on things that I have learned in my academic work.  And it’s fun to have effects in the real world after a life spent on problems that many would regard as esoteric. 

If you want a hobby that costs very little, and allows you to say what you want, start a blog.


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8 Responses to Academic role model? Moi?

  • robbo says:

    *David you have always been one of my role models!

  • aggressivePerfector says:

    I’m glad your inspiring qualities are being recognized.

    Regarding your statement:

    “If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense…”

    Mine was in ‘goal-oriented working.’ I tried desperately to find something actually worthwhile to replace it, but was eventually bullied into it by a particularly unpleasant group leader (now retired, I’m pleased to say). I went along with a genuinely open mind, but it consisted only of listening to the words of a third-rate motivational speaker.    

    Following my PhD, I struggled to find work for a while, so I decided to try to kill two birds with one stone, and offered a short course in statistics, so other students would have an alternative to the crap I had to sit through for my ‘training.’  (Its not that I consider myself a great expert, but I was struck by the lack of knowledge in my field, physics, in particular.)

    Naturally, none of the many dutch universities I contacted was interested. One university employee explained: ‘we couldn’t use your course, because we only offer courses covering skills.’ Quite a frank admission, that in that university, the abilities to quantify the world and evaluate evidence are not considered skills.

  • @aggressivePerfector

    I’m afraid that your experience is much like mine.  Our matrix algebra course started in 2003, after I’d challenged the head of the Graduate School to put on some courses with real intellectual standards.  A few year later they dropped it in favour of “skills”.  So now we just run it ourselves, totally unpaid.  It is sad that UCL doesn’t seem to care.

    At one point I did offer to run a skills course myself (free, rather than for the £800 per day that they pay to dimwitted motivational speakers).  I put it to HR that one of the most valuable transferable skills was “How to spot bullshit”.  I didn’t even get a reply to my offer.

    I think that the pathetic standards of Graduate Schools in Europe contrast strongly with those in the USA. That was one reason for my proposal to change the university system altogether.  Although that was published in The Times, it was totally ignored by vice-chancellors.  They do seem to lack much capacity for lateral thinking.

  • David,

    you mention the prices they charge – my cynical side can’t help wondering if the unwillingness of management to change ‘suppliers’ and the kind of bullying I mentioned above are easiest to explain by invoking the large sums of money changing hands.

    Perhaps, also, the courses that are run are popular with the students, because they can just switch off for a couple of days. This is by no means a conclusive data set, but one professor I contacted reported surveying a few PhD students regarding interest in my proposed course, and receiving none. (There may have been other reasons for the lack of interest, of course.) Maybe your experience is different.

    I’d have taken your course on bullshit detection any day, though the course I attended was perhaps best viewed as a case study in the same.

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  • aka_kat says:

    This blog post reminds me of a lecture by Jens Christian Skou, who won the Nobel Prize in the late nineties. After winning the prize he lectured at various universities of the topic of his career and how he had made his discoveries – I was lucky enough to attend one of these lectures and it made a lasting impression on me. His main message was that in the research climate present now, his discoveries would have been difficult to make. They depended on having time to reflect and meeting inspirational people. He emphrasised the need for having time for holidays, where reflection can take place. At that time the publish or parish culture was only just starting, but he saw the damage that it could do and warned against it. Sadly he was not listened to. As long as universities base their performance management (to use an hr term) on SMART objectives it is hard to see where genuinly new discoveries are going to come from.

  • Fanis says:

    While on travel in Brazil, I tried reading the introduction and first chapters of Manyard Smith’s Mathematical Ideas in Biology. I was shocked at my own mathematical illiteracy, as I found it quite difficult to follow the flow of thought once the real part of the book started and the easy mathematics started predominating the text. My first comment is that we do actually need to think of a way to educate students more broadly in the key scientific disciplines, prior to focusing.

    The hardest question is always the one coming from younger aspiring students asking for career advice. Honesty, perseverance, integrity, a critical mind and many of the other qualities a scientist should aspire to embody and that are presently under (indirect?) persecution by “unenlightened management” should be offered to the younger members of the academy with no “some” in front of them… because once these values (qualities) start to be eroded, it won’t be long (but could be a couple of generations) before the whole system rusts.

    I was very happy to read of this well-deserved recognition you received.

  • *’Advanced Powerpoint’ brilliant. Will you be taking over from Laurie Taylor ? 

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