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From 'no hope' to Nobel

Nobel prizewinner Sir John Gurdon, who famously did not have his potential recognised, and five other scholars recall their school days and the characters that inspired them one way or another

Sir John Gurdon's school science report

When Sir John Gurdon was awarded a Nobel prize with Shinya Yamanaka last year, he told journalists about the Eton school report that is displayed above his desk at the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge.

The report, dated 1949, described Gurdon’s ambitions to be a scientist as “quite ridiculous” and warned that his endeavours in that direction could turn out to be “a sheer waste of time”.

Gurdon nevertheless went on to carve out a top-flight career in science, conducting groundbreaking research on stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of cell within the body.

“When you have problems like an experiment that doesn’t work - which often happens - it’s nice to remind yourself that perhaps, after all, you are not so good at this job and the schoolmaster may have been right,” he modestly told journalists after being awarded science’s best-known accolade.

Here, the Nobel laureate, and five other academics at different stages of their careers, reflect on their schooldays, the schoolteachers who had - or did not have - faith in their charges’ ability and the extent to which they think the teaching they received at school influenced the academic path they eventually followed.

Contrary to the preconceptions of some, being the school swot is not, it turns out, a prerequisite for an academic career. And, in many cases, these accounts suggest, things could have panned out quite differently had it not been for an inspirational teacher, a taste of what lay outside the core curriculum or the driving force of a natural interest in their subject.

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  • Matthew Weait

    This all rings horribly true. At my school in the mid- late-1970s (single sex, voluntary aided, ex-grammar comprehensive in Kennington, South London), there was a division between those who could "do" maths and science (proper boys) and those who couldn't. The ultimate achievement was getting a place to study engineering at Imperial. Being engaged with science and maths, in the sense of finding these subjects fascinating, was not enough. You could either solve quadratic equations or you couldn't; and if you couldn't (like me), there was no hope and no support. You were ignored. There was no effort to provide a way in for students who were generally intellectually engaged but lacked the skills / mindset for an academic or professional future in science. I recall reports describing me as "innumerate", "incapable", "weak". (It seems to me now that the standards then were extraordinarily high, even at O level, since my mental arithmetic and ability to do things with number and statistics is actually quite good). And the effect of these damning judgements was alienation from anything to do with numbers - to my eternal regret. It's great to see these stories here - inspiring stuff!

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