Plymouth MBA Blog

By 21st November 2013Presidents Log

Early September finds us at the MBA laboratory in Plymouth again, and this time it’s a double celebration! Not only is it the 30th Cell Physiology Workshop, but it’s the 25th consecutive participation by the author of this blog. That means we have released an impressively large number of students (not to mention Cairn coffee cups and teeshirts) into an unsuspecting world over the years!

I’d also been at the very first Workshop in 1984, but was unable to attend for the next few years on account of being incarcerated in another organisation that was not so supportive of such activities, and for which more than one other inmate thought that the word “research” in their title should indeed be enclosed in inverted commas. But in 1989 the escape tunnel was complete, so to celebrate my freedom I brushed the dirt off and headed down the A303 to Plymouth once again. This celebration has since become an annual event, and indeed has the highest priority in my calendar, so it’s fun to take this opportunity to look back and consider how things have changed since then.

For the Workshop, things seem very much the same, with many of the original teachers still involved (none of us have aged a day of course), but things at Cairn are just slightly different. Back in 1989 there were just two of us in my old house, but now there are over 20 of us and the business is based on a fantastic farm, and we soon hope to make an exciting further announcement concerning that!

Perhaps Plymouth has weathered rather less well though, as so many of its buildings are drab 1950s concrete, now looking even sadder, although that’s going to be difficult to put right as apparently they are all listed! There are a few newer ones too (some already reclad in scaffolding for whatever reason), but they do also manage to look rather out of place with the ones that had survived the Germans’ last visit. But if we do leave the European Union (which we otherwise think would be a great pity), maybe they could be persuaded to call again? However, in the case of the hotel we currently use, their intervention won’t be necessary, as bits are literally falling off it now, and it’s surrounded by scaffolding-supported boards to intercept them before they hit anyone who is foolhardy enough to stay there. So it’s now an even uglier building, but as I never cease to point out, once you’re inside it looking out, you’re in the only place from which it can’t be seen, so there are certain compensations for this lack of quality (bad hint as to its name).

Actually we’d already used it for a year or two in the 1990s, when it was in a rather better state, and hence looking for a more upmarket clientele than I think they found us to be. The accepted reason for our being invited to go elsewhere in future is that they weren’t too impressed when one of the teachers (no, it wasn’t me!) managed somehow to lock himself out of his room, which ordinarily isn’t too much of a problem, except that this particular person wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time. (Well, the entrance doors did look rather similar to the bathroom ones.) However, there is an alternative, less well-known, incident concerning another teacher, whose identity still cannot be revealed. It seems that this particular teacher was uncomfortable with what he felt to be a certain level of unwarranted pretension about the place, and couldn’t help but notice that the apparently new televisions were obviously a job lot that had previously been used in Germany, as they had German channel identifiers programmed into their screen displays. Intrigued, this teacher worked out to how to reprogram them, and since these identifiers allowed display of four alphanumeric characters, the precise nature of this reprogramming should not need to be described.

That hotel also gave me an aversion to using lifts, which remains to this day. One morning I found myself sharing a lift with one of the other teachers, far senior to me, whose identity it is perhaps also best not to reveal. The usual etiquette naturally required me to share a table with her for breakfast, but for reasons unknown (although apparently unrelated to being stuck with me) she was not exactly in the best of moods, so that particular breakfast was rather hard going. However, I heard that she later realised that she had indeed made the hotel’s attempt at bacon and eggs even less appetising for me than usual, saying to others “Oh that poor Martin!”. This absolution made the whole episode rather endearing to me in retrospect. Changing the subject completely, it’s very sad that Anne Warner, who was so instrumental in getting the Workshop established, did not live to see us celebrate its 30th anniversary, as I think she would – and should – have been very proud of that. She certainly thought a great deal of the MBA too, as she has left them her entire estate to fund a research fellowship. She was a most impressive individual, and I remember her with particular fondness whenever I use the stairs.

The Workshop has of course steadily evolved over the years, as new techniques have been added to the range it covers. For example, this year both dynamic current clamping and optogenetics are included for the first time. But David Ogden has always run the Workshop in a way that has encouraged teachers to return year after year, which provides an eerie but very pleasant sense of continuity, and giving the sensation of re-entering some sort of repeating time loop. However, some things certainly have changed over the years. In the dark ages between 1984 and 1989, I did actually make an appearance or two at the lab, as I was an unofficial participant in a research collaboration here, and able to be involved during what my then jailers quaintly called “annual leave”. As with so many other laboratories around that time, this coincided with the emergence of a security culture. However, MBA finances were then so dire that they could only seem to afford this new trend by sending other people home and advising them to to do less expensive things such as writing reviews instead. The apparent result was a new man at the entrance, charged with protecting all the work that wasn’t going on any more.

Since then, the research situation has somewhat recovered, but security has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. All the doors are now alarmed, so the days of being able to step outside for a moment for a breath of fresh air are pretty much gone, although one door does get opened occasionally as a special concession if the working conditions do get too oppressive, The entrance desk is now usually manned (or should I say womanned?) by someone whom we suspect had a former life as a schoolteacher, and to whom this particular “pupil” has given a typical type of teacher’s nickname, in this case of “Mrs. Battleaxe”. The name of the game is to be as pleasant to her as possible without giving her the opportunity to ask whether we have our namebadges or not. The temptation is always to say something like “Sorry Miss, the dog ate it!”, and I’m afraid I always feel it necessary to strike an appropriately childish blow for the Revolution by not wearing mine. She wasn’t in evidence at all last week, so by this Monday I was seriously considering sticking the thing on, but instead it was a case of shouting “Hello and SO nice to see you again!” as I raced past. However, all these tribulations have to be forgiven because Alex Street, who is charged with looking after us all while we are here, has gone so far out of her way to do so. Her efforts are well appreciated by all of us! But really, it’s David Ogden who has been the driving force for keeping the show on the road for so long, so very special thanks to him.  We should perhaps also mention Colin Brownlee, who, in spite of teaching on every workshop, has now reached the dizzy heights of director of the MBA

Another thing that has both changed and remained the same is the local pub. For years I’ve known it as the Yardarm, but this year it was rebadged as the Pub on the Hoe, presumably because it is the pub on the Hoe, although it’s a mystery as to why they feel they have to point that out in this particular way. It’s also the pub with nonstop Sky Sports, but I guess it would have been too much of a mouthful to have called it that, even though it would have served a useful warning. Screens have proliferated over the years to the extent that it’s now impossible to find anywhere you can sit and talk, so more recently we’ve drifted to alternative nearby venues such as the wonderful Fishermans Arms. And of course there’s always the Dolphin, which has famously featured in several of Beryl Cook’s paintings, although that place is admittedly a rather more acquired taste. But going back to the Hoe on the Yard or whatever they’re currently calling it, the Yardarm name was itself a rebadging operation, as until shortly after the Workshops started it was called the Gipsy Moth, clearly as a tribute to Sir Francis Chichester, who had sailed round the world from Plymouth in 1966-7. So it must have been called something else again before that! One wonders what it was they were trying to hide in those days with all these name changes, although it clearly can’t have been their addiction to shite television.

Finally, perhaps a few thoughts about how things must have changed over the longer term. The reason the MBA was chosen as the location for the Workshop was in recognition of the groundbreaking research on nerve conduction carried out here by Hodgkin, Huxley and others in the middle part of the last century. Fortunately, many of these people were the subject of a film (known by us as the “squid film”), where they could actually be seen in action, and it’s shown to the students at the start of the Workshop every year. However, one cannot help but wonder how these people would have been able to adapt to the present-day research environment. Just picture the possible scene here in those days, as these future Nobel laureates went about their work….

“Are you ready for another tea Alan?”

“Certainly Andrew, as soon as I’ve finished smoking this rather fine tobacco!”

“Well I may as well make it now, as I can prepare the tetrodotoxin solution at the same time. Remind me which cups to use again?”

“Good idea! Yes, blue cup for tea, red for toxin I think we decided. Just leave it next to the Calcium45 when it’s ready. And do we have any biscuits left?”

“There’s still one out on the bench, from when I was using it as a lid for the cyanide, but it is a chocolate one.”

“Is that all we have? Oh well, I guess it’ll be ok, a bit of chocolate shouldn’t do me too much harm.”

“Right-oh! It’s all yours! Need a spoon too?”

“No, the spatula I just used for the ouabain looks clean enough. No point creating unnecessary washing-up, is there?”

“All the more time for experiments! We’ll be in a position to publish a paper or two very soon now!”

“Yes, just a couple more years should do it if the voltage clamp continues to operate satisfactorily. How’s it performing at the moment?”

“I’ll just check. Ah yes, judging from the tingle I can feel on the HT connections, I think we’ve still got well over two hundred volts available there.”

And so on…..

Happy days indeed! But let us not forget, all these people are no longer with us. If only they had followed proper Health and Safety regulations!!!! In fact as I write this, we are all in disgrace because some people ventured out onto the roof last night, although to be fair the main concern seemed to be for the roof rather than the students. But further expression of my views on such matters may itself carry risks, so perhaps it is now advisable to bring these particular proceedings to a rapid conclusion.