A light bulb moment: sudden enlightenment

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After I had completed my first (Bachelor’s) degree, I decided that I would like to apply to become a doctoral (PhD) student. In order to do this in the UK (and elsewhere) it is necessary to enlist a supervisor, an academic who guides you through the process of researching and writing a doctoral thesis.

I knew roughly in which field I wished to pursue my further studies. Someone in Cambridge was looking for a PhD student to work on something that sounded interesting to me. So, I visited the academic in Cambridge. First of all, I was not particularly keen on the man’s personality (albeit having only met him once) and also the project he was offering seemed far too difficult for me, way beyond my ability. 

After the Cambridge episode, I discovered that the Imperial Cancer research institute was offering amazingly generous scholarships for PhD stuents working in their laboratories. I applied, choosing two of the projects that seemed to be in harmony with my interests, and received an offer of interviews at the institute in Lincolns Inn Fields.

At the first interview, I was introduced to the eight or so members of the team i was applying to join. They sat around whilst the senior members of the team interviewed me. It did not take me long to feel uneasy about my future colleagues, and as the questioning continued I could not wait for it to end. Near the end of the session I was asked if I was interested in cancer. In an attempt to cut short the proceedings, I answered that I was uninterested in that subject. 

After an equally unpromising interview with another of the research groups that I had applied to join, I left the building and began walking across Lincolns Inn Fields, feeling relieved that the interviewing ordeal was over. It was then that an important tought entered my head.

A PhD takes about (or at least) three years to complete. During that time, I would have to work in a laboratory with the rest of a research team and in regular contact with my supervisor. I realised while walking in Lincolns Inn Fields that it would be important for me that I enjoyed the people with whom I would be working. A pleasant environment was more important for me than the precise nature of the research topic.

I returned to University College, having made the decision to ask Professor Robert Harkness, whom I liked and whose research interests attracted me, whether he would take me on as a PhD student. To my great delight, he accepted me. As one of his doctoral students, I spent a very happy three and a bit years working in his laboratory with his other researchers, all of whom were friendly and helpful.

Since that day in Lincolns Inn Fields and my ‘light bulb moment’, which happened there, I have attended other interviews (for positions in various dental practices). At each occasion, I have asked myself: would I feel happy working five days a week with the person(s) interviewing me? If I have not felt the right ‘vibes’ at the interview, I have always turned down the job however attractive it seemed. On only one occasion, I have been mistaken with that approach, which I was fortunate to have been able to take when looking for work.

Stung on the tongue: a careless diagnosis

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I cannot remember the name of the person who taught us dental pathology back in 1981 at University College Hospital Dental School, but one thing he told us made a deep impression on me.  He said that it was unlikely that we would see oral cancers frequently in general dental practice, but when we did see one we would feel a certain ‘jizz’ (our teacher’s word), a feeling that we were looking at something unusual and worrying.

One day when I was in practice, a delightful late middle-aged woman visited my surgery as a new patient. She said there was something on her tongue that had been bothering her for several weeks and was making eating and speech difficult. She had been to her doctor (medical), who told her that she had had a bee sting on her tongue. She told me that she had been taking antibiotics prescribed for it for  quite a time and the condition was only getting worse.

I had never encountered anyone with a bee sting on their tongue. The lady’s story and her doctor’s diagnosis sounded strange. She showed me her tongue. As soon as I saw the huge ulcer on the side of it and its peculiar border, I felt that ‘jizz’, which our pathology teacher had mentioned. I knew that the poor lady had, almost without a doubt, a carcinoma on her tongue. I told her my suspicions, and she looked relieved, and was grateful. Clearly, she had not believed her doctor’s story. I phoned the local oral surgery department, and they admitted her promptly.

About a year later, the lady reappeared. During the surgical treatment of her cancer, she had lost several teeth and wanted a denture to replace them. Sadly, her mouth was by now so distorted that making a prosthesis was beyond my competence. I referred her to a prosthetic specialist. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough for his work to be completed.

Whether earlier intervention would have saved her life, or at least prolonged it, is a question than cannot be answered. 

In my 35 years in dental practice, I only ever saw two patients with obvious oral cancers. However, I did refer many patients to have unusual looking lesions seen by oral surgical specialists. None of these gave me that ‘jizz’ nor turned out to be cancerous.