Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job

 

When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.

SL BHATIA 3

In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)

Back to BASIC

computer

During the last two years (1968-69) at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, we were taught about computing. The teacher in charge was one of the pioneers of the computer programming language called BASIC (an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The first version of BASIC, which was considerably simpler to use than FORTRAN or COBOL, was released in 1964. So, our teacher was advanced in introducing it to us. We learned about creating flow diagrams and then converting them into BASIC.

When I learnt BASIC back in the late sixties, the only computers available were huge main-frame machines that occupied large rooms. PCs and lap-tops were not yet available, or hardly even imagined. The school did not possess a main-frame computer. But, it did possess a keyboard attached to a telephone line. By dialling a number, the keyboard could be connected to a remote computer. It was not possible to type directly into the computer. First the programme that we concocted had to be typed on the keyboard, which converted the programme into a series of holes on a long ribbon of paper. When the programme had been transferred into the punched holes, the remoter computer was dialled, and then the long strip had to be fed into a slot on the keyboard console. Then, the author of the programme had to hold his breath. For, it would be some time before the computer sent back a message that was typed by the console onto its paper-feed. More often than not, the message would convey the sad news that the programme had an error. Then, it was back to the ‘drawing board’ to determine where we had gone wrong.

When the programme was correct, the results were exciting. Some people used the computer to do statistical work, or to generate answers to mathematical problems. I discovered how to make the computer write random poetry. I submitted some of what I produced to the school’s magazine, but it was turned down.

Several of my fellow pupils and I became obsessed with programming. We could not get enough of experimenting with programming. The console was kept locked in a wooden cabinet, which could only be opened by our teacher. Somehow or other one of us managed to get a copy of the key, and, more importantly noticed the number that our teacher dialled to access the computer. From then onwards, we had far greater access to the machine.

The IBM company lent the school a prototype of a table top computer. This could only be programmed using machine language, which is the coding that underlies languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN, and COBOL. Using machine language is real programming, and quite difficult. It was to difficult for me to master even at a very simple level.

When I went for my interview at the Physiology Department at University College London (‘UCL’), the other candidates and I were shown the room containing a large computer, which the Department possessed. The staff were very proud of these advance machines that were able to process experimental data in “real time”. Information from the measuring instruments employed in the experiments was converted into numerical data that could then be processed statistically by the computer, and then displayed to the experimenters while the experiment was proceeding.

A week or two after my interview at UCL, I went for another interview, this time at the Physiolgy Department of Chelsea College (now long since closed). After I had been several questions by the Prof and some of his colleagues, they allowed me to ask any questions I had. Having been impressed by what I had seen at UCL, I asked:

“Do you use computers in your department here at Chelsea?”

“Of course, we do, all the time” answered the Prof immediately.

After a short pause, one of his colleagues said:

“Well … actually… we don’t have any computers in this college.”

Then the Prof said something, which I found rather pathetic:

“I can understand that your first choice is UCL. However, we would be happy to offer you a place in our department providing you will promise to accept our offer if UCL does not give you one.”

Fortunately, UCL did offer me a place on their course.

I gained admission to UCL, my first choice amongst the six universities to which I applied. During our first year, we had to take a course in physics. Once a week, we spent an afternoon in the laboratory carrying out practical work. One day, we were asked to write computer programmes to solve a chosen problem. I was the only person (in our class of fifty students), who could complete the task. No one else had a clue as to how to do it. They had attended good secondary schools all over the country, but only mine had offered teaching in computer science.

After that class in the physics laboratory in 1970, I did not touch a computer until about 1997. We bought a PC, because my wife needed one for her studies. When she was not using it, I experimented with it. It operated with one of the Windows programmes. I was flummoxed. It seemed quite different to what I experienced in the late sixties. How was I going to programme it? After a short while, I realised that things had moved on a long way since I learnt BASIC.

 

Image source: www.quora.com

Do exams maketh man?

STUDY 0

Today, getting a place to study a clinical subject (medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science) requires the candidate to achieve very high grades in the state university entrance exams (the ‘A Levels’). Grades lower than A or A* (the highest) greatly reduce a candidate’s chances of obtaining a place on a course to study for any of these three professions.

Note: in the A Levels, the top grade is A or A*, the lowest is E. Thus, A is better than B, and B beter than C … and so on

In 1969, I applied to study physiology at University College London (‘UCL’). In those days, most departments at the college required applicants to attend an interview session before they gave the candidate an offer conditional on the person achieving specified A Level grades. The Physiology Department invited prospective students to spend a whole day at the college. I turned up, not knowing what to expect.

During my day at the department, I was interviewed one-to-one by two different sets of staff members. They did not ask straightforward questions that could be answered if you had learnt the A Level syllabus by rote. For example, I was asked: “What would limit the size of the largest insect?” This is not something covered by the A Level syllabus. To answer this, I had to think ‘out of the box’, using my knowledge of insect anatomy and physiology. Another interviewer asked me about my hobbies. One of them was, and still is, collecting maps. “How interesting,” the questioner answered a bit dubiously, “It is also my hobby. What exactly interests you about maps?” I cannot remember my answer, but it seemed to satisfy him.

In addition to these intimate interviews, there were group sessions, during which small groups of candidates discussed topics with some of the academic staff. We were also given coffee, lunch, and tea. At each of these refreshment breaks, we mingled with students and academic staff, all of whom engaged each of us in conversation. By the end of the day, the members of the department must have gained a fairly detailed impression of the candidates they had met.

After a few days, I received a letter (there was no email in 1969) offering me a place conditional on my achieving at least three E grades (lowest grade of pass) at A Level. The Physiology Department and others at UCL made this kind of ridiculously low offer if they wanted a candidate. They knew from the extensive interview process what kind of student they were going to get and did not want him or her to have to worry about achieving high grades. Of course, they preferred their students to obtain high grades at A Level, and we all did. They would have accepted us with lower grades, but this was rarely necessary. Most of the graduates of the Physiology Department eventually moved on to completing higher degrees (masters and doctorates).

Until the early 1980s, candidates wishing to study dentistry or medicine were interviewed and offered places providing they achieved a minimum of C grades in their A Levels.

During the 1970s, I became friendly with someone who used to interview prospective dental students at UCL. She sat on an interviewing panel with the then Dental Dean, Mr Prophet, and another senior dental clinical academic. Each candidate was asked about aspects of his or her life, anything to get them talking. Each candidate was also asked whether they either played a musical instrument or did some kind of handicraft (for example sewing or model-making). Anyone who did either of these things was likely to be sufficiently dextrous to be able to practise dentistry. After the candidate left the room, the interviewers asked themselves only one question, providing the youngster they had just seen had satisfied them that he or she was dextrous. The question they asked themselves was: “Would we be comfortable being treated by him or her?”

Candidates, who had satisfied the interviewing panel, were offered places on the dental course conditional on them achieving mid-range grades at A Level: three grade Cs. The admissions panel were quite lenient. If someone they wanted under-achieved at A Level, say they only manged to get two Cs and one D, they admitted the candidate. It is worth noting that of all the dental schools in London at that time, that at UCL produced a higher proportion of dentists who went on to become dental academics than any of the other dental schools, all of which asked for students to achieve grades higher than Cs for admission.

I qualified as a dentist in March 1982. A couple of years later, I re-connected with ‘Mr G’, the technical tutor, who taught me the art and science of removable prosthetics (i.e. making dentures). I used to see him regularly because he carried out some prosthetic laboratory work for my patients.

In the mid-1980s, things had changed at UCL. To gain admission into the dental course, candidates were required to achieve top grades (all As) at A Level. The first year of the dental course was then, as it had been in my time, not clinical: it was taught in departments other than those in the Dental School. The subjects studied were academic (rather than clinical): biochemistry, general anatomy, physiology, and special dental anatomy. In the second year, the students moved into the Dental School, where they began clinical their studies on patients without teeth – in the Prosthetics Department, which is where I first met Mr G.

During the second year, we burnt our fingers and got covered with plaster of Paris while making dentures for our toothless patients. We also studied dental materials, both practically in the lab and theoretically in the lecture theatre. The materials course involved some essay writing, as did most of the other courses we had to take. Nobody in my class year struggled over these. We might have resented spending time on them, but we managed.

One day in the mid-eighties, by which time all the students in the second year of the dental course had achieved high grades at A Level, Mr G told me something that surprised me. He said that many of the students entering the second year, were incapable of writing essays. So much so, that the Prosthetics Department had to put on a course of essay-writing to teach these high achievers how to write. Worse than that, when the students were told to look up things in the library, they turned around to Mr G and said things like: “Why should we? You do it. You’re paid to teach us.”

With such an arrogant attitude, how were these people going to handle the often-nervous patients in their dental chair?

STUDY 1

When our daughter and her class-mates applied for (non-clinical) undergraduate studies, the criterion for getting considered at all, was predicted A Level grades. If the predicted grades were low, universities would not even begin to consider a candidate. If they were high enough, then the chances of being given a conditional offer increased. Few universities bothered to interview candidates. They tended to rely on grade predictions, teachers’ reports, and ‘personal statements’ written by the candidates. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I would say that a face-to-face interview  far more  valuable than any grade predictions or ‘personal statements’ as a means of selecting people seeking admission to a university, or even a job.

Photographs of students in Coimbra (Portugal), taken by Adam Yamey

The pencil and the peas

PENCIL 2

I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.

PENCIL 1

Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.

Examining a recurring dream

The sleeping brain

powerhouse of fantasy

fertile playground of   dreams

 

Dreams

 

Many of us experience dreams that recur periodically, not necessarily every night, but from time to time. Here is mine.

I dream that I am about to take a mathematics exam. I know that I have had a year to study for it, but have done nothing about it. Maybe, I can ‘wing it’ without study, but I am sure that I cannot. There are only a few days left to study, but something tells me that neither will there  be enough time, nor will I ever get started. I will tell you how the dream ends later on.

Ever since I was about 8 years old, I have been writing examinations. First, there were simple tests to enter preparatory school. At the end of each school year, we sat a series of written tests. Then, there were more (and much more difficult) papers for admission to secondary school to be attempted when I was 12.  At age 16, I had to write state examinations in eight subjects, the Ordinary Level (‘O Levels’, now ‘GCSE’).  A year later, a few more state examinations, and then when I was 18, I had to take the difficult Advanced Level exams that could make or broke a candidate’s chances of entering a University.

At the end of each year of my BSc course in physiology, there were examination papers, the results of each of them counting towards the quality (grade) of the degree I would be awarded. 

Following that, I had a three year break from exams while I researched and then wrote up my PhD thesis.

I entered dental school, where for five years I had to pass endless numbers of examinations of all sorts: practical, written, and viva-voce.

Eventually, I graduated as a dentist. However, there was one more examination to be taken: the driving test!

I have never found writing examinations stressful.

My recurring dream ends as follows. After pondering the hopelessness of my prospects via-a-vis the forthcoming mathematics exam in my sleeping brain, it occurs to me that it does not matter after all, because already I had a BSc, a PhD, and a dental degree. Then, I wake up.

This dream ending might have a basis in reality. When I was ready after completing the dental course, I took the set of dental qualifying examinations arranged by the Royal College of Surgeons. I passed them.

Three month’s later, after I had been working with patients in practice for most of that time, I returned to the dental school to take the university dental examinations. I was already qualified, and did not really need the extra qualification, but I went along nevertheless.  The university exams required me sitting a number of written papers along with a clinical test. While sitting on an uncomfortable chair, scribbling exam essays at high speed, I paused for a moment. As in my dream, I asked myself why was I bothering  to waste time on attempting to attain this superfluous  qualification when I had so many already.