Professor Frances Ashcroft
Response by Professor Frances Ashcroft on the occasion of being awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Leicester on Friday 13th July, 2007
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate and Council, fellow Graduands, ladies and gentlemen, It’s a very great honour and a particular delight to be awarded an honorary degree by the University of Leicester.
I remember my time here as a post-doctoral scientist with great affection. I confess I had forgotten the fox story, which I hasten to point out was a road kill, but it reminds me of a similar incident in my current department when I brought in a Durian which is reputedly the most delicious, I don’t think it is though, but also the most evil smelling fruit in the world. I picked it up in London and got on the train and by the time I reached Oxford the carriage was completely empty which may explain why durians are banned on aeroplanes and hotels where they grow. It was far too smelly to take home so I left it at the lab, with predictable results.
What I remember of Leicester is the beauty of the surrounding countryside, long walks in Charnwood forest, my first ventures into cross-country skiing, illicitly on the golf course and learning to drive not just a car but also a horse and trap. I love the marvellous market with its weird and wonderful vegetables and 1920s antique frocks, but most of all I remember the physiology department where I worked.
I arrived fresh from a PhD with much enthusiasm but little practical knowledge, for although my PhD supervisor was a wonderful man he taught me very little science. The Cambridge philosophy was to sink or swim and I very nearly sank. It was here at Leicester that I received my scientific training from my boss Peter Stanfield and my host today Nick Standen. To both of them I owe an enormous debt and I am so lucky to have worked with them. They didn’t just teach me how to build and design the equipment, which is what we had to do in those days, but also how to think about experiments and ask the right questions, test all hypotheses with utmost rigour, I often hear their voice in the back of my head and to think like a scientist. They were also enormously generous after I moved to Oxford to set up my own lab. In those days, you guys will hardly believe it, computers were unbelievably expensive. They cost around £35000 and the memory, also unbelievable, came in kilobytes. I couldn’t afford one so they invited me back to Leicester to use theirs.
I have been extremely lucky because I found a profession that I love and to which I am now addicted. Science can be very demanding, you must always be learning new techniques, thinking up new ideas, publishing new work and it is also extremely competitive. But it is also highly seductive. There is nothing quite like the elation of being the first to discover something new. It is a very special privilege when your work turns out to have a beneficial impact on other peoples lives.
My time at Leicester started me on this journey, my hope for all of you young people graduating today is that you to have either found or will find something that you are equally passionate about. I’m sure that looking back on your time at Leicester you will find that it has been as important as it was to me on setting you on your journey.
So I wish you good luck and every success in whatever you choose to do.