Now a politician, Julian uses his scientific background to influence science policy; he has also campaigned for additional funding to support disadvantaged students.
Not just a set of boring facts
Science and maths always interested Julian as a child but it was his teachers who helped him see chemistry as a stimulating and creative subject. Having mixed experiences at school, he preferred teachers that could explain the beauty of why things happen.
Whilst studying chemistry at university, Julian found the freedom to be creative with the subject, but found some mathematics a struggle. He explains, “I was fortunate to find some inspirational lecturers, such as the brilliant Shankar Balasubramanian, who I ended up doing a PhD with.” Julian explains that he always intended to become a lawyer but established a grounded interest in chemistry. “I got too interested to switch subjects!”.
Julian’s biggest challenge in chemistry was during the first year and a half of his PhD. While monitoring the dynamics of the Klenow Fragment of DNA polymerase 1, using single fluorescence techniques, he realised that it hadn’t worked at all. At a later date, Julian found out that his competition had come to the same assumption, despite working on the project for a longer time.
“I ended up concluding that it was either too fast or too slow to measure, or there was some other problem. I gave up and changed what I was working on completely.”
Playing with data and seeing the creativity in using rough approximations to predict what might be going on in the human genome, is what Julian found most enjoyable about his research. “I also loved teaching students and was lucky to have some very insightful people to teach.”
From chemist to MP
Although Julian enjoyed his academic work, he had also been involved in politics since university. “I became a councillor at 22 and then led the Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrat group on the County Council. I had grown up in Cambridge and studied and worked there, so when the chance came to represent the city in parliament, it was too much to turn down".
Julian’s route has not been a typical one. He finds his experiences in academia a lesson in inter-disciplinary working that he now uses in his current position. During his PhD, he worked on biological systems, in genomics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, as well as working in the physics department on computational biology. He says, “I really recommend those collaborative routes.”
“The scale of change is amazing – it’s hard to get anything to happen, but when you do, it changes the whole country; new laws, new schemes and new funding on a large scale. But my most satisfying moments are when I’ve helped a constituent with a real problem.”
Currently a member of parliament for Cambridge, Julian balances developing policy and voting on legislation in London, with speaking at schools and businesses in Cambridge.
Go for it!
Having a science background proves useful in parliament. “It is absolutely crucial that we use evidence to inform policy.” With science governing so much from climate change to technology, Julian emphasises the need to make informed decisions on matters that affect people’s lives.
Julian fears people from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and young girls get far less support and encouragement. “This starts very early, with girls often getting the idea that they shouldn’t really be doing science or engineering – which is of course rubbish.” By making sure there are qualified science teachers in each school, as well as broadening the educational opportunities for pupils in disadvantaged backgrounds, Julian believes there will be change.
Combining the way we teach STEM subjects in schools and demonstrating how science leads to a wide variety of careers will begin to change perceptions of male-dominated territory. Already starting to achieve this through university bursaries and scholarships for students from poorer backgrounds, he says “this is a big step in the right direction.”
He advises others to “go for it. You’re better than you think you are – and have fun.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © Cambridge Liberal Democrats
Published December 2014