Welcome to this podcast about writing the language of science, behind the scenes, for the world’s most exciting and powerful life science movers and shakers, and making history from the shadows.
I did do Higher biology, and I squeaked into the top class where I was a C-grade student. And I did nothing in that vein afterwards at university… 0:36
I don’t even care who’s right. Stop talking past each other. I’ve always been one of those people. The thing is, I see scientists and academics doing this as well… 5:40
If you’re able, genuinely able to help one group of people, there’ll be someone among them who’s connected with another group of people, and they’ll need help as well… 11:22
I would probably be a small town General Practitioner somewhere making a lot of people reasonably happy, but not making the slightest impact on any industry anywhere… 12:28
…a volunteer occupation had become a full time occupation, and I think that’s quite normal for a lot of careers, and a lot of political careers begin that way… 14:05
Even if you end up self-teaching a lot in later life, your A levels will provide a groundwork even if you don’t know it at the time… 15:47
Arian Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know that there is a parasite able to hijack an ant’s mandible and make it clench onto a grass blade, right at the top, and sit there, night after night, until a grazing animal eats the grass and returns the parasite to its home, that is, its intestine? Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune
Stumbling into Science
Arian Welcome to this podcast about writing the language of science, behind the scenes, for the world’s most exciting and powerful life science movers and shakers, and making history from the shadows. I met Ian Inkster, this episode’s special guest, through SENS Research Foundation which was my very first experience with the concept of ending aging as presented by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, and first ignited my desire to do research in a lab. This essentially formed the basis for all of my subsequent lab work experience and academic progress.
Fast forward years later, Ian presents me with the opportunity of working with him to craft various high level science communication materials, from the emergence of artificial intelligence in different countries, to pitching new healthcare app models to companies, to editing the latest books on bleeding edge science in the field of rejuvenation biotechnology, a term he himself brought to the limelight; Ian’s background includes linguistics and information systems, and he relishes the challenge in science to communicate things succinctly and unequivocally. In his spare time, he casually formulates alternative theoretical cancer interventions; Ian, it’s awesome having you on The A Level Biologist Podcasts. Welcome!
Ian My pleasure.
Arian Ian, your accomplishments are inspirational and I’m sure many people would love to work in the sort of industries you’re involved with – but your academic trajectory wasn’t predictable was it?
Ian Not at all. In fact, though I’m formally part of the biomedical industry, I did nothing after secondary school in that area whatsoever after A level.
Arian So, what did you journey look like?
Ian Well, when I was doing Higher in Scotland, Higher level education which is the Scottish equivalent of A levels, which I think you did an episode on that…
Arian Um… yeah.
Ian YouTube videos…
Arian Oh, yeah I remember, that was a very long time ago. Yeah, I’d just discovered that I hadn’t done any content for the Scottish syllabus because it’s just got different language so you don’t find it, so it’s like oh, The A Level Biologist, A level biology, different A level biology exam boards, and then I thought “What happened to Scotland? I forgot about Scotland” oh yeah, Scotland, yeah, they do Highers and Advanced Highers. Yeah, it was a whole thing that I’d just realised years after starting. Ian, you did that right? The Highers.
Ian Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Ian But the same lesson applies. So, I fully expected to go either into software engineering or information systems largely because back then, those were still highly specialised subject areas and therefore very fascinating and cutting edge. Further down the line it became a lot less specialised, more in the ballpark of motorcycle repair, that kind of thing. So, yes. I did do Higher biology, and I squeaked into the top class where I was a C-grade student. And I did nothing in that vein afterwards at university.
Arian Ok. This is something I’m actually still not sure about because I know the Higher is like the A level but it seems like the Advanced Higher is actually more difficult than the second year of A levels, and some universities consider the Advanced level material as the starting material for some of the university courses. So, if you do Advanced Higher you do one fewer years of uni.
Ian I’m not certain about that. Certainly, having done Advanced Highers – I didn’t do that in biology – I would not have been let off 4 years at university if I wanted a degree with Honours. But I’m not certain about that.
Arian Ok, I’ll have to find a more Scottish guest.
Ian That should be quite easy. I’ve spent too much time down here, I’ve been quite corrupted.
Arian We’ll learn more about Ian’s unique insights in just a second. ♪ tune
Arian Ian, what things have you noticed over your career, that specifically contradicted everything you assumed from your school days?
Ian I find that, as I deal with more and more specialised people, I know it’s a cliché, but I find that they, the more specialised a person is, the more lopsided is their expertise. Expertise or skill in one area, it comes at a cost to expertise and skill in another area. And I find that scientists are the worst offenders. I find that scientists are kind of their own worst enemy when it comes to communicating and communicating their needs to people who hold the purse strings for example.
Arian Yeah. Do you think they’re not good at pitching their work?
Ian I think that they’re terrible at pitching their work! I think they invariably need outside help.
Arian Why do you think that is?
Ian Well, part of my work, part of my early work for scientific non-profits was actually translating interns’ work into English.
Arian When you say English, you literally mean English to English.
Ian Yes, English to English. I find that, often, in a conversation with a scientist you end up eliciting a very, very simple idea which was just kind of strung out in their own mind. I don’t know if you’ve seen that episode of Black Adder where there’s a discussion about how did World War I start, and the question is “Ages ago, there was a war on, and now there’s not a war on, and there must’ve been a time when there being a war on went away, and blah blah blah”, and the question can be distilled as “How did the war start?” That is every conversation I’ve ever had with a scientist.
Arian Yeah, I mean, I guess the scientific content itself is inherently complex and inherently multi-layered, and there’s a lot of things that go into it, so if scientists spend their time focused on that, it’s difficult for them to even begin to step back from it and kind of translate that back. How did you get into doing that?
Ian Well, when I was at university I became more interested in the job of the teacher than in the subject matter being taught, so I found myself admiring the ability of the lecturers to distil their lessons, their ideas into simple lessons. So, while I was at university my mind already turned to the subject of communication. Furthermore, the art of communication and distilling ideas, for as long as I can remember, has always been slightly fascinating to me, so when I was 13, 14, I used to read through Hollywood film scripts, and I would just marvel at the screenwriter’s ability to distil visually interesting events in just a few words, that kind of thing.
So I’ve always been fascinated with communication and the challenges of communication and making ideas succinct and incorruptible. And I’ve always been one of those people who, if they see politicians on the television, and you see them talking past each other, you want to say “Can you see what that guy is saying, and can that guy see what that guy is saying?” and I don’t even care who’s right. Stop talking past each other. I’ve always been one of those people. The thing is, I see scientists and academics doing this as well. When they’re talking to each other, when they’re talking to politicians, when they’re trying to communicate with the public, when they’re trying to create democratic pressure for this or that. The academics often let themselves down, and researchers often let themselves down; and I just seem to perceive this very acutely.
Arian Yes, yes. And I think there’s almost new jobs being created because of that, and scientists are now having to, as part of their funding, show that they are communicating their work to the public when that funding is coming from taxpayer money. And then, also, other people becoming science communicators as the job title being science communicator to make sense of this and put it in various publications for people to become aware of. I did a specifically interdisciplinary PhD, well I dropped out of it, not so much did it; and so many students are still made to feel like they need to specialise early; I think we’re champions of interdisciplinarity here on TAB Podcasts and in many other places. We’ll see what Ian has to say about slaloming around different subjects and still making it; coming up next. ♪ tune
Arian Ian, you’ve self-taught so much science, and had nothing resembling a typical scientific schooling, with science A levels followed by a science degree, a PhD, and the whole shebang. Were there more opportunities or more hurdles that you encountered due to your eclectic multidisciplinary journey?
Ian I would say that I’ve had very few hurdles in fact because I’ve been passed around from person to person, client to client. If you’re able, genuinely able to help one group of people, there’ll be someone among them who’s connected with another group of people, and they’ll need help as well. What I would say is that a more formal schooling in biology would have led me down the path of making a more meager contribution to progress in biology I think.
Arian That’s brilliant. ♪ tune
Arian We love covering so-called failure porn here on TAB Podcasts. Failure porn is when conventionally successful people fixate on the negative – it actually simply emphasises their success, more than teaches anything about the importance of failing. Ian, suppose things in your life had gone really excellently from the very beginning all the way through to your career exploding – what do you think would have happened, where might you be instead, and how would it have changed the person you are today?
Ian I would probably be a small town General Practitioner somewhere making a lot of people reasonably happy, but not making the slightest impact on any industry anywhere.
Arian So a more, a more… I don’t wanna say average, but a more contained existence with fewer arms into different things.
Ian Yes, a less well-rounded existence, and less interesting, and I would not even be a very good GP.
Arian Well, why not?
Ian It’s just not my forte.
Arian Are you not very good with people and their problems?
Ian I just hate the general public.
Arian That’s a bad idea then. Let’s delve a bit deeper into Ian’s personal life, to keep things a bit less abstract; we’re both working and freelancing on our own terms, and making our own decisions; we’ll see what that’s like for Ian in just a tick. ♪ tune
Passion to Profit
Arian How did your freelancing come about, and was it a conscious choice?
Ian Actually, it emerged naturally out of volunteer work. I mentioned earlier the energy with which I try to help people if I see them making a mistake or letting themselves down. That just became a full time occupation over the course of, well, several years of increasing hours. Before I knew it, a volunteer occupation had become a full time occupation, and I think that’s quite normal for a lot of careers, and a lot of political careers begin that way.
Arian Really? I didn’t know that. Now I look at politicians in a different way, it’s like oh, so you volunteer just to be… Theresa May as a volunteer just tickles me.
Ian Oh, yes, they all, they all get involved, don’t they, in research groups or what have you, what are they called?
Arian Focus, focus groups.
Ian Focus groups, think tanks, things like that.
Arian I see. Now, with so much remote work through the internet, I actually realised I didn’t want to be completely without regular human interactions in a work setting, so decided to do some volunteering, which has been so great because it has a clear benefit, but it’s also not plugged into my career per se; so the usual pressures in relating to bosses or colleagues disappear. I wonder if Ian has any tips on having your cake and eating it. We’ll be right back.
Stepping Out of the Shadow
Arian Ian, is there a lifestyle related dream you’re kinda still holding out for?
Ian Yes, I might quite like to form a firm or team specially dedicated to the unique challenges that, unique communication challenges that emerging technologies have. But I’m still charting that landscape, it’s a very elusive area.
Arian What would it take to make it easy?
Ian I would need a lot more people who know what they’re doing.
Arian Well, hopefully some of the listeners are people who know what they’re doing, and they’ll be awesome if they could help. Ian actually mentioned something extremely interesting off the recorder, and I thought, you know, I’m gonna actually make this the last question which is “Should people forget about their A levels once they’ve gone to uni?”
Ian No. And don’t neglect your A levels even if you think you may not be pursuing the same course at university, because events may conspire that you may need them later in life. My A levels, my biology A levels, I never thought I would need them again. I needed them because I needed credits at secondary school. In the end they proved an invaluable primer. I would be completely lost at sea without them. Even if you end up self-teaching a lot in later life, your A levels will provide a groundwork even if you don’t know it at the time.
Arian There you have it.
Arian Thanks for joining me Ian; thank you for listening, and remember, if you’re that parasite I mentioned in the intro to this episode, you’re quite smart because you only make the ant climb the grass blade at night – wouldn’t want the light of day to scorch it alive alongside you would we? Bye Dicrocoelium dendriticum… Bye.
Ian Bye. I speak Latin, you see, so I thought you were asking me to translate.
Arian [laughter] ♪ tune
Learn more about Ian at https://www.linkedin.com/in/i-inkster/