Up Close & Personal with Dame Julia Goodfellow

  • Business
  • Saturday, 12 May 2012

Being conferred the title “Dame” by The Queen of England is highly desirous and Prof Dame Julia Goodfellow attests to this. She speaks proudly of her work and passions in life that led to her name being among those published in The Queen's Birthday Honours 2010.

From a physics graduate to her current role as vice-chancellor at Kent University, Goodfellow is an evangelist of all things science.

Research, careers, and study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields are becoming more important today in enhancing the development of everyday life. This is because we live in a fast-moving world that beckons the consistent upgrade in the standard of living. Therefore, Stem research, study and application are needed to constantly innovate new products that can better our everyday living.

Goodfellow feels very strongly about young people in Stem fields, and education and research in those fields. This is especially so for young women, as in her generation, men were more recognised in these fields. She continually shows and encourages young women everywhere that it is possible for women to achieve high recognition for their roles in Stem fields.

Unlike many years ago when the menfolk were more recognised as leaders in these fields, women are increasingly being recognised as high educators, researchers, and overall as contributors to these fields.

Julia to Dame Julia

“Well, you get a letter in the post,” she laughs as she recalls just how she got to know of the honour.

“You think that it's one of your friends playing a trick on you because the letter doesn't say that you got it. It merely says that the Queen has minded to award you, and asks if you would accept it should she give it to you,” she explains.

The letter is a very formal one and there is an attached form to fill in. No communication is made after that single letter. At the stroke of midnight when the official birthday celebrations begin, only then is the list of Birthday Honours announced.

“They don't tell you why you got it, but I think I got it for my work in Stem and through my role in this big national job. I obviously feel a sense of achievement,” she tells StarBizWeek proudly.

Goodfellow feels that it is important for women to recognise that they too are able to get the highest honours in science.

Crazy over physics

“I absolutely love science, and I love physics. I thought it was wonderful to find out about the universe, from the very small to the very large,” Goodfellow says excitedly.

“You just think about how wide physics is. You learn about the real world, materials in the real world, sub atomic particles, and the universe. It covers everything. What more would you want?”

Her father, an engineer, spurred her love and passion for the sciences at an early age. “He taught me a bit about engineering. At that stage, he had two daughters, so I guess I was the eldest son',” she jokes.

She carries on, saying that although her father often imparted his knowledge of engineering to his “first son”, he was adamant that she should not be an engineer.

She shyly admits that one of the major reasons why physics caught on with her was because she actually found it easy.

“I think in school, you like the subjects you do well in. Most pupils like the subjects that they don't have to put very much work into. Physics was the subject that stood out for me. It is like mathematics. It's about logic and understanding and not just about learning an enormous number of facts. It is for that reason that I wasn't too happy with chemistry. I did like a lot of other subjects however. I liked history too, and I read a lot of books now,” she says.

When she graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Bristol, she felt that people thought physics was quite an odd subject of study for women. “A lot of people thought I'd get on to teach as a school teacher, because that's what women with physics degrees did,” she says.

However, Goodfellow felt quite strongly about research. During her final year, she worked on a project and wrote a paper about it. She says: “I was very excited about it, and that made me think that research was for me.”

World of research

Goodfellow was only 21 when she got married. She and her husband set out to do their PhDs at the same time. She completed a PhD in biophysics at the Open University Research Unit in Oxford.

“I have to admit that I never expected to complete a research degree,” she says.

She then decided to go through another training period. She chose to be a postdoctoral research assistant on another side of the globe at Stanford University, California.

“I worked there for three years. My research was focused on a very big machine that the university had, called a synchrotron. It is a kilometre in diameter. It sends charged particles around it, and it gives off light of many different wavelengths, and then you can choose the wavelength you want,” she says with a glint in her eyes.

It is easy to tell that this extraordinary woman was extremely passionate about physics and science. She continues elaborating, explaining that the machine allowed you to look at the atomic structure of materials, and that she was looking at the structure of proteins.

There aren't many synchrotrons in the world. Although the machine was available in the United Kingdom, she wanted to go abroad.

“It's always good to go overseas to study at one point. It introduces you to a new world and very different people. I still go back to California to visit the people I worked with then,” Goodfellow speaks of her memorable time there.

Work beckoned

“When you need a proper job, you need to get into teaching at some point,” she laughs. When she came back to the UK she worked at Birkbeck College, which is part of the University of London.

“I had a research fellowship and it was at a time when the college was cutting back on faculty positions. However, the college decided they needed younger people, new blood. They hired me despite me being more than eight months pregnant. It was quite tiring,” she says and heaves a sigh of relief.

Fast forward 20 years to 2002, Goodfellow assumed the role of chief executive at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The BBSRC is a governmental body, which supports around 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students in universities and institutes across the UK.

“BBSRC is one of seven research councils in the UK, where the government gives it a budget of about £400mil a year to spend on research and research training. It covers biology in agriculture all the way to biomedical issues. We also encouraged academics to work with us. I did that for five years and was the only woman to ever do it. I feel really sad that another woman hasn't done it before,” Goodfellow says.

She views the council as key to encourage enthusiasm for biological sciences in young people, especially young women.

Her position at the college led her to be involved in something called the “leaky pipe” effect, which effectively looks at the percentage of women dropping out of scientific careers. Over 50% of graduates are female.

She says that a women's position in education has really changed from generation to generation.

“Women are really taking hold of education. Fifty per cent of 18-year old women go to university, while only 40% of the boys do. If you look at lectureships in the basic faculty posts, the ratio of women in bioscience is now about 40%,” she says.

It is something that Goodfellow feels strongly about. In the past she has conducted several talks in schools, especially to girls.

“Nowadays I don't feel it's much of a problem for girls to do whatever they want. Not in the UK at least, but I do think that people should have the opportunity to do science. This applies to boys as well, as they tend to drop mathematics as soon as they can because they find it difficult,” she explains.

Moving up the ranks

Goodfellow moved through the ranks at Birkbeck College and also at BBSRC before becoming the vice chancellor at Kent University.

“I wanted to go back to university because I like being around students. Currently at Kent University, there are 19,000 students. It makes life fun and exciting for me,” she expresses.

She jokingly says that in her role as vice chancellor, she sits in boring meetings. She adds on seriously: “It's the same as being the CEO (chief executive officer) of a company. It is to do with encouraging young people to really get the best out of them. I work with different people at many different levels. This includes working with the local government, local businesses, and also nationally, as the Prime Minister's advisor on national science issues. It's great fun!” Goodfellow exclaims.

She continues saying that it was hard for her to give up her own research, however it was something she had to do. Now, she gets a lot of excitement from other people's research instead.

“I get to do a lot of policy work and work with science communications. It is putting science out there to the community so people can appreciate it,” she says.

With two children, aged 24 and 28, she feels that it is important for young people to keep their options open. Although she is an academic herself, she believes that university was not well suited for some people. For those who already know what they want to do, they should be given the opportunity to do so through apprenticeships.

“I would always like them to choose their own way of life and be confident in what they want to do. I think my children have had very good opportunities to do that. I would support them absolutely in whatever they choose to do,” she says.

“Of course, I'd like them to get a job out of it, like all parents,” she laughs.

Born: July 1, 1951

Personal: Married with two children

Highest qualification: PhD, honorary doctorates

Career: Academic scientist with a degree in Physics; PhD in Biophysics; postdoctoral research at Stanford University. Faculty positions at Birkbeck, University of London; vice-master (deputy head) in 1998. From 2002-2007 chief executive of Biology Research Council; vice-chancellor of the University of Kent

Noteworthy: Conferred Dame in The Queen's Birthday Honours 2010

Favourite food: Sushi

Favourite place: London

Hobby: Reading, tapestry, films

Values: Honesty and compassion

Inspiration: People

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