Richard is a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences. He manages to balance his own creative interests with his teaching and research in plant biology. An extremely creative person; he has created a satirical comic series on social media and has also published a comedy thriller. His creative approach also influences the way he teaches, and as a three-time winner of a Teaching Award – it must be working! His aim is not only to teach but more importantly, to inspire.
A passion for plants
I am a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences. My interests are, broadly, plant evolutionary biology, hybridisation, and plant movements - plants in general, but I’ve done a lot of work on rhododendrons specifically. Right now, I’m creating a plant identification tool for complete beginners. This involves me walking around Scotland in my free time and taking pictures of every type of plant that I encounter. Just yesterday, I was in the Cairngorm mountains hunting for plants with my wife and a couple of keen students. I love walking and finding new plants; that’s probably the most defining hobby I have. When I was seven years old, I started picking up flowers and wondering what they were. At first I would keep them in water, but quickly switched to pressing them and keeping them in books, which I still have to this day. It’s a passion that started early and is still going strong to this day.
I think that some people, especially non-scientists, tend to view academics as being quite boring. They probably think that we hardly have time for anything else except research and teaching, or that we don’t take an interest in developing personal hobbies. But that’s not really true. For me, there are two types of jobs a person can have: the first is when we get paid to do certain hours, and the second is when we get paid to get certain things done. I think academic jobs are most definitely the second type. We can choose to work until we have no hours left for ourselves, or we can try to find a balance. Some incredibly impressive people can just keep going forever, but for the rest of us, if we lose our life and interests to our jobs, then we lose a part of ourselves. I can’t speak for everyone, but in the biology department here in Edinburgh, the University has been good to us. The workload has been manageable for most of us here, and it provides us with time to do what we enjoy. You’ll find many professors here with unexpected hobbies.
In my case, I love to create. I’ve always been someone who liked to express myself through art. I like to use it to highlight certain issues or tease people with it. When I was in secondary school, I used to draw silly cartoons starring this teacher everyone was scared of. Nowadays, I’m drawing comedy cartoons on Twitter, which have also been published as a physical comic. Originally called ‘Bojo’s Woe Show’ and about Boris Johnson, the strip was recently renamed Tin Lizzie as someone else took on the lead role. It acts as an outlet for my strong emotions toward the current political situation in the UK. They seem to provide some relief and humour to people who feel the same way as me, which is great. I think that in times like this, a bit of humour is needed to keep people going. As well as scripting a few satirical cartoons for Viz magazine, I’ve also published a comedy thriller novel called Misjudgement Day. It was during the Christmas holidays one year that I started writing it. At the time, I suddenly got this unbelievable outburst of writing inspiration. I started writing and finished the first draft of the book in under two weeks. Sometimes I would find myself awake at three in the morning, just writing down the ideas that were coming into my head about where the story should go next. It was independently published on Amazon, so it didn’t sell that many copies - but it’s just nice that it exists.
Storytelling in teaching
I love to make what I do interesting and engaging for others, and that’s probably tied to my hobby of drawing comics and being creative in general – and that’s maybe why I’ve won a Teaching Award three times. I often find that telling a story is the way to go in teaching biology. I think lecturers should be able to make their lessons as interesting as TV programmes would be on the same topic, and that’s been the standard that I’ve tried to set for myself. Being a good researcher is a very different skill set from being a good teacher. Sometimes, a really brilliant researcher will know their subject so well that it becomes difficult to put themselves in the place of a student. I think the one gift that I seem to have, is to be able to put myself in the position of a student or an audience, and to help them understand what I do better. That mindset is probably what started me to develop the plant identification tool too. I began to think about all the obstacles there are for complete beginners when they are trying to identify a plant. All the guides and handbooks out there are great for people with a bit of knowledge; but total beginners end up having to constantly go back and forth through countless pages. Meanwhile there are amazing phone apps that can ID plants on site, but they’re like having a calculator instead of learning maths - they tell you but don’t teach you. I wanted to create a guide that teaches you how to identify a plant yourself. As a lecturer, being able to inspire your students is even more important than teaching them. We are doing the right thing if our students start to find what we do interesting. That’s the single most important thing I try to bring to my students.
In the future, I’d like to write more books; I’m planning to write a popular science book on long-distance dispersal between continents - although it won’t be easy. Sometimes there is not enough time, sometimes there is no brain space, and sometimes it’s too hot to think — but if it’s what I love, then it’s always important and worth doing. Never lose your hobbies, and maintain a work-life balance, and don’t forget to rest. That will help you keep your humanity, and that spark of individuality that each of us has, and which can lift our work above the level of the ordinary.