As graduate students at the University of Leeds, there was a well-known phenomenon known as the Bill Effect. It could only be observed in a single location, the office of pollination ecologist Bill Kunin*. I experienced it on several occasions and it reverberates still.
Back then, for us, Bill was an intimidating person to talk to. Not because he was unfriendly; far from it, he’s one of the most genuinely warm and approachable people I’ve met in my career, and he always made time to help those students who needed him. His enthusiasm, encouragement and collegiate spirit have no doubt propelled many young scientists into successful careers**. Don’t get me wrong, Bill is great.
There was one minor barrier to a meeting with Bill, though largely practical and psychological. His office was opposite my lab, and therefore easily accessible, although he wasn’t my supervisor. But to meet him, you had to knock very loudly, then listen carefully for a response. I distinctly remember the view: an old fridge stood by the door, atop which sat a teetering mountain of stained mugs which had been used, set down and forgotten (the occasional Cleaning of the Mugs was a festival in the department calendar; suddenly the kitchen would be restocked with drinking vessels). Many a student with an appointment would knock timorously then hover outside in nervous apprehension. Bill, deep within, probably didn’t even hear them.
Two things set Bill apart. The first was that he spoke maths (or more correctly, being American, ‘math’). On our explaining some half-formed idea or incomplete hypothesis, his first instinct would be to formalise it as an equation. Now for young biologists this was a terrifying proposition. These simple functions appeared as arcane runes because our training in this regard had been so poor. In the UK it’s unusual for an undergraduate biology degree to contain much calculus, or indeed any maths beyond an applied approach to statistics. Likewise our post-graduate degrees lack any training element that would compensate for this. To cut a long story short, UK biology post-grads are in general pretty terrible at maths, and it’s not their fault.*** Talking to Bill meant confronting this insecurity.
The second was that Bill had a knack of asking the question beneath your question. This can be disconcerting to a postgraduate, who is usually interested in the answer to a single, practical issue, whatever is impeding their progress at that precise moment. Bill would seldom give you the straight answer that you desired; more often he would drill down and enquire as to what had brought you to this point. Being forced to describe and justify your underlying rationale can be alarming, especially if you’re not fully prepared for it.
This is when the Bill Effect would manifest itself. He would take the bare bones of your problem, weakly expressed as they were, and construct a logical argument before your eyes. As he declaimed his solution, hands whirling in enthusiasm, it was as though the heavenly spheres had aligned, and the bright light of understanding was shining directly upon you. Suddenly all was clear, suddenly it all made sense! It was exhilarating, and you left his office infected with his passion and positivism.
Sadly the Bill Effect was also fleeting; on leaving the office, within a few steps I had usually lost the thread of his argument, and by the time I sat down, it was entirely gone. Later I learnt to take notes but the first few times his insights simply evaporated before I was able to put them into practise. That simple discipline, however, of reverting to the fundamental basis of what I was trying to achieve, was always a worthwhile end in itself.
Why am I writing about this now, a good 15 years later? Well, I’m trying to think about how to be a more effective PhD supervisor to the post-graduates in my own group and those who consult me for advice. I don’t know what kind of PhD supervisor I am; I leave that for them to decide. Instead I’m thinking about the types of interaction with academics that left the most lasting impression on me over the years. Sometimes these were uncomfortable, intellectually challenging or emotionally draining, but they have stayed with me because they formed an essential part of my training, and have shaped my thinking for years thereafter. I would like to be able to recreate them for my own students; in this case by not just answering the simple question, but taking the time to understand a problem in its entirety and attempting to resolve it from the ground up.
If you’re a PhD student, there may be a member of staff in your department who fits the description above. They might even be your advisor or supervisor, in which case you’re very fortunate. My advice: seek them out. Expose yourself to thoughtful, critical, constructive scrutiny. It won’t be easy, and at first a lot of their insights might not stick, but in the long run it will make you a better scientist. Eventually you’ll realise that they’re having fun thinking about your problem, and that means so can you.
* Bill is still at Leeds — it would be interesting to hear from current post-grads whether he retains this particular power.
** He was so fired up after my talk at BES 2016 that he high-fived me, which I regard as an esteem indicator. I wish I could put it on my CV.
*** For this reason I prefer to take graduates in maths, physics or computer science as post-grads. I can teach a physicist how forests work, but it’s much harder to teach a biology student how to set up a directed percolation model.