IC Reporter Issue 15 (14 November 1995 - 27 November 1995)
Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

IC Reporter


Many staff have interests, passions and hobbies which flourish outside their work at IC. In this, the first of a series profiling the 'Secret Lives' of staff, we talk to a member of the Department of Biology crusading for better communication skills amongst our students.

How do you go about interviewing someone whose favourite catchphrase could easily be, "If I see a correctly used semi-colon, it makes my day"? With great care about how you write it up afterwards, most probably.

Dr Bernard Lamb is a reader in genetics, specialising in the mechanisms of gene conversion, and has been at Imperial since 1968. He is also a judge of wine and beer, a subject on which he has published, and a crusader against the falling standards of English in our universities, a role which he assumes as chairman of the London branch of the Queen's English Society.

As author of a number of reports and surveys into UK students' standards of English, and co-author of the book How to write about Biology, what was it that had ignited his passion for clear communication? "When I've read students' work, often their poor English has led to poor science. They perhaps know what they wanted to say in genetics, but they've used the wrong words because their vocabulary wasn't sufficient. They've written the wrong word because their spelling wasn't very good, or their punctuation or sentence structure meant they couldn't say what they wanted to say," explained Dr Lamb.

He continues with one of his many examples: "A student writes something like 'The plate grew at 25 degrees Celsius'. And it wasn't the plate, it was the fungi on the plate. We've got to get them to see that if they're not precise, they're saying scientific rubbish". Your English, it becomes clear, does affect what you can as a scientist say.

His advice typically polarises reactions: "Some people are grateful, some people aren't. Some are actually hostile. It's usually the postgraduates who are most grateful, because they can see the importance." His colleagues on the whole are pleased that someone is doing something about the same problem they encounter, but, "one or two very senior members of staff in the past have not liked it when there's been newspaper publicity saying our students' English is poor. But my survey shows it's a universal problem".

Amongst the many personal accolades this man of 'letters' may count, is an ongoing battle with the newspaper columnists who invariably pick up on his surveys of standards for comment. "I've had a personal attack from Auberon Waugh this year. He thought I'd got the word 'only' in the wrong place in the sentence." Thankfully, he adds, after an exchange of letters, they are now friends.

Dr Lamb also rails against the introduction of 'street' language or patois into the English language. "It's fine for people to use amongst themselves, but if they want to make themselves understood to the world at large then they are going to have to use a more standard form of English."

How does Dr Lamb suggest universities may best halt the fall in English standards, which his surveys reveal? "It really needs a concerted effort by all staff and then the students will take notice. If just one person does it, all they think is 'crank', 'pedant', and other such uncomplimentary words", he said with a laugh.

As I left, Dr Lamb couldn't resist checking this reporter's literacy, as he related some of his latest 'howlers'. "A student referred to the fruit-fly's polythene chromosomes", he said. "Do you know what that should be?" "Yes, polytene." "Correct: from the Greek, Poly-, many, tene-, strands." An appropriate epithet, one might think, for such a multi-faceted man?

If you know of someone in your department or division who has a hidden talent or secret life please contact the editor on extension 46697.

(c) Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 1995

Last Revised: 14 November 1995