Fantasy Desert Island Discs
Kirsty Young: Giskin Day, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
GD: Nice to be here.
KY: How did you get such an unusual name?
GD: Well, Kirsty, it’s a long story. Although I’m from South Africa, my grandmother is Danish and my parents wanted to give me a Scandinavian name. I have a cousin named ‘Gisken’ in Denmark, which I believe means ‘little girl’ in Greenland, but my father made a spelling mistake on my birth certificate so I’ve ended up with really unusual forename.
KY: Do you miss South Africa? Surely the weather is much better over there.
GD: Yes, I do miss family, and the sunshine. But, hey, my garden is populated with South African plants (the upside of climate change) and Skype has proved life-enhancing as far as keeping in touch is concerned.
KY: It’s time for your first record.
GD: I think I’ll have Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. It brings back some very happy memories of childhood holidays in the bushveld of South Africa.
KY: Your life has taken quite a twisty road so far. What did you start off doing?
GD: After school I did a BSc in botany and biochemistry at Rhodes University followed by a postgrad in taxonomy at Pretoria. I loved the study of systematics and it was great to have so much contact with nature. I realised that I wasn’t really cut out to be a scientist though. I’ve always had a true passion for the humanities.
KY: Then you moved to the UK.
GD: Yup. My husband was born here and we decided to come over in 1992. I started off working at Blackwell Science as a copy editor. It became quite repetitive though and I moved on to a five-year stint at the Science Museum.
KY: Wow, the Science Museum. That must have been fun.
GD: It was great. I had an opportunity to work with a wide range of staff across the Museum. It was inspiring just seeing all those iconic objects every day.
KY: Your second record...
GD: I’d like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot from the Graceland album by Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mbazo. It sums up my South African roots and it’s a UK anthem of sorts.
KY: You started studying again in 1995. Why?
GD: Well, I desperately wanted to do the MSc in science communication at Imperial College. I arranged with the Museum to have one day off a week to do it. It was the best thing. Part-time study for the pleasure of it is a very liberating activity. It’s like having a bit on the side – there’s the regular job and then the luxury of a stimulating intellectual pursuit.
KY: Your enthusiasm must have showed because the College offered you a job.
GD: Yes. I love teaching at Imperial. I taught the Horizons science communication course for 20 years. Then in 2005 I was given the chance to develop a new course in Medical Humanities and I quickly became passionate about it.
KY: ‘Medical Humanities’? What on earth is that?
GD: [laughs] I often get that response. In a nutshell, it is a discipline that explores the contexts – social and cultural – of medicine. Patients don’t go on a six year course to learn how to become patients – they take their cues from TV, literature, art, film... Medical Humanities allows medical students to explore how medicine inspires and is inspired by culture. I truly believe that, although bodies are made up of molecules, people are made up of stories. The course gives medical students an opportunity to explore various ‘stories’ which gives them a richer insight into the clinical encounter, and the profession in general.
KY: Don’t medical students tend to see ‘humanities’ and the ‘arts’ as a bit of a soft option?
GD: There is that perception, but the course is academically rigorous and requires students to develop their creativity. Nowadays, so much information can be accessed at the tap and swipe of a screen, us educators are obliged to think long and hard about what we can bring to the classroom that is unique and exciting for students. I put creativity at the heart of my lessons and students respond very well to the challenge.
KY: What’s your next record?
GD: Coldplay’s Paradise. I can’t hear it without thinking of the wonderful summer of the London Olympics. I was a volunteer at the Paralympics and it was such a privilege to give something back to London – a city in which I feel very lucky to live and work. Exhibition Road – ’nuff said.
KY: What are you working on at the moment?
GD: We rolled out an exciting new intercalated BSc in Medical Sciences with Humanities, Philosophy & Law. Alongside that, I have enrolled for a PhD at King's College London to research the expression and reception of gratitude in healthcare. Although lots of attention is given to complaining about the NHS, much of the gratitude is viewed as ‘tokenism’ and tends to be informal and underappreciated. I feel there is a real need to start recognising the excellent work that goes on if we’re to continue to inspire people to enter healthcare professions.
KY: Back to the desert island. How do you think you would cope?
GD: I like to think I’d be fine. I learnt quite a lot of bushcraft as a kid, so I’m pretty confident about the practical aspects. However, I guess I’ve become less idealistic over the years since I was a teenager with an ‘I want to be alone’ attitude, and I have to admit I’d miss my family dreadfully.
KY: You are given the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, what other book would you take?
GD: I’m grateful for the Complete Works as I’ve really come to love Shakespeare over the last five years or so. My daughter is a fellow fan, so we go and see a lot of his plays. It’s hard to pick out one other book, but I think it has to be my favourite novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It can withstand numerous re-readings.
KY: What about your luxury?
GD: Am I allowed a digital radio so that I could listen to Radio 4?
KY: No, you’re not allowed contact with the outside world.
GD: Oh dear. Then it might well need to be a coffee machine with an endless supply of refills. There is very little that doesn’t improve on contemplation over a decent cup of coffee.
KY: Giskin Day, thank you very much for sharing your desert island discs with us.
GD: It’s been a pleasure.