Women in Science: Preparing for Interviews

As a Royal Holloway and Bedford New College alumni and someone who has also worked for the College after graduating from an undergraduate programme, I was very excited at the prospect of connecting with alumni from an earlier generation. The history of the College is of immense personal interest so to be able to contribute something to the College’s archives feels like a real honour. As such, I’m very keen to do it well.

I was initially provided with a copy of my interviewee’s application to study at university, as well as her academic transcript. I was interested to see that Bedford College was her third choice of university, whilst Oxford and Cambridge women’s colleges proceeded it, but she was not offered a place at either. This immediately brought questions to my mind: did my interviewee feel happy with her place at Bedford College? Has she felt the effects of missing out on those top institutions in her career? Why did she choose women-only institutions?

I contacted my interviewee by email initially and asked whether she was still happy to participate in the project. I didn’t want to intrude with a phone-call so early on, in case it made her feel obliged to talk to me. But luckily she answered my email right away and asked me to give her a call that evening. I live about an hour away from her, and she advised me to take the train rather than drive as the traffic is a nightmare on the way over. She then offered to pick me up from the station as it is a hilly walk up to her house. We spent about twenty minutes on the phone and she asked me a few questions about myself and my time at Royal Holloway. Although the project isn’t about me and oral history interviews aren’t a two way process in that respect, I did give her a bit of information about my studies and career so far. I think this helped to reassure her actually and I really wanted to do that considering she was inviting me, a stranger, into her home to talk to her about her life.

I had a few days between our telephone conversation and actual meeting to be able to prepare questions. I was really excited to meet my interviewee and frequently found my mind wandering to questions I could ask, so the planning stage was very easy! I kept a notebook in my bag so I could jot my thoughts down as they came to me. I was nervous about the recorder though and it was harder to plan around that. When using a recording devise for another of my MA projects, I found it just stopped recording one of my interviews mid-way through and I couldn’t discover why. I was nervous of this happening again, since I am using the exact same device. I kept checking it every day to make sure it was able to record anything – an attempt to reassure myself that I wouldn’t suffer a technology-induced embarrassment in front of my interviewee, a woman whose career, and indeed life, was at the forefront of technological advances.

The Interview

The day of the interview came around and I caught the train, feeling nervous and also excited to meet this amazing woman. I read through my questions on the train (and checked the recording device one last time!). We met at the station and conversation flowed between us naturally. My interviewee is certainly an interesting woman.

The difficulty was, however, that she didn’t like talking when the recorder was on. Her answers were quite short and I was conscious of hoping my questions didn’t sound too leading. She also tended to look to me for reassurance when making answers, in case it wasn’t the information I was looking for. Whilst she was very honest with her answers and I don’t feel I influenced their content, I think she was trying to please me with the style of response. I thought I had plenty of questions, but I found they only just took up 45 minutes – the shortest time my interview should be. Once the recorder was off, my interviewee made me a coffee and then she really started to open up. Once the invasive recorder was back in my bag, she told me some really fascinating stories about her family life and I could see how this must have shaped her academic life. It was like speaking with a different person. I should have pulled the recorder back out, but I didn’t want to put her off again. Instead, I made a mental note of the stories and I plan to ask her about them in my second interview.

This has helped me to plan questions for this next interview, and I have listened back over my recording to provide further inspiration for the second interview. She spoke a lot about her experience of sports clubs in College life and I’d like to know more about that social aspect of studying at university in the 1950s, as well as how her family’s background influenced her interest in science. The main difficulty is trying to find a time we are both free. I work full-time, whilst my interviewee has a very active life but I am really hoping to meet her again soon.

This has been a fantastic project to be a part of and it’s been of personal and academic benefit to meet a woman who has led such an interesting life, especially someone who is a fellow alumnus.

The Interviews

My interviewee is a woman who received a degree from Bedford College in Chemistry in the early 1950s. Before the first interview my two main concerns were something going wrong with the recorder and the experience feeling forced with lots of silences. Instead I found the woman to be forthcoming and the questions to develop naturally from what she said. Although I had prepared a few pages of questions as a security blanket I found that I didn’t need to look at them at all during the interview.

I feel much more anxious going into the second interview as now the onus is on me to interrogate the narrative she gave and draw out more insights. Given the ample ground covered in the first interview there are plenty of opportunities to do this. Some of the topics we discussed clearly leave room for more questions but she also mentioned many difficult times in her life related to depression, serious family illnesses and rifts. I’m concerned about how to address some of these issues in a sensitive way and also question whether some things should merely be left as casual asides by her in the first interview which do not need probing. Considering the purpose of this project how much do events in her later ‘post-science’ life need to be questioned? After having spent some time with this nice woman and talked about her present life and grandchildren over coffee and cake it feels really difficult to probe some of the more unpleasant aspects of her personal life even if they affected her professional one.

Thoughts Before the ‘Women in Science’ Interview

Within the next two weeks I will have completed my interviews for the Women in Science Oral History Project. Due to the fact that this is my first oral history project and that the history which I present will be vital to the archives at Royal Holloway, I have had to put a lot of thought into the processes leading up to the interviews.

Before contacting my assigned alumni I had to make sure I had enough background knowledge on her life and her education. From the information in her student files I discovered that my subject graduated from Royal Holloway in 1947 and went on to pursue further study at many prestigious institutions before landing a job in the medical research field. Therefore, she is clearly a very well educated and elderly woman and I will need to take both of these factors into account when conducting the interview

My assigned alumni had also prepared some short notes within the files that I was sent. Within these she expressed her concern over the content of the interviews. She specifically requested that the interview should be conducted under her maiden name and should primarily focus on her working life and education at Royal Holloway, not her private life. The subject’s privacy and wishes are of upmost importance within this process; therefore I will be complying with her requests. I hope to be able to gather interesting and relevant information while adhering to my subject’s wishes.

Speaking to the subject over the phone prior to the interviews was a great way for us to get acquainted with each other. I believe that our 20 minute conversation that included introductions, further explanation of the project and the arrangement of interview dates helped to put us both at ease about the upcoming interviews. She was even kind enough to send me very detailed instructions for the public transport I need to find her house. I am looking forward to meeting my subject for the Women in Science project. I believe that her long and seemingly very interesting life will make a vital oral history for the often-overlooked story of women in science.

Before the Interview: “Women in Science”

For my upcoming oral history project I will be interviewing a “Woman in Science” for the archives of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. The woman I have been assigned studied Zoology and Physiology from 1952-5. She went on to get her PhD and is still a lecturer, researcher, and author. Obviously, this will make for fascinating content. I found her publications online and her manuals are among the top regarded in their field; “Indispensable” as one reviewer put it. Unfortunately I cannot name the manual or the reviewer for reasons of privacy to the project but trust me, she is highly praised for her work. I am very much looking forward to meeting her properly (not just over the phone) and hearing what she has to say.

That being said, I do have some reservations about the interview itself. It will be my first proper oral history interview and I am a quiet person and struggle with social situations generally, and it will be my responsibility to prompt the conversation and keep the narrator at ease. Hopefully it does not become forced or awkward to discuss topics I know little to nothing about, such as being alive in the 1950’s or studying science. Or being a woman studying science in the 1950’s. Or being a woman currently in her late 70’s or early 80’s and still writing and publishing textbooks about science.

I think as far as a project about Women in Science is concerned, I have struck gold. She took her education seriously and is still taking her work seriously. The downside of her amazing career and work ethic is that she is busy proofing her latest book and only has time to meet for one session, not the desired two. It is not ideal but I have to be able to adapt to this and think about what my goals are in the interview and stick to those for the sake of time. Honestly, I am more interested in her time as a student and professional than I am about her being a wife and/or mother (if applicable.) That is not to say I am opposed to her talking about her personal life, especially if she really wants to, but for a project about women in science, given the possible restricted time, I want to stick to learning about what the experience at Bedford College was like 60 years ago and how she ended up in such a remarkable career. I don’t know if it is bias to see it this way or just planning and anticipating that there won’t be time to cover everything. Either way, this will very much be a learning experience for me and, hopefully, a useful resource to someone else in the future as well.

Between the Interviews

Before the first interview with a Bedford College science alumnus, I was anxious about the quality and quantity of my questions – would there be enough? Would they relate to her life at all? I had pretty much no idea what her life story was – had she continued with science after Bedford? Was she married? I even asked a friend to pretend to be a 70-year-old lady to try and work out if the questions would work! (Bizarrely, most of his answers were accurate to my interviewee’s life!)

Heading into the second interview, the nerves are back. I want to improve on the errors I made last time: asking some questions which were in hindsight leading, missing out some meta-information from the beginning. But I’ve already asked all the ‘easy’ questions: we covered early life, college, and career extensively in the last interview. What I now need to go more in depth about her scientific work, and the traumatic experiences we somewhat skated over last time. I need to ask about gender in science without imposing a narrative of discrimination on a lady who might not have felt that way – as somewhat indicated by previous answers. For these subjects, I’m on unfamiliar turf – we covered the more solid terrain of college food and career trajectory in the first interview. But I’m a bit stumped for more questions; we both ended the last interview questioning what more there is to say. Hopefully I can recapture the rapport we developed in the last session, and allow her to look further into her memories of her life.

It feels slightly odd capturing a life history for an archive but not for my own historical project. While we’ve been given a particular brief, it feels like a bit of a disadvantage to not have a personal agenda I’m searching for. There are no questions I have to ask for use in a project, only to ensure the best and most useful oral history interview possible. I want to cover all eventualities, to assist the college, future researchers, and of course, the subject herself.


The Interview Beckons

When I first heard that we might be working on a project involving interviewing female science graduates from Royal Holloway and Bedford College I must admit I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that I might not have a sufficiently scientific background myself to do the interview justice. What if the person I was allocated was going to talk to me about some extremely complicated piece of post-doctoral chemistry? How would I respond? Would I make the right noises? How would I even know what was going on? I could foresee despondency and panic. Alternatively, thinking about experiences with some of my own older relatives, there were alternative scenarios in which the interviewee was either extremely deaf resulting in a great deal of shouting and confusion, or else prone to repeat the same story several times in one sitting interspersed with the statement “I’m eighty-four you know” at regular intervals.

As it turns out, I was worrying over nothing. When I spoke to my interviewee over the phone to arrange our interview dates she was very friendly, joking that she was glad I called when I did as she was working in the garden and needed an excuse to come in doors to make a cup of tea. She gave the impression that she is very much looking forward to taking part in the project and I must say I’m looking forward to interviewing her.

My interviewee is a Physics graduate from Bedford College (so I must be careful to not refer to the project as if it is solely about Royal Holloway) and this is interesting in itself as there will be lots to ask her about life at Bedford and around Regent’s Park in the 1950s. Born in the 1930s, I’m hoping to find out about her memories of life as a child in wartime Britain and if that was one of the things that drew her towards science as a career. After University she worked as a secondary school teacher and it will be interesting to perhaps explore the many changes she would have seen in post-war education, especially as her career spanned the rise and fall of the grammar schools. I also know that she was involved in local politics after retiring from teaching and maintains an interest in the arts, so I’m looking forward to hearing about that part of her story too.

All of this is great, but now I have some more worries. Will two 90 minute sessions be enough? Will my batteries hold out? Will we go off on an interesting tangent and not talk about Bedford College enough? At least with two interviews we have a bit of flexibility to allow for problems like these. My other worry, is striking the balance between not speaking too much myself (because it’s not a normal two-way conversation) and making sure that she knows I’m interested and engaged in what she’s saying.

It will be a good thing to record my interviewee’s memories, not just for our college archives but for her own family. Over the years I heard a lot of stories and anecdotes from my older relatives, but rarely wrote any down and certainly never sound recorded any because I foolishly kidded myself that they would be around forever. Now they’re gone and I wish I’d have had the foresight to carry out interviews like this on my own parents.

Beyond the Water Tower: preparing for an interview

IMG_3102I’m planning to interview a former groundsman at Horton Mental Hospital, formerly Horton Asylum, in Epsom. The former admin block, which is now expensive housing, is pictured above. This will be a second interview. In the first we talked about his childhood – he’s a local boy born and bred – and his time working at the hospital as a young man in the late 1970s. He talked about his job and his recollections of working alongside patients in the gardens. His is an interesting perspective; his job meant he was literally and metaphorically ‘outside’ the hospital. Although he got to know some of the patients, much remained mysterious – their comings and goings, the inner workings of the hospital and even the conditions from which they suffered. He was part of a team charged with making sure the hospital grounds looked attractive; an important consideration for the Horton’s management from the time the hospital opened in 1902. His memories of this part of his working life were generally positive, and although he recalled that some of patients suffered greatly from their illnesses, he gave the impression he thought the hospital was a reasonably good environment for them.

After he left Horton, my interviewee lived and worked in the Middle East for some years, where he married and became a father. He touched on what it was like to return and live in Epsom with his wife and daughter after the hospitals had closed, and I would like to explore the layers of his experiences of the hospital – as a child growing up in a town where it was a significant presence, as a worker there, and as someone returning in middle age and reflecting on the meaning of those experiences both at the time and now.

I would also like to explore his relationship to the physical place in the second interview. In particular, I would like to talk about the Horton water tower (on the left of the photo, behind the admin block). Water towers were an iconic feature of Victorian and Edwardian asylums; their ‘brooding, majestic’ presence was evoked by then Minister of Health Enoch Powell in a 1961 speech advocating the closure of the country’s mental hospitals. This listed, but rather industrial, building survived the demolition of most of the hospital’s infrastructure but was pulled down in 2012 after a long-running campaign by local people who felt it was unsightly and out of place – and possibly dangerous – on the modern housing estate that had been built around it. I must declare an interest here; I have always had a slightly romantic view of two historical Epsoms geographically separated by the town centre. Until 2012, you could glimpse both from the end of my road; on one side the grandstand at Epsom Downs symbolising posh, equestrian Epsom and on the other (and much closer to me) the water tower at Horton, associated with pauper lunatics and the ethnically diverse working class area that developed around the hospital cluster. When the water tower came down I felt it was part of an ongoing process of the town turning its back on an uncomfortable history. My interviewee, to my surprise, saw it completely differently. He was clear that although he thinks the hospitals should be remembered, to him the tower was a symbol of oppression and he’s glad it came down. I was taken aback partly because his own memories of life at the hospital did not seem particularly negative. On reflection, I thought about the research he told me he had done into the history of the hospitals and I wondered if he was taking a wider view of the historical experiences of patients. I am interested in the relationship between  this dual perspective of his own personal experiences and the historical view he has formed from his reading.

My main concern about the interview is that we will not be able to pick up the rapport I felt we established in the first interview, and that therefore he will be unwilling to explore his memories in more depth and consider their meaning for him. Perhaps he will feel that he has already said what he wanted to say – in which case I feel a bit anxious that it will be down to me to prompt and encourage his recollections. Conversely, he knows we share an interest in the history of the hospitals, and if things go well I am aware that I must make sure that the focus of the interview is his memories rather than his research.