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Science Week: Alice's inspiration

Dr Alice Roberts
By Dr Alice Roberts
Clinical Anatomist at the University of Bristol

During Science Week, we have been asking local scientists for their views on the subject and what they think makes it important. TV presenter and the University of Bristol's Alice Roberts remembers her science roots.

I don't actually remember when I first became interested in science, although I remember being fascinated with animals and plants from a very early age.

Dr Alice Roberts
Alice's first inspiration was a science book she owned
But there was one book I was given when I was about ten that had a real impact. It was a pop-up book of human anatomy, and it was fantastic: it had a heart with moving valves, an eye that looked up and down at a painting, showing the light rays passing through the lens and the upside-down Mona Lisa on the retina.

There was a muscly skeleton flexing his elbow, with a bulging biceps. I also remember going to see the live video-link of the Bristol mummy being unwrapped, in the Museum - again, I was captivated.

At around about the age of 11, I decided that the human body was something I wanted to know more about, and that I could also aspire to help people through knowing something about it, so medicine seemed a good path to aim for.

It wasn't an easy or an obvious choice, perhaps: I didn't have any doctors in my family - my dad's an aeroengineer and my mum's a teacher - and they both encouraged me to do what I liked (in a good way).

In the 1980's, there was a series on BBC2 called Doctors To Be, following the trials and tribulations of medical students struggling through their training. It was compelling viewing, and for me, those students were great role models - I could see they were real people, that this was possible.

I think we're encouraged to choose between arts or science subjects at school much too early, and that doesn't help
Throughout my school career, I struggled with being a scientist. Firstly, it was not exactly the 'coolest' thing to be interested in. And just imagine this ten-year-old in pigtails, with thick NHS glasses and a total lack of interest in team sports to the mix and you get the picture - it was almost like I set out to make myself an easy target!

I still think there's some stigma around science as a subject, that doesn't blight art or music in the same way - and it's such a shame if children feel vulnerable or embarrassed about something they're genuinely interested in. (If I can offer any advice at all - it would be: be true to yourself).

Anyway, I survived, and I suppose I got by because I had good close friends, and supportive family and teachers; I certainly developed a thick skin, but I also never really thought of myself as being just a scientist.

I think we're encouraged to choose between arts or science subjects at school much too early, and that doesn't help. I did manage to keep art going into my A levels, which was such a balancing, therapeutic addition to the lop-sided mix of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

And I still count myself as an artist and a scientist, not wishing to choose between them. There are certainly things I do when I am thinking and behaving as a scientist or an artist, but at the end of the day, I'm both.

From medicine, I've ended up as a academic in a closely related field: anatomy. It's a branch of science where art has always been close at hand. Just think of those beautiful anatomical drawings in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. For me, the two ways of looking at the world come together to produce a deeper meaning - and understanding.

Alice Roberts is a Clinical Anatomist at the University of Bristol, and presents on Coast and her own series Dr Alice Roberts: Don't Die Young on BBC2. She lives and works in Bristol.

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