Coffee with Dr Fiona Murray, Programme Manager for Science & Alternative Therapies

Working from home is not all it’s cut out to be. I feel like that guy from the BBC interview, with the toddler marching around in the background- I’ll have to lock the door because I’ll be trying to teach biology and my daughter will be doing her best Rapunzel impression.

I started at Morley two months after I had my daughter in 2016. We had been living in New York and moved to London earlier that year, when I was heavily pregnant, so I couldn’t immediately start a new job. In my wisdom I thought, “I can have a baby and go back to work- of course!” So we applied- we being me and the bump. It was an interesting time- a bit mad really, but I knew I wanted to go back to work, and it worked for me.

I’m a very busy person; I’m known for it. We’re quite busy generally, which I think is actually why we’re all finding this period kind of hard right now. We’re always just so used to being on the go. The start of all being home and not really having all our activities to go to and work to go to has been a real transition for us.

I love big city life. I grew up, went to university and worked in Aberdeen before we went to New York, where we lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and now we’re in London. I’m definitely not cut out for that quiet suburban life. London and New York have been equally fun but very different- but I suppose when you’re quarantined, it’s all the same really, isn’t it? 

I was programme managing at a private health science college in Manhattan. I could see the Empire State Building from the lab window, and the Rachael Ray Show was filmed on the floors below. It was surreal; you’d get into the lift with celebrities going to be interviewed on the Rachael Ray show, and I would be off to teach microbiology to aspiring nurses.

I’m the perfect person for that old show, Can’t Cook Won’t Cook. I think I probably could learn to cook if I wanted to but I have no inclination. I really enjoy watching Masterchef, though. I like to watch other people- and obviously critique the dishes, knowing that I could never do what they’re doing!

If I wasn’t a scientist, I would probably be a professional dancer. I’m a qualified dance teacher; I’ve been dancing since I was two, and opened my own dance school in Scotland. Being a professional ballet dancer, if I’d been good enough, would have been my dream career. I really loved teaching dance, so going into teaching science was the best of both worlds for me.

My PhD was where I learnt the most about myself. Academically, it was a massive challenge- It looked at the role of sphingolipids in vascular smooth muscle, funded by the British Heart Foundation, with a view to potentially finding a way to prevent or treat stroke. A lot of looking at very, very tiny brains and the very, very tiny blood vessels on very, very tiny brains. 

As a scientist, I’ve found this time super interesting from a data analysis perspective. I’m going to hold on to the graphs various outlets are presenting for my future science students, because it’s such a good problem solving exercise in data presenting and manipulation. My microbiology students are fascinated by COVID-19, so it’s an interesting time to be teaching- and not just because it’s online!

I’m more of a morning person than I am a late night person. I could sleep anywhere- I have a bit of a reputation for just falling asleep. It’s quite common that we will put an episode of something or a movie on and 10 minutes later I will just be asleep. So I like to be busy, to get up and have something to get stuck into. It’s very rare that I have a day where we don’t have something on.

Sticking to a schedule has been the most important thing. We have a planner on the wall, and every Sunday we map out the week- online dance classes, meetings, teaching, childcare time. Trying to stick to that has been helpful for all of us- keeping as much normality as possible. 

Moving around means we have a lot of friends all over the world, so there’s lots of people to catch up with in lots of time zones. It’s a really nice way to spend time in lockdown. I’d like to say I’m doing lots of creative things but, like I can’t cook, I can’t draw. My students will attest to that. But you can’t be good at everything- I have dance and science, and that keeps me happy.

I’m super nosy, so if I had a superpower I would love to be invisible. I could sneak into cabinet meetings at the moment and hang around places to get some gossip. I’d also like to be able to write emails directly from my brain while I’m making a cup of tea, rather than having to sit down to do it. I could just think it and save time- I’d love to be able to do things just with my mind and save the effort. Weirdly science is heading in that direction- people are working on ways to answer your phone with your mind and so on. 

Science is like learning a whole new language– there are so many cool new terms that you’ll never have heard before, like staphylococcus, which is probably my favourite. It’s a great equaliser in that way, as my students are both native English speakers and have English as a second language- everyone is starting from the same place learning scientific terminology.