On the last day of the conference I was attending in Cambridge two things occurred that combined into a rather scary epiphany. First, I talked to potential customers about experiments they wanted to do and how to do them best, and connected them to a partner that might be able to help with equipment. Partner's equipment is excellent but because of a troubled history, they're having a hard time getting the word out. It's not that they have a bad reputation. It's more that they don't have a reputation at all. Most people are surprised to hear that the company still exists.
Their website could be improved, in general terms as much as in details. Quite a few things are obvious to me. I surprised myself relishing the challenge of doing this, of firing up their communication, getting the word out and generating excitement. It's called marketing, and it can be fun, even though to a scientist it doesn't get much darker than that.
Later that day, I visited a midsize biotech company where I would notionally fit very well with my skills and qualifications. I saw their lab and talked crystallography with the resident expert. It was a smoothly run operation with fine kit, but seeing pipettes hang above benches in the lab next door gave me such a jab I knew I'd never go back to science. I had never seen this so clearly. I enjoy my job, but it wasn't clear to me that it isn't just what I am doing (scientific marketing). It is also what I'm not doing (science). Maybe I'm a marketer after all?
Getting to Cambridge hadn't been easy. From Heathrow, it's never easy. There are three options. All are bad. One can rent a car. I've done this in the past. The drive takes about an hour and a half if traffic is good, and it's not what I need after getting up at five in the morning and taking an early flight. Plus, parking in Cambridge is impossible.
The second option is the train, but in England autumn is prime season for leaves on the track and associated disruptions. It's also not just one train but two, with a few stops on the Underground thrown in just for thrills. Even without leaves, that's bound to be painful.
The third option is the coach. It takes one from the airport to the city center of Cambridge in one go, but it takes forever because of stops on the way, and if traffic is bad, it will take even longer. Which pain to pick? I spent an absurd amount of time weighing the options to find the least bad.
In the end, I needn't have worried. The worst part of the journey was just before arriving. Rolling up to the gate, there was no air bridge and our door remained closed. We sat in the plane for 30 minutes while ground staff at Heathrow recovered from their surprise of needing equipment to disembark passengers. In the end, stairs were rolled up from afar and we were on our way out on the tarmac.
The coach ride itself was uneventful. In the seat in front of me a long-haired fellow with tightly trimmed facial fur and a delicate English accent lectured his baffled neighbor on the deficiencies of the human eye – retina, visual nerve, blind spot and all – and how the octopus's independently evolved version was so much superior. It was evident we were going to Cambridge.
Families of apparently happy brown cows were grazing on land inside the M25, the motorway the circles London and is the closest the city has to a natural border. I had never seen cows in London. Was this an effort at self-sufficiency in the run-up to seceding from an increasingly dysfunctional Union? What a twist to Brexit this would be. But it was probably just evidence of the parochialism of the natives. They need English countryside even inside a megacity.
The cows fading away on the right, the coach soon made a turn to the left, heading up north for a while before stopping at Stansted and then reaching Cambridge exactly on time. In the hotel, the meeting was about to start and I to have an epiphany two days later.