During the summer of 2020 we launched a series of conversations with alumni to hear their memories of Trinity and catch up on what they’ve done since leaving. Matt from ARDO spoke with Julian Huppert (1996), Director of the Intellectual Forum. You can read his story below. You can find more stories here.
Natural Sciences (1996)
Why did you want to study Natural Sciences at Trinity?
When I grew up, I was interested in lots of different things, but I got increasingly interested in Sciences and how we can use experiments to think about what is going on. In particular, I was interested in Chemistry and was involved with the Chemistry Olympiad, which was fascinating in lots of ways.
One thing which excited me about the Cambridge degree was the flexibility. My original plan was to do a couple of years in Natural Sciences, then switch to Law, but I got so excited by the science that I never got around to switching.
Where did you live at Trinity?
In my first year, I had (what I believe to be) the best named room in the entirety of College. I was B-9 Angel. It doesn’t come much better than officially being a ‘benign angel’! That was fantastic and was a really sociable space, I still have lots of friends from that corridor.
In second year, I was out in Burrell’s Field in a room that was so tiny it’s not used as a student room anymore, but had a wonderful pair of windows which I used to walk straight out onto the grass.
I then came back in third year to a nice room in Great Court. It was a very nice, traditional old room, with the slight drawback of not having a shower anywhere nearby. Lots of tourists used to point as I walked across Great Court to go and have a shower…
Do you have any favourite memories of your time studying?
I was very involved with a programme called Model United Nations, running simulations of the UN. It’s a fantastic thing to be involved in and taught me a lot about how to debate and how to have constructive discussions. We ran the world conference at Cambridge in 1999 which was an amazing experience. It was fascinatingly chaotic, but that sense when it all happened and we had over 500 delegates arriving in Lady Mitchell Hall is something I still remember vividly.
Were you involved with many clubs or societies?
As well as Model United Nations, I ran a couple of organisations that were focused on science education and demonstration in schools and also for the general public. I also did a fair amount of music. In fact, one of the reasons that I applied to Trinity was for the music, although in the end I think the Trinity orchestra was one of the few that I didn’t play with. I was a percussionist, and I think at the time there was a lot of demand for the very small number of us around. It was definitely a sellers’ market.
Did you have any role models?
I’ve been really lucky to have to have a number of people who have been mentors, and I think mentorship is hugely valuable.
One of them is Shankar – now Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian. He was transformational, without question. The other is Sal, now Baroness Brinton, very eminent former president of the Liberal Democrats. Both have inspired me more and more the more I have got to know about them.
When I was starting off with Chemistry, just before I came to Trinity, I remember being very impressed by the work of a chemist called George Olah. However, when I read his autobiography, it turned out he was incredibly dull – he even wrote that he’d managed to persuade his wife to do a PhD in his lab so they’d have something to talk about.
What was your first job after Trinity?
I had a gap year between doing my undergraduate degree and my PhD. I wanted to do something worthwhile, so my plan was to volunteer for UNHCR for a year. They wouldn’t take me, it’s always harder than you think to volunteer for an organisation like that. So I actually ended up working on financial software for a year, which was not what I wanted to do long-term but was quite useful to understand how economic markets work.
What is your current role?
I run a centre at Jesus College called the Intellectual Forum, which is an interdisciplinary centre. The idea is to bring together people from very different perspectives, to think and talk about important issues. This might be about the future of work, or the relationship between food, farming and climate change. It might be about AI and ethics or about China’s role in the world.
Have you received any great advice during your career?
The first thing that comes to mind is some of the worst advice I was ever given, which was ‘learn to be bored’…I think it was spectacularly bad advice and I’m very pleased that I have largely ignored it.
Explore your own interests, if you’re bored with something try to enliven things.
Is there an achievement that you are most proud of?
One of the joys of politics is that you really are very close to things massively changing.
When I was still at school I was very committed to international human rights issues, refugee issues, and development issues. I was quite involved with campaigning for the UK to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development aid, a promise that the UK made in 1970 but had not done. Whilst I was an MP, in 2012, we hit that figure and I was then a co-sponsor of the legislation that wrote into law that we would have to spend 0.7% on international development aid.
I think if you’d said to 17 year old me that that was possible, I would’ve said ‘gosh that would be amazing.’ I was far from the only person involved with this, but that achievement, is probably going to make the biggest difference for the largest number of people around the world and it was a huge honour to have been able to be a part of that actually happening.
Have you used your subject since graduating?
Part of it is the actual knowledge, but I think it’s also about evidence and attitudes to it.
When I was an MP, I was one of only two MPs with a science PhD. That does change how you think. We often criticise politicians for U-turns. People boast about how they don’t U-turn, which is bizarre because you wouldn’t buy a car that couldn’t do a U-Turn or have a reverse gear, but we expect politicians to be single-minded and focused. Whereas the scientific method is about testing and rejecting ideas. There is nothing shameful, as a scientist, about having an idea that turns out to be wrong. That discipline of how you think about things, really was an important thread for me in how I think about things.
What advice would you give to a current student?
Make the most of what you can. You have this wonderful opportunity to experiment and try things.
The world of work will be very different in 20-30 years and I think that flexibility will be increasingly important, so practice that now. Try doing lots of different things.
I was a chemist, and I then worked in the Sanger Institute genomics centre. I knew I couldn’t be the best chemist in a good Chemistry department because there’s so many amazing people…but I was one of the better chemists in a genomics centre. I then went to the Physics department and I was far from the best physicist, I may have been the worst in the department, but I was the best chemist-genomicist in that department. And so, there were lots of things that I could do and work on because I knew something different from the other people who were there. I then became a Member of Parliament and I was without a doubt the best chemist-genomicist-physicist in the entirety of the House of Commons.
Be the person who knows the other things, who does bring that diversity, be that different person. You won’t be the expert in that thing that everyone else is, but they already know that. You can be the one who is different. I think that’s more fun; it gets you into more interesting and diverse conversations and things you can do.
Recorded in August 2020
If you want to get involved and share your story, please get in touch with Matt and Rachel at email@example.com