Failing A-levels changed my world

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe - Credit: Archant

Coming close to being expelled and getting disastrous A-level results didn’t mean much to Mark Lythgoe until he had a defining moment that changed his world. He tells Sally Bailey how seeing his father cry pushed him to become one of the country’s leading scientists

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe - Credit: Archant

Think for a moment of everything you’d expect from a professor of science – perhaps someone super-brainy who speaks in words you don’t understand, someone who works on projects that have no meaning to your life, or someone who you couldn’t possibly hope to connect with.

Then picture this – a man who says ‘wow’ a lot and never leaves the house without using eye balm, a man who buys books to send to young students who need a little encouragement, and a man who is often found hanging upside down on the climbing wall he built on the outside of his house in Hackney. Meet Professor Mark Lythgoe, a man who loves seeing the world turned on its head.

When we first talk, he has to postpone our interview time. When it happens a second time, he apologises profusely and calls himself ‘the most useless man in the world’. In fairness, the BBC is waiting upstairs for a look around his lab, he has someone on the other end of his mobile phone and, well, he is running the biggest biomedical imaging unit in the world.

When we eventually talk on our rescheduled date he encourages me to agree that he is indeed the most useless man on the planet. I’m afraid I can’t. He founded the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging which dips into neuroscience, oncology and cardiovascular biology to allow scientists to understand everything from childhood epilepsy to cancer, he mentors students, he is director of the Cheltenham Science Festival, he explains difficult subjects on television and radio, writes scientific papers... not entirely useless.

Actually, it’s impressive when you know he started out on this journey after watching his father cry when he spectacularly flunked his A-levels.

“I can’t describe how much that motivated me,” he says. “There was a certain darkness that filled me which was horrible and that was a real driving force.”

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Professor Lythgoe is definitely not your average boffin. His early career, marred by a lack of qualifications or a university education, saw him making plastic pipes in a factory, being paid to dance on a podium in a nightclub, and cleaning up dog dirt at a dog training centre in Israel.

Throughout his life he met interesting people, all the ones he admired had good qualifications and he felt excluded from their world. One day he decided enough was enough. He asked someone what the highest academic qualification you could get was. When he was told it was a PhD he set out to get one.

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe

MED SEPT 14 Mark Lythgoe - Credit: Archant

“The day that I got my PhD was the first time I really felt I could walk down the street and hold my head up,” he says. “Suddenly this huge weight lifted from my shoulders. It was one of the best days of my life. I’d lived with that sense of failure for so long, I only really shook it off when I became a professor. Now everything I do is just for the love of science.”

These days he adds the Davies Medal for his significant contribution to imaging science and a Fellowship of the British Science Association to a CV that is, frankly, awe-inspiring. Needless to say his parents are very proud.

Although failing his A-levels and almost being expelled from school led him to achieve more than he might perhaps have otherwise done he certainly wouldn’t advocate his career path to others.

“It looks like I’m flying the flag for failure because I didn’t go off to university but I wouldn’t recommend it. I had no job, no prospects, no cash. I did some terrible jobs just to survive and I ended up shovelling dog mess seven days a week. Who’d want to follow that example?”

Having said that he appreciates that exams come at a time when we are young enough to feel like we can conquer the world regardless of how much revision we do.

“You don’t realise the impact your results are going to have. That one thing is going to change the people you meet and socialise with, the job you do, and the person you become. At the age when you’re sitting those exams it’s beyond the cognition to grasp all that.

“I did science at school but I don’t remember any fun, any excitement. I remember walking out of lessons and thinking ‘what was the point of that?’ I can’t think of one science subject I connected with.” It’s a strange thing for someone who fizzes with enthusiasm like a test tube experiment to say.

“If I could give advice to young students I’d say go to Waterstone’s and look for the real classic books from the pop science world and start reading for the thrill of finding out interesting things. Stuff like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fantastic read.

“We could have so many brilliant scientists in the future if students were given that excitement and passion about it when they’re young. Then they’d never get into the pickle that I did.”

Mark is constantly awed by the things that unfold before his eyes every day. “I always find science humbling. It reminds me of all the things I don’t know. I’m amazed by how huge, and enormous, and vast science is and I only understand a tiny slice of the pie.”

Mark has enjoyed some of science’s golden years, with all the history and 10,000 interesting books before him, all the hope of breakthroughs yet to come, and smack in the middle of when science became more mainstream with friends like Brian Cox, Alice Roberts and Jim Al-Khalili regularly appearing on the telly.

“People like Brian Cox, this rock star turned scientist, being on the telly had an enormous impact, we had a 20 per cent increase in students enrolling for science subjects.”

It was during this time that he became a director of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, taking it on to become one of the biggest and best. This year the A to Z of subjects started at astronomy and zipped through to zombies with a huge list of subjects in between and well-known presenters, writers and comedians starting the debates.

“There’s so much hard work goes into the Science Festival but you always know it’s going to be fantastic. Every year there are speakers that I personally want to go and listen to. I’d love to see more teachers there, it’s a free pass for them, they just turn up with their students, sit down and listen.

“Science is still incredibly exciting for me. I’m always learning something new and I love it when I hear something that makes me go: “Wow! That’s amazing,” or something that makes me look at the world a bit differently. It’s one of the most special experiences you can have. It’s like magic.”


This article is from the September 2014 issue of A+ Education