On the first of January 2010, Emeritus Professor Michael Roberts passed away. I consider myself exceedingly lucky to have had Mike as my lecturer, lab supervisor and tutor before he retired. I don’t know much about his life outside of teaching, not even his scientific research, so I’ll just talk about how he mattered to me.
He was one of the few people I admired. He taught science passionately and you can only really do that if you love the science. I looked forward to his lectures. He made what could have been dry, incomprehensible, rote-learnt material intuitive and simple. He showed us how nerves conduct signals; most of that information has stuck with me and has even made it into some of the articles here. He’d work in anecdotes about himself accidentally walking off the roof (!?) and being completely fine; then twisting his ankle in a small 20cm deep hole. Even better, he’d give scientific explanations about why that happened.
In lab, he led me through my first real research project. He smacked into me the importance of proper controls; that experimental controls are even more important than the actual experimental test. I think our data sucked anyway, but it impressed on me what research really was. It must have been good because here I am suckered into a PhD. He was also the only one talking in the otherwise-dead med school building. One thing I remember about Mike is that he whistled Gilbert and Sullivan tunes while going to the toilet.
In tutorials, he talked his way through the problems and expected people to come out and answer the questions out loud. He was of the opinion that even if you knew the answer, it didn’t matter if you couldn’t tell people what you thought and have the wherewithal to stand by what you said. He didn’t really have to foster that part of me and, in fact, told me to shut up a couple of times because he wanted someone who was afraid to answer. I find myself inadvertently using this technique now when I teach undergrads in the lab.
I talked to him a couple of times outside of normal hours and he’d always be teaching me something, whether he meant to or not: irreverence to stupid ideas; the fact that “You either have to be gifted or hard-working to make it in science, and you and I are not gifted, Thomas”; and, even now, giving me a gentle reminder of the inevitability of death.
He retired at the end of 2007. It made me sad then that no future students would see his lectures, would be directly inspired to take up science by him, or would grow confident due to his questioning. It makes me sad now. But, I am honoured to feel as shitty as I do today; I wouldn’t feel that if he wasn’t an integral part of developing who I am today. You will be missed, Mike Roberts.
(Please feel free to add any Mike Roberts stories of your own via the comments on this page)