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Reaching the high notes for science in the city

'WE'RE almost like a science dating agency," Dr Susie Mitchell says at one point while talking about Glasgow City of Science.

DR SUSIE MITCHELL: City of Science director is also a talented musician who supported James Brown in a concert three months before his death. Picture: Jamie Simpson
DR SUSIE MITCHELL: City of Science director is also a talented musician who supported James Brown in a concert three months before his death. Picture: Jamie Simpson

That "almost" is key. The organisation is a lot more than a means of introducing lonely hearts in white lab coats to one another.

Glasgow City of Science, of which she is programme director, is an ambitious, multi-disciplinary grouping. It wants its 50 partners to work "smarter together" to enhance local scientific potential as a means of attracting money, investment and jobs, and of raising the profile of Glasgow and the west of Scotland as a world-class scientific destination.

Its ultimate aim is to ensure people's lives are made "healthier, longer and better by boosting new investment, jobs and skills within a buoyant, knowledge-based economy".

The partners include universities, colleges, the city council, the Art School, the science centre, the City Marketing Bureau and NHS 24. Few other organisations can bring together entities quite as diverse as Cineworld and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

"It is quite an eclectic mix of people," Dr Mitchell concedes. "Sometimes these people might be working in siloed organisations. The whole point of City of Science was a recognition that we can leverage science and innovation better if we work in partnership: you may be able to stimulate more forward thinking and creative innovation through breaking those silos.

"The partners come from disparate sectors, and are all really busy, but as there's a lot of really exciting work going on in the city it might be useful to be able to say, 'Did you know that so-and-so is doing something very similar?'

"It's all about avoiding duplication and fragmentation, and increasing the extent of knowledge exchange within the city. We're also interested in collating all the science events in the city. The message is that Glasgow is a city of scientific culture."

Science truly runs in Dr Mitchell's genes. Her father, Professor Geoff Palmer OBE, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh, is a cereals expert who worked in the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling.

He was Scotland's first black professor - "an incredible achievement," his daughter has noted, "for a boy branded by the system as 'educationally subnormal' at the age of 12" - and was recently knighted for services to human rights, science and charity. His wife Margaret is a chartered child psychologist who has helped many vulnerable children. Both parents have had a lasting impact on Dr Mitchell.

She graduated from St Andrews University with a BSc Hons in Cell and Molecular Biology and came to Glasgow 18 years ago to complete a PhD in cancer research at the Beatson Institute.

In her final year she won the Institute's John Paul Award for Research Excellence for her work on the Evi-1 proto-oncogene ("That," she smiles, "was a good day!")

She spent five years managing clinical research and commercialisation in the NHS in Glasgow and was a public health policy-maker within the chief executive's office at Glasgow City Council. While there, she co-authored a measure aimed at promoting health improvement, equality and human rights in public policy-making; it was published by the World Health Organisation and was rolled out within the NHS in Scotland and Scottish Government.

Before arriving at her City of Science office, within Glasgow Science Centre, she worked for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee and also for a global sustainability consultancy. "Ever since the Beatson Institute," she says, "my career has had a science or health-related link within."

It turns out, however, that science is not her only passion. Music means a great deal to her too. While she was growing up, she played piano and acoustic guitar. She remembers switching guitar tutors, picking up the electric guitar and learning how to play "screaming Pink Floyd solos, much to my mother's dismay".

She is now a sought-after songwriter and session vocalist; she supported James Brown in a concert three months before his death and has been lead vocalist in Glasgow Gospel Choir.

She even adapted one of her father's unpublished poems on slavery and human equality, added a chorus and extra verse, and turned it into a song called Abolition, as a Christmas present for him. This song, and several others, can be heard on her page on the Reverbnation website.

Now her focus is on helping to raise the profile of scientific subjects and Glasgow City of Science alike. She is fascinated, for instance, by the story of Henrietta Lack, a black American woman whose cell sample, taken without her consent, was used as the raw basis for several key scientific discoveries.

She talks enthusiastically about a meeting with playwright Peter Arnott, whose acclaimed play, Group Portrait in a Landscape, is about the human genome project. "Examining complex subjects through art and literature and theatre is something that excites me," she says. "I see it as our role here to hook up scientists with playwrights, writers, authors, and theatre companies, so that they come to understand what the issues are."

She passionately wants to see more women establishing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths), as they are a remarkably valuable pool of untapped talent.

"Women and girls in science is a key issue. One of the difficulties is in keeping them there. Teachers say they can hook kids into science in the first and second years through explosions and that sort of thing - but how do you keep girls interested in later years?

"A lot of young women take science at university, but difficulties often arise later if they decide to have children or career breaks. The technology moves so quickly."

One of her favourite quotations is by Michelle Obama: "If we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we've got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math."

I'm not sure if Dr Mitchell sees herself as a role model for other women in any way; but, at the age of just 39, she has shown what brains, dedication and ambition can receive. Not to mention a rather good singing voice.

www.glasgowcityofscience.com; www.reverbnation.com/susiepalmer

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