Hello, I’m Hamish Symington

Hamish Symington

I’m a third-year PhD student in Professor Beverley Glover’s lab in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge. My research is looking at what bees like about flowers, trying to find out what might make our crops better at being pollinated.

I give talks to beekeepers’ associations, nature groups and science festivals, focussing on my work, pollination, and food security in general.

When I’m not in the lab, I spend time with my wife and daughter, keep honeybees, sing bass in classical choirs, and set cryptic crosswords under the pseudonym ‘Soup‘. I can also often be found in the kitchen attempting overly complex recipes.

You can read my CV or get in touch with me; you can also find me on Twitter.

About me

I grew up in a tiny village in East Sussex called Chiddingly, which has the best pub in the world, and an 11th-century church which is unusual because it is just called ‘The Church’ and is not dedicated to a saint. My mum stayed at home to look after my sister and me, and my dad ran an insect zoo called The Living World, which he opened on the day my sister was born.

I loved science when I was young, and my parents encouraged me; my dad took me to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on particle physics (given by Frank Close; I always remember his demonstration of how the same set of atoms can form different molecules by rearranging the letters of the word CORNFLAKES into his name). I was hooked on physics and chemistry, and wanted to learn more, so applied to Cambridge: I was keen to do physics as a final degree, but had to do other subjects as well because that’s how the ‘Natural Sciences‘ course works.

At Cambridge I found that I didn’t enjoy university-level physics so much – at least in the first year it was very historical – but I loved the biology of cells course. Two lecturers – David Summers and Chris Howe – were particularly inspiring, and I emailed Chris to ask if I could have a summer job in his lab to practice biology. To my surprise he said yes, and I learned a huge amount from Adrian, J├╝rgen and Ellen in his lab, who supervised me over two summers and a third-year project, and I ended up specialising in biochemistry.

At Cambridge, biochemistry is a three- or four-year degree; there were 30 places on the four-year course, allocated by how you did in your second year. Among those who wanted to do biochemistry, I came 31st in the year, and so missed out on a place on the fourth year. At the time, I was heartbroken, but it turned out to be a blessing: it made me actually think about whether I wanted to do a fourth year or not, rather than accepting one by default. I realised I wasn’t ready to be a full-time scientist, so left after three years. Unsure of what to do, I worked for my college (St Catharine’s) for a year in the alumni department, then moved to an office within the University as a computer officer.

By then, I’d decided to try something I’d been keen on for a while – a complete departure from science: graphic design. I did four-fifths of a BTEC at the London College of Printing, and soon after got a job as a designer at Cambridge University Press. It was fun, and I learnt a lot, with about 30 different projects on the go at any time. I quit in 2008 to go freelance, and built up a decent portfolio of clients.

In the same year a friend I’d met at the Press asked if I’d like to join him in setting up a company to sell some software he’d written to manage photography businesses. I thought it sounded fun, so said yes; we needed a name to get a bank account, so Light Blue Software was born. We wrote in FileMaker, and were awarded a prize by FileMaker UK for the best software written using it, then after a few years rewrote everything from scratch in a new language to make ‘proper’ Mac and Windows applications. In the eight years I worked there we built a solid product, a great customer base (with thousands of photographers around the world using it), and a reputation for fabulous customer service.

But, in 2016, I decided I missed being the first person in the world to know stuff. I’d taken up beekeeping in 2013, and was fascinated by the insects and by the flowers they visited. People knew I had a science background and asked me questions which I didn’t know how to answer – but I wanted to know! So, after much angst, I left the company (which is still going strong), with the hope of starting a PhD. I went and talked to Beverley Glover (now my boss) about potential projects, won a place on a funded PhD scheme at Cambridge and have very much enjoyed the research so far.

I’ve also really enjoyed the extra things outside the PhD: I’ve run small group sessions with undergraduates to talk them through lecture content (called ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge), helped teach on a fabulous week-long field trip to Portugal for second-year plant scientists, given talks to nature groups and prospective undergraduates, been on all sorts of public engagement courses, featured on BBC News and in the New York Times… but the research which underpins it is also highly enjoyable, too.

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