26 February 2021
“Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, always be open to learning.” Wise words indeed from Dr Julie Maxton CBE, Executive Director of London’s historic Royal Society, spoken via Zoom while giving her inspirational talk as part of Kilgraston’s Women and Business lecture programme.
Brought up in Edinburgh, and originally training as a barrister at the Middle Temple in London, Dr Maxton talked to girls about her career-trajectory and what had brought her to the position of the first woman in 350 year to hold the post at the world’s oldest, continuous, scientific academy: “I’ve had a lifetime of looking at evidence,” she told girls, “always try to look through the eyes of each side.”
The Royal Society enjoys patronage of scientific super-brains including, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton, Jennifer Doudna, Dorothy Hodgkin, Sir David Attenborough, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, together with Elon Musk, one of only five, global, centibillionaires.
It’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ means ‘take nobody’s word for it’: “This is an expression of the determination of members to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment,” expanded Dr Maxton, “we always look for the facts, we’re the opposite of ‘fake news’”.
Part of Dr Maxton’s job is to administer the RS’s £100m annual grant budget, nurturing a pipeline of over 3,000 young scientists who benefit from the global network of experts offering mentoring, investment and business advice. “I didn’t know a thing about spreadsheets,” laughed the good-humoured speaker, “but I sat down and learnt and knew how to ask if I didn’t!”
Girls also learnt how Dr Maxton’s progression drew on various life- influences, including, in her current position, legal contacts nurtured during time as a barrister: “I knew quite a few judges and one of the recurring subjects was the need for better understanding of the strength of accurate scientific evidence presented in court.” Continuing, she added: “the right questions must always be asked, based on a clear statement of science.”
This thought-process resulted in RS Fellow and renowned University of Cambridge Professor of Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory, Sir David Spiegelhalter OBE, giving several senior judges topic-specific lectures on scientific assessment: “Remember,” commented Dr Maxton, “you must always keep learning; learn anywhere and from anyone.”
As a result of this collaboration with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, benchmark-documents, on subjects such as ‘Forensic DNA analysis,’ ‘Forensic gait analysis,’ and ‘The use of statistics in legal proceedings,’ are now embedded in the UKs legal framework.
Pupils were quick to fire questions at the impressive guest-speaker with one Sixth Former intuitively asking how she dealt with career set-backs. Answer? “At my first job, I was the only woman in the faculty. Always be analytical and objective, your professionalism will carry you through. Very quickly, I learnt that you have to look after yourself.” Hugely impressed by the visiting speaker, one Fifth Form girl described Dr Maxton as “inspirational,” adding that it had “opened her eyes to global possibilities.”
Concluding the lecture, Dr Maxton urged pupils not to feel pigeon-holed by following one path: “Be prepared to change career, take opportunities. No one will think for you. Put your own hand up.”
Sound advice indeed.