Open Eye: Opening up

Each issue `Open Eye' interviews an OU graduate who has gone on to better things. This month, the shipyard worker who became a genetics scientist
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The Independent Online
Paul Kells, 40, left school at 15 to become an apprentice at Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness. After almost 20 years as a fitter and turner, he decided to do an Open University course. These studies led to a full- time degree and the start of a career as a genetics research scientist. He is currently looking into possible causes of infertility in men.

What was your family background?

I was brought up in Barrow. My father was a bricklayer and my mother was manageress of a betting shop.

What was your earliest ambition?

As a child I didn't have any particular ambitions. Barrow-in-Furness was a big shipbuilding town and 90 per cent of the male school leavers went on to work in the shipyard. So it was a natural progression for a boy from a working-class background to go into the shipyards.

How were your school years?

I liked science and maths and technical drawing, but I didn't really put in that much effort - I just plodded along without ever trying too hard. I failed my interview for grammar school - afterwards my headmaster said to my mother: "It's a pity about Paul, because he got the highest marks in town in the 13-plus." But apparently at the interview they decided that I "wasn't suitable" for grammar or tech.

What was your first job, and how much did you earn?

Working in a supermarket, for pounds 4.60 a week. My first proper job was as a shipyard apprentice at 16. I got pounds 10. 83 a week. This was back in 1973.

What made you start studying with the OU?

Someone working in my department at Vickers was studying for an OU degree, and it sounded pretty interesting. Also at the time (1990) there were rumours of redundancies, so it seemed a good idea to think about doing something else.

What difference has the OU made?

It changed my life. I did the science foundation course first, and found what I enjoyed most was the biology, particularly the genetics, so that started me in the direction of where I am now. I went on to do "Biology: Form and Function", and then "Biology: Brain and Behaviour".

What does your current job involve?

I'm doing PhD research into male infertility and subfertility, in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Nottingham University. There is a particular enzyme believed to be important in the development of the male sperm, and so far no-one has succeeded in isolating it.

What I'm trying to do is to clone the gene that produces the enzyme, using techniques which are quite well known, but as far as I know have never been applied to this problem before.

If it succeeds - and I am feeling optimistic - it could eventually lead to a treatment for some types of male infertility. Equally, it could be the basis for a male contraceptive. There could also be a tie-in with current research into "endocrine disrupters" - chemicals humans are putting into the environment which may be causing sperm counts to drop world-wide. If this gene can be shown to be affected by these endocrine disrupters, it's a good candidate to explain why sperm counts are dropping.

How did you get the job?

I finally took voluntary redundancy from Vickers in 1993, and from there I went on to do a full-time BSc at Nottingham University. I had five offers of university places - specifically because of the OU modules I had done, as I had no other relevant qualifications. When I finished my BSc, I had three offers of PhD research posts, and took this one, supervised by Dr Paul Maynard, because it was the one that interested me most.

What do you enjoy most about it?

Research is such a stimulating process - nothing is easy. And the thing about this particular research is that it is applicable to the human situation.

The disappointment when something doesn't work. An experiment can take 18 hours in the lab to set up, then you have to wait a week to see if it works. If it doesn't, there's another week wasted. Sometimes you have to repeat an experiment 10 or 15 times. You need the patience of a saint.

Would you do more OU study? If so, what?

First I'd like to finish my OU degree! I stopped when I went into full- time study. I think the OU is the finest education money can buy - the standard of the courses, particularly at second level, is very high.

To what do you attribute your success?

Determination. You've got to be determined and want to change your life. There's no point in going about it half-heartedly.

What do you most regret - if anything?

That I didn't do it years ago. I think that if I had had the motivation to study at 21, I would have been mentally quicker. And the first year at full-time university, up with all those youngsters who had A-level chemistry, was very hard.

What are your goals for the future?

I hope it doesn't sound corny, but I'd like to be an OU tutor. I want to give something back.

How would you like to be remembered?

As one of the lads who escaped the horrendous boredom of working in the shipyard, and went on to something a bit better.