Open the door of a lecture theatre or laboratory full of students beginning a taught Masters course this month, and you might expect to find it predominantly populated by twentysomethings eager to build on the knowledge and experience gained from their first degree.
While that may still be true in the majority of cases, there are some striking exceptions to this stereotype. None more so than Tito Akindele, 38, who's among the 35 or so students a few weeks into their course leading to an MSc in cancer cell and molecular biology at the University of Leicester. The merest squint at Akindele's CV will show evidence of a PhD from Imperial University, four years' post-doctoral work in the field of organic chemistry in Japan, and a couple of spells working as an industrial chemist, for both Fuji and Pfizer, in the UK.
Part of the clue as to why this accomplished academic has chosen to take what appears to be several steps down the academic ladder lies in the fact that this course is, although described as a taught Masters, heavily weighted towards research.
"I quickly want to learn the basics of molecular biology and then apply it to research in a new field [cancer]," he explains. But, with his impressive academic and research track record, does he really need to go back to the classroom? The answer is yes, because there's very little overlap between the scientific areas he's inhabited for nearly two decades and the (more biological) areas where cancer research is based. He sees both an opening and a need for more academically-trained chemists to enter this field.
"At the moment in the UK, there aren't enough cancer scientists who have a chemistry background," he explains. "Most come from the life sciences rather than, like me, the physical sciences."
So, despite his experience, in these first few weeks he is regularly being taken out of his comfort zone. "It's challenging and stretching, but that's the point of doing it," he says. "I didn't want to take on something where I could have just read a book. Also, the lectures are more like seminars, delivered by professors going to the frontiers of their fields. They're all designed to gear you up to doing your own research and getting published in the cancer field."
There are five taught modules, covering the genetics, pathology and toxicology related to the development of cancer, plus sessions on research methods, and data analysis. Assess-ment is by written assignments and end-of-term exams.
"At the end of December we'll all be assigned to a research group or institute at the university," he explains. "From that point on, it will all get very research intensive."
Most of Akindele's fellow students on the course are a lot younger then than him, with about two thirds of them having done undergraduate degrees in the UK, and the rest coming from abroad. But he's not in the least bit uncomfortable sharing lecture rooms with students who are far less advanced on their education journeys. "I don't have a problem sitting down with people half my age, because they'll learn from me and I'll learn from them. Taking more exams doesn't bother me at all either, because the aim of exams is not to pass them and get a high mark – the aim is gaining knowledge." And as a former Leicester University student (Akindele graduated in chemistry in 2000), he gets a 10 per cent discount on the Masters fees of just under £5,000.
"To be honest though, if it was twice the price I would still do it," he laughs. "Because it's what I want to do."