What the art-mad, scientific teenager with a social conscience, Liz Bell would do with her life when she arrived at Lancaster to study biological sciences, would have been difficult for anyone - including herself - to predict.
Now the founder and director of her own education and admissions consultancy, the former Head of Policy for UCAS, has also worked in a range of science roles in the UK and Russia, for the ESRC and for hard-core science organisations. She feels that Lancaster gave her the space to weave together the different threads of her interests.
She says: 'Lancaster broadened my horizons and turned me into a fully-socialised person who could go out and tackle anything I wanted.'
Brought up in London with two much older siblings, Bell had already visited them at other universities long before her time came to choose for herself. She had won a couple of national art competitions as a child, but later felt that the science lab was where it was all happening. So, having spotted a brochure about studying biochemistry, she opted to go to Lancaster to study biological sciences without ever having visited the campus.
Settling into university life was easy because she loved her course and was part of a small group of students. She soon found that the high number of lectures, tutorials and lab based practicals meant that she didn’t have as much social time as some of her humanities friends.
Lectures and practicals she found exciting, particularly those of Professor Steve Hunt. These even involved sessions on nerve toxins.'We were working with curare,' she recalls. 'You would be thinking ‘For goodness sake don’t prick yourself!'
The solid practicality of the course, with plenty of dissection, all done in a small group of really-committed students really appealed to her. Visits from external specialists, such as forensic scientists, began to create a new interest in the wider applications of science. This real world approach permeated the teaching of the entire course.
Although her heavy timetable did not give her as much free time, she made the most of every second she was not working to join the university karate and riding clubs and she also learned to swim during her three years there. She built up a wide circle of friends, many of them in the Afro-Caribbean Society - which put on the best parties on campus and for which she was joint social secretary.
When her time came to leave Lancaster, Bell found she was now more interested in science’s impact on society, policy and research, than what was happening down a microscope. She applied for a sought-after place to study for her Masters at Aston University in the Social Aspects of Science and Technology. At the interview she was grilled on her understanding across a range of sciences - prepared by her broad Lancaster course. She was not only offered a place, but a scholarship too. She then stayed on at Aston and did a PhD in Science and Technology Policy in the Aston Business School. After her PhD she took a job with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) managing, commissioning and funding social science research and postgraduate programmes in the UK. Her time there included a break to take up a Leverhulme Research fellowship with The Oxford Trust and Oxford Innovation Ltd, and ended with a period as Deputy Director of Postgraduate Training.
Her life then took off in a completely unexpected way with a five-year stint in Moscow working for the British Council as Assistant Director Science Engineering and Technology, looking at how to build the right scientific and industrial links between the UK and Russia and helping the Russians to create new science policies and a national innovation system. She had full diplomatic status as First Secretary Science and was routinely hounded by the Russian media. The culmination of her work and the work of the Russian team she led was to help the Russian Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology to write President Putin’s Science and Innovation Plan. She was also the only foreign diplomat to be allowed to see and comment on its first draft. She and her husband also set up a Ki Aikido Club in Moscow which is still thriving.
On her return, her interests in science application took an educational turn in a new job as a Technology Commercialisation Manager at Brunel University followed by six years as Head of Policy and External Affairs for the Physiological Society. She later became Head of Policy for the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS), where she lobbied on broad national education issues such as widening participation, fair access, student number controls and qualification reform.
Now Bell’s life has taken another turn as she and some ex colleagues from UCAS have pooled their resources to set up a consultancy, EdAd, providing innovative admissions advisory services for educational establishments and government policy makers. She is also still working in research and innovation policy and management at the Institute of Bioengineering at Queen Mary in London.
Bell feels that she is playing to her strengths and that Lancaster has enabled her to do this effectively: ‘I had a top-quality education, but it was also the friends with whom I came out of university and the social engagement that have been so much part of my life.'