Shooting for the moon

Who better to teach Vocational Science than a self-confessed “all-round geek” with a life-long love of learning, thoughts of being cryogenically preserved, the moon at the top of her holiday list – and one of the country’s few demountable campervans? Dr Jane Sullivan, Section Manager, Vocational Science at Newcastle College, isn’t your conventional science teacher.

With her dad an aerospace engineer and her mum a district nurse, it’s perhaps not surprising that Jane grew up a science geek. Well, not technically a science geek, more  “an all-round geek! I was head-girl at a comprehensive school so I was always a responsible learner. My mum tells me I had revision schedules and kept myself on track.”

With her heart set on being a doctor, her best-laid plans were knocked off course when she didn’t get the grades she needed to take up her place at university. Through clearing she was offered a place on the Biochemistry course. Unsure what it entailed, she nevertheless grabbed the opportunity, glad to confirm a university place. “I’ve never looked back since.”

Jane went on to spend 15 years at AstraZeneca, leaving as a Senior Biophysical Scientist, having been published repeatedly and clutching a variety of additional qualifications. The big one was an MPhil, which she did in collaboration with a research group at Newcastle University. A few years later she was hankering to do a PhD. While the work she was involved in at that time was worthy of the academic accolade, she simultaneously wanted to take a career break. The answer was to choose a topic she could do at home but that was also linked to her career – Moral and Ethical Philosophy.

It was something I had never considered before and it really broadened my horizons. Life is there to learn about and I want to know more, whether that’s about the area I’m spending time in, on holiday or work related. I drive everyone mad at home, and I sometimes struggle accepting that not everyone has the same compulsion.”

This drive is evident in whatever Jane tackles, and she constantly looks to the future to bring about change. When asked where she most wants to go on holiday, she answers “the Moon. Maybe this represents my drive to do the unexpected, aim high (literally) and think beyond normal boundaries.”

The sabbatical Jane coveted came in 2007 in the form of family year out. She and her husband resigned from their jobs, sold their house and packed what they could (including their two daughters) into a caravan and a 4×4. “We spent a year travelling and learning about life, Europe and each other. We home schooled the children (of a fashion) and I re-learnt a lot of basic knowledge I had long forgotten.” On returning to England, teaching was an obvious choice for Jane, as it seemed her “whole life had been about education”.

In 2009, Jane joined Carlisle College as a Lecturer in Applied Science, responsible for developing science provision, managing learning programmes and curriculum development, and managing student admissions and delivering teaching. A year ago she joined Newcastle College. As section manager she enjoys molding the curriculum into what she knows is needed. Whilst not directly teaching anymore, she has plenty of interaction with students. “I’ve had my first experiences of working with higher education and I’m excited by the prospect of this developing further to ensure we can deliver a product that businesses need for their workforce.”

Last year Jane completed her QTLS qualification. As part of this she had to set her goals. “I thought I’d be bold and said I wanted to be a vice-principal at a college within five years. I’ve made one small step within 12 months, so watch this space!”

Jane has been married for 23 years to her childhood sweetheart. “I got married whilst at university. My family thought I was pregnant when I announced we were getting married in six months, but we always knew we would be together so there was no point in waiting.” Her two daughters are polar opposites: Elena is 18, enjoys science and is considering taking it as a career, although English is her passion; at 15 Madeleine hates science and is leaning towards social work.

At this difficult stage in their academic careers, Jane is focused on spending as much time with her daughters as her long and busy days will allow. With a 150 mile round trip commute (she lives in Cumbria and works in Newcastle) she’s exhausted by the time she gets home, but always finds the reserve to “plunge into A level chemistry or GCSE geography with enthusiasm.” Jane has also just bought a demountable camper and has a young dog. “I like to get out with the dog and having the camper means we can go a bit further afield and stay out overnight. I’m also quite creative and enjoy decorating, and have been known to get out the masking tape on a whim and add a splash of colour here and there.”

The demountable camper earns Jane strange looks when she drives about in it. Her eccentricities don’t end there: her family is very familiar with her musings about buying a cryogenic chamber if she wins the lottery.

I want to come back (having been cured or fixed of whatever has killed me) in the future and see what’s happened to the world. I know science will make significant changes to this world (and possibly others) and I’d like to see them.”

Despite her colourful edge, Jane believes she’ll always be a science researcher at heart and will eventually go back and do more. “There’s nothing like data and a good graph.”


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