One of the joys of the “Cambridge experience” is that our Colleges allow us to build bridges between disciplines, and bridges between undergraduate and leading academics. These “bridges” are of course invaluable. Whether we reach out adequately beyond our own community is another question.

A fascinating insight into the value of interdisciplinary research was provided this week by the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz. He gave the first of this year’s Darwin Lectures, which are on the theme of plagues. His lecture, entitled “Plagues and Medicine”, explored human reactions to plagues, and not the hard science, although he built his career as a Professor of Medicine.

Focusing largely on 19th century responses to the smallpox vaccine, the Vice-Chancellor showed how many of the opponents to vaccination were not necessarily resisting change: they were often social reformers, keen to improve social conditions, but they had a real problem with the element of compulsion, without which programmes of vaccination against seriously infectious disease were invalidated. The question becomes, when should the individual’s right to choose be constrained for the wider community benefit? Opinion formers, he said, play a vital role. Rational and irrational arguments must be challenged. (So – an encouragement to speak out, to blog?) The Vice-Chancellor explored how human reactions to plagues are dependent not only on the prevalent biomedical understanding of disease, but also on how communities and individuals respond to this science. He concluded that understanding how society accepts an intervention, such as a vaccine programme, may be more complex than understanding the biomedical aspects. It was fascinating to listen to a highly respected scientist recognising the value of sociologists, reaching out and crossing bridges across disciplines. Next week’s lecture looks to be just as stimulating: the Master of St John’s and Dr Mary Dobson on “Plagues and History”.

Building and crossing bridges is no easy matter. During my first week as Master, back in October, my two working “worlds” were shown to me in jarring contrast. My introduction to Fitzwilliam through the Master’s eyes included matriculation dinners for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Undergraduate matriculation dinner has always been a high point for me: what a treat, listening to this newly arrived cohort of undergraduates, full of excitement, tinged with nervousness, at the thought of the adventures which lie ahead of them in Cambridge. It is a privilege to teach, to work alongside, such hard-working and intellectually gifted young people. But that week I was also in Wormwood Scrubs prison in London, contributing to an OFSTED debate on the educational opportunities provided in the prison system.  Half of all prisoners have no qualifications at all – not even a GCSE. The debate followed a lecture by OFSTED’s National Director for Further Education and Skills, Matthew Coffey, who pointed out that no prison has been rated ‘outstanding’ for its education and training provision in the last four years. Only 35 per cent were judged to be ‘good’.

The contrast between the opportunities open to young people at Fitzwilliam and those in prison was shockingly stark. But these are deep waters to be swimming over so summarily – to be explored further, perhaps in a future blog post. For now, and in the practical realm, I am particularly delighted to see that the current students of Fitzwilliam have taken the initiative to build a bridge between these two worlds. Jeremy Judge (Maths Part III, 2013) has grabbed an opportunity to develop a relationship between one of our local prisons and Fitzwilliam Chapel Choir. Last term, the Choir sang in a service in the prison, and then returned a few weeks later to join their carol service. This week I have learnt that they have been encouraged to return later this term to lead a workshop in the prison that will build a choir out of prisoners and prison staff.  A wonderful way of building bridges. A learning experience for those within the prison, and quite as much an education for the students of Fitzwilliam College.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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