Sally Chappell was Nottingham’s official Maid Marian, a role she combined with lecturing in human molecular genetics at the city’s university (she arrived there in 1998 as a PhD student), mother to Scarlett, aged three, and, since 2015, married to Tim Pollard, Nottingham’s official Robin Hood.
Last month a paper she co-authored was published in Nature Genetics. The InterPregGen study showed for the first time that some features in a baby’s DNA can increase the risk of its mother developing pre-eclampsia.
Three days after the paper appeared, Sally died of breast cancer aged 39. She was diagnosed two years earlier.
This is not an obituary for Sally. There have been plenty of those already (including the BBC, her local newspaper, and the Daily Mail, many of whom also recorded “Maid Marian’s romance with Robin Hood” (Tim), their marriage, and Scarlett’s arrival.
Sally’s alter ego, the partner of a legendary folk hero who hid an oak tree when not “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” provided the perfect counterpoint to her academic career and was very much part of who she was.
In this she was not unusual. Naturejobs has many examples of researchers who work hard to cultivate outside interests, often to avoid professional burnout and to ensure they are not clocking up 80 hours in the lab. And in the past 12 months we have profiled scientists who participate in hobbies ranging from extreme sports to creative writing, among other things.
Earlier this year the UK Academy of Medical Sciences launched #MedSciLife, its initiative to encourage life outside science, bringing together personal stories “to explore how passions and achievements outside work can influence careers.”
Sally was a real life exponent of this. As Nottingham’s “official Maid Marian” (she and Tim met through a shared passion for historical re-enactments), she welcomed the Olympic torch to Nottingham, met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their visit to the city, as well as many other events to promote the city’s heritage.
The significance of Sally’s life outside science wasn’t lost on her colleagues. In a Nottingham University blog post following her death Paddy Tighe, an associate professor, highlighted Sally’s excellent student reviews, and how she introduced electronic student engagement and feedback systems long before they became more widely used. But he also acknowledges the other Sally, the Sally who worked so hard to promote her adopted city by dressing up as one of its most famous figures.
Linda Morgan, another associate professor colleague of Sally’s and one of the corresponding authors of the IntraPregGen study, replied to the blog post, saying: “We first appreciated that we had somebody rather unusual in the lab when we noticed multiple bruises on her arms one Monday morning – the result of a re-enactment of a Civil War battle on the previous Saturday.
“Sally was appalled when somebody queried whether her role was to prepare 17th century food for the warriors – she had of course been right in the thick of the battle with sword and musket. That’s the sort of commitment that Sal brought to everything, including her teaching and her research.
“A few days after she died a paper on the genetics of pre-eclampsia, co-authored by Sally, was published in Nature Genetics – a fitting accolade for a true scientist.”
I don’t know if Sally ever attended the Naturejobs Career Expo, but I suspect she would wholeheartedly support this year’s plans to celebrate life outside science.
As part of #IAmAScientistAndA, we’ll be encouraging scientists to describe the other roles they juggle alongside science, creating a wall of images at the conference venue. We’re not necessarily seeking the unusual or exotic here. There will, I’m sure, be an army of mothers and fathers, maybe some artists, writers, poets, mountain bikers, breadmakers. Who knows?
If you want to get in on the act early, leave a #IAmAScientistAndA comment on this blog, or via the Naturejobs Facebook page.
We may well discover that taking part in historical re-enactments is a popular pastime. But I suspect we won’t meet another Maid Marian.
The Naturejobs Career Expo takes place at The Business Design Centre, London, on 4 October 2017. Registration opens on 1 August. For inquiries regarding registrations, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.