I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a nerd, a swot; ok, ok, a down-right geek! From a young age I became fascinated in the world and all of its workings. And like most kids I would persistently annoy (and presumably embarrass at times) my parents with questions of “But why?”, “How?”, “What does that mean?” Even a trip to the supermarket was an education, though not strictly for me but for my mum and anyone else that would listen. My mother would pay very close attention to – I flatter myself: would show at least a vague interest in – my eager ramblings on all that I had learned that day at school. I was particularly pleased when I could actually apply my knowledge: “An electric shock from the trolley, you say? Why, that’s simply due to the flow of electrons between you and the trolley as static energy builds up as the trolley is pushed around!” Interesting, huh?! No? Oh, ok. I’ll shut up.
Anyway, suffice to say I loved to learn and in particular had a passion for science. That’s not to say I didn’t have an interest in other things. In fact, I never dreamed of being a scientist when I was a child. Becoming a hairdresser seemed much more up my street – my hair was so long I could sit on it. That was until my auntie (a hairdresser at the time) told me there wasn’t much money in this career path so I quickly gave up on that idea. Clearly making money – and lots of it – was top priority on my job specifications list back then. Forget job satisfaction!
My next career move, at about the age of 15, was to join the Royal Navy. My dad had been a deep-sea diver in the Navy; I had heard some of his fishy tales and thought this seemed like a fun job and perhaps would bring in more dough than hairdressing. Yet, when I got to thinking about it, it didn’t seem quite me – I was a shy, sensitive child and being yelled at for not being able to see my reflection in my boots or having my neckerchief slightly askew didn’t really appeal. However, staying true to the watery theme, I switched my thoughts to marine biology, combining both my interest in the sea and nerdy enjoyment of science. Yet here I have to admit to not being wholly committed to this career choice and the idea was only fleeting (sorry dad! I think he still harbours a vain hope that I will come to my senses one day and hear the call of the sea).
During this time of indecisiveness with regards to what I would be when I “grew up” (I should say, I still don’t feel “grown up”) I continued to study hard with the ambition of getting into University. I seemed to be good at learning and passing exams and so going to University to learn more and do yet more exams seemed the natural path for me. I was encouraged to apply to the University of Cambridge by my school teachers – just applying seemed daunting enough, let alone the interview process – and in 2002 I was happily (and disbelievingly) accepted into Clare College to read Natural Sciences. I specialised in Pathology and in 2005 graduated with my BA. By this time I knew that I wanted to be a “proper scientist”: don lab coat, gloves and pipette, and make lots of exciting discoveries, ultimately to help people. And so I embarked on a PhD to study a rare childhood blood cancer and graduated in 2010.
Whilst I enjoyed my PhD, by this time I wasn’t convinced that academia was for me. Academic research involves working long hours, doing experiment upon experiment for days, or even weeks, which more often than not fail for some technical or frustratingly unknown reason. After attempting the same experiment several times over, each time with a tweaked variable until you’ve exhausted all the options, sometimes you get your answer, other times you realise the experiment probably wasn’t worth doing in the first place. Worse still, another lab has beaten you to it (and they did it better), stealing your scientific glory. Added to this are the continual quest for funds (most laboratories in the UK are charity funded so money is tight), the competition and the job insecurity.
But let me stress that it’s not all negative. Far from it, in fact. Working in a lab is great fun: you get the freedom to work on incredibly interesting questions, alongside some of the most interesting and intelligent people in the world. You are all in the same boat working towards one goal and so strong friendships are forged. Academic research is also highly rewarding when you finally achieve that eureka moment, when all your years (and it is always years) of toiling at the bench day after day pay off. For some, those rare eureka moments are enough to see them through the downsides of science. But for me it wasn’t enough: those moments were just too rare and didn’t compensate for the rest of the time when all I had to show for my hard labour was a set of experiments that seemed to flag up more questions than they answered. So, about a year and a half into my first post-doctoral research position I started to have doubts about a life in academic science and the thought of leaving was out there.
Now, you’re probably wondering where, in all of these years, baking comes into the story. Well, I do believe that the seed was sown early. The first recollection that I have of my fondness for baking (or was it business? Read on…) was when I was about 10 years old. I decided that I could make quite a tidy sum selling cupcakes to the neighbours. I figured everyone likes cake, so why not provide a sort of take-away service where the customer calls on demand and 20 minutes later they’d have fresh cupcakes delivered straight into their hands? Suffice to say, at this tender age I didn’t think about the business model very much and having just delivered my carefully typewritten, crayon-coloured cupcake-shaped leaflets to just the people on my street, I was never destined to make much money. And to top it all I didn’t even know how to bake cupcakes! But I wouldn’t let that stop me! Oh no, I supposed it was easy enough to learn so I persisted in my venture. Alas, my efforts never came to fruition, for much to my surprise not a single enquiry was made. And so it seemed my baking days were numbered before they’d even begun and I closed the door firmly (or so I thought) on the baking world and didn’t look back for some time. In fact I had entirely forgotten this childhood story until a few months ago when my husband and I covered miles (on foot!) in the cold and wet of a British winter to deliver leaflets for my first ever pop-up pâtisserie at Spa ely.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself for, before that, came the realisation that I actually can bake, several years of baking and decorating for fun for friends and family, and then… baking to win! In 2013 I was crowned Cambridgeshire’s best amateur baker following a gruelling few months in the Cambridge Bake Off: a local version of the hit TV show The Great British Bake Off (no, I didn’t appear on TV, nor did I meet Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood, but it was tough all the same!).
My enjoyment of baking and sugar artistry (ok, cake decorating, but “sugar artistry” sounds much more intriguing, no?) didn’t really begin until around the time of my wedding in 2008. I would spend many an hour poring over wedding magazines getting inspiration for the all-important cake. The result of all of this research was me thinking: “I wonder if I can do that?” So I bought a book and I just had a go, simple as that. My husband took some of the cakes to his work and his colleagues were impressed enough that they began asking me to make cakes for their children and partners. I happily obliged and soon found myself in this whole other world of sugar and creativity! I didn’t have an immediate desire to work with cake – I couldn’t even contemplate it – what, after all those years of study and hard work, ditch the lab?! No way! And besides, I was doing my PhD at the time and still very much enjoying the scientific bubble.
However, over the next few years, friends and family really started to admire my work with cake – I even got asked to do a couple of wedding cakes for friends – and the joys of the lab were diminishing. As I gained confidence in baking and decorating, my cake projects became more and more ambitious. Just as in my academic life I wanted to be challenged, so too in my sugary life I craved the challenge of creating something polished, perfected and extraordinary…like this minion, made entirely out of cake, for a competition in which David Baddiel quite randomly was the judge.
I loved to experiment with flavour combinations and tweak classical recipes to create something new and exciting. Yet unlike in the lab, in the kitchen most of my attempts would work and the results would be highly satisfying. To see someone’s face light up with absolute joy at the sight (and then taste) of one of my cakes is such an amazing feeling. Like science, the hours spent in the kitchen were long – really long – and had to be juggled with my day job. It wasn’t unusual for me to burn the midnight oil and work through to the early hours of the morning before grabbing sometimes only two hours’ rest before heading off to the lab. But I did it because I loved the joy cake brought to people and the satisfaction it gave me upon seeing my initial thoughts and plans for a cake turned into reality. So this little hobby of mine seemed set to stay and I continued juggling the academic and artistic life for several years.
Then in March last year a friend sent me an email to apply for the inaugural Cambridge Bake Off. I did just that and, well, you know the rest (and if you want to know more, you can read it here). Following my win I was asked to run a few classes at the Cambridge Cookery School. I agreed, though fearing no-one would be interested; but to my surprise, my classes were pretty much full and, though tiring, I really loved it! The competition allowed me to meet some great people in the foodie scene (most of the judges were food-related entrepreneurs themselves) who encouraged me to take my talent and passion for baking further. Until then, I had never considered quitting science – it was all I’d known for a very long time, and I had worked hard to get to where I was. But no matter how hard you work at being a scientist, unless there is a real passion, necessary to see you through the lows, you’ll probably never make it to the top of your game. For me, that burning desire to be a great scientist simply wasn’t there. Once I’d admitted that to myself, I began to look at what I was passionate about and found it in baking. Baking was no longer just something I did on the side for fun. In truth, I didn’t really find it fun anymore – I would take on ever-more challenging cakes, the design often my own suggestion – and this would mean hours upon hours of work and no rest: lab work, followed immediately by cake work with most weekends also taken up with cake projects. It was completely exhausting and I would hate myself at the time for taking on the project, swearing never to do it again… but I always did. The moment a project was complete and another happy customer under my belt, I’d be thinking about the next cake and when it might come and what form it would take. The euphoric sense of achievement and the joy of seeing a happy customer are the reasons I did it and why I’m doing it now.
When I was setting out on my PhD journey and joined a cancer research lab, I did it because I wanted to help people. Yet working away on my tiny little piece of the bigger cancer puzzle I never really felt that I was making a difference to people’s lives, not a direct one anyway. And now, whilst I’m not helping medically, I do feel that I’m playing an important role in enriching the lives of others in a much more direct way. As trite as it may sound, cake makes people happy, it brings people together: who isn’t overjoyed when a colleague announces on a busy day at the office “It’s my birthday today; tea and cake at 3pm!”? And would any birthday party ever be complete without the cake and the ceremony of letting the children gleefully blow out the candles? We’ve all had bad days and sometimes a wedge of cake is all that is needed to clear those grey skies.
And so that’s why I do it. That’s how this university graduate with three degrees can call it quits at the lab. Cake makes people happy. It makes me happy. Will I miss science? I haven’t considered that I’ve left it: baking is itself a science; understanding the chemistry of baking will determine the difference between a good bake and a great bake. Precision and accuracy form the key to success. Making this transition is no longer an option for me: I simply have to do it. I have to give it my best shot. I don’t regret any major life choices so far; I certainly don’t want to start now! Life is short, but may it forever be sweet.