Azim Surani interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 19th June 2009

0:09:07 Born in a small town called Kisumu on Lake Victoria in western Kenya in 1945; my grandparents came from India; my paternal grandfather went to Madagascar where my father was born; my maternal grandfather settled in what is now Tanzania where my mother was born; my father went to school in Kenya and stayed there rather than going back to Madagascar; I do not know what part of India they came from but it was probably somewhere in Gujarat; I met my paternal grandparents when they visited us briefly in Kenya but I did not know them well; my maternal grandfather died when he was quite young but I remember my grandmother; my father worked for the Colonial Civil Service; he left school at the age of about sixteen; he loved reading, particularly English literature and history, he was also quite interested in politics; this was a small town but one important fact for me was that there was a British Council library; remember my father taking me there and making me a member so that I could borrow books; despite its small size, Kisumu was one of the key towns in western Kenya which could explain why it had this library; there was a Provincial Commissioner located in the area and the railway from Kisumu went to Nairobi and Mombasa; it was also a trading port on Lake Victoria and an administrative centre; I think my father could have become a successful academic if he had had the opportunity to go to university; his pleasure was reading; my mother looked after us; I have two brothers, an older and younger and a younger sister who was adopted; my mother was the eldest child in her family and when her father died her mother took various jobs to keep them, leaving my mother with the care of the family; I was quite close to her; she had married when about seventeen or eighteen, and my older brother was born about a year later, so she spent most of her life looking after people

9:32:20 I belong to a community that are the followers of the Aga Khan, Ismaili Muslims, though I am not a practicing believer any more; both my parents came from this community; the Aga Khan had established some schools in Kenya at that time; I started at the Aga Khan Primary School in Kisumu which was quite good; at eight or nine I went to Kisumu Primary School which was attended by Asians mainly; at about thirteen I went to Kisumu High School and I did my Cambridge ĎOí levels there; I donít remember any teachers being particularly influential at primary school; at secondary school I do remember some of them and they had a big part to play in what happened to me subsequently; there were no scientists in my immediate or extended family so there was nothing in my background that led me to think about science; most of the time when thinking about a profession, it was medicine or law; I do remember being generally interested in plants and animals; I remember a small laboratory where I think they were doing research on malaria; I did not go inside but would watch them working through a window; I was curious about living things; mathematics was not a very strong subject; I remember when about seven or eight I would go off collecting butterflies; I also went fishing fro small and colorful Tilapia that were plentiful in the lake.† I found living things very attractive and wanted to be close to them

15:30:02 We did not have a choice in the ĎOí levels we did; it was not a very big school so the range was small; there were very few opportunities to learn a musical instrument; we had history, geography, English literature which I enjoyed very much, and sciences; I love listening to music of all sorts and I love going to Kingís Chapel; I like Schubert but my taste is wide; I like listening to radio so I get a variety of music; I do find that it inspires me but I find it distracting when working in the lab; when I was at school I used to like playing tennis and cricket, and I also played hockey; I donít think I was very good at it but I did enjoy tennis particularly; it is not something I have kept up; started wearing glasses at fourteen-fifteen for short-sightedness

20:00:13 I remember my biology teacher in particular, Edwin de Mello, he must have been Goan in origin, and he was a wonderful teacher; he was always asking us to go out and collect things from ponds etc., then he would spend time showing us what we had collected, trying to describe them under the microscope; I always used to volunteer whenever he wanted some specimens; when I was brought up there was very little mixing between different racial groups, so the Asians, Africans and Europeans (mainly British) kept apart; there was one swimming pool at a club, but that was exclusively for Europeans and we were not allowed to go in there; as a result I never learned to swim as the lake was full of crocodiles; at the time I was growing up it did feel strange that there were some areas where we were not allowed to go; the residential areas were all segregated; I donít know whether it was written down but it was fairly clear that some areas were reserved for Europeans; at school the teachers were mostly non-white though we did have a white English teacher; the students were exclusively Asian, and the Africans were kept separate; the only Africans I came into contact with when I was growing up were people that came and worked in our house as servants; everybody had servants then; the school was very good and we had things like drama and a debating society, both of which I took part in; I became a Boy Scout and we would go out camping and it was tremendous fun; we had to generate our own excitement - there was no television although there were two small cinemas

26:20:06 I donít think I was very deeply religious but it did provide a place to meet in this small town - a kind of club; there were services in the Mosque and my parents were quite keen that we should go, but I donít remember taking it very seriously although my parents were fairly serious followers; I could not relate to it as it did not make a lot of sense to me; it ceased to have any real meaning for me; I have no religion now though I would probably describe myself as agnostic; I find it difficult to accept the concept that something has designed everything but it is not something that I spend much time thinking about; it is not a subject that I feel strongly about

30:10:12 I was doing pretty well at school; the country was then undergoing a big change with the approach of independence in the early 1960s; we could feel that things were changing and one of the consequences of this were that the standards started to deteriorate as people started to leave; it destabilized the existing structure; I went to a school in Nairobi, the Kenya Polytechnic, to do my ĎAí levels, but it was clear that the standard of teaching was very poor; I spent a couple of years there but didnít get very good ĎAí level results; I stayed with relatives in Nairobi; I did biology, chemistry and physics; I was unhappy because I had previously done well at school; I was sad that my parents were very upset; they were concerned about all of us as I remember my father saying that we were entering uncertain times† and that a good education was the only way that we could survive; the family went through pretty dramatic times when I was at high school because† my father decided to leave his job, which was a good one, to start a business; I donít think he was really cut out to be a businessman and it failed badly; things were then bad financially; my parents had worked hard to see me through school and I was so anxious not to disappoint them that it was particularly hard for me not to have done well; because we were approaching Independence my parents were wondering what to do; my brother had been to the UK doing civil engineering; they decided that I should go there, although they would stay, as there were no real opportunities for me in universities in Kenya

36:14:06 I came to the UK around 1963; I did not have any funding and spent the first year in London doing some casual jobs, basically trying to survive and think about what I was going to do next; there were two options, one was to do my ĎAí levels again and get into university, or to go somewhere to get a degree of some kind; discussed this with my father and he thought it not worthwhile trying to do ĎAí levels again; I went to what is now Plymouth University where they had London external degrees; I did a degree in natural sciences, in biology, chemistry and zoology; that is what I had at the end of three years, and it was not sufficient to take me forward; coming to England from a small, segregated town, arriving in London and finding myself in the middle of England, was quite a shock; I did experience minor racial incidents but nothing major; I met some very nice people when I came and made some good friends of all types, Asian and others, which was quite a revelation; when a lot of Asians started to come from East Africa a few years later, then there was much stronger racism, but when I arrived I didnít detect that

40:28:13 The teaching at Plymouth was pretty bad; the problem was that I didnít have a lot of money though my parents were trying to support me; I was working whenever I had free time to make some money; I used to do a twelve-hour shift in a bakery which was very well paid; survival was also important so I did not have much spare time or cash; I did not enjoy this time very much; I realized that doing nothing after this was not an option; I had the ambition to have some kind of career in science and I had an inner belief that I could make it; because my first degree was not very good I realized I had to do something else; I decided to do an MSc in biochemistry and went to the University of Strathclyde; there I met some very wonderful people; the science was by research rather than coursework; I started to enjoy this as I was doing things with my hands; started to feel that it was really something that I would like to do; I stayed there for a couple of years; the lecturers in the Department of Biochemistry were very good and were encouraging; they suggested I stayed an extra year and then I would get a PhD rather than an MSc; I liked the idea and went to see the Head of Department, Professor Heald, and he refused to let me stay on; he said that as far as he was concerned all the people that came from the Commonwealth should really go back, and he refused me on those grounds rather than on my ability; I was completely devastated and went to talk to one or two lecturers and they were not surprised; that same day I wrote to Professor Alec Psychoyos in Paris whom I had got to know; he had just come back from the States and had set up his unit in Paris; he immediately sent me an air ticket to Paris; I knew what he was working on and I had told him what I had done; I went to Paris and he offered me a job, so I ended up in Paris in 1970

48:23:05 It was an interesting period politically in Paris, and quite exciting; I met many people who were not scientists, but were doing French literature or philosophy; the bad thing was that Psychoyos had just come back from the States so his lab was not in a very good state for doing research; he was very kind and encouraging, and excited about his work; in the end I donít think I did much work as I was enjoying Paris too much; although I didnít go much to the lab I did learn a lot about many different things; I was there for two years but it was not taking me any further; my ambition was still to get into some scientific profession and to do some serious research; the French system was very strange as you could be given tenure while you were doing the equivalent of your PhD; Psychoyos said I could join the French system and actually work there; I was preparing some documents towards this application but somehow I was not convinced that this was the place for me; maybe the people around me in the lab did not create the right atmosphere for me, and was lacking something; I couldnít see myself establishing a career in scientific reheard in that setup; it was an INSERM Institute based at a hospital in the southern part of Paris; I then had a lucky break; in 1972 I went to a meeting in Nottingham without much of a plan in my head; I had gone to the bar before supper and Bob Edwards walked in; he was the pioneer of test-tube babies with Patrick Steptoe; I had never met him before and we started chatting as nobody else was there; he asked me what I was interested in, what I had done, and what I was doing; after chatting for about half an hour he suggested that I come to Cambridge and do a PhD; I liked the idea but said I had no money; he said that he would get me an MRC studentship; I went back to Paris and thought no more about it; three weeks later I got a letter from Bob saying that he had talked to the Professor and had got me a studentship; I was amazed; I came to Cambridge in October 1972 as an MRC PhD student; that was the luckiest break as it happened completely by chance; somehow, based on this brief conversation he was convinced; this was the Department of Physiology on the Downing Site

57:46:04 Coming to Cambridge was enormously exciting; as soon as I walked in I thought the environment and atmosphere of the labs fantastic; even the sorts of casual conversations that I was starting to have with people were much more interesting; the things they were interested in were much more exciting and you could sense that it was possible to do things; you could ask questions and find ways of answering; there were colleagues around, facilities, everything was possible; when I arrived I had discussions with Bob and I thought that he was very happy with whatever I wanted to do; this was the time that he was trying to develop IVF and was very involved in working with Patrick Steptoe in Oldham, so was frequently going away; although he was away quite a lot he was very inspiring and wonderful to talk to; even a short conversation was very uplifting; when I came he thought I could work on early embryos and particularly to work on events that lead up to the implantation of the embryo; he was interested in this as they were trying to develop these embryos in vitro and wanted to put them back, and one of the problems was with implantation as they were trying to synchronize the embryo and the uterine sensitivity; that he thought would be a good topic for me; I did work on this area of implantation but increasingly I think my area was very strongly in the early development of the embryo; that was the thing that really excited me; I was fascinated particularly by early mammalian development because there were very little known about it at the time when I started