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“Understanding it too well can make me reel off words and phrases that owners are not likely to grasp”

17 April 2018, at 12:37pm

Sitting at a dinner a few nights ago in college, I attempted a conversation with my neighbour, a professor of mathematics. “What does the next term hold in store for you?” I asked. “Two new PhD students to supervise,” came the brief response. “And can you explain to me in terms I would understand what they are looking into?” I asked. “No,” was the single-word answer, which rather halted conversation, as you might imagine. The meal was good and the wine excellent, which somewhat made up for the lack of interaction! But on my return home, I looked up the professor and his work. 

Sure enough, a review of his key book ended with the words: “Far too hard to read, and not for the fainthearted.” Never to be classed as faint-hearted, I thought that Wikipedia at least might give me a way into the topic. Not so! A ‘topos’ is this professor’s key research area, says Wikipedia, ‘a category that behaves like the category of sheaves of sets on a topological space (or more generally: on a site). Topoi behave much like the category of sets and possess a notion of localisation; they are in a sense a generalisation of point-set topology’. 

Well, this incomprehensible gibberish (as far as I was concerned at least – don’t let the professor know I said that!) really saddened me because I remember in secondary school maths being fascinated by topology where a doughnut was the same as a mug was the same as a polo mint. I could see that and understand it, while the professor’s topoi left me cold! 

And that got me thinking whether what I said to owners when they brought their dogs to me was understandable or not. Understandable to me of course – 2018 marks 30 years in ophthalmology for me, so if I don’t understand what I am saying, there’s no hope left is there?! But my understanding it too well can make me reel off words and phrases that owners are not likely to grasp. “Your dog has a mature cataract” seems simple to me, but if the owner doesn’t know some ophthalmic jargon, I may be blinding them with science. That’s where students come in. If I say something that assumes prior knowledge they haven’t got, they’ll tell me pretty quickly. That keeps my feet on the ground, and makes sure that what I am saying to students and owners is intelligible – or at least that’s what I hope.

The only trouble, of course, is that if we’re not careful we might end up like Sir Lancelot Spratt, the overbearing consultant from Doctor in the House, the 1970s TV series. Where there is a power differential – and that can be just as easily between a new graduate and a senior partner in a practice as between a student and a lecturer at vet school – there is the opportunity of the overbearing ambience that Sir Lancelot exemplifies. The number of new graduates feeling they need to move shortly after starting their first job shows, to my mind at least, that there is a sizeable problem here. Surely, supporting staff as much as we can is a double if not triple or quadruple winner – best for them, for their employer and for the animals and owners relying on them for their care.

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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