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5 October 2022

Sian E Harding Q&A: “I have inherited my grandmother’s gravy gene”

The cardiac scientist on her love of Sherlock Holmes, animals’ sexual behaviour and the phrases that bug her.

By New Statesman

Sian E Harding was born in east London in 1955. Now retired, she was a professor of cardiac pharmacology and the head of the cardiovascular division of the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being in hospital aged three. I had broken my little finger by seeing if it would fit into the fly-wheel of my mother’s sewing machine, which she then unwittingly started up. My father had run to the hospital with me on his shoulders. In my hospital bed I was staring at a little girl in a window and trying to work out if it was my reflection or another person. 

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Sherlock Holmes. I came to my mother in floods of tears after the Reichenbach Falls story, and she just said, “It’s OK, he comes back in the next book.” My adult hero is my grandmother, who ran a café in London’s East End during the Blitz, while caring for a disabled daughter. Her pastry and gravy was legendary (I have definitely inherited the gravy gene, at least). She was known as “Roughhouse Rene” by the regulars for her firm management style.

[See also: Erinch Sahan Q&A: “I’d like Picasso to paint my portrait: I always wanted a pointier jaw”]

What book last changed your thinking?

Bitch by Lucy Cooke. This is an eye-opening update on the Darwinian ideas of the behaviours of males and females in the animal kingdom, revealing the ridiculous smorgasbord of sex roles among mammals, birds and amphibians. It shows how Victorian ideals of female mate choice and fidelity stifled research on female sexual behaviours (and even anatomy) until really quite recently.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The heart. I must have picked up something during 40 years of research.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The future, maybe 50 or 100 years. I’d like to know if we have lived through the era of maximum luxury in terms of hot showers, outside heating and long-distance flights.

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What TV show could you not live without?

The Big Bang Theory. It can be so spot-on about scientists.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m having my portrait painted for Imperial College by Keith Holmes just now, in fact.

[See also: Kathy Reichs Q&A: “I worry every time my grandkids go out”]

What’s your theme tune?

“Piece of My Heart” by Faith Hill.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s not so much what you can do yourself; it’s what you can persuade others to do for you.” As a community, scientists are eager to collaborate. It took me a long time to realise how much I could ask people to do. 

What’s currently bugging you?

People using the phrase “silver bullet” to describe a medical breakthrough. Silver bullets are what you use to kill werewolves. Also the pronunciation of “bio-pic” as “bi-opic”.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having my knees replaced.

When were you happiest?

I had the time of my life when my daughter was young. It was a productive time in my research too. (I’m pretty happy to be retired, though.) Day-to-day: on the sofa, with my husband, having my feet rubbed.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

When I chose to study the heart, I was also attracted to the brain, but the technology was at too early a stage then.

Are we all doomed?

I’ll let you know after I visit the future.

“The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart” by Sian E Harding is published by MIT Press

[See also: Dave Davies Q&A: “I like guitars but I haven’t got any left”]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!