Friday 9 September 2022

The day I met the Queen

I’m no fan of monarchies. I’m Australian and I voted (on the losing side) of the 1999 referendum to become a republic. Still, I think that even for many republicans, the Queen surpassed politics. She was a professional and a seemingly permanent fixture of our lives who cared about her responsibilities, and she certainly put the work in.


With that in mind, a brief story about the day I met her during the grand opening of CUBRIC in summer 2016.


First, the lead up. For weeks beforehand, we had Men in Black wandering the corridors, opening random doors and asking random questions. Yes, I work here. No, that’s a cleaner’s closet. No I’m not going to murder the monarch. Chill out guys, killing famous visitors reduces our funding rates.


We also had to deal with the Queen’s private secretary who I remember as an absurdly pompous character. I was already permanently sleep deprived from having a 2 year-old and a 6 month-old, and I had nothing left to give to the pretentious trivialities and condescending micromanagement of a "Royal opening". I stopped attending the endless "rehearsals".


The Queen’s chief of police was a nice guy though. One day I was sitting in my office and he dropped in for a chat. Over the course of a general conversation about life and family, he told me that the Queen was particularly looking forward to this visit because it was about science, which she loved, and she was getting bored of art galleries.


As part of the visit we had to empty one of our testing labs and convert it into a room containing nothing but a chair and a phone and a bottle of water, just in case she needed to make an urgent call. The table had to be in a certain position in the room. The phone had to be in a certain position on the table, the water on the left. We rolled our eyes at the fussiness of it all.


Then the actual visit. My job was to explain the technique of transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, which involves delivering electromagnetic pulses to the brain in living people. I was the director of this particular method in the centre, so I made myself the guinea pig and the brilliant and steady-handed Jemma Sedgmond (my then lab manager) had the job of zapping my brain.


We’d done this many times before in student lectures so in a lot of ways it was just another day at the office, and in every other way it was the strangest thing we had ever done.


We were doing the demo in the control room of our 7T MRI scanner, the flagship technology of the centre. In came the Queen and Prince Philip.


For some reason Philip immediately started faffing about with some storage lockers in the corner while various dignitaries humoured him and tried to gently steer him back on track.


The Queen, however, was having none of that. In a way that seemed quite practised, she ignored Philip’s rummaging and instead made a bee line for the key stuff. She knew what she was doing.


From memory this photo was taken while Philip had his head in a locker. There’s my blurry bald head at the back. In the foreground is our chief physicist John Evans and our (then) director of fMRI, Richard Wise. There’s a photo somewhere of Jemma and me with the TMS but I can’t find it now.



We eventually got to the TMS demo. There I was talking the Queen and Prince Philip through live electromagnetic stimulation of my brain. Jemma administered TMS to my right and left motor cortex, and I explained the contractions of my hands and arms in real time, how they arose, how the technique could be applied in other ways, and how it could help us understand brain function in health and disease.


I’m virtually certain this is the one and only time someone from the Royal family will see a scientist talk them through live electrical stimulation of their own brain.


Sidebar: sometimes watching TMS makes people feel sick. I once had a student in the front row of a lecture pull a whitey on me, and it was in the back of my mind that this could happen again. Imagine the nightmare of paperwork if the Queen fainted in front of us. But she only recoiled ever so slightly as my arms jumped around.


After we’d finished the demo, Philip mumbled something unintelligible and the Queen asked a bunch of very good questions. She had an easy and inquisitive way about her, and as I was answering her, it occurred to me that all the pomposity and ceremony of her visit seemed to be more about the people around her feeling important, and less to do with her as a person.


All she wanted to do was talk about the science. Why was the effect of TMS contralateral? (that is, you stimulate right side of the brain but see the effect on the left side of the body). How could you use this to understand the effects of stroke or brain injury? Could this help the brain adapt after damage? Yes ma'am (as in ham, not ma'am as in palm). Thank you pompous private secretary for helping me remember that particular triviality.


Then after weeks of lead up, it was over. It was an intensely weird experience, but like Janeway says to Harry Kim in Star Trek Voyager, "We're Starfleet officers. Weird is part of the job." 


RIP HMQ, a woman with possibly the weirdest job of all.



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