Can you tell us a bit about your time at UEL?
I was a Senior Lecturer in genetics in the department of life sciences for eight years, where I had a lovely time and learnt a huge amount. My PhD is in plant sciences and genetics, so I did some plant research and became very interested in study skills. UEL was very supportive, so when we wanted to do things, we generally found a way. While lecturing, I also took an MA in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
How did you go from studying plants and biology to becoming an author?
After UEL (and prompted by my MA) I moved into e-learning and began working with librarians. I learned so much from them and my searching skills got very good. I went to the University of Surrey, where my role focused on information literacy and embedding that in the curriculum. Biologists are trained to ask questions. You're asking, "Is my answer to this question reasonable?" That's an important skill when researching for a book.
What inspired you to begin writing?
I always knew I had this interesting family background, where my father was a Jewish refugee from Vienna in 1938 and my grandmother owned a cinema there which was taken by the Nazis. My grandmother came to England aged 54, penniless and speaking no English. She got a job as a matron in a hostel for girls who were saved by the Kindertransport.
Before my father died in 1999, he got in touch with the girls who had lived in the hostel and asked for their stories. They wrote incredibly movingly about their time there - having to leave their parents and the journey which must have been extremely frightening. Some of the girls were as young as five when they travelled here.
When he died, I inherited a case of miscellaneous pictures and letters (mostly between him and my grandmother) and a box of photographs of my family. He'd also left a couple of unpublished manuscripts - one about his life and one about his grandmothers.
This was all bubbling away in the background, and then we went to Vienna to look for my grandmother's flat. I had always known the building address, so I Googled and emailed all the people I could find who were living in the flats. We were invited for tea and it turned out to be the flat my grandmother had lived in, which was an amazing coincidence! Our hosts had been to the archives and got loads of papers from them about my grandmother's cinema. The archives in Vienna were incredibly generous and gave us as a huge number of papers.