School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

A tribute to Dr Steve Le Comber

Here are a few memories of a very special scientist, colleague and friend, Dr Steve Le Comber. If you would like to make your own written tribute to Steve, there is a memorial book in the G.E Fogg Building foyer on the Mile End campus.

We will also be holding an event in the Octagon at Queen Mary's Mile End campus on 31 October from 5pm to celebrate Steve's life. To register, please visit the event page.

1 October 2019

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Professor Richard Pickersgill, Head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

What set Steve apart was his unwavering loyalty to the School, his profound knowledge of statistics, his fearless ability to speak truth to power and of course his kilt and sporran. He was a larger than life figure, a great and engaging communicator, and a superb ambassador for the School; he is greatly missed by staff and students alike. It’s hard to believe I won’t be doffing my cap to Steve at the upcoming winter graduation, or asking Steve for advice on the finer points of admissions in the coming months. He is a tremendous loss to the School. My sincere sympathies to Steve’s family whose loss is immeasurably greater.

Maurice Elphick, Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience, Queen Mary

I joined Queen Mary as a lecturer in January 1995 and in the Autumn of that year I gave my first lectures in the second-year module Basic Animal Physiology. Steve was a mature student taking that module and I remember him sitting in the front row together with Anna Dulic-Sills, who like Steve would go on to have a long association with Queen Mary. Many years later at Queen Mary Open Days Steve would introduce me to prospective students and their parents and tell them, with that irrepressible smile, that I had taught him when he was a student but that Basic Animal Physiology was the only module that he got a B-grade in (he of course got A-grades in everything else). In response, I would point out that I wasn’t the only lecturer on the module and that it must have been Alan Thorpe who had been too harsh in marking the exam! Alternatively, I would tell Steve that it simply wouldn’t be fair if he was brilliant at absolutely everything!

Steve and I were born within months of each other; Steve in 1966 and me in 1967. So over the years we would sometimes share memories of growing up as teenagers in the post-punk UK of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anyone who followed Steve on Twitter will know that he was frequently to be found at gigs of reformed punk/new wave bands in and around London. So when I met Steve in the stairwell of the Fogg building one Monday morning back in June 2017 I was pleased to tell him that the previous Friday I had been at the Roundhouse to see the Scottish band ‘The Skids’ perform in London for the first time in thirty-five years. “So was I!” was his characteristically enthusiastic reply. I wish now that we had bumped into each other at the Roundhouse because that would have made a memorable evening even more memorable. But I have a recording of ‘The Skids’ at the Roundhouse and so if I listen to it now at full volume in my car whilst driving to work, I like to think that amongst the riotous singing of all those mostly middle-aged men in the audience I can hear both Steve and I - wishing we were thirteen again!

Steve, you were the life and soul of SBCS and it won’t be the same without you.

Anastasia Doronina, PhD student, University of Sheffield

Anastasia

Dr Steve Le Comber was my research project supervisor throughout my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Queen Mary, University of LondonHe wasn’t just my supervisor, he was my guide, inspiration, and friend. He taught me how to think independently and how to turn an idea into a wonderful creation. He taught me how to work hard, how to grow up. 
Most importantly, he showed me the magic of science and the beauty of Scotland (being Scottish himself); he was definitely an influence on my decision to move there one day. He was there for me when I was grieving, giving me time to heal and then pushing me to carry on once I could muster the strength to. He carried me through some very testing times in my life and celebrated my success at both of my graduations. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be where or who I am today.

Louise Riddick, Student Staff at Kings College London Students' Union

Louise Riddick

I feel so honoured to have completed my Biomedical Sciences degree with Dr Le Comber as my personal tutor, I would not have gotten to where I am today without his help. From my first experience of Queen Mary at a Biomedical Sciences open day, Dr Le Comber’s enthusiasm for everything he presented truly inspired me. As my personal tutor, I knew if I ever needed help I could turn to him. Throughout my time in education, Dr Le Comber is the one individual who really stands out for me as shaping my education. He was always willing to give up his time to help and there was not anything that was too much trouble. Dr Le Comber was a truly amazing man with so many words of wisdom. He made such a wonderful impact on so many people and I feel so grateful to be one of those people. He will never be forgotten.

Dr David Roberts, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent

I first was introduced ​to Steve indirectly through one of his former colleagues Dr Matt Struebig who said I'd get on well​ with Steve as we both had diverse multidisciplinary research interests. This was certainly the case, one only needs to look at Steve's publication record, such as his work applying geoprofiling to biological questions. I remember our first meeting in his office, an office which seemed to be an extension of his mind, packed with interesting stuff from the vocalisation chamber of a howler monkey to a geometric puzzle, and of course an eclectic mix of books, often two deep on his selves. From this first meeting it was obvious we would get on well. My last communication with Steve was a week before he passed away as he helped a former student of mine polish a manuscript on illegal hunting and the application of geoprofiling.

As an academic and a human being, Steve is someone to aspire too. This is obvious from all the tributes made online by his friends, colleagues and in particular his students. Steve was excitably inquisitive about research, and this excitement was infectious. It is clear from the students I met at Queen Mary that this did not just spill over into his teaching but cascade over like a raging torrent. While I am sad that Steve passed away too soon, I for one feel very privileged to have met him. Finally, people often say someone lives on when they have passed away and I always thought of it as something people just say, but with Steve now I understand what it means as you can clearly see him in his students and how they approach academia and life.

Sarah Anderson, Masters in Philanthropic Studies, University of Kent

Steve and Sarah

Dr Le Comber was my academic advisor throughout my Biomedical Sciences degree at Queen Mary, but more than that, he was an unwavering support system and friend to me during some of the toughest times of my life. Everybody who knew Steve knew how he would go above and beyond to help people who had been written off by others or by themselves. It is striking how many people talk about how Steve gave them a chance when nobody else would and managed to draw the best out of them no matter the situation. I would never have been able to graduate without his help and belief in me, and I know this is true for many others. Now I am doing my Masters I am trying to be the student Steve always believed I was. Steve made an immeasurably positive impact through his work but also through being the warm, kind, funny human that he was, and his legacy will live on through those of us lucky enough to have known him. He will be greatly missed by so many.

Sarover Aujla, Masters Student at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

I feel truly honoured to to have been a student of Dr Le Comber's. He was my lecturer and personal tutor for my Biomedical Sciences degree. From day one Dr Le Comber's enthusiasm and passion for anatomy radiated and he inspired us throughout the years. I am certain he had the most students at his lectures in my year group, he was brilliant! He truly believed in his students and always went the extra mile to support us. Throughout my degree Dr Le Comber supported me every step of the way, he believed in me and I would not have gotten to where I am today without his help. He introduced me to the MSc Physician Associate at Queen Mary and without his recommendation and encouragement I would not be on this career path today. He was an amazing lecturer and tutor and will never be forgotten.

Daniel Bland, Masters in Cancer and Therapeutics, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Daniel Bland

When I first met Steve, I was a ‘mature’ applicant to Queen Mary and he interviewed me for my place on the Biomedical sciences degree. He spent ages trying to trip me up, a thing we have laughed about many times. His last question was "why do you think you can do this?", my reply "I'm northern". He offered me my place there and then, his exact reply "The fact you had the audacity to reply "I'm northern" in an interview means I have to take you". A sentence that changed my life for the better and if you know me, you'll know why. 

Whilst completing my BSc, I was lucky enough to have him as my personal tutor (which came with a series of telling offs!). Without his belief and encouragement I would never have achieved a good enough grade for him to write me, what he described a "rather interesting reference" to get me an offer into Barts, and furthermore I was lucky to be able to help teach the Anatomy practicals with him for three years. It is subject he loved and over the years had collected an interesting array of anatomical trinkets. He loved everything he did, and that reflected onto me and everyone who knew him. 
We were all extremely lucky to have met Steve, I for one don't know where I would be without him. He helped me carve a career I never thought possible, which is the same for the many people he helped. But he wasn't just a mentor, lecturer or SBCS staff member, he was a friend to many, a great one at that, and the world has truly lost one of its great minds, one that will never be seen again. 
Thanks for all the big nights in the pub, all the whiskeys and being an inspiration!

Andrew Leitch, Professor in Plant Genetics, Queen Mary

Steve was an undergraduate when I arrived at Queen Mary. There he was at the front of the class - keen, interested, (a little cocky) and enthusiastic. There I was standing in for Richard Nichols, teaching “Evolution” whilst he was on Sabbatical. What I was to learn is that Steve knew more about evolution than I did. So good was he as a student that the staff took great delight in awarding him B grades when they could, instead of his customary A. He won at graduation, much to everyone’s amusement, the prize for the best botanist in his year. Nobody knew why, as he was, by his own admission, unable to distinguish an oak tree from a daisy. But someone had insight, because Steve, without meaning to, can add botanist to his many definitions, as evidenced by at least 5 papers in botany, including one he coordinated for a top journal called “Nature Plants”. It is the many facets of Steve that made him so interesting.

Steve was a zoologist with a side-line in botany, an evolutionary biologist who had read almost every religious text and a robust statistician working with facts, but he came from “The Sun” where facts were irrelevant. Most of all Steve was fun to work with, his laughter will always be with me. He had energy vitality and drive. He was a strong force in the School that brought colleagues and students together. He will be, and is being, missed.

Matthew Evans, Professor of Ecology, University of Hong Kong and Head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary from 2011 - 2016

Steve was a very genuine person who cared deeply about his university, his students, and his colleagues. Perhaps he felt this so acutely because he started his journey into academia late, and had experience of life working as a journalist at The Sun among other roles. Whatever the reason he was a delightful person, unless you claimed expertise in homeopathy – in which case he hated you. For many years he ran the highly efficient and effective SBCS admissions process and was the main reason why we managed to recruit our target numbers of students, this despite the arrival of fees and the cap coming off quotas. This was a long-hours and high pressure role, and literally everyone’s jobs depended on it working, but Steve did it, year after year, with great humour and dedication.

The other job he did amazingly well was act as the School’s orator at graduation. Given the diverse backgrounds of Queen Mary’s students the names he had to read out might come from almost anywhere in the world and he would make sure he knew how to pronounce every single one. His scientific work also had an eclectic diversity about it, I can remember him working on subjects as different as V2 rockets, Jack the Ripper and Banksy. But most of all what I remember about him are his stories, in which he was always very self-deprecating – I was never sure whether he really had lost a fight to a man in a wheelchair in the Half Moon. He loved his music – he often seemed to have just been to a gig usually by some punk band and would usually be wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with one of his favourites. Unless it was a formal occasion of course, in which case he would always turn up in kilt and DMs. He was willing to spend some time to simply be sociable, I cannot remember all the times he invited me to join a group going to the Half Moon after work, even well after I left SBCS. The fact that I will receive them no longer is a great shame, Steve was one of science’s nice guys and he will be greatly missed.

If you would like to add your own tribute or story on this page, please email SBCS Marketing and Communications Officer Thomas Stead at: t.stead@qmul.ac.uk