Apologies for the delay between posts – I do have a good excuse; I’ve been in Australia on an extended conference trip. This post is about my metamorphosis from recent University graduate to jet-setting research scientist.
In 2007, I graduated from University of Liverpool with a 1st-class honours degree in Genetics. I was over the moon – but now what?! What should I do next? What did I want to do next?
As I had no plan for the future, and judged myself to be extremely inexperienced in the scientific working world – a degree is great for theory, but you don’t get much practical research experience – I decided to glean some experience, offering myself as an unpaid volunteer at the Cytogenetics department of the Liverpool Women’s Hospital. This provided me with an excellent opportunity to develop and grow as a young researcher, learning valuable skills as I moonlighted across various specialities.
After working for a few months they offered me a paid position, which I happily snapped up. I was thrilled that they were clearly satisfied with the work I’d been doing for them. However six months in, it had become apparent that Cytogenetics was likely to fall by the wayside as molecular biological techniques advanced and became more widely implemented.
I began hunting for something new and applied for a research technician post in the Pharmacology department of the University of Liverpool. Whilst I wasn’t awarded the position, due to a lack of bioinformatics (computational) skills, there was a silver lining; I had impressed the interviewers enough for them to offer me a similar position at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital (RLUH). This alternative was part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) scheme; just one informal interview/chat with RLUH’s Research & Development team, and I had a new job!
During the first few months, my new boss often repeated the NIHR’s stance on career progression, hinting at the possibility of undertaking a PhD part-time alongside my current work. This could take anything from five to seven years – I was unsure, that’s a lot of time to commit in your early twenties. Did I want to tie myself down to something I hadn’t even considered until he brought it up? Was I cut out for it? However, Dr Swale did have a nice ring to it!
Here I fast-forward through a year of monotony. The hinting at a PhD continued, but nothing real seemed to come of it and the amount of work I had to do was limited; I wasn’t feeling challenged, and wanted to be doing something more engaging and useful. It was at this time that I applied for the Civil Service’s Fast Stream process, specifically to be placed with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). After a rigorous application process I was invited to London for the final testing stage, an intense urban survival course, where I had to save 2000 hostages whilst protecting the queen from an extremist terrorist cell and prevent hackers from accessing MI6 secret databases. Or it involved lots of presenting, writing and non-verbal reasoning – I can’t quite remember which.
The day the Civil service rejected me was the exact same day I had a meeting with my boss and the Liverpool BRC coordinators, finally having agreed that they were willing to arrange to fund my part-time PhD. The timing of these two events seemed too fortuitous, and as I still had no alternative life plan I enthusiastically accepted their offer. I was now a part-time PhD student, with five years of funding and a project that expanded on the work I’d already been doing as a technician making use of my skills and experience. For the next two years all was rosy – more or less, PhD work is rarely straightforward. I progressed well and posters showcasing my work won prizes at consecutive NIHR annual trainee meetings. Of course, things are rarely that simple…..
As well as having a centre in Liverpool, the NIHR BRC scheme had been rolled out around the country with BRCs and Biomedical Research Units (BRUs) in various cities across England. After 3 years, the scheme and the centres involved then had to be reviewed and their funding renewed. To cut a long, complicated and highly political story short; Liverpool failed their renewal bid meaning we had just 8 months (31st March 2009) until the money ran out. For a brief moment I thought, at least, I would be ok – they had guaranteed me five years of funding. How naïve of me: obviously this ‘guaranteed’ funding was based on the centre having money to fund me from. My PhD funding was being terminated. Thankfully, the NIHR offered me the chance to apply for an independent NIHR doctoral research fellowship that was centrally funded, which would give me secure funding to finish my PhD.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the application involved a 30-40 page form where I had to explain my needs, plans, current research and achievements etc. Those few months – waiting for a response from the NIHR and wondering if I’d wasted the last several years for nothing – were the most stressful of my life to date (although my upcoming PhD thesis writing and defense may change things). With a lot of help from my supervisors and colleagues, the NIHR agreed to offer an extra 18 months of full-time funding to get everything finished, the heat was really on.
At the time, the funding cut seemed like a catastrophe. However, looking back this was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was able to finish sooner than planned and their funding has allowed me to showcase my research in Germany (Munich), USA (New York) and now Palm Cove, Australia.
That funding expired at the end of September and I now have until 31st October 2014 to complete my thesis, unfunded. In some ways it’s very much like being back at the beginning, volunteering in cytogenetics.
Despite the prestige associated with a PhD, they are not necessarily a perfect fit for everyone. I may not have been sure about undertaking the PhD. and I still don’t really know what I want to do next, but I do know that I have developed and enhanced many valuable transferrable skills; in particular, working well as part of a team, the ability to cope under pressure and a clear and concise writing style. Most importantly, this journey has helped shaped me into the person I am today and will hopefully stand me in good stead for whatever road I choose to go down next!
I’m a Scientist (IAS) is a UK-based, free online event where scientists compete against each other to offer up the most interesting, accurate and accessible answers to questions dreamed up by the imaginations of the nation’s school students. Each competition spans a two week period and incorporates online fast-paced ‘livechats’ and web-based Q&A discussion strands (competitions generally run during March, June and November). Scientists are divided into ‘zones’ based on their expertise and are subsequently pitted against each other in an X-factor style competition to win votes from the students and be crowned zone winner, earning a prize of £500 to develop science outreach/engagement projects. The most recent competition pitted 90 enthusiastic young scientists against each other in 18 diverse and challenging zones. As with all good reality TV shows, IAS has already been adapted for Ireland and Australia and will be coming soon to Malaysia. This is my personal IAS experience.
As all PhD students will know, there is little time available to contemplate future career paths. I’ve always toyed with science communication (sci comm) but never quite got round to pursuing it. As time started slipping away, a mad panic-stricken trawl of Google and Twitter led me to the ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here!’ competition. I grabbed the chance to test my communication and engagement skills and signed up; what did I have to lose (except some pride, in the face of my competitive nature)? I was now confronted with the need to condense my work – three full years of solid scientific research – into just one cool and catchy sentence that’d earn me a place in an IAS zone: “My work on a hospital superbug causing severe diarrhoea involves searching for potential biomarkers in patients’ blood and faeces!”. IAS is oversubscribed and therefore scientists’ sentences are rated by both teachers and students in order to select the final five scientists for each zone.
Two weeks post-registration I received an email informing me I had been selected as one of the five scientists making up the blood zone. I was pretty shocked; I tend to think it is only me that finds my research interesting. Obviously this wasn’t the case! Now I had a whole profile to fill out about myself, my area of research, routine and chosen career but it wasn’t all science, I also divulged my favourite food, musical tastes and joke-telling abilities (non-existent). This was a rather daunting task, I knew my judges – the school students – would be scrutinizing the profiles of me and my fellow scientists and that could really affect what kind of start we’d get in the competition. What if their research was more interesting than mine?!
As the main event approached, the schools began to book their live chat sessions, 30-minute slots where the zone scientists and students connected through chat rooms. Finally, the first IAS day arrived and I was surprised at how nervous I was. For me, this was a chance to gain some approval, for my geek status to be revered. I could be a geek god to these kids! (OK OK so I’m rather melodramatic). The first live chat session was INTENSE. I happened to be the only scientist from my zone to turn up, resulting in me being subjected to a lightning-paced ‘interrogation’ from 30 students.
I LOVED EVERY SECOND. It was so refreshing to see how young minds view science, and the unique perspective that offers. Questions are generally related to your zone (so blood-related for me) but students can ask anything they like, therefore other popular topics included further details from my profile: my research, my career path, my experiences at school, as well as my taste in music, film and TV shows. I was physically exhausted by the end of the 30 minutes, and occasionally found myself wishing that some of the competition would turn up just to take some of the pressure off. Unfortunately this was not meant to be: as the days and live chats went by, I remained the only scientist in attendance, something that was voiced on a number of occasions by the attending students and flagged up by the extremely apologetic IAS support team. Following the event on Twitter (an essential for anyone pursuing sci comm) showed me this was rare; the other zones all had high levels of scientist ‘compliance’ and thriving competition going on.
I was rather annoyed at the lack of involvement in my zone, not only had my opponents taken the place of other scientists who had wanted to be involved, but they were also neglecting their responsibility to the students. Mainly because of this, I made sure I attended every live chat session, I couldn’t let any students experience the disappointment of logging on to find no scientists waiting for them – undoubtedly a strong demotivator for eager scientists in the making. Despite this, some of the scientist in my zone made a small effort to answer some of the ‘offline’ questions, a fact that further frustrated me as it felt like they were attempting to do the minimal amount possible to gain votes. However, the joy of the competition as a whole far outweighed this minor blip.
I was greatly impressed by the calibre of the questions posed by the students, as well as the positive comments coming at the end of each session – it was great to know they were enjoying the sessions as much as I was! Interestingly, it seemed my chat-room entrances were causing some of the students to scream in their computer suites. I had seemingly developed a fan club. Move over Justin Bieber, step aside 1D. In all seriousness, it was very flattering being viewed as a scientific role model.
When we weren’t online the students were still able to post questions to the IAS zone for use to answer at a more leisurely pace. The best offline question I received came on that first day: “If you eat yourself, would you become twice as big, or cease to exist as matter?”. Not only were the students wanting answers, it was apparent the clever little buggers were trying to catch us out. Touché!
The competition was split into two week-long sections. Making sure I could be available for all of the live chats in my zone involved a lot of careful planning of experiments, but perhaps more importantly meant lugging my laptop along on my all-too-short break in Tunisia, so I wouldn’t miss the last three days of the competition. We were ‘safe’ in Week 1 but throughout Week 2 all zones were subject to daily scientist evictions based on the students’ votes. The scientist with the lowest number of votes at the end of each day was voted off until the winner was announced on the final day of the competition. As the daily eviction approached each afternoon, I had visions of myself on that X-Factor stage, Dermot O’Leary drawing out the tension with overly long pauses, looked rather suave in his lab coat……Sorry where was I?! Oh yes, the daily evictions; as the days progressed three scientists from my zone were evicted until just myself and Katie remained. Katie was the person I had earmarked as my fiercest rival after viewing her profile; pretty and ‘down-with-the-kids’.
However, it was me who won the zone! In my head I pictured fireworks, being hoisted onto the students’ shoulders and paraded around the country on an open-top bus. In reality this constituted to lots of congratulatory pats on the back from my work colleagues. I didn’t need a fanfare – this was my own personal victory, proof that sci comm could be my future. Shortly after the event I received my winner’s certificate and IAS mug, plus a warm and heart-felt email from the IAS team congratulating me on my success and thanking me for “my epic work in the blood zone. It really is very much noticed and appreciated how much work you did.”
In between the constant hounding from the paparazzi and the screaming fans, I managed to compose a winner’s message. IAS was great about giving feedback post-event, which contained various zone statistics as well as a selection of students’ comments, and even a cute word cloud illustrating the popular topics from the live chat sessions, which will really help me to develop my sci comm skills for future work. I am donating my £500 prize money to the Liverpool World Museum and will be getting involved with the setting up of a hands-on science exhibition open to families and kids of all ages, something that will be the subject of a future blog post when it’s ready to go.
As IAS continues to grow and expand, I strongly encourage all scientists to get involved; the event was a whirlwind fortnight and I have no regrets whatsoever in having taken part and have learned so much about myself in the process. My personal take-homes were much improved communication skills and a more positive outlook on my own scientific investigations; the sincere and genuine interest and enthusiasm from the students really made me view my research in a whole new light, revitalizing my motivation to finish my PhD and continue to share frontier scientific work with the public. In my eyes the event was a roaring success and I hope I have managed to inspire many promising young minds to pursue a career in science, making all of the efforts at IAS worthwhile.