Science blog

07 July 2015

Inspiring Careers - Part 1

Katie Howe outlines some of the careers advice given at the 2015 Francis Crick Institute post-docs' retreat. The second blog post in this series covers science policy, editorial and academic careers and will be posted tomorrow.

Last month we hosted the 4th Francis Crick institute post-doctoral researchers' retreat, which this year had the theme of 'Inspiring Careers'. With competition for tenured faculty positions greater than ever, post-docs are considering a wide range of careers inside and outside of academia. Many of the British Library’s science team are former biomedical research scientists who have hung up our lab coats to pursue other opportunities, so this is a theme with which we could strongly identify.

There were 11 speakers on the day, each with a different story to tell about how they got to where they are today. This series of two blog posts outlines some of the careers covered during the retreat and brings together a few of the top tips shared by the speakers.

Pharmaceuticals: Klaus Hirzel (Roche) and Neil Torbett (hVIVO)

Klaus outlined his role at Roche showing how a drug progresses from basic research into the clinic. He noted that in terms of day to day work the tasks he carries out are often quite similar to those that might be experienced in an academic research lab.

Neil Torbett
Neil Torbett (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

Neil Torbett followed Klaus’ introduction by describing his experience in pharmaceutical start-up companies. Following a PhD and post-doc investigating protein phosphorylation, Neil became involved in Piramed, a research collaboration with Genentech that focussed on the discovery and development of PI3-kinase based inhibitors for cancer. This experience paved the way for a career in various biotech companies involved in molecular diagnostics. These start-ups are great examples of the huge potential of interdisciplinary working. For example the biomarker discovery company Activiomics where Neil served as Chief Operating Officer, brought together academics leading in the fields of mass spectrometry and cell signalling into a spin-out company overseen by QMUL’s technology transfer arm. Neil suggested getting in contact with your university’s technology transfer office if you have a project that could be of commercial interest. They can help by providing professional support and vital funding. Neil also noted that the expertise possessed by academics is very much in demand by start-up companies, so if your own research doesn’t have a commercial angle, your skills could be valuable to an existing start up.

Science communication: Dane Comerford (University of Cambridge)

Dane has had a varied career in academia and engagement as well as a brief sojourn to the civil service working in a team dealing with CRB checks and disclosures. But it was Dane’s passion for the hydrogen bond and desire to share its simple beauty and power more widely that led him to try his hand at public engagement.

Dane Comerford
Dane Comerford (Photo: Riccardo Guidi)

By sharing some examples from his portfolio of public engagement activities, Dane illustrated the wide range of opportunities within science communication - from creating films describing scientific concepts to getting involved in international science festivals. A key message of Dane’s talk was to be brave and don’t be afraid to try new things and to “keep your eyes and ears open” for new opportunities. Dane did recognise that without a supportive supervisor getting involved in public engagement can be a challenge but pointed out that Research Council UK-funded researchers are now required to participate in public engagement activities. Communication of and engagement with research is increasingly recognised as a valuable and necessary part of the research process so hopefully any opposition from supervisors is becoming less common.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in public engagement within academia. Dane pointed post-docs to the local university public engagement units. The Crick’s communication and engagement team are developing plans for their own programme of public engagement training and have lots of upcoming volunteering opportunities. Over this summer the Crick is attending several local festivals that require volunteers to help deliver science engagement activities, so please keep an eye on CrickNet or email to find out more and how to get involved.

(I also recommend the psci-com mailing list for anyone interested in science communication or engagement with any audience - KH).

Education: Bryn James (Researchers in Schools) and Ed Arthur  (TeachFirst)

Ed first outlined the innovative TeachFirst programme. TeachFirst was set up in 2002 and aims to address educational disadvantage by recruiting high calibre graduates to teach in challenging schools. Participants are given an intensive ‘crash course’ in teaching during a six-week long Summer Institute before entering the classroom in September. Professional development and specialist teacher training then continues throughout the two year programme.

Bryn James and Ed Arthur introducing Researchers in Schools and TeachFirst respectively (Photos: Riccardo Guidi)

Some of the key skills required of TeachFirst teachers are resilience, organisation and empathy. The schools that TeachFirst works with often have high levels of economic deprivation which can present many challenges to new teachers as well as exciting opportunities to make a difference. Ed went on to describe the impact of TeachFirst alumni. A third of those who complete the programme stay in teaching after the two years but many go on to leadership positions in other sectors and 36 social enterprises have been formed by TeachFirst alumni.

Bryn then introduced us to Researchers in Schools - a relatively new programme that specifically recruits people with PhDs into the teaching profession. This teacher training route is highly bespoke and designed to utilise participants’ academic experience. Uniquely, participants are given the chance to take one day out of school per week for their own independent research giving them a chance to keep their foot in the door of the lab. The aim of the scheme is to increase subject expertise within non-selective state schools, particularly in science subjects. Another benefit is that by acting as champions of higher education Researchers in Schools teachers can also promote and widen access to the best universities.

Both Ed and Bryn noted how rewarding teaching is as career with Bryn even sharing some of the very touching messages he had received from students thanking him personally for his help and support.

Tune in tomorrow for the second part of this post - featuring careers in science policy, science publishing and academia.

Katie Howe


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