Five things having a career break has taught me

By Marjorie Gibbon, Daphne Jackson Fellow, University of Bath2015-11-09 13.06.02

After a 16 year break from my research career I am really enjoying the opportunity that my Daphne Jackson Fellowship has given me. Based at the University of Bath, my project is to investigate the effects of hyperglycaemia (an excess of glucose in the bloodstream) on the immune response. People with diabetes have an impaired immune response and this, as well as the many other complications, is thought to be the result of the uncontrolled binding of sugars to proteins. To study this I am developing an invertebrate model of hyperglycaemia, which can be used to study these damaged proteins.

Having a career break has its ups and downs and I have summarised the five top things I have learned from my experience below. I hope they will help inform and inspire others in my position.

  1. Having a break is a privilage

After my first degree I worked in industry for a couple of years then did my PhD in molecular plant-microbe interactions. I stayed in the same lab as a postdoc, and when that came to an end I was pregnant; my husband had a ‘proper job’ so it was OK for me to take time out to be ‘at home’ with the children. At the time I didn’t really have a plan, I was just enjoying the babies!

  1. It is hard to get back into research

I had no idea that it would be so difficult to get back into research. When our third child started school I began to look at how to get back to my career. It was several years since I had finished my post-doc and I found it was not possible for me to get a job in research, at any level. So, wanting to use my science, I did a PGCE. I became a secondary school teacher, and I stuck it out for a few years but it was ultimately not what I wanted to do.

  1. Former colleagues can be a great boost

A former colleague from the lab told me about the opportunities the Daphne Jackson Trust offers for returners to research. He encouraged me to apply and put me in touch with people at the University of Bath who might be able to host and supervise me. He also wrote the most wonderful reference for me, for which I am very grateful!

  1. The application can take a long time

The first stage in the application for the Daphne Jackson Fellowship was to confirm that I was eligible to apply (a PhD in a STEM subject and at least 2 years away from a research career). I found out that I was eligible in December 2011. So I began the New Year very optimistically, made contact with Dr Nick Waterfield at the University of Bath and began to work on a project proposal. It was hard, things had changed so much, and it wasn’t entirely my field of experience. Nick had some preliminary results and we went from there. Researching the project without an academic log-in was slow, but Google Scholar is pretty good, and it was very interesting and fun to think about science again.

I nervously submitted my project to the Daphne Jackson Trust and they liked it! The Trust sources funding for projects and eventually the Biochemical Society agreed. Potential disaster loomed when Nick Waterfield got a new job in another part of the country, but his colleague, Dr Jean van den Elsen – who had been involved with my proposal as I use a technique developed in his lab – kindly took me on. I was invited for interview by the Trust; they could have said no, I was very nervous! Luckily I passed, and was given the go-ahead to arrange a start date with Jean and began my project in May 2014.

  1. It’s great to be back – but time goes very quickly!

I am really enjoying it! It has been so interesting, a big change from my earlier research but a field that I am very interested in. A fellowship is part time, for two years; the intention is to be able to refresh skills, learn new ones and catch up with missed developments, to improve the chances of fellows getting a subsequent position. It is a great confidence boost too! Jean and my colleagues in the lab are very supportive and encouraging. Some Daphne Jackson Fellows have small children so I feel lucky that I can be flexible, now that I have left teaching altogether, to be in the lab when my experiments need me, and also have time to read and think about what I am doing.

My only regret is that the time is going so quickly! It did take me a while to get started in the right direction, as I think any new project will. But already I need to be looking for funding, so I should have a paper out. I would like to carry on with this project – it has been interesting and there is a lot more I could do. So my next challenge is to publish my results and apply for funding one way or another. I am so grateful to the Daphne Jackson Trust and Biochemical Society for making this possible for me, and to Nick and Jean at the University of Bath. It is great to be back!

This blog is a part of Returners to Bioscience Week celebration, organised by the Royal Society of Biology. Follow the discussions on Twitter with #BioReturners hashtag and share your thoughts!

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