The PI Playlist – Dr Steph Bornemann

Welcome to the hotly demanded spin-off of The PhD Playlist – The PI Playlist! The format is similar, with the spotlight being put on a group leader here at the Norwich Research Park to pick three songs: one song for their current research/job, one song for their life as a PhD student and that final much needed motivational song. So turn the volume up and discover the soundtrack to a science career.


Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 09.45.40

I only spoke German until I went to nursery in Yorkshire where I learned English. I went to school in Wales at a time when my older brother exposed me to a huge range of music via the Old Grey Whistle Test and John Peel. As a sixth former and student in London and Warwick, I played in several bands including Gods Lonely Men, the Fat Ballerinas and Clenched Fish, which did not make me rich. While in London, and in Reading when working in industry, I went to an extraordinary number and range of gigs and lost my Welsh accent. As a post-doc, I had no more time for playing in bands, but continued to write and record music. As a project leader, I didn’t have time for that either, but I put my tracks on Soundcloud. None of these tracks have made me rich. These days, I have limited time to even listen to music, let alone go to gigs or play instruments. The silence is nevertheless broken by my daughters.

The PhD Song – Egg by Mr Bungle

My PhD (1989-1992) had its ups and downs. The ups and downs of this track from 1990 sum it up. I published 6 papers from my PhD with 4 first-author, which might not have happened because I seriously considered quitting after a few months. I had a lot of autonomy throughout, which taught me a lot, but I had to wait three months on one occasion to have a meeting with my supervisor because he was so busy. I had to change my research project half way through but still managed to submit within three years, which was the default length of a PhD in those days. My supervisor wrote “good” in red ink next to a figure in my draft thesis. This was the highlight of the feedback I received in my time there. After my viva, the examiners left the room to inform my supervisor of the outcome without considering to tell me. I had to sit down to avoid fainting, and when my blood pressure recovered I summoned the courage to find them. It turned out be just a few typos that needed correcting. Phew! Shortly after, and on the day I had to return to my new job in another part of the country, my supervisor took his group out to lunch for my leaving do. A lovely thought, except they neglected to tell me which pub they were going to. This was in the days before mobile telephones. Great! I then made the mistake of leaving the 10 or so corrected pages of my thesis outside his locked office door with a note to swap them over in his copy. This was unwise. He wrote a damning letter to me for being so rude and not presenting him with a bound final version of my thesis. Many years later at his retirement celebration when I thought all was forgiven and forgotten, I thanked him for taking me on as a PhD student. He said it wasn’t him that wanted to recruit me, but one of his colleagues in the funding consortium. At least my PhD put the chemistry in my biochemistry.”

The Current Research Song – Love the Life (Live) by Midnite

“The aim of my current project is to ensure that the postgraduate students at JIC have a much better experience than I did. The life one lives and the life one loves change with time. The studio version of this track is not currently available on Spotify, so here is the live version.”

The Motivational Song – The Life Devine by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin

There are occasions when music invokes goosebumps. This is the track that does it regardless of the mood I’m in, bringing energy and focus.”


The PhD and The PI playlist is the brainchild of Millie, whose obsession with making playlists is almost as great as her obsession with science. Follow her on twitter: @milliestanton and drop her an email if you’re interested in being featured!

Advertisements

11 things every new PhD student should know

I started my PhD nearly a year ago now, and the time has absolutely flown by. With many people setting out to start a PhD in September and October it made me think about what I have learned this year, and the top tips I would tell anyone about to embark on a PhD in Science:

1 Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Don't be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

No one minds. It’s better to ask how to do something if you don’t understand than waste your time doing it wrong. Everyone in the lab has been in your position before. We don’t bite!

2 Write down EVERYTHING

And I mean everything. At the beginning of your PhD, you’re excited, you’re in a new lab, doing new things, and sometimes you may not write everything down. It happens. But in a few months’ time when you look back at that crucial PCR – the one where everything amplified beautifully – and you realise you forgot to write down the annealing temperature, you will kick yourself.

3 Label EVERYTHING

Only last week I came a cropper when I realised I had mislabelled one of my early glycerol stocks, which meant I had to redo the previous stage of my experiment. Labelling really well may take you a few extra minutes, but it will be well worth it in the future.

4 Plan your day

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you're doing otherwise.

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you’re doing otherwise.

When you have several experiments on the go it can be pretty hectic, and hard to keep track of everything. It can useful to make a list at the beginning of the day, or the evening before, of everything you need to do. That way you won’t end up on Friday realising that you can’t do that experiment because you forgot to prepare the overnight cultures.

5 Make time for yourself

Yes, the PhD is really important, and yes, it’s good to get excited about it and take a huge interest in it, but don’t let it take up all your time. It’s important to have a healthy work-life balance. Personally, I find that taking that extra break, and having that evening off, helps me be more productive and make fewer mistakes. A PhD is a long time, and you should make that time as enjoyable as you can – both inside and outside the lab.

6 Take the time to get to know your lab

This one is easy – just chat to everyone! Go to lunch together, have a tea break, make sure you go to the lab meetings. And if the lab doesn’t do these things you could always suggest it. A lab that has great communication is the best sort of lab, and will make your days at work all the better. A friendly and fun working environment makes everything so much nicer.

7 Get involved

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Go to seminars, departmental meetings and conferences, both at home and away. They are a great way to find out what others are doing both in your department, and across the institute. It helps you build those connections up – you never know, they could be crucial in the future. And don’t be afraid to mingle! It’s a big thing at first to get out of your comfort zone, step away from your friends, and talk to someone about their work, but it’s well worth it.

8 Try not to eat at your desk

If you are doing a lot of experiments in a day, and are really rushed off your feet, you may decide to just eat your lunch at your desk. But, this can often leave you feeling dissatisfied. Even if it’s only a 15 minute break, having your lunch away from your desk and lab can be really beneficial. It takes you away from the lab and work completely, and you will return feeling refreshed.

9 Just because you had a bad day today doesn’t mean it will be a bad day tomorrow

Everyone has bad days, the day when your RNA extraction just won’t work, or you run your DNA off your gel. It happens. Take a breath and start over.  Don’t let it get you down.

10 If you are having problems with your PhD speak to someone about it

The first few months can be a bit rocky: settling in to a new city, a new lab, making new friends, learning new things. If you are finding something hard in your project, or are feeling unsatisfied, out of your depth, or just stressed out, chat to your supervisor about it. Or if you feel you don’t want to talk directly to your supervisor, try another PhD student or lab member. It is normal to have periods throughout your PhD where you feel a bit down or stressed. When things aren’t working, it can be demoralising, but having someone you can talk it out with can help.

11 Enjoy!

A PhD can at times be frustrating and hard work but it’s extremely enjoyable and one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Erica is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @EricaHawkins16.

Abandoned lab - Paul/Flickr

6 things that happen when you take a four-month break from your PhD

From mid-September until mid-December last year I was on an internship in science policy. Once you count the conference at the start of December and the Christmas holidays, I was left to return to the lab this January after a four-month break.

The aim of my internship was to experience the world outside academic research, and so my project was sent to the back of my mind while I thought about more political topics. Most of my friends did their internships around Norwich, so they had the chance to get into the lab at weekends or in the evenings. But I moved to Cambridge for mine, so I didn’t have the opportunity to nip into the department and get some experiments going. Now, I’m back doing my research, and it’s amazing what’s happened while I was away.

Continue reading

NoCaSS 2013

Last year, fellow JIC blogger Annis Richardson and I decided we wanted to set up and run a new student conference. As you may have read on this blog before, one of the perks of being a PhD student is getting to attend conferences where you present and discuss your work with colleagues, and hear all about new research in the field that you work in. Whilst this is a great opportunity to network with project leaders at the forefront of research, this can also be an intimidating experience for a new PhD student. So a conference with just students can be a nice way to practise for a scarier conference, whilst also being a fun way to network with other students.

Out of this, NoCaSS 2013 was born. NoCaSS stands for Norwich-Cambridge Student Symposium, which was focussed on plant and microbial sciences (we rejected the more amusing earlier draft title of “Camwich” because we thought this wouldn’t be taken as seriously…!). This conference brought together around 85 students from The John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory, The Genome Analysis Centre (all Norwich) and students from University of Cambridge Department of Plant Sciences and the Cambridge Sainsbury Laboratory for a one-day symposium. Both Annis and I were undergraduates at the Plant Sciences department in Cambridge, as were many other JIC students – so this seemed like the ideal opportunity to maintain and strengthen this link in plant sciences in East Anglia. A good friend of mine, Daisy Hessenberger, is doing her PhD in Cambridge so was ideally placed to liaise for us on the other side and make sure plenty of people signed up!

Our keynote speaker

So, we put together a group of students at JIC to plan and execute a conference. Despite it being only one-day long, there were a surprising number of things that needed planning and sorting! These jobs included advertising, sponsorship, organising a keynote speaker, planning abstract submission and judging, catering, abstract books and planning the day. After lots of hard work from many students, the day was a great success! It included talks from students at both institutes, poster sessions, and a great networking session where teams (including students from both locations) came up with a grant proposal idea for plants in space. We concluded the talks with a keynote lecture from Professor Ian Baldwin, which I can honestly say was one of the most interesting and inspiring scientific talks that I have ever attended. You can check out his work here. The day was concluded with home-made pizza and volleyball, which was a great way to get to know the other students better and more informally.

Lively poster discussions at NoCaSS 2013

So why am I telling you about a conference that happened a year ago? Well, the best thing is – when we set up NoCaSS we really wanted this to be the first of many conferences like this – and the great news is that this conference is happening again this year, this time hosted in Cambridge! Lots of students are signed up once again, and hopefully it will be just as successful, and the conference will continue for years to come.

For more information on NoCaSS, see the website, and see the video of last years event:

By Jo Harrison, a 3rd year PhD student in the lab of Steph Bornemann

Solving the problem of antibiotic resistance

If you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past week, you may have noticed more than a few mentions of antibiotic resistance. Firstly, solving the problem of antibiotic resistance won the Longitude Prize, confirming its importance in the eyes of the public. Then, a few days later, David Cameron has been all over our screens warning that the problem could lead to our world being ‘cast back into the dark ages of medicine’.  He has announced investigation into why so few new antibiotics have been introduced, and plans to encourage development of new antimicrobials. However, despite being mentioned hugely this week, however, this is far from a new problem.

Antibiotics are chemicals that are able to either kill a microorganism, often a bacteria, or inhibit its growth. Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a microorganism to resist the action of the drugs. This resistance arises naturally as a result of bacterial evolution. Just as with all other organisms, mutations can occur. If a mutation is beneficial to the organism due to ‘selection pressures’ in its environment, then the mutation is likely to stick. In the case of bacteria, the selection pressure is the presence of an antibiotic, and so a mutation that allows the bacteria to survive will be carried forward into the next generation. Since bacteria can share genes with neighbouring bacteria (horizontal gene transfer), the resistance can often spread rapidly through a population. Often bacteria become ‘multidrug resistant’, or as they are more commonly known, superbugs. In these cases we need to find new antibiotics to fight the bacteria, and this is where our problem lies.

As mentioned earlier, mutations will stick if there is a selection pressure, such as antibiotic presence. It makes sense, therefore, to only prescribe antibiotics when they are needed. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening. It is widely agreed that antibiotics have been inappropriately prescribed in the past, and probably still are. Patients have been known to insist on getting antibiotics when they are not necessary – for example, a third of people believe that they can take antibiotics to treat the common cold1 (which is a virus, and so completely unaffected by antibiotics). Another way to reduce the chance of resistance occurring is to ensure that patients complete a course of antibiotics. Just because you feel better, doesn’t meant that your infection is gone. Reducing or stopping a course of antibiotics can lead to reduced levels of the chemicals in your body, giving the organisms a lower level to fight against (and win). GPs and their patients need to be more aware of these issues in order to try and reduce the occurrence of resistance.

Inappropriate treatment of humans isn’t the only issue contributing to the rise of resistance. Nearly 50% of all antibiotics are used in farming – mostly in intensive livestock farms2. These intensive farms have crowded conditions which could lead to a fast spread of disease. A large proportion of livestock receives regular antibiotics, whether they are showing signs of illness or not. Paying for these antibiotics may seem like a large cost to farmers, but it can mean a huge saving if it prevents them losing their entire year’s income due to a disease outbreak. This issue has already been identified, and there are many campaigns trying to make changes to these antibiotic regimes on farms.

Solving the problem of antibiotic resistance isn’t a simple case of producing new antibiotics, however. If we are to stop this problem spreading, we need to learn how to treat our infections properly and treat the correct infection with the correct antibiotic. This is a case of improving diagnostics and hospital procedures, and this is where it is most likely that the Longitude Prize money will end up going – because it is a long-term solution and not a short-term one.

New antibiotics can be found from a huge variety of places (All images from Wikipedia)

New antibiotics can be found from a huge variety of places

The issue highlighted by David Cameron this week is that there are no new antimicrobial drugs reaching the market. The case is that the pharmaceutical companies are not investing in sending these drugs to the market, and not because the research is not going on. It costs tens of millions of pounds to get a drug to the market – and in the world where resistance is occurring so easily, it is unpredictable whether developing a new antibiotic would be profitable. To imply that we are not discovering the antibiotics is certainly incorrect. I work in a molecular microbiology department who has a large group of scientists working with Streptomyces, soil bacteria whose antimicrobial products were discovered back in 1943. Many of these scientists are investigating whether we can use these bacteria to find even more microbial compounds. Elsewhere on site, researchers are investigating bacteria from insect guts for the same cause3. Elsewhere in the UK, research is being done to hunt for antibiotics from bacteria from deep ocean trenches.

Both the Longitude Prize and the following press coverage from David Cameron have highlighted a key issue in the world today. But we should not be investing all our money into finding new antibiotics, because this is not the solution we need. If we are to prevent even more superbugs emerging, we need to be focusing our efforts into understanding the bacteria, and understanding how we can fight them best. We need to be educating the public into the risks of treating antibiotics with less than the respect that they deserve, and we need to be making farmers do the same. Evolution will never stop happening, and so bacteria will never stop trying to become resistant. Maybe, however, we can slow the process enough to stop it from  ‘casting us into the dark ages’.

The latest offering from the John Innes Centre YouTube page:

  1. McNulty et al. (2007). “The public’s attitudes to and compliance with antibiotics”. J. Antimicrob. Chemother.60 Suppl 1: i63–8..
  2. http://www.soilassociation.org/antibiotics
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-23903861

All images from Wikipedia By Isabel Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole

The Longitude Prize: solving the ‘greatest challenges facing humanity’

The Longitude Prize 2014, a challenge with a prize fund of £10 million, has recently been launched to help solve one of the greatest issues facing humankind. The challenge will be chosen by the British public and any solution meeting the criteria set by the Longitude Committee over the next 5 years will then be able to win part of the £10 million prize pot.

John Harrison, original recipient of the Longitude Prize

The competition idea is based on the original Longitude Prize, a reward offered in 1714 by the British government for a method that could determine a ship’s precise location while at sea. The main recipient of the prize was John Harrison who collected £15,315 in 1765 for his chronometer, a clock that kept accurate time at sea1. 300 years later, rather than being chosen by the government alone, the remit for this Longitude Prize is to be decided by public vote from the following 6 global problems:

 

 

  • Flight – How can we fly without damaging the environment?
  • Food – How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
  • Antibiotics – How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
  • Paralysis – How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
  • Water – How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
  • Dementia – How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?

Longitude Prize 2014: six categories will compete for a £10 million prize fund.

On first glance, some of these categories seem to be really broad, and don’t present a single problem to be solved. Take for instance “food”, as it’s a relevant challenge to the work being undertaken at the John Innes Centre. Ensuring a nutritious and sustainable food supply involves many different areas: the development of farming techniques utilising new technologies, breeding of crops improved in nutrient content that can be productive despite different environmental stresses, development of plant pest and pathogen control… the list could go on.

Delving deeper, it does seem that once a section is chosen, the remit will become more specific; for example if antibiotics wins the vote, the challenge will be to create a cheap, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow doctors and nurses world-wide to administer antibiotics only when they are needed. However I am not sure all these areas can be simplified quite so easily. It will be interesting to see the specifics set by the Longitude Committee after a category is eventually decided. Perhaps leaving the problem open-ended will actually encourage a more diverse array of solutions from areas that wouldn’t conventionally be considered. The answer to the original longitude question was expected to come from experts in astronomy, but Harrison was a self-educated Yorkshire carpenter and watchmaker2 who believed his clock idea could change ocean navigation. Solutions can come from unexpected places.

Harrison’s Chronometer accurately kept time at sea to enable longitude calculations. What will the next winner of the Longitude Prize look like?

Anybody with an idea for a solution will have to move quickly; at present the prize will only be open for 5 years. Though this may seem like a long time, science and technology can take a while to develop to the point of usefulness (my own experiences of how long protocol optimisation takes in order to start getting results are testament to this!). It could be tight to see a project from birth to completion in 5 years alone that could provide a solution to these broad questions. Though technology has progressed since the original prize – Harrison took over 40 years to develop his chronometer and then convince the Government to pay out- it is likely that any winning project is already in the pipeline and beginning to be developed, rather than being inspired solely by the Longitude Prize.

There is a problem of whether the Longitude 2014 themes need to be incentivised any more; most of these broad areas already correlate with the strategic targets that UK Research Councils have developed and are encouraging research in. We already know what the main problems are, so why don’t we just get on with it?3 There is the argument that this vast sum of money will encourage external investors, such as industry, to work on these problems for the good of all, but surely if these areas are profitable at all industry will already be involved. The promise of £10 million that will be judged against some as-yet unknown goals may not be enough to incentivise them to do more. And how much is £10 million actually worth to them? For comparison, the total cost to take a drug from the development stages to market is estimated to be between £55 million and £530 million4. Compared to this, £10 million is nothing5, especially if there is the possibility of splitting it between different contributors, as the original prize was (alongside Harrison, nine other people received various smaller amounts for their contributions towards a solution).

Back in 1714, a great bonus of the prize was that anyone could win; it wasn’t just open to big businesses or well-renowned scientists, but anyone with a good idea that could prove its usefulness. The fact that the prize fund isn’t amazingly vast should in fact attract solutions from many different organisations besides big companies, be that small businesses, universities or research groups, and hopefully inspire the same spirit of innovation that the Longitude Prize did 300 years ago. All solutions, no matter where they are from, should be encouraged, as these issues affect all of us.

The use of a public vote in the 2014 Longitude Prize is a good way of getting the public involved in the huge science and technology challenges we face today. Back in 1714 the public were well aware of the need for accurate navigation at sea; a naval disaster in 1707 led to the sinking of an entire British Naval fleet off the isles of Scilly as the sailors aboard could not accurately determine their location6. Today it should be easier than ever to identify problems facing the world – carbon emissions, dementia, antibiotic resistance, famine, drought and paralysis are all issues that make their way into the headlines. However, placing these clearly in a scientific context has a benefit for public understanding of science and technology, as well as encouraging discussions as to what should be done about them. The open nature of the prize and the clear communication that there are major issues that we face in the future that we don’t have the answers to will bring these issues closer to home. People will be encouraged to think about what they could to do help rather than depending on the government, or unknown scientists in secret laboratories to deal with world issues. The prize should also inspire public debate about what we need to focus on as we travel further into the 21st century.

Though it is a little odd to think that the greatest challenge facing modern Britain could be decided in much the same way as a reality TV show winner, it will be interesting to see what the public reaction will be; how much discussion it will inspire and how many people will vote. Whatever the winner, the British public should be more aware of the problems that face us that science and technology have a vital role in tackling. It will be interesting to see what the public chooses to be its number one issue for the Longitude Prize, and what science and technology can develop within the next 5 years that can start to tackle this problem.

Longitude prize voting is open ‘till the 25th June 2014, visit www.longitudeprize.org for more information.

  1. It is actually disputed whether Harrison ever actually won the prize, or whether it was even a prize at all! http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/longitude/2012/03/07/there-was-no-such-thing-as-the-longitude-prize/
  2. Information on John Harrison and the original Longitude  prizehttp://www.rmg.co.uk/explore/astronomy-and-time/time-facts/harrison#prize
  3. Philip Ball, Prospect magazine “The Longitude Prize is a Waste of Time”http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/ball/the-longitude-prize-is-a-waste-of-time/
  4. “The cost of drug development: a systemic review”, Morgan et al, Health Policy, 2011http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168851010003659
  5. For reference, using the same figures as Richard Payne in “Science versus the Financial Crisis” below, £10 million would fund 185 PhD students for the entirety of their PhD. https://johninnessvc.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/science-versus-the-financial-crisis/
  6. The Scilly naval disaster of 1707 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scilly_naval_disaster_of_1707

by Claire Drurey- a third year PhD Student in the lab of Prof Saskia Hogenhout

Reaching gender equality in science

The Athena SWAN award is a UK scheme set up to recognise commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in academia. The scheme has been running for several years with Universities and their departments applying for recognition at bronze, silver or gold level. In 2012 a pilot scheme was set up to investigate the inclusion of research institutes into the Athena SWAN scheme. The John Innes Centre was one of these pilot institutes, and we are proud to say that this year we have been awarded an Athena SWAN silver award.

We celebrated the award this month and as part these celebrations we had a panel debate. The debate discussed  a recent report on Women in Science written by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee,  and the commitment of both the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia (UEA) to ensuring gender equality within their academic communities. This event was run by ResNet, a UEA network set up to promote gender equality. The panel at this event consisted of David Richardson (UEA deputy Vice-Chancellor and member of the BBSRC council), Tracy Chapman (co-lead of the UEA School of Biological Sciences Athena SWAN team), Carole Thomas (chair of the JIC Athena SWAN Committee) and Dale Sanders (director of JIC who also sits on the JIC Athena SWAN committee).

The Science and Technology Committee report on Women in Scientific Careers highlighted many issues facing women in STEM careers. One of the key issues highlighted in this was the ‘leaky pipeline’. The leaky pipeline is a phrase used to discuss the drop-out rates of women in STEM subjects as they ascend the career ladder. In life sciences, for example, undergraduates tend to be around 50/50 male to female. However, when you then look at the senior scientist level, this ratio clearly drops, with only 20.5% of STEM professors in the UK being female . Many reasons have been put forward for this leaky pipeline, ranging from a lack of female role-models for aspiring female scientists, to the lack of stability in early-career research jobs. However there are certainly  multiple reasons to explain the lack of gender diversity.

A clearly identified reason in the report was unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the hidden personal bias that we all have, rooted by the stereotypes that we are brought up around and our own personal preferences towards people, for example that are similar to us. Unconscious bias is currently thought to play a large role in the lack of women in senior roles, both in sciences and in other fields such as business. If you ask someone to think of a manager, for example, the majority of people will picture a man. Many traits considered useful for leadership are thought of as male traits, whilst more caring traits are considered female. Now that unconscious bias has been recognised, many institutions and businesses are actively running training to help eliminate these biases – including UEA and on the Norwich Research Park. These bias issues may not be exclusive to recruitment either. It was highlighted that only 7 out of 75 major life sciences awards given out last year were given to women, and it is generally agreed that it is often less common for panels to recommend  women  for the awards. The same applies with guest speakers, although this highlighted an additional issue. Although women may be as likely to be invited to speak, they tend to be more likely to turn down the opportunity. This year will be the first time ever that a woman will give the plenary talk at the John Innes Centre ASM.

Another barrier identified in the gender equality issue is that early-career academic jobs are characterised by short-term contracts. Post-doctoral jobs are not permanent, and often at the end of these short (one to five years) contracts the academic will be faced with uprooting their life and moving to a new town, country or even continent to continue their career. This early-career stage coincides with an age when many people are considering building a family. Women tend to be the primary carers, and often end their academic career at this point – although it is not an issue that exclusively affects women, as some men also chose to be  a primary carer for a family. Academia is all about your research portfolio, and if you have a two-year gap in your CV due to building a family it may have serious repercussions for job applications. There are schemes in place now to try and help this issue, and the Government has called on the higher education sector to review career structure and increase the number of longer-term positions for post-docs. However, we need to be careful – a post-doc job is a training job – and if you are stuck in the same position for 5-years you will get a very different type of training to someone who has completed two or three post-docs in this time. Other schemes for this include fellowships from the Daphne Jackson Trust – a fellowship scheme that JIC now sponsors. These fellowships were designed to help people return to STEM careers after a break of two or more years, which can make a big difference for people hoping to return to their field.

Reaction to this report seemed to have a similar theme from the panel at the event – disappointment. Although our panel all agree with issues brought up during the discussion, and feel positive that the key issues were recognised, they recall that this is not the first time that these issues have been brought up. Many of the issues were brought up a decade ago, and the lack of progress is rather disheartening. Agreement was clear that there are still changes to be made, and also clear that incentives such as Athena SWAN have been great for forcing these changes to be made. At our local institutes, the Athena SWAN application process forced the committees to look closely at their workforce, gather data and scrutinise current practices. Since beginning our application several great changes have been brought into effect. For example we have set up  a family support fund to financially support researchers with caring responsibilities when they need to travel as part of their work. The award has also raised awareness about the issue nationally, helping people to realise that the biases are there and that changes need to be made. It has also raised the awareness that many issues attributed towards women may also be issues for men – such as caring responsibilities, especially with rising costs of childcare. It was agreed that the report did help to break down the challenges facing the scientific community into different sectors.

When asked to name a single development that they would like to see taken up to promote gender equality our panel generally were in agreement on a single topic;  the lack of financial structure available to support childcare for academics in caring responsibilities, as well as career breaks and transition to part time work. Removing unconscious bias from the system was the other issue highlighted, and this included the fact that financial worries over childcare are not a solely female issue.

From reading the committee report and sitting on the Athena SWAN committee (although I am new to the committee, and missed much of the hard work put in towards the award), I would personally agree that there is no single issue blocking gender equality, and no single solution to remove it. However, there is now real drive to change things for the better and try to eliminate the inequality facing us today. Rather than seeing positive discrimination towards women I would like to see equal opportunities for all, and see people gaining recognition on their merits alone, not the presence/absence of a Y chromosome. I would like to wholeheartedly congratulate both UEA and JIC on their achievements in the Athena SWAN team, especially JIC on their recent Silver Award. I also think that Carole Thomas deserves some special recognition for the sheer amount of work and dedication she put into Athena SWAN. Hopefully, JIC will be able to continue their efforts in improving equality across site, and maybe we will even be able to aim for a Gold Award in the future. I also hope that in 10 years’ time we won’t be in the same situation as now, where many of the problems have been identified but not resolved.

To see my previous post on Women in Science, click here

By Izzy Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole