My path into research began in 1991 when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University studying physiology and pharmacology. I had been inspired by a neuropharmacology lecture on cytokines, so when the time came for my final-year research project, I chose one on cytokines and cancer. Unfortunately that project had already been allocated, so the supervisor offered me another one on cytokines and thermogenesis. Thermogenesis certainly didn't sound as glamorous as cancer research, but what would become a continued theme throughout my career began there--my supervisor, the well-known and dynamic Nancy Rothwell would inspire me with her enthusiasm for research!
I loved my time in the lab, the thrill of getting good results and discussing them outweighing for me the frustrations of things not always going so well. Several months later I returned to begin a PhD, still on cytokines but this time in the field of stroke research. Nancy's ability to enthuse and my determination to succeed were severely tested when my experiments stopped working altogether for over 6 months, but I came through the other end with my enthusiasm for research left intact.
Broadened Horizons, Increased Confidence
Within weeks of getting my PhD, I started a postdoc, courtesy of a NATO/Royal Society fellowship, in San Diego where my fiancé had been for the last 2 years of my PhD. Along with introducing me to the US, my postdoc gave me a first taste of what it may be like to work within a biotech company. I enjoyed the diversity of research I was exposed to, and I learned a lot from my colleagues and their diverse backgrounds. The experience broadened my horizons and increased my independence and confidence even though I never felt fully integrated into the company. I also had a lot of fun outside of the lab, making some great friends and of course getting a great suntan!
I returned to Manchester with my husband in 1997, on a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, which offered 4 years of funding, considerable prestige, and an opportunity to build a career in academia. The fellowship gave me the freedom to do my own research, so I decided to stick to what I knew and set up collaborations with Nancy and my colleagues in San Diego. During these years I was able to establish my independence and gain recognition for my own contributions to stroke research.
So when an opportunity for a lectureship presented itself in Manchester in 1999, I didn't spend much time weighing up my options or thinking of the consequences. It was the obvious next step. Next thing I knew my job application was successful, and I was in possession of the much-coveted academic position! But while it should have felt like doors opening, to me it very quickly felt like the opposite. As a new lecturer I was given a "light" teaching load, but still the pressure was such that it left me feeling like I had little time for anything else. The research wasn't going that well either, so I started feeling like I wasn't doing a good job at anything. Worse, I couldn't see how this would change. Work pressure turned into stress, and I became increasingly unhappy.
The breaking point came whilst I was waiting for my turn to give a talk at an international meeting. Instead of the usual nerves and excitement, I felt nothing. Although I had been blaming the situation on the lectureship for a while, on that day I finally accepted that it was more than that--my research was no longer giving me the "buzz." What followed was panic--what was I going to do if I no longer loved research? I had worked so hard to get there that it was very difficult to admit it wasn't for me after all.
After a lot of soul-searching I eventually realised that it wasn't research itself I had grown tired of, but my own topic. So through contacts at AstraZeneca I was given the incredible opportunity to meet a whole range of people at that pharmaceutical company, so that I could find out what they were doing and see if anything grabbed my interest. While talking with the directors of discovery research, I was surprised to learn that cancer research actually had a lot in common with my area of expertise, and even more surprised that a director of cancer research would consider giving me the chance to prove I could make the transition from stroke to cancer research and from academia to industry.
I spoke to several people who could tell me what it was like to work at AstraZeneca and how it differed from academia. The prospect sounded exciting. However, it was just as scary, and it was the confidence that they had seen the "real me" during the thorough interview process that followed that encouraged me to accept their job offer. My technical skills and strong CV had clearly been important in their decision. But generic skills such as the ability to think critically and solve problems, work as a team and influence other people, and ultimately get a job done and to a deadline all proved essential in my new role as an associate team leader in drug discovery.
Tighter Focus in Research, But More Teamwork and Support
My job is to lead the in vivo pharmacology aspect of a drug discovery project and to develop novel technology to facilitate progress. I found the transition to industry somewhat difficult. The research per se has to be more focussed than it can be in academia, and you need to balance this with the process of drug discovery, which is all about people with very diverse skills and knowledge working efficiently and effectively as a team. Importantly for me, AstraZeneca sees its employees as a long-term investment, so the fact that I had, and still have, loads to learn is OK. I am picking up knowledge about drug discovery on the job, both through structured workshops and by interacting with more experienced colleagues. Learning about my new scientific topic is relatively easy in comparison, and again I receive valuable advice from my colleagues.
But if I have found learning new ways of working and new science challenging, they have been above all inspiring. I love the diversity of scientific discussion and the importance of teamwork, which means you are never alone--there is always someone within the company who is willing and able to help. As a whole this environment is making new challenges far less stressful and more enjoyable. So 16 months later I am a much happier person than I have been in a long time.
The decision to give up the lectureship was made easier by the fact that I knew I would always have the full support of my husband and family. However I dreaded telling people at the university; I felt I was letting everyone down, especially Nancy--my continued mentor. I knew most people would think I was insane, and a few would probably resent the fact that I had been given this great opportunity and thrown it all away! In actual fact, no one made it any more difficult for me than it had to be, and some people were very supportive and even pleased for me. Once Nancy realised how unhappy I used to be, she respected my decision.
Academic research isn't easy, and to be successful and happy you have to love what you do. I have learnt that it is better to sometimes decide to call it a day and that even if you do so, you can always find an environment where you can use and develop the skills you've learnt from your academic research career.