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A Step Inside Industry


Are academically interesting questions and those that are commercially relevant mutually exclusive? Or is it possible to have the best of both worlds? It's an important issue for scientific trainees who, while being trained in academia often become curious about industrial research.

One answer is provided by the Industrial Co-Operative Award in Science and Engineering (CASE), a U.K. Ph.D. studentship that seeks to build meaningful and sustainable relationships between industry and academia, with early career researchers at the point of intersection. Industrial CASE project ideas arise from industry and are at least potentially profitable, but also involve innovative and rigorous science worthy of a doctoral degree.

Although Industrial CASE awardees work primarily in an academic environment, they enjoy benefits that include a research supervisor from industry, a broader research training experience, and access to state-of-the-art facilities via secondments in the company. It's an excellent combination for many Industrial CASE students, past and present, who have found the dual environment the award offers advantageous for both their research progress and their future career opportunities.

CASE studentships, which have been in existence for more than a decade, are administered by the U.K. publicly funded research councils for natural sciences: The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). Industrial CASE awards are a variation of the longer-established CASE awards; in the former case, the industrial partner seeks an academic group to collaborate with and then applies to the research councils to fund a 3-year studentship. In the latter case, the academic partner initiates the CASE-funded collaboration.

The industrial partner is obliged to foot one-third of the cost of the studentship and to provide placement within the company for the students--and pay all their expenses--for a minimum of 3 months. Industrial CASE stipends vary in amount but are more generous (averaging £3,000 extra per annum) than a standard research council studentship. In return, says Jane Mefo, the EPSRC's University Interface Manager, the industrial partner, "gets to define a project and benefits from academic expertise." From the research councils' point of view, the scheme not only fosters rich training for early career researchers, but it also promotes "a closer long term collaboration between academia and industry."

The doctoral candidate is jointly supervised but is based mainly at the academic institution. The frequency and duration (beyond the mandatory 3 months) of the awardee's industrial stay is project dependent. Companies are expected to allow and encourage CASE students to take part in corporate training programmes, both technical and "soft skills" such a project management and business strategy training that the company may offer.

CASE Trainee Experiences

The industrial CASE students who spoke to Next Wave felt that working on a project relevant to industry added an applied dimension to their work that would otherwise have been missing.

"It's not just acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge; there is a practical application," notes Rebecca Crallan who worked at the Department of Biology at the University of York and with the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). "You have more to think about." Engineer and second-year CASE Ph.D. student Allan Jowsey, who is working at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering and Electronics and with the fire research group ArupFire of the engineering firm Ove Arup, shares Crallan's opinion, finding time spent at the ArupFire research facilities in London inspiring. One of his projects is studying the collapse of the World Trade Center's multistory composite steel frame structure due to fire, "We are working on real life projects", he explains.

Simon Baker is a CASE awardee also working at the Department of Biology at York University and with the medical devices company Smith & Nephew. Baker is working on an interdisciplinary tissue-engineering project that combines biology and chemistry; having an industrial partner means access to chemistry facilities that an academic environment cannot provide. And it's not just state-of-the-art equipment that is attractive for Baker; exposure "to a huge array of expertise and depth of skills" is also valuable.

Having industry on board can also alter the pace of the research. In addition to support from the academic lab, Baker says, you also have a network of experts in the company. "With other people to help, your research tends to move on more quickly."

Fire engineer Jowsey agrees that the pace of research in industry can be faster. Jowsey is researching methods to simplify current mathematical models used to understand the effects of temperature change--fire in his case--on building structures. "The workload can get demanding," he says. "There are deadlines to meet." This has its advantages; Jowsey believes it is important to be exposed to how research and business are conducted "in a real life scenario."

However, working in a "real life" scenario can be tough. Crallan's placement at GSK coincided with a merger process; with job redundancies looming, the atmosphere was tense. Industrial environments tend to have more rigid daily protocols that can be alien to an academic researcher used to lots of autonomy. Crallan explains, for example, having to "have my lab book signed and stamped every day was initially off-putting," she admits, "though once I was used to it, it was fine."

Apart from management decisions and company protocols, these corporate arrangements have some other disadvantages. In some cases, dissemination can be slowed by the CASE students' industrial entanglements. Robert Phillips was a CASE student at the University of Southampton and the Swedish biotechnology company Actinova. When a patent was filed on some of his doctoral work, he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. From the company's point of view, this was a standard--and reasonable--procedure, but it was awkward for Phillips. While giving research talks, "I was not allowed to say what mutants I had made with my protein," he explains. "I literally had to call them mutant X and mutant Y, which detracted from the scientific rigour of the talks." Having a patent filed also slowed down publishing his results, though for some, filing a patent may be just as attractive as publishing.

Nevertheless, Phillips sees his CASE Ph.D. as very valuable due to the exposure it provided to research in an industrial setting. Indeed, the CASE fellowship was formative: Phillips currently works as a business Enterprise Fellow --teaching entrepreneurship to university students at the Manchester Science Enterprise Centre and working as an advisor writing business plans for university spin-off companies.

Other Industrial CASE alumni also feel their exposure to industry has helped their careers. Gemma Hill finished her BBSRC industrial CASE award last year in the Department of Biology at York and with Smith & Nephew. She is currently working as an analyst for a medical technology consulting firm and will shortly take a position as a marketing assistant for Cancer Research Technology--the technology transfer section of the funding organisation Cancer Research UK. She believes that doing an industrial CASE award was pivotal in helping her gain positions in industry. During her doctoral training, she explains, "you see many more aspects, make more connections," and in the end, "have a much wider range of opportunities."

Crallan is a fine example. Following her Industrial CASE studentship, she went on to do an academic postdoc at the University of Leeds in skin cancer research. Soon, when she completes her 2-year postdoc, she will start a project on skin research at Unilever. Other factors--an unsuccessful grant proposal for one--played a role in Crallan's move to industry. Yet it's great to have options, and Crallan feels that the "intersectorial mobility" that the CASE studentship has allowed has been a positive aspect of her career. She believes having industrial experience during her Ph.D., was important in opening doors. "It definitely helped."

Fire engineer Jowsey, who still has a year left of his CASE studentship, would like to work as a fire specialist at an engineering consulting firm. Working with a leading company on fire safety engineering has meant "instant recognition at conferences" and has raised his profile for future job opportunities.

In the meantime, having a realistic impression of what that future career could be like is a big advantage. Jowsey says his industrial CASE award has "given me the opportunity to meet other people, in the real work force. It's a real eye opener."

Phillips sums it up by saying, "best thing about it [CASE award] is it gives you a feel for what industry wants."

Editor's note: Industrial CASE awards are advertised all year. Approximately the following number are awarded each year: BBSRC (120), EPSRC (270), NERC (20,) PPARC (10). Please check the research council's Web site for further details. Positions may be posted on the respective company, university, and research council Web sites, in addition to the major U.K. scientific recruitment Web sites.

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