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Career Q&A: Reentering Academia - A Success Story

Carol Robinson (Credit: David Paterson, University of Oxford)

Chemistry professor Carol Robinson of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom is this year's winner of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) and European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Women in Science Award. The FEBS/EMBO award is the latest of a string of prizes recognizing Robinson's pioneering use of mass spectrometry for the study of protein complexes and her role as a mentor to women scientists. Perhaps the most notable thing about Robinson's career path -- apart from her scientific accomplishments -- is the 8-year break she took from science while raising her children. Science Careers talked to Robinson about this unusual career path and how it informed her views, unusual in the world of academia, about the importance of work-life balance.

The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A near-complete transcript can be found here.

"If you want to take time out or work flexibly or whatever works for you when you have your family, that's exactly what you should do." --Carol Robinson

Q: How did you first get into mass spectrometry?
When I left school, I was a technician at Pfizer. I was 16, actually. When I got into the mass spectrometry lab, I really found I had a passion for this technique because it was very difficult practically. It was a tremendous excitement when you could get spectra in those early days.

Q: How did you go on to doing a Ph.D.?
I was very fortunate that my supervisors were very encouraging to me. They said I would be bored as a technician all my life. And so I did 7 years of part-time study, which was fantastic because then I went to Cambridge, and I was very fortunate to be taken on by Dudley Williams.

Q: Any difficult time during your Ph.D.?
I only had 2 years of funding, so I was really under pressure to get this to work. One time, just everything seemed to be going wrong and I was working so hard I couldn't really see what was important anymore. Having a bit of a life outside the laboratory helps in those circumstances because when I talked it through [with my partner at that time], I realized it actually wasn't that serious.

Q: After your Ph.D., you took an 8-year career break. Was it a difficult decision?
As soon as my elder son was born, I just thought, "I'm going to do the very best as I can and I'm going to stay at home until he's at school." And then I had two further children. Many people suggested to me that it would be impossible to come back from a long career break, and then I remember thinking, "Well, that's quite a high price to pay."

Q: How did you find your way back into academia?
I knew that I could be a reasonable scientist given the chance. I eventually managed to convince people here in Oxford that I could be taken back on as a postdoc. I actually saw the job advertised in New Scientist when I was at the library with my children for story time.

I was fortunate that one of the people who interviewed me remembered me from when I was a student. But I did work pretty hard at my presentation. Because obviously I was interviewed alongside current people, what I did is show a lot of interest in the project. And I tried to show a lot of initiative. If you have a basic scientific background, it doesn't just leave you because you have children. You can still think of what are the appropriate experiments to do and what the next steps would be.

Q: How difficult was it to juggle work and family?
Initially, I worked incredibly hard, and it was very much a balancing act. Their father would take them to school in the morning. I was trying to get in [to work] very early so that I could be with them when they got out from school, and then I negotiated to leave early on Fridays so that I could meet them at the school gates, one of these things that seemed very important at the time because I didn't want them to feel they'd been abandoned.

The very hardest thing for me was, when I started to have some success, I got invited to conferences. It was just an operational nightmare trying to organize cover and people to help during all those times. My mother, who lived about 80 miles away, would come and stay occasionally, which was a big help.

Q: What prompted you to develop novel mass spectrometry techniques?
I was studying something else completely, and I noticed that some of the complexes were maintained in the gas phase of the mass spectrometer. At first I thought, "I'll try and tune the conditions such that I don't see that." And then after a while, I realized that it was really telling me something about the experiment. And then I started to get on that pathway of trying to follow folded complexes in the gas phase.

Q: How was the idea received at the time?
I wasn't really sure that it was controversial, but at meetings they had said, "Oh, you know, this isn't the way forward." But I hadn't really been at those meetings because my children were small. People [said] to me, "You should do proteomics like everybody else is doing" and I didn't want to because I knew I wouldn't be competitive because they already have a head start.

Q: Any advice for young women scientists today?
If you want to take time out or work flexibly or whatever works for you when you have your family, that's exactly what you should do. Don't be swayed by the dogma which says you can or you can't do something. To the women I have in my group, I always say, "Your science is very important when you're here, but it's not to the exclusion of everything else." I know that's perhaps not the popular view, but that's the way I see it.

Q: Any bright sides to being a mother in academia?
It's really one of the best careers you can have with children because it's so flexible, because you can take them with you. My daughter did mathematics, and so she did a summer project in my lab. And then my elder son did my previous Web site, and my younger son wrote a conference report with me. So they know what I do, they're involved, and they're proud.

I would like to encourage women to see that they can have a family and still be effective as a scientist, even though at times it feels as though you're not dedicating enough time. It's not how long you work, it's what you do and how you work that's important.

Carol Robinson C.V. Highlights

1972–79 Lab technician at Pfizer in Sandwich in the United Kingdom; part-time studies at Canterbury College of Technology and Medway College of Technology

1979–80 Master's degree in science, University of Wales

1980–82 Ph.D. in mass spectrometry, University of Cambridge

1983–91 Career break

1991–95 Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Oxford

1995–2001 Royal Society University research fellow, University of Oxford

2001 - Appointed Professor of mass spectrometry, University of Cambridge

2003 - Named Senior Research Fellow, Churchill College Cambridge

2006 - Awarded Royal Society research professorship

2009 - Named Royal Society research professor and Dr. Lee Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, University of Oxford

Robinson recently won an Advanced Investigator Grant from the European Research Council. To date she has published more than 275 journal articles and mentored more than 20 Ph.D. students and 30 postdoctoral fellows, about half of them women.