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?
Q: How did you go on to doing a Ph.D.?
Q: Any difficult time during your Ph.D.?
Q: After your Ph.D., you took an 8-year career break. Was it a difficult decision?
Q: How did you find your way back into academia?
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?
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?
Q: How was the idea received at the time?
Q: Any advice for young women scientists today?
Q: Any bright sides to being a mother in academia?
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.