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An Interview With Carol Robinson

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

Q: Perhaps we could start talking about your field and your research. For a lay audience, how would you explain the work that you are doing?

C.R.: I'm interested in how proteins interact in the gas phase. So typically, people study them in the liquid phase or in crystals or on electron microscopy grids. We're really interested in getting them into the gas phase of the mass spectrometer and finding out what we can learn about them using this technique. So they're flying through the gas phase. This gives them a freedom of movement, and we really want to capitalize on that.

Q: Why is this research important? What are the implications?

C.R.: I think it's important because it gives us a new view on protein complexes -- for example, we can look at how proteins are interacting in membranes and also in soluble compartments of cells ... actually joined together ... in the gas phase of the mass spectrometer. It gives us an opportunity to look at how small molecules bind and affect membrane protein complexes. [It's] just an exciting area. And it also allows us to look at a lot of proteins and complexes that don't crystallize or don't behave well enough to be studied by the standard structural biology techniques.

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.

—Carol Robinson

Q: How did you first become interested in mass spectrometry?

C.R.: Oh, that goes back a long way. When I left school, I was a technician at Pfizer and I did lots of different analytical techniques while I was there. I started in the chromatography lab and then I moved into NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance]. When I got into the mass spectrometry lab, I really found I had a passion for this technique because it was very difficult practically. Most of the time experiments wouldn't work and the machines would break. It was a tremendous excitement when you could get spectra in those early days, because everything had to be right and it was practically very challenging. Now it's much easier, of course.

Q: So how old were you at the time?

C.R.: I was 16 actually, very early in my career, a long time ago.

Q: And so what made you decide to become a lab technician at 16?

C.R.: Well, er ... I don't think I really decided that that was what I wanted to do. I sort of drifted into this because, I suppose, I went to a school which didn't have very high aspirations for the pupils and so it was quite common for the pupils to leave at that age. And, yes, I wasn't expected to have a great career in science in any shape or form, so it's surprising to me now.

Q: How did you go from being a lab technician to doing a Ph.D.? What were the different steps that you have been taking?

C.R.: When I was at Pfizer, I was very fortunate that my supervisors were very encouraging to me, and they suggested that I take some part-time courses. They said I would be bored as a technician all my life, [that] I needed to get some more qualifications. And so I did 7 years of part-time study, which was the equivalent of a degree course at the end, like a degree, which meant that I could then go off to university full time, which was fantastic because then I went to Cambridge and ... I was very fortunate to be taken on by Dudley Williams at the time.

Q: What was the topic of your Ph.D.?

C.R.: Again, mass spectrometry, but this time applied to sequencing peptides. We were looking at peptides from fish and from frogs and all sorts of snails and interesting creatures at that time. They were neuropeptides, and we were interested in getting their amino acid sequence.

Q: Any especially difficult time during your Ph.D.?

C.R.: Er, ... there was one time when everything went wrong, but I think everybody has times like that. And ... I only had 2 years of funding, so I was really under pressure to get this to work. One time, everything seemed to be going wrong and I was working so hard I couldn't really see what was important anymore. I just became obsessed with this work; I think I just got too fed up about it all, but then when I stepped back, ... I could realize actually it wasn't the end of the world after all and you know it was still going to work out eventually.

Q: Would you say that your ability to step back is really what allowed you to overcome this rough patch in your Ph.D.?

C.R.: Well, actually, I think it was having a bit of a life outside the laboratory. [It] helps in those circumstances because I remember I phoned my partner at that time and said, " Oh, you know, ... I really can't carry on. It's all going horribly wrong." And when I talked it through I realized it actually wasn't that serious. It was one of those typical setbacks that you have in the lab, so I think having someone else to talk it over with was very helpful for me. It allowed me to reflect and see that actually it was just a minor setback, not a major one.

Q: So when exactly did you make the decision to go on a career break?

C.R.: Well, I always knew that I was going to have children, and I didn't know how I would feel about it when the time came, but 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 and I thought, "Well, this is important for me to try to get this right. I'll focus on this for now, and then if I don't get back into science, I'll just have to do something else." Because many people suggested to me that it would be impossible to come back from a long career break at that time, and then I remember thinking, " Well, that's quite a high price to pay. I'm going to follow my heart, and my heart says, do this, ... take the time off with my children." And I don't think I've ever regretted that decision. I think I was fortunate to be able to do that.

Q: How did you feel about potentially never being able to come back to science?

C.R.: Well, I thought that I had a scientific training and I knew that I could be a reasonable scientist given the chance. So I just thought, "I'll just keep going until I get the chance." And I remember, I had interviews to come back which weren't successful, and then eventually managed to convince people, here in Oxford initially, that I could be taken back on as a postdoc. This was, I guess, a retrograde step in some people's eyes because my peers at the time had all gone on to proper academic posts and I was effectively starting again, 8 years down the line. But I didn't mind that because I had made a choice and it was important to me to make something of this chance, I think .

Q: When did you decide to come back?

C.R.: I decided to come back when my children were effectively either in school or nursery school, so that I felt that I could then focus again on a job. I have to say it wasn't easy, as I'm sure you would imagine, so initially I think I worked incredibly hard, and it was very much a balancing act. I was trying to get in 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. And so that worked for a while, while they were all at primary school, and then I guess I got more and more into my research as I was able to and they demanded less of my time.

Q: How old were your children at the time that you came back to your postdoctoral position?

C.R.: They were 8, 6, and 4, roughly -- yes, something like that.

Q: And so your first child is a son?

C.R.: Yes, and then I have a daughter and then another son.

Q: What do you think made it possible for you to return after 8 years? I mean, indeed, in academia, it's usually perceived that it's extremely difficult to come back -- so were you still reading the literature while you were taking your career break?

C.R.: That's very interesting because I think it's actually easier now because there is the Internet. But, you see, I did this quite a while ago. So let me think -- my son is now 27 and I came back when he was about 8, so this is nearly 20 years ago, and the Internet wasn't as great as it is now so I couldn't really follow the field at all. I found it hard to keep up.

I saw the job advertised in New Scientist when I was at the library with my children for story time. ... I picked up a copy of New Scientist and saw this postdoc position at Oxford. I saw it advertised and I thought, "Oh, that's my area, I could do that. "It was in mass spectrometry, so I thought, " Well, I'll give that a go and see what happens." But it was really by chance. If I hadn't been in the library the week that that advert was out -- I wasn't actively looking for that type of job, it was just something that came up. Also at that time I was thinking, "Oh, maybe I'll go back into the pharmaceutical industry." I had one interview in a pharmaceutical company, but I knew that that wasn't what I wanted to do because there was no freedom and flexibility. I asked if it would be possible for me to work from home at all and they clearly didn't like this idea, whereas in academia, it's fine to be writing papers and reading things in your own time and nobody is going to dictate your hours. So there's a freedom with academia that I don't think you get in other areas of chemistry, so that's really what attracted me to coming back to academia.

Q: Did you find it difficult to convince people to take you on or would you have any advice on ...

C.R.: I think that is a problem. I mean, people do think that you maybe are not going to be serious or committed. I was fortunate that one of the people who interviewed me remembered me from when I was a student and so he was prepared to give me a chance, which was good. If I hadn't known the person, maybe it would have been a different story, but I did work pretty hard at my presentation. I did try to get myself up to date even though I wasn't really up to date because I had been out of the field for so long. But I think what I did, because obviously I was interviewed alongside current people, is show a lot of interest in the project, read around the project, you know -- the typical advice that you give to students nowadays. And I tried to show a lot of initiative in the interview, [describing] what are the things I would try. As I say, 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 in a project. That was what we were asked and I knew I could still think of that.

Q: Did you find it difficult to balance work and family?

C.R.: I did, yes, and this is quite common for all women. They feel as though they're not really doing either job particularly well; ... a lot of women I talk to nowadays feel that. And it's unfortunate that people feel like that because ... now [I] can look at it very positively, which you can do in hindsight, and I think for my children, it was great for them because they're now proud and I think that's something that working mothers should remember, that their children hopefully will be very proud of them and it's just a temporary thing when they're a bit resentful [about] the time your job takes. I think eventually they're quite pleased that you did that, to be honest, and my children now are of an age where they can say, "Well, you know, we realized what you did and we're proud." And my daughter particularly would say, "Well, I want to do that similarly," so that's quite a compliment I think. And I also think that's something nice to pass on to young women because they do feel that they're failing on all accounts and they're actually not, I'm sure. But it's the common feeling, I think, sadly.

Q: So you have a daughter who wants to be a scientist as well?

C.R.: No, none of them are partic[ularly] keen to be scientists. Well, actually my elder son went into computing, which is quite scientific. And my daughter is a mathematician training to be an actuary, and my youngest son is a journalist in China, so none of them followed in my footsteps. That's funny because when I was at home with them, I used to quite like doing experiments with them and all those sorts of things, but clearly they didn't find that particularly compelling because they all did different things.

Q: Now, when you started studying protein complexes using mass spectrometry, was it as a postdoc or did it come later on? How did this idea develop?

C.R.: Well, I think, actually it's quite interesting. I was actually studying something else completely. I was studying protein folding pathways, and I noticed that some of the complexes were maintained in the gas phase of the mass spectrometer, but at first I thought, "Oh, that's really not what I want to see. I'll try and tune the conditions such that I don't see that." And then after a while, I realized that it had some meaning. 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. At first I thought it was an artifact and then later realized that it wasn't.

Q: How was the idea received at the time? Was it controversial?

C.R.: Yes, it was. ... Because I'd been out of the field, I wasn't really sure that it was controversial, but at meetings they had said, "Oh, you know, this isn't the way forward, and it's not what you should be doing." But I hadn't really been at those meetings. Because my children were small, I wasn't traveling very much and so I carried on. ... People [said] to me, ... "You should do proteomics like everybody else is doing, you know, you're much more likely to get funding in those areas." But I didn't want to because I knew I wouldn't be competitive if I did what everybody else was doing because they'd already have a head start, and they had much bigger groups than I had. So I thought, "I'll develop my own niche, and if it doesn't work, I'll do something else." I'm not going to not do it because it's high risk. I wanted to do something different, a bit high risk, I think.

Q: Do you feel that you had a harder time getting ahead in your career because you are a woman? Chemistry is male-dominated in many departments.

C.R.: Yes, it is. I mean, numbers-wise, it's a very male-dominated department, but I didn't feel as though I was discriminated against. I felt largely supported, and particularly at my current department, they have been great. It's variable. I've been in lots of different chemistry departments now and this is a very good one, I would say.

No, I can't say that I was discriminated against. I think I've been treated very fairly. I think it is tough, but I can't say that anybody [has] been other than supportive, ... and I've benefited from lots of help and mentoring from male colleagues. It doesn't have to be women that mentor you. Many times when I thought, "I'm not really ready for a particular post," I wouldn't apply and Chris Dobson would say to me, "Oh, come on, you really should, there is no point hanging around," and I'd say, "Oh, but my CV will be better soon," and he'd say, "No, it's fine now, you go ahead." That's what I try to give back now, if I can: Try to encourage people to put in for things even though they think they may be not ready for them.

Q: Do you think that from the women scientists that you have met, that work in your lab and so on, that they feel that they have to do better before they can apply and before they can compete?

C.R.: I do think there is a bit of that psyche, and maybe, well, I have noticed it myself that in my own group now, which is quite a large group, ... over many years the men will put in for things much more willingly than the women, who I need to encourage more quite often, and they feel they're not quite good enough quite often. I'm not sure why because they definitely are.

Q: What advice do you give them in such cases? If I were a young scientist, what kind of advice would you give to me so that I can move ahead successfully?

C.R.: I think you have to follow your instinct. 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. And don't be swayed by the dogma which says you can or you can't do something, because I think it's a huge choice for women to have to make. They shouldn't be told that you can't have a family and then a scientific career at the same time. It's not a good choice to offer. Listen to your mentors; your mentors are incredibly important for you, male or female. The women I have in my group, I say exactly the same to them: Maybe I would be struck off for saying what I will say, but your family should come first in these things and 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. ... I know that if I ever had to be at school or, you know, sometimes, horribly, at the hospital or whatever, then I just did that, ... and I think that worked out okay for me, and I encourage my women to do the same if the same thing happens to them. Of course, it's awful when your child is ill, but it really makes you focus and prioritize what's important. And yes, I would encourage everybody to have a mentor and to talk to them and not think they're wasting their time. ... [Don't say,] "Oh, I don't like to bother you." I try to say, "No, it's not at all bothering." It's something that I'd like to pay back really, because I think I have benefited from it.

Q: Do you feel that having a family can also make you a better scientist in some ways?

C.R.: Oh, that's an interesting one. I do think it helps you to put things in perspective, and that's my main thing, I think. Quite often I just think, "Well, at least I can go home and have a nice evening." I actually think it's sometimes quite tough on people who don' t have much of a time outside the lab, because when experiments go wrong, they've got nobody to share that with or to distract them from so-called failure, even though it's probably not a failure but something not working.

Q: And in terms of the skills that a mother or a father scientist has to develop, do you think that then they can transfer that in the lab as well, perhaps because they have to be so good at balancing work and family?

C.R.: Yes, I think perhaps the thing that they have which I've noticed [is] they tend to be incredibly well organized. Actually Michal [Sharon], who you e-mailed me about previously [for another Science Careers article], she would be very organized in the lab and would come in and have a list of things that she was going to do that day, and she wouldn't become distracted by the news Web site or other activities or go to coffee, particularly for long periods of time, because her time was very precious in the lab. And there are many examples of people with that sort of dedication. But then, they're not necessarily parents, but I have noticed that quite commonly they are parents.

Q: Regarding balancing work and family, how did you make it work yourself? Did you have a very established routine? Did you have someone to help you?

C.R.: Yes, a routine is important. Well, I didn't ever have anybody live in to help because I was one of these people who want to do it themselves. So their father would take them to school in the morning, and then in the evening I would get them early from a child minder who would pick them up from school for me 4 days a week, and then I would pick them up on the Friday. But then the difficulties were when there was music and dancing and all these other things that they want to go to, and so quite often I would go to those classes after school with them as well. So, yes, three small children was a very, very busy time.

Q: Any advice on that, on how to balance?

C.R.: We just have to be incredibly organized. One of the things I notice is that I would carry around in my head exactly where everybody was at every point in the day. ... I think the very hardest thing for me was when I started to have some success, I got invited to conferences, and that was just a nightmare to organize. You want to go because you think, "I did that work, I really want to present it," but 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: Did you ever have to take your children with you to conferences?

C.R.: Yes, I did take them. Actually, they did quite like that and I think that's a very positive thing. I should remember that, because you have to stress the positives about being a mother in science and one of them is this opportunity to travel and take your children and family all over the world. My children have been to Australia, America, all parts of Europe, of course. I think they probably wouldn't have had so many opportunities to travel if it hadn't been for this job, so there's some definite highlights to being a scientist, that's one of them. The other thing is that it meant flexibility. I never missed the school's sports day or any of the things that were important to my children because as I said, these were the priorities.

Q: When you had to dedicate some time to your children, how did you compensate in the lab?

C.R.: What I found was I'm very much a morning person, so I would get up very early and come in to work before anybody else and just got on quietly with what I had to do with no interruptions. And even now if I've got something difficult to write or something where I need total concentration, I'll still come in very early. These habits of waking up early with the children don't seem to leave me. ... I still have that same work [habit], starting early.

Q: To be successful, it's very important for women scientists to have a mentor, as you mentioned. Anything else that you think they should really seek?

C.R.: Well, the work-life balance is the key I think, and getting that right. When I was doing my Ph.D. and I had this very short time and I completely overreacted when something didn't work, ... you can cope with that so much better if you'd go home and switch off and do something very different. It doesn't have to be family, but I do think having some outside interest is important. ... I see so many women -- I travel the world now and often do women-in-science talks -- and culturally in some countries ... you must work 7 days a week 24 hours a day, and I just think that's so counterproductive to family life, ... and I don't see that they're doing any better than anybody else, to be honest. I think it's not true that that's necessarily a more efficient model.

Q: In your career so far, what has been the most exciting or the most rewarding moment?

C.R.: Oh, let me think of that. There's obviously many highlights all along my life. ... I remember, I got a first American Society for Mass Spectrometry prize, and I really wasn't expecting to get that, and I remember I could hardly sleep because I was just very thrilled to get that. And I guess that's your first ever recognition that you've done something useful as a scientist, and that's very exciting. And still I'm excited [when] papers get accepted, and then also I'm excited to see members of my group do well. I suppose it's a bit like a motherly thing where you watch [out] for the people who used to work for you and if you see they're doing well, [there is] reflected pride. ... You think, "Oh, hopefully I made some difference to them while they were in the lab."

Q: Any advice for women scientists who are taking a career break right now on how they can make their return easier?

C.R.: I think it's easier now because of the Internet. You can follow what's going on and you can read the journals much more than I ever did. So being out of the field isn't such a terrible thing, and I know now that many women are able to have a break but not be totally cut off, and I think that's probably the healthiest way forward. You can take some time off with your baby but you can still do e-mail when they're asleep, for example, or stay in contact with what's going on in the world, whereas it was quite isolating ... when I did this. I think it's a lot easier now -- I hope it is anyway, because I also think that science is very competitive and it is very hard to come back after a break. So if you can feel that you're still with your children but watching what's going on while you're at home, that's a so much better situation.

Q: Would you have any further advice to conclude this interview, or do you feel that we have talked about all the main topics?

C.R.: I suppose the main thing I want to get over, which I have to not forget, is, I want to be positive about it because I think it's very easy to put women off by just saying, "Oh, it's all so difficult, you know, we have to work so hard," and then they start thinking, "Well, it's actually not worth it, you know, it's not as though it's that well paid." But I think 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, because they become involved in your work to a certain extent. I have a paper published with my daughter. My son did my previous Web site. There's lots of opportunities, and actually, my younger son who's the journalist, also wrote an article with me, so I think they know what I do, they're involved, and they're proud. I would like to think that it's a positive thing, not a negative thing, and 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. Actually, I'm sure that they are. It's not how long you work; it's what you do and how you work that's important.

Q: Even though your children aren't scientists, you are able to sort of collaborate with them?

C.R.: Yes, well, my daughter did mathematics, and so she did a summer project in my lab and she did some mathematical modeling, and we had a nice paper on some mathematical models, so that was nice. And then as I said, my elder son did my previous Web site, and my younger son wrote a conference report with me, so that was something he could put on his CV to help him get other commissions. I think you have to think of these things as positive and, well, not negative.