Post-Doc in North America
As someone in their ‘more senior years’ as an academic, I get asked to tell ‘my story’ about how I got from being a girl growing up in Middlesbrough to a Professor of Microbiology and Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor. This post covers how and why I moved to North America for a Post Doc and how this opened up opportunities for me and enabled me to get a faculty position at Exeter University three years later.
After my PhD at Warwick University I had a first post-Doctoral position at the Institute for Biotechnological Studies in London. The funding was running out for that three year post and I needed to secure a job fast. I had attended my first international conference near Copenhagen a few months earlier and had given my first talk at an international conference – but more about that experience in a later blog posting! I started to understand the benefits of networking at conferences in developing research and career opportunities so I submitted an abstract for the forthcoming ISME4 meeting in Ljubljana in August 1986. As for my first international meeting I went alone and had to raise the funding to go myself.
The flight to the ISME 4 meeting was delayed for many hours so all passengers were ushered into a room to wait (yes this was a different era in flying!) It was crowded so I had to share a table and sat next to a seemingly nice couple from North America. I quickly learned they were Bill and Vivian Costerton, and were Canadians. Bill was a leading figure in microbial ecology (whom I had never hear of before) how his research covered many, many diverse areas including petroleum microbiology and within 30 minutes he had offered me a post-doc working on microbes in petroleum reservoirs!
He took out a small card and drew out a schematic of the subsurface environment (I later learned that this is how he always worked in research discussions). He sketched out how this seemingly hostile environment was merely a combination of challenges for bacteria but some survived this high temperature, lack of oxygen, salty, high pressure, low nutrient combination, could grow within rocks (I found that concept utterly fascinating) and that some of their growth byproducts were a nuisance and spoiled the quality of the oil. This meant that many international oil and gas companies were interested in bacteria and sometimes funding such work – and so I started working in petroleum microbiology, bacterial growth on surfaces (biofilms) and the much broader field of microbial ecology.
I really didn’t follow a lot of what Bill was saying but I needed my next research job so I listened and agreed to meet him once the conference was underway. Eventually the flight landed in Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning, then the bus taking us to our hotels broke down in the country lanes but as we were all going to the same conference I had chance to meet and get to know some of them.
The next day I set off to the conference centre but inadvertently stood on the wrong side of the road and, as I couldn’t understand the language, caught the wrong bus and ended up in the outskirts of the city with just me and the bus driver looking at each other. He stopped there for a few minutes, then luckily for me, drove back into the city and I found the conference centre.
I attended the opening ceremony and watched the ISME President cross the stage and open the conference, little knowing that I would become the President of the Society and play that same role in Cairns 22 years later. I met Bill Costerton and he commenced the paperwork to formally offer me a post Doctoral research fellowship in his huge laboratory group at Calgary University.
I moved there a few months later and took on running part of his research group, broadening my skills and learning how to work with businesses too. Some aspects were very challenging, such as when you have to walk into a room full of engineers, geologists, chemists, mathematical modellers etc and put across our latest research ideas and progress to such an interdisciplinary audience. I learned that it’s about keeping calm when, for example, Darcys, turbulent flow, catholic protection, metal corrosion or oil souring were being discussed and read up on it fast later. We took some new concepts of how bacteria might aid oil recovery and scaled this up from small rock cores into large 3-D reservoir models, pulling in bacteria survival mechanisms and biofilm studies too. All of this helped me to prepare my first faculty applications and led to a job interview at Exeter University. I was the only female shortlisted but was thrilled to be offered and then accept this in 1989, joining Exeter in 1990, ready for my next adventure!
hilary.lappin-scott December 11th, 2017
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Tags: Conference, Disruptive STEMinist, empowerment, Equality and diversity, Hilary Lappin-Scott, inspiring women, Microbiology, Research, Scientific, Soap Box Science, STEM, Swansea University, visible women, Women in Stem
Swansea hosted its 4th annual Soapbox Science event this summer. With this week featuring Ada Lovelace Day it is time to reflect on and celebrate our achievements as female researchers in these four years. Guest blogging for Disruptive Steminist Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott (Senior PVC at Swansea University) is the perfect platform!
We are Swansea academics Dr Geertje Van Keulen (Associate Professor in Biochemistry) and Professor Michelle Lee (Chair in Psychology) and we had never met before Hilary brought us together! Enthused and excited by Hilary’s Soapbox Science speaking debut in London in 2013, she immediately saw the benefits of expansion to Swansea and other cities.
The vision of Soapbox Science, the brainchild of Drs Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner is brilliantly simple. Take science out to the public – literally on the street corner – and at the same time give women visibility as successful researchers across all science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) subjects. This novel format has been amazingly effective on both counts and this is our experience:
Q: Why did we get involved in Soapbox Science?
Geertje: When Hilary first suggested at the start of 2014 to become involved in organising Soapbox Science in Swansea I was not sure what to think as it was a difficult time in work for me. I knew I needed to be in a feel good community and Soapbox Science sounded amazing. I decided to take the plunge, throw myself in the deep end to explore horizons new. Looking back now it may have been the best decision I made, as Soapbox Science has been the most rewarding personal experience, giving me exactly those values and experiences I craved for in academia.
Michelle: At the time there was a loose collective of STEMM women around campus but we were lacking visibility. Soapbox Science Swansea (SBS) seemed to be the ideal opportunity to re-energise the group and provide a professional platform for STEMM women. I didn’t realise at the time just how successful we would in getting women involved with public engagement.
Q: What have we experienced so far with organising Soapbox Science?
Michelle: SBS is one of the most rewarding times of the year for me. The benefits of belong to a network are many but so often when women’s groups get together the focus is about the challenges of being a woman in the work place and how to balance caring and professional roles. This is of course an important topic and a valuable source of support and mentoring, but what I appreciate with SBS is the sharing of science and hearing about the fantastic work going on across the University. There is so much to know whether it’s the latest in solar cell research, invasive species, nanotechnology, microbiology or glaciology. On the day of the event I always get an attack of discipline envy and wonder what life would have been like if I’d been a chemist or an engineer!
Geertje: At first, it was a relief and great pleasure to work in a women-only team that worked well together, giving each other opportunities to develop and try out new roles and activities without demanding privilege and power in return. The team who got together and its new members are true collaborators, sharing the joy and jobs of running and organising an event. It is not only the organisation of the events that is joyful, the expanding networks and connections between women in STEMM across Swansea campuses, Wales and beyond has almost grown exponentially.
Michelle: I can’t deny that being an organiser takes effort but unlike some other roles that I have it is really good fun. Our all-women team work together really well and it is surprisingly easy to get things done when you don’t have to worry about male egos or hierarchies – we are from all levels from early career research to professor – none of that is important – only that we get things done on time. After four events it does feel like a well-oiled machine and we can roll up in the van, load up the soapboxes and hit the streets of Swansea with amazing science. On event day, it really is avengers assemble!
Q: Which achievements of Soapbox Science Swansea makes you proud?
Geertje: While the effect of organising such events has enabled women in STEMM to become more visible to the general public, it has also led to building up of confidence in speaking up, not only in public but also within disciplines, departments and higher education in general. The enthousiasm of sharing our female passion for STEMM with the general public has generated powerful voices:
Michelle: For me our proudest achievement is our diversity, we are not just women, but women of colour and of different faiths and nationalities. A highlight moment must be Professor Farah Bhatti, a Consultant Cardiac Surgeon, surrounded by an enormous crowd, demonstrating open-heart surgery (on pig hearts from the butcher’s I should add) in the middle of a busy shopping street! The public have given us an amazing reception especially considering many weren’t expecting to encounter women on soapboxes en route between Swansea Market and M&S.
Geertje: SBS has enabled networking of women across disciplines (e.g. regionally Cardiff and Swansea SBS now share a training session on speaking in public) and across career stages, from PhD student to national scientific advisors to the government (e.g. access to Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales Professor Julie Williams led to further opportunities for SBS speakers and organisers). It has resulted in interdisciplinary and international collaborations and visits: SBS has gone global!
We deliver events and networking effectively through team work in a safe and reliable environment, with clear roles, value and impact of our efforts for ourselves and others. Interestingly, these kinds of attributes were recently reported as five key traits of effective and successful Google teams.
Michelle and Geertje: In summary, working with the many female scientists and engineers in Soapbox Science has truly strengthened our beliefs that women have a natural place at the forefront of STEMM, and should be more readily recognised for their amazing achievements.
If you have become interested in going to a Soapbox Science event near you, please check our current locations in the UK, RoI, Europe, Australia and North America at the main website. If you like to become a Local Organiser for our 2018 events, please email [email protected].
If you have become interested in speaking at a Soapbox Science event near you, the next call for speakers will open around January time. Please follow the local and main twitter accounts for up-to-date info. For Swansea this is @soapboxsciSWAN or else email [email protected].
If you want to experience an event, why not sign up as volunteer by contacting a local event?!
Written by Dr Geertje van Keulen & Prof Michelle Lee
For October 10th 2017 Ada Lovelace Day 2017
See more about Soap Box Science in our video
hilary.lappin-scott October 10th, 2017
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Guest blog by Dr Jenny Baker, Research Office, School of Engineering, Swansea University
I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a Newton RSC Workshop in India on Sustainable Energy in Rural India organised between Professor Neil Robertson and Dr. Sara Shinton (Edinburgh University, UK) and Professor Satish Ogale (IISER Pune, India). What attracted me to apply was the fact that this workshop was not just scientists and engineers (or physical scientists as we were labelled) but social scientists working on policy, cultural and societal problems.
The workshop was challenging, starting with a visit to rural villages in India before a formal programme of talks from experts who had worked in the area for many years. On the final three days we split into self-selected teams and chose areas to work on that focussed on the energy needs of the people of rural India. I thought I had no preconceived ideas of how the workshop would be before I left the UK but as the week progressed I realised I was wrong. I had thought that the social scientists would do their part and the physical scientists would do ours and the roles would be split accordingly.
However it soon became apparent that the teams had split along physical and social science boundaries and I realised I was far more comfortable working in a team comprised entirely of Indian male physical scientists than I was in a mixed sex group of British and Indian social scientists. I tried to move into the social scientist group but was frustrated that I didn’t understand where they were trying to take the project and I could not see how I could contribute. This was not a personal thing, the people in the team I respected professionally and enjoyed their company.
Eventually I moved back to my original team but realised we needed to attract some social scientists. Could they not understand that we had a really good project? Why did they not want to join the team? Was it because of personalities? From my point of view they did not see the project in the same way we (the physical scientists) could visualise the project. With that in mind I tried describing the project to the social scientists in a different way. The first two times didn’t work, however on the third time things appeared to change. I’m not saying everyone suddenly went ‘wow great project’ just that they finally recognised where we were coming from even if they still didn’t want to join the project!
I went into this workshop thinking it would enable me to design appropriate technology whilst factoring in cultural and societal factors. But I found out it was much more than that, key lessons that I will take away from this week are:
hilary.lappin-scott September 28th, 2017
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This week, Swansea University is celebrating one of the happiest events in the calendar and indeed the highlight of the academic year– our degree congregations! Here we pride ourselves on doing this with a mixture of tradition and informality, for example, including poetry and song as part of each ceremony. Graduation is a great opportunity for me and the University staff to acknowledge and celebrate success and wish our new graduates well on the next stage of their journey. I always enjoy speaking to new graduates to hear about their time with us and also keeping in touch with our alumni and the wonderful things they go on to achieve.
Participating in degree ceremonies, meeting new graduates and their families/friends and helping them enjoy the occasion is all a great part of the job to me. It’s a personal time too when one has taught and worked with students over many years. Without doubt most of the proudest moments of my working life have been watching my students cross the stage and be admitted to their degrees. The ones we get to know best are frequently our personal tutees, those undergraduate students who undertake research projects with us and our Masters and PhD students. Each academic knows only too well all of the issues that many of our students have had to cope with with in order to succeed. I was thinking of one in particular today. Together, she and a sibling were supporting each other to ‘work their way’ through university to increase their skills and life chances. As her sibling had a young child, they shared the childcare, arranging their studies and paid employment around this all too. She sometimes found exams very stressful and I recall more than once that she came to see me for some support just prior to an exam, and we talked together to work up some coping strategies. Fast forward 15+ years, she is now a highly respected scientist and her sibling a medic. Others will know of many similar instances of how lives were changed through education and the experiences of university life.
I was reflecting too on the various roles that I played at many different ceremonies during my career, at the University of Exeter carrying the ‘wand’ for my subject area to reading out all of the postgraduate names, a tricky task that took me much of a week to prepare, to giving speeches and orations for honorary graduands at Swansea University. In 2015 I was thrilled to be the first woman ever at Swansea University to officiate at a degree ceremony whilst the Vice Chancellor was away. This week too, I am officiating and once again admitting some graduands to their degrees. For me this is a great honour and I feel that it is very important to see women playing such roles!
So, it’s back to preparing my speeches for the next ceremonies. I hope that all our graduates will look back with great affection to their time with us, what we refer to in one poem as ‘these graduation day smiles’ and will keep in touch with us via the alumni association.
More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:
hilary.lappin-scott July 25th, 2017
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