Letting It Go

To many people Steve Shirley is an early entrepreneur in software development who made a fortune; a woman who rebranded herself with a man’s name in order to avoid being ignored by the blue chip companies she wanted to use her services; and a woman who employed women working from home to create her business via this new flexible-working model. That is probably how I thought of her. A leader and a brave woman who made good in a world made difficult for her, first by her birth (she escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport aged 5) and then by her gender. Having just read her autobiography Let It Go (recently republished) I realised how much more to her there was. Indeed, by the end I realised I’m not sure that the descriptions I’ve just given are how she would want to be remembered because there is something central to her life I haven’t mentioned: she had a severely autistic son. From his original diagnosis this blunt fact dominated her life, despite her managing to continue to excel in the business world.

Her book is stark. She is brave in what she writes. I wrote recently about how when giving talks about my own life – by comparison uneventful and easy – I can choose what I do and don’t relate. Shirley’s book would seem to hold nothing back, although even that may not be true. Her son Giles wasn’t just ‘on the spectrum’, in that revolting phrase cavalierly trotted out so often, he was classed as ‘undeducable’. For part of his life locked up in an institution for ‘mental defectives’ (this was the 1970’s), he died following a seizure aged just 35. Trying always to give a mother’s love to a violent son who couldn’t really speak whilst trying to ensure her nascent company thrived simultaneously, it isn’t surprising Shirley herself had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, nor that her marriage suffered as a result. With today being the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week it seems fitting to celebrate her life, and what she went on to achieve in and for the field of autism.

Her child, as for many parents, was core to her being. Watching a child suffer yet need to be locked up, she wanted to find a more humane treatment. In her case, her successful business made it financially possible for her to find a solution, creating a home for Giles and, in due course, others that was much more of a domestic home than an institution; and then creating more such homes and ultimately a school. She became involved with research, funding research, funding synthesis of research to enable much more clarity to be achieved about what autism was and wasn’t and what treatments did or did not help alleviate suffering. As a multi-millionaire all of that was possible for her. More, it seems to have felt like a moral imperative that this was what she had to do, particularly once the stresses of being always there for her son ceased after his death.

It is a remarkable story and one for which many parents of autistic children will feel deeply grateful. Her own experience of the breakdown due to the multiple stresses she was attempting to operate under at full stretch was barely touched on, but no doubt many readers in the HE sector will recognize the challenges posed by multiple, conflicting demands on limited time and energy. As has been remarked so often, many academics work ridiculously long hours, trying to satisfy the requirements of heavy teaching loads, pastoral care and their research (not necessarily in that order). If simultaneously they are trying to care for a young family or elderly parents the circle simply can’t be squared. Burnout, breakdown and despair are not infrequent consequences. As a sector we frequently don’t have the balance right, nor do we often manage it as individuals. Most academics have fallen into the profession because of love of research and research, when it is going well, can be all-consuming. The ‘highs’ of discovery are, in my view, like no other. But the grunt work occupies the bulk of the time. Teaching, too, can be infinitely rewarding and infinitely time-consuming. Our careers and our universities too often overlook the need for space to breathe and recoup with family and friends. This is not healthy in any sense. Mental health awareness week should remind us of this.

But there are other demands on us too – emotional demands provoked by racism, sexism and just about any other kind of -ism. I have placed my order for Angela Saini’s new book Superior to help inform me about the insidious (and growing) forms of the first of these. The misogyny and inappropriate behaviour that so many women face is highlighted by a strong recent article by Charlotte Proudman – this time not in academia but in the legal profession where the behaviour of those responsible is particularly egregious as they are the ones who pass judgement on others guilty of similar crimes. She is a woman who has faced plenty of sexism herself so she knows of which she writes. The harassment, bullying and intimidation that remains endemic across our society all contribute to an individual’s shaky mental well-being. Letting these ills go takes time and energy that many of us simply can’t summon.

Steve Shirley’s autobiography is a stern reminder of the challenges many people face in work and at home. Her book is at times deeply moving and uplifting. She is a brave woman, and not just a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who defeated the sexist odds. Her book’s title comes from the wisdom she has gained in not holding on to those things you have in reality moved on from (but keeping the central tenets close). I recommend this book to you.



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Friends with Benefits

A recent study shows – in Switzerland at least – that nominated referees judge grants more favourably than those unconnected with the applicant. I’m afraid I didn’t find the conclusion of the study a surprise. Additionally I suspect that having ‘friends’, nominated referees or simply people you know in the field, is a benefit that will inevitably work better for the well-connected. Well-connected perhaps because they work in a ‘top’ lab, or the applicant is already a giant in the field who knows everyone who is everyone. In this way there is every danger that the Matthew effect will come into play: those already successful will just be given more funding, reinforcing a conservative status quo, hindering the new and original.

Just like the impact factor of a journal not being a good proxy for quality, being already a giant does not necessarily mean that the current grant proposal is well thought through. It is perfectly possible that said PI (Principal Investigator) is operating a grant factory, churning out the equivalent of pot-boilers or ‘outsourcing’ the work to a junior colleague who has not yet mastered the art of grant writing even if there is the germ of a good idea lurking. An objective reviewer, neither swayed by the giant’s reputation, nor alternatively someone who has crossed swords in the past at conferences with this giant or knows their reputation for pot-boiling, should be able to form a more accurate assessment. That is, after all, what objective means. Biases may equally creep in if a long-running feud operates between applicant and referee. This is the reason why it is sometimes permitted by a grant agency for an applicant to name those, individuals or groups, whom they want the application not to be sent to.

I once sat long enough on a grant-giving body (in the days of standing committees) to see a particular applicant fail time after time because one particular referee – this was in the UK and the field was a small one, so this same referee always seemed to be used – raised the same criticism every time, a criticism which was never satisfactorily addressed by the applicant who clearly hoped that somehow they could dodge this referee the next time. In the end the panel got fed up. Feedback was provided that referee and applicant should get together and write a joint grant application to resolve once and for all which of the two was right about how the analysis should be corrected. I think they went on to have a long and productive collaboration.

On the other hand, on this same grant-giving body, I watched with astonishment as the Chair remarked of an application – possibly of a current panel member currently out of the room, but certainly of a friend who had previously sat on the panel (I forget which, but we all knew they were pals) – that of course all of us knew what they had meant to write. Clearly, the Chair agreed, we also appreciated the grant as written wasn’t very good but if funded excellent work would undoubtedly be done. I was gob-smacked, but still quite junior. Luckily another panel member had more courage, or possibly seniority or even both, and called the Chair out for improper behaviour. The grant, I am glad to say, was turned down. I hope the Chair was suitably abashed, although I never enquired.

However that story, which by now is many years old (probably at least twenty) indicates just why the study on using ‘friends’ as referees is important and why we should all be alert to such dangers. Equally, it highlights why I was so pleased to hear Melanie Welham, Excecutive Chair of the BBSRC, say – in our public conversation this week at Churchill College (a recording of which will soon to be on the web) – that ‘safeguarding’ training will soon, possibly already, be required for their panel members, alongside Unconscious Bias training. Time for reflection at the end of a panel, before the rank-order list is finalised, ought to offer an opportunity for any uncomfortable member to speak up; to say that they were worried by the way a grant had been handled, or they felt not enough attention had been focussed on a dodgy referee’s report (perhaps written by someone with an undeclared conflict of interest, i.e. a ‘friend’) perhaps. Such action seems to me to be an excellent idea.

Nevertheless selecting a ‘friend’ as a referee, doesn’t always work. I’ve sat on committees for fellowships where applicants have been able to nominate a referee alongside one chosen by the organisation. It was not that unusual to find the nominated referee expressing strong doubts about the applicant. I wanted to be able to write to the applicant to say ‘choose better next time’, but of course that wasn’t possible. Nominating your referees is the norm when it comes to job applications. Sometimes too, that can go horribly astray. The art, or is it science, of choosing referees probably needs much further thought.

The harsh reality is that, the UK is a small community when it comes to science. Researchers in a field tend to know each other and decisions will have been internalised about their good and bad points by those who’ve been knocking around for a bit. Sometimes it’s hard to remain objective when you know that Professor X treats his students as bench monkeys or that you never agreed with the way they interpreted a certain set of experiments – or alternatively that you think they’re the best thing since sliced bread and think anything they do will yield gold dust. With the best of intentions, it can be hard to forget prior knowledge.  Whereas newcomers may face all the challenges of being comparatively unknown, that sort of baggage will not apply. I know there are those who champion blinding applications as the way forward. But I fear in such a small community it would still be all too easy to guess whose application you were reading, even if personal details were removed.

Related to this point I’d like to highlight the Smith Review into what a domestic fund should look like if EU funding becomes inaccessible to scientists in the UK. As I, along with others, have frequently said, one of the big plus points of the ERC decision-making process is that its panels and referees are drawn very widely from well beyond Europe, and potential conflicts of interest are treated with great seriousness. In considering any new possible future domestic funding, I hope the evidence from the Nature study regarding ‘friends’ and all the benefits they bring, is taken very seriously by the Review group. If a new programme is going, in any faint way, to emulate the ERC we need to be sure refereeing and panels are not peopled by ‘friends’ but by objective experts.


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Telling A Life Story

It has been a while since I last posted on my blog. In part that was down to the Easter holidays, but more than that I think it was a combination of the exhaustion of the previous term, coupled with horror over the unfolding Brexit debacle at the end of March (like many another in the UK, I think following the news slavishly was upsetting my mental equilibrium) followed by, as the new term started, a deluge of ‘stuff’ to get through. This lead to what I think of as overload paralysis.

Although there are times when having many tasks to do can lead to greater efficiency, since there is always something to do that fits into the mental and temporal space available, there comes a point when the overload is just too great for any kind of efficiency at all. Instead, one is constantly pulled in multiple directions, each neutralising the other so nothing gets done. If the time slot is simply the odd half hour between meetings (with, in my case quite often, receptions and dinners at the end of the day removing that time from the equation), then it is all too easy to find that there is no time for anything beyond deleting some spam emails and reading the committee papers.

It should be remarked I have yet to turn up at a committee meeting without having read the papers; it is more common I turn up simply without the papers (or device) on which I have scrawled my notes probably because I’ve grabbed the wrong batch. Anyhow, those are my excuses for my relative silence. Whether this term will ultimately turn out more conducive to regular posting remains to be seen.

I am sure long-term readers of this blog will have formed their own view of my character and life, which may of course be accurate to a greater or lesser extent. In the wake of the recent ruling regarding whether Caster Semenya is allowed to run in women’s races, there have been interesting articles written about identity and what defines it. I would refer you to Angela Saini or Gaby Hinsliff for some compassionate and thoughtful writing. Our identities are composite and complex. How much of it we choose to share is – for most of us for most of the time if not for Semenya – something we can decide. This is as true on my blog, as in my talks about my life or in my conversations with my friends. There may be parts that I choose to share when trying to encourage those setting out on their careers. You will never know about those parts of me that I am determined no one will ever discover (if of course any such there be; I’m giving nothing away). That is my choice.

When presenting a ‘careers’ talk’, as I did last week at UCL’s Institute for Healthcare Engineering as part of their ‘Adapt to Thrive’ series, it seems to me to be helpful to present the passage of my life in a variety of ways to show how different strands weave together to make a whole. There is the ‘standard CV’ format: the dates I moved from one role to another and where I did them. That is familiar territory to anyone who has ever applied for a job. I overlay on that the times when my research made some (relatively) abrupt change either deliberately or – as often in my case – driven by circumstances. Circumstances which varied from needing a new job to extend my visa in the USA after my first postdoc, to ‘inheriting’ a grant from my predecessor who’d left the country. I feel this is an important version both because it stresses the importance of luck and chance and because the belief that it is not necessary to go in a straight line with a siloed attitude to research to thrive is also something I feel strongly about. As I tend to put it, seizing opportunities is good, at least most of the time.

The third version of my life, equally important and an equally important message to give out, is the more personal: marriage, children and most recently elder care, clearing a house after death, becoming a grandmother. All of us need to recognize that ‘stuff happens’ and not always according to plan, but life beyond the bench matters hugely. Denying this, trying to squeeze everything into the standard CV format and forgetting our humanity, is destructive on all kinds of fronts. Yet listening to some eminent folk talking about their careers we are more likely to learn about the impact factors of the journals they publish in than some of this and never sense that their life might not have gone smoothly right from birth to the current day. I think some outburst like ‘pshaw’ needs to be introduced here to express my disbelief when I hear such accounts.

Of course these days I am rarely near a lab bench and my career took a turn I had not had in my sights when I moved to be Master of Churchill College. When people ask me what I enjoy most about this role I tend to say (though it does depend on the occasion and my mood) that it is the incredible variety of things I get to do and the incredible and (almost invariably) interesting people I meet, from students to Nobel Prize winners. Last weekend, in this role, I had yet another ‘new’ opportunity to seize – I went to a Rugby match. Indeed it was the final for the Cuppers Plate between Churchill and St Catherine’s*, which Churchill ultimately won fairly easily. A good match for me to start with. The rules have changed a lot since I used to watch what was then the Five Nations matches in black and white on the TV in my early teens, and I’m sure I did not follow the nuances, but it was still more than possible to get wrapped up in the game and cheer along with the best of the crowd. A crowd, I was interested to note, that contained a high proportion of women. I even got a photo opportunity to pose with the winning team. Well done Churchill!

* A Catz alumnus has pointed out that the correct spelling in Cambridge is St Catharine’s – the alternative spelling being the correct form in Oxford. I am embarrassed that after 40 odd years in Cambridge I had never appreciated that.


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Getting Away from the Toxic Lab

The journal PLoS Computational Biology recently published an article Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. Written by a PI it was obviously aimed largely at those who might be just setting out with their own groups, but clearly any leader can benefit from thinking harder about group dynamics and how they, as leader, interact with everyone around them; and, just as importantly, how they encourage the rest of the team to interact with each other. Almost all of the ten points, and their broader explanations, I could wholeheartedly agree with. However there were a couple of sentences when things jarred with me.

First up, was a very curious clause

banning all forms of harassment and discrimination within the lab

This reads rather like banning cigarette-smoking in the lab: it’s OK as long as you do it outside. Banning is simply not the right word. I would have felt much happier with some phrase like

making it clear that harassment and discrimination are simply never tolerated, ever, anywhere.

‘Banning’ conveys entirely the wrong message. Harassment and discrimination should be outlawed with a clear message given that it is just as unacceptable down the pub or in a conference setting as in the lab and that any behaviour along these lines will have consequences.

Secondly, the whole piece read as if students and postdocs turned up and worked the hours they worked – these could (in the author’s view) be flexible times, they could choose to work a bit longer or shorter as long as they got the work done and, where appropriate it could be done from home – but there was no suggestion that there might actually be a motivation to do the work for joy, satisfaction and the sense of enquiry that drives so many scientists at every stage of their career. I felt it all came across as a bit grindstone. Does the PI not enjoy their work? Was that what we were meant to deduce? It is true that the further one gets from the bench (or whatever the equivalent is in computational biology), it is harder to get the buzz of discovering the new result, the unexpected twist in an experiment or an analysis, but that sense of discovery lurking around every corner ought to be a sensation that every student gets caught up with at some time or another during their project.

Instead, the only nod in the direction of the researcher who voluntarily wants to chase unicorns because it’s so damned exciting was

as PIs we should also respect those lab members who choose to work for long hours because they feel that they must do so to be more productive, to secure a position in science, or because they have the ambition or the desire to be so.

It’s not all about ambition and the next career stage. Pleasure and satisfaction should get a look in.

Finally, what wasn’t mentioned at all was ‘support’ – the nearest heading was ‘Promote the professional development of your lab members’, although there was a nod also to taking note when students were going through a tough personal time. Important though that undoubtedly is, offering support can cover this but also encouragement when things go scientifically awry, developing students’ resilience, pointing them in the direction of opportunities and helping them write their CVs.  Group leaders should be very aware of their role as mentors and/or sponsors – which of these is appropriate may depend on the career stage of the researcher under consideration. They need to think about the skills acquired beyond the bench/computer terminal/conference hall/paper-writing. They should be thinking how to encourage a shy student to speak up in group meetings and how to teach another student to tone down the sarcasm addressed to the less sparky.

They should – and this was touched on under the heading ‘Promote the well-being of your lab members’ – be aware that a student may become depressed either because their paper has just been torn to pieces by a referee or because their mother is seriously ill. It is important to create an environment in which the student can open up if they feel so inclined, but certainly one in which they can feel that there are those around who care and who would offer help if help was acceptable to them. These points were, I felt, insufficiently addressed in the PLoS Computational Biology article, and yet I feel are crucial to creating a healthy working environment.

Let me return to the point about assisting with CV writing so that I can shoehorn in a point of discussion I recently had with a colleague about gaps in CVs. Should a job applicant, for instance, just sweep any periods of relative unproductivity under the carpet i.e. not mention them at all, or does that lead to concerns that the person is indeed unproductive, rather than that they produced a baby, or looked after that seriously ill mother or had a bad spell of ME? I am firmly of the view that such declarations should be made, even if only in outline e.g. mentioning caring responsibilities or ill health. Too often otherwise a committee reading a job application (for instance) can say, but what happened in the 2 years after the PhD, there’s nothing to show for it? This must be a weak applicant – and then bin the application. Instead of thinking, goodness they’ve done so much on top of having premature twins (or whatever) and form a proper judgement.

When I first started working in the gender space 15 or so years ago, I was astonished to be told by various early career researchers that their head of department or some other adviser had told them to omit any mention of periods of maternity leave on their CVs. I promptly gave them the opposite advice. It seems such uncertainty over what to do persists. Perhaps there are still panels out there that look at forms that mention maternity, shudder and toss the application aside. We all know misogyny is going strong – think of the obnoxious trolling of Katie Bouman, the STEM woman of the moment in the eyes of the media – but what objectionable behaviour is ‘safe’ in the anonymity of Twitter or the Reddit pages does not really apply to an academic panel. I would hope there are enough decent people out there to turn on anybody who tries to behave like that regarding job applications. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but we have to keep hoping.

To return to my main theme, there are many things that can be done to ensure there isn’t a toxic atmosphere in the lab, where clones of the group leader thrive and everyone else is ignored or worse. Articles such as the PLoS one are helpful, but we should be aware of what is missing and keep working in our own spaces to be sure that future generations develop and prosper to the best of their abilities.

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Does Leadership Need to be More Touchy-Feely?

If our sector is to see more minorities rise through the ranks to positions of power, indeed if any sector is to achieve this and go on, for instance, to remove the typical gender pay gap, then inclusive leadership needs to be the norm not an unusual surprise. A recent article published by the Harvard Business Review reflected on this and looked at what traits make an effective, inclusive leader who is able to bring out the best in individuals and therefore in the whole team/organisation. They also highlighted what a leader defective on this front might look like. The following – negative – statement about such a (business) person could describe many in academia.

“He can be very direct and overpowering which limits the ability of those around him to contribute to meetings or participate in conversations.”

I could not but help noticing the pronoun used, which might be compared with a similar statement describing characteristics of a successful, inclusive leader in the article:

“[This leader] will openly ask about information that she is not aware of. She demonstrates a humble unpretentious work manner. This puts others at ease, enabling them to speak out and voice their opinions, which she values.”

No comment was made about the pronoun in this case either. We should not stereotype and I could not tell from the text whether the distinction was intentional or accidental – or indeed whether the author had even taken it on board. These statements were, apparently, taken verbatim in the course of interviews in the Deloitte study which formed the basis of the article.

So, let us remove both pronouns and stay with the safer ‘they’ and consider the situation in academia. ‘Leaders’ in this case might be anyone from vice chancellors to group leaders with a group of three. The same rules apply, though; a little humility often comes in useful. As an ECR group leader I know I was always acutely aware that pretty soon during their projects my PhD students knew more about their topic than I did, even if I had the benefit of experience. This latter made me better at identifying, for instance, the false excitement of an interesting-looking artefact in an electron micrograph, but certainly did not mean I was on top of all the literature or the vagaries of instrumentation that the students had had to master. Experience should be distinguished from knowledge; both should work together to progress a project and to ensure that a freshly-minted doctor has learned many skills and not just facts.

And, this same doctor should also have come through with confidence intact and unscathed by group meetings, attendance at conferences or anything else. Too often this is not the case. The group leader can only do so much to ‘protect’ a minority student from aggression or harassment at a conference, particularly if they themselves are not present, but they can make sure that they provide an opportunity for bad experiences to be thoroughly discussed and support offered (possibly even post-event action). A clear message needs to be given that, academia may be competitive, but there are better ways of succeeding than trampling on others.

Unfortunately too many students learn by example, watching those in positions of power who have, as indicated above, become ‘direct and overpowering’, who believe that their success can only come from making sure others fail. Because academia rewards ‘success’, defined in a narrow way by papers in top journals, and grants or prizes won, unless a group leader spells out just how toxic an atmosphere can be created by being fooled into thinking that that is the only way to behave and progress, how can an aspiring PhD student know any better? Too often their world may look like dog eats dog is the model for survival. This is part of the working environment that needs to be eradicated if the best are to thrive, and not merely clones of those already at the top of the pecking order (as opposed to those at the top of their game).

There will be those who somehow believe that this ultra-competitive atmosphere is what leads to good outcomes. One should be wary of swallowing such a belief unchecked. In the business world, the HBR article spelled out,

“Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.”

In other words, if you give everyone a chance to contribute to a project there will be a better outcome. I see every reason to believe the same is true in academia. If a team is made up of people who only listen to people who look and speak like them, groupthink may prevent some healthy lateral thinking. We have all come across the naïve question – in a seminar perhaps – which, approaching the problem from an unexpected angle, suddenly throws well-accepted assumptions into doubt. One of the joys and challenges of being a teacher lies in exactly that, the student who – failing to have grasped the standard tropes – asks a wacky question that perturbs the teacher’s pat answers. At undergraduate level it may cause the teacher to think a lot harder but probably won’t throw over decades, if not centuries, of received wisdom. In research, that may well not be true. It is important that any research group is open enough that the junior members, the ones who don’t look or sound like the boss, feel safe challenging the status quo.

So, academic leaders should read and digest what inclusive leadership looks like in business and work out how it applies to them. It is hard to see what the downside is. Perpetuating ‘people like me’ in research teams is invariably going to overlook some very talented individuals who then leave the system in disgust and despair. We, as a sector, need to stop thinking that what has gone before – in terms of judgement and promotion – is bound to be the best way to proceed and use evidence (as good scientists should) to devise ways of actually getting the best outcomes for the sector. Inclusive leadership needs not just to be left to the business world or regarded as a ‘touchy feely’ thing with no home in our universities. We can do better. We must do better.

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