There is a preamble, but lets start with adulthood.
I spent my student years at Imperial College London, emerging with degrees in Biochemistry, Bioinformatics and Theoretical Systems Biology, and Statistical Genetics. For a period I was president of the Swim Team. This was a curious turn of events, because I was a natural leader I but not have a formal swimming background. I was a straggler in the pool. I started blogging at the tail end of my BSc and fell in with the OT crowd shortly after. I met my first husband J about a month after I arrived in London, two lost souls baffled by all of these teenagers around us who seemed to know what they were doing.
Into the real world
I submitted my doctoral thesis on a Friday in mid-January 2013 and began my first job the following Monday, at GlaxoSmithKline, a global biopharma. I was hired as a statistician in a team who provide internal consultative and analytical services to the very early stage of the drug discovery pipeline. The pre-clinical phase, which is everything up to first time in human, involves in vivo and in vitro experiments, and increasingly in silico work. The team work at the cutting-edge of laboratory science, with emerging technologies as well as traditional tools. I loved the work, learned a lot and met amazing people.
My multidisciplinary background made me well placed to lead or contribute to projects which lay at the interface of the life and physical sciences, or of academia and industry. Or both. My skills were in demand, I was described as a leader in the making, and given a stretching international assignment. Overwhelmed, I sought out a mentor but could not quite find the right fit.
I had the sensation of spinning plates whilst knowing that something underneath was about to collapse, and soon. I could not quite put my finger on what the problem was. I love the philosophy of statistics and have a solid grasp of the first principles, but I do not identify as a mathematician. The life sciences remains my first love. I only ended up behind a desk because I am crap in the laboratory, whereas learning R felt like coming home.
Above all I preferred listening to and helping others, spotting problems and making connections. Whilst at GSK I did things like set up and run a monthly interdisciplinary communications lunch and learn to improve mutual understanding between the departments (genetics, biology, computational biology and statistics) our team worked across, convincing GSK to pay for the donuts.
My most treasured feedback from this time was Erika works out what everyone in the team needs and gives it to them.
I was increasingly encountering colleagues and making friends outside of GSK who were sharing their faith with me. This did not really register in any meaningful way.
Another side to the story emerged despite best efforts to suppress it. The corporate game is brutal for sensitive souls, those of us who are fragile despite not looking it. A suboptimal commuting setup made it difficult for me to fit in hobbies. J and I married in the December after after I joined GSK. It was a beautiful day, and the moment of our union was, we later agreed, where we peaked. We had a great party but our souls were already separate. I fell into something of a psychological abyss and it wasn’t pretty. After several years and multiple run-ins with mainstream mental health treatment with which I was reluctant to comply, confounded with a divorce and the sale of our martial home, with a heavy heart I decided to leave GSK. Despite GSK’s and my best efforts it just wasn’t working.
In the background, God called, and although I was not to be able to name the experience as that until later, I found myself going to church every Sunday.
I confessed to the head of our team, as I resigned, that for Erika and GSK, it won’t be possible. I planned for some time out and to seek out something more gentle; maybe travel a little; maybe explore roles in the third sector. Lockdown coincided with my last weeks with the company, and I said my goodbyes over Zoom. Great, I thought, as worship moved online. I just caught religion, and they closed all the churches.
My church is St Mary’s on Upper Street, Islington. St Mary’s is open for private prayer daily, an arrangement which is increasingly uncommon for churches in the UK. One reason St Marys became my church is because I used to wander in from time to time when I was walking down Upper Street. St Marys is not the nearest church to my home address, but when I needed a church, for me it was the obvious choice.
At GlaxoSmithKline I worked in Research Statistics, the team who support Early Discovery. GSK is a great place to work and I could not recommend the job I did more highly. I am always happy to talk to people about the work that I did, what it meant to me and what I think it means to medicine, and why PhD students should consider industry roles. I have helped one or two people into the company and they seem to be thriving.
From 2009 to 2013 I was a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Imperial College London. My thesis was on the development of statistical methods to use genetic data in the estimation of disease risk. My supervisor was Professor Maria De Iorio. I spent the final thirteen months of my PhD studentship as a visiting student to the Department of Statistical Science at UCL. In 2013 I passed my PhD and starting working.
From 2008 to 2009 I was an MSc student in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial. I completed the MSc in Bioinformatics and Theoretical Systems Biology.