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Back to the bench

30 Oct, 2008
Dr Wendy Gaisford, research scientist at the University of Cambridge

Dr Wendy Gaisford, research scientist at the University of Cambridge

Wellcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellowships provide support for postdoctoral scientists who want to resume their research career after a break of two years or more. Chrissie Giles meets two of the three scientists awarded fellowships this year to find out what they’ve been doing away from science, and how it has been for them getting back to the lab.

Dr Wendy Gaisford

Dr Wendy Gaisford is a research scientist working on autoimmunity and type 1 diabetes at the University of Cambridge. She returned to the lab in March 2008 after 14 years out of science.

“I took a break from my job in immunology at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control to have children. While they were growing I had a number of jobs, including freelance medical writing and working for a science-based computing company. I realised that I didn’t want to be sitting at a computer for the rest of my life and that I wanted to be in the lab again. “I started looking around and found that it was virtually impossible to get back into science – people just don’t want you if you’ve been out for a while. Science moves on very quickly and so the longer you’re out, the harder it is for you to prove that you can get back up to date.

“I had been applying for jobs but got rejection after rejection. Then I did an Open University course, T160, which helps women to return to technical jobs. They put me in touch with Cambridge AWISE [Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering], who recommended the Wellcome Trust grant. This grant was the best option, particularly as it pays both the researcher and the lab expenses. “The biggest change since I last worked in science is the technology – it’s just amazing, particularly the way you can identify and sort particular cells. It’s all so much easier now that everything is automated.

“I don’t know where I’m going next but I know this grant has given me the chance now either to stay in academia or get into industry – it’s been brilliant coming back to the lab.”

Dr Jennifer Rohn

Dr Jennifer Rohn is a postdoctoral researcher working on cell shape at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London.

“I got my PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle and came to London to do a postdoc. After that I joined a small biotech start-up company in The Netherlands. I was there for about four years and it was going really well, but after 9/11 the whole biotech industry in Europe collapsed. I endedup stuck in Amsterdam on the dole for nine months, doing freelance science writing and unable to find a research position. I ended up returning to Britain to go into scientific publishing.

“I worked at BioMed Central for 18 months and then moved on to a society journal. I really loved the work but the whole time I had the feeling that I had only left science because I was forced out. The job market was looking better but I didn’t think it was possible to go back to science as I’d been out for four years.

“At a party I met Buzz Baum, who runs the lab I’m working in now. He said there might be something in his lab I could do, but could offer only one year’s salary. So I left my cushy, permanent job in publishing and took this in the hope I would get something. I was really lucky to get the Wellcome Trust grant.

“Coming back to the lab was hard – I was really rusty. All the things I knew, I’d forgotten, and it took almost a whole year to get back into everything. “In my spare time I write, and I’ve recently got a book deal for my first novel, so I know if it all went horribly wrong I’d be OK, but I really hope I get a permanent lab position. I don’t regret anything though. My time on the ‘other side’ in science publishing has been really useful. Now colleagues come to me for help with journal submissions – it’s great being a scientist who knows how to write a paper and get it published.”

Image credit: Wellcome Images.
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