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Professor Jane Clarke: How I got into protein research

24 Jul, 2012

Illustration of Professor Jane Clarke. Credit: cumi ltd.

Illustration of Professor Jane Clarke. Credit: cumi ltd.

From the blackboard to the bench: the University of Cambridge’s Professor of Molecular Biophysics, Jane Clarke, started her career as a science teacher in a comprehensive school in the UK. She later moved with her family to Atlanta, where she took a Master’s degree that kick-started her new career in research. She talks to Penny Bailey.

I always wanted to teach, it was a family tradition. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all teachers. I took a degree in biochemistry in York, then did a PGCE and taught science for six years in comprehensives in Leicestershire and Tottenham.

I believe in state education, my children went to comprehensive schools, and I feel really strongly that those schools need fantastic teachers and good scientists. After my children were born, I continued teaching part-time. I loved it. It was fulfilling and fun and I was good at it.

Then my husband got transferred to Atlanta, so we moved there as a family. I didn’t have the right qualifications to teach there, so I did a part-time Master’s degree in applied biology at Georgia Tech. That had a research component, which I loved, and a fantastic course on protein structure – so I decided to do some research on proteins.

When we came back to the UK, I tried to get a PhD place in Cambridge, where we live. I went to the biochemistry department and talked to a number of people there, who essentially brushed me off. They more or less told me I’d been out of science so long, was too old to start a science career at 40, and had two children to look after. So I went to see Alan Fersht, who was a world leader in protein science, and he said, “I’ll give you a studentship, start in October.”

I think it’s a great job to combine with being a mum. When I was a teacher I couldn’t take time off to see my children doing an assembly or work at home if they were ill. As a researcher your working hours are your own. I got childcare in the early morning to get the kids to school. That allowed me to start work very early and be home by 5pm to have tea with them, help with their homework, take them to their clubs and so on. I could go into work at the weekends if I needed to.

We lose too many young women in science. About half our students are women, but there are only four permanent female group leaders here, out of a staff of 60. And I’m the only one with children. It’s a shocking message to give the young women here.

Of course you have to be efficient and you might not always be able to have a tea break with everybody else. But it can be done, and it can be done with fun. I loved it and never looked back. Doing a job well is about the quality of your output, not the number of hours you put in.

Straight after my studentship, I got an MRC Training Fellowship and I stayed in Alan’s group for another three years, learning nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Then I got a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Award and I’ve been with the Trust ever since. I’m now on my third Senior Research Fellowship – my fourth fellowship from the Trust.

I’m Assistant Head of Department at Cambridge at the moment. I have a small group of great people and we work very closely together, so coming to work’s a joy. I’m still teaching, but in a different way, nurturing their careers and encouraging clever young scientists to knock ideas around.

Science is one of the most cooperative, supportive, creative jobs anybody could have. Every time you discover something, it opens up more questions and possibilities. As I once said to the Trust at an interview when I was asked what I’d be doing in five years, “If I could tell you, then you shouldn’t give me the money.”

This feature also appears in issue 71 of ‘Wellcome News’. For more on the Trust’s flexible research career support, see page 13 of this issue.

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