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Career stories: Alyson Fox, Head of Grants Management

15 Aug, 2012
Alyson Fox

Alyson Fox. Credit: Wellcome Images

In the run up to A-level and GCSE results days, we’re publishing a series of Q&A case studies from our Big Picture issue on Careers with Biology

At school, the only science careers Alyson Fox learned about were medicine and dentistry, but without the necessary grades to train as a doctor, she found her way into a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Now she works in Grants Management at the Wellcome Trust, overseeing some 3000 applications for funding from scientists every year.

What did you study at school?
I did physics, chemistry and biology A levels. At school, all we were told you could do with science was medicine or dentistry. I was encouraged to do medicine, but I didn’t get good enough grades.

I then considered physiotherapy and worked for six months as a physiotherapy helper, working with stroke patients in a rehabilitation hospital. That was very enlightening as an 18-year-old. I was offered several places to do physiotherapy at university but decided not to pursue it as a career because, for me, there was not enough basic science involved.

Eventually, I went trawling through the UCAS handbook for inspiration. I’d never really heard of the basic science subjects such as pharmacology, biochemistry, microbiology or cell biology. It was just not something that was discussed at school. Pharmacology appealed because at a fundamental level it is about how the body works, but it has an applied aspect of how drugs work and affect the body.

So I did a BSc in pharmacology at King’s College London, then a PhD at King’s, followed by a postdoc at University College London. Then I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship at Imperial College, London. Once that ended, I had to make my second career decision: to continue my research career in academia, with a lectureship at Imperial, or to move into research in the pharmaceutical industry. I chose to move to industry

Why did you move into industry?
I liked the science of drug discovery. It involves a wide range of scientists from different disciplines (e.g. chemists, molecular biologists, cell biologists, pharmacologists, toxicologists and clinicians), all working together on a single project. Being an academic researcher is a difficult, but very rewarding, job. You’ve got to be inherently curious and self-motivated the whole time, and combine this with teaching.

But you can choose your own directions – what you work on and who with. I wanted something that was more directed and applied. As an industry researcher, you have to lay out annual goals in a quite tightly managed environment. You have to know what your research goal is, what the milestones are, what questions you want to address and how you will approach them. The strategic thinking appealed to me.

I got a job as a lab head at in the research organisation at Novartis and stayed there for 13 years, working initially in neuroscience and ultimately becoming disease area head for gastrointestinal diseases. In that position, I was responsible for discovering new therapeutic molecules and taking them to early clinical trials.

Why did you move out of industry?
After 13 years, I was looking for a change away from the pharmaceutical industry; it was going through a difficult time, in particular in the UK, and the constant travel was very difficult to combine with a family. I was more interested in management and strategy than pure research, and I did not have a grant funding record, so a move back to academia would not have suited me. The Wellcome Trust – with its combined activities of managing science and strategic thinking – felt like a good match.

I came to the Trust in 2010 as grants operations manager, then the head of department left and I was promoted into her position. The Grants Management Department is responsible for managing the whole process of application through to award. It’s a large department of 65 people, and we handle around 3000 grant applications per year across 70 different grant schemes.

Do you miss research?
I did at the beginning, but not now. At the Trust we’re exposed to science all the time, and the breadth of science that we deal with, from molecules to human populations, as well as the medical humanities side, is fascinating.

What other careers opportunities are there for biology students?
I do a careers talk at my son’s school every year, which is titled ‘What you can do with science A levels that isn’t medicine’. It reflects my own background – medicine wasn’t right for me, but I wasn’t really aware of anything else. I try to give an idea of the different scientific disciplines that can be studied and what a research career path in a university or in industry might look like. If you don’t want to do research – in a university or industry – there are so many other different science careers you could work in, such as publishing, science writing, regulatory affairs, clinical trials monitoring and marketing.

Qualifications

  • A levels in biology, physics and chemistry (1983)
  • BSc in pharmacology, King’s College London (1987)
  • PhD, King’s College London (1991)

Career history

  • Postdoc: Sandos Institute, UCL (1991-94)
  • Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship, Imperial College London (1994-97)
  • Lab head then head of Gastrointestinal Disease Area, Novartis (1997-2010)
  • Head of Grants Management, Wellcome Trust (2010-present)

Top tip

Keep your options open. My personal advice would be to have a reasonably broad science degree. Lots of science degrees do an extramural year, which involves working in a research lab in either a university or industry. I would absolutely advise someone to do that. It broadens your horizons and gives you the first real taste of what lab work is so you can decide whether it’s for you. It’s just as important to say, ‘Hmm, no, I don’t fancy that’ as it is to say, ‘Yes, that’s for me’.

This article was originally part of the online content for ‘Big Picture: Careers from biology’. Read more profiles and find out more about careers with biology on the website

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