Supportive partners and inspirational mentors are the key to a fulfilling work-life balance for women in science

Laura.jpgLaura Piddock (@LauraPiddock) is a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham. She is also Deputy Director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, Chair in Public Engagement for the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, and Director of Antibiotic Action. She started her scientific career with her PhD in 1982, which focussed on the mechanism of action of the beta-lactam class of antibiotics (e.g. penicillin) and led to work on new antibiotic research and development.  Her current research focuses on understanding mechanisms of antibiotic resistance as a basis for antibacterial drug discovery. She has published over 150 original articles, plus 36 invited review and leading opinion articles. This blog details a conversation between Soapbox Science co-organiser Seirian Sumner and Laura. There, she tells us how her husband and a string of fabulous mentors have been instrumental in helping her realise her scientific potential. She calls for a re-setting of social norms, to make it socially and professionally acceptable for men to work flexible or part-time to accommodate family values.


SS: Laura, as one of the 8% of female professors in the UK, you are a role model of success for female scientists, and an inspiration to all young women in science. Tell us your story: how did you get to be where you are today? 

LP: I ended up being a Professor at the University of Birmingham because of the good fortune to work with two extremely supportive Professors during my early career, being able to take advantage of opportunities, collaborating with many generous and creative researchers in the UK and abroad, and working very hard including many evenings and weekends while juggling family commitments – none of which would be possible without my wonderful husband!


SS: Having a supportive partner certainly seems to be an important factor for retaining women in science: more on that later.  But first, tell us about life before your family appeared on the scene. What do you think played a key role in getting you to the point where your career was safely launched?

LP: I had a great mentor and advisor, Professor Richard Wise. I carried out my PhD and a two year post doctoral post with Richard at Dudley Road Hospital (now City), Birmingham, UK. He also helped me to gain a five year fellowship which I carried out at the University of Birmingham. This was definitely the springboard to my independent research career.  Richard was a staunch advocate and supporter of the junior members of his team.  As a very busy Consultant Microbiologist, he also led a team working on antibiotics from activity of new agents to pharmacokinetics in volunteers.  As Richard was so busy, he frequently delegated tasks to junior members of staff that would not normally have been given to individuals at such an early career stage.  Hence, we were propelled into situations where it was ‘sink or swim’.  Richard’s attitude was ‘if you don’t try, you don’t get’; he also set very high standards in the number and quality of publications and presentations at international conferences that he expected and considered the norm per annum.  Richard gave me the freedom to develop into my own areas of research interest and never ‘cramped my style’. The opportunities that came from working with him were second to none and without them, I would not be doing what I am doing today.


SS: Sounds like you had a great basis to work from, at the right time in your career. You were lucky enough to have an independent fellowship before you started a family. How did you manage once you had your family? How did you straddle family commitments and keep up a productive research life?

LP: I carried out my five year fellowship at the University of Birmingham, during which time Professor Alasdair Geddes was appointed the Chair in Infectious Diseases and became the Head of the Department of Infection.  He appointed me as a lecturer, and he gave me the freedom to develop and carry out research that interested me with the only proviso that if I could attract the research funding, he would allow me to pursue research topics of my choice.  More importantly, when I had my two children his support was invaluable.  He allowed me to become 80%FTE; although in reality I worked much more than 100% FTE, this allowed me to work reduced hours at the university during the working week and without criticism with the ability to do my reading and writing at home.  I continued with that status for ten years, only now do I realise the negative impact this has had on my pension.  Despite also being Course Tutor for the MSc in Medical Microbiology, with the support I received I was able to build up my research team.  In recognition for my hard work, and it really was hard work managing a young daughter and working many weekends and most evenings once she was asleep, I was rewarded with promotion to Senior Lecturer only two years after being appointed a Lecturer.  My son was born in 1999 and Alasdair allowed me to further reduce my office hours to 8am – 1pm because he was aware that I was carrying out a considerable amount of work at home writing grants and manuscripts.  Indeed, my most successful period of writing successful grants was while I was on maternity leave with my son!


SS: That is really impressive. But one of the great things about a career in science is that most of us are able to work flexibly, fitting our research activities around family commitments. It is also of great comfort to hear that you worked part time for 10 years when your kids were young: so often we hear that a scientist cannot work part time. Your success story should reassure more young women scientists that they can enjoy their family and have a productive scientific life.

LP: All the juggling of family and work did pay off. In 2001, to my delight and surprise, I was awarded the Bristol Myers Squibb Unrestricted Grant in Infectious Diseases of $500,000 US dollars.  I was nominated by Dr John Barrett, who sadly passed away a year after the grant was awarded, and so never saw the huge benefits this brought to me.  It directly led to being given a Personal Chair in Microbiology the same year, and it allowed me to pursue areas of research for which I knew I would not get funding.  It allowed me to change the focus of my research and explore the relationship between antibiotic resistance mechanisms and the basic biology of bacterial pathogens, which to this day my team is still researching.


SS: More recently, you have taken an active role in public engagement of science, particularly through the Antibiotic Action Initiative. Tell us how this happened.

LP: Due to my track record of clinical microbiology coupled with basic research on antibiotic resistance, I was elected President of the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (BSAC) in 2009.  This led to me re-engaging with healthcare professional colleagues in a way that I had not done for at least a decade. It also made me realise that my background was unique within the UK; I am one of the few people who have worked in a clinical microbiology laboratory developing new antibiotics and carried out basic microbiological research in academia.  I also re-engaged with Professor Richard Wise, who led a Working Party for BSAC investigating why no new antibiotics were being made.  This then led directly to the Antibiotic Action initiative ( in 2011 and  then my appointment as the BSAC Chair in Public Engagement in 2012 and on which I now spend 20% of my time.


SS: Looking back over your career to date, what do you think has been the key to your success?

LP: I believe that many of the successes that I have had arose from serendipitous opportunities which I have been able to take up and exploit.  For instance, Dr Clifford Wray, Head of the Bacteriology laboratories at the MAFF Veterinary Laboratories (now the Animal and Veterinary Laboratories Agency) brought to my attention that resistance to the fluoroquinolone antibiotic, ciprofloxacin, had emerged in salmonella isolated from animals.  At around the same time Consultant Microbiologist Dr. Kate Whale, at Monsall Hospital, Manchester was isolating similar bacteria from people.  This led to a long and very productive period of work investigating the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance in food-borne bacteria and led to me becoming an advisor to the World Health Organisation in the late 1990s and becoming a member of the UK Food Standards Agency Advisory Committee for the Microbiological Safety of Food in 2004, and ultimately a member of the MRC Infection and Immunity board as well as membership of many other committees.  Opportunities also presented themselves to join, and lead, numerous multidisciplinary research consortia and collaborate widely with colleagues in the UK and abroad.  As the list of these collaborators is lengthy I have not named individuals here, but from my publications it is clear who they are and I thank them all for their intellectual generosity and creativity. I should also thank all the members of my research team, past and present, who have not only carried out high quality research but also accepted the restrictions on my availability due to family demands. This included coming to research meetings at my home when I was on maternity leave!

But, serendipity can only get you do far. The main figure and my most staunch supporter throughout my career has been my husband, Stuart Holden.  In 1999, when we had our second child, he made the decision that he would become self-employed and start his own business (now very successful) so that when I needed to work late or travel, which I was increasingly doing, that he would be available to look after our small children.  We also shared the working day; to this day I arrive at the office early and try to leave no later than 4pm and work again in the evening, whereas he is at home in the morning and works later and comes home early evening.  Without his considerable support, I do not think it would be possible for me to have developed and got to where I am in my career.


SS: So good mentorship, well placed opportunities, good ideas and a supportive partner, are things that women in science should be looking out for. 

LP: Yes – but the same is true for men too, the difference for women is that not all of these have always been available for women.


SS: Having made it to the top, despite the pitfalls, what would you like to see changed to make the career path easier for the next generation of female scientist?

LP: When talking with other women who have also reached a senior level in their institutions, whether in academia or elsewhere, it seems to be a recurring theme that they have been encouraged and supported both in the workplace and at home. If support is lacking in either environment then women (and men) are unable to succeed.  Perhaps one of the reasons that many women’s partners are not able to support them as mine has done, is that there is not the opportunity in the workplace for husbands to work flexibly and indeed it is frowned upon in some professions.  Therefore, the social norm I would like to see challenged is that men are able to work more flexibly without criticism or harm to their career so facilitating their support for their partner so that she can take up the career opportunities that are presented.


SS: Absolutely. It seems that most men would actually welcome the chance to take on flexible working roles to spend more time with their families. But, social norms make it less acceptable than for women: it is perceived as a man not taking his career seriously. This is something that government and indeed schemes like Athena SWAN can help address: once it is socially acceptable for men to work flexibly to accommodate family commitments (and that includes equal and flexible use of maternity/paternity leave), then the gender gap may start to close. And this applies to all demanding careers, not just in science.

LP: I also note that there is a perception among some young women that it is simply too difficult to juggle a young family and career development.  Yes, the juggling has been a challenge, but it has not been impossible.  Therefore, I suggest to young couples starting out in life together that not only should they discuss the usual topics such as finances and when (or if) to start a family, but also how they will support each other in their career development.  I continue to be shocked by the number of men who despite their assertions that they believe in equal opportunities think that their career should take priority over that of their partner. This is most shocking when the man is less able than his partner and the woman could be very successful. As the career opportunities that arise are never planned and usually come ‘out of the blue’ if couples have not agreed how to support each other and manage childcare or other family commitments, this will put stress on the relationship and typically leads to women not being able to take up the opportunities that are presented.  I rarely see this as being an issue from my male colleagues.

The third social norm that I would like to see challenged is the networking that takes place after 4.00 PM and almost always involves drinking beer!  Male colleagues vastly underestimate the positive impact that this has had upon their careers and the detrimental affect it has upon those who cannot participate.  Socialising at lunchtime seems to have almost disappeared in the workplace, but perhaps should be reinstated such as on a monthly basis so allowing everybody valuable networking opportunities.


SS: The after-hours networking culture is a really difficult one, and is discussed and reviewed over and over again by university departments, e.g. in the timing of seminars and discussion groups. If you cast your mind back to the days before you had a family, you too no doubt benefited from the ‘after hours’ networking, both with colleagues and with prospective collaborators at conferences. Moving to a more ‘continental style’ lunching lifestyle is a good solution, and one that can be led from the ‘bottom-up’.

LP: You are quite right. It is only when it is nigh on impossible to attend after hours that one realizes the problem with timing. I suspect that this is why many men and younger researchers are perplexed with the request not to hold seminars etc after 4pm. It’s not a problem for them.


SS: As you know, Soapbox Science Speakers competed to stand on our soapboxes this year. This is the first year that we ran a competition and we  thrilled to receive over 60 applications. We are delighted to have you as one of our speakers. Tell us what attracted you to be a Soapboxer.

LP: I believe Soapbox Science it is an excellent forum to promote Women in Science as well as bringing to the public accurate information about the science that I do, the issues over using antibiotics properly and lack of new drugs. I had a look at the Soapbox Science website, and saw that the inspirational Dame Prof Athene Donald from Cambridge had been a Soapboxer in 2012. I knew I had to be part of it. My expectations for the day are mixed.  On the one hand, fear of the unknown, I have never done anything like this before, but on the other hand, I have found engaging with the general public over the last few years to be extremely rewarding. So I am looking forward to it, but with trepidation!


Be inspired in person by Prof Laura Piddock on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Antibiotic resistance and why we need new treatments”. Laura’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship of L’Oreal For Women in Science, the Zoological Society of London, the Society of General Microbiology, and the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. 

This entry was posted in 2013 speakers blog. Bookmark the permalink.