Ravinder Kanda is a researcher in the department of Zoology, University of Oxford. Since her PhD at Imperial College in human evolutionary genetics, she has spent time working in industry (paternity testing / forensic science) and as a schoolteacher, but found that she couldn’t stay away from her passion and eventually returned to research science. Her research focuses on the various evolutionary processes that shape genomes, in particular the endogenous retroviruses that infest the genomes of humans and other vertebrates. Ravinder tells Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-organiser, the amazing story of how she took a U-turn in her career, and landed up at one of the best universities in the country. She attributes her success to a fabulous female role model (her mum!) and a school kid who told her that had given up the ‘coolest job in the world’…
SS: Hi Rav, as someone who has returned to academia after a spell in both industry and school education, you are an excellent example of ‘never say never’ again! Did you always deep down inside want to be a biologist?
RK: Yes, I got sucked back into research after giving it a break for a few years! Science was always one of the subjects that I enjoyed at school. I think I was fortunate that at home I was surrounded by people in the medical profession and from an early age had been exposed to the wonders of biology in a more practical sense, which fostered a healthy curiosity (thanks mum!)
SS: You taught science in secondary schools in the Midlands for a couple of years after your PhD. Teaching inner city teenagers is a far cry from the intellectual banter you were used to during your PhD in the leafy enclaves of Imperial College’s Silwood Park! What sort of unexpected challenges did this throw at you?
RK: Science is always one of the subjects that kids don’t seem to enjoy, and I quickly learnt that a huge part of the problem was in their perception of science and that the way that it was being taught, despite being factually correct, was failing to relay the importance, significance and wonder of science in everyday life – it was kinda dry. The challenge was to get the students motivated and enthused about the subject, to get them to understand how what they were learning related to them and real life situations. Luckily, Mission Impossible II had been on the TV the week before. Nothing like a cool spy movie with the threat of biological warfare to grab their attention!
SS: You are a rare example of a woman who left academic research, established a new successful career elsewhere, but then returned to work at one of the Uk’s top universities! You seem to have broken all the rules (yay!). Tell us why you came back into science.
RK: During my time out of academia, I realised that I missed the intellectual challenge that research provides. Being able to come up with an interesting question and figuring out how to answer it. Roles outside of academia were challenging in different ways, and I certainly enjoyed the challenges of teaching, but the more time I spent trying to instil in school children a passion for science, I somehow rediscovered my own passion for science. I remember during one science lesson a student asked me why I left research – it sounded like the coolest job in the world! (her words). I remember thinking – it was actually a pretty cool job… the work was interesting, there was no marking, the fact that its not a standard 9 til 5, which can sometimes be a good thing and a bad thing! At that point I realised 2 things – 1) it was the research side of science that I was truly passionate about, and 2) these kids were about to lose their science teacher!
SS: That is a really inspirational story, although unfortunate for the school kids! But getting back into science is no easy task (staying in it is difficult enough!). You now have a position in one of the most prestigious universities in the world: How did you manage to get back in?
RK: Coming back into science was not easy. I had been fortunate in that I had maintained contact with my supervisors and colleagues in science who were supportive of my decision to get back into research and provided lots of helpful advice. My route back in was to take up half a PDRA position – the previous postdoc had to move abroad for family reasons, and trying to fill a PDRA position for just 12 months is usually difficult as people generally prefer longer contracts. I had to be less choosy about what I would work on, and focus more on the skills that I had, and what I could work on. My previous research experience had all been with human genetics, but the position I took to get back into research was in virology. Some of the techniques required were the same, but it was a steep learning curve, and some very long days to get up to speed, but the approach worked and had its advantages. I gained a firm grounding in virology, and expanded my skill set. I was back!
My next research position allowed me to combine the 2 threads of my previous research experience – human genetics and virology, to work on endogenous retroviruses. So all in all, the sidestep into virology proved to be a good move for me in the end, but I think it is important to have a plan as to what direction you want your research to go.
My advice to someone in a similar position to what I found myself in would be to consider all the possibilities that come your way (beggars can’t be choosers!), and see if there is a way you can work an available opportunity into your grand plan, and perhaps end up pursuing a research direction that you had not previously considered. There are also a number of grants available now, specifically to help people returning to science after a career break
SS: The gender imbalance in secondary education is complete antithesis of that in academic education. Having worked in the female-biased school sector aswell as the male-biased academic sector, do you think gender bias really matters?
RK: The gender balance issue is a difficult one to address. I recall that the first few conferences I attended as a PhD student were certainly male dominated, and I can see how that would be a little intimidating. Coming from Imperial College’s Silwood Park campus, which is certainly more male biased than Oxford, it is interesting to observe the differences in working environment this creates. As a woman who is at an early/intermediate level of my career, it is nice to see a better balance, at all levels, of men and women within the department at Oxford. It is fantastic to have the opportunity to get advice and insight from senior women, and hear how they have managed to successfully juggle the work/personal life balance.
However, while it’s nice to have a more equal gender balance, its not the only thing that determines how friendly a working environment is for women. For example, despite being male biased at Silwood, because it is such a small, non-hierarchical, sociable environment, in my experience it was still a great place to work, although the lack of women at senior positions is certainly noticeable. Of course, it would have been great to see more senior women at Silwood – on occasion it did feel that perhaps the advice you were receiving did not fully account for your circumstances as a woman, and a female perspective would have been useful. For the students I think it also would have been good to see women in more senior positions. But you make do with what you have, and as it goes Silwood was fairly affable. I think Silwood maybe a little unique in this respect (as anyone who’s ever been there will attest to!), and perhaps not the best for a direct comparison with somewhere like Oxford, which clearly has a much larger department and a closer proximity to civilisation, which also greatly affects the dynamics of the department.
Things are certainly changing with regards to the numbers of women in science, and I am hopeful that eventually we will end up with a better balance at the more senior levels across the board.
SS: With a new career, new job: how does Soapbox Science fit in with your plans?
RK: Soapbox is a way of reaching those people who have left school with the impression science was not for them. Yet when they do revisit it, perhaps through an interesting news story, or personal experience (or encountering a crazy scientist in the pub or on the streets of London!), they find that they do have an interest and are usually fascinated by the research that goes on that they are not even aware exists. Soapbox is a rare opportunity to engage with the public and raise awareness of some very cool research! Soapbox is also going to be a fantastic opportunity to engage with other female scientists and hear what their backgrounds, experiences, motivations have been. I am really excited at being able to get on my soapbox (literally!) and embracing the challenge of explaining what I do without the conventional presentation tools!
Play the kid with DR Ravinder Kanda on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Genome Invaders: Friend or foe?” Ravinder’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship from L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London.