Getting the work-life balance right

Isabel-Pires-small.jpgDr Isabel Pires is a lecturer in Biomedical Science and Group Leader at the University of Hull. Isabel’s research is all about understanding how cancer modifies the biology of normal cells, and how such modifications might be used to spot aggressive cancers early. In this first Speakers’ Q&A of the 2014 season, Isabel (IP) talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about her career path, and her enthusiasm for science, her work and science communication.


SS: Isabel, thank you very much for agreeing to do this Q&A with us! It’s a pleasure to have you as a speaker for our London event this year. To start with, maybe tell us how you ended up in your current position?

IP: I am originally from Portugal, and I moved to the UK about 13 and half years ago. I now have had dual citizenship (Portuguese/British), which my friends say mean that I now can like tea (and marmite, and baked beans, and queues, but I draw the line on rhubarb!). I originally came to the University of Manchester to do my undergraduate project as part my Portuguese degree in Biology. After this, I stayed there and changes labs to do my PhD in cancer research and pharnacology. I then moved to Oxford for a postdoctoral research position for five years where my interest in low oxygen in tumours started. In 2011 I started applying for more permanent positions as a lecturer.

My current job is as a Lecturer and Group Leader at the University of Hull, which is an exciting place to establish my career as an academic. We have brand new research facilities, an expanding friendly group of cancer researchers and an established reputation in good quality teaching and learning. Since I’ve started I managed to recruit two PhD students, secure funding for our work and still keep having fun with science as well as being a lecturer. I now find myself at the other side of the lectern and I love it, especially when students show the same enthusiasm for science as I did when I was in their place. It is a great feeling!


SS: So what, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

IP: If I had to pick a key fact behind my choice to become a scientist and an academic is that, since I was very young, I have always been incredibly curious and wanted to know more about everything. I knew then my place was at a University. I loved school, loved books (thanks Mom and Dad!) and always tried to expand my learning beyond the topics at class, especially anything related to biology.

I first started to get more seriously into science around the time Jurassic Park came along – as many scientists my age, dinosaurs were my first passion! They got me into Geology (my mineral collection is quite substantial) and then Biology. Also, attending philosophy classes during high school also helped me to understand the scientific method.  Added to that I had a high school teacher who taught us how to plan experiments and write scientific reports. I loved those classes and did as many “experiments” as I could.

However, the first taste of a true career in science was through my undergraduate project at Dr. David Hughes lab in Manchester. It was a fantastic year, an amazing opportunity and really crystalized my desire to become a full time scientist. Rather than just another undergraduate with a project, he treated me as a fellow scientist and let me drive my own project and be creative about it. I can’t thank him enough for that.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

IP: If you can disconnect the biology of cancer from cancer the disease and its impact of our lives, it is an absolutely fascinating field to work in. The really interesting fact about cancer biology in general (and low oxygen in tumours in particular) is that it clearly exemplifies the extremes to which normal cell biology can be stretched. We would not intuitively think any cells could survive in low oxygen but cancer cells can and do – they adapt rapidly to these new circumstances. By doing this they become different from the normal cells surrounding them. Low oxygen drives cancer cells to adapt and evolve to a more plastic and motile (and ultimately, more aggressive) entity. The ultimate aim in my lab is to exploit these differences to spot aggressive cancers early on (ideally before they spread) and to treat them without affecting the normal cells around it.


SS: Tell us what attracted you to Soapbox Science

IP: I think science communication is a key aspect of being a scientist. There is far too many badly written “science stories” in the press. By communicating our science clearly we can empower the public to think critically. I think Soapbox Science is a great platform for this. It also helps to bring the scientists out of the lab and make the general public aware that we are not all old men with frizzy hair that wear thick rimmed glasses and lab coats.


SS: If you had to sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

IP: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

IP: It might not be very radical but I think a change of mentality towards work-life balance within academia is necessary. As any scientist, I love my job, I work hard and I am a geek to the core. However the perceived expectation is that scientists should work all hours. And even though we do think about our work all the time (I dare anyone to just stop thinking about their research when they leave the lab or office!), maintaining a clear work/life balance is very important, especially during the establishing stages of a scientific career. It is at this stage, when one is young and appears to have endless resources of energy, that the budding young scientist is more likely to just burn out. Working hard but smart is more important that working long hours. Same principle applies for those later on in their careers, both men and women, who decide to have families, take career breaks, etc. We only have one life, and it is brief and precious, so we should make the most of all aspects of it.


SS: And what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

IP: Chat to those already in the type of positions you think you might yourself in a few years time and pinpoint what were the key achievements that landed them that position. Plan ahead and start to work towards those goals early on in your PhD. Keep your CV up to date even if you are not looking for a job. But keep it flexible – don’t set things in stone or you’ll risk disappointment or miss our on other opportunities.

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