The importance of making science accessible from a young age

Varadi_SoapboxBristol2014.jpgAniko Varadi (AV) is Professor of Biomedical Research at the University of the West of England (UWE) where she is also the Athena SWAN leader for the Department of Applied Sciences. Aniko’s work focuses understanding genetic susceptibility to brain injury in newborn infants, and also insulin transportation and release in the blood stream and what goes wrong in diabetes. Here she joins Soapbox Science (SS) to tell us about her inspiration for pursuing an academic career and what she believes could change science culture for the better.

You can hear Aniko speak at Bristol Soapbox Science 2014 on the 14th of June about “Keeping you blood sugar levels at bay”.


SS: Hello Aniko, thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us at Soapbox Science, to start off with can you tell us about how you reached your current position of Professor at UWE?

AV:I completed most of my education in Hungary. My first degree was in Biology and Chemistry and obtained my PhD in Medical Biochemistry. With my first degree I could have gone into teaching and actually this was the norm in our cohort. I did my entire teacher training and enjoyed my time with students but I felt that I wanted to know more about my subjects. I have thought that I could always go back to teaching but it was very hard or impossible to return to academic research after a period of teaching so I took up a researcher post. I found it much less glamorous at first than I have anticipated but after about 9 months of starting my post, a scientist returned from the USA and became my supervisor. I was washed away by his brilliant knowledge and I decided to remain in research. I got an EU-funded studentship to study in the UK. It was very challenging, particularly because I couldn’t speak the language. It was a life changing experience – I learned that there is absolutely no limit to what one can do or achieve. I have kept this approach throughout my career. I loved my time in the UK so much so that I have been here ever since (for 23 years). It was very hard at the beginning to get a post in the UK and I volunteered for a few months in a research lab and then worked as a research technician for a year. I applied for several posts/fellowships and I had a day when I had three dream job offers. I chose an R.D. Lawrance Fellowship from the DiabtesUK and spent a few years at the University of Oxford working on diabetes. After this, my career progression followed a more conventional path. I was a Research Fellow at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Bristol then I became a Reader and then a Professor at the University of the West of England, Bristol.


SS: What an achievement, and great to hear that you have enjoyed you time here in the UK so much. You mention briefly about your supervisor in the USA and his brilliant knowledge but was there anyone else who inspired you along your career path?

AV: When I was about 10 years old, I saw a documentary about Marie Curie which made me curious about chemistry, isotopes and radioactivity. Then I became fascinated by Mendeleyev, who put elements in an orderly format and created the periodic table. In addition, I had two brilliant chemistry teachers at school; all of these helped to choose this subject for my University degree. The main attraction to becoming a scientist was the endless intellectual freedom that academia could offer. There were not many successful senior female scientist/Professors around when I started my research career. My first mentor was Dr Steve Ashcroft (University of Oxford) who gave me a job in his lab and helped and encouraged me to get my own independent funding. We collaborated with Prof. Frances Ashcroft (University of Oxford) who has inspired me to always believe in myself and only publish data which are rock solid. Prof. Wendy Purcell (University of Plymouth) gave me my first permanent academic job and she let me develop my research without overloading me with teaching and administration. I really value that I had time to focus on research which is very much a luxury nowadays. The person, who helped and supported me in every step of my academic career and I am truly grateful for him, is my husband. He is a scientist himself. We met in Hungary and he was the catalyst for my move to the UK. We have collaborated with each other both at work and at home – we have two children, Fiona 17 and Oliver 6, several joint grants and research papers.


SS: So it sounds like you were inspired from a young age and that you are continuing to get support and inspiration to this day. What is it about you current research that you find the most fascinating?

AV: I am working on understanding how the blood sugar lowering hormone, insulin, is transported for release to the blood stream. We use biochemical, molecular biology and imaging techniques. Research is a bit like finding jigsaw puzzle pieces for a constantly changing picture. It is very exciting when you are looking for the ‘right’ piece and you find it. It is even more exhilarating when you find an unexpected piece that fits and can totally change the original picture and thus you discover something new. Research is unpredictable and no one day is the same. You can never know everything and new knowledge is added every day. I think the most fascinating aspect is that our learning does not have borders.


SS: That does sound fascinating Aniko, it must keep you very busy. So what was it that attracted you to join Soapbox Science this year?

AV: I feel that science as a career is not currently accessible for children. It might be helpful for them to see a few ‘real’ scientists (including myself) on the day.


SS: And if you could sum up how you are feeling about the day in one word what would it be?

AV: Apprehension.


SS: Well we are sure you are going to be fantastic and we cannot wait to hear what you have to say. If there was anything you could change about the scientific culture right now what would it be and why?

AV: I believe that a break (e.g.: maternity leave) during the most productive stage of our academic career has a longer lasting effect than the length of the maternity leave. Imagine that you stop reading papers and doing nothing that is your job today; and in a year time you need to pick up the pieces and carry on like nothing happened. It takes time to gain the confidence and knowledge back. It would be very helpful if Research Councils would extend grants if the PI herself is on maternity leave (imagine that the PI is absent for 1/3 of the grant duration and has to compete with someone who is there all the time – it is not a brainer to guess who will get funding during the next round of application); or if they would have a scheme where you could apply for funding to cover your teaching to focus on research. This wouldn’t be very expensive and would keep those research-active who either had a brake or who had to do some substantial research administration for their University (such as REF submission).

I would make research as a career more accessible/visible for children. When my daughter was young I could take her with me to the lab and show her around easily. Even the public could walk around in our labs as it was part of a hospital (John Ratcliffe in Oxford). She has grown up knowing what I am doing and she is now doing science subjects for her A-level. My son on the other hand doesn’t know anything about my work because I could not bring him near the lab due to health and safety regulations. We need to be safe but making research totally inaccessible/invisible is not helpful. If we want student to choose science as a career then they need to have a chance to see it and not just on Open days or exhibitions but in real life. I would reintroduce summer schools where students could get their hands dirty and resource these activities with appropriate funding.


SS: Thank you for sharing you thoughts with us about this today. Finally before we go what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

AV: Produce publishable data and publish them; get independent funding early; plan your career carefully. Maternity leaves/career brakes have negative impacts on an academic career and there is no way around it. Enjoy the time with your children and don’t feel guilty because you need to go to work (easier said than done). Don’t expect privileges just because you are a female but support your fellow academics (male or female) if their career is disrupted due to family commitments or other personal reasons.

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