Overcoming the career insecurity in academia: Meet Emma Stevenson

Meet Dr Emma Stevenson, Research Associate in bacterial signalling at the University of Exeter. Her work centres on bacterium that can cause disease in humans with the ultimate aim of finding ways to prevent them from harming us. Here she reflects on her journey so far as she prepares to start a family, a journey that has not always been easy, or straightforward, but one that she is glad to have persevered on – she feels that nothing is ever out of reach if you have a goal you want to achieve. Come and meet Emma at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 24th of June, 2017 where she will be talking about how bacteria glean information to make decisions!


By Dr Emma Stevenson

The Journey to now…….

My job has me investigating life on a very small scale. In fact, so small, you need a microscope to see what I actually work on! Our lives are full of life that we can’t see with the naked eye, but without which we wouldn’t be able to function. I’m talking about bacteria…tiny organisms that live everywhere, from the soil, to the sea and all the space in between; including, our bodies. Most of the time bacteria are harmless and even function to keep our body in balance. But sometimes, things go out of sync and we get ill. That’s where I come in!


Where the path to science began……

I attended a local comprehensive school in Torquay, which, at that time was not fairing too well. Despite its troubled nature, I was determined to get the best out of it, and I soon realised that my lessons in science were important for me to do this. Science lessons became the ones I enjoyed the most, which was not common among my peers at school!

I knew that I wanted to get a good education, so I could have a professional career in STEM, as opposed to staying in my local town where the economy was heavily based on leisure and tourism. I came out of school with some pretty decent GCSE’s and decided that science at the local Grammar school would be the best place for me to work towards the career I now wanted.

The transition from GCSE to A-level was by far the toughest part of education for me. I really had to learn for myself, as no-one else was going to push me or make me do anything I didn’t want to. But I got on with it, ended up with a handful of A-levels (including Biology and Chemistry) which would be enough to get on to the course at the university I wanted to go to.


The passage of University….

Applied Biological Sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol was my chosen degree program. It covered a vast array of modular subjects including human physiology and pharmacology, from data analysis to microbiology, genetics and plant sciences. Plus, there was the added bonus of a sandwich year which meant I could spend a whole year as a paid employee in a research lab or industrial company. This, I would later find out, proved an invaluable experience and secured me a Masters Degree course place at Imperial Collage, London.  Through the modules on my course I was able to discover the subjects I really enjoyed (microbiology and molecular genetics) and thus excel at. Getting good marks meant I was selected for an overseas placement in my sandwich year (2003-2004), which I spent in a research lab at Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA. I gained a lot of lab experience and it enabled me to get a taste of what academic life could be like. I enjoyed it so much, that I applied (and got accepted) to go back to do a PhD after my final year of University. However, due to the difference in the PhD training schedule between the USA and UK, I decided to instead, accept the Masters of Research degree place at Imperial College……London was calling!


The uncertain cross road…

The period of my Masters degree was a turbulent one. I was in the very early stages of becoming an independent researcher and although I loved my research projects I found the whole experience really tough. I didn’t enjoy living in London, was constantly in debt, (though my masters program was funded) and it really made me question whether a life in academia was for me.  What had once felt like a natural career progression (Undergraduate course, Masters, PhD) didn’t feel right for me anymore. All of a sudden I was questioning my whole career choice and at 23/24years old, it was pretty frightening!

When I think about it now, I realise I wasn’t ready to transition from masters to PhD. I wasn’t a confident researcher and I still didn’t really know what area of science I wanted to be in. And, as any researcher will know, you commit yourself 100% to a PhD, so you have to know and love what you do. I decided that after my masters, I should take a break from academia. By now, having lived in Bristol, the USA and London, I had also realised that Torbay wasn’t such a bad place to live. So, like the proverbially bad penny, off I trotted back to my parents place in Torquay. To relax and figure out what I really wanted for my career.

I took a job at a local petrol station to help pay my way whilst living at home with my parents and to keep me busy, as I didn’t know how long it would take to find another ‘career worthy’ job. Low and behold, seven months later, I had secured a job at a sequencing facility for a company called GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (a world leading pharmaceutical company) which was based in Harlow. So, I was off again, but this time to explore a largely unknown side of science in the industrial sector.


The Industrial expedition

I only spent two years at GSK, but they were a great couple of years. The sequencing facility at GSK was a core platform, which meant my role was supporting hundreds of different projects being undertaken at the various R&D GSK sites in and around Essex and further afield. What I felt in this job was a great sense of pride, knowing that my efforts were facilitating other important projects. I realised that having a career in industry could be (and was) just as rewarding as one in academia, but in a slightly different way. To me, academic pride comes from publications and grant awards. Pride in my job was supporting projects, taking on mini projects and being good at what I did. This, as I found out many times, was rewarded in bonuses and small prize awards. Something that I didn’t even know existed before!! It was great! I really began to focus on what I enjoyed; at University it was microbiology and molecular biology and through my job at GSK I had begun to experience the wonder of DNA sequencing and the power that was taking shape in this field. But, deep inside I also craved more independence, so in earnest I began searching for a PhD.


The slightly looped road to the South West

My time living in Harlow cemented the need I had been feeling to try and settle back in Devon permanently, as for me, nowhere else compared to this little gem of an area! I don’t hold any religious beliefs, but I have to admit, when I found a PhD advertised at the University of Exeter, in the area of microbial DNA sequencing, I really felt fate was on my side! So, I applied, had an interview and in November 2009, started my PhD working on genetic and phenotypic characterisation of a bacterium called Clostridium difficile. A nasty bacterium which infects an elderly population of hospitalised patients and will give them an awful bout of diarrhoea…..Yuk!

I was ready for this PhD, it was the right time for me, I was more confident, experienced and 100% sure what I wanted to do. I worked in a terrific lab, which was doing some fantastic research, met great people, had a supportive supervisor and absolutely loved my subject area. So, four years after I started, I gained my PhD, along with a fiancé who I’d met in my home town in 2010! Things were great, I could finally settle… or maybe not!

Academia is a world of constant change; grants, contracts and inevitably, people. I wasn’t able to secure funding to stay on at Exeter so was looking for jobs elsewhere. I was selected for interview for a job so closely related to my field of research I thought the post must have been written for me! The only down side is that it was in Nottingham!!!! My fiancé and I discussed it at length and decided that if offered, I would take the job, but he would stay in Devon. Our decision was hard but was reflected in the fact that we both wanted to eventually settle in Devon and his job was permanent. Something which is not guaranteed in academia until you are much, much further on in your career. I did get offered the job, which I accepted. I spent three years as a post-doctoral researcher in Nottingham, met some great friends and even got married along the way! But, after three years it was time to make the commitment to come back to Devon.  This was both a joyous and scary time, I wanted more than ever to be with my husband, but scientific jobs in Devon were very rare, so there was a possibility I would have to move back with no job to go to!


The arrival at now

So, as I write this, I am one year into my second post-doctoral position, at the University of Exeter. The timing for this position was great, just before I was due to leave Nottingham, a job opened up in the lab in which I did my PhD. So, not only could I go back to Devon, I could have a career in a great research group! It was a win win situation for me. I now work on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, another nasty bacterium that causes infection.

The world of academia still full of uncertainty, contracts are (mostly) short term and when you have a mortgage, bills and possibly children to think about, the threat of impending redundancy is just another worry! But…. I love my career, and what makes it even better is I get to spend time outside of work in beautiful Devon. This is important to me, as many academics make the difficult decision to move away from areas they love to chase that all important climb up the career ladder.

The path to now has been convoluted…. But if you stick to what you are passionate about and never give up trying, then I really believe you will get where you want to be and be happy in what you are doing!

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