Back to Science, against all odds

3f952651b91226dd0075bfede82bcad6Dr Graziella Iossa is a Back to Science Fellow at the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln. She is a zoologist particularly interested in behavioural and evolutionary ecology having used mammals and insects as study systems. Graziella talks about her journey to becoming a zoologist, leaving academia while starting a family, changing jobs and then returning to science nearly five years after she left. Follow Graziella on twitter: @g_iossa


I was delighted when I was asked to write about my experience of returning to science after a prolonged break for SoapBox Science. Too many of our stories go untold. The more we talk about how women can stay in (or return to) science, the more women will be inspired. Or so I hope.


When I left secondary school I was unsure which subject to choose at university. So I did what I loved most, I read (lots) and spoke to as many people (and women) as possible about different university degrees. I settled for Natural Sciences and really enjoyed it. I based my choice on my happiest childhood memories spent walking up mountains with my family exploring the landscape and nature. As Seirian points out, the seeds for the love of science are planted early, in primary school years. I especially loved my final year project were I was collecting and analysing data. So after a brief detour at a local environmental centre, I started to look for funding for a PhD abroad. It took me nearly a year of some serious searching in public libraries and trawling through the Internet to find the right scholarship to come to the UK.


During my PhD I really discovered my love for research and in my lab I also met my husband. Once we both finished our PhDs we married and I started a postdoc but I also really wanted to start a family. I had done well during my PhD, I had published a number of good quality papers but I had also had to work part-time as my scholarship only funded my first two years of study. The continuous search for funding, the highly competitive nature of the academic world, and my desire to start a family seemed highly incompatible with research to me. After much thought and some career coaching, I decided to move away from academia and try something different. Scientific publishing seemed the natural choice to me.


Throughout my PhD a young and successful Reader at my university took the role of my internal tutor, following my progresses. We seldom met, but she always struck me with her encouraging and very thoughtful comments. During my brief postdoc I entered a mentoring scheme for women in ecology and she happened – by chance – to be paired to me as my mentor. She was sad to know that I wanted to leave academia but helped me put together a strong application and I landed a fantastic job opportunity starting a new scientific journal in my research field.


Meanwhile my first boy was born and my husband was looking for his next research position. This meant that he could look after him for most of the time when I went to work and, for the rest of the time, our baby would be in a nursery. I had taken a nine-month maternity leave and really loved looking after our baby. I found returning to work really hard. When I was expecting our second child, my husband found a research position abroad and so we moved to Scandinavia at the beginning of my second maternity leave about a month before my due date. I took a year maternity leave and when that ended, we were still abroad so I had to commute between my home and my job in the UK, spending one week out of every two away. I found being away from my family really challenging. Having been two years in publishing, I found that my job was becoming more repetitive and I could dedicate less time to liaising with the senior and associate editors, the part I enjoyed the most.


During these years, I never lost touch with my mentor and about a couple of times a year I would be in touch and let her know how I was getting on. In the second year in which we were living abroad, I fell pregnant for a third time. Just as I began my third maternity leave, my husband found a permanent position at a UK university and so we came back to the UK. I started thinking that I did not feel publishing suited my skills and that I was much happier when I was doing research. Perhaps moving away from academia had not been a good move for me. It felt natural to turn to my mentor again and talk to her openly about my feelings: was I too late to go back? Her encouragement was pivotal to my decision to go back. I started thinking of possible projects, contacted a couple of university and finally found a supervisor at my local university. It took me about a year of searching and applications but I finally found the right scheme, the Back to Science Fellowship, at the University of Lincoln. The scheme allows me to do research part-time fitting it around my family commitments while at the same time providing funding for training to bring my skills up-to-date with current research.


Becoming a parent has changed me and taught me how to overcome challenges in a way that I had never envisaged before. It is odd that I thought academia was incompatible with family life because, as my mentor pointed out several years ago now, an academic job is one those few jobs that can be truly flexible and accommodate people’s needs. I never thought I could go back to academia nearly five years after leaving it but here I am I have made the first step. It will be no easy task to get up-to-date with research findings, developing and furthering my skills and establish myself into my own field, but I am really enjoying it. I am hoping that writing about my experience will inspire more women to believe that it is possible to move back into academia after a career break.

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