Post-Doc in North America

As someone in their ‘more senior years’ as an academic, I get asked to tell ‘my story’ about how I got from being a girl growing up in Middlesbrough to a Professor of Microbiology and Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor.  This post covers how and why I moved to North America for a Post Doc and how this opened up opportunities for me and enabled me to get a faculty position at Exeter University three years later.

After my PhD at Warwick University I had a first post-Doctoral position at the Institute for Biotechnological Studies in London.  The funding was running out for that three year post and I needed to secure a job fast.  I had attended my first international conference near Copenhagen a few months earlier and had given my first talk at an international conference – but more about that experience in a later blog posting! I started to understand the benefits of networking at conferences in developing research and career opportunities so I submitted an abstract for the forthcoming ISME4 meeting in Ljubljana in August 1986.  As for my first international meeting I went alone and had to raise the funding to go myself.

The flight to the ISME 4 meeting was delayed for many hours so all passengers were ushered into a room to wait (yes this was a different era in flying!)  It was crowded so I had to share a table and sat next to a seemingly nice couple from North America.  I quickly learned they were Bill and Vivian Costerton, and were Canadians.  Bill was a leading figure in microbial ecology (whom I had never hear of before) how his research covered many, many diverse areas including petroleum microbiology and within 30 minutes he had offered me a post-doc working on microbes in petroleum reservoirs!

He took out a small card and drew out a schematic of the subsurface environment (I later learned that this is how he always worked in research discussions). He sketched out how this seemingly hostile environment was merely a combination of challenges for bacteria but some survived this high temperature, lack of oxygen, salty, high pressure, low nutrient combination, could grow within rocks (I found that concept utterly fascinating) and that some of their growth byproducts were a nuisance and spoiled the quality of the oil.  This meant that many international oil and gas companies were interested in bacteria and sometimes funding such work – and so I started working in petroleum microbiology, bacterial growth on surfaces (biofilms) and the much broader field of microbial ecology.

I really didn’t follow a lot of what Bill was saying but I needed my next research job so I listened and agreed to meet him once the conference was underway. Eventually the flight landed in Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning, then the bus taking us to our hotels broke down in the country lanes but as we were all going to the same conference I had chance to meet and get to know some of them.

The next day I set off to the conference centre but inadvertently stood on the wrong side of the road and, as I couldn’t understand the language, caught the wrong bus and ended up in the outskirts of the city with just me and the bus driver looking at each other.  He stopped there for a few minutes, then luckily for me, drove back into the city and I found the conference centre.

I attended the opening ceremony and watched the ISME President cross the stage and open the conference, little knowing that I would become the President of the Society and play that same role in Cairns 22 years later. I met Bill Costerton and he commenced the paperwork to formally offer me a post Doctoral research fellowship in his huge laboratory group at Calgary University.

I moved there a few months later and took on running part of his research group, broadening my skills and learning how to work with businesses too. Some aspects were very challenging, such as when you have to walk into a room full of engineers, geologists, chemists, mathematical modellers etc and put across our latest research ideas and progress to such an interdisciplinary audience. I learned that it’s about keeping calm when, for example, Darcys, turbulent flow, catholic protection, metal corrosion or oil souring were being discussed and read up on it fast later. We took some new concepts of how bacteria might aid oil recovery and scaled this up from small rock cores into large 3-D reservoir models, pulling in bacteria survival mechanisms and biofilm studies too. All of this helped me to prepare my first faculty applications and led to a job interview at Exeter University.  I was the only female shortlisted but was thrilled to be offered and then accept this in 1989, joining Exeter in 1990, ready for my next adventure!

 

 

December 11th, 2017

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Guest blog by Dr Jenny Baker, Research Office, School of Engineering, Swansea University

I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a Newton RSC Workshop  in India on Sustainable Energy in Rural India organised between Professor Neil Robertson and Dr. Sara Shinton (Edinburgh University, UK)  and Professor Satish Ogale (IISER Pune, India).  What attracted me to apply was the fact that this workshop was not just scientists and engineers (or physical scientists as we were labelled) but social scientists working on policy, cultural and societal problems.

The workshop was challenging, starting with a visit to rural villages in India before a formal programme of talks from experts who had worked in the area for many years.  On the final three days we split into self-selected teams and chose areas to work on that focussed on the energy needs of the people of rural India. I thought I had no preconceived ideas of how the workshop would be before I left the UK but as the week progressed I realised I was wrong.  I had thought that the social scientists would do their part and the physical scientists would do ours and the roles would be split accordingly.

However it soon became apparent that the teams had split along physical and social science boundaries and I realised I was far more comfortable working in a team comprised entirely of Indian male physical scientists than I was in a mixed sex group of British and Indian social scientists.  I tried to move into the social scientist group but was frustrated that I didn’t understand where they were trying to take the project and I could not see how I could contribute.  This was not a personal thing, the people in the team I respected professionally and enjoyed their company.

Eventually I moved back to my original team but realised we needed to attract some social scientists. Could they not understand that we had a really good project?  Why did they not want to join the team?  Was it because of personalities? From my point of view they did not see the project in the same way we (the physical scientists) could visualise the project.  With that in mind I tried describing the project to the social scientists in a different way.  The first two times didn’t work, however on the third time things appeared to change. I’m not saying everyone suddenly went ‘wow great project’ just that they finally recognised where we were coming from even if they still didn’t want to join the project!

I went into this workshop thinking it would enable me to design appropriate technology whilst factoring in cultural and societal factors.  But I found out it was much more than that, key lessons that I will take away from this week are:

  • Ensuring that technology meets the ‘real’ rather than perceived needs of the people you are trying to help is vital for success.
  • Local ownership of any solutions is needed from the very beginning of the project at the ‘need’ stage not just after installation.
  • Don’t equate illiteracy with lack of skills or old age with inability to learn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the barefoot college program in rural India: https://www.ted.com/talks/bunker_roy
  • Consider your argument and examine how you can present it in as many different ways as possible. A ‘hook’ that gets one audience excited may leave a different audience cold.
  • If the ideas from people from other disciplines don’t immediately grab you take some more time to understand their point of view, this not only helps you understand others but can be used to improve your communication to different audiences.

September 28th, 2017

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hilary lappin-scott in laboratoryWelcome to my blog!

I’m Hilary Lappin-Scott, Professor of Microbiology. I’ve been working as a research scientist for decades, running my own research group and training lots of women and men as the next generation of scientists, industrialists and entrepreneurs. My postings cover my world of higher education, all STEM subjects, global conferences and travel, leadership in universities, equality and diversity. Comments welcome and all views my own.

More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:

Linkedin,  Swansea TedXTalk,  STEM ‘Pioneer’ Award 2017,  WISE Award 2016,  Womenspire Award 2017, Soapbox ScienceSwansea Uni PVC profile, Research Gate

April 11th, 2017

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