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Careers

Today we chat to SCI member Luca Steel about her life as a plant pathology PhD student in 2020.

Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?

Zymoseptoria tritici is a fungal pathogen of wheat which can cause yield losses of up to 50%. We’re investigating an effector protein secreted by Z. tritici which acts as a ‘mask’, hiding the pathogen from host immune receptors and avoiding immune response.

What does a day in the life of a plant pathology PhD Student look like?

My days are very varied – from sowing wheat seeds to swabbing pathogenic spores onto their leaves, imaging symptoms, discussing results with my supervisor and lab team, and of course lots of reading. It doesn’t always go to plan - I recently attempted to make some wheat leaf broth, which involved lots of messy blending and ended up turning into a swampy mess in the autoclave!

 plants growing

Wheat in the incubator!

How did your education prepare you for this experience?  

The most valuable preparation was my placement year at GSK and my final year project at university. Being in the lab and having my own project to work on made me confident that I wanted to do a PhD – even if it was a totally different research area (I studied epigenetics/immunoinflammation at GSK!).

What are some of the highlights so far?

My highlight was probably attending the European Conference on Fungal Genetics in Rome earlier this year. It was great to hear about so much exciting work going on – and it was an added bonus that we got to explore Rome. I’ve also loved getting to know my colleagues and being able to do science every day.

What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?

My biggest challenge so far has probably been working from home during lockdown. Although I am very privileged to have a distraction-free space and good internet connection, it was difficult to adjust to working from my kitchen! It was sad abandoning unfinished experiments, and I missed being in the lab – so I’m glad to be back now.

 working on a laptop

Pandemic Workstations

What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?

If you’re sure you want to do one, then absolutely go for it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself! If not, I’d recommend spending some time working in a lab before you apply and chatting to any prospective labs. If you don’t get a reply from the PI, existing students/post-docs in the group are often very happy to talk and give honest opinions.

How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?

I was lucky that the pandemic came early on in my PhD, so I had a lot of flexibility to change what I was working on. I switched from lab work involving lots of bioimaging, towards a more bioinformatic approach. My poor laptop will be glad when I’m back to using my computer at work!



Policy

At this month’s Vitae Connections Week Event, Amanda Solloway, Member of Parliament and Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, spoke about the promoting a culture of wellbeing for researchers and improving the way we evaluate research success.

Academia has long had cultural issues, including harassment, inequality and the overall high-pressure environment. Though there are great examples of effective career mentorship and support by many senior academics, often early career researchers, particularly those from underrepresented groups, are exposed to the dark side of academia.

In her speech, Amanda Solloway speaks of the ‘Publish or Perish’ mantra that penetrates academic culture; the pressure to publish research and win grants in order to be successful in scientific research. Amanda also spoke on the short term and casual contract culture, something most early career academics are all too familiar with, and the harassment and bullying that takes place in academia, with around half of researchers having experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace.

So what can be done? These problems are not new, or surprising, to anyone who has worked in academia. The perfect world solution involves a vast systemic change, an uprising of equality within academic departments across the world. This can only happen if, as Amanda rightfully suggests, there is an increase in diverse and sustainable funding. Consistently, large grants, which allow researchers to develop independent research careers, hire new talent and maintain stable job roles within their institutions, are disproportionately awarded to those who fit a certain mould, with underrepresented groups constantly underfunded. This creates an ongoing system of inequality, and a review of how these grants are awarded is essential for academic culture to evolve.

 a stressed student

Stress, high-pressure working and elitism are common in academia.

In addition to large scale systemic changes, more needs to be done to help the wellbeing of researchers and crush the culture of high academic expectations. Stable, long-term job roles form one part of this, and the pressure to publish research is a huge part of academic life. However, the wellbeing of early career researchers is often affected by a culture of harassment, discrimination and elitism. For example, the #MeToo movement shook the world, with the exposure of sexual harassment in academia being no exception to this. The recent increase in online events from Black Scientists is empowering, but also highlights the struggles of being a minority group in science and academia in 2020. Every day, the academic Twitter space is filled with early career researchers speaking of their ongoing problems getting through a career in academic research.

The assessment and valuation of researchers based on metrics needs to be switched up. Often, the value placed on outputs like scientific publications disadvantages those who do not fall into a particular group, those who do not have to take on extra responsibilities, something which disproportionately affects women for example. It gives an advantage to those who have support, both through finances and mentorship. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion, where success is not measured on the individuals work. Amanda Solloway is right, that many researchers are passionate, driven, love their research, and it isn’t reflected in the outputs. Many of those researchers leave academia to seek a happier and more stable existence elsewhere when we should be fighting to keep them.

 a mental health infographic

Mental health and wellbeing often suffers in academia. Inforgraphic by Zoe Ayres.

As a young woman starting out on an academic career, I have experienced my fair share of these problem, including sexism, high-pressure working and mental health problems. It fills me with fear to see how things never appear to get better as you move through the ranks. I am extremely passionate about my research, but I cannot disagree with the sentiment of the PhD student Amanda spoke to: “I just can’t see myself having a future in research”. Personally, I will keep trying, but the idea of being a successful academic, within the culture of academia we sit in right now, feels like a pipe dream.

This motion from Amanda Solloway to “create a culture that welcomes the widest range of viewpoints, experiences and approaches” and “provide funding… properly and sustainably” is hopeful. A systemic change to academic culture is needed, and this can be fuelled by diversifying funding, providing more stable career progressions for early career academics and creating a workplace that is a supportive, encouraging and safe place to be.