Into the wild… the laboratory wild!

Time away in a different environment can give young researchers new perspectives and challenges that could help them develop as scientists and people.

This is the piece I wrote for the NatureJobs blog in September 2015. It was edited by the very clever Julie Gould, and won me the chance to go to their careers expo in London and be a proper science journalist.

The original article can be found here.


‘Where there are experts there will be no lack of learners.’ -Swahili Proverb

Scientists know that any time away from academic data gathering and preparing the next publication is another nail in the coffin for a research career. The struggle for balance is a source of constant mental turmoil. Losing focus just a bit could mean losing the race for a faculty position.

I don’t want to believe that.

At the end of this year I will finish my first postdoc and embark on a project to counteract brain-drain in Ethiopia. I’m taking time away from the bench to work with a non-profit organisation called TReND (Teaching and Research in Natural Sciences for Development) in Africa. TReND takes researchers and places them in one of their partner universities, with the overall aim to cultivate higher education and scientific education across the continent.

It’s a little terrifying. And very, very exciting.

I believe more scientists should flex their intellectual muscles by removing themselves from academia. Even a short placement means sharing our educational privilege as western scientists with those less fortunate, and it’s a learning curve for us. Working in relatively underprivileged locations gives young researchers a chance to get in the deep end and experience the wider world of science, including designing and running workshops, supervising students and other scientists, and dealing with bureaucratic rules and applications. Lecturing and collaborating with scientists whose native language is not English is also a fantastic way to improve communication skills, and working with less well-funded labs and universities could hone your creativity for problem-solving. What do you do when there’s no tape? No shaking waterbath? You can’t complain, and you definitely can’t just order it from Sigma. You have to figure it out with the tools at hand.

Andrzej Bartke, Professor and Director of geriatric medicine at the University of Southern Illinois, told me that one of his favourite experiences as a scientist was spent measuring atmospheric radiation and collecting insects in Vietnam. For 10 months in the early 1960’s, he worked in some very problematic conditions. But he says it was a fantastic experience: “I was very excited about this and eternally grateful that I had this unique opportunity. I believe this was a key development in my career in that it gave me an opportunity to show that I can work independently and get things done.”

“I think it benefited me in many ways” he tells me. “From exposure to another (and a very different) country, to working with people who had very different life experiences. It lead to me being offered less than a year later another exciting opportunity, doing doctoral work in USA.”

Not only could he prove his independence and amass a collection of insects that included some previously-unidentified species, but he also got immense satisfaction out of solving ‘logistical’ problems. “I had no equipment, no microscope and could not see some of the things I was collecting.” he says. He told me a story of how, one evening, he realised that he was out of rubber bands to secure the covers on his insect tubes. A quick trip to the local shop saw him coming home, grinning widely with an old bicycle inner tube in hand – a few quick chops and he had a mountain of rubber bands!

“If you have a chance to do something you find really exciting, you should grab that chance even if it appears to have nothing to do with the conventional career path,” Says Bartke.

Why should we feel that these experiences will worsen our chances of career success? If anything they should enrich us as scientists.

In the developed world we can rub shoulders with amazing minds and we have access to cutting-edge technology, which we often take for granted. In contrast, Ethiopia is experiencing ‘brain-drain’ as the brightest minds are jumping ship for better prospects overseas. African brain-drain is so abundant that freshly-minted graduates sometimes immediately get promoted to course lecturer, a desperate move to simply keep the science alive.

I’m truly excited to be a part of such a great project like TReND. Fellow developed-world researchers may consider this to be a long walk off the short plank of our academic pirate ship, but I hope this mentality will change. We need these programmes to succeed, not only for the advancement of knowledge and science in Africa, not only for the globalisation of quality research, but also for the growth of ourselves as human beings.


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