It took excellent mentors and a key realisation for Helena Lee to get back on track towards a career in clinical research.
The idea of solving scientific questions that have never been answered before has always excited me — especially if that knowledge might go on to help someone medically. Despite this, I have come very close to giving up on a career as a clinician scientist.
In winter last year, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had one year left on my contract as a funded clinical lecturer here in the UK — a job that was equally split between research and clinical work. Half of the time I was in a lab, the other half I worked directly with patients. My research was focused on finding a treatment that can improve eyesight in infants and young children with albinism.
I was also in my final year of clinical training as an ophthalmologist (an eye specialist), and was beginning to receive job offers. In addition, my mother became seriously ill at that time, and I was planning for the costs of her long-term care. This was the year that I had to choose between a career as a clinical research scientist, or as a full-time National Health Service (NHS) clinical consultant. The former offered far less job security, but research was always what I was most passionate about.
After five years of intensive work, I had obtained some promising data for a potential treatment. This would form the basis of funding applications, which I hoped would set me up for the next stage of my career as an independent researcher. I was spending every spare minute on preparing and submitting funding applications.
I was nearing mental exhaustion as I tried to balance my clinical and research work as well as my family commitments. I suffered the worst series of grant and manuscript rejections in my career so far — 11 in a row. I was torn between persisting in seemingly futile attempts to continue in research, or taking a more financially secure and stable non-research job as a full-time medical consultant. I was at breaking point.
That was where my mentors saved me from drowning. I had internal mentors within my own institution, who always believed in me and my research, and encouraged me to submit one more funding application to the Medical Research Council (MRC), even though I had lost faith in my own work.
I also had an external mentor who I was matched with through the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) Mentoring Programme, who understood exactly what I was going through. She was an inspiring clinician scientist and leader in her field.
We began to meet quarterly. Her office was my safe place. In that environment, I was able to pause, breath and reflect. Having an impartial sounding board where I could openly discuss my dilemmas and talk through difficult decisions was invaluable. She helped me realise that I should not feel guilty about my decision not to give up my career in order to care for my mother full-time, and that it is possible to balance a research and clinical career with supporting my family. That was when I began to learn how I could better organise and prioritise the growing demands on my time and regain a work-life balance. I learned when and how to say no — and that I did not have to feel guilty about it, which was something that I really struggled with.
I also joined the AMS SUSTAIN programme. This is specifically designed to support, mentor and equip women in academia in the UK with the skills they need for long-term survival. Discussing the problems I was experiencing with others in similar situations made me realise that I was not alone, and that I was not completely incompetent. They reminded me why I love science and research. One of the first sessions in the programme involved listening to some very distinguished and senior academics describe the many failures they’d had throughout their careers, and how these helped to shape future successes.
I was matched with another senior mentor as part of the programme, who helped me to realise that my disappointment was a lodestone. I was so frustrated with not gaining funding because it was still what I desperately wanted — a career in clinical academia remained my dream. If I had felt relief, then I would have been happier pursuing a career as a full-time medical consultant. From this realisation, I found renewed strength to submit another funding application, incorporating everything that I had learned from all of my other failures.
Whilst I waited for the outcome of that application, I progressed through the AMS SUSTAIN programme. I honed my presenting skills, underwent media training and developed team-building and leadership skills. It gave me the confidence and skills that eventually led to a fellowship. I could not have done it without the support of each of my mentors and the AMS SUSTAIN programme, or without suffering a few failures along the way.
Helena Lee is a clinical lecturer in ophthalmology at the University of Southampton and Southampton General Hospital, where she specializes in pediatric and neuro-ophthalmology. She is now an MRC Clinician Scientist fellow.