This piece was originally published on the BioMed Central blog network, part of Springer Nature.
There’s more to science than being a scientist! Next in our ‘Science > Careers’ series Anne Helme explains more about the path that led to her role as Research Funding Manager at Cancer Research UK.
What is your scientific background?
My scientific imagination was properly captured early on in my undergraduate studies at Cambridge by some fabulous lecturers from the Zoology department.
I had enjoyed both science and arts subjects at school, but reckoned I was better at science, and for a time I thought I would become a doctor so chose my school subjects accordingly. When applying for university, taking the decision to study biology with no clear career goal in mind was scary at the time, but worked out for the best.
I really got to understand how wide-ranging and interesting biology could be at university. I quickly became captivated by anything to do with animals and took modules in subjects like psychology, neurobiology and animal behavior.
This led onto studying for a PhD in animal behavior under the supervision of Nicky Clayton and Nathan Emery – investigating intelligence in corvids and how their skills may be similar to those in the great apes.
I loved being in close contact with animals every day – even in the rain or freezing cold! – and the continual advances in the field were inspiring. However I struggled with maintaining a sense of purpose and achievement in my own research, especially when it wasn’t going well, and I found it difficult to keep a sensible work/life balance.
How did you transition from the lab to your current job?
By the end of the third year of my PhD I was looking into options outside of academia. I felt strongly that I wanted to make use of my zoology experience – or at least science or research in a more general sense.
Over the years I had got involved in lots of things outside of my PhD. I was part of my college graduate committee, I tutored undergraduates, and I set up a college research symposium to get experience of running events – all of which I could use as examples of different work experiences for a CV aimed outside of the lab.
My first job came via an email from my PhD supervisor – the journal she was an editor for was recruiting an Editorial Coordinator at the Royal Society. I spent just over a year in this role, managing administrative processes related to manuscript submission and peer review.
An additional responsibility helping support senior manager meetings and away days gave me great exposure within the organization, so when a job in the education team came up I felt confident to go for it.
Bringing my core skills of project and relationship management, plus a clear aptitude for learning new topics – in this case the current science education landscape – I got the job as Assistant Education Manager.
Working in a fantastic team, this position taught me many skills I still use today: how to set project objectives and write a clear brief to commission work; how to run a funding committee made up of influential scientists; and how to run large scale events like getting hundreds of school children to the summer science exhibition.
With experience in two sectors, taking another sideways move was not particularly daunting, especially when I realized I could apply my skills of running committees and working with senior scientists to the position of Research Funding Manager for Cancer Research UK. Two years in I was promoted to my current role of Senior Manager.
How do you spend your day in your job?
My role involves the oversight of a portfolio of ‘population’ research – including studies looking at what causes cancer, how to prevent it, and how to diagnose it earlier. I am responsible for managing the application, review and committee processes that determine what gets funded, and going out to the research community to promote our funding schemes and provide advice on improving the quality of applications.
As a Senior Manager, I have greater responsibility for developing the research portfolio in this area – working with the research community to identify challenges and opportunities in the field, and creating new funding schemes to address these needs, ensuring the charity can meet its strategic goals.
Whilst I no longer use the specific animal behavior expertise from my PhD, understanding the process of research and the pressures within academia help me see things from the researchers’ perspectives.
My broad training in biology allows me to pick up new scientific concepts and terminology quickly, so I can keep track of discussion in committee meetings and advise applicants appropriately.
But only part of what I do in my job I would describe as ‘science’ – it’s also management in its various forms. Each day is different but a typical week might include: meeting with the team of research and operations staff that work on my committee to check how we’re doing against schedule, finding more peer reviewers for some of the trickier applications in the current round; answering a query from a junior researcher about which of our fellowship schemes he should apply to; writing a paper for our senior board about a new early diagnosis initiative we want to set up – making the strategic case and providing all the costs; preparing a presentation to give at a conference in behavioral medicine, promoting our funding schemes; visiting a researcher at her university base to discuss how her work might fit within the charity’s remit.
One of my recent exciting experiences was to spend a week at the National Cancer Institute in the US, learning more about what they do in behavioral research, and making connections that have genuinely resulted in greater collaboration.
I’ve learned that what is important for me is to work for an organization I can feel proud of, with values I can share, and for a role where my skills and experience are being used. I think it’s likely that I will continue to want to work in the not-for-profit science or health sector – but I couldn’t tell you exactly what job I might be doing in 5 years’ time!
After almost four years in research funding, I am about to take a new job within CRUK as a Senior Research Information Manager. This role is based in a team that works with our fundraising departments to find science stories that will inspire our supporters, translating the research we fund into content for our fundraisers to use.
I’ll be bringing my understanding of cancer research, together with some of the communications skills I developed as an education manager and my experience of line managing staff – and I’m looking forward to the new challenge of getting under the skin of fundraising!
Any advice for others?
I really recommend getting involved in other activities alongside your PhD if you think you might want to move away from academia. It will help you explore what you enjoy – is it running events? Science writing? Managing a team of other people?
And it will give you an edge when you’re aiming for that first job away from the bench, where you may be competing with people who don’t have a PhD but have a few years of office experience instead.
Dana graduated with a MS in Microbiology from New York University before joining BMC in 2014, where she manages the infectious diseases portfolio.