Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
Julian Huppert is a Liberal Democrat politician in the United Kingdom and has been a Member of Parliament for Cambridge since 2010. He studied at Cambridge University, completing a BA and then a PhD in Biological Chemistry at Trinity College. He was elected a Junior Research Fellow of Trinity in 2004 and became a fellow of Clare College in 2009. He is also a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (MRSC) and the Institute of Physics (MInstP).
Member of Parliament for Cambridge
What is your scientific background?
I have a PhD in Chemistry from Trinity College, Cambridge and my field of research was using biophysical and bioinformatic tools to understand unusual structures of DNA – in particular four-stranded G-quadruplex structures, which we have implicated in gene regulation. This work took me from the Chemistry Department to the Cavendish (Physics) Laboratory and the ‘Physics of Medicine’ programme, via the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
What is your current job?
I am the Member of Parliament for Cambridge. My working week starts on Monday morning and ends, well, often the next Monday morning! I try to keep Sundays free so that I can spend time with my girlfriend and catch up on e-mails and reading – but I’m not very good at stopping. My daily work routine depends on whether I am in Westminster – from Monday to Thursday – or in my constituency on a Monday morning, Friday and Saturday.
A day in London may start with attending a committee hearing. I sit on the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, among other committees, which reports on the work of the Home Office and covers areas such as immigration and policing – we were very prominent in phone hacking and riots. At present we are holding an inquiry into the government’s drugs policy – I’m a firm believer that this area in particular would benefit from evidence-based policy making!
“I have found my background as a scientist extremely useful in my parliamentary work where I have lobbied for and achieved more money for science in the budget…”
Meetings and committee work continue into the afternoon and, when the House is sitting, I will try to get into the debating chamber to ask questions and contribute to the debates, which conclude with votes at around 10pm. I have found my background as a scientist extremely useful in my parliamentary work where I have lobbied for and achieved more money for science in the budget and fought for changes to the libel laws to allow scientists to publish their findings without fear of court action for defamation.
Monday mornings, Fridays and Saturdays are spent working in Cambridge. I might be visiting schools, companies or organisations in the city or attending regular surgeries. A great deal of this time is spent in the office attending to casework from constituents on a wide variety of matters including tax, housing and immigration. My team and I deal with many thousands of letters a year.
And throughout the week there are meetings with journalists and media interviews with the national and local press, radio and television. My work involves long hours and a great deal of travelling and it can be difficult to strike a work/life balance which is why I try to keep Sundays free.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
I have been interested in politics since I was 13 – initially, in international affairs and human rights. While at university, I ran a student campaign for the general election and for eight years I represented Cambridge as a county councillor and leader of the Lib Dem group. I was elected to the Cambridge Parliamentary seat in 2010. It was a deliberate choice – though also rather serendipitous – and being MP for Cambridge is a fantastic job in a wonderful city. So far I’m enjoying it – mostly.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“…political careers are notoriously hard to plan.”
This is hard to see – political careers are notoriously hard to plan. I’m planning to stand again at the next election, and what happens will be up to the electorate – I hope I’ll be able to keep doing the work I’ve been doing in so many areas!
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
“We need more people with a scientific background in Parliament; there are very few MPs who have any sound scientific knowledge.”
We need more people with a scientific background in Parliament; there are very few MPs who have any sound scientific knowledge. I would encourage other scientists considering a political career to do so. Formulating policy based on hard scientific evidence rather than just on gut beliefs is how it should be done.