Introducing Esther Cooke, one of the winners of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition
Esther Cooke is a 4th year PhD student at the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Leeds. Her research interests include molecular mechanisms of haemostasis and thrombosis. Outside of work, Esther engages in various outdoor pursuits such as walking and climbing. She also enjoys music, spending time with friends, and is actively involved with her local church. With a keen interest in writing, Esther aims to start her own blog in the near future.
There can be a real sense of excitement in science from actively making new discoveries. Despite some apparent drawbacks – most notably job instability, salary and work/life balance – the majority of scientists claim to be content with their research, according to the Naturejobs career survey from 2010. Interestingly, guidance and mentoring from senior staff were deemed the strongest contributors to satisfaction score, followed by salary and independence.
Dwelling on my experience as a PhD student, studying cardiovascular medicine at the University of Leeds, there is one aspect that I believe epitomises the ideal working environment for scientific researchers: teamwork.
Many of us enter research with an unadulterated purpose of advancing our field of interest – a purpose which is easily distorted within such highly competitive frameworks. Motivation to combat heart disease or unveil the mysteries of the universe soon contest with a mounting pressure to advance your personal career, group or institution. We observe the bottleneck of PhD students and postdocs journeying to that prized permanent position. We bear the heavy branch of the postdoc job description – scribed in invisible ink, yet bounding so apparently from the page – which dictates that from Day One we must start planning for our next position. Not to mention the exigent targets laid out by our superiors. Whether through tight-lipped conduct or strict adherence to the “publish or perish” motto, our altruistic intentions can be faced with inadvertent corruption by a gravity of egocentrism. We rival with that group in America, that group at the other end of the corridor, that person sitting right beside us. Does this self-seeking approach antagonise the progression of valuable research? To what extent does it really benefit the individual?
Within the realms of modern-day science, where communication is fluent and facile, the greatest merits are born out of extensive collaboration and earnest co-operation. In industry, this is a more natural approach as scientists join forces primarily to promote the output of the company rather than the individual, although inter-establishment competition still exists. Of course we ought to be prudent in dealing with competition, but we should be careful not to compromise valuable outcomes in doing so. We need to safeguard ourselves, but also the greater purpose; there is a delicate balance here that scientists should strive to attain. On occasions it may pay off to take a risk; in some instances we may need to break down barriers, (re-)establishing connections and trust with our peers. The resulting participation should be mutual, but the initiative is single-origin. Wait, or initiate.
In academia or industry we should construct camaraderie with our immediate peers in order to feel comfortable sputtering crazy ideas, voicing concerns, extending practical criticisms and suggestions, admitting uncertainties or difficulties, and blurting out those (not so) stupid questions. These informal relations engender optimal learning, support and development of novel ideas. Discernment of individual strengths and weaknesses also enables effective interplay, a yin and yang. We should endeavour to help others without a clause claiming something in return; generosity itself triggers positive feedback. As the saying goes, “the strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each member is the team”; this rings equally true for the inexperienced PhD student and the acclaimed professor.
Teamwork is multipotent, flourishing on every level: the individual, the group, the objective. It makes ‘scence’ to remove the ‘I’ from science.