Career returning – getting to the root of it

By Helen Thompson, Daphne Jackson Fellow, Durham University

helen-thompson-2A friend and ex-lab mate has just started volunteering in a lab to update her CV and commented to me “it’s like coming home isn’t it?”, I couldn’t agree more.  With my borrowed lab coat on, agar media bottle rattling on the plate in the microwave while it melts and the hum of the flow hood in the background, after 12 years away from the lab it really does feel like a homecoming.  I’m very grateful for my former career, as a secondary school teacher which provided me with a stable income and let me raise my son but it just wasn’t the bee’s knees for me. So now that my son towers above me the Biochemical Society and Daphne Jackson Trust have sponsored me to return to plant biology research at Durham University Department of Biosciences working in Professor Keith Lindsey’s group.  I would never have believed 3 years ago, that today I would be researching how plant root genes interact to make them grow by using a supercomputer, but I am and its fascinating.


Arabidopsis seedlings after 7 days growth. The 4 plants in the centre of the image are mutants who are unable to produce a healthy root system. I am using these to help understand the processes needed for normal root growth.

So if I were to offer any pearls of wisdom to anyone else considering returning to research and to senior leaders to think about how they could encourage scientists back to research these would be my top five tips:

  1. Look at the resources and advice available on the Royal Society for Biology website. There is a lot of good advice and sources of funding listed here, a great place to start.
  2. Use social media and find an informal mentor through LinkedIn, for example, who may have just returned to science. I did and over a cup of coffee Stefanie pointed me in the right direction and she was a great help though the process of applying for a fellowship with the Daphne Jackson Trust. Former colleagues may also be able to help and offer support, so do keep in touch with them. Institutions could perhaps offer career workshops for anyone interested in returning?
  3. Ask your nearest institute or university if you could have access to their library resources, invaluable if you are trying to put together a proposal and get back up to speed again. Perhaps Universities could offer this support to career returners in their area just like Durham University did for me? You can also access a large range of academic articles through your public library via the Access to Research initiative.
  4. When trying to find a host lab hold your nerve and choose wisely. Ask lots of tactful questions about who would supervise you in the early days. Are they accessible or always off teaching or even in a different institute? Time is short and you need to be able to make the most of it as effectively as possible. I feel very fortunate to have so much patient support around me.
  5. Once you start your fellowship make sure you speak to everyone you can about their research and tell them what you are doing and don’t miss opportunities to present your work. I spoke at a conference recently after just 4 months in the lab. It was utterly terrifying but I gained so much from talking to the other participants afterwards who are working on similar projects so it was well worth the sleepless nights beforehand.

So now that I’m home I hope I can carry on in my borrowed lab coat and pass my experience forward to someone else who wants to put down their roots in research too.

The Daphne Jackson Trust is a UK based organisation dedicated to realising the potential of scientists and engineers returning to research following a career break. Daphne Jackson Fellowships offer STEM professionals wishing to return to research after a break of 2 or more years, the opportunity to balance an individually tailored retraining programme with a challenging research project in a suitably supportive environment.




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