Working life: International Director at PraxisUnico Dr Nessa Carey
On International Women’s Day we explore the working life of Dr Nessa Carey, International Director at PraxisUnico, Visiting Professor at Imperial College and an author. She shares her multi-career path, tips for success and the importance of saying ‘yes’ to new opportunities.
Career in brief
- Five years in the Metropolitan Police Forensic Laboratory
- Part-time BSc in Immunology
- PhD in Virology, University of Edinburgh
- Postdoc in Human Genetics, Charing Cross and Westminster Hospital Medical School
- Lectureship and Senior Lectureship in Molecular Biology, Imperial College London
- 13 years in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry
I think of myself of someone who has had a lot of careers in science, rather than one scientific career. I dropped out of a veterinary medicine degree to become a forensic scientist, during which time I studied part time for my immunology degree. I then left forensic science to study full-time for a PhD in Virology.
I did a postdoc in human genetics and then a lectureship and senior lectureship in molecular biology. I left academia to join a biotech company. Three senior jobs in biotech later, I joined Pfizer.
After three years there I became International Director at PraxisUnico, the first time in nearly 30 years in which I stopped being a full-time scientist. PraxisUnico is the UK’s leading organisation for technology transfer professionals.
I am currently developing, delivering and marketing international training courses to provide people with the skills they need to drive commercial and social impact from academic science. I am a visiting professor at Imperial College and the author of two ‘popular science’ books: The Epigenetics Revolution and Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome.
I have lots of highlights from different stages of my career. These range from working on high level murder cases, to taking highly academic research and turning it into a drug discovery programme partnered with a major pharmaceutical company. Another is seeing one of my PhD students go on to a successful postdoc position in the lab of Francis Collins, the Director of the US National Institutes of Health.
I also enjoyed creating a BSc course for medical students, and writing a book that has given me the opportunity to spread the word about how fascinating biology can be. Another highlight was being appointed onto an MRC grant panel – I finally felt respectable!
I think academia still has a long way to go in terms of supporting staff and seeing them as assets. There are exceptions in every sector of course, but generally I have felt far more supported and valued in industry. I was better at teaching than I was at research, at a time when teaching was undervalued.
I like the overall shape my career has taken. Looking back, I would have tried to find mentors, or an extended peer group. I perhaps should have moved to industry a bit sooner, but making that decision was quite an emotional one, because you’re not supposed to give up the Holy Grail of a permanent academic post!
I am not the world’s best scientist, but what I am very good at is recognising what can be developed from great science, and getting that done. People pay a huge amount of money to support research, whether that’s through taxes or charitable donations. We have a responsibility to create the maximum benefit for society from that money, and also to find ways of communicating what we do.
Work out what is really important for you and follow that. If you do something you enjoy, you are far more likely to succeed at it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only an academic career really counts. There is an amazing range of fascinating and fulfilling jobs out there, think of these first, not as fall back options.
There are many good scientists around but not many with other skills, such as leadership, flexibility, good communication, management, teamwork and a focus on deadlines. Develop these skills and prepare for lots of careers. Think in terms of a T-shape – having specific expertise in one field but with capabilities in other areas as well. When opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to be in the shower…
Talk to people from as many environments as you can. If someone asks you to do something new – teach, tutor, supervise, liaise – say yes! Don’t be a perpetual postdoc; when you are thinking about your next job, instead think about the new skills you will have by the end of it, and preferably non-lab skills. Knowing stuff is easy, it’s being able to do things that counts, especially the transferable skills.
Read more at: www.nessacarey.co.uk