Equality and inclusion

Staff and student stories

Jane Nixon - Deputy Director of the Leeds Institute Clinical Trials Research

Professor of Tissue Viability and Clinical Trials Research
Deputy Director of the Leeds Institute Clinical Trials Research (LICTR)

My early research career developed alongside a demanding full-time NHS-based Senior Nurse role, at a time where there was no clear career structure for clinical academic nursing. In my early research career, I was supported by the visionary Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, Chief Nurse and the Director of Research and Development and was fortunate that the Director of LICTR had agreed to broaden the remit of the Clinical Trials Unit. I was the first Chief Investigator to work with the Director of LICTR to secure funding for a non-cancer multi-centre clinical trial. This was pivotal in my ongoing research career in terms of understanding the need for team science in the design and delivery of high quality and innovative clinical research

When appointed as Deputy Director of LICTR, much of my 20 year NHS experience, whilst essential for my role as Deputy Director, was not relevant to the progression requirements of the University. Whilst I had a strong research CV there were a number of gaps which needed addressing. I was supported informally through mentorship from senior academic colleagues; this was important. Critical, however, was the formal mentorship by the LICTR Director. A particular challenge was balancing my development and role as a clinical trials methodologist (working in a number of other topic areas with NHS based clinicians) and the development of a programme of applied health research in my own topic area of pressure ulcer prevention. There had been a clear understanding of the 'value' of all aspects of my role and its contribution to my personal goals, which I achieved within a relatively rapid time period. My work required careful planning, as I had family commitments as a single parent to accommodate.

The LICTR Director supported me through increasing and decreasing my hours flexibly to reflect these working demands and family commitments, with a combination of office/home/long day/short day working. It was the culture of the School, allowing flexibility, which enabled me to develop and progress in my role.

Against this background I gained a promotional Chair in just 8 years post-doc, and made significant contributions to clinical trials research nationally and the development of LICTR portfolios of work in stroke, cardiovascular, mental health and skin.

In the tissue viability field I have had eleven successful grant awards, spanning NHS and University careers, including 12 as Chief Investigator, including the award of a National Institute for Health (NIHR) 5-year Programme Grant of £1.99 million in 2008 and NIHR HTA PRESSURE 2 trial of £1.8 million in 2013. The level of research funding is unprecedented in the PU field in the UK and Europe, and the work I have done is internationally excellent and recognised both in the PU field and also for methodological contribution. Strategic development has enabled me to build a sustainable coherent thematic portfolio of research, under five main areas including i) clinical trials, ii) pressure ulcer risk factors and risk assessment, iii) pressure ulcer outcome measurement, iv) pressure ulcer quality of life and v) wound healing.

Lucy Stead - University Academic Fellow

University of Leeds University Academic Fellow
Translational Neuro-oncology, Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology (LICAP)

I am an early career researcher working in Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology. After completing my first postdoc I was keen to transition to independence but was armed only with my research idea and none of the preliminary data needed to prove that it, and I, were worthy of large-scale independent funding. I thus applied, and was awarded, a Junior Investigator Development Fellowship co-funded by the University of Leeds and Wellcome Trust, via their Institutional Strategic Support Funding stream.

The award was equivalent to two years’ salary and £20,000 per annum for research support. This was sufficient to enable me to start testing my idea and gave me sufficient leeway to apply for three pilot funding grants, all of which was awarded (equating to circa £95k), and paid for 2 members of staff for 6 months each. During this time I fell pregnant and took 6 months maternity leave.

Despite it not being within my contract, the University applied to the Wellcome Trust and was granted a no cost extension for my contract, giving me more time to accrue preliminary data and show the feasibility and potential impact of my research.

I have since been awarded a further 2 year extension, funded solely by the University of Leeds, to enable me to create an even stronger external fellowship application using the data I am currently acquiring and analysing thanks to my pilot grant awards.

Lynn McKeown - University Academic Fellow

University Academic Fellow
Cardiovascular & Diabetes Research, Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular & Metabolic Medicine (LICAMM)

My interest in science only came about after having a family. I had a child who was hyperactive and a premature baby who needed a special diet. It wasn’t the diet itself that interested me but how the food and medicines that we take every day affect our bodies. I didn’t know anything about human biology because when I was at school women were not particularly encouraged to do science. So, when the children finally went to school, I undertook an access to science college course based on biochemistry and genetics and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I was told not to apply for a BSc. degree at the University of Manchester because mature students from access courses hadn’t previously been accepted. I applied anyway, was accepted and achieved a 2.1 (Hons) in biomedical sciences and went on to do a PhD in cell biology. I chose this degree because it wasn’t restricted to a single speciality, so as well as covering topics that I was interested in, including pharmacology, biochemistry, molecular biology, neurobiology and cell biology, I recognized that this would give me the chance to apply for a wider range of research positions in the future. Undertaking a degree and PhD with a growing family is difficult and you need to have a good support network, but having selected a career path I was interested in rather than falling into it meant this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Science is like one big continuous puzzle and we are trying to solve just a little piece. Research is both exciting and challenging, but as a career choice it is actually very competitive, so you need to be dedicated and enthusiastic. Most importantly, you need to choose the right place for you and your research. Presently I am an academic fellow in the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine at the University of Leeds. I am a cell biologist and I study how endothelial cells (specialised cells that line the blood vessels) maintain vascular health, focusing on molecular pathways that control blood clotting and inflammation. Hopefully one day we will be able to manipulate these cells in order to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease. Here, at the University of Leeds I am supported by a coach and a mentor as well as the Institute as a whole and this means that I get the best possible advice regarding my future progress.

I have been a scientific researcher for 11 years now and I didn’t even know what a gene was when I started. I would advise anyone with a passion for something to go for it at any age. Most people don’t know what they want to do in their teens and sometimes it takes a little life experience to show us the way.

Pam Jones - Professor of Biomedical Research (LIBACS)

I moved to Leeds at the end of 1996 and shortly after, obtained a University-funded tenure-track fellowship. At that time I was a single parent with a 4 year old. The flexibility of working within the research environment enabled me to successfully juggle the challenges of work, a child, school and a house. I had an informal `flexible working` arrangement, allowing me to occasionally attend primary school harvest festivals, nativity plays and the dreaded sports days. This was offset by doing work later in the evenings, which not only made full-time work feasible but provided the opportunity of doing ‘mum’ things too.

I could not afford to work part-time, so the degree of flexibility in my working life was invaluable. Indeed, many a student essay has been marked while sitting at the poolside through a junior training session or swimming gala!

One of my workplace values is that we all play our part as ‘citizens’ of the University. In this vein, I volunteered to take on the administrative role of postgraduate research tutor (PGRT) in the then Molecular Medicine Unit which later became Leeds Institute for Molecular Medicine. The Institute accounted for approximately 10% of the University’s registered research students. It was acknowledged that can be difficult to find volunteers for the PGRT role, however, it was pivotal to where my career then turned. In the 5 years performing in the role, I dealt with a range of challenging and tricky situations involving both students and supervisors. Two things resulted from this. Firstly, I realised I was capable of making a difference by finding acceptable resolutions to issues; and secondly, others realised that about me as well. As a result, I gained a good reputation outside my immediate working environment. The PGRT role afforded me that exposure to the broader Faculty and parts of the University.

My reputation coupled with my interdisciplinary research interest put me on the radar for the Deputy Director post in the Biomedical & Health Research Centre (BHRC). Fortuitously, this was at exactly the right time; my son was then in his mid-teens and I was ready to focus more on my career. For a while I had been wondering about other jobs, however, as the sole breadwinner with a mortgage, I didn’t feel brave enough to leave the safety net of a University position and hadn`t wanted to pursue external opportunities. I was unsure I could deliver research at the highest level again which I found (and still find) frustrating, but more importantly, I started to realise I had a range of skills that were applicable outside the immediate research focus. The BHRC post was offered to me as a secondment that meant I could try something new and challenging without losing the security of my position.

It’s fair to say I haven’t looked back.

I then accepted the opportunity for a more central role in Leeds Institute for Molecular Medicine and led on much of the planning work when it was under `Review’, which led to the formation of four smaller Institutes. As a direct result of that, I was asked to lead a review of the research infrastructure in the School. I gained more exposure at Faculty level, working with the then ProDean, and a central group looking at similar issues across the University. During this time I obtained my Chair, which remains the one achievement that continues to make me smile!

As I was already a member of the Faculty Research & Innovation, Faculty Executive and School Executive Committees I had effective networks and good exposure, and when the Faculty ProDean post became vacant in August 2014, I was well placed to apply, and was successful.

Looking back, the key areas which the University has provided me to support my career have been:

  • the flexibility – albeit informal – around working hours which helped enormously with the eternal juggle of caring and working
  • having `citizenship` roles which enable reputations to be built beyond the immediate working environment.
  • the opportunity of University secondments
  • the environment where individuals are supported to recognise and act on opportunities when they arise

Do I have any regrets?
Yes. I love delivering science at the highest level and part of me will always hanker for doing more of that. But I also enjoy leadership especially in an academic environment where my research background helps others deliver their research. I don’t regret for one minute stepping out for a few years to be a mum, but I am delighted that it was not the end of my career; onwards and upwards is still possible!

Advice for others following in similar career path?
Don’t assume you’ll never get any further because you spend too much time focused on family and away from work!

Kerrie Davies - Visiting Research Fellow (LIBACS)

Visiting Research Fellow Leeds Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences

I am a mature, part-time PhD student and visiting research fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds. I was already mum to one young child when I started my studies and took a suspension of studies to have a second child during my 3rd year of study. The university was extremely supportive of this decision and made the transition to both stop and resume my studies very easy. I do not believe that a career should be restricted by the decision to have a family, and my time at the University of Leeds has proved that with the right support, you can have both.

Erica Di Martino, Research Fellow (LICAP)

I have worked as a research fellow for the University of Leeds since completing my PhD in 2005. My first position was a 3-year fix term contract, which was then extended twice of one year each. During the second extension, I became pregnant and went in maternity leave for 9 months, which coincided with the end of my contract.

Whilst I was in maternity leave I submitted a grant application to a UK charity to obtain financial support for a follow-up project, which was highly rated but unfortunately was unfunded. However, the University offered some bridging funds to allow me to come back to work on a part-time basis for 3 months in order to finish writing a scientific paper and give me the chance to resubmit my application for funding. During this time my line manager was awarded a pilot grant for a project related to mine, and I moved to work full time on that project for a year.

Meanwhile, my grant resubmission was accepted and I was awarded a 3-year research grant worth around £200,000 and covering consumables and salary for myself for 3 years. I was able to negotiate with the University and the funding body a reduction from 5 to 4 working days a week, which gave me the perfect life-work balance. 

I subsequently fell pregnant with my second child and took a full year maternity leave. When I came back last January, I was able to negotiate a no-cost extension of about 6 months to compensate for some of the time I had spent in maternity leave. I am now at a stage in my life and my career when I feel ready to move towards establishing my own research group. However, as a mother of two small children I felt frustrated with the fact that my carer responsibilities stopped me from been able to invest the extra hours that this requires.

Luckily, the University has stepped in and supported me with an Academic Development Funding Award of £15,000 to cover the salary of a part-time research technician to help with the laboratory work. This will allow me to focus my efforts on the writing of the manuscripts, submission of grant applications and networking which are paramount to make myself visible in a very competitive research environment.

Overall, I feel that the University is a supportive environment for people with carer responsibilities. The option of working part-time allows me to do a job that I am passionate about but still spend enough time with my family. The flexibility in working hours means that I can drop my daughter at school in the morning and compensate by working later in the evening. The option of taking a full year maternity leave and to negotiate a no-cost extension of my contract allowed me to spend the first precious 12 months with my son without sacrificing my career.

The five days of paid carer leave were very helpful when my daughter had to be admitted to hospital three times because of her asthma. Life as a working mother is undoubtedly a juggling act, but with help and support it is possible to find the right balance.