Finding information on academic career breaks is tough, given there is scant information on the real and perceived impacts of taking a break. The exception is perhaps maternity leave which is relatively well recorded. But career breaks come in all shapes and sizes, including for reasons of ill health.
Here Patrizia Rossi tells us about her interview with Dr Julia Hubbard who is returning to science after a three-year break from research due to ill health, and shared her experiences with us. Read on to hear about Julia’s long-awaited return to science, being a scientist with disabilities and her Daphne Jackson Fellowship.
Julia was a senior research scientist at a major pharmaceutical company when she became ill. She always hoped she would be able to return to the lab one day, a job she loved. However, the severity of her condition meant that she had to take some time off and for 18 months, Julia was too ill to work.
“I thought this was going to be the end of my scientific career, but getting back into science wasn’t initially the biggest challenge, it was finding a diagnosis and therapy. There were times when I was sleeping up to 20 hours a day, my eyesight was blurred and I couldn’t hold a mug because my joints were too painful.”
Throughout this time, she did what she could to keep up to date with the latest scientific research by reading scientific literature and through peer review for the Biotechnology& Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), ranking grant proposals.
Julia’s recovery was a long process and it took six months to build up her working week from two hours to three days. When Julia finally did go back, she didn’t return to work in research. However, as she recovered she became determined to return: “I wanted to get back into research as I missed it so much.”
Staying in touch
Once Julia had made the decision to return to science, she began networking and contacting previous collaborators. She also explored funding options. “I looked at quite a few places that seemed supportive and enthusiastic.”
A former colleague told her about the Wellcome Trust’s Research Fellowships, leading Julia to find out about the Daphne Jackson Fellowships and making an application. With the support of her fellowship advisor, Helen Marsh at the Trust, Julia wrote a project that she could manage with her disabilities; using her previous skills and knowledge as well as incorporating areas of her work that could be developed. She was determined, yet still had many of moments of self-doubt.
“The application process is nine months long and I was on tenterhooks throughout. I kept asking myself: After this time, can I write a research project? Is what I am proposing to do timely?”
Her project proposal was to work on an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which is a potential drug target for Type 2 Diabetes and cancer. The Trust was enthusiastic about her proposal, and they identified sources of funding for her. As a consequence her fellowship is now jointly funded by the MRC and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The Francis Crick Institute is her host, she started in April 2016 and loves it.
“The support I’ve had from the Francis Crick Institute has been outstanding, ranging from my manager arranging for me to have a laptop and access to the library as a visiting scientist, so that I had the necessary support to write the proposal initially, to a number of reasonable adjustments to help me work with my disabilities – everything from software on my laptop to help with my dyslexia, to a new type of ergonomic lab chair so I can now work in the laboratories”. I believe the Francis Crick Institute is really at the forefront of helping someone like myself with disabilities continue to contribute to scientific research. This is critical for increasing diversity and equality in science, which is a major goal of the Daphne Jackson Trust.”
“Since I became disabled, I’ve had some really supportive conversations, as well as some challenging ones. The funding for this fellowship is by its nature part-time and it is not possible to find full-time positions. The perception of some has been that research cannot be done successfully part-time”. Difficulties returning to research are not over yet – this is still a temporary short term position and there is a long uphill process to navigate. Thankfully, I have huge support from my family and colleagues, both past and present.”
Julia takes a positive approach to the unique position she finds herself in: “For me, it’s about trying to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do, and then finding ways to navigate creatively around the latter.”
Nonetheless, she believes that more could be done for scientists with disabilities, such as making labs more accessible, providing assistance in the lab, and potentially different types of funding schemes that make career development more possible for scientists with disabilities. “We still are some way from supporting effectively this underrepresented part of society. Something like the Athena Swan Charter could happen for disability. There is in my opinion a real need for an equivalent scheme to help increase awareness and provide opportunity as everyone’s disability is different for them.”
Julia’s project moves into the new Francis Crick Institute building in the next few months, where, in addition to her research, she will be setting out to prove that it’s possible to contribute as a scientist who has disabilities. She is also very keen to help others overcome the challenges she has faced.
Note from editor: piirus.ac.uk carried out a survey on academic career breaks earlier in the year, along with our partners jobs.ac.uk and Research media. You can download the report of initial findings from our survey on academic career breaks from the jobs.ac.uk webpage.