Hi everyone! I’m Sam Moxon and I will be writing a monthly blog here on the Dementia Researcher website. I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester and I specialise in using techniques like 3D bioprinting to try and engineer better models of the human brain. I will be writing about recent breakthroughs, my experiences at the front line of research and be handing out advice where needed. I hope you enjoy my contributions!
In March, we received an update via our departmental email chain. The message was very simple; full lockdown, everyone must go home. What followed was a mad scramble to pack everything down before the university closed. Reagents had to be safely disposed of, experiments had to be stopped and cells had to be quickly extracted and frozen. We were able to preserve some of our work, but some researchers lost up to 6 months’ worth of experiments in just 4 hours. This was a crisis like none seen by our institute and the university had to respond quickly and definitively. At the time we assumed this would last a few weeks, maybe a month, but it would turn out to be 4 months before any of us were able to step back into the lab.
A week later, the rest of the country followed suit as we all entered a full national lockdown. Many industries froze to a halt and the jobs market shrunk rapidly. In particular, universities across the country froze all non-essential recruitment as they navigated the uncertainties of how this pandemic would impact student intake for the coming academic year. It quickly became the worst possible time to need to find a job and it just so happened to be exactly what I needed to do.
The pandemic really exposed how fragile the academic job market can be. The majority of researchers who are actively working in labs across the country are committed to temporary contracts of between 1 and 4 years and, at the end of these contracts, they have to go out and seek the next one. This process is often heavily reliant on charitable funding bodies like Alzheimer’s Research UK and Cancer Research UK (to name a few) to provide us with the capital we need to fund our work and sustain our families. This situation has to be navigated by researchers for the majority of their early career and job security only really arrives when they are at a stage where they can apply for permanent, tenured positions.
In a normal year, an average job search will return multiple viable options for a researcher when they are looking for that next position. This year, however, browsing the job market felt a bit like trying to find a toilet roll at Costco in mid-March. Charities had to respond to the uncertainty and loss of income just like any other organisation and, unfortunately, this led to either a delay or even a complete retraction of funding opportunities. Less funding subsequently led to fewer research projects being funded. As a result, many researchers whose contracts have expired this year are still desperately searching for that next position. The job market still hasn’t recovered and, unless you are the “right type” of scientist (i.e. you know enough about viruses to research Covid), suitable positions are rare and extremely competitive, as are funding opportunities.
This is undoubtedly going to have a significant effect on the wider scientific community. Resources are mostly focussed on one thing at the moment. It is understandable but it does not negate the fact that fields like dementia research are now trying to push forward with less funding and, resultantly, fewer gifted and dedicated scientists than we likely had this time last year. It is quite a daunting thought but it is important now, more than ever, to try and spin this into a positive.
The one thing we have seen this year is just how much the scientific community can achieve when it comes together in a global effort. The virus hit us hard in spring but now, a mere 8 months later, we are presented with multiple promising vaccines and a wealth of information about SARS-CoV-2. In addition to that, a healthy student intake has massively opened up the job market again. Many of the researchers who were struggling to find a new role could find themselves back in the lab in the not too distant future. This year is undoubtedly going to push back progress in fields like dementia research to some extent but I am hopeful that the strength of our scientific community will be enough to minimise our efforts to beat the diseases that cause dementia. It is going to be tougher and more competitive than before to conduct our research but I am confident we will recover. There are enough talented and dedicated scientists out there to make a real difference. We must now focus on doing our utmost to give them the opportunity to bring their talents and insight back into our labs.
Dr Sam Moxon is a biomaterials scientist, and his expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to improve on culture techniques for human stem cells, so that we can gain a better understanding of how diseases like Alzheimer’s manifest. His work at The University of Manchester looks at 3D bioprinting with stem cells. Outside of the labhe hikes through the Lake District and is an exert on all things Disney.
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