Podcasts

Podcast – Things I wish I had known sooner

Hosted by Amy Monaghan

Reading Time: 22 minutes

Hindsight suffuses our working life, perhaps none more so than in research. Being as it is a process of discovery and learning of things we didn’t know. As such in many ways there will always be things we wish we’d known earlier.  Today we would like to discuss whether the investigative process brings with it complexities and uncertainties that are universal, and can therefore be shared with others as a means to avoid similar pitfalls – as our panel explore ‘Things they wish they had known sooner’.

In the chair we have Dr Amy Monaghan from the Alzheimer’s Research Drug Discovery Unit at University College London. Amy is joined by Dr Deborah Oliviera from the University of Nottingham, Hanna Isotalus from University of Bristol and Dr Mark Dallas a Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience at the University of Reading.


Click here to read a full transcript of this podcast

Voice Over:

Welcome to the Dementia Researcher Podcast, brought to you by DementiaResearcher.nihr.ac.uk, a network for early career researchers.

Amy Monaghan:

Hello, my name is Amy Monaghan, and welcome to another podcast recording for the NIHR Dementia Researcher website. This week we’ll be looking at things I wish I had known sooner, and I think that’s a very hot topic among early and mid-career researchers. And we’ve got three great panellists in today. Coming back for a second recording are Deborah and Hanna, and we’ve also got Mark with us today. So Mark, if you’d like to introduce yourself and say a few words about what you do.

Mark Dallas:

Yes. Hello, everyone, I’m Dr Mark Dallas. I’m a lecturer in cellular molecular neuroscience at the University of Redding, and that involves me teaching and also active dementia researcher.

Amy Monaghan:

And Deborah, welcome back. If you’d like to say a few words about what you do.

Deborah Oliveira:

Yeah. Hello, my name is Deborah Oliveira. I am from Brazil originally. I’m a nurse by background and I came to the UK in 2013 to do my PhD, and now I work as a research fellow at the Institute of Mental Health in the University of Nottingham.

Amy Monaghan:

And Hanna, welcome back to you as well. If you’d like to say a few words about what you are researching.

Hanna Isotalus:

Okay, thank you very much for having me. So my name is Hanna Isotalus and I am doing a PhD at Bristol University within the Remember group, and in my PhD I study whether or not we can use dopamine to enhance different memory processes.

Amy Monaghan:

That’s great. And I am Amy Monaghan, I’m a postdoctoral research associate at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Institute at UCL. It’s my first position in dementia research actually.

Amy Monaghan:

So today we’re going to be talking about things I wish I had known sooner. And we’re going to talk about this in the context of our careers as researchers and as dementia researchers, but also maybe on a personal level, just what should we have done and what advice would we give to other people that are just starting out in dementia research?

Amy Monaghan:

Maybe we’ll start with you, Mark. Looking back at your career… Maybe first actually just tell us a little bit about your career and how you got to where you are now and then we can reflect back.

Mark Dallas:

Yeah, sure. So I started my scientific career at the University of Dundee, then proceeded south to the University of Leeds where I undertook a PhD in neuroscience. And that’s where I started to really get to grips with the brain and things that go right and things that go wrong. Following that, I then was generous enough to, or we accepted funding from dementia charities and that was looking at cellular processes. So our research really starts to understand the mechanisms of disease and that’s how my interest in dementia research started.

Amy Monaghan:

And looking back at that career and the way that it’s gone, do you think you went down the right routes all the time? Was there a particular turning point that you can pinpoint, or was it all plain sailing?

Mark Dallas:

I think it’s science, full stop. Science is never plain sailing. I think it’s about learning your research topic and understanding the research question. And I think one of the major factors in terms of dementia research is growing a collaborative network. So again, it’s not all about us as single researchers trying to tackle what is a global challenge, it’s thinking about how we can actually impact and maybe build up a piece of the jigsaw in to actually help other researchers develop their stories as well.

Amy Monaghan:

And Deborah, you came to the UK to undertake your PhD and now your postdoctoral research as well. So if you can tell us a little bit about that journey and maybe any of the challenges that you’ve had along the way.

Deborah Oliveira:

Right. I’m actually thinking about what I would have done differently if I could start again, and I think I would have gone for a research program that is already established instead of doing my own PhD research project in isolation. I think looking at colleagues next to me that are doing research as part of a team, that are everybody looking at the same kind of phenomenon and research questions, I think you have a lot to gain from that. And sometimes when you’re doing your own research project, you are finding out the answers by yourself and that can be very time consuming and sometimes really isolating. So that’s what I would have done differently.

Amy Monaghan:

And Hanna, I think you were nodding along before when Deborah said that.

Hanna Isotalus:

Yeah. There are multiple of these sort of PhD grants that are used to fund a cohort of PhD students and they might all do separate individual projects with different supervisors and so on, but they have a cohort that is doing a PhD at the same time in a similar topic. And if I had realized when I was applying for PhDs what the difference is between having that cohort doing the same thing compared to doing your individual PhD, I think I would have thought twice about applying for my-

Amy Monaghan:

Can we examine those differences a little bit more? So what did you perceive to be the difference of not being within a cohort?

Hanna Isotalus:

So within my research group, I know of two other PhD students, one who has already finished his PhD, who did the PhDs as a part of one of these cohorts. They had weekly seminars, a lot of interaction with other PhD students. It’s the whole body of support in terms of getting practical sessions on building their skills towards writing a good thesis, and just having those other people who are going through the same thing in the same timeframe, compared to not really having that kind of a structure. So from my perspective, how I was saying it is that they have a lot of support that you don’t get if you’re not a part of one of those programs.

Amy Monaghan:

Yeah. So I think that what that speaks to is really particularly for people considering pursuing a PhD. There are two key things that I think are important, which is one, you have to be super passionate about what you’re about to pursue. And it probably is the same for postdocs, actually. You have to be super passionate because if you’re not, you’re not as likely to see it through because it is hard work and at times it can be quite isolating.

Amy Monaghan:

And then the second one is to look carefully at the program that you’re going to do and the institution that you’re going to do it at. Because different institutions have different support networks in place. They have different emphasis on career development, personal development or pure research as it were. I don’t think it’s always the case that if you don’t, I wasn’t part of a cohort necessarily, but I did start my PhD on the 1st of October with a whole bunch of other PhD students and we naturally formed that support group.

Amy Monaghan:

So I think just being very, very careful, not rushing into it. I’ll speak a little bit more about that later. But doing your research, making sure that it’s what you want to do and making sure that you’re going to be in an environment, as much as you can make sure, because it can be hard moving to a different city or a different country, in fact. As much as you can, be sure that this is what you want to do and where you want to do it and that you’re going to be appropriately supported through it. I think that’s all, covered everything there.

Amy Monaghan:

So that’s the key thing that you wish you’d known starting your PhD. Is there something positive from your PhD that you wish you’d known at the start that could have really helped to, or that has helped to motivate you through?

Deborah Oliveira:

What do you mean something that I-

Amy Monaghan:

What have you really enjoyed from your PhD that maybe you didn’t anticipate?

Deborah Oliveira:

I didn’t expect that I would have such a good relationship with my supervisors. I think that was absolutely necessary for me to be able to do my PhD abroad and in less than three years, really. So they were really encouraging and really trying to get the best out of me and my best potential and always supportive. And not only for the PhD, but for everything else that I needed really. Because life happens. Believe it or not, life happens parallel to PhD. So any problems you may have, your supervisors are always there and that’s very good. So I think that was very positive for my PhD.

Amy Monaghan:

Hanna, have you got anything to add to that?

Hanna Isotalus:

Yeah, I think one of the advice that we often hear before people apply for PhDs is that they should make sure they have a chat with their supervisor, if they can get some experience in the lab, meet them a few times to get a sort of feel of what sort of a person you’re going to be working with. I certainly didn’t do that. I met my supervisor for the first time when I had already been accepted for the scholarship. We had spoken on the phone. I did get really lucky in that I get on with three supervisors and we all get along really well and they are all very supportive and I’m extremely lucky to get to work with these people. So that just sort of fell into place. But having seen other people who haven’t been that lucky, that is definitely an advice that I would recommend people follow up, because you don’t want to be just counting on pure luck when you enter something this intensive.

Amy Monaghan:

Definitely. And Mark, we’ll go a little bit further down the career pathway. Scary, I know. So in your experience moving through the levels, your postdoc towards lecturer, what have you learned becoming an independent researcher that that maybe you wouldn’t have anticipated?

Mark Dallas:

I think leading on from what the girls have mentioned is finding someone, in their cases their PhD supervisor, finding a mentor. Finding someone that’s not necessarily within your research field, but can give you pertinent and timely advice that maybe your supervisor or the person running your project is not in a position to do, whether that’s through competitive issues or the pressure’s on them to deliver the research within your particular program, grant, whatever. So I’ve really found that having a mentor outside that area has really helped me carve a path. Because it is a difficult transition going from postdoc one to postdoc two, to should I do another postdoc or should I try and think about making that transition into leadership and running your own independent group?

Amy Monaghan:

Have there been any key pieces of advice that you’ve had along that journey that you think have really been important maybe in the postdoc to potential leader situation that I think a lot of people find themselves in?

Mark Dallas:

I think one of the pieces of advice, looking back, is learning how to sell yourself. Because as scientists we don’t often like to talk about what we do. Although here we are sharing pieces of advice. And that’s part and parcel of making you an independent researcher. Actually people are going to invest in you if they believe in your science and you can explain that. So I think being able to actually communicate that from point of view in terms of selling yourself is key. And that only builds as you go from being someone who is in a research group to then leading that research group. And again, that leads into the communication element again. In terms of dementia research, that’s one of the bigger things now is actually getting out and telling people about your research, whether that be our scientists at research conferences, or whether it might be the lay public.

Deborah Oliveira:

It’s interesting because I’m probably in your past. I’m turning from one postdoc to another postdoc. And one difficulty that I have in this situation is that there are so many things out there and also there is nothing. So it’s very difficult to decide what exactly to do, what is relevant to you at that point in time. Should I be doing this kind of things? Should I go to London to record a podcast? Should I be doing some, I don’t know, supervision with undergrad students? I don’t know. Is this relevant to me right now? Because there are so many opportunities and not everything will be a useful time of your… A useful…

Amy Monaghan:

Use of your time.

Deborah Oliveira:

Yeah. A good use of your time. Exactly.

Amy Monaghan:

Yeah, definitely.

Mark Dallas:

So I think I can come back at that. I think it depends on where you want to go. I think there’s a lot of pressure on PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to continue in academia. I think there’s a lot of pressure on them, and it’s up to them to decide on whether they think that is… And that’s not a failure. Leaving academia is not a failure in any way. There are plenty of opportunities out there, whether that be in industry, whether that be in teaching and other career professions. It’s about finding what fits for you. Hopefully after your postdoctoral possessions you’ve done a two or three, you’ve got an understanding of what it is to be an independent researcher. And again, things like this podcast, and one thing that I did in my PhD was actually demonstrating to undergraduates. So again, getting a little bit of teaching experience, being able to explain some of the signs to that level, again, builds your confidence and you get a feel for what it would be like to be a lecturer.

Amy Monaghan:

I think exploring alternative careers actually, even if you are set hard and fast that I am going to be an academic researcher and that’s what I want to do and that’s what I believe in, sometimes exploring alternative career paths and speaking to people that are in those career paths, because you will in a research environment in your undergraduate and postgraduate and your postdoc, you are surrounded by people who think that the next step in your career is within academia. And actually that might not be the best fit for you. But unless you ask those questions, and you might, on the theme of things you’d wish you’d known sooner, you might find actually that someone has the perfect job for you and you really want to do that, and that’s not within academia. And that’s fine. And you might find it more rewarding in however you find things rewarding.

Amy Monaghan:

So I think that’s a very important thing to do quite early on is to speak to lots of different people and don’t dismiss one career or another just because it’s not what has been preached to you.

Deborah Oliveira:

I think nowadays I think there is a shift now of ideas in relation to that because it used to be I think very much as a failure or something like that. You’re not good enough to be in academia, but actually now you’re being encouraged by, for example, I’m leading, I’m managing a Marie Curie grant and it is about intersectoral interdisciplinary research. And so we’re training researchers to become leaders outside academia and also to make these links because academia in isolation cannot progress without the clinical environment, without the industry, without the people themselves. And so I think I can see that as a helpful tip for myself.

Amy Monaghan:

So I think we’ll change tack a little bit for now, but we’ll come back to the career stuff at the end because I think it is important. We’re going to go into our dementia research. So the question is, what from your research do you wish you’d known sooner? But I think that’s a strange question because I wish I’d known what the answer was before I started doing the research and then I would have saved a lot of time and a lot of money. But if there’s a particular learning from your research, whether that’s about the research itself, whether that’s about how you collaborate with people or with people that are living with dementia, if there’s ways that you could inform your studies better, maybe. Anything around that topic and we’ll see where it goes. They’re all thinking very, very hard. Let’s start with Mark.

Mark Dallas:

Yeah. Well I think my research has maybe taken an interesting path. So my initial studies were looking at hypoxia and trying to understand what the lack of oxygen in one’s brain does to the cells. And that kicked off two areas of research that I’m still progressing today, is thinking about how hypoxia as an initial insult can then influence some prolonged changes in the physiology of the brain that can predispose people to neurodegeneration or dementia. What also interested us at the time is the other cells in the brain. Everyone’s so hung up on the neurons, the nerve cells that die, but what we were actually interested in is the glial cells, the so called glue that holds these cells, the neurons together. And so that’s something we are going on to investigate further with dementia charity research funding.

Amy Monaghan:

And did you foresee that at the beginning? Was it a surprise to you to enter dementia research?

Mark Dallas:

I don’t think I was surprised. I think it was something that the opportunity arose and we took it. And again, I think, going back to things I’d known or things I would have liked to have known when I was doing it is that by actually engaging with some of the charities, we got a chance to speak to carers and patients. Very much myself, I’m an [inaudible 00:00:18:32], I wear a white coat. I don’t go and speak to these people. So putting that perspective on it actually encouraged me to continue my research and get back into the lab and try to understand some of these mechanisms of disease.

Amy Monaghan:

And Hanna, if you’d like to say a few words.

Hanna Isotalus:

This is perhaps a little bit more general than just dementia research, but within health research, I wish in my first year of my PhD when I went to get some guidance and advice from the university’s research governance team and they told me it’s going to take two years to set up a clinical trial and I went to my supervisor and she was like, “No, we can do it quicker.” I wish I could go back in time and tell both myself and my supervisor it’s going to take longer than that. So yeah, take advice when you can take it.

Amy Monaghan:

Deborah’s shaking her head. I think this is the first time this evening that you’ve been lost for words. I actually think that’s the case. So we’ll go off on a bit of a different tack then. Is there anything that you’ve learnt along the way that has helped you develop resilience? I think as researchers we are generally notoriously bad at dealing with failure because we are I think always trying to do better. And the reason a lot of people do research is because they want to improve things for people. So Deborah, maybe you could talk if there’s any strategies or anything.

Deborah Oliveira:

I think the best strategy for me is to talk about it. So the more I talk about it and more share with people, the more I find out actually people-

Amy Monaghan:

It’s not why you’re here, is it?

Deborah Oliveira:

No, really. But I think you just realize that people are living the same, having the same experiences. And sometimes they have very good advice in how to deal with that specific issue because they had faced that before. So for me, talking about it was very helpful. And I don’t know, but I feel like as a postdoc I’m facing much more challenges in my career than I did in my PhD. I think there’s much more uncertainty in terms of career. And you are supposed to be much more independent, and so that makes you more vulnerable somehow as well. So I’m still finding out how to be resilient.

Hanna Isotalus:

I definitely agree with talking about it. So whether it is having people face to face or platforms like Twitter where you can find other people who are in the same situation, people who are maybe more senior to you, who can give you advice. I definitely find that really helpful.

Amy Monaghan:

Building networks.

Deborah Oliveira:

Yeah. And just give yourself some time. I feel like the more I rush through the concerns and the stress that I’m having is worse. So just give yourself some time. Sometimes you just need to give a step back and to be able to give ten forward. So just breathe a little bit and think about the possibilities later.

Amy Monaghan:

And Mark, have you got any tips?

Mark Dallas:

Yeah, I think it’s learning from failure, again. I’m sure in time all scientists will get the rejection letter, whether that be for publications or grants. But it’s having that moment of frustration, dealing with it, and getting on with it, and then actually then going and revisiting that grant and taking that feedback on board and actually developing the application to something that’s better and actually is going to be more fundable in terms of actually continuing that strand of your research. So, I think it’s about learning from failure and not necessarily just getting all consumed by it that it ends up spiralling out of control.

Deborah Oliveira:

But I find it hard in terms of taking on board the criticism and putting it aside a little bit and then revisiting it, is because we have so many, I’m not talking about myself, I have so many friends also doing research in dementia and the contracts are so short. So you don’t really have that time to revisit later. So it was a waste of time because you don’t really have time. I feel like the way the postdocs are set up nowadays is it’s very difficult to have enough head space to move on with things.

Amy Monaghan:

So you would definitely value more security in your contract and contract lens?

Deborah Oliveira:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Amy Monaghan:

Yeah. So I think we’ll move on now. So if you had one piece of advice, and let’s go for career first and then for some budding dementia researcher second. So we’ll start with one piece of advice that you would take from your career and give to someone else. What would be that first piece of advice? Mark?

Mark Dallas:

I would say grab any opportunity that comes. It might not be the opportunity you’re looking for, but it might open new doors too. So for example, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a career in dementia research, but through taking postdoctoral positions, here I am today.

Deborah Oliveira:

We were talking about this earlier, I think not rushing. I think sometimes you feel like it’s being months, but actually it’s just been a week. So just give yourself a little bit of a break and enjoy every minute of, for example, your PhD. I started my postdoc while I was doing my PhD because of being afraid and all the pressure of finding a job. But actually if you finish it and have the time to look at all your options, that can be very valuable I think.

Amy Monaghan:

Yeah, I think, well, I’m definitely from the same school of thought there, where I was finishing my degree and thought, oh, well, I’ve got to do a PhD and I’ve got to do a PhD now otherwise I’m never going to do a PhD. So I went and I got myself a PhD and didn’t really think about the context or anything. And I’ve been quite lucky, it’s worked out well. But then I came to the end of my PhD and I didn’t really think about it until I was about three months before the end of my PhD and I applied for a postdoc and I got a postdoc so I went and did that. It’s worked out quite well, but definitely my advice to anyone would be reflect on yourself and reflect on what you want from the next step in your career and if what you’re about to do is what you really want. And if it’s not, stop and take the time to identify what is.

Amy Monaghan:

Obviously Mark, if the perfect opportunity comes along at the right time, I would definitely agree with you that you should definitely grab it, but just taking the time to make sure that you know what you’re getting yourself in for and that it’s the right thing for you at the right time. Hanna, have you got any advice that’s not already been given?

Hanna Isotalus:

So approaching this question from a different perspective in terms of doing research, the one advice I’d give myself if I could go back in time is to just be amazing at keeping good notes. Write down everything you’ve done, because then one of the things I’ve learned while I’ve been doing this PhD in memory is that our memory will fail us. So four years later when you need to know exactly how you did that analysis or what that one column in your data sheet means, you really want it to be annotated. You really want to have good notes on that. And that code you wrote when you first learned how to code suddenly doesn’t make any sense when you’ve not looked at it for three years.

Amy Monaghan:

I think that’s brilliant advice. I think that there’s a lot of researchers that curse the past version of themselves for thinking that they would remember everything when they didn’t. Going back to the dementia research strands, so let’s give ourselves a scenario of a very excited honour student that’s about to embark on a PhD or a PhD student who’s not been in dementia that wants to move into the dementia research field. Is there any specific advice you would give to them? Deborah?

Deborah Oliveira:

If the person is not in dementia? I would suggest a person to speak to people with dementia. First of all, regardless if your research is in psychosocial side, if it’s in lab research, you have to understand what the person is going through to understand the impact of that. And I am sure from that conversation or from the many conversations you may have with that person, you’re going to come up with a much more meaningful research question to do in your PhD and that will make you much more excited and encouraged to continue working in the bad times.

Hanna Isotalus:

Coming from the human cognitive neuroscience approach, if you’re looking at doing a PhD in dementia, you want to make sure that the supervisors you’re approaching have access to that population and experience in working with this population before. It’s surprisingly difficult to find people living with dementia given how many there are.

Amy Monaghan:

And Mark?

Mark Dallas:

Yeah, some of it coming from the laboratory side of things, I think it’s key to be able to put it into real world context. It’s an exciting time to get involved in dementia research. Certainly the UK is growing in terms of its reputation, but I think when you’re in the lab you need to remember what it is you’re trying to achieve in terms of those day to day experiments when things don’t go right. You will have them, but actually being able to put that into context in terms of what you’re trying to achieve.

Amy Monaghan:

Yeah, and I think what I would say, particularly my PhD was in prostate cancer research, so doing a complete change of field, it’s not impossible, but be prepared to work hard because there is a lot to learn. But it is a very rewarding field to work in and there were a lot of skills that you can apply from wherever you’ve worked before, whatever research you’ve done before, from your degree to a new field. So don’t be afraid to make that leap across.

Amy Monaghan:

So I think that’s everything from us today. Thank you all very, very much for coming in. It’s been a really interesting discussion actually. If you want to find more of our podcasts, you can find them on iTunes and SoundCloud and you can visit dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk. And if you have enjoyed the podcast, please do tell your friends. If you’ve got any suggestions for future podcasts, any questions about what we’ve been talking about today, you can Tweet us @Dem_researcher, or you can use the hashtag, ECR dementia. Thank you all very much for coming in today. It’s been really nice to speak to you and hopefully we’ll see you all again soon.

Hanna Isotalus:

Thank you.

Mark Dallas:

Thank you.

Deborah Oliveira:

Bye.

Voice Over:

This was a podcast brought to you by Dementia Researcher. Everything you need in one place. Register today of dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk.

END


Like what you hear? Please review, like, and share our podcast – and don’t forget to subscribe to ensure you never miss an episode.

If you would like to share your own experiences or discuss your research in a blog or on a podcast, drop us a line to adam.smith@nihr.ac.uk or find us on twitter @dem_researcher

You can find our podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify (and most podcast apps).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get all the support you need sent straight to your inbox. Research news, oppertunities, blogs, podcasts, jobs, events, funding calls and much more – every friday!

No Thanks

Translate »