Podcasts

Podcast – Things you NEED to know when starting your own lab

Hosted by Dr Fiona McLean

Reading Time: 61 minutes

Consider this podcast as a ‘Lab Setup 101”, we’ve brought together three newly minted principle investigators to talk about the highs, lows and practical things you need to consider when setting up a new lab – learning from their first-hand experience.

Dr Fiona McLean, ARUK Fellow from University of Dundee talks with Dr Claire Durrant, RAD Fellow from The University of Edinburgh, Dr Ian Harrison, Senior Research Fellow from University College London and Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly, Group Leader in the UK Dementia Research Institute at Cardiff University.

Together our guests will guide you through the important things you need to know before embarking on this journey. Everything from locations and space to purchasing equipment, and hiring staff, we’ll cover everything you need to get started. Our expert guests will also share their experiences and provide valuable insights to help you avoid common pitfalls and ensure a successful lab setup. So, join us as we explore the essentials of setting up your own lab.

Meet the guests:

Dr Fiona McLean is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at University of Dundee. She is fascinated by the brain and has always been curious about how it works and what keeps it healthy. Her research focuses on the links between obesity, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr Claire Durrant is a Race Aganinst Dementia / Dyson Foundation Fellow in the UK Dementia Research Institute at The University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of synapse loss in dementia causing disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. She is currently developing living human brain slices as a translational research tool.

Dr Ian Harrison is a Senior Research Fellow at University College London. His work looks at the function of the glymphatic system in the brain, responsible for the clearance of protein solutes from the brain parenchyma.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly is UKRI Future Leader Fellow and UK Dementia Research Institute Group Leader at Cardiff University. He is working on neurodegeneration focussing on Parkinson’s disease and looking at both the temporality of the disorder as well as the role synaptic dysfunction plays.


Click here to read a full transcript of this podcast

Voice Over:

Welcome to the Dementia Researcher Podcast, brought to you by University College London and the NIHR, in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Race Against Dementia, and the Alzheimer’s Association, supporting early career dementia researchers across the world.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Welcome to the Dementia Researcher Podcast, bringing together early career researchers and leaders within the field to discuss their research hot topics and to share career tips. I’m Dr. Fiona McClain, and I am an Alzheimer’s research UK fellow at the University of Dundee, and I’m delighted to be hosting today’s recording talking to three amazing colleagues who have all recently embarked on setting up their own labs. So today that’s what we’re going to focus on. Learning how they got into their positions of leading their own groups, what they have learned in the process of setting up their labs, and what tips and lessons they might have for anyone about to do this for themselves. So get your notepads ready. Today I’m joined by Dr. Claire Durrant from the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Ian Harrison from University College London, and Dr. Dayne Beccano-Kelly from Cardiff University. Hello.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Hi.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Hello.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So, I thought we’d kick it off with actually just getting a bit of a background on you three. So, could you describe your journeys to starting up your own independent labs? So, we’ll kick it off with Claire.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah. Hi. So really fantastic to be here, Fiona. Really great to talk about all of this stuff as well. So, for me it was a really organic process. A lot of people apply for a position as a new lab leader, get that position and then have a very clear start date of, this is the day that the Durrant Lab started. That is not how it has worked for me. So, I got a Race Against Dementia fellowship, which started in 2019. And this is a weird in-between fellowship, where it’s not quite a junior fellowship, not quite a senior fellowship, it gives you five years of funding to do some quite out-of-the-box science with lots of international connections. And effectively, I was initially treated as an independent fellow within Professor Tara Spires-Jones’ group here at the University of Edinburgh.

But it very quickly got the attention of the bosses here at Edinburgh that it was a five year fellowship, which would mean, I technically qualify for tenure track. I qualified for a higher salary than they’d initially put me on. And then from that I’ve used it as a bargaining chip to allow me to apply for extra grants. And over the last couple of years I’ve gone from just a single person working in a lab to suddenly, oh, there’s three or four people working for me. And I guess that means I must be a lab leader now. But if I had to say, the day that I started as a lab leader, couldn’t tell you.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Who knows.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Exactly.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You mentioned some really interesting things there, and we’ll actually maybe come back to bargaining in a little bit, because I think that’s something that people don’t really talk about very often. So we will come back to that once we have introduced our other two researchers. So Dayne, why don’t you give us a brief background on how you’ve ended up where you are.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

So I think I have a specific date, completely the opposite.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Do you celebrate every year?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I do. I do. It passed by this year, just because I’m getting old. No, seriously. I have done a series of postdocs moving around the country, and the world, until I found myself in a position where I had a career development fellowship at University of Oxford. And during that time I’d come to give a talk here at Cardiff, where I am now and got to chatting and they put me onto the fact that there was a number of different fellowships that would lead to group positions here, and they would like to have me here. And actually one of the ones that they had pointed out was that of the UK Research and Innovations Future Leader fellowships. And this was a set of fellowships that cover a lot of the bandwidth of the different councils, as is the purview of the UK, and are a four plus three set up, so this means that you get four years worth of funding, and then towards the end of that you can reapply, and then get a further three years worth of funding.

And again, like Claire was saying, because of the duration of that, and I suppose the strength of a fellowship that long, it would become tenure tracked. And it was one of the cruxes of getting the award in the first place, is that your host institution has to give the backing of that. And obviously that’s a pretty huge draw, as all of us will know and probably most of us listening will know. Having that idea of a tenure track, which is quite rare in the UK. It was quite alluring. When for that obtained that, came here, it is tenure tracked, but I have moved over to becoming a permanent member of staff at Cardiff University, because of the fact that there were other UK, and people that had arrived here. And because of the different schools, some had been instantaneously given a position, and some had to work a little bit more for it. But we moved towards a parity, shall we say, across the world. So we all now have it. So that’s how I managed to get mine.

So I guess there is a bit of a wishy-washy period in there where I did become group leader, and then became a permanent member of staff. But I suppose 1st of February is when I celebrate, so that’s when I got mine.

Dr Fiona McLean:

When you celebrate. That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing that. And Ian, why don’t you give us a rundown of how you’ve ended up in your position.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Sure. So I’m a bit of mix of both of your stories, I guess. I’ve not moved very far, so I’m still based in the same department, in the same institution that I did my postdoc projects in. So I did my PhD, I’ve moved from Imperial. I really haven’t moved that far. Moved from Imperial to UCL to postdoc. And there it just became a natural progression in my work that I… And my funding was importantly, my postdoc job was coming to an end. So I started thinking about how I wanted to take my research forward, and started applying for fellowships. So I applied for a couple of different fellowships. I applied for the Alzheimer’s Research UK fellowship, and I also applied for the Parkinson’s UK City fellowship as well. I was in the very fortunate position, that I was offered both of them at the same time, which left me with a bit of a quandary as to… I did my PhD in Parkinson’s research, and then I did my postdoc in Alzheimer’s research, so hence why I applied for both.

But anyway, I was very fortunate to be able to talk to both of the charities, and work out some kind of deal where I’d be able to take on both of these fellowships, split 50/50 between the two, and then recruit a postdoc to be able to split 50/50 between the two as well. So I guess, there was a day when I was the first day of my group, but I was sat in the exact same desk that I’d sat for the last four or five years for my postdoc. But it’s been quite a weird transition, because suddenly on day one it was… Right, I was a PI, I had a postdoc, I had a master’s student starting in a few weeks time, it was like, right now go, now you’re a PI and get to work.

But I’m now coming to the end of that funding stream. So then starting to apply again, when I’m not at that stage yet within my institution at least. It’s quite difficult to secure a permanent position, so you have to bring in a long length of time of independent fellowships before you are eligible for that proleptic appointment. But I’m hopefully on that track.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Interesting. So Dayne, you’ve ticked the boxes for tenure track.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yes.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So they’ve said, you’ve got that big fellowship, long fellowship in, you’ve got money in, you’re publishing. So are you tenured, or in theory, are you permanent position now?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

So I’m permanent position now. Yeah.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You’re permanent. So in theory, tenured?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yes, yes.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And Claire you are?

Dr Claire Durrant:

I’m on the tenure track at the moment. So they’ll give me a review in a couple of years.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So you’re on the tenure track.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, I’ve got goals I have to meet within that timeframe, one of which is a certain amount of money I have to bring into university. Others are publication goals and things as well. And I’m in the weird position that actually the money I’ve got sorted, which is usually the harder one to come. And it’s just getting those outputs now that I’m hoping the next couple of years we’ll smash.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You’re in the process of ticking the boxes.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yes.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And Ian, you’re trying to get onto that opportunity for ticking the boxes-

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, I guess it makes it quite obvious when we speak to other colleagues like this. It’s quite different at different university. So at UCL-

Dr Fiona McLean:

And that’s why it’s confusing, right? Because people move around. So they’re trying to work out what is the best strategy, how do I get a permanent position, and what does that look like? Because sometimes you get offered a position, but it’s tenure track, that’s still not permanent, and people don’t always realize that. So you’re in that position of, you’re trying to get the opportunity to start ticking the boxes?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly. So my next step would be to get a larger, longer term independent fellowship. And off the back of that, the university then supports me with a proleptic appointment afterwards. So after the end of that next fellowship, I’ll go onto a permanent position. At least from my understanding, at UCL at least, there’s not a internal tenure track career path. It’s very much, you bring in two fellowships and then onward from there.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Interesting. Because I also guess the money thing, I feel there’s a lot of confusion in the field of science at the moment, around what is enough to bring in terms of money. Because there’s definitely a lot of conflicting opinions around whether you need a fellowship. And for our listeners, a fellowship usually tends to cover your salary as well as some project costs, consumables, et cetera. Or a big project grant, which usually doesn’t cover your salary, but is probably more valuable to the university in some ways, because a lot of time it covers more consumables, but also covers a thing called, overheads. And that is things like electricity for the building, those kind of costs, which a lot of the charity fellowships, which there are quite a few of don’t usually cover. So I guess, have any of you been told what to target, to really put your energy into, is it project grants, or is it fellowships?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Either is okay. I’ve heard that obviously things like government funded projects are great, because of the overheads. Edinburgh gave me a figure, they said a 100,000 pounds of grant income per year, is the level that they’re looking for. So over a four or five year tenure track, if you bring in one, half a million pound grant, that should be okay. But obviously if you can go over and above that, that’s good. They look at you as a whole. So if you bring in 3 million pounds of funding, and have one fairly average paper, they’ll probably love you. If you bring in 500,000 pounds of funding and have three fantastic papers, they’ll love you. If you bring in 600, but have no papers. So it’s a little bit cloak and daggers, they’re trying to be a little bit more explicit-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

[inaudible 00:12:19] pounds and a Nature paper.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, exactly. But I think, from what I’ve heard, evidence that you are productive in some way, they’re not asking for Nature and science papers, they’re just wanting you to get decent quality work which is cited, which is well done. And also showing evidence that you can bring in money to the institution, because unfortunately that’s how universities work.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. It was interesting, I once got told by a very wise professor, he said, “Just get it out there.” Just get the science out there. If Nature or big journal are going to hold onto your paper for a year, it’s not worth it. Just get out there. Because now with tools like Google Scholar and the search engines like, PubMed and Scopus, if you type the terms in, you’ll find the paper. It’s not like it used to be, where you had to get a physical journal through the door, so yeah, definitely. So I guess, this brings us a little bit onto our next question, just some of the things we’re talking about. Which is, how do you negotiate a startup package? And when we talk about a startup package, we’re talking about space, equipment, and the thing that people don’t seem to really want to talk about, which is salary. How do you negotiate those things? And can each of you share your own experiences?

For those of you who can’t see, we’ve got people laughing.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Oh, smiling.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Smiling. I think people are going back to moments. Let’s kick off with Claire.

Dr Claire Durrant:

I would say for me, professor Tara Spires-Jones has been more than an academic sponsor to me, she has been an advocate. And having an advocate on your side who knows the university, who knows the system, who knows where you can and can’t push is so much more valuable than any kind of Googling, or whatever. You need to get inside the system.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You need a champion.

Dr Claire Durrant:

You do need a champion. And she was the one who said to me, you’re currently on grade seven, this fellowship is big, you should be on grade eight. And then she initiated that process, and then obviously I did all the paperwork and the negotiations, but she was the one to send the original email to HR going, for these reasons, I believe she’s been graded wrong on her pay. And then similarly, we had then, discussions about going onto the tenure track, and she put me in touch with the tenure track committee and I was able then to argue my case and then they agreed to put me on. But it was very much from someone else going, hang on a second, you’re being undervalued for what you’ve brought into the university here.

And I think to be honest with other stuff, it’s been a little bit of a case of, well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. So as all women do, I’m quite good at being slightly cheeky and very friendly and asking for things. And it seems less aggressive than… Perhaps I’m very worried about coming across as bossy. But you can say things with a smile going, “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely? I’ve noticed that lab is really empty, so perhaps that would be a great space for me to take over.” And actually, for me, that’s worked quite well in the sense that, I’m always the type to strike a friendly tone, but I’m really not afraid to be a bit cheeky when it matters. And people have said no to things before, but that’s how I negotiated getting this lab space.

The lab space actually came off the back of, just before I went on maternity leave, I got a really big donation from one of my funders to bring in an extra million pounds to the group. So effectively he’d funded a part my fellowship. He really liked some of the work we were doing. He asked me to write another proposal, and then he wanted to fund the highest level of proposal that I wrote. And I basically went to-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Is this Mr. Dyson?

Dr Claire Durrant:

It is Mr. Dyson. It is Sir James Dyson. I would say.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Mr. Dyson, keep buying your fancy hair driers. It’s funding dimension research.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. It really is. So he visited the laboratory, and he was so excited by some of the work we’ve been doing with human brain tissue. And he just said, “So what’s your current limiting factor?” And I was like, “Well, people and resources.” And he was like, “Well, right. Write me how I could make this go faster.” So I wrote three very cheeky proposals as to what he might like to do, and he just got really captivated by it. But the immediate thing I did, as soon as I got that money was went straight to my head of department and said, “So James Dyson has just given us a million pounds to start a lab. Where are you going to let me put it?” And at that point, suddenly they were listening on that. But I very much came with, I’m bringing money, what can you provide me in order to house that? And they were absolutely delighted to do that, but you do have to ask. It’s not a case of, that they will come and do for you. You have to ask. And it’s hard to. It’s really hard to ask.

Dr Fiona McLean:

It’s one of those uncomfortable things, right? And one of my friends, she always says, you need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. And I think that was a good bit of advice. And I think that’s probably a good example of that, where you need to go and ask for those things, rather than waiting for them to come to you. That’s a great story, Claire. So now, we’ll give Dayne a chance. So tell us your very boring story-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

No. It’s effectively, and I had a mentor that once told me, “you don’t ask, don’t get.”

Dr Fiona McLean:

My gran said that.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Your gran is a very wise woman.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Was my gran your mentor?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Maybe. I feel like spiritually maybe, possibly. No. Yeah. But it was actually my old supervisor, Matt Farrar, who has been a tremendous supporter of mine. And he once sat me down. You don’t ask, you don’t get. And he was very good at asking and very good at getting. But he was one of the instrumental reasons I moved back to the UK, because he helped me seek out good positions that would help further my career. So I’m always very grateful to him. But in coming here, I suppose the reason that the mine is a little bit different, and perhaps boring is, because I was didn’t… The way that I moved from one institution to another was on the basis of obtaining this fellowship. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room to negotiate anything extra. And I think maybe perhaps we coming back to talking about this later on, about things we’d do differently, or things I wish I would’ve known.

The way it was, I was so enamored with getting a position and having this startup package that was part of this very large fellowship that I was getting, that I maybe didn’t see that there was the possibility of having some wiggle room, which would’ve allowed me to go, well, I could do with a little bit more help here. Or Cardiff could you do this for me? And I find myself in a position also that I’m very much happily part of the Dementia Research Institute, which is a number of centers across the UK that are focused on battling dementia. And that’s situated here. I’m both part of that, and also part of Cardiff University. When I came in, I had a startup package that I brought with me. And so there was no negotiation that could be rendered as such. It was, this is what I’ve got from my funders, this is what I can utilize to start on my package. I can hire people from this, I can use it to buy the equipment. So really what I needed was space.

So I needed space. So space was very forthcoming. Like I said, resources here at the Dementia Research Institute is great. There’s lots of collaborative atmosphere at Cardiff as well. So there is space. We already need more space because we’re rapidly expanding. So I’ve come in, and my group’s moved from being one postdoc to five people within the space of 12 months. And we need space, so we always need space. But it was having a bay, and then a whole room for the electrophysiological rig and that was there. And so I kind of stated the needs and the necessity, but the way I suppose I did it was stating what I was bringing to the institute. So there wasn’t any electrophysiology in the Dementia Research Institute here at Cardiff. And so as a result, I was saying, well, I’m bringing these expertise and I’m bringing this capability here, so therefore to have that we need this.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah, and they make that happen.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

So it was like, without it, I can’t do my work, thus where do we put it? So I guess I stated it in terms of, the need and desire and what I was bringing, and thus selling points of what I was doing.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. That was your negotiation I guess. As you said, well, I’m about to arrive with all this stuff, so here’s what I need to-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

It was very much that. Yeah, I suppose that the negotiation wasn’t so much for salary, it wasn’t so much for startup package for equipment. It was much more, how can I find and utilize the space? And they were forthcoming with that. And that was useful.

Dr Fiona McLean:

I guess, you were coming in at a certain level, whereas Claire had to try and upgrade within the same institute. And what about yourself, Ian? So where are you at with lab space, and that jump from postdoc to the next level?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, likewise.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Have you had any conversations?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, so I was in that similar position where I kind of upgraded from postdoc to PI as soon as my funding kicked in.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So, more like Claire?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah. And again, this highlights the differences between institutions. So at UCL, everything in terms of salaries and stuff is very formulaic. So what happened with me, so I was on grade seven, and when I wrote my fellowship application, got the costings through, the finance division sorted out the costings and put me on grade… Calculated the costs for me to be funded at grade eight. So when my funding kicked in, I was like, okay, right, so I’m on grade eight now. They’re like, no, no, no, no, you have to apply to go onto grade eight. And I was like, but I’ve brought this funding. Surely that’s my money, why can’t I access it? So then it’s, understanding the bureaucracy and how things work within your institution. So then, I had to apply for my own promotion saying, “I’ve got this funding, the money is sat there, it’s mine, can I have it please?” But again, it was understanding, and not really knowing how the system works in your university, until you get to that stage where you’re interacting with these people and talking more extensively to them.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And that’s where, I guess what Claire was highlighting, a mentor becomes a really useful thing, is that person who understands the system that you’re in, and the boxes you need to take, or the paperwork or the people you need to speak to, to be able to level up, I guess. I think that’s really important. So just touching a bit more on that part of, you’ve got your startup package. So how do you then go on to build your team? What’s the first type of person you look for? Is it a PhD student, is a master student? Or is it research assistant? Is it a postdoc? How did you all approach it, and what do you think is the best way to build that team?

Dr Ian Harrison:

I was in quite a unusual… Because of the two fellowships thing. It was, day one, first job was to recruit a postdoc. So it then became, looking at the work that I planned to do over however many years. It was figuring out, what skills I needed that person to have. Rather than splitting up parts of the project for the postdoc to do, and parts for myself to do it was, how am I going to manage these fellowships? How am I going to manage the lab effectively from the beginning? So it became evident quite quickly that I needed a very, very specific type of person that had the specific skills, to do the experiments that I wanted. But again, that kind of stuff of which I wasn’t aware. Of how do you put a job advert out within the university? Where do you have to send it to, so that the right people can see it?

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s a process as well.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly. And the time scales of these things. I had no idea when I had to get the grant code into a certain part of HR, and how long the advert had to be out for, how long I needed to leave notice between asking somebody to interview, and actually interviewing them. And then all of those things, and then you offer the person the job, and then they have to give notice if they’re currently in employment. Things like that, which you don’t really think about if you think, well, my grant starts in say January, therefore I want them to start, but it takes six months to-

Dr Fiona McLean:

How long did it take you to find a postdoc?

Dr Ian Harrison:

My fellowship kicked in at the beginning of November. And because the grant code was there, it just wasn’t active yet, I was like, right, how do I do this? In late summer September, I wrote the job advert, and then I was told, stand down, you can’t do anything until your grant’s active. So I was kind of waiting for the grant to start, until I was a able to, because they weren’t allowed to advertise the post until the money was being used. So then by the time… So then I interviewed in January the candidates, offered the person the job. Then they had to give notice, so they started at the beginning of March, and then we had a lockdown. So that was fun.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh, worse. Oh my goodness.

Dr Ian Harrison:

So my postdoc started, he was here for two weeks, and then we went into lockdown. So yeah, it was great timing.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh my goodness.

Dr Ian Harrison:

But it takes longer than I thought it would.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, much longer.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah. It took a long [inaudible 00:26:11].

Dr Fiona McLean:

So Claire, you said, you now have quite a few people under you. So who did you think, I need to hire that person first?

Dr Claire Durrant:

So again, it grew very organically. So when I first turned up at the university, I was in a weird chicken and egg scenario. It’s like, well, you have to supervise a PhD student to qualify to supervise a PhD student. So you can’t supervise a student until you supervise a student. So I had this really weird thing where I had to work out how on earth I got around this. And the answer is, co-supervision. So I have a couple of students who I co-supervise with, one who I share with Professor Tara Spires-Jones, another who I share with Professor Veronique Miron. And they’re their primary supervisors, but they do work in my lab. So that gave me a little bit of an in. Now I qualify for being a primary supervisor because I have that experience of being a secondary supervisor, because I’ve now done internal [inaudible 00:27:05]. There’s a few hoops you have to jump through.

So now, I’m very much, I’ve got a joint PhD project as co-supervisor with another person of similar level to me. We’re both on tenure track, which we’re advertising for currently. But students are a great way to start if you’re particularly… If you’re not yet officially in capacity to hire other people, co-supervising students is so important for getting your foot in the door for that. And then really, I got a couple of grants that also came in at the same time. So I applied for an Alzheimer’s Society project grant, which gave me a postdoc. So that was someone who was continuing from Tara’s group who then switched into my group to start. And then the James Dyson-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Quite good then because it’s someone that-

Dr Claire Durrant:

It was a continuation-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Already new the environment.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Exactly. So it worked really well as a first project grant, that one. And then also the James Dyson Foundation donation that provides money for a research assistant and a postdoc. And they both started in January this year. But it was a long road, because I officially got notification that I was getting the money November ’21. I then went on maternity leave between January ’22 to July ’22. And even though the money was there and now in a bank account, HR were very much like, oh, we can’t talk to you while you’re on maternity leave. So you can’t write job descriptions because otherwise you’d have to put it as, your keeping in touch days. And then we’d get in trouble because you’re on maternity leave. So day one of being back from maternity leave, I start submitting all of this. But you’ve got to have pay grade reviews. They’ve got to go through checking all of their internal candidates before you’re even allowed to advertise.

So I advertised, and I got people interviewed in October and then with notifications and all of that, they started in January. So we’re talking about, obviously there’s a whole human has been born and everything in between that. But yeah.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s a lot of work. That goes on the CV.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Grew whole human, kept it alive.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Add that to the ref.

Dr Claire Durrant:

But yeah, it was hard, because I was just desperate to hit the ground running when I got back. And I can see their point, because I don’t want to be that person who goes on maternity leave, and makes it such that any other woman who wants to go on maternity leave feels they have to work throughout the entire time. But I was like, “Can I at least get a job description in?” And it’s like, well that kind of goes against the fact we’re supposed to leave you alone. So it was a little bit tricky with aspects of that.

Dr Fiona McLean:

It was challenging. We’ll come back to trying to do that personal life work balance. And before we move on, it’d just be good to hear from Dayne. So how did you build your team? Because you came in with a package that had some money for people. So how did you choose what kind of people you wanted to hire first?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Schadenfreude, listening to the other two stories, because it’s one of those things where it takes… I think this is one of the things we need to let people know when they’re making the transition, or even just during their learning curve of their scientific career is, the amount of time things take is just so mind numbingly dull, let you do-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Grants are Lord. Grants, getting papers out there-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I think everything. So it was very similar to you two. I started in the middle of lockdown. So I’ve come across… And I’ve thought, I know what I’m going to write for my… The job description, how it’s going to be. Because I had already got unnamed postdocs on the award. So I know what the positions are going to entail. How long are they’re going to last-

Dr Fiona McLean:

You knew the experiments that would be done.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Exactly. Oh, yeah. I can see it all happening laid out in front of me like a roadmap map. It was great. Oh yeah, it was going to be fun.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Working perfectly.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

But at least I knew exactly that, there were two postdocs associated with my post, and with the fellowship itself. So it came in, nothing was moving as quickly as you would expect during lockdown, because it just wasn’t obviously. And getting things in, getting it submitted, getting it approved, getting the clearance, interviewing people, possibly finding out that that person then can’t move across. Having to readvertise, all these things. Man, I didn’t get anybody in post until November of that same year. So it took basically almost a year, before I got anybody in post. So it sounds like it was very similar to the other two. What I actually ended up doing in the end, because we were trying to get everything set up, like buying and tendering a rig, electrophysiological rig to make the recordings, because it’s such a large piece of equipment, you have to go through tender process. Tender process takes quite a long time in itself. So I actually couldn’t get the rig in, as quickly as I wanted to.

Dr Fiona McLean:

For people who don’t know, tender is where you have to basically look across, even if you want to go to a company and you know that you need a specific bit of equipment, they don’t allow you to go straight to that company. You have to look across all companies to see the cheapest one.

Dr Claire Durrant:

It’s basically to protect them from you and your mate, setting up an electrophysiology company-

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s the one.

Dr Claire Durrant:

And center in a bit of plastic, and getting a hundred K-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Stop nepotism effectively. So it’s a good plan, it’s just that it can… And some of the hoops that you may have to go through sometimes feel more arduous than they ought to be. However, doing that process meant that I… What I actually ended up doing meant that, there was a whole year of funding for a post that had gone unspent. So what I actually did was carve off that year and create a new post, and somebody said earlier, but it sounds like taken, I needed somebody with a particular set of skills to come into the lab. So I carved it off and I was supposed to have a behavioral postdoc. Somebody who looked at animal work, and looked at the behavioral effects of Parkinson’s mutations, and then somebody to look at how neurons communicate with one another. But what I was missing was a molecular sector, which I always wanted to have, but couldn’t really work in.

But I turned it to an advantage by carving it off and having somebody in the lab that was molecular. So we got that person in, she was absolutely fantastic. She got everything working, we got lots of molecular work in the laboratory. And then we’ve added two other fantastic postdocs to the team. And so getting them out there was hard, getting them in… And I’m slowly learning the process and now I’ve got… I did it the opposite way around. So I suppose I got postdocs before PhDs. I’ve now got three PhDs on the way. Actually we’re interviewing for one in two days time. And then that way, the team will be a set of five people. But we went postdoc and then PhD. Just because of the way it worked because the package was already existed.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So that was kind of-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. I thought it would be… Because of what we were driving towards as well. I think it would require a skilled set of hands in the first instance to get everything running smoothly. And that’s happened. So that’s good. I think, for me, it worked slightly better.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Excellent. So just to go back actually to what Claire was kind of talking around, maternity leave is… Actually, all of you have young families, so how have you managed to have a young family and start up a lab? And I feel like Claire’s smiling there. So we’ll go back to her, because obviously it’s kind of different for Claire, because she’s had the baby and had maternity leave. First it’s Dayne, and Ian, who I guess had paternity leave. But we’ll come on to that. So Claire, do you want to talk first? How did you manage to start a lab and create a whole new human?

Dr Claire Durrant:

I feel manage, is a strong word. Survive I think is about where I can go. But for me, I guess as the only person who’s been pregnant on this panel, I was very fortunate and I had a really easy pregnancy. I was so lucky with that. Because I know some women are just absolutely incapacitated with morning sickness, get really uncomfortable. So actually in the lab, apart from having to avoid certain chemicals and things, I was able to be me pretty much up until maybe two, three weeks before the baby was born. So that was amazing.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s fantastic. So basically you need a bit of luck.

Dr Claire Durrant:

You need a lot of luck. And I think I really don’t underestimate that because I was so lucky. And I have so many friends who from pretty much day one were throwing up for five months, and I can’t understand how on earth these women can cope in a laboratory, and hats off to them. And I don’t want to pretend that I was enduring that. I was lucky, I felt fine. So for me that was really hugely helpful, because it meant, actually my time off, off-off, was only the six months that I took for maternity leave. Whereas if you include feeling terrible, that could potentially extend that as well. So it was very, very scary telling people that I was pregnant, because obviously I have funders who I’ve just been given a load of money by people and I go, oh right, I’m off for a little bit.

But communication was absolutely key. Communication with my lab, communication with the funders. And basically just saying, look, I believe that I can cope with this, and I’m going to prove to you that I can. It’s a bit sad that in ’22 you still feel that pressure on you to be like, don’t worry, I’m not going to run off and just become a mom and leave science. But you feel those eyes on you.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Let’s face it, six months. I’ve had sequencing that’s taken longer. I’ve had animals trying to get into the lab that have taken longer than that.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely.

Dr Fiona McLean:

I think sometimes people are still looking at maternity leave is a huge amount of time off. But in science we’ve just talked about how long-

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. And it was quite-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

[inaudible 00:37:01] in the space of time it took me to recruit one, who already existed in the world.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah.

Dr Ian Harrison:

To work out.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So I think there’s a perception that has to change.

Dr Claire Durrant:

There is. And obviously people are entitled to take up to a year. It’s weird that, I don’t know if Dayne and Ian feel the same thing, but for me I feel quite a strong sense of responsibility towards other women in science who want to start a family. And I feel quite a strong sense of responsibility to A, show that you can do it, but B, not make it such that people feel they have to do it my way. And I know that six months for a lot of people is a very short maternity leave. It worked for me and I absolutely want to support other people who want to take longer time. Again, some people don’t feel well in pregnancy. I did. I was able to work. But I’m very cautious that, I don’t want to set expectations on other women just because of how things worked for me.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And sometimes people have complications after they’ve given birth. Health complications they need to recover from. And also sometimes sadly, children, if you have a premature baby, you need to dedicate more time to them.

Dr Claire Durrant:

And I will say-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Can I ask you, why six months? What was it? Did you just feel that you really wanted to get back?

Dr Claire Durrant:

It was a balance for me. Because I always knew that I wanted to come back and I wanted to be back into the science. For me, six months felt the right balance of my baby would be old enough that they’d be… They’d had a lot of time to bond with me, but also then old enough to benefit from nursery. So I don’t feel like I was dropping off a complete baby with strangers. That would feel quite strange. But equally there was some science around it. I read that separation anxiety starts at nine months. So if you can get them into nursery before then, you actually have an easier time of moving that around. So for me it was really a balance of, okay, I want to have enough time with my son, but also don’t want to be out of the lab for such a huge time, because things move on so fast. They move on really fast.

Dr Fiona McLean:

They do.

Dr Claire Durrant:

But that was very much my own-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Change is both fast and slow.

Dr Claire Durrant:

But I think that was very much my own pressure on myself. I didn’t have that pressure from anyone else. The pressure all came from my perception of what other people would be thinking, or my own pressure on myself. But I did try and do some work on maternity leave, and it was not going to happen. I had such grand plans, I was going to learn to code on maternity leave because babies are easy, right? Babies are easy.

Dr Fiona McLean:

They sleep all day, right?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh wow.

Dr Claire Durrant:

So I was writing a review with some colleagues, and honestly it was the most garbage piece of writing I’ve ever put out. I read it back three weeks later after sending the first draft, and they sent some really polite comments back of like, oh, maybe we need to revise. And then I’d had some sleep.

Dr Fiona McLean:

So maybe you need to sleep some more-

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah. I had some sleep, reread it and there was like, I was repeating at the same sentence multiple times. So I was like, right. So you get through it and you do it, but I think massively lower your expectations about what you would achieve on maternity leave. It’s amazing to keep a human alive. And then actually once I was back-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Absolutely. Including yourself as well.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. But once I was back, having him in nursery, I could actually have time to think at work, because I wasn’t constantly working out what I was going to have to do with him. But my working days are very strict now, in terms of, I can’t be in work before 8:30. I can’t leave work after 4:45. And then it’s very much balancing around him, and then catching up in the evening. So it’s flexible. Academia’s great for that, but I can’t stay if a brain case lasts longer, someone else will have to pick that up, and it’s a different balance for sure.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Do you think you’re more productive though because you have those hours?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yes and no. I was saying, as I was alluding to when we were chatting before, the month of January has been just an absolute mental case of disease after disease, after disease of viruses. And there hasn’t been a single week since Christmas-

Dr Fiona McLean:

In the family, not in the lad.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Oh yeah. There hasn’t been a week since Christmas where I haven’t had at least one day disrupted by either, him being ill, me being ill, him having his vaccinations, and there’s something… And you do just have to be kind to yourself, and go, do you know what? Yep, I have to skip out in the lab today because I’ve got to go pick up my son. But you catch up and you think… And you’re just running really fast to stay in the same place some days. But when do you look on, on that scale of weeks to months, you realize you are making progress?

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s a good way to look at it. So Dayne, you also have young kids. And you were saying actually, you needed a coffee for this podcast.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I have small boys climb on top of my head in the middle of the night, which is just now a regular case. It’s amazing what you now think of as being normal when you become a parent. You’re just like, oh, okay, that’s cool. My daughter used to come into the room and open my eyes for me, that was… Just daddy, and just open my eyes.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh that’s nice of her.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

And I was like, oh my God. I don’t know if nice was ever the word. It was very jarring. I was awake very rapidly afterwards. So she knew what she was doing. And I’ve got a six year old and eight year old. My two came during my postdoctoral years, I suppose. I very much like, Claire started working in a way that became regimented, more fixed. I don’t know about you guys, but when it comes to patching, when you’ve got a good patching day, you should stay at the rig and you should just stay there and patch away, so you can get all of the data in. And so I used to, when I was young and carefree, used to patch away for hours on end, and just be there and it wouldn’t matter, right? Now I got to get home for stories and catch-ups, and all the things I really want to do, which is obviously fine, but it meant that I have to compress and condense and work more efficiently.

I found, I was working much more efficiently. But it does depend on what it is. And obviously with meetings and such, it affects your day and your plans and so perhaps you can rattle through all of the experiments in a week that you might want to do again, but you could do those experiments that you did want to do very efficiently and well, if that makes sense. So organization was part of it. It might not seem like it when you’ve got kids, because organization seems to be chaotic. But it was very much like that. Underneath, it was all organized and well thought out I think. But I too, am very much like, this is how I operate and this is how I operated. It’s going to be very different from families to family and person to person.

So I totally agree with that. I think it’s an incredible thing to do. To create a miniature human, I think you’ve done spectacularly well, to come back after six months and only repeat yourself three times. I remember being out and about in my slippers when I was in Canada, and I was just like, what am I doing here? I don’t really remember. Yeah, this is weird.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Who am I?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

But yeah, I always say, you could probably sacrifice the science, or you could sacrifice the kids, or you could sacrifice your sleep, and this is why I’m drinking coffee. Yeah, that’s definitely-

Dr Fiona McLean:

So the sleep was the one that went to do… And so Ian, you also have small children?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, so I’ve got a, well nearly three year old, and a four year old. So, my eldest came when I was towards the end of my postdoc project, and I remember we were doing sleep training whilst I was trying to write my fellowship applications. So that was particularly fun, kind of not getting-

Dr Fiona McLean:

This means that you can write all night, right?

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, well not getting more than 45 minutes of unbroken sleep. 45 minutes, and then up again all night and then going to work and trying to figure out costings for your grant that you’ve… That was fun. But anyway. And then my youngest came, so I’d started my fellowship at the end of 2019. I was talking earlier about recruiting my postdoc, and one of the reasons I wanted to get him in the lab as soon as I could, was because baby number two was on her way. So my post-

Dr Fiona McLean:

This time you knew what was coming.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly. So I kind of could prepare myself, and figure out how I was going to do this, and I knew the ins and outs of how paternity leave worked at the university. And I didn’t consider that there might be a global pandemic to deal with, with having a newborn at home. So that’s a-

Dr Fiona McLean:

That too us all a bit by surprise.

Dr Ian Harrison:

… That’s a different podcast. So my postdoc started at the beginning of March, so he was with us for a week and a half, and then I went on paternity leave, and then lockdown happened. So yeah, it

Dr Fiona McLean:

For you postdoc.

Dr Ian Harrison:

It was tricky.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Let’s just give a brief shout out to your postdoc who managed and he did really crazy time.

Dr Ian Harrison:

And he did it fantastically well. Because my thought was, I’ll go on pat leave. He can be in the lab, he can get settled in, meet everyone.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And you’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah, exactly. Then we can get going with experiments. But he did fantastically well. In lockdown, I was dealing with a newborn at home, and a toddler who wasn’t allowed to go to nursery anymore, whilst trying to… And then we wrote a review, which I think most people did in lockdown, or at least tried to. But in terms of how my work life balance works now, I guess I’d agree with both of you guys that running very fast to stay still definitely resonates. That’s basically my life at the moment. Again, I think, since having kids, it’s made me a lot more efficient at work, because you know the hours that you’re in, and you know, have to leave at a certain time to make school pick up, or nursery pick up. So it does make you incredibly efficient in the hours that you are in.

And I would raise, I definitely think that being a parent, and being a scientist, they both make you better at the other role as well. Even though some of the time I definitely think, you have a really bad week, and you think, I’m being a really bad dad this week, or I’m being a really bad scientist this week. I’m not getting that data done. But you have to take stock sometimes and think, each of my roles within my life makes me better at the other one. And you do have to remind yourself of that regularly, I think.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And think of it, once you’re old enough you can just get them to work in the lab for free.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Just make your own lab.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Just make your own lab. You don’t need to hire. No project grant, don’t worry, just make a human.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I like that idea.

Dr Fiona McLean:

[inaudible 00:48:37] some rules again that.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

They’re teaching you the other way, I have certainly found that when I’ve-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah, it’s a really nice idea.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

… With kids, you might have to try and… If they’ve asked you a question, you have to repeat it, and if they don’t understand the explanation, you have to find a new way of doing it. That is actually quite useful for when you’re trying to convey information to somebody who’s maybe outside your field.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Definitely. Yeah.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You’re using your children for training for public engagement.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

They get it far better than some of my peers. No I’m joking. So it is quite good, because you have to learn, one subject, but say it in multiple different ways, so that somebody can maybe understand it a little bit better. Whether that be a member of public, or indeed fellow scientists, or outside of your remit of work. It’s quite useful. So actually, I compliment my kids all the time.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. That’s a great point as well. I love that.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. Thanks, Dayne’s kids.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Thanks Dayne’s kids.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Thank you.

Dr Claire Durrant:

And I would say, I think it’s getting so much better, in terms of, you talk to people who had kids 10 years ago, and people almost just didn’t mention their kids, or people tried to hide it on their CVS, and things like that. And one thing I’ve really noticed is that, once you have a kid, there’s this whole secret club of amazing people who then, you have something to talk about. Who are like, “Oh, you’re knackered too, that’s fantastic. We can talk about this. And there’s this amazing club of people who are all just really willing to help each other out, and discuss different things, who really understand you at a different level. And it’s been one of the most… Not to get too philosophical, it’s really opened my eyes into how much love there is in the world, because you know how much love you have for your son, and then you look around and you go, every single parent feels that way about their kid, and you just see this whole different thing. And you just look at your colleagues, who have kids in a very different way.

And there’s just something I find, it’s quite nice when you think of the work we’re doing, we’re trying to build a better future, and then you can actually imagine that future, particularly when you have kids or your friends have kids and things. And I find that quite motivating.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s so lovely, Claire. You’re so inspirational. I did not expect this podcast to get so emotional. That’s absolutely lovely.

Dr Claire Durrant:

It’s the sleep deprivation, it does things to you.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh no, I think that’s a really lovely observation actually. It’s really lovely. One thing I was going to ask actually is, through all of this, through having kids, and setting up your lab and this huge journey you’ve all been on, what have you found to be helpful? Are there any resources or things that you’ve really found helpful that we can help point other people towards? Any podcasts? Or online resources that anyone-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Human resources.

Dr Fiona McLean:

… Went to find help?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. No, specifically mentors.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Human resources, HR.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I think you should talk to… Not literal HR.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh, not literal HR, like actual people. I was like, because HR actually could maybe help you with your contracts, your pay.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

No. The resource, the human beings, I should say.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Guys, this is so deep.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Your fellow man human.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Do you mean, your fellow man?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Or anybody else. Exactly.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Or women. Sorry, I meant man, in the sense of-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

No, I think it’s really good. I don’t think you should ever have one mentor. I think having multiple people you can turn to is really useful. I’ve talked to, and turned to many people who have been there, and done it, and they are at various stages of their career as well. Yeah, it’s good.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s what this podcast is.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

It’s good. We are the resource.

Dr Fiona McLean:

We are the resource.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

We are the resource. That would be a good name for the podcast. But I find that people have got really great insight. Those common threads that they all say, you know that that’s really important. That’s always really good to have. At the beginning, I knew it was going to take a while. I’ve done a few postdocs, and I knew it might take a little time to get set up. And I’d done a tender process, for instance, once before. So I knew it was going to take a little bit of time. So I had in my head a period of the time where it would be… A lag period at the beginning, in my head. And then I was like, but I’ll have this bit done by this stage, and I’ll have this bit done by this stage. And I said this to one or two mentors.

I have a mentor here, Professor Anne Rosser, he’s fantastic as well. And she was just like, no. Just maybe walk that back a little bit. I’m not sure that that’s going… She was really lovely about it. But in hindsight, I went back to her and was like, “Yeah, you were right, that was unrealistic.” And she was like, “Yeah, I didn’t want to tell you at the time, but yeah.” They’ve even given me their indication about certain aspects about… Like, as we were saying before, you don’t ask, you don’t get. Negotiation skills about who you might want as your first person in the lab, there’s often that thing that we talk about where you can have different people in the laboratory, that might be good at different things or have different specialties and, they’ve each given me fantastic feedback, that I think is far more valuable, especially because I can interact with them, and be like, oh, what do you mean by that? Let’s have a little bit more about this area of what you meant. And I think that, you just can’t undervalue it at all. Just experience, I suppose.

Dr Fiona McLean:

I think going back to mentorship, sometimes people feel a bit stuck in how to find a mentor. And my bit of advice is one, when you take that first PhD or postdoc position is, make it really clear in that interview that you’re looking for a mentor. And also go to the lab that you are potentially going to go into and ask the people who are there, preferably with the PI not there, how is the lab run? Is it a supportive environment? And make sure that that is a good environment for you to be going into. And then there’s also a lot of mentorship schemes out there. The one that springs to my mind at the moment is, Alzheimer’s Research UK Mentorship Scheme, which has only been fully up and running I think about a year and a bit now.

And that’s a really excellent one, because you can actually specify what kind of mentorship you’re looking for. Are you looking for someone who’s had kids? Are you looking for someone who is more senior? Or are you looking for someone who’s just managed to get the first fellowship and you want to learn from them and how they did that.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Definitely. Sorry, I also just really quickly think that, it’s also important to… You don’t have to formally find a mentor, just maybe somebody who-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah, sometimes you just happen organically.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. So that’s also… I just wanted to mention that.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. Just to watch out for that as well. Absolutely. So Claire and Ian, is there any resources you can think of?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. So I would say we’ve talked quite a lot about scientific mentors, and people maybe higher up the chain than you. The biggest resource I’ve ever found is people. People just at every level. So HR, finance, the people who run reception on my building, people in stores, the people in the animal units. I’ve made a real effort to personally get to know all of them. The procurement team for example. Have a phone call or a Zoom call where you discuss, this is what my plans are for the next X, Y, Z, this is probably what I’m going to need. I’m tapping into your expertise here, how can you help me navigate?

And then, I’ve just found people are so willing to help, and there is such a wealth of expertise. Like our procurement guys have been fantastic. Huge forms from the University of Edinburgh to order equipment over certain values. And I set up a call with them, and they just had it live and they were just filling it in as I was talking to them, telling me how to do everything. And you just have to make use of these people. And I think there can be a little bit in academia this snobbery of like, oh, well all the people, admin people are here to stop us doing our jobs, and it makes it really difficult. But if you find the right people, they can make your life so much easier. And hats off to the finance team, the procurement team and stuff we have here in Edinburgh, because honestly they do a really good job with hard stuff. And it’s who you know.

Dr Fiona McLean:

We also have a research and innovation services, is what we call it here. But all your universities will probably have some form of that. These are people who can help me find grants, or coming up, they’ll read your grant proposals even though they might not be in your scientific area. But it’s great to have someone who isn’t in your area read through it, to make sure that it can be understood. You’re right, there’s so many resources within the university and I think that’s where networking really comes in. And actually just being nice and asking the person in the coffee room, like how are you? And getting you know people.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Absolutely. Simple things like, I personally go and collect a lot of my deliveries from stores because case in point, we had this massive delivery of this huge piece of equipment for a microscope that arrived. It’s massive. It’s filling up their entire store’s thing. Normally they’d get a bit annoyed about this, but they know me, they’ve got my number, they can text me and we can chat about it, and we can sort it out together. But if you have this wall up between you and the people who make the university work, you’re probably going to find that they go, if you don’t move this by tomorrow, we are going to escalate this or we’re going to put it in the bin. But if they know you, there’s a little bit more of that kind of leeway.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. A bit leeway. Human contact.

Dr Claire Durrant:

It makes such a difference.

Dr Fiona McLean:

It’s important. It does. That’s great. That’s such an important message, such an important bit of advice as well. So I think moving on, I think it’d be great to have a bit of a summary. And one of the things I’d love to ask you all is, what has your single biggest challenge been, in setting up your lab? If there’s one thing you think, oh my goodness, that was the one thing that was the biggest barrier that I had to overcome, what would it be? And start with Ian, what was your biggest barrier or your biggest challenge?

Dr Ian Harrison:

I think just the timing of things, COVID, was not the best. But I think that. Getting rid of that from my head. So I think a lot of it has been just learning about how, the ins and outs of the university, how it works. So a lot of the things, you don’t know how the finance division works, because you’ve never had to write your own… May have written small internal… For me anyway, I’ve wrote small internal grants, but I’d never written anything that big that needs to be improved internally, and then escalated to the right people. And again, going on what Claire was saying about getting to know people. So, finding that person in finance that you know can get a relationship with, and be able to message them and just be like, right, this is what I need to do. Who do I need to contact for that?

Dr Fiona McLean:

And who aren’t going to yell at you when you find a grant a few days before it’s due, and you’re like, “I really want to put money for this.”

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly. Can I do this? Is this a possibility? Can you say yes? But yeah, learning how things work as a PI. And I think one of the things that comes with, is the amount of time. We’ve talked a lot about time so far, but the amount of time in my day that isn’t just doing science. So a lot of… Before when you’re a postdoc, you can get completely absorbed in what you’re doing, and all of your working day is about the experiments, but then it comes to being a PI, and then it’s about, oh, I need to sort out the colonies of my mice or I need to arrange for that bit of kit to be serviced, or I need to review some CVs. There’s always other things to pull you away, but I didn’t really appreciate how much time-

Dr Fiona McLean:

So your priorities change, I guess.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And as a postdoc there and as a PhD student especially, you’re allowed to immerse yourself in the science experiments and it’s so lovely. But yeah, sad when the paperwork gets in the way. I actually think it’s one of the things that we haven’t learned from COVID is that, if you remove all this, we call it red tape, but what it actually is admin that we have to do, as you become a more senior scientist. If you take that away, you get so much more science done. But I wish that that were a lesson that we’d kept from COVID, but oh well anyway. And Dayne, what was your biggest challenge? If you could pinpoint one thing?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I think it might have been that transition from doing science, and reading papers, and then eventually writing fellowships such that it was, I think then to being more of, managing grants and people, and making sure that write-ups are in, in time, and milestones, and doing far less of the sciencey things.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Fun things.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

The fun things.

Dr Fiona McLean:

The reasons you became a scientist.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah, exactly. I still get to do the cool sit down chats about where we’re going to take data next, but then immediately what that follows is then, how do we get the money in for funding then? Where do we go? Let’s start writing up this whole report, but then all of the administrative that comes with that, can I just do it? No, I need to go through this and jump this hoop and do this step and-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Get all these other people to do-

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. And so I talked to people before transitioning, and both people that were there doing that role, and then people who were about to make that transition, and the level of knowledge about how much that switched, was so poor. Because I think there were people like, oh no, I know how much admin there is involved in it, and I’ll just do this, and that and the other end. And people that are at the other end of the spectrum are like, no, you have no idea. Again, not to take it back to parenting too much, but it’s like when people tell you, “Oh, you’re going to have sleep deprivation.” And there’s no way of explaining how much sleep-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Oh, I’ve been tired before, it’ll be fine.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

Yeah. That’s always what you get. And it’s just like, no, you just don’t know. And I don’t know how to explain it to you, but it’s just on another level. It’s very much the same. It’s just on another level. Yes, you do lots of admin work when you’re moving through towards more senior levels of postdoc, but it’s just not that. You’re now doing that, for four, five people because you’ve got people within your lab, so you’re looking after you, and your lab and then looking up and helping out with the department. So it’s just-

Dr Fiona McLean:

Yeah. That’s one thing we haven’t really spoken about is, as you progress, you also take on more senior roles, you sit on committees. It’s how it helps you progress as well, because that’s another box you need to tick is that, you’re contributing to your school, to your department, to your university as well. So it’s admin that comes with that as well.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

That’s been the biggest challenge I suppose. Is more it’s been the transition to what it is and that’s fine, but it was jarring, I suppose.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Claire is it similar?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, I think for me, it’s very similar, and I think because I’m probably slightly earlier in the transition than both Dayne and Ian. I think at the moment I’ve got that feeling where I just have all the hats on. So I have everything… At the moment, I’m the person who is lugging incubators around to move them into position, but also the person writing grants. And I’m the person who’s doing the interviews for new jobs, but also the person who’s doing the dissection of the brain case that’s coming in on Mondays. So it’s very much, I’m all levels at the moment, and trying to train people up to get to the point where I can pass on some tasks to them and then I take over more others. It’s a very much in that transition phase.

And yeah, some days are just, you are really jumping from one end of the spectrum to the other, and it’s quite hard to keep yourself balanced when you go from scrubbing the floors to then sitting on a grant review board. It’s quite a different kind of thing.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Keeps you humble.

Dr Claire Durrant:

It certainly does. And it’s great because I have a pulse on what’s going on in the lab, but it does mean that-

Dr Fiona McLean:

That is true.

Dr Claire Durrant:

… I’m basically doing four people’s jobs, in terms of, I’m a PI, I’m a postdoc, I’m a research assistant, all of those things at the moment, while we’re getting set up. But the team around me is fantastic. I’m really enjoying setting that up.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And that’s great.

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, definitely.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s really good. And looking back, is there anything that you’d do differently? And if there was, what would you be? If there’s anything you thought, I wish I could go back and change that.

Dr Claire Durrant:

I think to be honest, the power of hindsight is a fantastic one. I’d say apply to anything you are remotely eligible for, as early as possible. Just go for it. Getting money into the laboratory, as soon as you have people, things happen twice as fast. That’s the really interesting thing. And I didn’t really consider it when I got my fellowship. I was like, oh, I’ve got five years. I don’t need to think about money for a while. So I probably delayed the process of actually applying for more money, until a couple of years in. And actually I think almost day one, send some grant applications. Because if you can double your team, you can double your output. And I think that’s a really good use of your time. But also knowing when to stop and make sure you’re back in the lab as well. It’s all about the balance.

For me, I felt like I had a triple whammy of disruptions. So I moved from Cambridge to Edinburgh to do my fellowship. So moving labs. Three months after that we had-

Dr Fiona McLean:

And countries.

Dr Claire Durrant:

… We had COVID hit, so then lockdown of COVID. And then I had a baby. And then, so it was all lovely sequential, every year or so having one massive hammer to your productivity. So I think just being really resilient as well, and being kind to yourself in that. And I know that everyone of our career stage has gone through that, and you’ve got to remember that. You’re not comparing yourself having had a COVID pandemic, with everyone else, not having a pandemic. We’ve all had it. So just know that it’s disrupted people in different ways.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Absolutely. And Ian, is there anything that you’d change looking back, if you could do something different?

Dr Ian Harrison:

I was going to say exactly the same thing as Claire, to be honest. One of those things is when you have this grant and then you’re like, right, so I’m sorted now, I can just get on with it. But some of the grants that I was looking at, you need to be in contract for a certain period of time to be eligible. And you’ve got the longest contract ahead of you when you start your fellowship. So it sounds counterintuitive to, as soon as you get going, start applying again. Because you’ve just come out of that writing phase, you’ve just come through it. So it then makes sense to start sending off these applications as early as you can.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And it can take a year, 18 months before that money can be confirmed or not. And so if you have a three year fellowship that’s kind of over. That’s halfway into it potentially. So, absolutely. And Dayne, is there anything different? Or do you agree with Claire and Ian on that one?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I think, it comes almost full circle back to the beginning in that, I would’ve negotiated more. Specifically, I would’ve talked more to people in the institution to find out the needs and musts, and how to, so that I could have maybe got things going slightly faster than I did. I’m still hung up on the idea of that timeline thing that I had in my head. And I’m always thinking, could I have got that done faster if I had done X, Y, and Z? And I suppose the only thing I could have done would be to interact even more with this institution that was far away in another country, such as it was. But it would’ve been good to be infusing myself of how the administrative and the bureaucracy levels work in the whole new institution, so that I could maybe get it up to speed a little bit faster, because I was learning whilst doing. But perhaps that’s a hindsight thing in all our cases, it’s a 2020, it’s great. We can think back, but I’m not sure if we would’ve ever executed.

Dr Fiona McLean:

You wouldn’t have learned the same lessons though, so that’s quite good. Nobody has anything massive though. That’s pretty good.

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

[inaudible 01:08:17].

Dr Ian Harrison:

Yeah. We’ve definitely not done it completely right though.

Dr Fiona McLean:

Is there a right way though? Who knows? I think you’ve all done incredible, absolutely incredible. Especially that you think all the challenges that there’s been over the last few years. And I guess that brings me to my last question, which is a nice one I think. Which is, what has been your favorite thing about setting up your own labs? Oh, lots of thinking faces. Ian, on your go.

Dr Ian Harrison:

One of the big things for me, was seeing people within my group present the work at conferences. So it’s something, when it’s your own work and you put the talk together, or you put the poster together, but seeing your initial seed idea that you got the money for, seeing members of your group take that project forward, present it, and get feedback on it. That was one of those moments where you kind of big, proud, smiley face.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s lovely, Ian. You’re like Proud PI.

Dr Ian Harrison:

Exactly. Exactly.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s really nice. That’s a really good one. Claire, you were going to say?

Dr Claire Durrant:

Yeah, it’s all about the people for me, in terms of, I feel really lucky with the people I’ve been able to crew. I’ve got the smartest, most driven, nicest people you could hope to meet. And I use those three words as, I have a criteria whenever I recruit, they have to be all three. They can’t lose any one of them. You can have the smartest and most driven person in the world, but if they’re not particularly pleasant to work with, or not honest, or not have good integrity, they’re not on my team. And likewise-

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s what sets the lab culture.

Dr Claire Durrant:

It really does.

Dr Fiona McLean:

And you need a nice-

Dr Claire Durrant:

And I think lab culture is really important, and any type of individual can do well in science. But I do think there are core characteristics that you have to be… And when I say driven, I mean curious. You want to answer questions about research. You don’t have to want to be a PI, but you want to come and do a good job every day. That’s what I class is driven. Smart, I don’t necessarily mean book smart. I mean, can you fix a piece of equipment? Can you work out what controls are good in an experiment? Can you assess what you’re going to do in a day and how you prioritize it? And obviously for some roles, can you think of an amazing idea that we can then go and test? And then nice. Can you work with people?

Are you the kind of person that’s going to be really honest in your interpretation of data? Are you going to be collegiate and things? And if you lack any one of those three, you’re not coming on my team, is basically the way… And because I’ve been quite rigorous with that, I feel like I just have the best colleagues. I just have people who are just fascinating and just so much fun to be around, and they teach me stuff every day, and I absolutely love that. It just gives me such a buzz to know that, we are all working towards something together as part of a team, which I adore.

Dr Fiona McLean:

That’s fantastic. I love that as well. I can’t wait for Claire’s podcast series, which is going to be on inspirational talks, as a dementia researcher. And lastly, Dayne, what’s been your favorite thing about setting up your lab?

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly:

I think it’s the people as well. I can’t look beyond that. It’s seeing the enthusiasm that they can bring, and the energy that they can bring to the work that perhaps you’ve envisaged, but you can also see the evolution of it as they work on it, which is, it’s quite gratifying to see your story progress and somebody taking it on and helping to shape it. It’s this to and fro that you can have in the lab, which again, it’s really important to have a good lab culture. It’s good to have people with which you can work. My team and I can go down rabbit holes of talking about and discussing things. And then you look at your watch and it’s been an hour and a half, and you’re like, “Okay, so we have to end this lab meeting soon.”

But it’s because you’re having such joy in talking about the science and getting it up to speed and getting it really working. And at the end of the day, that’s what we want to do, is get that science done, find the best ways of doing it, and the best ways of doing it is through a synergistic effort. So you can do that by recruiting the right people. And as I’m seeing the lab build and evolve, I’m seeing the fruition of that. Like Ian said, seeing the work presented. But I suppose the bit that I see, slightly to the left is that, I can see them executing the work and coming back and saying, oh, this thing worked, and I did this extra thing. And so I’m like, yeah, I knew it was going to work. We discussed it, and you were doing it, so you’re great at it, so this is great.

And then that extra thing you did, that was fantastic. And so how do we work that out? Let’s sit down, let’s mold that over and how is that going to help us to progress it? So it’s enjoyable to be able to have people that are enthusiastic about that science, who have that drive to help people. Because we are working on Parkinson’s, and we really want to help people, and really get towards that goal of finding therapeutics. And it’s just great to have a team that loves doing that. And so it’s a joy. It’s a joy to come in and-

Dr Fiona McLean:

It’s a joy. Oh, this has been so fantastic. And we were saying before the podcast started recording, I was so excited about hosting this one, because I’m at this weird in between career stage where I’ve got a junior fellowship, and I kind of like… Yeah, I’m what Claire was describing at the beginning of this independent fellow, but in someone’s laboratory, and that transition, how do you transition? And I just want to say thank you so much for all your input today. It’s been so great to talk to you all. The insight’s been fantastic. And to be honest, I could do a part two of this because I think there’s still so much to discuss.

But I’m afraid that’s all that we have time for today. I’m just putting it out there. I think we should do our revisiting podcast in a couple of years’ time, or a year’s time, and see where you all are then. Because I think you’re all in such amazing trajectories, and your work that you do for dementia research is fantastic as well. So, as I said, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today. But if you can’t get enough of this topic, then you can visit Dementia Researcher website, and take a look at the show notes. And there you’ll be able to find a full transcript, biographies of our guests, blogs, and links to resources that we’ve discussed. I’d like to thank our incredible guests, Dr. Claire Durrant, Ian Harrison, and Dayne Beccano-Kelly. I’m Dr. Fiona McLean and you’ve been listening or watching the Dementia Researcher Podcast.

Voice Over:

Brought to you by dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Race Against Dementia and the Alzheimer’s Association, bringing you research, news, career tips and support.

END


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