Build My Future Festival

by Meriel Jones

I’ve given many talks about careers in the Life Sciences following from a degree, but this one was rather different. It was in the Baltic Triangle region of Liverpool, an area listed in March 2017 by ‘The Times’ newspaper as among the coolest, hippest places to live in Britain. The Northern Schools Trust were holding their two day Build My Future festival where 400 young people explore future career options. However, using 15 sites in the Baltic Triangle and including many personal stories about careers is distinctly different from usual.

The first day was given to keynote speakers (such as local MP Alison McGovern and local entrepreneur and chair of the Baltic Triangle CIC Liam Kelly) and introduced career pathways, including the Life Sciences.  The second day included people’s tales of their careers for explanation and inspiration, as well as more general talks, practical motivation and finished with a social event.

When I arrived at Baltic Creative on the 17th of November 2017, I walked into a coffee shop in a warehouse-style shed, and wondered where I’d be speaking. All was soon revealed through a door in the trendy chipboard wall which concealed a meeting room. While waiting, I was recognised by one of the teachers hosting the event, because, as a graduate in Genetics from the University of Liverpool, I’d taught him.  He’d followed his degree by working in biomedical research and then entering teaching.

My audience of about 30 young people had already listened to two speakers about their own careers in the Life Sciences. However, they were very attentive and several took notes. At the end I was asked thoughtful questions, including about opportunities for study abroad during a degree. I anticipate that in the future, members of today’s audience will return to share their career experiences with future young people.

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My experience of the Aurora Leadership Programme

by Klara Wanelik

In March this year I embarked on a leadership training course for women in higher education, called the Aurora Leadership Programme. You might be thinking, why would I go on a course like this? Well, as an early career researcher (ECR) in this sector, I am very concerned by statistics like this:

“The proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) in the EU exceeds that of male students, but women represent only 18% of grade A (professorial) academic staff”1

The aim of Aurora is to take positive action to address this under-representation of women in leadership positions in the higher education sector.

I attended four development days at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (quite appropriate really!) and met hundreds of women from the higher education sector. It has taken me a while to digest all of this but I think I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I include some of my thoughts in this blog post with the hope of inspiring other female ECRs, and more generally inspiring others, to start questioning what it means to be a good a leader. I focus on two aspects of the programme that I found particularly useful. This choice is personal, and I’m sure that other women attending the programme would choose differently. But here goes…

Exploring core values

In one of the sessions, we were given a list of universal human values and asked to circle those that were most important to us: our ‘core values’. At the end of the session, each group pooled their results together on a kind of ‘value map’, where values were grouped under terms like universalism, benevolence and power. What I found particularly striking was that our table had circled lots of values in the former two groups (like equality, honesty and loyalty) but the power section of the map (with words like social recognition, public image and authority) was completely empty. And it wasn’t just our table, a colleague of mine who attended the programme in London, told me the same happened there.

How could this be? How could these women who had come together for the sole purpose of developing their leadership skills (some of them already in senior leadership positions) not feel that they identified with any of these values? There are two possible answers: 1) they didn’t feel comfortable sharing these values, or 2) they genuinely didn’t prioritise them. Given the spirit of openness that Aurora encourages, I assume that the second answer is the most likely. This isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon – we heard that men in leadership positions who completed this activity also highlighted the non-power-related values. This, I think, calls into question what we think a leader should be. Many of us still hang on to a traditional view of a leader being a dominating individual, with full authority, who is driven to do what he/she does for the recognition, wealth and/or the power they receive in return. This is a view we really need to shift. By doing this activity, we were being encouraged to consider the individuality of leadership and the importance of authenticity; staying true to your values, while leading. As one of the facilitators suggested, the best leaders are those that create the next generation of leaders. I think this is perhaps a more useful (and interesting) view of leadership than the traditional one.

Importance of storytelling and leading with “why”

In another session we learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership. This sounded a bit odd to me at first, I’d never really put the two together but then I got talking to a woman on my table who proceeded to tell me about some charity work she was doing, somewhat connected to her work as a lawyer. The way she created a narrative about the people she was helping and what she was doing to help them captured my attention. I wanted to sign up straight away, even though I would have been of very little help (I’m a biologist not a lawyer!) It was at this moment though, when she was masterfully telling her story, that I realised how powerful storytelling could be in getting people to do what you want them to do.

The tables were turned on another occasion, after I watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek, which was recommended as part of the pre-work for an Aurora session. In his talk, Simon Sinek talks about inspiring action by leading with why we’re doing something, rather than how or what exactly we’re doing: “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it”. Soon after watching this talk I had the opportunity to re-formulate my ‘elevator pitch’ about the research that I do. There is a real diversity of women on the Aurora programme, from professional services to academics, and from all different fields. On this occasion, I happened to be sat next to (another) lawyer, and to be honest, I was pretty sceptical about being able to really (genuinely) get her on board. To my surprise, my pitch did get her genuinely excited about my research and asking multiple questions. I still remember the look on her face! I’ll be trying my best to lead with “why” from now on.

Thank you

I would like to thank IIB for funding my place on the Aurora programme, all the inspirational women I met during my time on Aurora and my colleagues in IIB for supporting me along the way. Special thanks to Zen Lewis, who provided much needed encouragement and support and pushed me to re-apply for Aurora after I was initially unsuccessful in securing a place.

If you are a female ECR like me, I hope this post will encourage you to give the Aurora programme a go and to start thinking of yourself as a leader!

  1. Morley, L (2013) Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspiration

AEC Outreach at BBC Gardeners’ Question Time

The BBC Gardeners’ question time event at Ness Botanical Gardens on the 16th of September was a great avenue for Researchers from the Department for Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour to showcase how the nature of gardens is underpinned by ecology and evolution.

Gardens are much more than the plants they contain. Georgia Drew, Jo Griffin & Louise Reynolds introduced visitors to the fascinating world of bees, butterflies, fruit flies and the ecosystem of microbial symbionts that these organisms host. Visitors were fascinated and horrified, in equal measure, at the case of male-killing bacteria in a population of tropical butterflies. Many were eager to know the potential applications of such information, including the fascinating role of symbionts in the control of aphid and other plant pest populations. Jo talked to the BBC producers about the use of symbionts in the prevention of insect-borne disease.

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Meanwhile, Franziska Brunner, Stew Plaistow & David Atkinson gave tours around their newly-renovated experimental ponds at Ness, and introduced visitors to their work on climate change impacts on aquatic ecosystems and pond life. Many were very impressed by the experimental ponds, and the logistics and methods needed to carry out this kind of study. The group’s pond-dipping tour gave visitors a chance to reconnect with their “inner child”, and come face-to-face with the incredible biodiversity concealed just beneath the surface of the garden pond. Catching sticklebacks turned out to be a major attraction during these pond-dipping sessions!

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Last but not least, visitors attended guided tours of an ongoing long-term experiment investigating how grassland plants cope with climate change, given by Raj Whitlock, Christoph Hahn, Di Yang, and George Airey. Visitors learned of the vital importance of grasslands for conservation and for providing crucial services to people, and of the threats posed to grasslands by climate change. The tour introduced a large drought manipulation experiment comprising 1,952 model grasslands, which assessed the potential for climate-driven evolution within plant species. After some hands-on botanical training, almost all of the visitors were able to identify all of the plant species in this experiment (although there were none keen enough to taste the delicious salad burnet [Sanguisorba minor] or sweet vernal grass [Anthoxanthum odoratum] on offer).

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All of us were impressed by the depth of questions that visitors asked, and by their enthusiasm for the underpinning science. It was a rewarding day, and we are looking forward to our next visit to Ness!