June 21, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans
Spotlight on Emma Weston- Associate Professor in Food Science
On this blog we are publishing career profiles that spotlight colleagues in the School of Biosciences. This week Emma Weston, Associate Professor in Food Science, speaks about her unconventional route to her current role.
What was your career pathway leading to your current role?
After finishing my Master’s degree I still did not know whether to develop a career in the food industry or not. I also wanted to stay in the Leeds area so took a short term role as Teaching Assistant back in my undergraduate department (Animal Physiology and Nutrition). In that short time I learned about the routines of work and also how to be self-motivated. However my next step was moving away to take a role as a research assistant at Oxford University in Clinical Biochemistry. These roles over the 2-3 years convinced me (sorry colleagues) that my interests in working in academia were very limited, I get easily bored and honestly, I wanted a job that paid more!
So off to use my Food Science skills………….my first role as a Project Technologist allowed me to keep the science focus but apply it on projects in pilot plants and in factories. This was the time I realised that factories capture my senses completely; the sights, smells, sounds, equipment, scale, processes and people. This has never left me over 20 years later, I still get the same feeling every time I enter one. As my promotion prospects proved limited I applied for new roles and learned for the first time how develop my skills to excel in selection processes. I secured my first Technical Manager’s role in a flour mill and within two years had developed a deep love in no particular order, of wheat & flour, managing teams and a chap called Barry (later to be my husband). I then relocated up north and spent a few years being the ‘Jaffa Cake lady’ in McVities, auditing and managing projects. I then moved into ‘chilled’ taking on a number of roles supplying the major retailers and experienced the breakneck speed of pace in that sector.
After over 13 years in industry I decided to take a shift in career. With a good wind and a bit of luck and timing I was given a short term post with Andy Taylor, initially at Flavometrix. He and David Gray had plans to develop new styles of teaching and content in Food Science courses (such as PBL – problem based learning) and I got stuck in helping to develop these new modules. This was a massive change not only moving into teaching but becoming a part time worker. After many short term contract renewals I finally secured a permanent teaching contract. In total I have been at Nottingham nine years would you believe it and managed to build 26 PBL scenarios, achieve two promotions, have hundreds of emotional farewells to wonderful graduates and am also ploughing through study for my PhD.
What challenges did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
For my first management role I was refused an interview initially. I was so convinced I could do that particular job well that I phoned the company, asked why I was not considered and reminded them of what I could offer. I got the job. Life does not always work that way, but it is worth the extra effort if you feel passionate about something.
Changing careers to move into University life was a fairly daunting challenge but I have really, really enjoyed it and in doing so affirmed that learning new skills outside of your comfort zone is scary but so exciting. My PhD study has by far been the greatest stretch. The extra workload can be a strain (ask the family!) but I would say the real test has been the development of so many of the necessary subtle skills whilst having the brain of an unsubtle mature student!
However perhaps oddly the two greatest workplace challenges for me have been firstly being a new mum returning to work whilst in the food industry and secondly working part time at Nottingham. In both cases I am being honest that they significantly compromised what I enjoyed about the
workplace, which is being wholeheartedly ‘part of it all’. I never really adjusted well to the former and perhaps over compensated in work and my home life suffered for a period. Being a part timer has been tough but over the years I have learned not apologise for it and to be clear on what is required to get done and weigh up what else I can take on. I still personally think it is not ideal for me but I compensate by being super organised and efficient so I hope I am doing my job well.
In general I overcome things using a variety of tools. Firstly running for me is a definite sanity enabler. I went through a number of years taking no exercise at all and only when you start again you realise how it clears your head and energises you. Whatever you do, I’d recommend you have something that frees up your mind and lets off steam. I need open spaces and breath-taking views so a dog and UK holidays provide all that. Also I firmly believe in the power of genuine laughter; laugh properly, weekly if possible so it aches or you cry.
Have there been any specific people or actions that you have found supportive in developing your career?
Not going to do an Oscars list here as it is not really me!
In most of the jobs I have held in industry there have been one or two people that I have either looked up to, or seen as a touchstone. However in Nottingham I have found different relationships with people, with different facets and support. I also feel that I don’t quite 100% fit in here, over time I have realised that I quite like it that way and maybe I perform better because of it.
However there have been a number of people that have been great support in developing a career here. Key colleagues in Food Sciences and in the School Office primarily gave me most of what I needed. Later in threading a pathway to gaining a successful promotion in an academic world my mentor and some senior colleagues outside of Food Sciences were superb. Over the past few years I have been increasingly energised by building relationships and collaborations with those outside of Biosciences and in other Universities. Putting the effort into networking and relationship building will really pay dividends in career success and enrichment.
Ironically people that are negative can give you significant support too by instilling in you a determination to show them they are wrong. I have used this resource at times throughout my career to great success.
I have also not mentioned the support I have from my family and friends in overcoming challenges but also indirectly in my career development. I have needed a husband (or increasingly a teenage daughter) to pat me on the back when I am bogged down in study; perhaps sometimes this is because they are wondering where dinner is, but who cares! I have needed family and mates to laugh and banter with and remember that life is not all ‘critical control points’ or module evaluation. Can I also mention cake here?
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say about developing your career?
I have to have bullets somewhere, if you know me you will understand:
· Be more organised; in time you will be super good at it but the earlier you improve, the better!
· Don’t care so much what people think, just go ahead if you believe it is the right thing to do.
· You love working with people, even when they drive you mad it is far preferable to working alone.
· Know what you are great at, know what you are not so good at. Sweat the first, be aware of the other and try and adapt as the situation requires. That said, don’t try to be excellent at everything; it’s too tiring and diversity makes for a more fun workplace.
· You will never be calm, patient and measured (even age is not really helping), but on the upside you have the drive to deliver a top quality job with a bit of personality.
· Keep showing those you love how much you love them. Work will always be important to you but home is even more so.