August 22, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans
Spotlight on Dov Stekel
What was your career pathway leading to your current role?
My early career – between completing my PhD (1997) and having my first academic job (Lecturer at University of Birmingham in 2004) – was not conventional. After my PhD, I didn’t do a PostDoc, but got a job in R&D in a large pharmaceutical company (Glaxo Wellcome as it was). I spent a couple of years there – it was a great research environment and I met many interesting people – before taking an opportunity at a start-up Biotech company (Oxford Gene Technology). That was a more mixed experience – great when it was going well – but terrible when going badly. I received a commission from Cambridge University Press to write a textbook (Microarray Bioinformatics) and left OGT to work freelance while writing.
When writing my book, I really wasn’t sure where my career was going next, and had a number of options available to me. It was actually a chance encounter with a particularly impressive young person that inspired me to look for a university teaching role. I was volunteer tutoring for the Refugee Council in a home for unaccompanied minor refugees. This girl grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. She talked about how her mother and other women ran a secret school for their daughters – who were not allowed to attend school at that time. As I was tutoring her, it became clear that she had a natural aptitude for mathematics, which she hadn’t really appreciated. She was bored by GCSE maths and wasn’t planning to do A-level maths; I’m glad I persuaded her to do so: she went on to study maths at Imperial College and two years ago received a PhD in algebraic geometry. It was as I was working with her that I realized that I had a ‘calling’ to teach at a university – to support young people with similar interests and passions for maths and science as myself.
It was a difficult year finding an academic job, but once I had a lectureship, my career became more conventional. Teaching was great from the start – I was teaching on a Bioinformatics degree – and had a wonderful class of 15 suitably ‘nerdy’ young people and subsequent years were just as fun. Research took a while for me to find my feet. With my first few PhD students I was really trying a few different ideas out before having the confidence and the right project to be PI on my first successful grant – and that was already when I had moved to Nottingham.
This year I will be promoted to professor; it still hasn’t really sunken in – indeed, I am suffering from some considerable ‘imposter syndrome’. A ‘Professor’ to my mind is someone with considerable knowledge and expertise – while I don’t feel any different from I did 25 years ago – in fact if anything I am more aware of how little I know. However, I have received many good responses to the ‘imposter syndrome’ – the best from a very longstanding and dear friend who said “imposter syndrome is good; it stops us from turning into Donald Trump”.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
I have met with many challenges along the way, but perhaps the greatest challenge were those non-conventional years after my PhD. When I was young, I always knew I wanted to do a PhD, and hadn’t really thought much beyond that. I have always been very committed to the idea of using my talents as a force for good in the world. My PhD experience was itself mixed – from a peer-perspective it was amazing – but I did not see in the successful academics where I studied the personal or scientific integrity needed to make a real difference to the world – and so I sought to make a difference within an industrial setting. Unfortunately that too was disappointing, particularly to see both a large multinational and a small start-up grind to standstills under the same circumstances of mergers and acquisitions – on both occasions I became frustrated and bored and looked for new opportunities. The book-writing, however, was a lonely experience: although I had freed myself from problems and disappointments that came from the outside – I then had to face my own dragons head on! Sometimes I think of that time after my PhD as if I were a cartoon character who had run off the edge of a cliff and was running in mid-air until looking down and, realizing where I was, fell into the sea. In many ways I was fortunate – I had the backing of my family – and as I was young and single could take risks with career (including financial risks) that I wouldn’t be able to take now with a family of my own.
How did you overcome those challenges?
Looking from the outside in, I would say two things. The first was the importance of a strong support network around me, whether personally, in terms of family and friends, or professionally, where I was lucky to have many excellent former colleagues from Glaxo and OGT. That network is still strong. One of my former Glaxo colleagues – himself now a professor in another university – was one of my promotion referees. From the inside, it was an absolute commitment to my values and a determination to pursue the path I had chosen even in adverse times.
Have there been any specific people or actions that you have found supportive in developing your career?
I have already mentioned my interaction with the child from Afghanistan whom I taught. If I think about the later parts of my career – particularly the journey from Associate Professor into promotion – I would say that my very close research collaborators – particularly in microbiology – are central to everything I do and I wouldn’t have been successful without their support and friendship. I work in an interdisciplinary field; nothing I do would be possible without collaborations with experimental scientists. I have been very fortunate here in Nottingham with my collaborations. They have entertained some of my crazier ideas (“I saw this 3 million litre slurry tank and thought of you…”), been a joy to conduct joint research with, and often complemented my areas of weakness, particularly in detailed knowledge of molecular microbiology. (As a mathematician by background, I am always playing catch-up). I could never have got to chair without my close collaborators, or the research environment that facilitates these collaborations.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say about developing your career?
The direct answer – and it is advice I use often to many people – is never to face an adverse situation alone. Too many times I thought I could (or should) go it alone and try to solve a problem – when in fact I would have been better advised to seek help, support, allies and advocates.
But to turn the question on its head, I often have ‘conversations’ with my younger self – and frequently turn to that person for his energy and inspiration. One of the frustrations of academic life is that with seniority, we no longer do the things that we do best – in my case, solving hard maths problems or writing complex computer algorithms – and instead deal with things that I struggled with when younger – writing text, people management and so forth. I see one of my roles is to create the opportunities for others that my younger self craved – to use my/their mathematical/computational abilities to carry out research of genuine benefit to wider society, and to support other young people to do this – as Masters students, PhD students or PostDocs. I often tell my younger self about the projects I have been fortunate enough to lead or participate in; in some ways I see myself as accountable to him. He cheers me on, and lends his energy and excitement to the work that I do.
This is an EDI blog – and it would be remiss of me not to speak about my family and the opportunities that the EDI agenda has afforded me.
Our two daughters were born in 2011 and 2013 – both during the time I have been Associate Professor at Nottingham. Much of the discourse about parenting focuses on women – and rightly so; but I think much of the discourse around men misses the mark: too much focus on paternity leave, when the real benefit that I have certainly enjoyed is about family friendly and flexible working. Here, I am very grateful for the tireless campaign for family-friendly working environments – mainly led by women. It has enabled me to be the father I want to be, while maintaining full time work. I see my children every day – both before and after work; I know many fathers who only see their children at weekends. This is facilitated by two things: flexible working arrangements, and changes in technology. Flexible working arrangements allow me to leave work early (4pm) most days, spend time with the children, and then pick up work again once they are in bed. Equally, it allows be to spend time working from home, combining child-care with work during the day, and again, working in the evenings. Much of my best work has been done in these settings – for example the £1.5M grant that I have was mainly written in cafes near to school/child care settings that my children (used to) attend in between drop-offs and pick-ups. What is needed for this is a culture of trust – and a focus on outcomes (what have you produced) rather than where/when we are actually working. I fear that the over-management of working time – e.g. through e-days reporting – is a barrier to this – and from an EDI perspective – I think we need to push back on this. From a technology perspective, laptop computers, wi-fi (at home and in cafes) and mobile phones free us from fixed offices. That combination of policy and technology is wonderful and freeing – and it is really important that within our policies we make the most of what our technologies offer.
Professor Dov Stekel
School of Biosciences