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Case Study: Dr Nandini Hayes

Dr Nandini Hayes joined UEL in 2013 as a senior lecturer in the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience at UEL.

The following is a case study to understand some of the challenges as a woman working within STEM and how Nandini has overcome these and what she would like to share with others.

What are your areas of interest and what made you interested in these?

I had an interest in science from an early age. I recently came across a scrapbook from when I was a child and I had stuck some of the elements into the scrapbook under pieces of Sellotape. I had a fantastic, inspiring primary school teacher who had a BSc in Biology and I wanted to also get a one (I don’t think that I knew what a BSc was at the time).
My route into a scientific career was quite conventional. I completed a BSc in Medical Biochemistry at Royal Holloway College and then went on to the University of Kent (UKC) to do PhD in Molecular Neurobiology. I then stayed there for 23 years as a research associate and postdoctoral research fellow. I gained invaluable experience while at UKC not only in several areas of research such as cancer biology and biotechnology but also in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? How have you handled these?
However, it wasn’t until I was made redundant that I realised how much I’d been pigeonholed in my role as a postdoc. I had fantastic opportunities; I had worked as a neurochemist, a cell biologist, I had been seconded to Pfizer and I published several papers in the field of prostate cancer biology. I had worked in America and Hong Kong and travelled extensively for conferences. The work that I did was extremely worthwhile, interesting and what I wanted to do. But in fact towards the end of my time at UKC I started to get involved in Athena SWAN and WISE (Women in Science and Education) and my eyes were opened to how pigeonholed my role had been. I realised how few women there were in academic roles (especially in the more senior positions) in STEM subjects.

Dame Julia Goodfellow (the vice chancellor at UKC) came to UEL recently to talk about Athena SWAN and a question I asked her reflected on the fact that in 23 years in my department at UKC there had been a total of only five female lecturers, three of which were part time and did no research. There had been no role models within that department. I think this was something I lacked as a young post doc as well as having someone to mentor me. I did feel that male postdocs got academic positions; not that there was a distinct or deliberate bias but it did not feel that the female postdocs were encouraged or expected to apply for junior lectureships.

After leaving UKC I took up a position as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Roehampton and realised that this is the job that I really wanted to be doing. After a year I took up a senior lectureship in Cell and Molecular Biology here at UEL.

What I take from all of this is that we are all capable but we need to ‘Make it Happen!’. We can make it happen but we have to have the confidence in ourselves and the support of each other.

How do you balance your (academic) career with life outside the workplace?
I find that there are always times (such as during exam marking or project marking) when there is a huge increase in workload. During these times I work on the train, in the evenings and at the weekends in order to meet deadlines. Outside these times I try very hard not to regularly take work home with me.

I also take all my holiday which can be difficult as there is a significant amount of teaching and research that happens over the holiday periods.

I work with excellent colleagues and so for example during the exam and resit period we will cover for each other.

What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
One other thing is that it is important is to network with people outside the institution, this is extremely important to have that support. It can be very hard to access funding for example from research councils and charities and I strongly believe that the way to go is to work in collaborations. We’ve all had experiences elsewhere, have links elsewhere and so would advise to use those links.

So for example, I have collaborated with clinical pathologists and statisticians all of whom brought their expertise to the project and enabled me to complete projects and publish papers that I would have been unable to do on my own.

What do you feel is the most enjoyable / rewarding aspect of your job?
The success and development of students both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

What achievements are you most proud of? Why? What have you learnt that you would like to share with others?
I am proud that I managed to develop my career and eventually have the confidence to apply for lectureship positions. The jump from being a postdoc to a lecturer seems huge but in reality after two or three postdocs most people are ready for the next step in their career. It is important to believe in yourself and your abilities and from very early on make contacts both within your organisation and outside. Go to conferences, meet people and stay in contact.