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Case Study: Dr Sally Cutler

Dr Sally J Cutler joined UEL in January 2007 as a senior lecturer and subsequently became a reader 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 Sally 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 became interested in and had a passion for science at early age. At age of 8 I tried to work out what chicken language actually was by recording and analysing their noises! From there I started to get an interest in infectious diseases, all my dolls had horrible infectious diseases! The passion for science was really part of my make up from an early age.

School tried to knock this out of me and I felt school tried to push us down a certain pathway as girls; for example, you had to do Domestic Science as a girl. Following the first lesson on how to lay a breakfast tray, I protested and consequently was the first girl within my school to move over to Agricultural Science and Technical Drawing. These first challenges I think showed me the need for drive and determination if I wanted to succeed!

After school, I went on to study Microbiology at university. Again, gender was an issue as the balance while studying for my degree was skewed with mostly males in my cohort.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? How have you handled these?
Following my degree, I was keen to put what I had learnt at university into practice and I started working in diagnostic labs within several different hospitals. I worked from junior level up to managing a small team. However, I realised was never going to have control of over the progression of my career within this environment and that I would need a PhD, so I applied for a PhD studentship within a diagnostic unit.

The initial discussion with the supervisor, prior to applying, itself presented a challenge! As on finding that I was married, I was inappropriately asked about plans for having a family! While this gave me some misgivings about applying for the studentship, I did apply and was successful. It was hard work; getting through the routine work of managing the lab before being able to get on with the PhD research involved a lot of juggling and prioritising. After 6 years of work and a lot of data, I found I was expecting my first child and therefore was under pressure to complete. At the viva I was 8 months pregnant and passed successfully!

Following working in the diagnostic labs, I worked for a time in a veterinary Institute in a research manager post. However, because it was difficult to get support with my own research and because I wanted to work in a more academic setting, I moved to UEL.

In terms of challenges, balancing work and home and managing the logistics of childcare was a challenge. There is a long hour work culture in research and balancing this with managing childcare was very difficult at times. The birth of my three children correspond to the places in my CV where my research output drops.

How do you balance your (academic) career with life outside the workplace?
Within a university environment, managing the teaching and finding adequate time for research while balancing with childcare can be difficult. I normally worked long days in the week and so blocked time off at the weekends for family time. Now that the children are older, this is easier but the balance between teaching and research continues to be difficult. Research often gets pushed over into my own time.

Who have been your professional role models? Why?
I haven’t really had any role models either personal or professional. I just wanted to succeed for myself. I am very stubborn! With perseverance I have got things done and have achieved.

What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
I feel that there is a continuing need to foster collaboration and networking within the research environment. It is so important to know what is happening out there and it is too easy to drop off the radar. Maintaining visibility on committees and advisory panels externally is very important and priority for research time is needed to do this properly. For example, I am working on a European COST Action proposal and it is through this external network that I have brought in funding for research.
What do you feel is the most enjoyable / rewarding aspect of your job?

The rewarding aspects of my job include inspiring students and helping them believe in themselves and the research, although I would like to be able to focus more time on this!

What achievements are you most proud of? Why? What have you learnt that you would like to share with others?
What have I learnt that I would like to pass on? The importance of visibility and survival skills! It is about being imaginative in how to make best use of resources and opportunities.