This week, emerging cancer researcher Dr Nikola Bowden shares her personal perspective about a recent ‘near-miss’ event in her professional life – the near-end of her research career. Nikola graduated from the University of Newcastle with a B. Biomedical Science (Honours) and a PhD in Medical Genetics in 2006. Since then, Nikola has been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Newcastle, with training at the National Cancer Institute in Washington DC, USA. She is currently a Cancer Institute NSW Career Development Fellow at the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle. Nikola leads a team of researchers investigating the repair of DNA damage caused by sunlight and chemotherapy in melanoma. They discovered melanoma cells cannot recognise DNA damage, which results in melanomas developing after sun exposure and why traditional chemotherapy does not work.
On paper, my research career looks productive and successful. I finished my PhD 9 years ago I’ve published my research, held continuous local, state and national Fellowships, been awarded grants, supervised PhD students and been actively and enthusiastically engaged in promoting research to the general public. But the truth is, I faced a career ending ‘near-miss’ last year and I nearly walked away from research altogether. What is a ‘near-miss’ you ask?
On December 31st 2014 my salary and project funding were both due to end. For the vast majority of the year I had no idea if I would have a job in 2015, I had no idea who would supervise and fund my team of students and staff and most distressing of all, I had no idea if I would be around to see my cancer treatment discovery make its way into the clinic for the first time.
It was stressful, depressing and to be honest, too hard to comprehend at times. Having studied for the best part of 10 years to get my undergrad and PhD degrees, I had received over $1 million in funding in my early post-doc years, I had trained at the National Institutes of Health in the USA for 6 months to learn how to translate my research into a real treatment for cancer patients – all of this was going to be wasted.
From a personal perspective, I returned to work when each of my 3 babies was 6 months old, I had worked 20 hour days writing grants, I travelled for work, I missed milestones and major events in my families lives – all for nothing. In practical terms, losing my income would have a devastating effect on my family. We put off renovating our run-down house for years because initially we could not afford it, but after waiting it out and I was promoted, we could not loan additional money when I had no idea if I had a job in the New Year.
The professional and personal ‘waste’ that comes with a research career is never spoken about, but would be stamped out in any other industry. Everyone I spoke to about my future and job insecurity said almost the same thing: “You will be right. Your research is good, someone will fund you”. In the current funding landscape of <20% success rates (16.5% in 2014), how can anyone be certain of getting funded? Was I supposed to feel supported and willing to go on? Was it all worth it?
To put this into context; I am at the transition point of early to mid-career researcher, from a regional, non-‘Group of 8’ University with 3 career breaks under my belt – and I am female. That puts me in one of the lowest funded group of researchers in Australia. “You’ll be right” was not the reassurance or support I needed.
The penny drops
In the years leading up to my ‘near-miss’ I could never understand why anyone, particularly females left research after spending a decade or more establishing their careers. They had ‘made it’, why on earth would they leave?! A female colleague of mine was awarded a prestigious Mid-career Fellowship but less than 12 months in she decided to move into a research service role. Initially, I was shocked she had worked so hard to get to where she was, why would you give it all up? But, that was point. She didn’t want to do it anymore. The competitiveness, rejection, metrics, KPIs (key performance indicators), job insecurity, it all adds up to eventually suck the joy out of why we do research in the first place. Now she gets to help others with their research and to do what she loves without having to compete for her salary too.
I now know why so many promising and established researchers leave Academia. It is hard, sometimes too hard, to face the uncertainty over and over again. The incredible stress of not knowing if you are good enough to be funded eats away at you, even after receiving funding there is little joy or excitement, just relief you have survived another round. Many decide it is just too much to keep going. I get it now. The penny has dropped.
I have spent the best part of the last 12 months reflecting on many questions: do I want to keep going when it is only going to get harder? Do I love my research enough to endure this all again? Is my research good enough to build a career on? Am I really passionate about what I do? Would I be miserable if I left research? Every time I thought about these questions I always came to the same conclusion: Yes, to all of the above. I have to fight, I have to keep going. I could not live with myself knowing that I had got so close to testing a new treatment for cancer, a new treatment that could change people’s lives for the better. How could I walk away?
A close call
Lucky for me, I wasn’t forced to leave. After almost 2 years of rejection, I was funded. My salary and project were funded. My team is now funded. In the space of the 30 seconds it took to read the email notifying me of my successful application, my outlook changed from complete despair to adrenalin-driven euphoria. I would not describe the feeling as excitement, relief or even joy, I just felt an overwhelming sense of acceptance. A committee of people I would never meet had decided to give me a go, to acknowledge that my research was good enough to test out.
Little do they know, I never gave up. I pushed on, collected more data, met with like-minded Oncologists and a clinical trial to test my new treatment is being planned for 2015. I have survived for another 3 years, but to be honest I’m not looking forward to facing this all again in 2017. There are many reasons why women leave academia, but the ‘near-miss’ must be one of the most common, and definitely the hardest, to overcome