Medical Research Council (UK)
  • London, United Kingdom

Research/technology specialist director: Dr Sara Wells

30th Aug, 2016


Name: Dr Sara Wells

Current job: Director of the Mary Lyon Centre, MRC Harwell

Length of career: 22 years

Key quote

“Being a facility director or manager is the perfect job if you are interested in science but want a more structured role and don’t just want to focus on one area.”

Career in brief

I did my undergraduate degree in genetics at the University of Sheffield, followed by a PhD in genetics and neuroendocrinology at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). I then moved to the University of Bristol to do a five-year postdoc in gene control, looking specifically at genes involved in the endocrine system. During the last two years, I started managing the transgenic unit and a small cryopreservation unit. It was something that happened quite organically as the facility grew and I had the right skills for the job, but I soon started to really enjoy the managerial side. I realised fairly early on in my postdoc that I didn’t want to just focus on one scientific area. And also that I wanted to do something more structured and organised than academic research would perhaps allow.

I came to Harwell in 2002 and I’ve been here ever since! I started out as deputy head of two services — transgenics and mutagenesis. In 2005 Harwell decided to create the new role of Scientific Manager — to closely integrate the service facility with the research laboratories — for which I successfully applied. Because this was a new role, I had the opportunity to establish new processes and work with a very experienced team. I then became Head of Operations in 2009 when I took on responsibility for all animal care and project planning before I was promoted to Director in 2014.

I spend my days

Breaking it down, I would say that around half my time is spent at my desk or in meetings, which might be internal or external. I sit on various national groups and committees including the LASA council (Laboratory Animal Science Association) and the animal welfare and ethical review bodies for two other establishments (one academic, one pharmaceutical). I have recently spent time discussing and advising on the implementation of severity assessment for genetically-altered mice.

Around 20 per cent of my time is spent informally seeing and advising researchers on site or in the mouse facility and 30 per cent meeting collaborators off-site, visiting other animal sites and discussing best practice.

Career highlights

There have been many! I would say that the top include the Mary Lyon Centre gaining our ISO 9001 quality accreditation, the success of our flag-ship project (the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium) and overseeing the development of a national apprenticeship scheme at Harwell. The scheme was one of 26 chosen by the Government to be a Trailblazer - developing new sets of standardised apprenticeships. We will establish two - a Licensed Animal Technician and a Named Animal and Welfare Officer.

Among the unit successes have been supporting both individual research groups and large projects. It’s really satisfying when ex-PhD students turn to us for advice and help on mouse projects when they are well-established researchers. I am currently involved in developing some new potentially game-changing equipment for analysing behaviour; it’s a really exciting time!

Biggest challenges/obstacles

Learning about finance and budgeting! Unfortunately it falls under the category of one of those things you just have to do. I want to make the centre a positive place where people look forward to coming to work each day so I am always looking for new ways to keep motivation up.

On a more personal level, I found the transition from Head of Operations to Director quite hard; dealing with a different level of people. Luckily I had the opportunity to receive some professional coaching. This was brilliant and the coach taught me lots, including how to prepare for big meetings, how to accept that not everything was going to go my way all the time and most importantly, how to balance work and family life (I am still working on that one!).

Skills I consider most valuable

Good communication skills are essential — so much of this job is about talking and listening to people. Being knowledgeable about the day-to-day work of the centre — I find that people respect my background in genetics. And also, being able to appreciate the talents of others.

I am inspired by

My PhD supervisor Iain Robinson, who was what I would call an honest scientist - he believed in integral data. It didn’t matter if the data didn’t support your hypothesis as long as it was true. He is great at experimental design and focusing on biological relevance, rather than just stats and numbers. And my dad. He was an incredibly hard worker, returned to work very shortly after being one of the first people in the country to have open heart surgery in the 1970s and taught me that you won’t get anywhere without putting in the work.

I wish I’d known that

Having kids doesn’t need to delay or upset your career. It’s incredibly hard sometimes to juggle work and home, but I don’t think it has made any difference. With hindsight, I would have had them earlier (and maybe a third!).

Words of wisdom

Make sure you say if you aren’t sure about something. No one will think badly of you if you don’t know something and need to ask, but they will if you pretend you already know it.

Next steps

I see my future as being here and helping the centre grow further: being at the forefront of genome engineering, moving mouse models ever closer to the human genome and making them more accessible to researchers who don’t currently use them.

Further information

Twitter account: @WellsSara

Video on MRC Harwell website:


This post was originally published on the MRC website.

Posted 30th Aug, 2016
Read more from Medical Research Council (UK)
9th Sep, 2016

Working Life: Dr Shamith Samarajiwa

Dr Shamith Samarajiwa’s computational biology group is the newest team at the MRC Cancer Unit. His group develops multi-disciplinary data science, data engineering and computational biology solutions to understand the complex biological systems involved in carcinogenesis.
Dr Shamith Samarajiwa (Copyright: Johannes Hjorth)
Career in brief
PhD in Molecular Immunology and Computational Genomics
Established the first bioinformatics group at the Monash Institute
Six years at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
Established a new computational biology group at MRC Cancer Unit
This is an exciting time to be dealing with biomedical data. In a world poised and waiting for personalised medicine, computational biology will help us to detect cancer sooner by realising the potential of big datasets. There are millions of datasets already out there but these are completely underutilised.
I’m surprised we don’t yet understand some of the fundamental aspects of carcinogenesis. Across the millions of datasets already available, and those that are being generated, we should have enough information to understand how these processes are regulated. The problem is that datasets are being mined at only the shallowest depth and much biological insight is unexplored or undiscovered.
It is so much easier to generate large data sets now than even just a few years ago, but we need more well-trained data scientists to join and help understand these complex datasets.
I gained my early data analysis skills working in the computing and informatics industry but I was keen to work in science and took a role as an analytical chemist at Unilever before studying biomedicine at Monash University.
I found that my computing skills were fairly rare in the field and I would frequently get drawn into other projects. I had the opportunity to be involved in some of the early bacterial genome sequencing projects and one that involved sequencing the malaria parasite genome for making DNA vaccines.
During my PhD, my computing skills drew me into a project that involved analysing microarray gene expression data and I found myself working as a bioinformatician for a consortium of seven Australian universities, on top of my PhD project. We were looking for anti-inflammatory markers in chronic inflammatory diseases and had generated huge amounts of data from DNA microarrays.
The Monash Institute was one of the first research institutes in Melbourne to have their own microarray scanner, and as they had no bioinformaticians, I had to offer my services! This work eventually led me to form the first bioinformatics group at the Monash Institute once I had completed my PhD.
My group built bioinformatics resources to understand and analyse Interferons, a group of immune proteins that act as the first line of defence against pathogens, and is released in response to the presence of microbes and tumour cells.
I had been working with bioinformatics methods since they were in their infancy. I wanted to develop new approaches and deal with more complex problems. After a couple of years, I moved to the UK to work with Professor Simon Tarvaré at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute to do just that.
Being exposed to Bayesian statistics, machine learning, advanced computational biology, and large –omic data-sets broadened the type of problems I could tackle.
I worked on computational methods to integrate prior knowledge and different cancer data sets to improve our ability to extract meaningful biology. This work allows us to build toolkits to tackle new problems as they arise.
From there, I moved to the MRC Cancer Unit to establish a new computational biology group.
I have a strong interest in studying immune and inflammatory responses, epigenetic changes and gene regulation in cancer development and we are applying data science and computational biology methods to understand complex systems involved in different aspects of carcinogenesis.
One area of our research is the p53 transcription factor and its target genes, which we know to be important in a number of carcinogenic processes. There are over 80,000 papers published on this protein and 5,000 more are released every year. We built software to trawl through all this information and identify relevant interactions which we can then feed back into our analysis of cancer datasets.
Kirschner, K., Samarajiwa, S.A., et al. PLoS Genet. 2015 Mar; 11(3): e1005053/CC By 4.0
We generated this map of the p53-targets identified by our Rcade software, taking advantage of over 300 external high-throughput genomic and proteomic datasets. Our data revealed the importance of p53 to the integrity of entire gene networks.
Across my research and practice, a key factor for me is scientific reproducibility. This starts with encouraging experimentalists to involve statisticians in designing their experiments and follows right through to the computational analysis of data sets to ensure transparency and consistency in the use of software. I started this at Monash and we are implementing it now at the MRC Cancer Unit.
The outstanding research done at the MRC Cancer Unit and surrounding biomedical campus, combined with the opportunity to make use of my existing networks and collaborations in Cambridge, played a critical role in my decision to move to the unit.
In time, we would like to build computational methods and tools that extract meaningful biology from big biomedical datasets. This will allow us to generate hypotheses and make predictions to better understand the complex processes involved in carcinogenesis.
As told to Mary-Clare Cathcart and Sylvie Kruiniger
Our interactive careers framework:
Jim Smith’s post:
Why peer review needs you:
The blog:
This post was originally published on MRC Insight under CC BY 4.0.
30th Aug, 2016

Flexible working policies

The MRC is committed to training and developing the next generation of research leaders from a diverse population. We recognise that different people will make different choices in pursuing a research career and we actively support this by providing flexibility in the range of awards offered to ensure a fair funding system.
We are taking a fresh approach to supporting careers by removing eligibility criteria based on years of post-doctoral experience. This will allow for variations in career paths, recognising that the speed of career progression can be affected by factors unrelated to a person’s scientific potential.
We are a signatory to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and we expect both organisations and MRC fellows to adopt the principles of the Research Councils UK Statement of Expectations for Research Fellowships and Future Research Leaders.
Career breaks
All MRC fellowships are open to individuals returning to research following a career break.
The assessment of MRC funding applications frequently involves appraisal of the applicant’s track record. In making this appraisal, review panels take into account time spent outside the active research environment, whether through career breaks or flexible working.
Applicants should make clear any substantive periods of absence from research within their application. Details of career breaks or flexible working will only be used to make appropriate adjustments when assessing an individual’s track record, productivity and career progression.
For further guidance please see MRC guidance on Career Breaks and Flexible Working (PDF, 40KB).
MRC sponsored Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships provide an opportunity for postdoctoral scientists to recommence a scientific research career after a continuous break of at least two years, and offer the opportunity to undertake refresher or further training. MRC sponsored fellows include those who have returned to research after taking a break for family commitments and those who have worked outside of research.
Part-time working
The MRC is very supportive of applicants who may wish to combine their research with personal or domestic responsibilities and we therefore offer all fellowships on a part-time basisIf you are a prospective applicant and would like further information on applying for a part-time award, please see the MRC’s Guidance for Fellowship Applicants. If you are a current MRC fellow and would like further information on continuing your award on a part-time basis, please see the RCUK Terms and Conditions of Grants.
Maternity/paternity/adoption/parental leave and pay
All MRC Fellows are entitled to take maternity, paternity, adoption or parental leave in accordance with the terms and conditions of their employment. Full consideration will be given to requests for fellowships to be placed in abeyance during the absence of the Fellow and the fellowship then extended upon their return. As described above, the fellowship may then be continued on a part-time basis to allow the Fellow to meet caring responsibilities. For further information, please see the RCUK Terms and Conditions of Grants.
Sick leave
All MRC Fellows are entitled to take sick leave in accordance with the terms and conditions of their research organisation. Full consideration will be given to requests for fellowships to be placed in abeyance during the absence of the Fellow and the fellowship then extended upon their return. For further information, please see the RCUK Terms and Conditions of Grants.
Other Extensions to fellowships
MRC fellowships may also be extended for up to six months to cover breaks or delays in the appointment of staff and may also be requested for exceptional unforeseen delays. A grant maintenance request should be raised via Je-S for all requests and those Fellows requesting an extension for an exceptional unforeseen delay should contact MRC to discuss their circumstances before submitting the request. For further information, please see the RCUK Terms and Conditions of Grants and the MRC’s Guidance for Fellowship Applicants.
Carrying out research overseas, at a second UK centre, or within industry
All MRC fellowships support a period of research overseas, at a second UK institution, or within industry where appropriate for the research project. If the fellowship project includes a period overseas of six months or more, costs for fares, baggage, medical insurance and rent or accommodation will be supported and an overseas living allowance may be requested. Travel costs for a spouse and/or children may also be requested if the family will be accompanying the fellow for the whole period. For further information, please see the MRC’s Guidance for Fellowship Applicants.
Transferring fellowships to another research organisation
All MRC Fellows may request for their fellowship to be transferred to another research organisation so long as the organisation is eligible to hold grants, and is able to provide a suitable environment to enable the project to be successfully completed. All requests must be sent via the Grant Maintenance facility in Je-S. For further information, please see the RCUK Terms and Conditions for Grants.
If, after consulting the relevant guidance, you have any further questions, please contact:
Our interactive careers framework:
Jim Smith’s post:
Why peer review needs you:
The blog:
This post was originally published on the MRC website.
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30th Aug, 2016

Higher Scientific Officer: Majidah Hamid-Adiamoh

Name: Majidah Hamid-Adiamoh
Current job: Higher Scientific Officer in the malaria group at the MRC Unit The Gambia and full time PhD student in Molecular Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Ghana
Length of career: 11 years
Key quote:
Positivity, hard work and persistence in following what you believe are the keys to progression in one’s career. For me, I refused to give up even when I wasn’t sure if this career was actually leading in the direction that I envisaged. I kept working at it, and these values have been my mainstay.
Career in brief:
I gained my BSc in Biomedical Science from University College Hospital, Nigeria. Since then, all my research experience has been working at MRC Unit The Gambia (MRCG). I first heard about the MRC as an undergraduate when I was part of a blood bank and phlebotomy lab where we collected blood in MRC bottles.
Research has been my passion since I was an undergraduate and I have always wanted to contribute my own quota to the vast sum of research and knowledge in my field.
After my degree, I joined MRCG with the basic medical microbiology skills required for malaria parasite culture. The role gave me the opportunity to handle technologies I’d previously only read about: I was trained on using automated systems for sample analysis including BACTEC, Medonic and axsym analyzer.
Following this initial project, I have benefitted from the numerous training opportunities MRCG provides for staff both locally and abroad; these have included training in molecular biology, cell culture, serological techniques, statistics and quality management systems. That training in molecular biology has led to this becoming the mainstay of my career today. The MRC also sponsored me for my MSc at Ulster University. My MSc project addressed a baseline detection of genes responsible for knockdown insecticide resistance mutations in mosquito population in The Gambia.
Thanks to my line manager, in 2009 I achieved a measure of independence in my work when I began to run a mini-project on developing a novel method for identifying mosquito species in The Gambia. My line manager introduced me to the project objectives and how to develop the method and I took things from there: combining the work with my part-time MSc and nursing a baby! There are times I cried on my way home due to failed assays which I followed with overnight reading on what to do next... The project was a success though and since then, I have gained confidence in my science and in my own abilities.
I spend my days:
I am mostly in the lab performing assays, at my desk analysing results from previous runs and troubleshooting whatever goes wrong and then dashing back to the lab to run assays. I also prepare summary reports for my supervisor. For almost two years, my main work has been optimization of new methods we have been introducing in our labs and supervising technicians in applying these assays on study samples.
Career highlights:
Winning the L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship was a great achievement for me. It was a moral boost that helped resuscitate my self confidence as a scientist and rekindled my hopes for the future. Shortly after, I received a full PhD scholarship which was another highlight. I am determined to encourage others to keep working and to never give up hope in their abilities to achieve their dreams.
Biggest challenges:
The biggest challenge I have faced so far is advancing in my career to a PhD level after obtaining my MSc. It took me almost six years to eventually secure a PhD opportunity. In 2014 I applied for more than 20 scholarships for two main admissions. I got to the interview stages of most of these scholarship applications but always lost to younger applicants. I thought that I might have to self-fund my PhD if I really wanted one as much as I did.
However, I started learning from online resources on how to identify and develop scientific research proposals. I came up with more than five proposals which I sent to mentors. I eventually settled for the one which I secured my PhD admission at the University of Ghana, and with which I competed for L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, which I received.
What I’d do differently:
I wish I had taken the initiative earlier to develop my own research project for my PhD rather than spending five years applying for a fully funded PhD attached to a project. I was also slow to realise that mentorship does not have to be from my immediate environment only. There are many people out there who can also help.
Once I realised the problem, I used every opportunity to socialise and network with whoever I could in my immediate environment, at workshops and conferences, to seek advice on some of the proposals I developed. Right now, I am very confident that I have the skills, values and all it takes to successfully complete my PhD and produce the required publications (and more) from this studentship.
Skills I consider most valuable:
In addition to the core technical skills, writing and communication skills are very important and scientists must read far and wide around other scientists’ work because that is one of the ways to be technically and theoretically sound. Next is to develop the ability to identify knowledge gaps, develop questions around these and get good at fundraising for the research. Finally, a successful scientist must be great at communicating their findings to the world. I am personally a-work-in progress in these areas but I am committed to building these skills.
I am inspired by:
Those great malaria researchers who have worked tirelessly to bring down the burden of malaria to the present level have inspired me and will continue to. Their continued efforts have reduced death due to malaria by 60% (WHO, 2015). I did not understand the extent of the social and economic burden of malaria until I became involved in the research and I have been inspired to be part of the global family and contribute my own quota towards eliminating and eradicating the disease.
I cannot forget my line manager and supervisors – I’ve had many supervisors over the years, I can’t mention all of their names! Seeing their zeal to keep working, reporting and celebrating their success really inspired me. I want to be like them...
Words of wisdom:
To junior scientists, I’d say: Don’t wait to be pushed in order to move up, rather you should take the initiative - seek advice, socialise, network and be out there.
To senior scientists: I appeal to you to look back a little more and remember what it’s like to be starting out - use your experience and wisdom to encourage and carry along the young.
Next steps:
Initially, my PhD was part time and self-funded. But, I have recently secured a full scholarship so I will now be on a full-time program. This is a big achievement for me. I want to concentrate on my PhD and be able to complete it very successfully. I believe this is just the beginning of my success story.
I have learnt during the difficult days to focus and keep working. I want to improve on my networking skills and identify many more mentors during this period, while at the same time improve on my thinking and problem-solving abilities. I hope to come up with a highly competitive post-doc proposal and get funding for it as soon as I complete my PhD. This is a huge challenge I am prepared to overcome with utmost dedication and hard work.
Further information:
Our Blog about Majidah
Majidah Hamid-Adiamoh receives For Women in Science Doctoral Fellowship from L’Oréal-UNESCO
Majidah’s LinkedIn Profile
MRC Unit, The Gambia
University of Ghana
MRC guidance on career breaks
Our interactive careers framework:
Jim Smith’s post:
Why peer review needs you:
The blog:
This post was originally published on the MRC website.
Image credit: Copyright L’Oreal South Africa - For Women In Science Sub-Saharan Africa Fellow 2015