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International Director, Visiting Professor and author: Nessa Carey


Dr Nessa Carey, Author; Visiting Professor, Imperial College; International Director at PraxisUnico.

Career profile

“When opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to be in the shower”

With 31 years’ experience, Dr Carey is currently developing, delivering and marketing international training courses to provide people with the skills they need to drive commercial and social impact from academic science.

“I think of myself of someone who has had a lot of careers in science, rather than one scientific career.”

“I dropped out of a veterinary medicine degree to become a forensic scientist, during that time I studied for my degree (immunology) part-time, then left forensic science to study full-time for a PhD in Virology.  I did a post-doc in Human Genetics and then a Lectureship and Senior Lectureship in Molecular Biology.  I left academia to join a biotech company.  Three senior jobs in biotech later, I joined Pfizer.  After three years there I became International Director at PraxisUnico, the first time in nearly 30 years in which I stopped being a full-time scientist.  I am Visiting Professor at Imperial College and the author of two popular science books. The Epigenetics Revolution and Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome,”

“My career highlights include working on high level murder cases; successfully carrying out a pre-natal testing that a clinic hadn’t been able to crack, which meant that they could tell a pregnant woman that she was finally carrying a foetus that wouldn’t be affected by a severe genetic disease; taking highly academic research and turning it into a drug discovery programme that was partnered with a major pharmaceutical company; seeing one of my PhD students to go on to a really successful post-doc position in Francis Collins’ lab; creating a great BSc course for medical students; writing a popular science book that has reached a lot of people, and given me loads of opportunities to spread the word about how fascinating biology can be; being appointed onto a MRC grant panel – I finally felt respectable!”

Having worked in both academia and industry, Dr Carey expresses one of her biggest challenges and obstacles, “I think academia still has a long way to go in terms of supporting staff and seeing them as assets. There are exceptions in every sector of course, but generally I have felt far more supported and valued in industry. I was better at teaching than I was at research, at a time when teaching was undervalued.”

Reflecting on the paths her career has taken so far, is there anything that Dr Carey would have done differently, wishes she had known or still wonders if….

“I like the overall shape my career has taken. Looking back, I would have tried to find mentors, or an extended peer group; I perhaps should have moved to industry a bit sooner, but making that decision was quite an emotional one, because you’re not supposed to give up the Holy Grail of a permanent academic post!”

Dr Carey is inspired by great science, she says “I am not the world’s best scientist, but what I am very good at is recognising what can be developed from great science, and getting that done.  People pay a huge amount of money to support research, whether that’s through taxes or charitable donations.  We have a responsibility to create the maximum benefit for society from that money, and also to find ways of communicating what we do.”

What advice would Dr Carey give to anyone embarking on a change in their career circumstances?

“Work out what is really important for you and follow that. If you do something you enjoy, you are far more likely to succeed at it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only an academic career really counts. There is an amazing range of fascinating and fulfilling jobs out there, think of this first, not as a fall back option. There are many good scientists around but not many with other skills, such as leadership, flexibility, good communication, management, teamwork, a focus on deadlines. Develop these skills. Think in terms of T-shaped – expertise but other capabilities as well; prepare for lots of careers.  When opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to be in the shower…”

On next steps to career progression, Dr Carey recommends:

“Talk to people from as many environments as you can; if someone asks you to do something new – teach, tutor, supervise, liaise – say yes! Don’t be a perpetual post-doc; when you are thinking about your next job, think about the new skills you will have by the end of it, and preferably non-lab skills.  Knowing stuff is easy, it’s being able to do things that counts, especially the transferable skills.

Essential skills:

“Determination; flexibility; communication; getting on with people.”

Twitter: @NessaCarey

Correct as of: March 2015