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Investigator scientist: Dr Helois Radford


Dr Helois Radford

Current job

Investigator scientist at the MRC Toxicology Unit

Key quote

“Having a permanent postdoc position has given me more time to pursue different aspects of my research; possibly even riskier projects because there is less pressure to publish quickly.”

Length of career

Nine years.

Career in brief

I did my undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Birmingham. I had experienced illness in my family, and I knew I wanted to go into medical research from around the time I was doing my GCSEs. It meant I went looking for a course that would allow me to go into research.

I then went straight into my PhD at the University of Nottingham, studying RNA biology during development. My PhD really confirmed to me that laboratory-based research was what I wanted to do. After my PhD I got a career development fellowship position at the MRC Toxicology Unit which involved a change in field to prion biology and neurodegeneration. A career development fellowship is an MRC-specific, three-year postdoc position.

Towards the end of that three-year term, I had my daughter, and my contract was extended for the time I was on maternity leave. As I was returning from maternity leave, the investigator scientist position was being advertised and I was encouraged to apply. I secured it and I’m now two years in.

The investigator scientist role is a permanent postdoc position in MRC establishments that provides continuity within a research group. It’s quite unusual to be a permanent postdoc; most postdocs in universities, for example, will be on fixed-term contracts. I think having the position has given me more time to pursue different aspects of my research; possibly even riskier projects because there is less pressure to publish quickly. It has also allowed me to have a good work/life balance.

I spend my days: It’s really varied. There are a number of research projects that I work on as well as supervising students and other staff members in the lab. I’m predominantly at the bench in the lab but I also help with its day-to-day running in terms of health and safety, the budget and general ticking over. I also assist with grant applications and paper writing. I really enjoy the actual bench work but my other roles mean I don’t constantly do the same thing, so I’m never bored.

Career highlights

I’ve been a contributing author on two Nature and one Science Translational Medicine papers which I’m pretty proud of. I work for Professor Giovanna Mallucci, and it’s really motivating to be part of such a successful lab.

Biggest challenges

The biggest challenge is always going to be the competitive nature of science. It’s not just about producing great work ― which you can do at the MRC because you’ve got all the support ― but it’s also getting it out there in terms of gaining recognition in the field.

What I’d do differently

I did a fairly fast-track course ― I went straight from my undergraduate to my PhD. Sometimes, with hindsight, I think maybe a couple of years out of academia would have been good to mature and gain a different perspective. My PhD might have gone better if I’d done that ― I think I would have been more focused and determined. Then again, I might not be where I am now, so it wasn’t a bad decision!

Skills I need to do my job

Communication is a really important ― and, probably obviously, ― skill. You need to be able to work independently ― to have your own ideas and be able to articulate them. But you also have to be able to work as part of a team ― you are a group with a joint aim. At this stage in my career I need to be able to stand up for my own ideas, but also be able to do what I’ve been asked. Resilience is also important, things don’t always work, and you have to learn to cope with it and try again.

Words of wisdom

It’s a very competitive environment and you need to be strong-willed and have a real desire to do this work. But if you want to do it, go for it.

Next steps

I’m not intending to move on for another couple of years. I want to get a few more publications under my belt and then see if I can make it as an independent researcher ― to get a fellowship and start my own small group. Within the MRC there are programme leader track positions, but I think it might be more beneficial for me to go back to a university setting to get some new experiences.

Further information

Vacancies at MRC units/institutes

List of MRC units / institutes

Working for the MRC

Correct as of: July 2015