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Research/technology specialist director: Dr Sara Wells


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% of my time is spent informally seeing and advising researchers on site or in the mouse facility and 30% 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: www.har.mrc.ac.uk

Correct as of: October 2015