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Facing the Challenges of Early Career Scientific Research

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Dr. Banks is a research fellow at the John Innes Centre, UK where she’s working to illuminate the mechanistic basis of virus-like gene transfer between bacteria. She is also a recent recipient of the prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship, intended to give early career scientists and engineers of exceptional promise who are looking to launch an independent research career the opportunity to instigate and conduct their own research. The projects chosen should ultimately contribute to the knowledge base pertinent to an innovative and healthy national culture. Previous recipients include 13 Nobel Laurates and numerous scientists that have gone on to be eminent in their field. Consequently, competition is fierce, with only around 1% of applicants being successful.

In this interview, Dr. Banks shares insights on her research, the challenges that face early career researchers, and women in particular, and what could be done to help them.

Karen Steward (KS): What inspired you to pursue a career in science? Were there any influential people that really motivated you to take this course?

Emma Banks (EB): At school I enjoyed a range of subjects — not just the sciences — but modern languages too. I suppose my love of biology and the natural world ultimately triumphed though! I wouldn’t say I was influenced by any one person to enter this career path. I guess I ended up here by simply pursuing topics and ideas that I found fascinating and by being constantly curious about how things work.

KS: Can you please tell us a bit about your work? Why have you chosen to work in this area of research and why do you think it’s important?

EB: I’m a molecular microbiologist and I study bacteria and how they work. I became interested in bacteria because despite being so tiny, they are incredibly complex, mysterious and (in my opinion) endlessly fascinating! In my research, I study gene transfer agents (GTAs), which are virus-like particles that transfer DNA between bacteria. It is important to understand how bacteria exchange DNA because this is how antibiotic resistance can spread. Antibiotic resistance is such a big (and frankly terrifying) global health issue that is killing over a million people per year and the problem is only worsening. If we can understand how resistance is spreading, then this might enable us to develop ways to prevent this from happening.

KS: Forging a career in science and obtaining funding can be a struggle, particularly for early career scientists. What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

EB: It really can be and especially so during a global pandemic! There are several challenges facing early career scientists like myself who work in academia, but one of the main issues is the lack of job security and having to jump between short-term contracts. There now seem to be fewer PhD graduates applying for academic postdocs – perhaps due to being discouraged by issues like this. While my job is not permanent, I am in the fortunate position of holding a research fellowship from the Royal Commission who will pay my salary for the next three years. I applied for this fellowship early on in my postdoc to support myself financially and to progress my career further. However, research fellowships are very competitive and few in number, and I think it’s important that workplaces, funders and governments do more to recognize and value the important contribution of postdocs to science globally.

KS: What do you think needs to be done to support women in STEM subjects?

EB: There are more women working in biological sciences than other STEM subjects but sadly the number seems to decrease with career stage progression. While the proportion of men and women is relatively equal up to the early career postdoc level, this number then rapidly drops during the transition to mid-late career stages such that there are very low numbers of women in group leader/professor positions. We need to support women particularly at this “dropping off” point so that women don’t have to choose between either having a career or having a family.

KS: What advice would you pass onto other women or girls thinking of going into science that you wish you’d had when you were starting out?

EB: Being a scientific researcher is the best job! The thrill of being the one to discover something that was completely unknown before... the flexibility… constantly learning new things... it’s fantastic. My main advice would be to always follow your interests and passions – this has not yet led me astray. It is also very important to find and work with kind and supportive colleagues. Science is tough – experiments fail and applications are rejected so having a strong network of people (colleagues, friends, family) around you is important. Work hard but try and keep a healthy worklife balance too or you’ll risk burning out. I think that as a woman, it is particularly important to be self-confident, strong-willed and tenacious don’t let others discourage you and maintain self-belief. Lastly and above all: be curious!

Dr. Emma Banks was speaking to Dr. Karen Steward Senior Scientific Specialist for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Head shot of Dr. Emma Banks with buildings in the background.

Dr. Emma Banks is a research fellow at the John Innes Centre, UK where she’s working to illuminate the mechanistic basis of virus-like gene transfer between bacteria. She joined Dr. Tung Le’s group at the John Innes Centre in March 2022 after completing her PhD on predatory bacteria at the University of Nottingham.