Celebrating international women's day
This year’s all female team from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) sat down with YES judge, and the Royal Society’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EiR) Dr Fiona Marston, to discuss their experiences of working in science and industry and the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs).
We are a group of MRC funded PhD students at LSTM and learnt about YES through an email sent around to the postgraduate department. Despite not intending to pursue a career in industry we decided to sign up as we thought it would be an opportunity to step outside of our comfort zone and give us the chance to work as part of a team. In academia you tend to spend a lot of time alone, in the lab or at your desk, and we really relished the opportunity to work together.
We are lucky enough to have Dr Fiona Marston as a colleague here in the LSTM and during the course of our YES experience we were able to learn so much from her, not only as an entrepreneur, but as a scientist and mentor. After completion of this year's biomedical regional finals we were able to sit down virtually and ask her about her time with YES and what, after so many years, has caused her to stay involved.
How did you first get involved in YES?
"I got involved with YES because I was working in investment. I was the only one within a big team in London working on start-ups. I have a vague recollection of being volunteered when YES came along and that was it really."
"Each year, I sit on the regional judging panels and the final. I have believed in the scheme from day one, which is why I want to be involved. It’s really important as you go through your career to pass on your expertise, no matter what your career stage. I’ve done a lot of investment pitches as a CEO and the YES pitches make you step back from your own pitches and start to be self-critical. So, it’s not just that I want to pass on expertise, it’s because I learn as well as getting a lot of enjoyment."
Dr Fiona Marston is a veteran supporter of YES having been a judge since their inaugural year in 1995.
"If you keep an open mind throughout your career, you can learn something from everybody. Keeping that mentality helps other people realise that they are valued."
"My CV includes a paragraph about my strong interest in supporting young entrepreneurs and I mention YES as part of that. The further you get in your career, particularly if you start-up or run a business and become a CEO, the more isolated you become. The further up your career you go, you’re the linchpin and everybody is looking at you. So, I find that being involved in schemes like YES takes me out of that environment and puts me into a mutual support environment."
"I’ve been involved in a number of other schemes for aspiring entrepreneurs including Enterprise Fellowships run by the Royal Society of Edinburgh which are a really good next stage for ECRs if you want an entrepreneurial or translational career in research. I’ve also gone on to sit on boards such as the advisory board of a seed fund, UKI2S where I am evaluating real companies. In all of these I get exposure to some entrepreneurial ideas in fields outside my sphere of expertise from lasers and satellites to therapeutics and diagnostics."
"Through all of this I’m on a learning curve. YES, is a stepping stone to get involved in other things and as YES participants, you should include your involvement on your CVs."
"I worked at LSTM for almost 3 years in a role that was to increase our engagement with industry. Having stepped down from that role I was keen to maintain my interaction with LSTM because it is a very translationally focused research organisation that undetakes excellent high-quality research."
"The EiR scheme offered that opportunity and in applying I had great support from Professors Steve Ward and Daniela Ferreira. With this EiR award I’ve set out to do a few things. First, is to work alongside individuals in LSTM who do translational research and to support the schemes that they are involved in. Secondly, I aim to set up interactive workshops, where we can increase the knowledge of our ERCs in commercial engagement and starting spin-outs. LSTM doesn’t have an extensive history of spinning-out businesses, but it has a lot of engagement with industry from which to build."
"The ultimate aim of the EiR is to support and enhance the strategy of LSTM to create impact. Impact is created by moving our research along the translational pathway towards market, or even to market, with the aim to make people’s lives better."
"Lastly, I’ve offered to act as a mentor to as many individuals as I can, including working with Professor Ferreira to help develop the strategy for the clincial sciences group and to grow the translational work that they do with industry."
How does the relevance of YES feel compared to 25 years ago?
"When I began 25 years ago, there was a boom of start-up businesses and a focus on entrepreneurship in science. Then came the .com bubble, giving rise to companies such as Google and Amazon that now dominate the world around us. The continuing trend of start-ups has shown ERCs that spin-outs aren’t just for people with decades of experience, but can be for everybody. There has been an increased focus by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to fund the sciences, especially those on the translational pathway. We are now really reaping the rewards of funding science through our vaccine and diagnostic breakthroughs."
"In terms of representation within YES, we see a huge range of inclusive teams. However, this isn’t reflective of the real world and that’s where there is work to be done. We all have unconscious bias irrespective of gender and sadly, it is still very common to enter a board room and be faced with a room full of men in dark suits. That’s why, when I was younger, I would wear really brightly colours suits, just to make me standout."
Is YES for those seeking entrepreneur careers or is it beneficial to all ECRs?
"For me, YES is an excellent opportunity for all ERCs. YES, develops very tangible skills in leadership, teamwork and negotiation. The ability to ‘argue’ with your team mates to get your points across for the good of a common goal is an invaluable skill that many learn much later in their career. It also allows you to present outside of the typical conference environment to panels of experts, which YES attracts every year."
"The experience allows you to build networks both internal and external to your institute. During the preparation stages, it’s a great opportunity to reach out to people within your organisation for their advice and then during the workshops and presentations there are individuals present from a vast range of backgrounds."
"But please remember, it’s so easy during your PhD or postdoc to get tunnel vision. Take this time to gain exposure to other things outside of your day-to-day work. Put yourself out there, what is the worst that can happen? You fail, okay that will just build your resilience."
What advice would you give to women who are ECRs on this international women's day?
"Don’t doubt yourself. Stretch yourself and don’t be frightened to do something that seems scary. It’s easy to sit there and think ‘I can’t do that’, but you can. I hate to generalize but women often have a tendency to underestimate their own ability. When I was starting out, I applied to the best business school in the UK, and you know what happened? I was rejected. It would have been easy to give up but instead I got back up and applied again, being accepted after my second application. One of the breakthroughs of my career has been looking at a job advert and thinking ‘Yes I can do that’ – and I did!"
"From today stop making lists of all the things in life you haven’t achieved and focus on what you have achieved. Life is about resilience and all of the bad experiences we have should make us more motivated, determined and ultimately, successful."