Tag: Academic life

‘We answered the call to volunteer at the Lighthouse ‘mega-lab’ for COVID-19 testing’

The team of volunteers celebrating reaching 1 million samples tested. (Image credit: UK Biocentre)

Four Imperial researchers recount their experiences of volunteering at one of the mega-labs built to scale up COVID-19 testing in the UK.


Since March, the UK Biocentre laboratories located in Milton Keynes has become one of four Lighthouse Labs (the others are in Glasgow, Alderley Park in Cheshire and Cambridge) – the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities in British history. Every day the team process and analyse around 30,000 swab samples from across the country to test for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They use a combination of manual processing and high-throughput robots to inactivate the viral samples, extract the RNA and analyse them with a technique known as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to detect the presence of the virus.

The UK Biocentre labs were uniquely placed to help in the testing efforts, as in normal life they are usually home to around 30 staff processing and archiving clinical samples from hospitals around the UK. 200 volunteers across academia, civil service and industry answered a call to support with COVID-19 testing, including several PhD students and postdocs from Imperial. As their secondments draw to a close, we speak to some of the volunteers to hear about their experience: (more…)

Navigating LGBTQ+ discrimination in academia: where do we go from here?

Originally published in The Biochemist, Karim Boustani and Kirk Taylor discuss their experiences of being LGBTQ+ in bioscience, the various types of discrimination that LGBTQ+ scientists may face in academia and some of the existing initiatives and campaigns in place to combat this.


Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this article, we want to make clear that this piece is written from the perspective of two cis gay men and anyone reading this should realize that our experiences are not universal. Everyone within the community has a different journey and we cannot speak about anyone else’s experience.

We would also like to define a few terms that will be used throughout the article to help you understand the points that we make, although we would like to stress that, in this area, definitions are contested (Table 1). We use the term LGBTQ+ to refer to anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex, or anyone who is sexually and/or gender diverse. Sexual orientation refers to whom people are attracted to and form romantic or sexual relationships with. This can be to people of the opposite sex or gender (heterosexual), same sex or gender (homosexual), both sexes or genders (bisexual), more than one sex or gender (pansexual) or lack of sexual attraction to any sex or gender (asexual). Gender identity refers to how we subjectively perceive our gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex we are assigned with at birth. Society has created a gender binary, which includes expectations of masculinity and femininity, which is applied to sex, gender identity and gender expression (i.e. the way you express your gender through clothes, hair or makeup). It is important to note that some people do not identify with this binary (e.g. non-binary individuals) and some people do not identify with some or all aspects of the gender assigned to them. As scientists, we must also recognize that our choice of indicators for biological sex categorizations are unstable (on this topic, we would encourage all to read Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “Science Won’t Settle Trans Rights”). Transgender (or trans) refers to individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the expectations of the gender they were assigned at birth. Being trans is not associated with a person’s sexual orientation. Those who do not identify as trans are described as cisgender. LGBTQ+ discrimination may be based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics. (more…)

Being a caregiver while caring about a PhD

Republished by permission from Springer Nature: Nature Career Column, Being a caregiver while caring about a PhD, Luke Yates, © 2020

Luke Yates discusses how he coped with his wife’s long illness during his PhD programme.


In summer 2008, a year after I started my PhD programme, my wife Samantha was admitted to hospital with a severe chest infection. Sam had cystic fibrosis, and the infection wreaked havoc on her lungs. After a protracted hospitalization, she could not breathe unaided. Furnished with a canister of oxygen and breathing apparatus (a mainstay from then on), along with a substantial amount of antibiotics and other medications, she left hospital, and we carried on with our lives as best as we could. Sam went back to her job teaching a school class of 9–10-year-olds, and I continued pursuing my PhD in clinical medicine at the University of Oxford, UK. But she experienced another infection, which ended with her doctors wait-listing her for a double lung transplant. In January 2010, Sam gave up work, and we began to hope for a life-saving telephone call.

Caring for a loved one who had cystic fibrosis and was waiting for a transplant, while I was trying to complete my PhD programme, seemed impossible. In the laboratory, I was always on tenterhooks, thinking “Today could be the day we get the call.” This uncertainty and anxiety, together with the pressures of research, made my graduate studies tougher than most. As for planning my experiments and conducting research, I needed limited working hours so that I could provide physiotherapy, drug treatments and help to my wife. And I had to get home at a specific time because I shared caregiving responsibilities with Sam’s mum, who tended to her during the day. On top of all this, I had a daily commute of more than two hours. We couldn’t move closer, because we needed to live near our family. (more…)

One small grant can kick-start a big career

DPUK grant

Originally published on the Dementia Researcher Blog, Luke Whiley, an analytical chemist by training, reminds researchers to look out for opportunities in the small stuff. He tells the story of how a relatively small grant has taken him far in his career in dementia research – to the other side of the world in fact!


If you’d told me this time last year that I would be setting up my own research lab the other side of the world, there’s absolutely no way I would have believed you. But it’s true! I’m sitting here writing this looking out on to the Indian Ocean, having just had my first Christmas down under in Perth – even trying to keep up a stereotypical Aussie Christmas with a beer and BBQ on the beach on Christmas day!  It is an example of just how far a research career in science can take you.

I have always been interested in science, but back in my school days I had no idea just how many twists and turns my career would take and how many opportunities would present themselves. Sometimes these were big, involved decisions – a move out of or into academia, for example, but sometimes these start pretty small. That’s all my DPUK-funded course was at first – a small opportunity I noticed one day. (more…)

My mental health and academia: an open letter

mental health academia

As part of UK Disability History Month, Dr Catherine Kibirige reflects on her mental health journey and how she’s using her experiences to help others.


My name is Dr Catherine Kibirige and I’m a Research Associate at Imperial, based at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.  

I have a mental health disability. It’s been a difficult journey accepting this, and this is the first time I’ve publicly disclosed it. For a long time, I didn’t want to believe that I had a “mental illness”, or that I was disabled. The funny thing is, once I accepted these things, it’s allowed me to do better and to feel more capable than I have done before. Here in the UK, we’re currently celebrating Disability History Month. In celebration of this, I wanted to share my story and how the College has helped and supported me.     (more…)

20 Years at Imperial: what have I learnt?

Marking 20 years since Dr John Tregoning arrived at Imperial College London as a PhD student, he reflects on what he’s learnt over his career to date.


On 1 October 1999, I walked out of South Kensington tube station, fresh-faced and ready to start my PhD. 20 years later as I walk out of the same tube station to the same campus of the same university (still fresh-faced I like to think), the question is, have I learnt anything?

Spoiler alert – the answer is yes, but a guarded yes, from a staggeringly low starting point, like Marianas Trench low. Some of what I have learned is fairly niche and only useful if you work in a biomedical lab – like how to open a tightly screwed plastic tube with one hand whilst avoiding infecting yourself with influenza, some are a bit more generally applicable to having a career in science, especially if you are or want to run your own research group, and some grandiosely I think might be applicable to everyone.

School’s out

Working in a university, this may be a bit unnecessary to point out, but education never ends: we are continually learning and evolving. Even if you were able to recall all the facts from school into adulthood it is likely that they are now either outdated or completely irrelevant to the work you do. We need to retrain: to become parents, to become managers, to change roles, to retire gracefully. And for these new roles, there is no pass/fail test to say how well you have done, it is all a bit woolly. So we need effective strategies to learn for life: both for ourselves and for the others – students, children, co-workers – that we might need to train. (more…)

LGBT and the sciences: where does our pride STEM from?

LGBT and the sciences: where does our Pride STEM from?

In celebration of LGBT STEM Day, Dr Akif Khawaja shares the small things everyone can do to make STEM more LGBT-inclusive.


With the glitter of the Mighty Hoopla weekend – a LGBT-friendly pop music festival – having finally settled, all eyes are now set on Pride. For many this will mean another (hopefully sunny) weekend of short shorts, tank tops and daytime drinking. In addition to the parade, especially in London, pride month is chock-a-block of events highlighting all aspects of LGBT+ culture and history. This year, Pride in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has been helping to showcase and support LGBT+ people within the STEM fields by organising LGBT STEM Day.

So, what is Pride in STEM and what is LGBT STEM Day?

Starting with the easy one – Pride in STEM is a charitable trust run by an independent group of LGBT+ scientists and engineers. Founded in 2016, Pride in STEM was the brainchild of Dr Alfredo Carpineti, his husband Chris, and Matt Young. They aim to support all LGBT+ people spanning all of STEM and in doing so, raise their profiles and showcase their work. Now as for LGBT STEM day, this was their latest effort to promote the dissemination of work done by LGBT+ STEM staff. It falls on Friday 5 July 2019 (I’m told purposefully chosen as 507nm is the wavelength of the green stripe in the pride flag – 5.07 … get it?!) and the day before the Pride in London Parade. (more…)

Leading from the front: what can academia learn from the Army

Army leadership

Former British Army officer and current PhD student, Nadia Soliman, discusses the importance of leadership in academia and the lessons we can learn from the Army’s renowned leadership programmes. 


In my opinion the Army and academic institutions are very similar: both are organisations that work globally, across cultures and are dependent upon their people doing remarkable things to tackle some of the greatest challenges. However, one of the stark differences between the Army and academia is how the two train and equip people for the challenges they face in their job. (more…)

Life as a postdoc: why I personally couldn’t imagine doing anything else

Dr Elaine Fuertes provides an insight into the perks of being a postdoc, from international travel to independently developing research with potentially important public health impacts.


“Only a tiny proportion of you will become university professors” – a statistic every postdoctoral researcher has heard, and the vast majority of us choose to ignore. Indeed, despite the increasing awareness and acknowledgement that the large majority of postdocs will end up pursuing one of the many other available career paths open to this highly trained and ambitious workforce, as recently discussed during the 2019 National Heart and Lung Institute Postdoc Day, many of us cling on to what we know to be a highly implausible outcome – landing a tenured position.

I’ve often been asked – why do I do it? Why continue down this career path, one that many of my friends and family see as living in a perpetual state of “student life”. It is indeed a question I have often reflected upon, especially as I am not presently, nor have I ever been, a “die-hard must become a Professor” type of person. So why persevere? What drives me? Why do I continue to be fully inspired and motivated by a career path that entails so much uncertainty? (more…)

STEM needs to face up to its problem with LGBT diversity

Karim Boustani argues the importance of making STEM LGBT-inclusive, from improving visibility to expanding diversity initiatives to include LGBT people.

A large barrier to the creation of an inclusive workplace in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in my experience, is the view that being out is regarded as “unprofessional” because it is seen as too “personal”, even though most of our colleagues are “out” as being straight without issue. LGBT people tend to depoliticise themselves in the workplace because there is a commonly held view that discussions about inequality are not regarded as relevant to STEM work. The term “LGBT” will be used in this post to refer to anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex, or who does not conform to society’s expectations in terms of sexual or gender identity and expression.

The lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) diversity within STEM subjects is a longstanding issue that is too often left out of conversations about broadening participation in STEM. It is estimated that LGBT people are approximately 20 per cent less represented in STEM fields than expected. Additionally, male LGBT undergraduates are much less likely to stay in STEM degrees than straight men. (more…)