Why Ph.Ds should get involved in advocacy

«This article was originally published on the website of Focus Research, the Belgian association that provides young researchers with career guidance and professional development support. For more information about this organization, please click here».

This week, Dr. Brian Cahill, Programme Manager of the TRAIN@Ed MSCA COFUND project at the Institute for Academic Development of University of Edinburgh and member of EuroScience board, explains the reason why it is paramount for young researchers to broaden their skills and horizons, but also to contribute to the policy making process that influences their future.

Brian, could you please tell me more about your thesis? What was your research and why did you decide to focus on that topic?

BC : «In the early 2000s, I did my Ph.D in nanotechnology, a very hot topic at that time. The research focused on how to use microfabrication to make microfluidic systems in order to  provide solutions to perform experiments in chemistry and life sciences. I worked in this academic field for 15 years. Microfluidic technologies are now entering the life science industry much more than a decade ago: it was originally seen as engineers trying to do life sciences and now, it is increasingly enabling experiments and analyses at a much lower cost and driving innovation within biotechnology».

What did you try to achieve when choosing your career path?

BC : «I was really focused on my research, like most researchers I guess. I wanted to analyze a problem and solve it. My objective was to use electrical signals to move fluids and to measure fluid properties. Thanks to this research, you could measure bacterial growth and measure microbial resistance to antibioticsfor example, which is a very big topic nowadays

Why not trying to turn this research findings into an actual product?

BC : «The road to market is very long. It is hard to transfer research from academia and turn it into a product without a prototype that is close to commercialization and that fills a key market niche. Financial support is required, you must pitch your idea to investors, prove it really fits an application and you must deliver on your pitch! Moreover, biomedical applications are subjected to high regulatory and intellectual property hurdles. I see a lot of Ph.D students who are exploring technology transfer to create their own business. Many academics, especially engineers, are willing to pursue their career outside academia. On the one hand, they are well aware that only a fraction of Ph.Ds can make a career as a professor. On the other hand, they realize that there is a wide range of roles that are also very satisfying outside the university. Setting up a business in applied research is a task that requires different skills than those acquired during the academic training. Over the last years, many modern doctoral programmes have improved their content immeasurably. We need to get away from the idea that the only PhD value output is a paper in a high impact factor journal: doctoral education produces highly-trained professionals».

What about research funding programs that are made available by public authorities?

BC : «There is, indeed, a lot of funding programmes and support for early-stage start-up in the EU, which is great. But when a company reaches a more mature stage, it needs to turn to private stakeholders to grow and accelerate its development. My feedback from founders of start-ups is that European banks and investors are a lot more conservative and risk averse than in the US».  

What are the main challenges you are facing in your current job?

BC : «We are building a cohort of 25 postdocs fellows who will be hired next year. They will be based in schools throughout the University of Edinburgh. My first job is to manage the hiring and evaluation process according the TRAIN@Ed project criteria. Then, I will be responsible for organising a training schedule for the individual researchers and the cohort as a whole. Many of the projects will be in the field of Data Driven Innovation and the fellows will generate and process data, develop algorithms as well as machine learning systems. Knowledge in data management, ethics and project management are key in this position. At first, I have underestimated how time-consuming it was to deal with ethics questions in collaboration with the committees that are responsible for ethics and data protection in the schools. I never had to deal with those sort of questions before as an engineer: GDPR, data protection and social sciences are part of what I’ve been learning over the last months».

You have worked in several countries and are now very active within EuroScience, how did you get in there? What do you do exactly?

BC :. « I joined EuroScience after attending the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Satellite Event at the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester in 2016. One of the former board members of EuroScience encouraged me to apply to the Governing Board elections in 2018, which I did and I was elected to the board for 4 years. This was not my first experience since I have been quite active as Chair of the German Chapter of the Marie Curie Alumni Association and then as Chair of the Board and Executive Committee of the MCAA from 2016 to 2018. During my mandate at MCAA, the activities led by the association were very much focused on issues such as gender equality, career development, technology transfer, science communication and science policy. At EuroScience, which was founded in 1997 to represent researchers and connect them with society, we are best known for starting the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), which is one of the largest conferences dedicated to research and innovation in Europe. The different programme tracks are Science, Science to Business, Careers and Science in the City. ESOF is not limited to researchers, it is open to anyone, from the general public, journalists to policy and decision makers ».

What is your vision of science policy?

BC :  «Science policy can mean several different things! In associations like EuroScience, our aim is to represent the interests of ordinary researchers in the framing of policy initiatives by the European Commission as well as national governments and funding agencies. This should improve the capacity of researchers to make sustainable careers and improve the quality of research culture, for example, through improved research integrity in research labs and improved access to research through Open Science. Early-career researchers tend to look at their own direct problems. They have a very strong focus on finishing their Ph.D and only after they start considering their career when they start looking for a job. That is understandable, but it is important that they communicate their situation and needs to policy makers and international institutions since, very often, they are not represented when decisions are being made. There are a few organizations that represent Early-Career Researchers, such as Eurodoc or the Marie Curie Association, for instance. It is important to consult the wider research community, to see what the issues are, attending meetings, talking to people, answering surveys, etc. In the EuroScience policy working group, we are currently looking for new members so if anyone is interested in contributing, they are very welcome to take part!»

What would be your best advice to young researchers?

BC : «My best advice would be to broaden the skills they gain through their research work. Those gained during the Ph.D, such as research methods, data skills and soft skills are crucial for their future careers, in academia and the private sector alike. But some other competencies like management, communication or coding are becoming much more important. In the coming era of Open Science, the output of research will be much more than just high-impact papers».

By Marine Lhomel in charge of Corporate Communication at Objectif Recherche

About Brian Cahill
Dr. Brian Cahill is a Member of the Governing Board of EuroScience. He was Chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association from March 2016 to February 2018. He now works supporting the career development of researchers at the Institute for Academic Development of the University of Edinburgh. He studied Mechanical Engineering in Ireland and moved to Germany in 1998 to take up a position with Hewlett Packard. He received his PhD for work in electrokinetically-driven fluid flow from the ETH Zurich in 2004 and subsequently carried out postdoctoral research in colloid and interface science at the University of Geneva. He was a Marie Curie fellow and Junior Research Group Leader at the Institute for Bioprocessing and Analytical Measurement Techniques in Heilbad Heiligenstadt, where his research interests focussed on measurement techniques for droplet-based microfluidics.

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