Case Study: Dr Nicholas Casewell. Senior Lecturer & Welcome Trust & Royal Society Research Fellow. Faculty of Biological Sciences.

As a child, I was interested in animals, and loved watching nature documentaries on TV. I was generally good at science at school, and studying Biology seemed a natural progression for me, particularly since I was not one of those people who knows exactly what they want to do in life. 

During my undergraduate biology degree, I developed an interest in Parasitology, and ended up completing my final year at LSTM as it had just launched a new BSc in Tropical Disease Biology. Once at LSTM, I discovered the existence of ‘venom’ as a research theme and completed my dissertation within LSTM’s Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit.

Following my undergraduate degree, I ended up working in financial services for a year and absolutely hated it. Although I knew I was interested in Biology from my degree, being involved in something completely different really crystallised that I wanted to work in a research environment. I successfully applied for a PhD studentship that came up at Bangor University to investigate the evolution of snake venom toxins, and part of the studentship provided me with the opportunity to work with a company that made antivenom treatments for snakebite.

I completed my PhD in 2010 and wanting to stay in research, I applied for a couple of post-docs. I wasn’t successful with either, but was offered a managerial post at the antivenom company I was required to work for as part of my PhD. The role had a commercial focus, and involved developing, trialling and licensing the antivenom products that were being developed at the facility. Despite enjoying the role, I was aware of the fact that it was a stop-gap, as my interests remained in academic research. Determined to go back into academia, I successfully applied for a 3-year independent research fellowship with the Natural Environment Research Council, which enabled me to drive my own research at an institution of my choice.  I started my research at Bangor, but when LSTM achieved independent status as a Higher Education Institution (HEI) in 2013, I transferred my fellowship and entered the School’s career track scheme. As my salary was funded by my fellowship, I was cost-neutral. I completed the fellowship in 2015 and the career track in September 2016, and the same year I managed to secure a 5-year Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Research Fellowship. My line manager encouraged me to apply for promotion at LSTM and I became a Senior Lecturer.

I have benefitted from a range of mentors and support structures, most notably Dr Rob Harrison, who as Head of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit at LSTM has mentored me for almost ten years. My very supportive Head of Department Professor Mark Taylor, and Dean of Faculty Professor Alister Craig, arranged two internal interviews to help me prepare for my Wellcome Trust interview. Each mock session included 5 individuals on each panel, all senior academics who committed their time to support me in my application process. These sessions were crucial, giving me a lot of confidence going into the actual interview.

At the start of 2013, when still working in Bangor, my first daughter was born. I wasn’t eligible for paternity leave, as I had been in post for less than 6 months. However, as I was managing my own project, I managed to take annual leave. When my second daughter arrived in 2015 when I was working at LSTM, I was able to take 2 weeks’ paternity leave before the Christmas holiday. I was surprised that I found it easy to switch off from work and managed to extend my holiday allowance into January to prolong my leave. 

In general, I find that I am now more relaxed about switching off from work. I am fortunate enough to be on an established career ladder, so I don’t feel as vulnerable as I did when I was employed on short-term contracts. This is the problem with fixed-term contracts – people feel a lot of pressure, and you are always aware that searching for your next position is only a short way down the road. It is not conducive to family life, especially if both parents are working as post-docs.

I am also fortunate that I can now be more flexible with my time because of my position. My oldest daughter has recently started pre-school, and when my wife is working, I take her to school and end my working day a little later. Or I sometimes leave work earlier to pick her up, and work some evenings. I think it is important that colleagues feel comfortable about coming in late or leaving early.  It is crucial that institutions promote a culture that supports flexible working to help parents, and everyone, achieve a solid work-life balance. People shouldn’t feel bad about coming in to work at 10am, or leaving at 4, as long as everything is agreed ahead of time. What is important is that you get the job done, and feel you are managing both work and life successfully. So much work and research is now computer-based and can be done anywhere. Of course there are always going to be exceptions to this, like when you have to perform long experiments over consecutive days, but as long as there is flexibility to offset these occasions, then flexible working hours can be hugely beneficial.

I became Chair of my Faculty Athena SWAN team in September 2016. I have had to immerse myself into it in a small period of time, and at times it has been a challenge. During my time as Chair, I have become aware of a lot of wider issues colleagues are facing that I hadn’t thought about previously. It has been quite revealing and I thoroughly enjoy working with colleagues to further promote gender equality within our institution.

I have seen the Equality and Diversity agenda at LSTM grow in a very short space of time, and it is satisfying to see the institution increasingly invest in the establishment of equality, including employing an Equality and Diversity lead and a dedicated institutional Athena SWAN Officer. One of our ultimate aims, is to embed Equality at the heart of our everyday practices. Gender equality is not just a ‘women’s issue’. It affects everyone.