Nancy Rothwell on switching to a new field of research

Moving to a different sphere of study can be a fruitful - and liberating - experience

September 5, 2013

This was an area of research about which I had no preconceptions and that was liberating. I was utterly unconstrained by past thinking

Like most academics, my fate was sealed during my PhD: I fell in love with research and vowed that it was what I would do until retirement.

I am very fortunate to have been able to largely pursue that early ambition – but it did not happen in quite the way I had originally envisaged. In those days, I expected to stay working in the same research field, in which I was becoming expert, and I was also sure that I would do my utmost to avoid any of those “nasty administrative jobs”.

But career paths don’t always turn out as planned. Almost 15 years after completing my PhD, I made what to some might seem a surprising decision and moved into a completely different and, to me, largely unknown research area.

My PhD at Queen Elizabeth College and subsequent research in London was on brown fat and body weight regulation – or trying to understand how some animals and some people stay lean with little effort or conscious control. I was seemingly one of the “lucky ones” who barely gained a pound during overeating experiments. Working with Mike Stock, my PhD supervisor and then collaborator, we showed that “diet-induced thermogenesis” (an increase in metabolic rate) could be activated when food intake increased, and in animals this was because brown fat burned off the extra calories.

I became quite well known in the field, so when I moved to Manchester in the late 1980s I was keen to build my own independent career but in broadly the same area of research. So I tried to understand whether thermogenesis and brown fat played a role in the weight loss that accompanies serious injury and disease – when it can often be life-threatening. This topic fitted well with research in the University of Manchester’s North West Injury Research Centre and with the work of a newly appointed lecturer in the lab next door who worked on stroke.

With the great help of having a research fellowship and many talented collaborators, the work went well. I got to the point of testing whether an immune protein called IL-1 was the cause of high metabolism after a stroke and showed that a blocker of IL-1 did indeed prevent the raised metabolism and weight loss. But then, in one of those final experiments you do before submitting the paper (knowing that eagle-eyed reviewers will ask about it), we checked that the IL-1 blocker was directly preventing the metabolic responses and that it didn’t somehow reduce the brain damage. The findings took us by surprise. It turned out that it did reduce the extent of brain damage – dramatically – after a stroke. From that point my career changed.

The paper was accepted with significant interest and we went on to repeat the experiments in various different ways. I filed a patent through the university to use the IL-1 blocker in various brain diseases, but then came a hard choice. Should I stay in my field of expertise – metabolism and physiology – or move into the completely new world of stroke and neuroscience? With enthusiasm and great naivety, I chose to do the latter.

It wasn’t quite as hard as I had thought. I had to go back to reading undergraduate textbooks and catch up on a huge literature (and even today I still feel I have fundamental gaps in my knowledge of neuroscience). But it wasn’t as though I had switched from biology to physics – I truly admire those who do. Perhaps the hardest thing was having to pay to attend international conferences on stroke as a delegate when previously I had been a lead invited speaker with all expenses paid at the major conferences on metabolism.

But while there were downsides, there were so many unexpected advantages. This was an area of research about which I had no preconceptions and that was liberating. I was utterly unconstrained by past thinking in the field of stroke and this meant that I could be bolder (or more foolhardy, perhaps) than I would have been in a field in which I was considered an “expert”. I have researched this area ever since.

Of course, this is not the only new turn I have taken during my career. Being a vice-chancellor was most certainly never part of my career plan.

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I was a student again - isn’t that fun? They pay me to learn and discover. It is an ideal job. It has been a fascinating game

In 2004, I was happily working as a Medical Research Council research professor, focused on understanding how inflammation contributes to brain damage and getting involved in clinical trials to test the IL-1 blocker.

It was a significant year for the University of Manchester – the year in which Alan Gilbert was appointed as president and vice-chancellor of the “new” university (the Victoria University of Manchester had just merged with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology). Because I was enjoying my research, when Alan offered me the post of vice-president for research I quickly declined – but I eventually succumbed to persuasion, and I am very glad that I did. It was fantastic to have oversight of research in every discipline in the university. I never imagined that I would benefit so much from having gained a (low) grade in A-level art so many years earlier; it gave me a little credibility with our staff in the humanities.

The second major change of my career came in 2010, when I was appointed vice-chancellor. As when I changed research fields, I did as much research about it as possible, reading avidly about leadership and universities, seeking advice from anyone I could persuade to talk to me, and listening to many inspirational people from within and far beyond higher education. I learned and I am still learning from great leaders in widely diverse fields.

The skills you need to be a successful researcher and teacher are also invaluable in taking an administrative lead in a university. What always fascinated me about research and teaching was understanding and tackling problems, working with teams, communicating what you do, self-criticism and challenge, and the awareness that there is always much more to learn. The role of vice-chancellor involves and requires all of these things.

Nearly three years on, I think I have one of the best jobs in the world. It involves so many stimulating new experiences and challenges. I am also very fortunate that I am still permitted to spend some of my time on research – although in reality I depend on my senior research colleagues to do all the hard graft, while I have the joy of contributing to ideas, discussing results and having input into papers, grants and presentations – in other words, all the most enjoyable bits.

As a researcher for the majority of my working life, I have unexpectedly found that many of the lows and highs in my role as vice-chancellor have involved students. The hardest part of the job hasn’t been dealing with student protests, adverse press or a rare case of staff misconduct, but speaking to and trying to support the parents of a student who died. The best part has been seeing students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds succeed; one who won the annual prize told me that he missed part of his first year while he completed a prison sentence, while others have overcome unbelievable disability. But I also have to include attending the Nobel ceremony at the invitation of our two physicists who won the prize in 2010 as one of the high points. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t an entirely comfortable one: in my haste I packed odd shoes, so I had to wear two left feet throughout the ceremony and banquet.

As for the research, I still have aspirations and hope for a major breakthrough that will allow our past discoveries to make a real difference to stroke sufferers. But it’s unlikely that I’ll manage another major change in research direction at this stage in my career.

I feel lucky to have been able to have immersed myself in two different research areas and I think it would be much harder to make a similar switch today. Yet the ability to change path must be encouraged and supported: we need more flexibility in funding and in career opportunities to allow for the unexpected. In research, “serendipity” is so often the driver of real innovation. Funding models should recognise this. We need to make it easier for staff to move out of their “comfort zone” and to take on new challenges.

Like moving home, moving jobs can seem like a huge task and it can be stressful, but it is usually very rewarding. After all, as one of my senior colleagues puts it, “if you always follow the beaten track you may well find that all the grass has already been eaten”.

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If you no longer love it, let it go

Liz Morrish, a principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, followed up an undergraduate degree in linguistics and phonetics in the early 1980s with a PhD in experimental phonetics, both at the University of Leeds.

“In those days if you were a bright-ish student you were sent away with an undergraduate degree and told to ‘come back to see us in autumn and we’ll fix you up with whatever PhD you want to do’. I had the luxury of complete choice.”

Despite having studied maths and physics only up to O level, she chose to study how patients whose tongues had been removed nevertheless managed to recover the power of speech: “That was what was animating me at the time and it was great.”

She then landed a job at Nottingham Trent University – then Trent Polytechnic – teaching linguistics “across the board” which, of necessity, broadened her knowledge of the subject considerably.

But at the end of the 1980s she underwent a “transformation experience” after winning a Fulbright fellowship to teach at a satellite campus of the State University of New York, known as Oneonta.

“The culture wars in American universities were really getting going,” Morrish says. “You were either a new-wave radical looking critically at your discipline through lenses of gender, sexuality and queer theory or on the other side, taking the ‘dead white males’ approach.”

Her interest in queer theory was heightened by the fact that she was coming out as a lesbian and began to tease out how she could “use linguistics as another tool to make a contribution” to the theory.

Leaving experimental phonetics behind was “not exactly pain-free” but her decision to do so was reinforced by her department’s existing strength in cultural studies, which led her to wonder if she was “going to be left behind” if she did not make the switch.

She did not feel comfortable at the queer theory conferences she initially went to, but found an “instant home” in a developing linguistics and queer theory network.

And she would not hesitate to make another disciplinary leap if her developing interests prompted her to do so. After all, she says: “It is very hard to keep going in something you are just not committed to.”

Paul Jump

‘I thrive on change’

Leading stem cell biologist Darwin Prockop has travelled a huge intellectual distance since graduating from Pennsylvania’s Haverford College in 1951 with a degree in philosophy.

From there, he went to the University of Oxford to study the so-called mind-brain problem: how it is that the physical brain can give rise to conscious experience.

“But after a few months I could see I had made no progress,” he explains. So he went to the University of Pennsylvania to do a medical degree and then signed up to the National Institutes of Health to carry out a two-year research project as an alternative to service in the military.

“They asked what I wanted to work on. I said: ‘I’ve got two years: let’s solve schizophrenia. But, after six months I had made no progress. I knew I needed to have much more chemistry.” So he then did a PhD in biochemistry at George Washington University.

His desire to go back to something “very fundamental” that was “much easier” to study led him to study collagens: the most common protein group in mammals. But his focus continued to evolve as the field developed.

“First it was biosynthesis: how cells make collagen,” he explains. “Then it was about the genes involved – which meant I had to become a molecular biologist. Then it was about what you do with the genes: you find mutations, which exist in kids with brittle bone disease. Then you ask what you can do about it.”

The answer was to develop stem cell treatments. Hence, after publishing several hundred papers on collagens, Prockop moved, in the 1990s, into stem cell biology, in which he has become a leading light.

He admits that securing funding from sceptical bodies was not easy in the beginning, forcing him to move to institutions that could fund his research out of their own endowments; the Texas A&M Health Science Center, whose Institute for Regenerative Medicine he currently directs, is the sixth medical school at which he has worked.

But he delighted in the intellectual challenge of constantly learning new fields: “I was a student again – isn’t that fun? They pay me to learn and discover. It is an ideal job. It has been a fascinating game.”

He confesses that he gets “bored with what I know” and thrives on change. He also admits that the scarcity of funding and the number of collaborators required to produce cutting-edge work in the modern era makes switching fields even harder now than it used to be.

But he says that if funding can be secured, academics should not hesitate to “go with the excitement. It is a real kick all the way.”

Paul Jump

Well-known movers and shakers

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited as the father of a huge number of academic disciplines, from biology to ethics and literary criticism.

In the 17th century, the supposed father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, best known for his metaphysics (“I think, therefore I am”), also made major contributions to optics, mechanics and mathematics, including an early version of calculus. Newton, the co-discoverer of modern calculus, demonstrated similar range – and was also an enthusiastic practitioner of alchemy.

By the end of the 18th century, Thomas Young was able to make notable contributions to optics and vision, fluids, solid mechanics, physiology, light theory, music theory, language theory and Egyptology.

But by the 19th century the depth of know-ledge amassed in each field made genuine polymaths increasingly rare. Even renowned genius James Clerk Maxwell’s numerous achievements all broadly fall under the physics umbrella.

A notable exception is Marie Curie, who in the early 20th century won two Nobel prizes in different scientific fields – chemistry and physics – the only person ever to do so.

Many 20th-century physicists moved into biology after the Second World War – in some cases as a reaction against the development of the atom bomb. Two such figures were Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, co-recipients, along with James Watson, of the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin, famously overlooked for her contribution to the discovery, had a background in chemistry.

Other well-known 20th-century genre-straddlers include Friedrich Hayek, who contributed to philosophy of science, psychology and neuroscience as well as economics, and Leon Festinger, famous for developing the concept of cognitive dissonance in social psychology, who went on to study visual perception, archaeology and history.

Paul Jump

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