On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
by Claire Skentelbery, Director General | EuropaBio
Sitting as DG of EuropaBio, comes in a career that has combined a love for scientific advances with my own strengths that lie away from a research bench.
I adored biology at school but didn’t get the grades to go into pure science and I ended up taking a side path into a degree in agriculture. What felt at the time like a failure, infact started a journey that delivered me to the job I have today and the first lesson that a career in science has many pathways, most of which are not in a laboratory.
Agriculture is the ultimate in applied science. It combines science with society, culture, policy and economics and taught me to ask questions about where the science needs to go for impact, and how it gets there.
Learning about yourself – make your own pathway
The opportunity to study for a PhD in crop biochemistry sponsored by (the then) Rhône-Poulenc made me understand the decisions behind turning science into successful products. This confirmed my interest in the pathway to market beyond scientific discovery. It also confirmed that a life at the bench was not for me – it was great fun but I was only going to set the world on fire as a scientist if I literally set it on fire.
Following my PhD, I built a seemingly eclectic set of skills that infact create the foundation that supports me today. I went into the fast emerging SME scene in healthcare biotechnology, working in a scientific communications agency in the UK’s Cambridge biotech cluster. Then a stint as National Contact Point for UK biotech SMEs before going back to cluster development and international collaboration as part of the founding team behind the Council of European BioRegions (CEBR), a fabulous network of clusters that still thrives today and which brought me to Brussels in 2009.
CEBR awakened a love for development of associations, using my understanding of economic development, SMEs, science and business, and supported by an ability to communicate between diverse stakeholders. The time in EU funding also helped navigate the institutions across Europe and act as a hub to connect up regions and biotech companies through funding opportunities.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Four associations later and sitting at the heart of Europe with multi-lingual kids and two passports, I am glad every time I took a step into the unknown – all those chances helped shape what I know I can do and what I love.
So…any pearls of wisdom?
Take diverse opportunities and don’t be afraid to just have a go. Learning what you don’t like is just as important as learning what you do. Science is not only served by pipettes and lab coats and relies on multiple disciplines to get it where it needs to go. If you enjoy science (and you don’t need to be a genius for this as I have proved), you will find opportunities that suit your skills and where you are the expert in the room.
Early career jobs also don’t have to be linked, you can jump about and gain experience and skills that will combine later to serve you well. Take opportunities (a work placement, leading something new, a conference, a collaboration) and never be afraid to propose your own opportunity, don’t wait for it to come to you.