Those of you familiar using social media may have seen #thisiswhatascientistlookslike, which aims to highlight the diversity of the people working in science, and break down the stereotypes many of us have regarding scientists.
Intensive care medicine is far from devoid of stereotypes, and my aim in writing this blog is to gently push back against few of the ones I have observed.
I am enormously privileged to work for the University of Cambridge as an academic intensive care physician. Whilst I may currently inhabit what can be perceived as an ivory tower, it wasn’t always so. My childhood was spent in the South West, where I attended the local comprehensive school. At 16 years old, having been told by the school careers advisor that medicine was “no career for a girl”, I dedicated myself to securing a place at medical school, and was later fortunate enough to be admitted by the University of Southampton.
My time in Southampton was brilliant! I commenced my undergraduate career with a clear view of the importance of work-life balance and zero ambition for an academic career – I had no idea such a thing existed. In the third year at Southampton there was a careers talk that changed my life – someone stood at the front of a lecture theatre and told us that we had no hope of ever working in a teaching hospital unless we did research, specifically an intercalated BSc, and that most of us wouldn’t be up to it as it was highly competitive. The people who know me well would tell you that I have never been entirely comfortable with being told I cannot do something, and that I may be a little stubborn! Whilst I was entirely unimpressed by the lecturer, the lecture had a similar effect on me to the school careers advisor and I became determined to get a place on the course.
The Southampton intercalated course involved undertaking an extended research project. Never having shown the slightest interest in lab science, I joined the research group of Dr Jane Warner, a non-clinical basic scientist. It was here that my love of experimental science developed. The lab was an environment I enjoyed very much – the freedom to ask questions and work out how to answer them, the technical intricacy of some of the work, and the team-work nature of the endeavour all suited me. Jane was an amazing supervisor who strongly encouraged me to develop a research career and introduced me to clinical academics such as Prof David Lomas (then in Cambridge, now at UCL) and Prof Wendy Moore (then at John Hopkins, now Wake Forrest) who were similarly encouraging. When I eventually returned to finish my clinical undergraduate training, I missed the research very much and my heart became set on becoming a clinical academic.
After House jobs in Southampton and Bath, I moved to Cambridge as a medical SHO, before undertaking specialist training in Respiratory (East of England) and Intensive Care Medicine (London). It was seven years after completing my undergraduate research before I found a way back to the lab. At this point I had been a junior doctor for six years and was exhausted due to the combination of long commutes, brutal work schedules, postgraduate exams, and job applications – much of the joy I had previously felt from my work had evaporated. A return to research came at just the right time thanks to the Wellcome Trust who awarded me a research training fellowship to undertake a PhD at the University of Cambridge, with Prof Edwin Chilvers.
There are many stories of people who have had a miserable time doing a PhD, and who loathe the experience – I was not one of them; I loved doing my PhD! I enjoyed being back in a lab, I relished having the time/space to read deeply about my clinical and scientific areas of interest, and to develop my ideas. I was fortunate to have an inspirational supervisor who supported me to pursue my career and continues to do so to this day. Like all research projects, there were periods of time where things did not work and I was anxious about whether I’d ever achieve anything meaningful, but I never once doubted the choice I had made to undertake research training.
Finishing my PhD research and returning to full-time ICU training in London whilst writing up my thesis was tough. I love clinical work, but it is fair to say that trying to write a PhD thesis after a full day of clinical service is not fun. To add to the misery, I became pregnant during this time, which in my case included severe hyperemesis as well as other complications, all of which culminated in me finally defending my PhD thesis at 28/40, and handing in my thesis corrections the following week on the way to be admitted to the maternity unit. A few weeks later, our son was born prematurely in something of a hurry on Easter Sunday. Ironic given that we had been referring to him as “the egg” throughout my pregnancy.
Family life brought many changes, and when I returned to work six months later it was my husband who became our baby’s main career, which made returning to work a little easier. However, I cannot lie, there was little easy about it. More than once it was pointed out that I was now a mother and should therefore be giving up my research career and changing to less than full time clinical work. I struggled with what felt best to me and my family not aligning with other people’s expectations. Over time, I became more comfortable with the choices we had made, but I have never come to understand why people feel the need to inflict unsolicited career/life advice on their colleagues.
When our son was two years old, I was awarded a Fulbright All-disciplines Scholar Award and a further Wellcome Trust Fellowship, and we relocated to San Francisco, which was amazing. San Francisco was rewarding both scientifically and domestically, and we made some wonderful friends. We subsequently returned to Cambridge, where I completed my Wellcome Fellowship and took up my current post (University Lecturer). Since then, I have established a research group, undertaken clinical work as a Consultant on the John V Farman ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, and assumed a leadership role for the NIHR Integrated Academic Training programme at Cambridge. I consider myself very fortunate to have developed a role where I get to spend every day with talented people all focused on improving the health and well-being of patients. For me the combination of clinical work, research, and teaching are interconnected – I would not willingly give up any of them.
On reflection, I think three things have been of greatest assistance in my career – a supportive partner, fantastic mentors, and a strong sense of purpose (sometimes observed as stubbornness by others!). In sharing my career journey, I hope I have shown that whilst it can seem that some people develop their careers with the greatest of ease, it is not so for all of us. However, even in the face of great obstacles there is often a way forward if only we can find it.
I am always happy to hear from anyone considering a career in research, or whom thinks I may otherwise be able to be of assistance, and can be reached via @charlot_summers or firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlotte is an academic intensive care Consultant in Cambridge. She feels passionately about widening participation in medical and academic careers, and believes that research should be a core activity for all clinicians as it improves patient outcomes.