Guest Blog Dr Claire Walker: From academia to the bench, and back again. An immunologists journey.

Whilst Girlymicro is away trying to find some of this work life balance people keep talking about, the charming and wonderful Claire has stepped into the breach to keep you informed and amused.  Isn’t she lovely!?

Blog By Dr Claire Walker

Paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln. 

From the Bench

More than a few years back I took my good friend Kip Heath for a drink and told her that I’d decided to undertake a post graduate certificate in clinical and professional education. Her response was something along the lines of, whilst choking on her drink and laughing at me, ‘but you hate education and training, you only like research, who on earth got you to agree to this one?’ And based on my backstory she wasn’t totally wrong. I’d always felt that healthcare scientists fell into one of two groups when it came to training and education. The first had the best possible training, adored their mentors, and want to share their wealth of knowledge. The second group viewed training as a rite of passage, had every corner knocked off on the way up and want everyone to suffer for their art just as they have. Historically, I had fallen firmly into the second camp. My gruelling but formative experience had, in my humble opinion, made me an excellent and extremely driven clinical scientist who didn’t need any spoon feeding or hand holding thank you very much.

So, who had got me to agree to this? The one and only GirlyMicro. GirlyMicro has the delightful quality of not always recognising what a huge deal she is in the world of pathology, so when she stopped me in a corridor at work and said, ‘I’ve picked up some funding for a PgCert, is education your bag? Fancy applying?’. I, of course, responded with ‘yes please, thank you for noticing me and I will jump through literally any hoop to make this happen’. Then left the conversation, head in hands wondering exactly what I had let myself in for.

Drinking the Kool Aid

So off I went to study education theory and practice. To begin with I told myself this was all about improving my section of the laboratory. Each senior scientist in a department runs their own bench; a set of scientific tests staffed by a selection of junior staff members and trainees. I ran the research and development bench. In my opinion, this is the most exciting work done in a clinical laboratory but I have to confess my trainees at that time rarely shared my enthusiasm. But that couldn’t have possibly had anything to do with my diffident approach to training, could it?

With each lecture, I found myself struggling to justify my approach (or lack thereof) and why I had resisted this for so long? Why wouldn’t I want to learn techniques to disseminate information well, why couldn’t I improve my communication skills, and why was I so resistant to helping our students become the very best healthcare scientists they could be? With the benefits of hindsight, I had bought in to a toxic culture based on exceptionalism and prestige. Why was I expecting every junior member of staff to learn exactly the same way I had? Could I not see that there were far less painful routes to success available to them? And that we might lose fewer trainees if I paid a little attention to this? I put theory into practice, and within months my bench was full of happy and appreciated staff members. I found myself reflecting daily on just how important educating our next generation of healthcare scientists was, and why this needs to be done properly. Why we shouldn’t be putting our trainees through some trial by fire if we expect our profession to survive the oncoming storm of privatisation, pandemics, and real time pay cuts, to name but a few challenges. It transpires that by nurturing our talented students we only improve all our positions. 

And Back to Academia

A fortuitous turn of events in my personal life put me in a position move from my senior scientist gig to a senior lecturing gig. Not the best year for it thanks to the pandemic. But surrounded by inspiring new colleagues I have jumped feet first into educating our next generation of registered healthcare scientists on a fabulous accredited Biomedical Science course, even if I do say so myself. 

As healthcare scientists, we are forever dipping in and out of education be it through engaging in our undergraduate degrees, Masters courses, PhDs, specialist portfolios, equivalence portfolios and fellowship exams (to name but a few!). Let’s take the time to share our knowledge. GirlyMicro has been telling me for years that we must lift others to lift ourselves. What do you know? Turns out she was right all along. 

TLDR. Those who can, teach. 

A note to my friend Kip – Who’s laughing now? Congratulations on your PgCert in Health Professions Education awarded with Merit this year! Welcome to the cult. 

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