I am a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow who has spent more than a decade immersed in postgraduate training in microbiology, molecular biology and genomics.
Before COVID-19 erupted into the world, my career path was aiming towards what would be seen as the traditional academic trajectory – PhD, junior postdoctoral fellowship, senior fellowship as a group leader and the future ambition of professor. A Bachelor’s degree in Medical Science led naturally to a PhD on mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. A postdoctoral position then led on to a successful application for a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, which extended my knowledge and expertise in One Health genomic approaches to the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
During my fellowship, I was lucky enough to be awarded a 6 month secondment to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), where I provided scientific and technical expertise for the analysis and interpretation of European genome datasets and supported international outbreak investigations.
However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant a change in direction and I joined the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium and subsequently became the Director of Operations which forced me to put my fellowship on hold. COG-UK is responsible for the sequencing and analysis of those samples, which helps in understanding the evolution of the different variants of SARS-CoV-2 and how those different variants have spread across the nations. Genome data makes an important contribution to the COVID-19 response and the data generated by COG-UK has been used to detect and track mutations that could result in more severe disease, reduced efficacy of vaccines or reduced accuracy of diagnostic tests With mass testing, supply chain issues and staff shortages this was no simple feat.
My role is to oversee the COG-UK operations, developing long-term operational strategies, coordinating public health investigations and engaging with technical experts, collaborators and senior leaders. This involves working with NHS diagnostics labs, mass testing labs and sequencing sites across the UK to ensure acquisition and sequencing of high-priority samples in real time, thus making the data available for public health investigations. I have needed to communicate strategic vision that inspires and engages all involved while ensuring the highest standard of delivery. Developing a diverse and hardworking team, efficient organisation of each day, sharing knowledge, learning and listening to colleagues and reviewing daily, weekly and monthly milestones has enabled me to grow as a leader.
Reflecting on my role within COG-UK, I realise that I have gained an entire skillset that I didn’t have before. I have transitioned from being an independent researcher to now leading a team of exceptionally high-performing people with diverse skillsets. I am also working as part of a consortium, which spans multiple organisations across many nations, and as such requires a high level of cooperation and, in certain circumstances, negotiation.
The last year or so has come with a steep learning curve; I have had an exponential increase in my understanding of logistics. I have become a leader, a negotiator and a team player. I’ve had to hit tight deadlines and mitigate risks. These challenging months have been tough but rewarding and have made me question my perceptions of what I enjoy, and what I can achieve each day. It has been essential for me that I have been able to draw my inspiration from senior colleagues and personal relations whom I admire for their passion, work ethic and dedication to helping others.
My story is far from unique. Many scientists have dropped everything to support the response to COVID-19, putting their own careers on hold and not only changing the type of work that they do, but also the lives that they lead. This inspirational behaviour makes me believe that an important proportion of the young scientific workforce will also be thinking differently about their futures which may be one of the enduring positive legacies of the current pandemic.
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