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Noelle Obers

Research Support Officer

Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine

Tell us about your role.

My role is to support research and research-related activities. I manage the administrative processes involved in identifying and broadcasting funding opportunities, and I help applicants apply for, secure and set up new research grants.

How did you get to where you are now?

My career path has been staggered! I came to work in higher education quite late in my working life. After completing my undergrad in Humanities, I spent time in the film industry, then as a business owner of an art centre in a rural community in South Africa, and a teacher to my young daughters, and later as a full-time ceramic artist. After moving to a larger town, I got my first office job. I adapted to administration (and the financial security that accompanied it) quite quickly and soon after I was offered a PA role to a newly appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research. Within a few years, I completed a research masters in higher education studies which provided credibility in the higher education space to develop my career.

I was fortunate to have a supportive line manager who encouraged self-growth and allowed me to expand my role. I benefitted over the years from a leadership programme for women in higher education, and a research management fellowship in the USA through which I was awarded competitive funding to implement a business process improvement system for managing research administration. I was also involved in the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) programme funded by Carnegie (NY) to assess the capacity of research management at 16 African universities. By this stage my role had evolved to become Manager: Research and Development projects.

In 2020 I decided to emigrate to the UK and was fortunate to secure the position I have now. While my previous role was in a small institution where I had become a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ with a broad involvement in research matters, this current one is more focussed and allows me to work towards becoming an expert in one aspect of research administration.

What is the most meaningful or rewarding aspect of your work?

My masters research focused on the challenges and enablements to research careers, particularly for women academics, so I am aware of some restraints encountered by researchers. I like to think that by understanding the challenges, I can provide support by assisting researchers to obtain funding to secure and develop their research trajectories.

Are there challenges you would you like others to know about, in your career path or in your current role, and how have you overcome these?

My background has been humanities and social science so moving to a medical science environment exposed me to new academic jargon (and acronyms!) and required me to understand some of the science and processes involved. I’m still working on this and hope my latest read – Molecular and Cell Biology for dummies – will help!

I think starting any new job can be daunting, particularly if it’s at a large and prestigious institution. It’s easy to feel ‘less than’ or experience Imposter Syndrome. It helps to find ways to build your own professional self-confidence. Do what you can to make YOU feel better about your abilities; this may be to upskill, network, build a safe space or find a community of practice.

Can you tell us about things you’ve done, and/or contributed to, that you’re proud of?

Completing my masters within two years and publishing two sole-authored papers while working full time.

In my previous role, I project managed the implementation of several research information management systems to enable workflow efficiencies, and surveyed SA universities for systems in use, resulting in a report to the DVCs.

In my current role, it’s satisfying to see grant applications that I supported, being awarded.

Are there any particular skills or behaviours which have helped you get to your current role?

Being a resourceful self-starter, a trouble shooter and problem solver, being well organised; these are skills I acquired through my unrelated prior experiences, which shouldn’t be under-estimated.  

Are there any tips you would give to someone who wants a career in your field?

Familiarise yourself with all aspects of research management to fully understand and appreciate your role in the larger context of higher education, and to be able to diversify and add value beyond the confines of your role, when needed.

Be brave to make mistakes and humble to ask questions. Join RISN for a community of practice.