A bit about yourself
I grew up in Tewkesbury – a small market town in Gloucestershire. I studied towards an undergraduate degree at Brunel University, including a one-year placement at MRC Harwell in south Oxfordshire. Between 2003 and 2007, I completed a DPhil at the University of Oxford and afterwards moved into secondary teaching. I am now an Assistant Headteacher at the West London Free School in Hammersmith.
Summarise the research in your DPhil/PhD
My research focused on the transcriptional regulation of Runx1 in haematopoietic cells of the developing mouse embryo. Runx1 is a gene essential for the formation of the first blood stem cells, however, at the time little was known about how its expression was controlled. Through a combination of in vitro and in vivo assays, my lab colleagues and I identified an intronic element that drove the expression of Runx1 in the earliest haematopoietic cells of the embryo. We also identified functional binding sites for known transcription factors – helping to place the gene into the molecular pathway of haematopoietic stem cell emergence.
About your current job, and the path you took to get there
I am a passionate believer in the transformative power of teaching and think all children – regardless of background or ability – should be taught the best that has been thought and said in the arts, humanities and sciences. I entered teaching through a university-led PGCE route and in my second year in the profession became Head of Biology. Three and a half years ago I moved to one of England’s first free schools – the West London Free School in Hammersmith – established by the journalist Toby Young and other local parents. I was attracted by its unashamed academic ethos and its commitment to social inclusion – offering a grammar school-style education without any of the selection. Last year, the school achieved its first, and reassuringly strong, set of GCSE results and has opened a sixth form. My role has been to establish and manage the school’s curriculum, timetable, reporting and, more recently, pastoral care services. I also contribute to A-level textbooks and resources for a well-known educational publisher.
About what helped you/how you decided to get into this area
My DPhil supervisor was incredibly supportive whilst I struggled to decide what I wanted to do after my DPhil – I knew a long-term career in academia wasn’t for me but didn’t know what the alternatives were. She encouraged me to start exploring any opportunities as and when they arose. Between experiments, I attended university and private sector job fairs, careers services and a few internships and paid roles – with the hope it would give me a broader understanding of the options available to me. I also thought new skills would make me more attractive to future employers. After pursuing, and dismissing, journalism, broadcast research and the civil service, I stumbled on a weekend job – a university teaching programme for school children – that sparked an, until then hidden, interest in secondary education.
Anything extra you found you needed to know, learn along the way or wish you had done differently
Continuing into a post-doctoral research post shouldn’t be considered the default pathway for a DPhil student. The skills you hone in research – cautious evidence-based objectivity, critical analysis of procedure and outcome, complex problem solving, attention to detail, to name a few – make you highly valued by a wide range of professions. Most of the DPhil students with whom I used to work are now in a different sector: some in education, law, consultancy, the civil service, publishing, finance and politics. It is normal (and sensible) to consider all your options as your studies draw to an end. Use your contacts, attend courses, shadow people in different jobs, volunteer, take miss-steps and make mistakes. Only then can you start to make informed decisions.