Women in STEM: Dr Elizabeth Hughes

By Dr Elizabeth Hughes, Daphne Jackson Trust Fellow/PDRA, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on me, my family, and my career. I am a Daphne Jackson Trust career re-entry Fellow and started my fellowship in September 2019. When I originally took my career break to raise my family it was never a question of ‘if’ I would return to work but always ‘when’. If asked then if my career break would last 15 years I would have answered with a resounding NO! However, that is what happened and I wondered if it would be possible for me to resume my career after such a long break.

One and half years after starting my Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship I can now say, with great joy, that it is. I am finding my confidence and belief in myself and my abilities again and am gradually shrugging off ‘Imposter syndrome’ one day at a time. Juggling family and re-starting a career in science, especially during a global pandemic, has been challenging. I am struggling to find a good work-life balance because I feel I have so much to learn and this is a ‘work-in-progress’. I must say, when writing my risk assessment in my original proposal I never would have suspected a global pandemic would be a possible hazard requiring mitigation. Having to leave the lab for more than 4 months in 2020 has greatly impacted my progress.

With a lift in restrictions I have been able to return to the lab, although under a strict bubble shift system which is making it very difficult to effectively progress experiments. Returning to the lab, after a prolonged period of time, it is hard to just ‘pick-up-where-you-left-off’ and resuming experiments is requiring optimisation/tweaking to get them working again. This of course is impacting on what I am able to achieve. Disruptions to my research and longer start-up times than expected pose a challenge as I only have 1.5 years of my fellowship left to establish myself in my field and obtain critical funding for future studies.

Returning to the lab has brought with it complications regarding family life. With one child just starting their University career and a second embarking on the senior phase at school it has been very difficult to juggle their needs and my career. Not only are we all competing for Wi-Fi supremacy, but the mental and emotional toll on young adults is a difficult landscape to navigate. As the pandemic maintains its hold on all of our lives my young adults are suffering and I am the main buffer for their mental and emotional stability. This is really hard!

It’s hard to re-start a career in STEM and to have to do it during a global pandemic makes it even harder. But looking back on my first year I can only feel incredibly grateful and extremely happy to be here. Yes, it’s hard, but when I think about how much I have learnt and what returning to STEM has given me I can only smile. I always wanted to be a scientist and a mother. But circumstances don’t always give you want you want. I took time to raise my family and now I have time to rebuild my career, even if it has to occur in the middle of a pandemic.