Researcher Spotlight: "The importance of learning from your mistakes"

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Mar 31 2021

Author: Guest contributor

We’ve launched the ‘Researcher Spotlight’ series to shine a light on the work and varied career journeys of the researchers who publish with us. We want researchers to be able to share their own personal stories and help others draw inspiration and extract learnings that can serve as a guide for the next steps in their own careers. These interviews will provide insights and advice from researchers in different career stages and fields, from those who are just getting started in research to more experienced researchers.

In our second interview, Dr Yvonne Couch, a postdoctoral scientist at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine at Oxford University, studying the role of extracellular vesicles in vascular function post-stroke, talks about her career goals and highlights, the value of research communication and discusses how publishers can better support researchers in their work.

What advice would you give a researcher just starting out in your field?
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This is going to sound harsh, but academic science is hard so don’t go into it unless you have a real passion for it. The pay isn’t great, despite having many qualifications and years of experience, and the job prospects and stability are poor. That said, if you do have a passion for it and a drive to problem solve and discover new things it can be wonderful and there are various things that can help you hone your passions and skills. 

You can start by getting as many different scientific experiences as possible. By that I mean try and find labs that do molecular biology and labs that do in vivo work, labs that do imaging and labs that do bioinformatics. That way you’ll find out the things you love doing and the things you don’t. Very early in my undergraduate degree I accidentally ended up in a lab studying inflammation, despite doing a degree in neuroscience. From that accident I developed a fascination with the immune system in the brain. By getting these different experiences you can focus your talents more easily.

Find good mentors. This is a tricky one but a good mentor is someone who will both guide you in your studies, and give you the freedom to make your own mistakes. You don’t want someone who will micromanage you through every experiment, but you also don’t want someone who is experimentally detached and can’t advise you on the best approaches to tackle different questions. Different career stages also need different mentors. Early on you’ll need someone who can teach you about how to do science well, how to plan experiments and think about research questions. Later you’ll need someone who’ll push you to challenge yourself and think about how to achieve your major life goals. Sometimes your mentors grow with you, sometimes you’ll need to seek out new ones.

We no longer subscribe to the ‘gentleman scientist’ stereotype, the researcher who sits alone in a dark lab fiddling with tiny obscure things to make miniscule discoveries. Researchers now have to have more strings to their bow so as well as a passion for research you’ll need to be willing to develop writing and communication skills, networking skills and budget management skills. Remember that 95% of what you do in the lab will probably fail, but the joy comes from finding out why it’s failed. 

If you can’t find that joy then science isn’t for you.

What are your goals in your research career and how do you aim to achieve these?

Ultimately I would love to have a secure job in academia, studying neuroinflammation and brain injury and their contribution to outcomes like dementia. I really enjoy problem solving, it’s one of the reasons I got into science in the first place and tackling one research question at a time fuels that enjoyment. I love working in a team of motivated individuals, all with the same goal, I like seeing students go from lost and confused to motivated and enthusiastic about the same kinds of things that motivate me. But whether that kind of luxurious academic life is achievable in the current or near future research climate is another question. Funding is becoming increasingly scarce and the ‘publish or perish’ attitude that seems to pervade funding and research makes acquiring money challenging. I love working collaboratively, as a solo PI with no students and no post-docs it’s the only way to get things done and the best way to stretch limited funds, so building up collaborative networks is really important to me

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far and to what do you attribute these successes? If you could do anything different, what would it be?

I am fully aware that I have an external locus of control, so I always attribute any success I have to luck and the help of others. My most recent career highlight would be acquiring funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK, who awarded me a Fellowship to study the effect of extracellular vesicles on blood vessels in the brain after stroke. For me this was an idea I had developed alone and so to get it through to the interview stage I really had to believe in myself. I didn’t, but fortunately the amazing interview panel at the time did.

I wouldn’t do anything differently in my career, I don’t think regret is a healthy attitude in science or in life generally. What is more important is to learn from your mistakes, both the small ones in the lab but also the larger ones you might have made by choosing to work with particular people or in particular places.

What value do you put on research communication and getting visibility for your research? What are the most effective channels you've discovered so far (social, virtual events, etc.)?

I value getting my research out there so that it is available for others to progress the field with me but also to help change the culture of research. 

I’m a big proponent of the need to publish negative results in all fields, so that others can learn from what we’ve produced. The positivity-bias in publication doesn’t help us move forward. 

My most effective channel for scientific communication has been ‘friend of a friend’ networking. At conferences pre-pandemic I started to pluck up the courage to just go up to researchers and go ‘hey, we do similar things, perhaps we should work together’, or ‘hey, you’re looking in this model but I use this other model, would that be useful to you?’. This has allowed me to develop some wonderful network connections and some great external mentors. But for me I have always been a huge fan of the totally random email. Sometimes it works its way up into a full collaboration, sometimes nothing happens. But as the recipient of a few of these emails I can say it never hurts to tell someone you like their research, they worked hard for it and love to hear that kind of thing! 

How can publishers support you in achieving your research goals?

This is incredibly challenging to answer. One of the biggest challenges in research for me is that I fundamentally believe that the peer review system is broken. Peer reviewing is an integral part of research, but researchers are also incredibly busy people so often don’t have time to do it well. You may request a specific Professor to review a manuscript, but chances are that Professor will pass the review on to a PhD student who has less scientific ‘life experience’. They may then not check the review before submitting it, or they may not give credit to a student who reviews well. I believe the volume of content now being received by journals is contributing to this problem. I’ve received many manuscripts which were almost unreadable. Some were clearly never proof read by native English speakers and so sentences often don’t make sense, some have figures which are illegible or unclear. Previously this kind of mistake would have been filtered out by the reviewing editor but these people are often also researchers, so their time is limited and they simply see the title, find a reviewer and hit send. If there was broadly less pressure to publish all the time, or in ‘high impact’ journals then many of these problems would be significantly alleviated. However, we’ve set the ball rolling on the avalanche now and it needs some kind of systemic change to stop it effectively. So where can publishers come in to help us here?

Basically publishers can help me through these fundamental ways:

  1. Open and support effective dialogue between reviewers, authors and editors. When I review I try to be helpful, rather than critical and try never to say anything on paper I wouldn’t say if the person sat in front of me. Some reviewers seem to use the peer review process as an opportunity to be openly rude.
  2. Have permanent subject-specific editors. By employing specific people whose job it is to go out and chat with the reviewers and talk about the issues with different papers then the often tiny reasons for rejecting a paper might be overcome. 

Publishing costs can be expensive and whilst I am aware there are processes in place to aid researchers here, there is the argument that with some publisher fees potentially being over a months’ worth of research budget, those fees are increasing the potential for predatory publishers to take advantage of poorer researchers, and to impact the quality of research published.

Visit Springer Nature's services hub to discover the full range of our offerings and resources to support you as an author at every stage of your career.

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About Dr Yvonne Couch

I did my undergraduate in Neuroscience at the University of Manchester, doing a year of industrial experience at Boehringer Ingelheim in Bibarach, Germany and 5 months of research project in Stuart Allans lab, looking at excitotoxic models of brain damage. I followed this with two years as a research assistant in the Department of Anatomy and Genetics in Oxford, working on molecular models of Parkinson’s disease. I then undertook an MSc in Pharmacology and a DPhil in pharmacology, focusing on brain-immune communication in sickness behaviour and depression, working with Daniel Anthony, Nicola Sibson and Trevor Sharp. After this I moved to Denmark to work with Kate Lambertsen on the molecular mechanisms of stroke. This led me back to Oxford to work with Alastair Buchan on stroke, where I developed my interest in extracellular vesicles and their role in inflammation after stroke. In 2020 I was awarded an ARUK fellowship to study the role of extracellular vesicles in vascular function post-stroke and despite being restricted to 50% lab time since last summer I am doing my best to get this project underway.


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