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R Jean Banister Prize winner: A rather winding road to research success

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R Jean Banister Prize winner: A rather winding road to research success

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Bethan E Phillips, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham, UK


“We are delighted to inform you that you have been chosen as the recipient of The Physiological Society’s inaugural 2018 R Jean Banister Prize Lecture … The Physiological Society would be greatly honoured if you felt able to accept our invitation.”

I was sat in a University research sandpit event in August last year when I received an email containing the invitation above – they were delighted and so was I!

To me, this invitation was about much more than the recognition of my research by an external organisation (which was of course wonderful) and the fantastic opportunity that it provided (to present my research at numerous institutions); it was a proof that dedication, passion and perseverance (plus a lot of support and motivation from amazing colleagues) can lead to research success – even when the road to get there is far from straight. This was a message that I was keen to relay at a recent small-group “Transition to Independence Event” that The Physiological Society ran for post-doctoral members.

My story…

As a 17-year-old sitting my (rather unusual choice of) A Levels in Theatre Studies, Physical Education, Government & Politics, Biology (and the obligatory General Studies), I thought I had my life mapped out in front of me. I was going to do a degree (Sport Sciences), go through the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and have a long, successful career as an Officer in the Army Medical Corps. Little did I know this was not to be.

Aim one went to plan and I gained an undergraduate place at Loughborough University to study a BSc (Hons) in Sport & Exercise Sciences and thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of University Life. However, for me, disaster struck when in my second year of University I went for Army Officer selection. At this, despite having passed with flying colours, they told me that my previous knee operation was an automatic bar from military service. I was devastated.

After a few weeks at home mulling things over, I decided to return to Loughborough and finish my degree while considering a number of graduate-entry options (medicine, physiotherapy, dietetics, teaching). I was then fortunate enough to be placed with Clyde Williams for my final year research project, exploring the effects of different glycaemic index breakfasts on substrate utilisation during exercise; an experience that sparked my passion for research and opened my eyes to a previously not considered career route.

However, I still wasn’t wholly convinced that a PhD was for me, so like may recent graduates I moved back home (to the South West) to start my search for jobs. In amongst “exercise advisor” and “community well-being officer” roles was an advert for a Research Assistant at the University at Nottingham. Working on a BBSRC project grant, the job also encompassed a PhD – it sounded perfect. Looking through the job spec, all seemed ok: a 2i or above in a relevant BSc, a qualification in exercise instruction and human research experience, until I saw the dreaded words “a full, clean driving-license”. Not willing to let this stop me, driving lessons commenced, I applied for the job and my research career journey began (having passed my driving test the day before my interview).

My journey through research hasn’t been much smoother than the one I took to get there. A part-time PhD wasn’t easy, even though it was so closely related to my full-time job role, and only my aforementioned fantastic colleagues got me through (eventually). Postdoctoral positions followed, each with their own challenges, which now with hindsight, I can see tested my resolve and heightened my desire to succeed in research. Similarly, failed fellowship applications provided both constructive feedback and fueled my desire to continue working towards independence.

Finally, in January 2015, I was appointed as an Assistant Professor in Clinical, Metabolic & Molecular Physiology at the University of Nottingham. Since this appointment, like most independent academics, I have had grant successes and (many) knockbacks; however, my winding journey to this point has taught me to pick myself up, dust myself off and head towards the next turn in the road.

Hear Bethan Phillips speak at lectures throughout the next few months. Her talk is entitled “Physiological adaptations to traditional and novel exercise interventions as a function of age.” Learn more at: physoc.org/events

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