A new life beyond academia

I recently swapped a career in biochemistry for one in the conservation of Nature, In this ‘After the Paper’ blog I summarise some of the background to my journey from the nanometre scale to the macro scale and some current goals and ambitions.

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In late 2018 I was asked by Nature Research Microbiology Community if I could write a ‘Behind the Paper’ personal account of The cell cycle regulator GpsB functions as cytosolic adaptor for multiple cell wall enzymes. This paper has a focus on the interactions between key proteins at the membrane surface of some bacteria to regulate and co-ordinate cycles of growth and division. Within the blog I spoke about the essential role international travel had played in bringing my co-authors – and their complementary skills, data and model systems – together for this publication in Nature Communications.

I was delighted to recently receive an invite to write a follow-up, an ‘After the Paper’ article. I imagine the norm for these things would be for the author to eulogise on how that paper had led to a big follow-up publication (like this one, alluded to in the ‘Behind the Paper’ article above), a huge grant, a new job offer or a promotion (as happened to co-author Sven Halbedel), a graduate student submitting their PhD thesis (like Zoe Rutter has recently done), or an early career researcher taking their first steps to independence with that critical first academic position (like Jeanine Rismondo did early in 2020). Whilst I remain extremely proud of colleagues’ career advancements, in my case the paper on GpsB marks the end of a ~25-year journey in biochemistry, microbiology and structural biology; it will be the last research paper that I will correspond. In January 2020 I swapped my old career, focussing on the sub-nanometre scale, for a new one in one of Europe’s largest nature conservation charities, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with conservation activities on pretty much every continent on planet Earth.

My new role is to identify funding opportunities for the RSPB’s team of conservation scientists and to help them submit – hopefully competitive! – applications for these grants. In so doing I am exploiting a career spent writing successful grant proposals, albeit in a different field, and on a much different scale! The challenge for me is particularly refreshing as each new project represents a steep learning curve. This time last year, for instance, I did not know that kittiwakes can travel over 200 km to forage for food and that the expansion of off-shore wind-farms, as the UK strives to meet its statutory net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050, represents a substantial threat to globally important breeding populations of seabirds with their homes on the UK’s shores. Similarly, I did not know that the critically endangered Liben lark – which is now only found on a single grassy plain in southern Ethiopia – could be Africa’s first recorded bird extinction without urgent conservation action. I’m pleased to say that, with some support from me, successful funding applications have been made for monitoring UK seabird populations and to conserve the habitat for the Liben lark. Neither project is currently running to schedule, the former because of the impact Covid19 has had on this season’s fieldwork, and the latter has been impacted by both the pandemic and the on-going conflict that afflicts Ethiopia.

What is perhaps underappreciated is that the RSPB does not focus solely on our avian friends; its attention is being drawn increasingly to entire landscapes. One such example is the Flow Country of northern Scotland, which represents the largest blanket bog in the world. Here there are almost half a million hectares of badly degraded land that, if restored, would not only act as a huge potential carbon sink but which would also enrich biodiversity by supporting the habitats of rare plants, mosses and lichens, invertebrates, birds and other animals. In the nearby Cairngorms, conservation work is proceeding over nearly 5,000 square kilometres of land with the ambition of restoring of what used to be a pristine Caledonian pinewood forest on the mountains above a vast floodplain. National and international funding applications to support our work in these landscapes are currently receiving a great deal of my attention.

So why, how and when did I decide to make this career change? I felt that I had reached the point where I no longer had imaginative and ambitious goals left in academia and thus it was time for me to devote my energy and attention to something new. I am not an ornithologist but, like many others, have become increasingly aware of the crisis affecting Nature and I want to contribute to arresting and reversing mankind’s negative impact on the world my grandchildren will inherit. In making such a significant career change I needed to be a credible applicant to a new prospective employer and my role in RSPB, whilst not academic but academic-related, is an ideal fit for both of us. As for when – well, I already knew that change was afoot as I was writing the original ‘Behind the Paper’ piece. Changing career 25 years after finishing my PhD was a daunting prospect for several, obvious reasons, but at the same time I have found it to be liberating and refreshing, an opportunity to hit a reset button and to reinvent myself. I am lucky to have had understanding colleagues, collaborators and ex-staff and ex-students in leaving academia, very welcoming new teammates in the RSPB and, of course, extremely supportive family and friends. Thank you all.

Rick Lewis

Science Fundraiser, RSPB

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