Career paths are a mysterious thing. As they rarely are linear, it helps to pick up miscellaneous transferable skills on the way, and spot new opportunities as they arise. We hope to feature many different career paths for plant scientists on the blog. If you have an interesting story to tell, or know someone who inspires you, please drop us a line!
Dr Kate Castleden works as Education and Outreach Officer at Oxford Botanic Garden. They say you meet every person twice in your life, and that certainly was true for Kate and me. We first met a couple of years ago, as we had been invited to discuss a public engagement training programme for the new Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership programme. Last month, Kate contacted me as the new Programme Manager for the ‘Living Well Oxford’, a secondment role that will see her return to the Botanic Garden after a year. I was curious to hear more about Kate’s jump from plants to patients, and to learn which transferable skills helped her on her way.
Kate, you work at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden. What is your role there, and what do you do in a typical week?
My job title is Education and Outreach Officer. I work with all sorts of different visitors to the garden, from school groups to community groups, and very young children in our Under 5s sessions, to research scientists. In a typical week I could be hosting sessions for primary age children (4 – 11 years old), providing CPD (Continuing Professional Development) training for primary school teachers and developing new sessions and resources.
As a public-facing part of the University, we provide public engagement training and opportunities for research scientists. We work particularly closely with the Department of Plant Sciences. As well as the formal education work, the Garden provides more informal opportunities for our visitors, such as the drop-in sessions for families during the school holidays, and our big picnic celebration events in the summer. We run sessions for a range of community groups, including adults with learning disabilities and reminiscence groups. I also develop self-guided resources for people to use during their visits, such as activity backpacks for children and information leaflets. In addition, I update the Education Team’s pages on the website. So a typical week is very varied and every day is different.
Do you have a plant science background? What was your PhD about?
Yes, my undergraduate degree was in Plant Sciences, and my PhD was in plant molecular biology and biochemistry, researching an enzyme involved in carbohydrate metabolism in wheat.
Can you tell us a bit more about the ‘Living Well’ project and its aims?
Living Well Oxford is a new collaborative public engagement project focussing on health and healthcare. As the number of people with multiple long-term health conditions increases, so does the need to improve knowledge and behaviours in the population, and to transform the nature of people’s interaction with the clinicians and systems caring for them. We want to develop public space and events to build knowledge and understanding in our population and in our staff, and to feed the development of new approaches. Sustainable healthcare in the 21st Century requires new ways of involving the public, learning from them and helping them to understand health and illness, to manage their own health and access care when they need it.
As Living Well Oxford Programme Manager, I am co-ordinating a 12-month pilot to develop and evaluate activities and events, which will build expertise and evidence for a longer term larger-scale project. We are drawing on areas that have significant public interest, public health impact and local research expertise. So far we have set up an advisory group and worked with a number of partners to deliver a number of events. These have included a debate about genome data privacy, funded by the British Science Association, a stroke storytelling event at The Story Museum as part of Oxfordshire Science Festival, and a health-themed session at children’s summer holiday clubs.
We have also secured a grant from the Wellcome Trust to fund a pop-up shop entitled “Ageing: From Birth and Beyond”, which will ‘pop up’ in Templars Square Shopping Centre in May 2017. This will involve working with seldom-heard communities to inform activity development, and working with researchers to provide opportunities for public engagement and build capacity.
Which skills helped you to jump between Plant Science and Health Care?
After my PhD I worked as a post-doc. I then decided I wanted to move into public engagement, so I completed an MSc in Science Communication. It was the experience I gained during that year that helped me to secure my position at the Botanic Garden. When I spotted the Living Well Oxford Programme Manager position, I realised that my skills and experience closely matched what they were looking for.
As this is a collaborative project, I was not expected to be the medical or health expert, but the main facilitator to bring together a range of partners to work together to deliver the activities and events. Having worked with both academics and a whole host of audiences, I was able to bring my extensive public engagement experience to the Living Well Oxford project. And of course, the project management and other transferable skills I developed during my PhD always come in handy.
What career advice would you give to students and early career researchers?
- It’s important to like what you’re doing and feel that it’s worthwhile. I love science, but found research science too narrow. I wanted to work more with people than in the lab, but didn’t want to be a teacher, hence the move into public engagement.
- Gaining qualifications and experience will help when it comes to looking for a job. Going back to being a full-time student to complete my masters could have been perceived as a backwards step. However, that year was very worthwhile, and I have secured my subsequent roles as a result of that solid foundation.
- Remember that every job will teach you something, from the factory job you might have done in your holidays, to the research role you might have now. I spent time in between my studies as an office temp, and those touch-typing and admin skills have stood me in good stead in all my other jobs.
- If you’re looking to continue in the field of academia, make the most of conferences and networking opportunities. Many labs work with collaborators all over the world, so if you’re looking to gain some different experience, explore opportunities for working in other labs perhaps as part of an exchange.
- If you’re looking to move away from bench science but don’t know where to start, find out about other people who have made the move and how they did it. With the wealth of information and contacts available via social media, a quick question to the masses could easily reveal the next path to follow.