A tale of two Melanies: mitigating the impact of lab long term leave

A tale of two Melanies: mitigating the impact of lab long term leave

A tale of two Melanies: mitigating the impact of lab long term leave

Any time away from the lab has an impact – on the research, on the lab, but in particular on the career progression of the person away from the lab. There are many reasons for long spells away, but most commonly it is because of maternity leave thereby disproportionately affecting the careers of talented female scientists.

The Babraham Institute has developed a novel approach to supporting the research, the lab and importantly the scientist on leave. We have recruited a Roving Researcher, not to replace those on leave, but to support their science so that the research momentum is maintained during the absence. Dr Melanie Stammers is Babraham’s Roving Researcher and when first in post in April 2020, she supported the research of Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, a BBSRC Discovery Fellow.

These are their tales.

Updated 2022: You can find answers to some of the FAQs about the Roving Researcher scheme in a new blog post.

I was a bit nervous at first with someone taking over my work. My fear was that they would run away with my project which I’d invested so much into, but after I met with Melanie a few times my nerves were soothed. She genuinely wanted to help my science continue while I was on leave and everyone understood from the outset that this was a support position and not a replacement.

Melanie holding her baby's hand

In practice, we had a few meetings before my leave started where I explained my project and what work needed to be continued, showed Melanie around the lab, and introduced her to people who could help out. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown we couldn’t meet up in person until right at the end of my leave, so instead we communicated via email and messaging. Email was great to plan out weekly experiments, share protocols and results, but I couldn’t always guarantee I would be able to check it regularly. So we used WhatsApp when there was something more urgent like trying to find a reagent or checking if the cells in culture looked good. Melanie kept an electronic notebook that I could look at, and was always sharing with me what she was doing and the results as they came in. I felt connected to the science and it made a huge difference.

I think one key part of the success was the lead in time to the cover before I went on leave. This was really important to explain the science and show Melanie what she needed to know so that she could help out more efficiently while I was away. Melanie also continued to help once I returned to work as I was still breastfeeding and couldn’t be away from the baby too long to get into the lab. This was also a good time for me to recap all that she had done and reflect as I was getting back up to speed after my leave. Another important thing was the people in the lab who had agreed to help Melanie in my absence. They knew of the project plans and were familiar with the techniques so that Melanie could ask them for help and guidance if she couldn’t get hold of me.

I haven’t seen this initiative anywhere else. When I’ve talked to other scientists that have been on leave there has been little to no support of this kind and it really affects the momentum of a project. I have seen PIs put another student or postdoc onto a project when someone goes on leave but this has almost always led to conflict when the person on leave comes back as it’s not clear who now is project lead.

Melanie as Roving Researcher has enabled my research to continue when it would otherwise have come to a complete stop. This has helped me keep up to date and competitive in such a fast paced field. I have had two maternity leaves while at Babraham and during this one it was by far easier to stay involved with my research.

Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, BBSRC Discovery Fellow

Melanie and Melanie sitting at some picnic tables

It’s quite nerve racking taking over someone else’s project: you so much want it to work and do everything right, despite the fact science isn’t always like that. Starting during a pandemic without any side by side training wasn’t ideal but despite everything I feel it has worked out really well.

Good communication has been the key. Melanie had a detailed plan for the experiments she wanted done during her time away but she allowed me to work through them at my pace organising my own time. We communicated when it was necessary rather than routine meetings, though I would send her regular emails to let her know what I was doing. Results were communicated via an electronic lab notebook, questions regarding details of the experiments by email, and then more urgent communication via WhatsApp or sometimes a video call using the camera to help identify the exact box buried deep in the freezer.

Trust is a key component of this kind of working relationship. I imagine that it can’t be easy handing over your precious research to someone else. Equally, feeling trusted is important for open and easy communication. Melanie has been great to work with and I really appreciate that she immediately made me feel she had confidence in my abilities. I wanted her to feel reassured that her work was in safe hands while she was away from the lab. Incidentally, most everything went right!

Other members of the lab have also played an important role in helping me to familiarise myself with new surroundings and new techniques. Melanie’s lab colleagues have been very welcoming, kind and helpful, making me feel like a real member of the lab. I have learnt many new techniques, some of which I have already been able to put to use on the other projects on which I am providing support. I am enjoying getting to know so many people and learning about the science being carried out across the whole of the institute. 

Dr Melanie Stammers, Post-doctoral Roving Researcher