Phd Developmental Genetics to Head of Research and Consultant
Name: Fatima Ann Sulaiman (she/her)
Job Title :Previously Head of Research at Blood Cancer UK, currently Consultant at Sulaiman Solutions
A levels/ equivalent : Biology, Chemistry, Psychology (AS level only) and Math [Gosh, that took me back!]
Human Genetics BSc,
PhD in Developmental Genetics
Journey in 3 Words
Unexpected, evolving, and curiosity
Briefly describe your role
So currently, I’ve just soft launched myself into self-employment. I’m setting up as a consultant for medical research charities and researchers. I provide insight into research grant portfolios, links with industry, how to develop research strategies that are patient focused, and how to utilise research for fundraising. For researchers, I’m going to launch a set of training guides on how to best communicate your research for different types of audiences, including what makes a great powerpoint presentation.
Previously, I’ve held senior roles in a number of medical research charities where I did exactly that!
What motivated you to pursue a career in science?
My parents are both medical doctors and they really wanted me to follow in those footsteps. I’m not a huge fan of hospitals so medicine didn’t really interest me that much. A pretty common question that you would hear from me around that time was, ‘why?’ and I asked it a lot in my A-level biology classes (which I’m sure drove my teachers crazy). A career in science seemed like a good opportunity to answer my own questions, so I chose to do Human Genetics for my undergrad.
How did you know a PhD was for you and how would you describe that period?
I have to admit, I was a lot more naive about PhDs than a lot of people going into them now. It felt like the right next step in my quest to get answers. One of my modules at university was on Hox genes and developmental biology, and that really appealed to me. I didn’t apply for a lot of PhD programmes, just three that seemed like they had really interesting research labs. I did a lot of reading on PubMed and came out of that reading with more questions - that curiosity really drove the tone of my PhD interviews, which were a lot less intense than they seem to be now. I really wanted to do a PhD and I think it was because I wanted to know if I could satisfy my own curiosity. In the end, that curiosity was the thing that kept me going. Something people may not talk about as much is how draining and demoralising a PhD can be. Nothing sapped my self esteem and confidence in my intelligence than my PhD - there are inevitable setbacks, there’s a whole new world of academic competition that you have to get used to, and with all that there is the realisation that *you* are the expert in your subject matter. Which, when you’ve come from university and school settings, is very scary. In the end, the only thing that kept me going was the need to know what the next experiment would tell me.
Having said all that, I really value my doctorate. Nothing in my life since my PhD, not the career changes or having to learn new ways of working, has been as challenging as my PhD. I say this with full emphasis for everyone working in scientific research who is feeling low but knows they want to stay in scientific research - once you’ve done this, you can do ANYTHING.
So, my PhD was tough
All journeys come to an end, after your post doc you decided to transition out of academia. What motivated this decision and looking back what advice would you give yourself going through a negative experience?
So, my PhD was tough, but I left it feeling confident about the next step in my research career which was a postdoc in Florida. That was much much tougher. It wasn’t a healthy environment (the word ‘toxic’ is very apt) and I developed anxiety, which wasn’t something I’d had to deal with before. For me, the breaking point came when I was in the lab at 1 am trying to troubleshoot an experiment that I knew would not work. It was Halloween and I’d turned down a few invitations to go out. My friends were texting me, telling me how much they missed me and I was stuck in this lab at the dead of night. I remember just staring at the gilson in my hand and thinking very clearly ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. I could have handled my exit strategy a lot better, but I was still quite young and trying to figure it out without any support. There wasn’t a lot of advice for people if they decided to leave academia (the general undercurrent being ‘why would you want to unless you’re a failure’, which has taken me a lot of time to actually exorcise from my self-view.)
The advice that I would give is to think very carefully about your exit strategy when you’ve made the decision. What do you ideally want in 6 months time and how would you get there, without burning bridges if you can (unless you’re leaving because of abuse or other unacceptable behaviour, in which case, burn it all down).
As an aside, there is a fantastic essay by the author Brandon Taylor (he was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year) about why he left science. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/brandontaylor/i-dont-miss-being-a-scientist-except-when-i-do
Why was your internship important to you and did it play a major role in your current trajectory?
My internship was important in the sense that it was the first step in my career change. I had never worked in an office environment before and the internship felt like a good way to test the experience out. I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for office life, having spent most of my working life either behind a cash register or at the lab bench. I would say that it probably did play a major role - my internship at Cancer Research UK was for 3 months, and when that came to an end I was offered a full time temp role as a programme coordinator. Having that internal role allowed me to apply for a couple of other internal roles, which then set off my trajectory. I think that what was key was the experience the internship gave me which allowed me to be offered that follow on role.
It’s important to go into a sector with eyes open, and the truth is that the charity sector still has a lot of work to do
What information do you think is necessary to know before embarking on a career within the charity sector? What were your perceptions and did they change with experience?
There is a perception that the charity sector is a little bit soft and perhaps unprofessional. However, that is really far from the truth - some of the most relentless and brutal people work in the charity sector. Large charities tend to attract people from industry and the management consultant sector, there were a lot of financial tech people there and former consultants from ‘the Big 3’ of consulting companies. Learning from people like that helped to change my skill sets in a dramatic way. You learn about pitching to different audiences, the importance of strategy vs planning, stakeholder management, meeting chairing, etc.
One of my perceptions was that it would be a less cut throat environment than academia, however that unfortunately is not true. It’s important to go into a sector with eyes open, and the truth is that the charity sector still has a lot of work to do. Charity So White is a non profit group that does a lot of work to hold the sector to account, and ACEVO published a report last year on the institutionalised racism in the sector. Personally, I have experienced a fair amount of this in the charity sector, but to be honest, I also experienced this in academia. It was incredibly disappointing to find that the charity sector was no different.
No career journey is linear, what advice would you give starting with your younger self and people that may be motivated by your journey?
Well, exactly that! No career journey is linear - you may make sideways moves or take steps down, but these are all valid to your journey. People can sometimes make it sound like they knew what they were doing at all stages, but I don’t personally believe that’s true. Everyone’s journey is different, and I would say you should be led by what motivates you. For me, it was curiosity and wanting to learn new things. When I graduated from university, I thought that I was set on a very linear path. My journey has definitely not been straightforward and it’s very much littered with more failure than success. It’s been stressful, mentally exhausting but it’s also been kind of fun. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t change anything, there are different choices that I’d make if I was to do it again (mainly to see what would happen) but I definitely don’t regret anything.
I would also add that all motivation is valid. If curiosity motivates you, then go with that. If money and financial security motivate you, then go with that. The only motivators that are bad are the ones that cause harm to other people, everything else is totally valid.
Do you ever see yourself transitioning back into academia?
It’s very unlikely, I’ve been out of academia for too long and my motivations no longer lie in that direction. I do sometimes miss doing the odd experiment, but that feeling quickly passes!
Mentorship and networking has had a huge impact on your journey… How does someone build a network with meaningful connections? Could you give an example of a cold email or how you put yourself “outthere” .
Absolutely, my mentors and my network have been critical. No person is an island unto themselves, (don’t believe anyone who tells you they got to where they are with no help, it’s a lie). A network doesn’t have to be 100% full of people you talk to on the regular, it can include people you’ve had contact with once. A good network will be a mix of meaningful connections, and there will be people who you’ve met once. A good network also expands your view and understanding of your chosen field and beyond, which is why a mix is important.
I think we shouldn’t be afraid of the ‘cold approach’ - if you send 10 cold emails and only get one response, that’s a huge huge success! That’s one more person in your network, who will then hopefully bring in more people!
With cold emails, it’s important that you do your research on the person you’re emailing. You need to be clear about what you’re asking them (and why you’re emailing them) - ideally it’s for 5 minutes of their time just to talk about their career or the sector they work in. I have found that people are generally very willing to share their hard won insights. You could ask someone for a job or internship, but that kind of approach doesn’t really work most of the time. Put yourself in their shoes - think of their role and how busy they might be. It’s not nice to receive emails from people who haven’t done their research on you and seem to just want a job from you. People like to talk about themselves (case in point here with this interview!) and so it’s important to allow them that space to do so. Worst case scenario, you don’t learn anything useful. Best case scenario, you hit it off and they connect you to another person.
Another practical tip is keep it short and sweet. A couple of lines, maybe three or four. They’ll most likely be reading your email on their phone, and no one really wants to read a novel on that small screen.
With the growth of social media, do you have a preferred platform to network on ? and how have you managed to balance “professionalism” and being yourself?
It’s a good question. I’m a complete newbie with social media so I might not be the best person to ask. I like twitter as you get to see more of someone’s personality. Obviously there is LinkedIn - if you haven’t already then I strongly recommend that you create a LinkedIn profile. It’s good for keeping track of your network and adding people to your network.
Balancing professionalism and being myself feels like an ongoing battle - for the longest time, I was professional to a robotic fault. This comes from the knowledge that you have to work three times as hard as cis white people to be seen as on the same level, and it can feel like any mistakes you make will put you under way more scrutiny. So I was on the other end of the scale when it came to professionalism. I came to realise though that not only was I unhappy not being able to be myself, but that it was also creating a barrier between me and other people. As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to be more myself but that hasn’t been easy. The reality is that we are judged harder than white people and that’s something that I experienced as I tried to be more myself (and allow myself to make mistakes). However, one of the commitments I’ve made is to not shrug off or stay silent on issues of inequality and injustice so in a way, allowing myself to be truer to who I am is also helping how I deal with racism and inequality (if that makes sense).
It’s an ongoing battle, one that’s especially fraught for minoritised communities. A mentor or support group can help you through it and ‘have your back’. My support group and mentors have been crucial in my journey and I want to pay it back. So if you’re from a minoritised community and you’d like to reach out for a virtual coffee or a chat, please do. We’ll figure a way out through it together, whether it’s chatting about careers, interview practice or CVs review.
When considering your career path, how much has your potential salary affected your decision?
Salary hasn’t been the biggest motivator (I mean, I got into academia which isn’t exactly known for the big bucks). As I’ve gone through my career, salary became really important to me because it felt like an indicator of my value. And also, as a brown muslim woman, I know there are several instances where I was being paid less than I should have been. So salary was a big decision factor. I have to say that it is less so now - it’s been a lot of work, but I’m a lot better at not letting it determine my value. Now it’s more about what is the income I need to secure a comfortable life for myself and my family - which feels like a mindset more suited for my personality.
I hate the ‘I f***ing love science’ brigade. Like, honestly, really, really, hate it.
What is your biggest pet peeve about how the world perceives science?
I hate the ‘I f***ing love science’ brigade. Like, honestly, really, really, hate it. Science isn’t pithy little tidbits of information, it’s years of hard work and failure. It’s thousands of failed experiments, millions of recalibrated hypotheses and absolute months of staring hard at data that makes no sense. It’s entire communities that have mobilised during a pandemic, working around the clock to prevent deaths happening on a vast global scale. It’s resilience and self-led determination, late nights and lost weekends, and hours spent lying in bed staring at the ceiling wondering what you’re doing with your life. That’s science. People who say, ‘I f***ing love science’ don’t really love science. They just like looking at pretty pictures of it on Instagram.
Outside of science, how would you describe yourself?
That’s always a tough question! I care a lot about social justice, so I’m always trying to educate myself on issues in a way that means I can be the best ally and support I can be. I also have a bunch of weird interests - like a very specific one in the evolution of the mississippi delta blues. Other than that, someone who cares about her friends and family, and just generally living a good life.