The roads less travelled to research careers

00:06: David Payne

Hello, I’m David Payne, careers editor at Nature. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In this seven-part series, Science diversified, we’re exploring how the scientific enterprise truly benefits when you have a team of researchers from a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines and skill sets.

Each episode ends with a 10-minute sponsored slot from the International Science Council about its work on diversity.

In this fifth episode, we focus on the value of non-traditional routes to science. We meet two people who turned their lives around to discover careers in research, and hear how their previous life experiences have become an asset.

Noel Vest: 00:49

I had a very normal high-school career. I was very much into sports, I was a wrestler, and it really didn’t include much drug or alcohol use at all when I was in high school.

My senior parties were really where it kind of all began. I went to a party and really, for the first time, I think, drank to really feel the effects. And that really kind of set a tone for the way that I drink and use drugs over the next, you know, 10–20 years of my life.

I’m Dr Noel Vest, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, USA. Right around 21–22 years old, two things happened. I started to make a little bit more money than I probably should have at that time of my life. And I went through a break-up with my high-school sweetheart. We had had a daughter, and then had a break-up. And really, that was kind of the catalyst for that downward spiral of addiction that you hear so often from, from people that experience substance-use disorder.

And that’s what it was, for me. I really spent the next four, five years in and out of jail, you know, given chances, shamed, and you know, in that time I was never really offered treatment. And so, you know, that that in and out of jail, you know, ended up in kind of this, this seedy drugs subculture that’s very common to methamphetamine addiction, which was what I ended up being addicted to. I was sentenced as a habitual offender in the Nevada Department of Corrections in 2002. And that was the beginning of a seven-year prison sentence.

Julie Dunne 02:41

My name is Julie Dunne. I’m a biomolecular archaeologist and I work at the University of Bristol. Yes. So I worked as an accountant in the construction industry for over 25 years. And it was in my mid-40s that I decided I wanted to do something completely different. And whilst I loved my job, it was very interesting. I always knew that I wanted to be one of those people who loved what they did, who got up in the morning, like a David Attenborough, full of enthusiasm for their, you know, work day. So I decided that to the one my way into this I had to go and do a degree in anthropology and archaeology worked best, because that covers not just climate studies, but human origins, and so on.

So I came along to Bristol, and I fell in love with the archaeology. And I realized that might be more the route to go down. And I actually transferred onto an archaeological-sciences degree because that really suited better. I wanted to marry the archaeology and the science to answer questions about our human past. So then, after a four-year degree, which, you know, I loved every minute, it was great fun. I then went on to do a PhD in organic geochemistry. So that’s using chemical techniques to answer questions about the human past.

Noel Vest: 04:04

You know, prison was very tough, but the great thing about it is they had meetings and they had a community college that came in and taught some classes. Those were a catalyst for really just self, self improvement, self reflection, and really, you know, getting a great start at when I got out. And so those college classes were really just instrumental because they allowed me to lay a foundation of study habits that I still use today.

And so, yeah, I got out, went to community college, the very first day I had my dad drop me off. I had a couple of instructors along the way that really just changed my life and really turned into lifelong mentors along the way, and went to university at Washington State University after I finished the community college at 40 years old, and was introduced to research and science and it really just changed my life forever.

And so then I went to PhD school, it started expanding my skills, certain learning, some advanced statistical training, and I found something that fit my learning style completely. And I never really looked back.

Julie Dunne: 05:22

So, I work on various different projects now, I still do some work in Africa. Currently, I’m working in West Africa. But I’ve recently worked on a project where I investigated the earliest, prehistoric baby bottles.

So these are the most astonishing little vessels. They’re very small, they just would fit in the palm of your hand, literally the size of a baby bottle. And they very often take these zoomorphic shapes. So they take the form of little animals, although they’re imaginary little animals, so they sometimes have little heads and little feet.

So you can imagine prehistoric parents making these little bottles not just to feed their babies, but also just to make them laugh. You can see the little prehistoric babies holding these and laughing at the funny little animal figures.

So I kind of hooked up with a colleague on Facebook, actually. She was studying motherhood in prehistory. And she put a picture up of one of these and said, we would really love to know what’s in these little bottles. And so I sort of said, “Well, actually, I think I might be able to help you there because that is what I do.”

So we got together. And I went over to Vienna and sampled several of these teeny, tiny little vessels, which was pretty nerve-wracking, because they’re very precious. They’re generally found in graves. That’s how we know, children’s graves. That’s how we know they are child vessels. And so it was a real privilege to be able to sample them. So I sampled them and brought the ceramic powder back to the lab, and did our analysis. And we found that they were used to process ruminant. So that’s milk from cows, sheep or goats. So anyway, we were really thrilled to find this evidence for milk and to sort of learn how prehistoric mothers, or fathers, were feeding their babies. And yes, it was published in Nature.

Noel Vest: 07:36

So and really, it started very early on in my addiction. One thing that I noticed, just, you know, while I was in prison was that there was so much overlap between people with menta- health issues, and substance-use disorder. It was widespread in prison.

And so that really just kind of stuck with me and has stuck with me this entire time. And so, trying to understand that overlap, or trying to understand that consistent relationship, was really the crux of where I started my scientific career.

And so that’s what I really wanted to study at, was what interested me.

You know, it’s always very interesting to try and understand, you know, why some people relapse, and then why some people don’t? So that has always kind of stuck with me as well.

And we tend to blame the person when they don’t do well. But for me, it was just so much more about contextual factors that were happening and the environment around a person was so important.

And so that’s really what I based my science on and based my, my research programme around. The great thing is that I get to use really kind of, I would say, fancy statistical procedures to do that, where we’re putting people into kind of like clinically relevant subgroups, or clinically relevant clusters, and then trying to understand those, those those groups of individuals, those groups of clinically relevant individuals, whether that’s people with high depression, or whether that’s people that have low depression or whether as people that relapse quite often or whether it’s people that make it, you know, all the way through without relapsing. Trying to understand those, those groups of individuals and what we can learn from those individuals. You know, what has really, really interested me and where I focused most of my attention in research.

Julie Dunne: 09:37

My previous life experience really did make me a better scientist. And that’s really kind of kicked in from day one of the degree actually so. So you bring a variety of different things. I mean, I’d made a massive life change to do this.

You know, I sold my home, moved to another city. was going to live on virtually nothing, I suppose, to a reasonably decent salary, you know, so that, what that brings with it is, is a real determination to make it work, a real commitment. I knew that it was what I wanted. And there was a real, a real work, I had a real work ethic anyway from working before. But that determination really carried me through in those times when it was tough, and there were tough times, because the downsides are that I didn’t come straight from education, some of the science I really struggled through. At the beginning, it wasn’t so close to the surface of my brain, as I say. And just also the other things like being very organized and planning, the way I went to work previously, I brought all those skill sets, to my work as a scientist and, and you do have to be organized and plan things and so on as a scientist.

Noel Vest: 10:57

I do think, just as we use life experiences to inform all of the decisions, and all of the things that we do, kind of, every day, I think that lived experience, just generally is important for psychological science, right.

And so the larger variety that you can have of lived experience, I think, the more we benefit as a scientific community. So I do think that, you know, overwhelmingly, we have quite a few people that do clinical work, that are researchers, and that clinical work is valued as very, very important to understanding, kind of, the science.

And so I think it should be the same for lived experience, and not just lived experience of people that have, you know, been to prison, but family members of people that have been to prison. Family members of individuals that have grown up in kind of over policed neighbourhoods. That perspective, even though we may not think of it as important in science, those perspectives are of extreme value.

And so yes, I 100{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} believe that, you know, my experience and other people’s experience that have experienced incarceration, are incredibly of value to science.

And we should really be finding ways to recruit individuals that have been formerly incarcerated, and then not just recruit them, but have resources to make sure that they’re successful and that lived experience perspective comes through.

Julie Dunne: 12:35

Science, or any academic field, is better with as diverse a range of voices as possible. I mean, there are still massive inequalities in science, for example, and, you know, very keen to promote young girls coming into science. We don’t get enough young girls thinking that that is the route for them. So any different voice, someone who’s a bit older, like myself, or we need more BAME people in science, all those different voices are really important because, you know, there being so many more different viewpoints, and that’s really crucial.

Noel Vest: 13:13

I don’t have to put myself in the mind of an addict, right? That is very easy for me to do, because I have the mind of an addict. And so that is something that no matter how well I train, no matter how much I learn, no matter how much the academia side puts letters behind my name, I have a lived experience or I have this valuable history. That gives me a perspective that is not available to a lot of my peers.

David Payne; 13:48

Now that’s all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by the International Science Council, which looks at why diversity is so critical to advancing science and the steps we can take to improve it. I’m David Payne, careers editor at Nature. Thanks for listening.

Hayden Dahmm: 14:08

Core to the sustainable development goals of the United Nations is this notion of leaving no one behind. We have to make sure that the benefits are being extended to all sorts of groups of persons, many of whom may have historically been marginalized.

Injairu Kulundu-Bolus: 14:28

It feels like it’s time. It’s time for us to unearth different metaphors, different archives of knowledge, and to find nourishment in that.

Marnie Chesterton 14:36

Welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we’re exploring diversity in science. ’’m Marnie Chesterton, and this time, we’re looking at democratizing knowledge and tools for more sustainable future

Identifying pathways to sustainable equitable development is a major focus of the ISC’s work. In 2015, the UN decided on 17 Sustainable Development Goals a blueprint for creating a better planet for everyone.

These included eliminating poverty and hunger, reducing inequality and taking action on climate change. Meeting these goals will depend on access to tools, knowledge and data, and ensuring the voices of the vulnerable are heard and championed. In this episode, we’ll hear from two researchers working towards more sustainable futures.

Injairu Kulundu-Bolus: 15:32

My name is Injairu Kulundu-Bolus. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, and also the Eastern Cape, South Africa, and I am part of the environmental learning research centre at Rhodes University.

Marnie Chesterton 15:47

Injairu is part of a network supported by the IRC’s transformations to sustainability programme. This supports research on the complex social transformations needed to address problems of global environmental change.

Injairu Kulundu-Bolus: 16:01

My research focuses on decolonial youth futures and Africa. My research is about democratizing knowledge. And it’s about inviting young people in particular to start to expand and grow the particular trajectories that they feel they have reason to value.

I think the research comes out of a scepticism and maybe even a little bit of jadedness with some forms of youth development that try to contain what young people believe, and try to almost inculcate them into being good citizens when often there’s such huge contradictions they’re experiencing. And navigating in incredible ways in their contexts. So what would happen if we could allow the space for these incredible young people to lead us?

Marnie Chesterton: 16:55

In her PhD, it was Injairu’s experience as an artist and a musician that gave her a new way of connecting with young people.

Injairu Kulundu-Bolus: 17:03

I tried to, at a particular point, write a paper about what I was hearing. And in sharing that paper back to who I was co-conspiring with, I realized that we’d lost the sense of engagement, and we’d lost the freedom and we’d lost, we’d lost some vital energy.

And it really came back to me as a researcher to think about a different way to echo that back. And in this, I used song, I wrote songs in response, well songs songs that really were able to hold what it was that I heard. It moved beyond the rational. And it was able to speak of what somebody was longing for, what they’re frustrated with, what they had the strength to do, and what they were hoping for in one breath, because you had such a deeper palette of colours to play with and expressing that back.

The gesture of song is an honouring one. For someone to sing back to you. It’s not the critique or an analysis. And one of the participants said to me, it was interesting to feel seen and not looked at.

Marnie Chesterton: 18:10

Creating an environment in which young people felt seen, rather than looked at or examined, allowed for deeper conversations about social transformation. And the kind of changes they wanted to see.

Injairu Kulundu-Bolus: 18:22

A lot of our discourse in youth development doesn’t give us much space for young people to articulate for themselves what they feel a need.

One of the things that I often notice is that when we get into a space together, there is a really strong culture of debate.

And, you know, in that kind of space, whoever’s got whatever you call articulateness, or who’s louder someone more vociferous often wins, but it was really important to foster a space of different kinds of dialogue and to use art-based methodologies to deepen that. And, and for me, I think that the whole aspect of democratizing research and diversity is getting to the heart of that. Diversity means to me that the knowledge a grandmother holds is taken wholeheartedly as it is. The knowledge that young people hold is taken wholeheartedly as it is.

It’s a space that seeks to cut through all of this quite dense translation process and abstraction process that constitutes some people as knowers, and others as not knowing. And for me, diversity in terms of science has to account for the wasted knowledge that we have not been able to work with and push forward in meaningful ways.

Marnie Chesterton: 19:49

The Transformations to Sustainability programme supports sustainability research led by social scientists that’s focused on finding solutions.

Crucially, the work involves all relevant groups at all stages of the research process. It’s based on the premise that environmental and social sustainability will never be achieved without profound social change, as well as knowledge and data from many sources.

Hayden Dahmm: 20:15

The Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed upon by 193 countries back in 2015, come with a whole set of measurement requirements. And so that requires huge amounts of data and statistics.

Marnie Chesterton: 20:33

This is Hayden Dahmm. He’s a manager with the Sustainable Development solutions network. Hayden works within the thematic Research Network on data and statistics, or trends,

Hayden Dahmm: 20: 40

I find it interesting just how many issues can be better explored and understood through modern data solutions. But I also find it almost troubling, really, how much we still don’t know, out of the Sustainable Development Goals indicator list, or some 90 plus indicators that deal with the environment. And for over two-thirds of those environmental indicators, we do not have enough data to monitor our progress at a global level.

Marnie Chesterton: 21:24

Hayden recently collaborated with the ISC on a webinar about gridded population data.

Hayden Dahmm: 21:29

Grid, population restructures, all that data, according to squares laid out around the face of the Earth, and tries to estimate how many people are in each of those individual squares. And then you can have more complicated versions where you actually bring in satellite imagery and other forms of data. It’s not about looking at where a specific individual is based, but how people might be clustered around, say, infrastructure? Or do they have access to basic services, things like this. And one of the most practical applications probably is using population data for disaster response.

Marnie Chesterton: 22:19

With less than 10 years to go to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, access to data like this can really transform our understanding of what’s happening on the ground at a local level.

Hayden Dahmm: 22:30

Data is a form of knowledge, and therefore it’s a form of power, really. And it’s important for us to consider how do we make sure that we are advancing a form of sustainable development in a way that is genuinely inclusive, rather than simply having this new form of power become concentrated in the hands of those who are already powerful. More generally, it’s not good enough to just come up with a solution that you think might work. It really needs to be designed, collaboratively needs to actually address the genuine needs of the community that you went to benefit.

Marnie Chesterton: 23:14

The importance of looking at the genuine needs of a community is something that has particular resonance for Hayden. Hayden is blind, and has worked collaboratively with colleagues and teachers to find practical solutions for accessing tools.

Hayden Dahmm: 23:29

Doing engineering, studying as a blind student, there definitely were challenges to overcome. There were diagrams, I couldn’t see equations that couldn’t read. And, you know, figuring that out was sometimes a struggle.

But I was incredibly lucky that I had a supportive community. The professors who worked hard to find solutions, it definitely took extra hard work for me, but I couldn’t have done it without this wider support.

And together, we would create different tools. We made these three dimensional 3D-printed diagrams of electrical circuits, we made a software that allowed me to plot out an audio graph of data that I might have been analysing.

Like I’ve always appreciated pointing out to people, no one can actually see an atom, so not being able to look at a diagram of an atom doesn’t necessarily limit my ability to understand what it is.

It’s just that we’ve often chosen to represent things in a visual way out of convenience, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be understood in a different way. If you apply a certain level of creativity and you’re also part of a supportive community, there are great tools that can be found.

Marnie Chesterton: 24:58

Hayden is sometimes contacted by people designing such tools. For this process to be successful, it has to include the perspective of the people who are going to end up using the product.

Hayden Dahmm: 25:09

Oftentimes, sighted people who come up with a solution that they find to be possibly a perfect candidate for a blind person don’t necessarily understand what a blind person wants or needs, and simply blindfolding themselves and giving it a test run doesn’t give them all the information that they might require.

And so it’s really critical to not just try to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience, but really incorporate them in the process. And relatedly, I think sometimes focusing strictly on the technical might cause us to overlook the other aspects of solutions that are required as well.

There’s a lot of interest around installing beacons and train stations and having highly technical app-based ways of allowing the blind to navigate. But sometimes the best solution might just be to have a person to show you the way.

Marnie Chesterton: 26:14

Building on that, Hayden has seen how the data on the Sustainable Development Goals can inform honest conversations about how disability intersects with goals such as reducing poverty for all.

Hayden Dahmm: 26:27

So there’s some real progress being made in our ability to measure in a meaningful way, the size of the population that’s disabled, poverty and disability certainly are intersecting issues that if you are poor, you’re more likely to have disability complications.

And likewise, if you’re disabled, you’re more likely to experience poverty.

And so having data on this is an important first step to actually addressing some of these underlying issues, making sure that people with disabilities are able to be shown the respect that they deserve and have a chance of leading a life of dignity.

It’d be wrong to think that simply having the data will solve these problems. But it’s an important first step to having an honest conversation that goes beyond basic anecdotes, and allows us to see things at a population level.

Some one billion people around the world, or 15{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the total population, experience some sort of disability.

And so when we talk about disability, inclusion and access, we are talking about respecting the dignity and improving the lives of a sizable portion of humanity. It’s not about generosity and charity here. It’s about realizing certain goals for all people.

Marnie Chesterton: 28:08

In order to realize the overarching goal of the United Nations 2030 agenda to leave no one behind, access to scientific knowledge, data, tools and infrastructure is fundamental. And they need to exist within spaces that are open to diverse experiences. Only then can we truly hope to build a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future for everyone.

That’s it for this episode. More information about the projects mentioned in this podcast is available online at

Next week, in the final episode of this series on diversity, we’ll be considering how to combat systemic racism in science.

In the past year, the issue of systemic racism in society and science has hit the headlines worldwide.

We’ll be hearing about why the ISC is taking a public stand on this topic. Shirley Malcolm and Adam Habib will be talking about the changes they’ve seen in the decades they’ve been working to challenge racism in research settings, and discuss what’s worked and what still needs to change. We’ll also be hearing from Brittany Komoi about why we need to keep showing up and continue to have these conversations.

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