Suze Kundu’s career has taken her from nanochemistry to science communication and even to presenting TV shows on the Discovery Channel. So, how did she go from academic to Head of Public Engagement at Digital Science, and what advice does she have for those looking to follow in her footsteps?
You’ve had a really varied career path. How did you get to where you are today?
Varied indeed! I categorise my career into two strands – doing science, and communicating science. And I’ve done both alongside one another for over a decade now. The former UK Chief Science Officer, Professor Sir Mark Wolport, once said that science isn’t finished until it is communicated. This is something that my alma mater, UCL (University College London) not only believes, but also supports.
Given that research is largely publicly funded, researchers owe it to the public to communicate progress and outputs. By creating opportunities for dialogue, this communication becomes a two-way process, which also benefits researchers who can conduct better-informed research that will help more of society.
As such, I was trained in being both a researcher as well as a public engagement practitioner during my undergraduate degree and during my PhD. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to keep both strands of my career running either concurrently or in combined roles. When I was an academic, I would do research, teaching and public engagement as part of my varied day job, and I also kept up with my science writing and TV presenting in my spare time. I now work at Digital Science, which is a research technology company that creates mostly software solutions for different aspects of the research cycle to help it be the best it can be.
At Digital Science, I headed up Engagement for three years, before recently moving on to a role that combines my engagement skills with my chemistry knowledge and my unashamed fangirling over our flagship platform, Dimensions, to support our newest addition to the family: Dimensions Life Science and Chemistry.
All of our software solutions are created with the research community in mind, and are often developed and refined in collaboration with actual users, so we know that our tools can help people overcome research challenges.
What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Thanks to my parents, my school and my university, I grew up fairly sheltered from a range of ‘-isms’ that may have resulted in my being put off a career in science. Being a woman, a woman of colour, and a woman who perhaps doesn’t conform to outdated stereotypes of what ‘scientists’ are like are all things I learnt can be hurdles to overcome in my career.
In many ways, I was glad that I had no idea that academia, for example, was such a challenging environment for underrepresented people, as I am not sure I would have pursued a career in it if I had known. Women in academia are often assigned teaching that covers the basics, and are frequently given tasks that require so-called ‘softer’ skills such as outreach, engagement and the admissions process. In a world where women have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition, this can often lead to burnout.
I did two things to overcome these challenges once I had identified them; firstly, I had some great allies that came to my aid. They helped me objectively highlight the inconsistencies in workload and expectations, and they were always on hand to offer advice to help me overcome hurdles. Secondly, I chose to leave academia for industry. I now work in an organisation where all the diverse facets that make up an individual are respected and welcomed.
My advice would be that, if you think a science career isn’t for you, you may not have found ‘your people’ yet. I assure you, though, that scientific careers are so much broader than just academia and traditional industry roles. Keep looking and use your networks to find your type of organisation, as I can guarantee that they’re out there somewhere.
You’re very skilled at communicating complicated topics to non-specialist audiences. How do you do it?
I was lucky enough to attend UCL for my undergraduate and PhD. UCL has a long history of engagement with a range of communities. It is thanks to opportunities I had during my degrees there that I started to really hone my communication skills.
Strangely enough, I think my acting, drama, dance and musical theatre skills have also played a part in building my skills, as there is always an element of performance in everything that we do. You need to know your audience, and know what motivates them, to really engage with them.
I do believe that everyone can learn and develop communication skills though. I’m not saying everyone needs to present evidence in a parliamentary inquest. There are so many different ways to communicate research, whether it is through writing, drawing, even music and dance.
It could even be as simple as just engaging with your PR team to find support in sharing your research more broadly. It’s a really collaborative space though, so if you want to give it a go or learn more, find some people whose communications style you like and get in touch. If they’ve got the capacity I’m sure they will either be able to help, or at least point you in the right direction.
Which mentors have helped you along the way?
Firstly, my parents, who made me believe that I could pursue anything I wanted to and they’ve been nothing but supportive. My husband is also totally wonderful, even though he wishes I worked more sensible hours. Secondly, I have a set of amazing friends that remind me that I can do things, even when I doubt myself.
Finally, there are some amazing heroes-turned-allies out there that have supported me along the way. My top four would be my ever-supportive PhD supervisor Professor Ivan Parkin at UCL, my old chemistry teacher Mr Brian McVicar, my science communication hero Professor Mark Miodownik at UCL, and my academic role model Professor Mary Ryan at Imperial College London. Our CEO at Digital Science, Dr Daniel Hook, is also an inspiration and an example of having both a career in enterprise and leadership, AND a career in academia.
>> Read about Dr Anita Shukla’s groundbreaking work in treating infection and developing drug delivery systems in our interview with Dr Shukla.
What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
In academia, my experiences have not been great. We spend a lot of time, money and effort recruiting a more diverse range of people into science degrees but very little time retaining those people in the profession.
Though things are improving, changing an entire culture is slow going, and I think academia is still fundamentally built on a framework that rewards and promotes cultures and behaviours that do not allow for inclusion.
We have a long way to go to breaking down those barriers to inclusion. We’ve worked with a range of actors in the research industry through the Research on Research Institution (RoRI), but culture change takes time. It requires buy-in at all levels and globally across the profession, as well as a lot of resource to build a better framework of recognition and reward to encourage inclusion and retention within the academic profession.
In industry, I think we are in a much better place in terms of equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, though there are of course still challenges that need to be overcome. Organisations have more control over how they nurture their employee communities, and I think it can therefore be easier to see changes in culture sooner than in academia.
There is still a long way to go to make things as inclusive as they can be, and to achieve real representation of society in industry, but by working with underrepresented communities we are able to co-create initiatives that will hopefully change things for the better.
Is there any advice you would give to young professionals looking to pursue a career path similar to yours, especially young women?
Do it! Science is such a rewarding profession, and so varied too. You’re able to combine your passion for science with your interest in a whole host of things. Do, however, be aware that you may not immediately find an environment that can support and nurture you in a way that works for you. They are out there though, so keep networking, keep looking, and be your truest self. You’ll find your people soon enough, and from there on in, it’s a great adventure.
Don’t be afraid to try things. You may well surprise yourself and start a career journey down a path you didn’t expect to find yourself on. And remember, no experience is wasted. Your skillset is always building up, and you’ll find yourself applying experiences and knowledge in ways you never expected you would.
Find a mentor or a range of mentors for different aspects of your career, and consider being a mentor for others too. You have a remarkable amount of knowledge and experience to share with others too.
>> In recent months, we’ve spoken to inspiring women who work in science. Read more about the stories of materials scientist Rhys Archer, EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow and founder of Women of Science, and Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.