Early in her career, Anne-Marie Coriat was frustrated at times as she tried to forge her path within the academic research system. She didn’t know it then, but these frustrations would eventually lead her to her ultimate professional path: a decadeslong career at U.K. funding bodies, running scientific programs, managing funding calls, and providing strategic leadership.
“What inspired me to take [this] career path was … ruling out what I didn’t want to do, as well as developing a passion along the way for caring about how the system actually operated, because I found it quite difficult to navigate,” Coriat says. That included a stint in the United States, where she discovered that doing a Ph.D. there was totally different from what she was familiar with in the United Kingdom; she ended up working as a technician so she could focus on lab research. Later, after completing her Ph.D. in developmental biology in the United Kingdom, she struggled to identify career options that would allow her to be part of the academic research system without her having to run her own research group.
Today, as head of U.K. and Europe research landscape at the London-based health research charitable foundation Wellcome, a big part of her role is to reimagine how the academic research system operates. “If we don’t pay attention to how research is being conducted, as well as what is being delivered, that system is in imbalance,” says Coriat, who also co-chairs the Research on Research Institute, an international consortium of funders and academic institutions committed to improving how research is funded, practiced, and evaluated.
Science Careers spoke with Coriat about what her job is like. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How would you describe your current role?
A: I lead a team of four people, and we work across all parts of the organization, looking at ways we can improve how the academic research system works through funding or policy. One of my major focuses is looking at ways we can better support careers in research, not only by increasing the diversity of those who enter academia, but also by helping people pursue a breadth of careers in the system and not just the traditional Ph.D. route. Another part of what I look at is how technicians contribute to the research endeavor and how we can better support these roles. I also look at questions related to responsible research conduct, and the wider impact that responsible conduct and career issues have on research culture.
Q: What do you love about your work?
A: My favorite part of the job is working across a wide range of disciplines and networks and trying to make innovative things happen. It’s that mix of daring to dream of a different future while also putting the practical into that to give it life, legs, and longevity. One exciting project is a real-life experiment we are currently running with our Ph.D. funding, with a focus on how we can increase diversity during recruitment. Starting last year, we’ve funded around 20 Ph.D. programs based not only on the excellence of the science but also on the culture of the training environment. And we’ve tried to make ourselves as much of the experiment as anything. We are funding a social sciences study to help us understand the impact of the call and to study the evolution of measures to improve research culture, their effectiveness, and the way they are experienced. It’s important that as funders, we recognize that we have a part to play in any imbalance in the system.
Q: How similar to research is your work today?
A: There are loads of similarities. The things I do involve and require a lot of curiosity and a lot of analytical skills. They require constant learning—the ability to go into something that you don’t know everything about, with a willingness to listen and engage and collaborate and try to find solutions.
The biggest shift in the mindset that comes with moving from research into funding or policy is that the horizons expand and your ability to control every part of the experiment or approach lessens, because you’re working in a messier, real-life environment. There aren’t any perfect controls, and you may not find the answer. My Ph.D. research was looking at molecular mechanisms of sex determination in alligators, so quite focused and quite eclectic. The work that I do now is at one level quite focused, because you need to be focused on delivering, but it’s also about the big picture. It’s sifting through a lot of the noise to discern where opportunities for progress might exist.
Q: Is there anything you miss from academia?
A: There are times when I miss some of the routine things I used to do in a lab, like running gels or racking tips. You would start something, finish it, and you could definitely see a result!
Q: Are there elements of your job that you think some people might dislike?
A: So, meetings—lots of them. And lots of emails. Then, when you’re working in a funding or policy environment, things don’t necessarily move at the pace you set them, and you don’t make all the decisions. It requires understanding and working with regulatory, governance, and decision-making processes that are different from those you may be used to in research. You also have to be comfortable with the fact that political or organizational priorities may completely change the way you need to think about things. So it’s being mindful that you are part of that system, and you have to work with it.
Q: Is there anything like a typical day for you?
A: There isn’t really a typical day. The first month of this year, in addition to being involved in a number of meetings for the Research on Research Institute, I was briefed on my role as a panel member in the Research Excellence Framework [the national system for evaluating research in U.K. universities]. I was also planning the contributions that my team is going to make to Wellcome’s Reimagine Research Culture Festival, which is being held later this month. I also had discussions with Universities UK around the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. And then, I was contributing to discussions within Wellcome about ways to support our researchers in times of COVID-19.
Q: How is your work structured?
A: Most of my projects operate on yearslong timescales, and we have short and intermediate deadlines to make sure we stay on track. So there’s quite a lot of agile planning, looking at the end result and planning backwards what we need to do to get there. It’s all very well having these lofty long-term goals—but unless you’re practically doing something about it, you can talk forever and not achieve anything.
Q: What hours do you typically work, and what is your workspace like?
A: Before the pandemic, I’d be out the door at half past six for my 90-minute commute to work. Our office in central London is an open-plan building structured around a lovely large atrium space that is very bright, airy, and inspiring. But where I used to get my most creative was where I could hide in plain sight: sitting with my computer at a cafe table by the big glass windows on the ground floor of the building. The outside world would go past and I could have the buzz, but still be focused in the moment.
In these days of lockdown, I tend to be at my computer by half past eight in the morning and I’ll work till about half past six, but that’s not nonstop. One of the things I’ve learned working from home is that you can get overwhelmed by the number of two-dimensional Zoom meetings. So, I try to make a point of getting out in the fresh air in the daylight—and my dog makes sure I do as well. I’m very lucky in that I have a separate place where I can work, but it’s a pretty standard office and I do need to move around the house if I want to get that inspiration.
Q: What advice do you have for young scientists who are interested in a job like yours?
A: Some organizations offer opportunities to do internships and find out about jobs. You can also talk to people at your institution who are on grant panels or advisory bodies, or connect with others more broadly through routes like LinkedIn. Above all, if one door doesn’t open, don’t be deflated. There are lots of ways to use your skills, so keep looking.