Workplace Well-being: How Flexibility in Research Can Shape a Brighter Future

25 July 2023 | Blogs, News, Dr Alison Nairn news

In a world where ill-health often leads to the end of a career, there is a growing need to recognise the value and potential of flexible working arrangements. Dr Alison Nairn, a Daphne Jackson Fellow at the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, offers an inspiring example of how flexible work can support individuals facing health challenges. This blog explores her journey and highlights the importance of accommodating diverse needs in the workplace.

Alison’s journey

Alison had sadly experienced health problems for many years. After completing her PhD and holding a postdoctoral position, Alison’s health became harder to manage, and threatened her career trajectory.

“When I was 28 my health deteriorated, I was without a full diagnosis and I didn’t speak to anyone in the department, as at that time you barely saw women and there was no representation of “sick people””.

Despite lacking a clear diagnosis, she courageously pursued alternative paths, including retraining as a Chemistry teacher, which allowed her to work part-time while managing her health concerns. Additionally, Alison pursued her passion for music by completing a part-time MA in music performance at the University of York. Ultimately, her determination led her to secure a Daphne Jackson Fellowship (sponsored by the University & The Royal Society of Chemistry), enabling her to return to research after a sixteen-year career break. Throughout this period she continued to manage a chronic pain condition and underwent a number of surgeries.

The value of Alison’s Research

Due to finish in 2024 Alison’s Fellowship project is entitled: Modelling the structure and reactivity of copper oxidase enzymes (LPMOs); utilising abundant biomass in the production of biofuels. This research focuses on breaking down resistant materials such cellulose to generate cleaner fuels and greener energy. By exploring alternative sources of green energy, Alison aims to contribute to a more sustainable future.

Challenges faced

Alison candidly acknowledges the challenges associated with managing her health while pursuing her career aspirations.

“It can be a real challenge to manage my health, whether that’s feeling tired, or hospital appointments, it’s very difficult since I became unwell to not feel guilty or that you are letting people down. That’s why being part-time is so beneficial to me so I can be flexible depending on my health.

I also acknowledge that my pathway is somewhat different to “well” people. A full-time role with an independent research career may be unrealistic for me in the future”.

Despite the prevailing attitude in academia, which often discourages interruptions or deviations from the traditional career path, Alison remains committed to finding her niche and contributing valuable work.

“I cannot understate how wonderful the team at the University of York are. Leonie Jones is Employability & Disability Officer and has been so supportive. It’s brilliant to talk to somebody about how to manage illness in the workplace.”

What advice would you give to others struggling with their health and work?

To those grappling with health issues and work-related challenges, don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to find the person who is a champion for part-time/flexible work or disability workers within your organization/university. They are here to help and support you. I’m lucky that the University of York is so good at this, a huge contrast to places I’ve worked in the past, and times are changing. Be open about issues and challenges you are facing.

Have a go and make sure you are useful! Don’t give up, I’m so grateful that I’m back in a Chemistry Department doing work that I should be doing.”

Unexpected benefits

Alison’s Fellowship experience has brought unexpected opportunities, broadening her horizons beyond her own research project. Notably, she recently collaborated with a team in Sweden to investigate the mechanism of amyloid fibril formation and it’s role in Alzheimer’s disease.

Additionally, Alison has had the privilege of interacting with different research groups within the university, such as biochemists, fostering interdisciplinary collaborations. Furthermore, she contributes to Chemistry Review Magazine, providing benefits to students and teachers alike.

Alison’s “non-linear path” serves as an inspiration for individuals facing health challenges. The need for flexible working is so important, and by fostering this supportive environment, this allows researchers to continue making contributions meaningfully. Ill-health doesn’t have to signal the end of a career; rather, it can be an opportunity for individuals to explore new paths and make valuable contributions in their fields.

The Daphne Jackson Trust currently has two Fellowship Opportunities at the University of York, click here for more information and please spread the word to others that may be interested.

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