The thought of changing career can often be quite daunting. RSPB Science Fundraiser Rick Lewis explains how he’s given up the university life to move into the world of wildlife, along with some words of advice.

Personal milestones in my career at the RSPB are starting to rack up: I’m coming up to 6 months in post and have worked from home longer than I have at the office, and my first scientific paper as an RSPB employee has just been published.

Publishing scientific manuscripts is nothing new to me though; before starting with the RSPB in January 2020 I was Professor of Structural Biology in Newcastle University and published over a hundred times (for those with a latent interest in biochemistry, my latest paper is on Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterium that can be found on unpasteurised foods).

But how did I get here? At one of Europe’s largest nature conservation charities, from a career spent studying the structure and shape of biological macromolecules measuring a few nanometres (0.000000001 m) in length, when I struggle to tell the difference between an albatross and an avocet?

An albatross in the garden of The Lodge © Rick Lewis

It was the morning of Tuesday the 5th of December 2017, my first day back from a 2-month sabbatical in sunnier climes. I had been feeling unsettled professionally for quite some time and when I saw the 14 cm high pile of marking on my desk (which I had to weigh to satisfy my own curiosity - 2.4 kgs, if you were wondering), I knew that I had some pretty big decisions to make.

I had gone to University at 18 and never left. I was about as institutionalised as you could get, had no idea what ‘transferrable skills’ I had if any, and how would I find a new career when all I’d ever known was structural biology? I needed a ball of light to show me the way, but where to find my Tinkerbell? The answer came in the form of Ruth, a career coach, who shone light for me where previously there was only darkness.

Transferrable skills? In this case your author transferring liquid nitrogen. Note the protective gear as liquid nitrogen has a temperature of around -200 °C and cold burns are not funny! © Rick Lewis

We had numerous meetings, completed on-line tasks together, and started by writing-off roles I would likely find unrewarding. Moving to a different academic institution, performing the same role in a research institute or in a pharmaceutical company would only move me sideways, not forwards. I retained a strong desire to contribute to society on a bigger scale than I could manage in my University role.

Slowly but surely a plan was formulating – I could capitalise on my ability to raise funds in the form of grants from the UK Research Councils that had paid the salaries of staff in my group and the reagents required to carry out scientific research. All I needed was a new home to hone these skills further.

About a year ago I started to make job applications in earnest. Again, Ruth lit the way on how to adapt my old academic CV into something that a potential new employer wouldn’t just file in the recycling bin. By the summer of 2019 I started to receive interview requests.

To cut a long story short, I put my house on the market and resigned from my old job even before I had been called to interview for this position. A little reckless perhaps, some have even said ‘brave’, but the pandemic is shifting people’s perceptions and I certainly do not meet my personal definition of bravery.

So here I am, the RSPB’s first Science Fundraiser! I’m tasked with assisting my colleagues in identifying and securing funding opportunities, exploiting one of those transferrable skills that I had all along but couldn’t see some help. Having my Tinkerbell’s shining light has lit my path to a re-invention of myself, re-energised, re-committed and re-enthusiastic about the next phase of my working life.

Many of our colleagues are currently furloughed, and others are working from home. I don’t have a cat, dog or boisterous children to help me through the day, but I know I’ve made the right decision. I’m looking forward to the day when we’re all back to work as ‘normal’, and I continue to learn about ecology from my new colleagues while in return boring them with stories of what proteins look like and what they do in cells.

A 3-D printed model of two proteins; in real life these are each about 5nm in diameter whereas the 3-D printer has made them about 10 cm across © Rick Lewis

In the meantime, if you are thinking about a career change, I know it can be daunting. But with the right support from loved ones and a welcoming new environment, anything can happen. I just wish I’d made the same decision sooner. Thanks Tinkerbell.