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Categories: Sanger Life23 August 202111.6 min read

Defining Success

The Wellcome Genome Campus Equality in Science group welcomed five inspirational speakers in June to reflect on success. Chaired by Dr Saher Ahmed, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the panel from across Wellcome, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Board of Governors  and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, shared their own journeys, definitions of success, and lessons learnt in the space of diversity and inclusion. Each speaker brought a unique outlook, from thinking about issues in their personal lives, to organisational, societal and global perspectives. They also reflected on how the pandemic has made them re-evaluate what success means to them. Further information about the Equality in Science programme at Sanger can be found here:

Dame Cilla Snowball, DBE, has had a long career in advertising, including 26 years at the creative agency AMV BBDO, where she was Group CEO and Group Chairman, and pivotal in making it one of the most successful advertising agencies in the UK.

She has chaired the Women’s Business Council, the GREAT Private Sector Council, and acted as trustee of Comic Relief. She is currently a member of the Board of Governors at Wellcome and a board member of Genome Research Limited.

Cilla shared her thoughts on what success looks like in diversity and inclusion – specifically in gender equality.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly changed our definition of success. It's made inequality worse. It's put gender equality back by an estimated 35 years.”

She spoke about three things that define success in diversity and inclusion for her; failing, enthusiasm and dividends.

“I think it's a very fine line between success and failure, and I don't believe there are any success shortcuts. There's no switch that you can flick to make workplace culture inclusive, diverse and safe. It's painful, uncomfortable, and comes with heavy lifting, which can take years to get right.”

She stressed the importance of speaking up – colleagues must be empowered and feel safe to speak up, and to confront inequality.

Cilla feels that success in diversity and inclusion relies on action and enthusiasm.

“In my experience happiness leads to success and rarely the other way around. We're right to be angry about diversity and inclusion and agitated about things like gender equality policy, tax relief from childcare, removing the part time penalty, the motherhood penalty, and so on.

“But we have to celebrate the wins too, and I was very proud to play a part in the body that pushed for gender pay gap reporting, shared parental leave legislation, and the right to request flexible working.”

Her last issue was the diversity dividend. Cilla reflected that diversity results in better growth and performance and greater profit, but more importantly, a better culture, innovation, stakeholder and staff engagement and staff retention.

“Diversity and inclusion mean that organisations represent the communities they serve. To me, that is success.”

Dr Sarah Teichmann

Dr Sarah Teichmann. Credit: Sebastian Nevols

Dr Sarah Teichmann is interested in global principles of regulation of gene expression and protein complexes, with a focus on immunity. Sarah did her PhD at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge. She started her group at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 2001, discovering stereotypical pathways of assembly and evolution of protein complexes during this time.

In 2013, she moved to the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, with a joint position at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. In February 2016 she became Head of the Cellular Genetics Programme at Sanger and co-founded the Human Cell Atlas international initiative, which she continues to lead. Sarah was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) in 2012, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2015 and a fellow of the Royal Society in 2020.

Sarah described her view of career success in the context of British academia.

She reflected on her own experiences of becoming a mother during an academic career. Sarah’s position was tenured when her children were born, but she recalls the lack of institutional provisions at the time. She also spoke about colleagues in more junior positions finding themselves under pressure to give presentations, or attend job interviews, just weeks after giving birth – in one case a colleague was obliged to give a big presentation when her six-week old baby was waiting to go into surgery. It was this extreme example that led her, together with her colleague, to speak out.

“I realised that these kinds of behaviours and events were down to a lack of awareness and empathy, which isn't only limited to UK academia - it was a societal phenomenon as a whole.”

Sarah emphasised the courage it takes to speak out, especially when your career, your job and income are so important to your life.

Sarah put forward policies proposing changes for parental leave. The recommendations included extension of contracts, or tenure clocks, for people after parental leave. Many were implemented at the time, and thankfully many are now standard now in research institutes, including the Sanger.

“We all know that there's work yet to be done. Now is the time to continue to fight for a future where scientists of all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities and backgrounds can succeed, leading scientific discovery in new, creative directions.”

Melanie Keen is Director of Wellcome Collection, a free museum and library in London that challenges how we think and feel about health. Prior to joining in October 2019, she was Director and Chief Curator at Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts). Melanie sits on a number of boards and advisory committees including the Freelands Foundation Diversity Action Group, Government Art Collection and the Board of Visitors of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.  

She has worked extensively in building greater awareness of the practice of artists of African and Asian descent in Britain. Her curatorial practice has focused on creative collaboration, community engagement and experimentation. As a regular contributor at conferences and seminars, most recently as a keynote speaker at the Museums Association Conference 2020, Melanie is enthusiastic about the potential to forge an alliance of museums and cultural institutions committed to social justice.

Melanie shared her personal journey around the idea of defining success in the context of the last year and the seismic changes that have affected all of our lives.

“I think that notion of what might be successful has definitely been pulled apart during the pandemic. The coordinates have totally shifted.”

The pandemic has meant that the relationship that museums and galleries have with the public has totally changed, and so the measures of success for an organisation can’t be the same.

Melanie shared her personal reflections of the difficulties of success in an environment like the one we've had over the past year. A balance in life has been hard to achieve, especially when you are working from home. Can you be a good partner? Can you be a good friend? Can you be a good parent? Can you be a good daughter? Can you be a good leader? Or is it just about being good enough?

“I think that there is always something at stake when you're striving for success.”

“On a more personal level, it can sometimes feel hard to fail as a person of colour. And, if you succeed, there is this idea of black exceptionalism - that you've done it against all odds. That's quite a responsibility that I think is brought on by this condition of hyper visibility, and it's easy to lose yourself in that conundrum.”

Melanie also spoke about the importance of allies. “I'm one of few black leaders of a cultural institution in the UK. Over the last year particularly, I've had to form allegiances and alliances with peers who look like me, think like me. They've acted as a kind of life support system.”

Melanie shared how the pandemic has brought success in understanding her own needs, as well as the needs of her team.

“It is those degrees of joy that really help keep you going. That could be interactions in my team, talking about ideas, talking about the things that have been able to flourish during the pandemic.”

Dr Charlie Weller is Head of the Vaccines Priority Area at Wellcome, with a focus on the development of new and improved vaccines, as well as strengthening the connection between research and decision making to ensure better use of vaccines. The team has a major focus on epidemics and pandemics with Wellcome being a founder and of funder of CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). Charlie joined Wellcome in 2014 and has over 16 years of research experience in both academic and pharmaceutical environments, holds a BSc in Genetics from Birmingham University, and a PhD in Immunology from Imperial College London.

Charlie shared three thoughts on defining success. The first was on diversity of thinking and how having a diverse pool of people, with a range of approaches, backgrounds and experiences really matters. In the vaccine team at Wellcome, Charlie has built a multidisciplinary team including basic scientists, translational scientists, health systems researchers, policymakers, programme managers and communications experts. It has meant the programs are able to have a greater impact than if they were more insular.

Her second point was about the culture that we create for ourselves and for others. “When I think about the people I most admire, it's those people who aren't necessarily the superstar academics, but those people who take the time to support their teams, and nurture the next generation.”

Charlie also mentioned the flip side and the benefits of having a support network yourself, and being able to ask for help when you need it.

Her final point was thinking about success on a global level – something brought sharply into focus in her role as head of vaccines at Wellcome. There are huge global inequalities in access to vaccines, and Charlie’s definition of success is about reducing the gap between those who have, and those who don't have.

“I think we should be celebrating how far we've come, but there is so much more that we need to do - we need to go much further.”

Elhadj As Sy is the Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation Board, and Co-chair of the WHO/World Bank Global Pandemic Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB). He has over 30 years’ experience of leadership in the humanitarian, health, environment and development sectors, and has previously served as the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – the world’s largest humanitarian network.

Prior to this appointment, Mr. Sy was UNICEF’s Director of Partnerships and Resource Development in New York. He has also served as UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Global emergency Coordinator for the Horn of Africa, and at senior levels of other agencies including UNAIDS, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

As began by considering the thoughts of the previous speakers. “Maybe success is not a target that you achieve, but it is a journey of travel, something that you permanently aspire to. And then every milestone is a stepping stone to the next.”

As reflected on the nature of science, something we perhaps think of as objective and universal.

“The objective nature of science in our minds suggests that there is no bias. There are no stereotypes. There is no stigma. There is no discrimination. But if we believe that, then it means then there are no people in it. People will not go into science and leave their hearts and minds at the door. They carry that coming in.”

On the importance of diversity, As said, “The question is not, ‘Do we have diversity?’ The question is, ‘Do we accept it? Do we recognise it, do we value it?’” He stressed the importance of consciously investing in diversity at all levels of an organisation, including leadership.

As noted that diversity can be a word that is used to hide other things, including racism. He spoke about how racism affects everyone, even if not directly. Those who witness racism, as well as the work that is done, are impacted.

“Again it is about recognising it, being aware, not denying it, and then taking it as a reality. More importantly, asking oneself what to do about it.”

As reflected, like Melanie, on being ‘the first, the only’, and a sense of exceptionalism. In many of the positions he’s been in, As has been the only African. “As well as being the ‘only’, you also want to be doing the best, and leave a footprint. But you don't want to overdo it – it can be exhausting. It is a heavy load to carry.”

He spoke about the importance of role models for future generations. “We need to draw others into the same path, growing them, without them paying the same price. Those indicators of success will start to appear when it is not going to be so difficult, and the load will not be so heavy.”

He ended by speaking about collaboration. “Each of us has a personal journey, but we travel together. We are influencing each other, supporting each other, pushing each other, challenging each other. And along the route, we are allowing ourselves to doubt.

“And those doubts, they will not be mistakes that paralyse us, but they are thoughts that make us humble as we continue to try and strive for excellence.”

“Only together we can achieve that.”

Further reading