Associate Professor Rebecca Burton
Tell us more about your role: what do you do and how did you get to where you are now?
I have been in Oxford performing Cardiac research since I started my DPhil back in 2006. I have always been interested in cardiac arrhythmias due to my family history – plus the heart is such a fascinating organ to study. Research experiences and great mentors during my DPhil studies made me realise that I wanted to pursue a career as an academic. A serendipitous discovery relating to Hyrdroxychloqouine and its effects on the ‘funny’ current got me hooked on discovery research. I was fortunate to be working in a group and with mentors that encouraged me to follow my curiosity.
On graduation I worked in a very supportive group in the Department of Physiology who helped me to develop my ideas and enabled me to gain a University Challenge Seed Award. This opened many doors for me in both basic science and translational research and was the start of my multi-disciplinary research, working with a broad range of clinicians, academics and researchers that has been vital to the success of my research ever since.
I was able during this period to visit the US and Europe to gain new experiences and skills and develop a network of effective collaborators. This was crucial to the success of my application for a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship – I proposed a very ambitious project but was able to prove my ability to manage my own research and collaborate internationally and across disciplines.
I have been based in Pharmacology since the start of my fellowship in December 2015 and have managed to grow my group from a ‘two-woman army’ into a group of just under 10, who represent almost every strand of protected characteristics and all have the same passion for science.
In addition, during my studies and my research career I also had two children and studied in my ‘spare time’ for an MBA so life has been pretty hectic.
My main role now as a research scientist involves wet lab experiments using novel imaging methods along with traditional pharmacology and physiology techniques for studying how the heart functions and what happens when you have abnormalities. I also carry out a lot of teaching and management roles in the Department, setting and marking examinations and have a pastoral role in College as well as serving on various external Charities.
Managing competing demands on my time is sometimes difficult, I absolutely love the freedom to design and drive my own research and know that the work that we do has an important role in the future of science, knowledge and development.
What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?
I have been involved in outreach for over 10 years. I feel humbled when I get a chance to interact with the public – both children and adults – and explain what we do. This is central to be able to focus our research efforts and continuously reinforces the importance of what we do and why we do it.
It is also vital to remind us of the importance of getting value for the public funding we receive and to make sure we are doing everything we can with the funds we are granted.
In addition, it is so good to work with students and scientists and great to know that I am able to play a role in their career development. I am honoured to work with my extremely talented team of young women and men, and I am always excited by their enthusiasm and passion for the science.
Carrying out research that can eventually lead to lives being improved and saved is what every scientist should aspire to and I know is what drives me on.
Can you tell us about something you’ve done, contributed to that you’re most proud of?
Our group was selected to present (one year) at the Science Museum Lates. It was an incredible experience; we had no idea of the scale of the event – the event attracts thousands of people from around the country and internationally!
Academically my greatest achievement is completing my studies in Oxford. I am from a family in India who are not very wealthy. I relied on scholarships and had to work throughout my studies to pay the bills. I would never have dreamed that I would be running my own research group in (one of) the best Pharmacology departments in the world.
My family is extremely proud of me, I am the first family member to attend University outside India. They don’t always understand what I do but I know for a fact that they are very proud of my achievements. Being awarded a Winston Churchill Medal for contributions to Science and Technology in 2015-2016 was one of my proudest professional moments.
What changes would you most like to see in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years?
I think it would be good to have an environment which offers more peer support for young researchers. There are so many young academics and early career researchers out there who struggle with their scientific careers as well as personal circumstances such as caring responsibilities, health issues or just trying to work out how to achieve their goals.
There is a lot of pressure to constantly raise funds to develop your career and it is not always clear along the way what the end goal should be. In academia in the UK in general we don’t seem to set out a clear career path for those that are just starting, which makes it quite difficult to work out what you need to do to progress.
While there has been a great deal of focus in recent years on equality of opportunity, I believe there is a lot of scope for further progress – I hope that we can continue to drive forward improvements in academia to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to attain their goals