How can you grow your career as a woman in science? In line with CABI’s strategic goals to empower women, we’ve interviewed a series of professionals who’ve worked or collaborated with CABI to share how they got to their current position, giving tangible advice to others looking to grow their careers.
In today’s blog, we talk to Julie Flood, a Senior Plant Pathologist at CABI with 35 years of experience working with diseases of tropical perennial crops, particularly cocoa, oil palm, coffee, coconut and cassava.
What’s your definition of a Senior Plant Pathologist?
I support staff involved in plant pathology (examining plant diseases) by using the expertise and experience I have built up over many years, particularly around diseases of crops like cocoa and coffee. Mostly I work on projects to do with value chains and trade, but I often work on other things too, such as CABI’s Plantwise Plus project, private sector business development, and mentoring staff or PhD students.
What does an average day look like in your role?
I currently work 3 days a week having gone part-time in 2018 when I stepped down as Senior Global Director. The tasks I am involved in include supporting project development, meetings, reports, planning science and passing on my knowledge to others.
Before the pandemic, I used to travel internationally a lot to do field work but now I haven’t been on a plane in over 2 years. I mainly work in my home office but despite that, every day is different. Often every hour can be different! I could be inputting into a report about cocoa pests and diseases one hour, but in the next, I’ll be contributing to a meeting on food safety standards in fruit and vegetables or mentoring someone new to CABI.
Much of this is because of my long experience in the subject and organization, but it’s also about having transferable skills to look across different crops and approaches. I love the diversity! I thrive on it!
What do you most enjoy and find most challenging about your job?
The parts of my role that I enjoy most and find most challenging are the same – it’s the sheer diversity of what I could be called on to do in any one day. Most of the time I love it because it is never boring and it keeps my mind active, but the challenge is to stop thinking about work when I leave the office or when I am supposed to be sleeping.
The other major challenge recently has been the adjustment to remote working – I really like face to face interactions. However, although I found virtual meetings strange initially I can now see how useful they can be to bring people together easily from across the organization. During the dark days of lockdowns working virtually was very positive both for work and personal reasons, as exchanging experiences of the ongoing pandemic was very mutually supportive.
Are there any parts of your job that you didn’t expect to be part of the role when you first started?
The only major shift has been caused by the pandemic. When I started as Senior Plant Pathologist I expected to continue travelling overseas for project work, but obviously this has changed due to COVID 19. Having to work virtually was initially strange- yes we did it, to some extent, before but now working virtually is the norm!
How did you get where you are now? Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?
I have a long track record in plant pathology. In 1978, I joined the University of Bristol as an Assistant Lecturer at the age of 24 and spent 5 years there before I went to the University of Bath where I headed a group working on tropical plant diseases for 9 years. Then I went to the other side of the World (Papua New Guinea) with my husband and small son to be Head of Plant Pathology at the Cocoa and Coconut Research Institute, before returning to the UK and joining CABI as a Senior Plant Pathologist in 1996.
My time in academia and overseas gave me an excellent grounding for my current work. In the first few years of working for CABI I was almost always travelling, working in the field on coffee, cocoa, palms and more, providing export technical inputs. In 2004 I moved into management, initially as a Regional Director (Europe-UK), then from 2007 – 2017 I became Global Director and then Senior Global Director for the Value Chains and Trade Theme.
I always tried to keep some aspect of my science work active, even when I was in senior management, by supervising PhD students and continuing to conduct research. I think continuing to publish research helps you stay grounded, plus as a scientist it’s vital to keep your reputation as someone active in the field. This helps the organisation you’re working for look good too, and the better an organisation’s reputation the more funding they get to continue their research.
When my husband was retiring I decided to go part time too, so chose to go back to my science and become a Senior Plant Pathologist again. Professionally, I don’t think I would change anything really. When I started in academia the lack of job security (and sheer misogyny!) made it difficult for women, but it made me stronger. Sometimes I wish I had joined CABI earlier but then would have missed out on the experiences that helped me later when I did join.
What advice would you give to someone looking to do this role in the future?
I think success in this role is about having a good grounding in science. You need plenty of experience from different institutions so that you have different perspectives. Having a strong network and a good scientific reputation helps too – this will all help you advise and guide more junior staff and understand projects from a business point of view.
I also think more senior staff should share their knowledge towards the end of their careers. There’s a lot to be learned from experience gained over time, and sharing helps older staff continue to feel connected to their organisation as they’re making a real difference to young people’s careers.
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