Anita Simmers

Anita Simmers

Building confidence

Glasgow Caledonian University is not only working with industry to shape the content of its life sciences courses, but is also giving its students access to plenty of practical and work-based learning, as Anita Simmers explains.

The life sciences sector is one of Scotland’s hidden gems. More than 37,000 people are already employed by some 700 organisations, which together turn over in excess of £4.2bn and add £2bn of gross value to our nation’s economy.

Ambitious plans were unveiled earlier this year [2017] to double the industry’s turnover to £8bn by 2025, building on the 29% increase already posted between 2010 and 2014. The financial figures are only half the story though – life sciences also have a much wider impact on society, developing the drugs and medical devices of the future, as well as innovating in fields such as agriculture and aquaculture.

Anita Simmers, professor of vision science and head of the life sciences department at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), wants parents, teachers and the wider public to have a better idea of what the life sciences are and what’s involved with a career in the industry. “When the majority of our students arrive at the university, they have very little understanding of life sciences,” she explains.

“Traditionally, they’ve been good at biology or chemistry at school and have chosen to go to university without really understanding what a career in the life sciences actually involves. We ask pupils to make their subject choices so early at school, but we don’t fully explore what those subject choices could mean for their subsequent career paths.”

Once those students arrive at GCU though, they’re quickly given a real insight into the meaning of a career in the life sciences.

“Life sciences is a complex arena and there are many different routes you can take during your career,” explains Simmers. “During the first year of the four-year degree programme, early-career graduates from all sectors of life sciences engage with our students on a regular basis. They can inspire our students by telling them about what they did with their degrees and what jobs they got once they left university.

“Once students start to specialise in third and fourth year, we bring in industry specialists is areas such as microbiology, cell and molecular biology and pharmacology. This career track employability initiative runs through all four years of our programme.”

Along with colleagues at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, GCU also runs Glasgow Economic Leadership Forum (GELF) masterclasses for fourth-year students. During the sessions, chief executives and other senior figures from life sciences companies come into the universities to speak to students about topics such as regulatory compliance, adding to their real-world experience.

SimmersGCU also uses its students’ fourth-year honours projects as a way of interacting with industry. All students carry out practical or “wet room” projects in the laboratory rather than dissertations, adding to the portfolio of practical skills that they can offer to potential employers.

Those projects are then put on display as posters and companies are invited along to see the results. The exercise not only helps final-year students to practice their practical skills in the laboratory, but also helps them to hone their “soft” skills, such as report writing and public speaking.

“When students come to us, many of them lack confidence,” Simmers points out. “I don’t know why, but we as Scots have lost confidence in our own abilities, especially when it comes to technical proficiency in the sciences. During the Enlightenment, Scots were the leading minds in every field – I don’t know what’s happened since then.

“The world of work is a hard place now, so I want our students to have the technical skills they need but also the soft skills they need to succeed. Employers are always looking for that broader range of skills.”

Simmers’ passion for her students and their futures always shines through in each and every conversation with her. “Neither of my parents were academics and I was the first member of my family to go to college and then later on to university,” she explains.

After graduating with a degree in orthoptics in 1990, Simmers went to work in clinical practice, helping patients with eye problems as part of an ophthalmic team. She returned to university to complete a master’s degree in public health and community medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1993 and then joined GCU to undertake her doctoral studies, which she completed in 1997. Subsequently gaining a wealth of postdoctoral research experience in clinical and behavioural neuroscience both nationally and internationally.

“Even when I was working in a clinical environment, I could see the gulf between my academic studies and their application in clinical practice,” she explains. “I think I was instinctively drawn back into research and ultimately academia so that I could help students see the relevance, inspire and engage them to give them the best possible chance of finding a job when they graduated.

“Some of my students may not go on to work in the life sciences industry, but I still want them to succeed. If they’re confident then it also improves social mobility, which is really important for Scotland’s future.

“We want a generation that grasp at opportunities. Skills is one aspect, but as well as skills we should be giving students the desire for social mobility, the desire for continual learning, the desire to keep moving.

“You may have two or three careers in your lifetime. We have lots of untapped potential out there in the workforce and I hope that universities and industry can work together to unlock that potential.””

One of the crown jewels in helping students find work is the Scottish Life Sciences Internship Programme, which finds placements for first-, second- and third-year students. The scheme is run by ScotGrad, a programme operated by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise, alongside the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) and Skills Development Scotland (SDS).

The programme was expanded from 17 places to 40 in response to demand from employers. Around 500 people from throughout Scotland applied for the 40 spaces, highlighting the popularity of the 10- to 12-week placements among students too.

SimmersGCU is also piloting a mentorship scheme with its food bioscience students, during which they are mentored by someone from industry. “I’d like to see internships and mentoring extended beyond life sciences into other areas too,” adds Simmers. “One of the issues we face though is finding businesses that want to take interns or students on placements. A lot of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) take part in our industry employer engagement forums, which is great, but there is not a bottomless pit of opportunities available, these SMEs need support from government.

“It would be great to see more larger companies getting involved. Bigger businesses could perhaps take 10 students at a time, which again would create more opportunities.”

Simmers also points to the work going on by her colleague Colin Murchison – associate dean for business development in GCU’s school of engineering and built environment – who is collaborating with Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Forth Valley College to deliver graduate-level apprenticeships (GLAs), with students spending time at each of the three institutions during their four years of training, depending on their specialisms.

“It’s important for universities to find new ways of working together like this,” she says. “Scotland is the perfect size for collaborations such as these.

“Filling the skills gap also involves a cultural change. Parents need to see apprenticeships as a viable alternative. Going to college isn’t a bad thing. A university education isn’t for everybody. We need to stop this hierarchical nature of employers asking, ‘Which university did you go to?’ or ‘Which degree did you get?’.

“We can only do that by people working together. There is overlap between institutions, but I think we each have our specialisms and there’s room for us all to grow. It’s about being agile.

“The school curriculum is so jam-packed. I want to get more involved with schools so that we have industry coming in to run after-school clubs that offer science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as those for drama or arts and crafts. Innovation will only come from STEM – end of story.”

While Simmers is a vocal advocate for the need for work-based learning and very practical courses at universities, she doesn’t advocate abandoning academic studies. She thinks it’s important that universities don’t go down the route of offering only part-time courses. “You need academic research because that’s where innovation comes from,” she explains. “That’s why we call it research and development – you need both.

“It’s important to teach students the practical skills that they will need to find a job when they graduate. But it’s also important that we train the next generation of leaders, the people who will not just know how to carry out today’s technical tasks but will also be able to innovate and invent the techniques of tomorrow.

“Scotland needs people who innovate. We don’t want to dilute a university experience.”