Annemarie de Greeff

Medical Research and Device Validation Consultant.

Former Research Assistant in the Division of Women’s Health at King’s College London (St Thomas’ Hospital).

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Annemarie de Greeff

Research staff experience

I worked in research positions for King’s College London (KCL) for over eight years.

I obtained my nursing degree in South Africa (SA) in 1998 and always had a great interest in research. However, my lack of research experience resulted in many unsuccessful applications and interviews. I decided to venture into medical secretarial work and, in 2000, through the networking opportunities this provided, obtained a position as research assistant in the Women’s Health Academic Centre at St Thomas’ Hospital, part of the Division of Women’s Health at KCL.

What started out as a post for a few months turned into three years of renewed contracts. I enjoyed the work immensely, learned much about research and got great exposure to submitting and presenting abstracts and writing papers.

This led to the opportunity to return to SA in 2004 - to get married - and enjoy more family time while still doing research. From 2004-06 I worked at a tertiary hospital in Cape Town as research coordinator in a UK-funded study.

My husband and I then decided to return to the UK. I enjoyed another three years of great collaborations and experience-building back at St Thomas’. During this time I was awarded first prize for best poster at a conference and the Susan Tucker memorial prize at St Thomas’.

I have very fond memories of my years at KCL. Not only was I presented with countless opportunities to grow and improve, but I also had the great privilege of working with fantastic mentors.

Transition to new career

Sadly, in 2008 my father passed away unexpectedly and, realising the brevity of life, we decided to return to SA to spend more quality time here with our respective families. I had to consider my available job options - and I really did not wish to go back to nursing.

I realised that the research I had become so closely involved with in the UK also had great potential to be completed in SA. Even more so as most of our studies required lots of patients with high blood pressure and there was no shortage here. I didn’t have many entrepreneurial skills, but the environment was kind and I had the advantage of experience no one else had in that specific field of research in SA. So starting my own small business became my preferred option.

I was approached to undertake a new research study locally, based on the experience I’d gained in the UK. It involved training other staff, establishing new connections at the hospital, ethics applications, equipment purchases, etc. However, looking back, everything fell into place. I registered a business name, started taking care of all the administrative preparations and made use of the networking skills gained to find and train staff to assist with data collection. 

My aims were to use the experience I gained in the UK to supply services, to teach valuable skills to local hospitals, and to keep collaborations with my UK colleagues active. 

Believing in my abilities was the most challenging aspect! The other challenge was to convince people of the value of the research our group was doing. The support I received from my UK colleagues helped enormously in building my confidence to engage/network with local key people to establish a research base.

Current job – and how it compares

Nowadays my role at my own company (Validate Global) mainly involves networking with medical device companies, overseeing data collection, keeping staff motivated, performing data analysis, writing manuscripts for submission to peer-reviewed journals, and looking for opportunities to make an impact on local communities - as Kimberley (Northern Cape, SA) has an extremely high incidence of people with hypertension (high blood pressure). 

On the up side, it is great being able to work from home and having flexible working hours so that I can also spend quality time with my family - my husband and I have two children aged four and ten months respectively. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to be ‘home’/in SA, while still doing what I love: research! I’m also in the privileged position to still work in close collaboration with UK colleagues and to have an honorary contract with KCL. I also still present at conferences as much as possible, but attend fewer international ones due to the high cost of travel from SA to Europe. 

On the down side, I miss the office interaction with other research staff and the mentorship of my senior colleagues at St Thomas’ – I’m not in the hub of a multi-disciplinary unit anymore. There is always such a wealth of ideas and energy there! Nowadays, I’m pretty much focussed on a specific area of research, whereas at KCL we were often roped into other studies to assist. At the time of course, that could be very frustrating, but it gave exposure to various disciplines and, looking back, that was really helpful.

Competencies old and new

I learnt practically everything I know of research from my work at KCL. The mentorship and exposure was incredible, not to mention the free short courses that I was able to attend, presented by KCL – from use of difference software to presentation skills, handling conflict, project planning, etc.

My work at KCL helped me to gain confidence in the research field and skills I use on a daily basis: writing/reviewing manuscripts; using Excel, Access, Word, etc; the opportunity to interact with all kinds of people, from professors to patients.

In my new role I’ve had to learn how systems work locally and to adapt some working procedures to strive towards the efficiency I knew was possible from my previous experience. KCL gave me the great opportunity to influence local ways of thinking. 

Reflecting on my career path

Looking back it was an incredible privilege to be part of the research staff of a very dynamic unit. Sometimes the frustrations of several studies running concurrently and sharing a research office with several other staff (translating into lots of chatting sometimes?!) put even more pressure on time management and focussing on getting things done. In hindsight, however, these were extremely valuable skills to learn!

My aspirations all relate to my current work: I would really like to look back in a few years and see that we have not only raised awareness of the importance of accurate medical devices and the accurate measurement of vital signs, but that the confidence and skills of staff have dramatically improved. I would also like to see hypertension addressed in our local communities - with better adherence to therapy and fewer hospitalisations and hypertension-related mortality and morbidity. I guess, like most people, I would like to see that we are making a difference.

Suggestions and advice

Enjoy the opportunities and challenges that research presents. Make the most of attending conferences and presenting your work there, be it poster or oral: use the opportunities to develop presentation skills and interact with the wide variety of people attending the conference.

Make use of the free courses on offer at your institution and grab hold of the chance to develop skills you haven’t concentrated on.

Be friendly. Be respectful – many researchers will follow in the halls and offices you now work in; make it easy for them and for research to maintain an honourable position. Be honest, always. Don’t burn bridges – you never know where those relationships could lead in the future. The world is a small place...

You are where you are at the moment for a reason. Even though it may be frustrating at times (as it was for me!), keep focussing on what is good and valuable. I can guarantee that the skills and experience you are gaining will not be in vain. Go make a difference today – start by smiling.