Aude Bonehill

Research Manager of the Medical School and the University Hospital of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Former research staff in tumour immunology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.

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.

Aude Bonehill

Research staff experience

I was based in Brussels (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), in the laboratory of Medical and Cellular Therapy, headed by Prof Kris Thielemans. I worked there for over 12 years, first as a doctoral student and then as research staff. My main research area was tumour immunology, more particularly the optimisation of an autologous dendritic cell-based tumour cell therapy.  I developed a one-step novel technique to modify dendritic cells in potent inducers of anti-tumour immunity. This technique was then applied in several melanoma trials, and was quite successful. The method was also patented and is now being further developed in a spin-off company. Trials for breast cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, colorectal cancer and also HPV are planned or have already started. Another achievement was being co-supervisor of two PhD students who have now successfully defended their doctorates.

For a number of reasons I became unhappy in my work. First, I felt that my personal life and career were incompatible. My partner is very often away from home, and after our second child was born I wanted to have more time to take care of the children. (I now work four days a week instead of full time.)  Also, doing scientific research was getting very frustrating, as success is not always linked to hard work, but often to chance. In the end, I became fed up with these ‘failures’. Furthermore, I supervised several PhD students, and I took their ‘failures’ and frustrations quite personally, in the sense that I was as unhappy as they were about it. Finally, I got tired of the constant pressure to publish and obtain grants and funding.

I really wanted a job that would enable me to come home and not worry about it. Also, I always worked on scholarships and these two to three year contracts do not give you a long-term perspective. This gets more and more important when you have children, buy a house and so on. I now have a permanent position and I feel that I accomplish more because I am not constantly faced with failures and ‘bad’ experiments. Overall, my job is more satisfying. 

Transition to new career 

I did not specifically start to look for another job. I just felt unhappy in my former position and then, in 2012, there was a job opening in the faculty/associated university hospital for my current position, which I found very appealing. I talked about it several times with a professor in our faculty, and she encouraged me to apply for the job. The transition to my new job was sometimes hard. I came from a team where a lot of things are discussed in the group, and where I always knew who to go to for help. I moved to a job where I was quite on my own and had to find out a lot of new things which I knew almost nothing about. I was also alone in my ‘team’, so that was a big difference. 

Fortunately, as a scientific researcher, you learn how to be creative with problem solving, so that is what I did and I soon felt more comfortable with my new job and learned a lot in a short period of time.

Current job

I am the research manager of the Medical School and the University Hospital of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. I represent a kind of satellite of the central R&D department. I give advice to the researchers about funding opportunities, applying for personal or project grants (internal and external, national and international). I inform the research community about new calls that could interest them, but also about information sessions, brokerage events… I take care of the institutional scientific fund, which finances scientific projects performed in our research centre and of another fund which finances research infrastructure. I also assist the research council of our centre in its daily activities and in policy making.

Competencies old and new

The capacities developed as a researcher that I use most are creative thinking, problem solving and being able to work independently. Because I was a researcher myself, I am able to understand the needs/highs/lows/wishes of the people to whom I give advice. Also, people respect me in my current job, because they know that I was ‘one of them’ in the past.

I learned a lot of new competencies after moving from medical research to research management, mostly communication and administrative ones. The new job also required me to develop my skills in diplomacy!

Reflecting on my career path

I would not do anything differently. I am quite happy with how things went. I had a nice career as a researcher and I hope to have the same as a research manager. My aspirations are to carry on being successful in this role. It would just be nice to have more internal budget and to be able to finance more good projects from internal money.

Suggestions and advice

I think the most important advice is: make sure you are happy with your job. This might seem a cliché, but at the end of the day, you spend a lot of time at work, and it is such a pity when this is not making you happy.