Bruce Alexander

Managing Director of Xeroshield Ltd, based in Roslin, Scotland.

Eleven years as a researcher at institutions in Colombia and Brazil; three years at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

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.

Research staff experience

Bruce AlexanderMost of my academic career involved studies of phlebotomine sand flies, vectors of Leishmania in 89 countries worldwide. However, following a short-term fellowship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and field research in Colombia for my PhD, I focused on studies related to ecology and control of these insects in Latin America. I returned to Colombia as a research fellow at the Fundacion CIDEIM in Cali (1990-5), carried out two surveys of Leishmania vectors in Ecuador and then spent six years as visiting lecturer and researcher at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and Centro de Pesquisas Rene Rachou, both in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. On returning to the UK I spent three years at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) where I again carried out research on sand flies in Brazil. My greatest achievement was to be selected to receive a stipend as one of Colombia’s 150 most influential scientists under a Colciencias programme in 1994 (Colciencias is Colombia’s Department of Science, Technology and Innovation.) I published 56 scientific articles between 1987 and 2012.

Transition to a new career

The transition from higher education research wasn’t difficult for me – I had already been working part-time for my own small company. I also benefited from regular contact with academics in several other universities through collaborative projects – even managing to keep publishing articles for four years after leaving academia. I visited several parts of the world I’d never seen before as an academic. 

I’d already had a lot of academic freedom and no teaching duties so it was not a great wrench to leave academia – and of course I no longer had to endure long train rides and separation from my family every week. 

During my last year the LSTM changed to an open plan system which I didn’t find at all conducive to long exchanges of ideas or scientific discussions of any sort. So I really didn’t regret my decision to leave rather than continue to seek short-term grant funding. 

My academic career had been quite fragmented, involving lengthy spells in four different countries besides the UK (US, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil). I greatly enjoyed working in countries where I could go into the field whenever I wanted and talk to people directly affected by the disease I worked on, in their own languages.  The downside was that none of my contracts lasted more than six years and I never occupied a senior position in any of them. Furthermore, I found the attitude of most UK and US researchers to their Latin American collaborators to be somewhat paternalistic; we were largely charged with collecting material, acting as interpreters and ensuring that their occasional visits went smoothly and pleasantly rather than being seen as equal partners. I hope this has changed somewhat now that many Latin American researchers in my field have advanced degrees and are able to maintain more regular contact with their UK counterparts through the internet.

Current job

I set up Xeroshield in 2005, while I was a research staff, to develop novel ideas for insect control, suitable for use by the widest possible range of people and offering safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional chemical pesticides. I conceive of the ideas, seek funding from the public and private sectors to carry out proof of concept studies and generate IP, with a view to commercialising the technologies that we produce. My job thus entails a wide variety of scientific, administrative and commercially related tasks. 

Competencies old and new

My academic experience was crucial to establishing Xeroshield, providing me with the knowledge, expertise and practical experience I needed to develop new ideas as well as the basis for a network of potential collaborators worldwide. However it provided no training whatsoever in business and I have had to acquire all of this knowledge in the past ten years. 

Reflecting on my career path

I have had an enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and interesting career but feel my early intention to provide a link between Latin American and UK institutions was naive and hampered my academic progression. I never occupied a senior position in any of the countries where I worked and left the UK too early to provide myself with the solid base I would have needed to do this.

I also underestimated the conservatism of many academic institutions and ignored the politics involved, always feeling that good ideas would receive the necessary support even when they contradicted existing dogma. In recent years there has been increasing pressure to link academic research to commercial gain and my lack of interest in developing vector control measures based on conventional pesticides or genetically modified organisms would hinder my ability to obtain the necessary grant funding. 

My decision to leave academia has allowed me the freedom to develop my own ideas, secure funding from a variety of sources and seek opportunities to produce commercially viable technologies that would at least provide me with financial security for the rest of my career. However, I would also welcome a return to academia on a part-time basis as a research or teaching associate during the last years of my career. 

Suggestions and advice

I feel it is very important to build one’s reputation and establish a sound network of collaborations and funding streams before moving out of the UK, particularly to developing countries. Researchers should maintain these links where possible, not least because it may be necessary or desirable for them to return to the UK in later life.  Young researchers should determine early on in their careers whether they are suited to working in academic research and be aware that if not, there are alternatives in the private sector, including setting up a business of their own. 

While there is obviously a place for ‘blue sky’ academic research I feel more consideration should be given to more applied technologies that might provide solutions in the shorter term. Academic researchers should never lose sight of this and should perhaps receive some training in how to take their ideas on to the market. 

Overall, my advice is: do all you can to discover where your particular talents lie and make sure that these are fully exploited and appreciated in the jobs you accept. Although your career may take you in different directions, try to draw up some sort of path which can be modified as necessary.