Dr Sayeda Abu-Amero has a PhD in fungal virology, and until recently was a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as working part-time at a (very very tasty) local restaurant – Hiba Express. When we spoke Sayeda only had a few days left at UCL. She has now started working full-time at the restaurant, and hopes to open a coffee shop in the near future. We couldn’t resist adding such an inspirational interview to our case study collection! So if you’re interested in either Higher Education teaching roles, or in entering the restaurant game, read on…
Describe your current role
Currently I have two jobs. One is three and half days a week as a programme tutor for a UCL Masters course in Genetics of Human Disease. I’ve been working on the course for seven years, and as a programme tutor for the last two years. This is purely a teaching-focused academic role, looking after the organisation and timetabling of the whole course, and dealing with any student issues that may arise. What I teach on the course is something called Core Skills. I teach students how to present, write scientific essays, talk to their peers and to the public, write for blogs, and conduct themselves in interviews; life skills they will use to communicate their work, very much in the context of genetics and human disease. This sort of training is an essential part of ensuring that the work of scientists isn’t misrepresented or misunderstood outside of the scientific community, equipping future scientists to be the ones who can convey their own science confidently, clearly, and accurately.
The first term is very busy, as that’s when I do most of my face to face teaching. I also teach on several other courses, and have a number of students as my tutees, as well as project students in the lab and literature review students from other courses.
The other two and a half days a week I work at a Palestinian and Lebanese restaurant, Hiba Express. We have three branches and a stall. My main duties have been to look after their social media and emails, arrange bookings and catering, work on promoting the restaurant, and look after any issues that may arise. I also cover the legal aspects pertaining to running a food business, such as training staff according to food standard agency regulations. So although I have worked front of house on busy evenings, I’m usually found working behind the scenes.
What led you to become a Senior Teaching Fellow?
I did my first degree at UCL in Genetics then moved to Imperial for my PhD in Dutch Elm disease, using the same molecular biology techniques I’d been learning about, but applying them to plants. When I was looking for a post-doc there was very little funding in London to do plant work, so I took up a one-year research post researching children with growth restriction with Professor Gudrun Moore at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital. That was the beginning of a 22-year working relationship with her, which exposed me to some clinical work, which I’d always been quite interested in.
I left UCL for a bit of that time, spending three years working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia on several Mendelian disorders, where I had my first taste of the business and coordination side of science, as I was involved in setting up core facilities for the whole hospital. When I returned to the UK as a single mum, I contacted Gudrun, and was able to take up a part-time role with her. In some ways being part-time was perfect at that stage as I was able to spend more time with my daughter and to slowly get back into the science I had left for three years.
Gudrun had always wanted to set up a biobank. So in 2009, back when biobanking was still relatively new, I stepped away from lab work and moved into setting up and coordinating the ICH’s Baby Biobank (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/tapb/sample-and-data-collections-at-ucl/biobanks-ucl/baby-biobank). This was a very steep learning curve, getting to grips with clinicians and red tape and managing staff across multiple sites with many logistical challenges. Towards the end of my five to six years of working on this project the role became very much about analysing large amounts of data and computing. Wonderful in terms of the research, but there’s nothing worse than asking me to sit in front of a computer and look at numbers all day! It took about a year of feeling this way and expressing it to Gudrun before I stepped down as Manager of the Baby Biobank.
Throughout my time at UCL I had always been teaching alongside doing research and the Biobank. The teaching opportunities started with me taking on lectures and marking that my supervisor was unable to take on, and then the opportunities grew from there. So when I wanted to move away from the Biobank, I wrote a business case for a 3.5 day/week role working on the Genetics of Human Disease Masters MSc. I’d already been contributing to the course alongside the biobank, and in many ways I was quite keen to focus on teaching, which had always been another passion. So I wrote the job description for that person. At that time it was a bit of a struggle to put a business case together for the role, to justify the number of hours that good teaching actually takes – it’s not just the face-to-face teaching time. But especially with the Teaching Excellence Framework coming in I think this sort of teaching-focused role is on the increase.
And how did you get into the restaurant business?
Towards the end of my time at the Biobank I started taking my daughter to improv class in Marble Arch. While she was there I would visit a restaurant I liked in Holborn to get something to eat while I caught up on marking and other work. One day I went to pay the bill and the owner asked me why I ate there so much. Although I could have taken this as a comment that I ate a lot (!), actually he was really interested in exactly why I liked the food. So I told him: I loved the food! There are many Lebanese places in London, but not of this standard. The quality is exceptional. Shortly after, I organised my birthday lunch there, which ended up being more like a full-day event! It was great. I wrote a positive online review, for which he thanked me.
So I got to know the owner this way, and I continued to eat and drink as usual. I guess the owner would often see me on Facebook, and so one day he asked me to help him with his restaurant’s Facebook as he was too busy and not very familiar with it. So I started helping him with that, and then with a few emails. And as my daughter was in Marble Arch for three hours every Saturday morning, I suggested that rather than spending that time hanging about and shopping, I could spend it helping out at the restaurant. He said yes and that they’d pay me for those hours. When I realised I was going to be moving to the part-time teaching role, he offered me some proper days working at the restaurant because he was looking at expanding. At that time I thought this may be just what I need to start entertaining the idea of leaving academia and eventually setting up my own coffee shop, which is something I’d been considering for over a decade by then!
What prompted your current move to focus on the restaurant full-time?
Both of my current roles are not 9 to 5 jobs you can leave behind at the end of the working day or on the weekend. They both mean you’re constantly thinking, answering emails, on the phone etc. I don’t mind that, as I have a flexible approach to work, but to have two such jobs can only really be sustained for so long. Also, the Core Skills module took a long time to set up and get running the way I wanted it to. I think I achieved that three years ago, and since then it’s been running much the same. Obviously you can tweak and update things, but I was starting to get twitchy feet as I’m not someone who likes to do the same things again and again. So I decided I could have a mid-life crisis and just leave! I’d been murmuring about it for a while, so it didn’t come as a huge shock to people, but a lot of family and colleagues were still concerned, asking whether I was really sure I wanted to do this, moving from a well-paid academic position to something so new and potentially less stable. For me it is an adventure. My child is a little older so it’s a good time to take up this opportunity. And if it all goes pear-shaped? So what? I’ll start again. I’ve started from scratch before, I can do it again.
And the truth is a lot of people are having to leave academia, even later in their careers. When I first started studying for my undergraduate, having a lifelong career in academic research seemed like a very realistic prospect. But things have changed. Certainly the wider environment has changed. The workload is going up, funding is being cut or stretched, there are more and more PhDs being produced, and advanced researchers are expensive. So obviously a lot of PhDs are not going to be in academic research forever. We’ve even held many farewell dinners for colleagues leaving academia at Hiba!
What will you be doing in your new full-time role?
My boss was originally a film-maker, and one day just decided he would run a restaurant. He knew nothing about the industry, but he learned. And he learned so well that he now has three restaurants and a market stall. We’re now looking at a concept that will be bigger. He’s Palestinian and he’s a social activist. So what he wants to do is to help people, the people who are stuck and in refugee camps. People who are capable and can create. He wants to help them do these things, help them sell their products here in the UK, which as a rule is a place that is very supportive of the Palestinian people. He also wants to connect with sustainable farms, to make sure the produce he’s using is bought from them. So I’m going to be working on making these visions a reality.
The catering is a very lucrative part of the business, we do office catering, events, weddings – we had our first gay wedding in August! It was beautiful. So I’ll also be pushing on the catering side. And I’ll be doing two or three evenings a week front of house. Interestingly enough, my daughter has now taken over running the social media for the business for some pocket money. She’s very good with technology and it means we can have interesting discussions over dinner.
What are the best bits about your teaching role?
The best thing is the interactions and meeting people from so many different backgrounds and cultures. You may be the teacher, but there’s still so much you can learn from the students. Getting to know them, seeing how they are at the beginning of the course, perhaps starting off shy; and then you take them through the year and you see how they’ve progressed, confidently booming out presentations. That’s very rewarding. Getting students to work together, students who will potentially one day be scientific collaborators, is also a high point. We recently had a reunion for graduates from the course, and seeing how people had grown and progressed was something I really enjoyed. Teaching is always an exciting and rewarding activity as it means you’re having to keep up to date, and you know that someone is going to directly benefit from it.
And the worst bits about teaching?
The only negative point I would say is the marking. The amount of hours spent marking is never truly calculated or appreciated. It’s so hard to know how long marking will take, it really can suck up a lot of time!
What’re the best things about working in the restaurant?
That’s much the same as the teaching really. Meeting so many different people, and being able to help them, albeit in a different way.
And the worst?
It never ends. It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week. Even when the doors are shut, the restaurant is still working. It needs to be cleaned. The butcher comes in at 4am in the morning and needs to work there alone. Then everything needs to be cleaned again before the veg etc. are prepared. And we have a big menu, so that’s a lot of prep. It’s never ending!
And on top of that there are so many challenges I would never have imagined but for me it’s all new and exciting!
What skills developed during your PhD are useful in your current roles?
I think the PhD can be useful in many ways, for whatever you go on to do. It gives you a specialism, an expertise. And it teaches you how to think. You’re left alone for years to get on with something, so you learn to solve problems on your own and take ownership of your work. I think people who come out after doing a PhD are changed. I’ve seen it. They’ll come in as students, behaving like students throughout their PhD. But they walk out of their viva with a new confidence. The award itself can instil a confidence that should’ve been there before but often wasn’t.
Although I personally don’t think you need a PhD to be a good teacher (people who have been in research for many years without getting a PhD would be just as good), for most university teaching fellow roles like mine a PhD is a requirement on the job description.
Even though you obviously don’t need a PhD to run a restaurant or a coffee shop, I certainly don’t think I’ll be the first PhD to make the move. And I’ve used lots of the things I’ve learned during my time in research, especially the organisational and time-management skills. I present what I’m doing in excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and graphs. I use my analytical skills to keep track of the business over years, scanning the data to analyse how the business is doing, looking at improvements year on year, and daily and seasonal variations. I use my experience of teaching to train restaurant staff, for example bringing social media and customer reviews into their awareness. And now that we’re looking at implementing a larger concept, I’ve done a lot of research for the restaurant around similar initiatives. And I use the writing skills I’ve developed in academia to put together business proposals. I also use the networking skills, resourcefulness, and proactivity I’ve needed in academia. If I want something from someone I will go and ask them. Those face-to-face communication skills that get things done are valuable in any setting.
Where does it go from here?
My last day at UCL is this week. Ideally I will work at the restaurant for the next two or three years. I want to see the restaurant stabilising and becoming more comfortable during that time. And I do still want that coffee shop! I’ve already seen one or two potential spaces. I like the idea. But I don’t want to abandon the restaurant I’ve grown to love. So I think perhaps the two can be married, and the coffee shop could become part of Hiba. That would also mean I can do the bit I’m interested in – running a coffee shop – without the setting-up-a-business bits I’m not so interested in.
I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I keep trying to leave! Originally the coffee shop was meant to be abroad, in Spain. I don’t speak Spanish. But I love listening to it. So maybe that’s not the most practical move, which is why the restaurant/coffee shop dream is happening here. It’s more practical but it’s still a risk. The economy here is very unstable. Business rates are rising. I keep walking around Tottenham Court Road and the Brunswick area and passing places I thought were very good that are shutting down, so anything can happen. That’s why I’ll wait a few years before branching out with a coffee shop.
What are your tips for researchers hoping to follow a similar path?
You just have to go out there and do it. Whatever ‘it’ is! I always tell my students not to wait for opportunities, you need to go and get them. Talk to people. Build relationships. My own career has revolved around networking. When I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t apply for adverts, I just emailed the people I thought were interesting, and I got a response. People are often still writing grants, so whether it’s a PhD or post-doc place, if you get in at the right time you can be a named person on their grant. And when I went to Saudi I contacted people, told them what I could do, and they created a position for me. Even with the restaurant they didn’t ask me to come and work full-time! I really liked working there, I could see there was a need for a full-time person, and I put that to the boss. Hopefully he’s ok with it!
It may seem that in a structured environment like academia this wouldn’t be possible but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to become invaluable. If you find something you like to do, just go out there and do it. You will end up sometimes being overloaded. But that’s academia, you always end up giving more than what’s on your job description. But if what you’re doing is useful, you’ll become the best person for the job and give it an identity. It’s what happened with my teaching role. You also have to be creative, flexible, and adaptable. Especially when it’s not just you in the picture – when you have partners, kids, parents you need to care for. All of which I’ve had to juggle with work. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But when my father was ill and then eventually passed away from stomach cancer, it taught me that we never know when it will be our time to go, so there’s no point in waiting. I’d been putting off the coffee shop idea for various reasons, once my daughter’s older etc. But at that point I realised it was something I really had to start pursuing, even if only slowly at first. So find something you like and just do it!