Dame Caroline Dean FRS

During the COVID-19 lockdowns – with little to distract from work - Caroline Dean had a new perspective on the work/family balance she’d struck when her children were young. She now recognises how much it helped her emotional wellbeing.

“When I just have work, I get stressed by things that don’t normally affect me. Looking back, I think how did I manage to do so many different things when the kids were little: running my research group, writing grants, coordinating the UK Arabidopsis initiative. And I think it’s because I had the family, I had this balance that kept things in perspective. Each huge commitment balanced the other, nothing got out of proportion.”

Managing stress is something that Caroline believes is crucial to be happy and effective, and she has this advice.

“It’s useful to work out what needs to be completed each day and do the important ones first. And ‘shut the box’ on things – compartmentalise – so you can move on. I would always write a to-do list for my day and get it done. I had to be home for dinner with the children at 6 o'clock every day. So if there were things left on my list at 5pm, I’d just do them really quickly, even if it wasn’t perfect.”

Wide recognition

Caroline’s pragmatic and positive approach has clearly paid off. Over the past two decades, her research career has been honoured on an almost annual basis – including receiving the Royal Society’s Darwin and Royal Medals.

“It’s been thrilling and I’ve been very lucky. When I started here at the John Innes Centre more than 30 years ago, I decided to work a very long term project – developmental timing and adaptation in plants - and I’ve just combined short and medium term goals throughout, always maintaining that long-term focus.”

The process by which plants sense and ‘remember’ cold exposure involves an epigenetic mechanism that is conserved between organisms, making it of interest to scientists working in many fields. This means Caroline has very frequent invitations to speak around the world.

“A lot of scientists say yes to every invitation and spend their life on the road. We always had nannies and au pairs, so I could go to all the important things, but having the family was also a good excuse to say no to some things.

“You just have to prioritise. During GCSEs I remember I was at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a meeting and one of my children was having anxiety about the exams. I got on a plane and came home.”

Bold beginnings

Caroline and her husband – also a plant scientist – met during their post-docs in California. She says this is where she developed her ‘can-do’ attitude, but evidence suggests it was always there.

“I got into science through my love of watching Jacques Cousteau on the TV. After A levels, I went on holiday to the south of France with my boyfriend at the time, and I remember saying ‘let’s go to Marseille and see if they’ll let us in [to Cousteau’s research centre] to look around’. I thought my enthusiasm might get us through the door, but of course it didn’t.”

In 1988, Caroline and her husband returned to the UK for positions at the John Innes Centre and the neighbouring Sainsbury Laboratory, respectively.

“His job was the best in the world at the time. Our family responsibilities weren’t split terribly equally. But we were very fortunate to have live-in childcare so my career wasn’t limited. The nannies and au pairs often stayed for many years and really enriched our family. It was like having more relatives when our real families were actually quite far away.”

The climax of a career

Her children now have careers of their own, and Caroline is in an exciting period of her own working life. Having been awarded a coveted Royal Society Professorship in 2018, she was able to retire from her administrative and management duties at the John Innes Centre.

“Life really changed when I got it. I’m collaborating with Mariann Bienz’s team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge to investigate the molecular mechanism and structural basis of epigenetic switching. So out of COVID times I go there once a week - the work is really exciting.”

Despite her enthusiasm for this chapter of her career, Caroline isn’t fearful of retirement.

“When you make a decision you should be positive about it, and it’s nice to see other people in the lab becoming the ones that drive the research forward. Having grandchildren also makes it more attractive. I’ll be a very enthusiastic granny.”