Dame Ottoline Leyser FRS

Ottoline Leyser met and married her husband while studying for her BA in Genetics at Cambridge. The couple had two children when Ottoline was a postdoctoral researcher, during which time her research took the family to the USA and back. She says the nature of science, combined with that of her husband’s career, made this easier.

"My husband was a freelance writer. Because he worked from home, we were able to move easily and he was the main carer for our two children. Having children during my postdoctoral years, when my work was more flexible, was also very helpful. Even later as a lecturer I had significant flexibility. It was usually relatively straightforward to take time out to go to the school play, or to flex when necessary."

Ottoline reflects on her time with a young family (her children are now adults) as being positive for her mental health.

"For me, my home life was crucial in putting work stresses into perspective. My children could instantly dispel the frustration of failed experiments or rejected papers."

Success and sadness

Ottoline’s research career – investigating hormonal regulation of shoot branching in plants – progressed to a Professorship at the University of York in 2002, and Fellowship of the Royal Society in 2007.

The same year that her youngest child began university, the couple returned to Cambridge for Ottoline’s appointment as Associate Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU). She was promoted to Director in 2013, a year before her husband was diagnosed with cancer. He died in November 2014.

"It was certainly the hardest time of my life. I found work very stabilising at a time when other pillars of my life were crumbling. Everyone at work was brilliant, happily stepping in to catch the many balls I dropped to respond to the numerous emergencies that happened. And friends and family were wonderful too, stepping in to help at home."

This period taught Ottoline an important lesson about coping during a crisis, and informs her advice for anyone else trying to keep their career on the rails through tough times.

"Although it is easy to feel as though you are burdening others, in my experience people were really pleased to be able to do something positive to help. So my advice would be to ask for help."

Filling the void

Beyond the initial impact of her husband’s death, Ottoline found that work provided a distraction to her grief.

"I miss him very much. We had almost a year between his cancer diagnosis and his death, through which his health deteriorated. I had time to anticipate and prepare for his death, but it did not occur to me to prepare for after it. I braced myself for the impact of the immediate event, but not for the void it left. I filled it as best I could with work – I definitely worked too hard for several years – and trying to help my children (then aged 21 and 23)."

Throwing herself into her career, Ottoline made the most of her role at SLCU, alongside pursuing her research and a long-term interest in science policy. The latter gradually took up more and more of her time, including by serving on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology since 2017.

A new opportunity

In 2020, Ottoline was offered the position of Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation as a secondment from the University of Cambridge. It’s a role that has changed her daily life, and even more so due to it coinciding with a global pandemic.

"It’s a very busy role with a packed schedule of meetings. While I am certainly used to a full diary, the pace and intensity has increased. I have rented a flat in London, where I am based during the week, and then I come back to Cambridge at the weekend. This is working quite well for me, although at various points during the COVID-19 pandemic I have been locked down at one end or the other of this weekly commute.

"It was a difficult choice to step back from my research and teaching, but I am excited about the chance to help catalyse significant change in the research system, improving diversity and connectivity and fostering a more inclusive and supportive research culture. I decided that I could make more of a difference at UKRI, and that is the priority for me."