Katie McNeil, PA to Professor Paul Riley
Katie was with DPAG from September 2014 - January 2020 as Personal Assistant to Professor Paul Riley. She provided key administrative support to his team of more than 20 Postdoctoral Research Scientists and Postgraduate Students. Prior to this, she spent a year at the Said Business School. Interview on Thursday 28 February 2019.
What led you to become a PA?
This wasn’t actually my intended career route at all! I previously worked for a fashion brand in London managing their design and production process and really enjoyed the organisational aspect of this, but not the fashion industry itself. I moved back to Oxford and worked in a number of administration roles in the charity sector before really finding my feet as a PA. Something about the fast-paced nature of the work appeals to me, I need to be constantly learning and that keeps it interesting.
How did you come to work at DPAG?
I was working over at Said Business School and once it came to the end of my contract, I wanted to put the PA skills I had learned towards something more rewarding, something that I felt made a difference to people. I was looking for a role in either the charity sector or research and this role seemed to fit that - who wouldn’t want to be involved in research that helps to repair people’s hearts! It looked interesting, challenging, varied and ultimately rewarding to me. I applied having no background in science, and despite being little intimidated at my interview, I was really fascinated by the job. Now, here I am 5 years later having learnt a wealth of knowledge and still fully interested in my job!
What were your first impressions of the department?
I was a little overwhelmed at first, both by the science and the size of the department. I remember thinking how do I spell this word, let alone minute a scientific meeting! I spent a lot of time learning acronyms, googling terms and had a long list pinned to the side of my monitor with all the scientific words I needed to remember! The group here were so welcoming though, and would always give me a hand if I got stuck with something.
What does your job entail day to day?
I provide support to Paul Riley and his research group, and sometimes beyond that. This includes many different things; from diary organisation, to sorting out the cleaning rota in the lab, to organising social events, to helping DPhil students hit their transfer deadlines. Most of the time, I am like a signpost for people! It saves so much time if group members can come and ask me a quick question, and I have the answer for how they apply to a particular pot of funding, put their expenses through, or who they should speak to for a particular problem, and it means they have more time to concentrate on their research. The University is such a large complex machine, so I am here to help navigate that for people. I am a helpful problem-solving person!
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Making a positive impact! I love to see the work I do actually makes a difference. For instance, we run various research events every year, and sometimes you’ll see suddenly a collaboration has popped up. It’s great to see that researchers talk to each other at Symposiums, or indeed any big meeting that encourages interesting discussions, and go on to work on the same project, and I help facilitate that. Science can be hard work, so anything I can do to streamline the process is so rewarding and it means we get to do wonderful research things! I love seeing people develop, grow and get the success their hard work deserves.
I also love organising the group’s social events. We did a Valentine's Day Quiz this year, which was good fun. A few years ago we held an Away Day, where three research groups spent a few days at Heythrop Park with various team building exercises which was great fun and great for us all to get away from Oxford for the day! We did actually have scientific sessions as well though!
Are there any exciting events coming up this year?
I have two large events to organise this year for Paul, the summer Theme Research Meeting and the Developmental Biology Symposium in December. These tend to take a lot of organising, but I am looking forward to getting stuck in and developing the programme over the year.
What challenges do you face in your role?
Definitely managing my time. There is always so much to be done, and as a PA you want to be able to foresee what needs to be done and have it already in place, which is the dream but also a big challenge every day, along with working on initiatives and improving processes so everything works in harmony.
I also think working as a PA can be a little isolating sometimes, as you’re mostly on your own in an office. To try and bridge this, I get involved in socials with the research group, departmental initiatives and run a little coffee get together on Thursday morning, that anyone is welcome to attend, to keep connected with others across the department. The coffee morning is so handy, because I can bring ideas to the group, I can bring problems to that group, or I can just enjoy having coffee and a chat!
You seem very involved in the department, have you joined any groups or initiatives?
I joined the Athena SWAN Committee last year, mainly because I wanted to have an input in the departmental community. Off the back of that, we've just started various working groups, which will be a great opportunity to help come up with ways to enrich people’s experiences here. I also trained to be a First Aider last summer, and during the course, I was introduced to the Mental Health First Aid course. Off the back of that, 5 of us are now Mental Health First Aiders, and I’m really excited about that because it will be great to talk more about mental health and offer support to everyone in our department. After all, mental health is just as important as physical health, so it would be good for all First Aiders to be aware of that. I’ve already taken a short course in counselling, so that’ll really help me talk to people and signpost them to the right places in this new role!
How did you get to grips with the research without a science background?
It’s pretty hard! There are research meetings every couple of weeks, so if one of Paul's groups are presenting, I’ll make the effort to go along. Even though it's completely over my head sometimes, I'll always pick up interesting information and actively look into each person's project, even if it’s just a sentence on what they're doing. Over the last 5 years, somehow I've soaked it all in. I often help with research application paperwork as well, which helps me figure out the aims and objectives of each project and now I’ve got a good grip on what the researchers want to achieve.
What do you get up to outside of work?
Yoga plays a large part of my life. I have an awesome group of friends through my yoga classes and I am hoping to do my yoga teacher training this summer. I am currently talking to my yoga teacher about the part time study course that they offer and I’m excited to get stuck in. My yoga community has really supported me over the last few years and I really want to give back to them. They have a Badge Holders initiative, where trained teachers can give back by teaching at a charity, so the idea is that I’ll eventually do classes with vulnerable people once or twice a week.
I also have a great community of friends around Oxfordshire, so I spend a lot of time with them, cooking and enjoying eating food and the time I spend with them.