What is the Microbiology Society’s Council Shadowing Scheme?

Posted on January 13, 2021   by Maria Fernandes

We caught up with Dr Sharon Brookes to hear about her experience before, during and after participating in the Council Shadowing Scheme. Sharon joined the Shadowing Scheme in 2018 and was subsequently successfully elected to Council, beginning her term in January 2021. Sharon serves on Council and the Finance Committee.  

© Sharon Brookes

What were your expectations of the Shadowing Scheme when you were considering applying?  

I've been a member of the Society for my entire working life in the UK, which has been the best part of 30 years. A good few years ago, I spent a term on the Virology Division. I really enjoyed contributing to the direction of the Society’s scientific meetings and providing an input into the virology content of event programmes. There was a phase when I was less involved in the Society other than going to annual conferences, but as my career as a civil servant at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has progressed, I've become more interested in science policy. I attended a policy session on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2019 which was organised by Paul Kellam. I became more interested in getting to know how I could widen the perception of government scientists.  

When I first joined the Society, I was an academic in research council-funded institutes. I then moved to the APHA, an arm’s length body of Defra, and became a civil servant. I observed that there was less representation of government scientists at the Microbiology Society, so I saw the chance of being involved in Council as an opportunity improve things for people who were in the microbiology sphere and for improving interaction between government and academic scientists from the Council level.  

I saw some information about the shadowing scheme in one of the Society’s monthly newsletters. Around the same time, I happened to be invited to examine a PhD viva at St George’s University, where I met Professor Jodi Lindsay, Chair of the Society’s Publishing Committee. I had also recently become an Editor for the Journal of Medical Microbiology. These three things coincided, and as I knew that Jodi was on the Microbiology Society Council, I spoke to her directly and shared that I was interested in participating in the Shadowing Scheme. I pulled all the threads together in an application which Jodi supported. I then received the offer of shadowing the Council and it was a really good experience! I was a bit nervous to start with as I didn't know what to expect. I knew about all the different committees and Divisions under Council, but wasn’t sure which area I was most interested in pursuing – policy, publishing and conferences were all interesting to me. I hoped that the Shadowing Scheme would give me an idea of which might suit me and the Society best. In the end, I shadowed two Council meetings and a meeting of the Policy Committee. I was then happy to go through the process of applying to be on Council through self-nomination and was lucky enough to be voted in during the subsequent membership election process.  

The on-site Shadowing Scheme allowed me to realise the difference in responsibilities between what you could consider a function of Council and a function of being a Trustee of the charity; I hadn't really appreciated the difference between them before. I see it as Council having responsibility for serving the interests of the membership, and Trustees of the Charity having responsibility for the future sustainability of the Society, including meeting more of the staff and understanding their duties. This was a wider remit than I had expected but it makes the roles much more interesting.  

What happened after being elected to Council? 

I attended the welcome event for new Council and Committee members in October 2020 and I have shadowed the most recent Council meeting (virtual) in preparation for starting in January. I've familiarised myself with the operational aspects, such as how to access meeting papers and have gotten to know the other Council members and staff a bit better. I know a few through reputation and engagement through the Society for a long time; but getting to know people a bit better has been very helpful for working together.  

Now I'm really looking forward to our 2021 meetings. My shadowing sessions were all in person at Meredith Street (pre-COVID-19) which was helpful for seeing the new office and meeting staff. However, meeting virtually has also worked well; I had already met people face to face so that was very helpful as a foundation on which to build relationships. Working virtually has been easier for me in some respects, as someone with a hearing deficit – I can use in-ear devices and can lip read more readily as I can also see people's faces more clearly than in some special and acoustically challenging venues.  I was also able to use some hearing enhancement kit (accepted by Council, Committee and staff) during the last of the shadowing sessions at Meredith Street.  

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in applying? 

Take the time to explore the webpages, look at the profiles of people on Council and what their responsibilities are. By chance I had the opportunity to speak to members of Council outside of their Society functions, so even though we didn't speak about the Society and Council it was good to understand who they were and what they stood for before putting myself forward.  

We've spoken quite a bit about your experience - what was your favourite moment? 

Probably the light-hearted moments in between agenda items – the human moments. Council is something that you might have looked up to all your working career and you may not have known the people before, but the realisation that Council members are very friendly people and easy to get along with really lightens the experience while fulfilling the activities and requirements.  

Do you have any plans for after your term on Council and Finance Committee?  

I am at the stage of my career where I am considering different roles for myself, I am interested in playing a bigger part in bringing on the next generation of scientists within the civil service and better interactions between applied/translational science and academia. This would provide an interface between early career microbiologists and what I do now as a lead scientist with responsibility for science strategy, impact and operational delivery in my everyday role.  

Do you have anything else to say about the Shadowing Scheme?  

 I think the Shadowing Scheme is a good option to understand how you can contribute more to the Society. It’s a good opportunity for early career microbiologists to be exposed to the different ways to influence the Society functions and to help the Society to better serve the membership.  

At this stage in my career, I've become more aware of the value of coaching and mentoring and I see the shadowing scheme as part of that process. It's important that people realise you won’t shadow the whole Council but be an observer – you can shadow from one person's perspective in each Council meeting to start with, which is far less daunting. Shadowing one or more people gives you an insight into the ways different people approach their work. I think there's enough diversity of background on Council for people to find somebody who they might feel comfortable with to take on the shadowing role. Having that one-to-one contact made small questions about how to conduct yourself in these Council meetings easier to ask and answer.  

Find out how to apply for the Microbiology Society’s Council Shadowing Scheme on our website.