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Nicola Spence

MSc Microbiology

Cycling down Gower Street two evenings a week in the best and worst of London weather to enter a world of microbes is one of Nicola Spence's lasting memories of her time as a Birkbeck master's student.

'Intellectually it was a wonderful change from my day job, because I was working in real labs,' says Professor Spence, who at the time was a tutor of O and A level biology, zoology and botany.

Nicola chose Birkbeck because she was interested in plant pathology and wanted a way to study and work at the same time. 'The College made a real difference to me at a time when I wasn't sure if I wanted a career in research and needed a low risk option to find out. It turned out to be the best decision I made at the start of my career.'

In her first class, Nicola remembers that she was 'amongst an interesting, diverse bunch of motivated people who all had a reason to want to be there. It felt like it was exactly the right place to be at that time. I realised I had missed learning and studying.'

'What I found most rewarding about Birkbeck was having a central London lab to work in, and being able to gain experience and qualifications in a timescale that suited my ambitions, lifestyle and budget. Thanks Birkbeck!'

Her master's degree helped Nicola prepare for her PhD in plant virology at the University of Birmingham, which she completed in 1992. In 2009 Nicola took on the role of chief scientist at the Food and Environment Research Agency, responsible for directing its strategic science aims and objectives, providing scientific guidance and leadership, and maintaining and raising science quality.

In January 2010 she became Chief Executive of Science City York, which is a central supporter of York and North Yorkshire's economic regeneration, driving the creation and growth of business and employment opportunities within bioscience, IT and digital and the creative industries.

'One challenge of trying to bring the worlds of business and academia together is that they have different drivers and motivations, so the key is to engage both sectors together with a common purpose of using ideas and innovation to solve problems of scientific interest that have applications to business.

'The advantages of doing this are that it can generate some totally new thinking and some exciting outcomes from which everyone benefits. Many academics are very entrepreneurial; they get a real buzz out of turning their ideas into profit. Others are more motivated by the highest quality of science they can achieve, which also has a useful application. All businesses and academics want talented staff and partnerships can help provide skills and recognise talent for everyone.'

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