Renée Watson: Combining science and business
Are you a scientist first and a businesswoman second, or is it the other way round?
I think it would be a bit rich for me to say I’m a scientist first, because it has been so long since I’ve been in the lab, but I’m more likely to be found doing something ‘sciencey’ in my spare time than reading business textbooks! Having said that, I think I’m really finding my stride in business at the moment, feeling more confident that I can do it and do it my way.
How old were you when science first won your heart? (and is that passion still burning?)
I think, like most kids I was born curious and perhaps it is because I haven’t yet grown up that I still have that insatiable curiosity. I realised that the one place where people seemed to actually enjoy my incessant questioning was during my science lessons. I don’t think I have or will ever fall out of love with science.
Is it difficult to balance being a mum and running a business?
Being a mum is difficult, full stop! I don’t like to think of mum-vs-work as being in “balance” as it kind of implies that they are separate, warring entities. I prefer to think of life as more of a soup, with lots of ingredients, often imperfect but mostly delicious and smile-inducing! We all muddle our way through, doing the best we can, trying to outwit the mother’s nemesis: guilt.
When did you first realise you could combine your love of science with business?
The impetus came from having my first child, Patrick. I had been working at the University of Oxford on a cancer research initiative and could see the huge benefit of involving patients and the public in discussions on research. So when Paddy arrived, I thought starting a business would be a great opportunity to be in control of when and how I worked, fit in around the steep learning curve I was on as a mum and explore some of the ideas I had to get more people talking about science.
What is the worst job you have ever done?
My first job was at McDonalds, but being an irritatingly insuppressible optimist, I actually enjoyed it. I learned great customer service skills, how to work under pressure and I can make a mean French Fry! The job that grosses people out the most is my stint working as an autopsy assistant. I did everything except the initial incision (best anatomy lesson ever – you don’t forget an organ once you have held it). Or perhaps the project I worked on where I had to examine human poo samples to try and figure out what parasite had made the owner of the poo ill.
What is your proudest business achievement so far?
Launching the Curiosity Box felt really, really good. It feels completely focused, and a big paving stone laid down on my business dream path. I am also incredibly proud of the work we have done for the European Society of Gene and Cell Therapy – we have worked so closely with them for 8 years, helping them grow from a tiny organisation into one of the most influential biomedicine societies in the world.
Have you made many mistakes along the way, and what have they taught you?
Of course! I have had some absolute corkers and anyone who says they don’t make mistakes is kidding themselves, not to mention missing an opportunity. And I really hate the “sack ‘em” culture where people who make mistakes are expected to resign (although obviously there are cases where this is warranted). I think that’s such a waste. Besides, the fact that that person is very unlikely to make that mistake again makes them the best people to help understand why and how things went wrong and how to prevent it happening again.
What’s the business dream? (and are you anywhere close to it?)
My big, unadulterated dream, is to change the way primary schoolers access science, not just here in the UK, but also in places where access to education is limited either by geography or political instability. I want all kids to have an equal chance of pursuing a love of science
Is there a business individual in a similar line of specialisation who you most admire?
It has to be David Attenborough, the guy is a total legend. As a science communicator he is beyond compare and he seems like such a decent bloke. No one has made more people fascinated by science than he has, and no one is as universally loved.
How long did it take you to come up with the name of your business?
The name for WATS.ON came pretty easily, I had been living with my surname for 28 years after all! The Curiosity Box took a bit more work, but being Australian I tend to say it like it is and this was no different. It is a box that aims to nurture curiosity. Not exactly rocket science!
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