IWD2018 Unsung Heroines | Clare Walton

To mark International Women’s Day, LEAD is running a special feature showcasing women who go above and beyond the call of duty – those who deserve a little recognition and thanks. We were delighted to be inundated with nominations and after much inspiring reading present your LEAD Unsung Heroines.

Clare Walton, Research Communications Manager, Alzheimer’s Society

As the leading UK dementia charity, Alzheimer’s Society works across many areas, providing information and support to families affected, campaigning for change and funding research. Dementia is a hot topic in the news and there is a rarely a week when there isn’t a headline claiming something can prevent dementia or lifestyle choices will cause the condition. A key challenge for the Alzheimer’s Society, mirrored across the charity sector, is balancing the fine line between dispelling myths but establishing that investment in research is essential.

Our next unsung heroine is Clare Walton, who works tirelessly as the research communications manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, leading all external communications about dementia research and working across the Society to make sure that staff are aware of and confident talking about complex research.

Nominated by her colleagues, who say “Clare cares deeply about people affected by dementia and is passionate about communicating science. This passion comes through in her work and inspires those around her. Clare is quick minded and her ability to bring her leading edge expertise to develop creative solutions for complex problems makes her an invaluable colleague. Clare’s leadership style is highly collaborative.

“Clare’s leadership has been demonstrated in terms of coaching and professional development. She has developed a high performing team and enabled people to grow and develop into experts in the field and highly valued members of Alzheimer’s Society with feedback on her management ability always being extremely positive. She is also incredibly supportive of her peers and managers.

As a female colleague I believe that she’s acted as a role model for women in the workplace through her inclusive leadership style and not being afraid to challenge others and express her views. Clare’s high standards and professionalism encourage others to work harder and strive for better. Whether she’s on the BBC red sofa or sitting in one of our cramped meeting rooms Clare has taken on a leadership role above and beyond that listed in her job description and is greatly respected across the organisation as a result. We believe she deserves this recognition as a heroine in the workplace.”

We caught up with Clare to find out more…

“I’m a scientist at heart and now work in science communications in the charity sector”

After my PhD, I worked first at the Stroke Association and now with Alzheimer’s Society. These jobs are quite unusual – requiring a mix of research expertise, the ability to translate complicate science to a lay audience and a good grounding in communications theory to ensure we’re using communications to support delivery of the organisational strategy.

I moved away from the lab bench when I realised I was much better at talking to and enthusing people about science than I was doing the experiments myself. After masters degree in biochemistry at Oxford University I was lucky enough to move to New York City to do a PhD in neuroscience at the Rockefeller University. Based on lively Manhattan, I was surrounded by incredible scientists – both men and women – who inspired my research and who encouraged me to develop my passion for research communications. With a fellow graduate student I founded a summer neuroscience school to teach disadvantaged high school students from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx about the brain and latest neuroscience research. I’m delighted that this summer school has gone from strength to strength and is now entering its tenth year. It’s fantastically rewarding to follow the careers of our former students and see many of them go on to study science at top colleges in the US partly because of the doors we were able to open for them.

An ideal week for me is one where we are releasing new, positive research findings from a project we’ve funded to the media.

My role is to lead the Society’s communications activity for our Research and Development programme, ensuring creative and compelling research content is integrated across all our channels and visible in our brand work. My communications strategy positions Alzheimer’s Society as a leading research organisation and thought leader and promotes the tangible impact of our research to motivate donors to support us and the research community and other organisations to want to work with us.

It’s exhilarating to be part of a new breakthrough and be able to convey hope to the thousands of families affected by dementia in the UK. In preparation we will have worked closely with the researchers and their host University, as well as with our own press and digital teams to come up with an exciting launch plan that hits many channels. Launch weeks are always manic and full of last minute hiccups, but that’s the nature of news media and I love it. If we do well, we are able to get people living with dementia onto radio or television talking about why research is so important, and sometimes I’ll be on TV too explaining the science findings to patients and the public.

A major challenge for me and my team is to dispel some of the myths around dementia research, while still showing people – potential donors – that investment in research is extremely valuable.

We want to instil hope that dementia can be defeated through research but without giving support to poorly evidence based claims. It’s a very fine line to tread!

I also face challenges within my organisation to make sure our research gets the profile it deserves across our channels. We’re a big organisation and we do a lot and it can be hard to convey all that we do while still ensuring a clear and focused articulation of who we are.

Making a career change away from science can be daunting

However, given the tremendous pressures that junior researchers, particularly women, face in academia, I’m not surprised at the increasing number of people I talk to who are looking to make the jump.

I would definitely encourage people to explore alternative careers paths and think outside the box, because you never know what dream job could be within reach. I love my job – it’s the best of two different worlds. I’m still immersed in the science and get to read the latest papers each week, but I also get to work with passionate people every day, talk to patients and the public and feel like I’m really making a difference to people’s lives. My top tips for making a career move – think about what motivates you and what you are good at, put yourself forward to get involved in projects that will develop the skills you need, challenge yourself to take on more responsibility and don’t be afraid to fail. Not every path you take will lead to success, but you can still have lots of fun along the way!