Dr Clare Howarth

Dr Clare Howarth is a Vice-Chancellor's Advanced Fellow and Sir Henry Dale Research Fellow at the Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield.  

Clare took part in the second round of SUSTAIN in 2017-18 as a Royal Society funded participant. We spoke to her about her research, and her experience of SUSTAIN. 

Tell us about your research, and what you are hoping to achieve.

In order to maintain normal brain function, it is essential that active neurons receive the nutrients they need. This is achieved through local, dynamic, regulation of blood flow. If this coupling between neural activity and brain blood flow becomes dysfunctional and the neurons are starved of the nutrients they need, then they may die. My research focuses on understanding how the brain’s blood flow is controlled in order to maintain brain function. Previously, I discovered a novel mechanism of brain blood flow control acting at the capillary level, and also demonstrated a novel role for astrocytes in regulating hypercapnic vasodilation. My group use a multimodal approach to interrogate the relationship between neuronal activity and evoked blood flow changes, and how that relationship alters in conditions such as aging. Our findings will increase our understanding of: normal brain function; what functional imaging techniques such as BOLD fMRI can tell us about the brain; and what goes wrong in diseases such as neurodegenerative diseases, in which neurovascular coupling is dysfunctional.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that you face doing your job? Has that changed since being on SUSTAIN?

The biggest challenge that I face is people management and leading my team effectively. While I have spent many years training in the techniques that we use and studying the science behind our research questions, the first time I had to manage anyone was once I had my own lab. It’s a skill that needs to be learnt (and practised!). SUSTAIN has really helped me with this. I’m more aware of what drives me and (maybe more importantly) what may drive other people. During the SUSTAIN sessions we were given tools that we could take away and begin to use straight away, and these have been instrumental in the development of my ability to manage people. I feel more confident in this aspect of my job since being on SUSTAIN.

Tell us about your experience of SUSTAIN.

I thoroughly enjoyed the SUSTAIN program. Being part of a cohort was invaluable, it was a relief to find that other people at a similar career point are experiencing the same issues, fears, worries and, importantly, successes. The support that I have received from the rest of the cohort during SUSTAIN has been amazing. I looked forward to attending the training sessions throughout the year.

SUSTAIN offers a safe space away from the day-to-day busyness of the lab. Space in which to step back and think about the bigger picture – where am I going? Where is my team’s research heading? What’s the next step? What do I need? Combining this reflection/retreat time with the support network offered by the cohort was absolutely invaluable. I think too many of us, particularly at this stage in our careers, forget to make time for thinking.

I was pleasantly surprised by how perfectly the sessions seemed to fit with what I needed at this point in my career. In particular, the media training was a huge surprise to me. I felt completely out of my comfort zone; that’s why I’d never sought out media training and wouldn’t have previously thought about volunteering to interact with the media. In the end, I thought the media training was a great session and I’ve used the skills since; for example, when I appeared in a video talking about collaboration.

My favourite sessions were ones that focussed on personal interactions and leading a team – these sessions focussed on the development of our emotional intelligence and have also made me much more aware of how I (and my actions) may be perceived by others.

How do you think SUSTAIN will affect your future career?

I am hoping to continue using the many skills that we learnt on the SUSTAIN programme. Being a part of SUSTAIN has increased my self-confidence, which I hope will make me a better leader and also enhance my career development. I hope the SUSTAIN cohort stays in touch and continues to act as a support network for each other over the coming years. It’s important to have a support system in place and the people that I met on SUSTAIN are an inspiring and ambitious group of researchers; exactly the kind of people I want as peer support.

As researchers, we’ve spent many years being trained in the specific technical skills and science in our research areas. We’ve got to where we are by being good at what we do. However, once you become a lab head there are many more skills that are needed (people management, time management, grant writing), which we’ve not been trained in up to this point and it can feel daunting when you start out. Often you’re not sure where to get these skills, or even (like in my case!) what the skills actually are that you’re missing! SUSTAIN provided those skills and I feel much better equipped to go forward as a future research leader.

Tell us about your co-coaching relationship.

My co-coaching relationship has been wonderful, I get on very well with my co-coach. She has been a good sounding board for ideas and solutions and has also been able to offer advice based on her own experiences. It has been reassuring to know that I am not alone in my problems and worries. We will continue to meet post-SUSTAIN as we both find it useful. The co-coaching ‘appointments’ have also enabled me to have time away from the lab to think about issues, progress, and plans.

Through the co-coaching, I have developed my ability to listen, to question, and to coach, rather than to jump in immediately with a suggestion based on my own experiences. I have developed my ability to help others find their own solutions to problems – these are useful skills for mentoring people both in and outside of my own group.

What are your tips for being a good co-coach?

Practise your active listening skills! Resist the temptation to jump in with a solution that once worked for you. Often someone is able to find their own solution, they just need a sounding board to help them get there.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about SUSTAIN?

I recently started meeting with my mentor, and I think it is going to be a very useful relationship. I suspect that I am going to be challenged along the way, but in a way that helps me to achieve what I want to achieve. When we met all the mentors, I realised what a set of ambitious, inspiring and busy people they are. Having someone like that willing to give up time to mentor me is a privilege and inspires me to aim higher.


To find out more visit the SUSTAIN Programme page.

If you want to learn more about how to set up a programme like SUSTAIN in your organisation, please get in touch at sustain@acmedsci.ac.uk.

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