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This our first Scholar Spotlight episode - a rubric of The Good Leader podcast dedicated to exploring the research and leadership journeys of our brilliant & diverse Laidlaw Scholars. How is their research helping us make the planet a better place for everyone? Which challenges have they faced throughout the process, and what have they learnt? How are they embracing the Laidlaw values of being ambitious, brave, curious, determined, extraordinary, and fast?
To stand in for the first Laidlaw value - ambitious - we have Charlie Bingham who is a mature Archaeology student and Laidlaw Scholar at the University of York. We explore how being a single mother of two wonderful sons helped her become a better leader and how she is learning to overcome imposter syndrome while conducting research into ancient plant DNA.
Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
JACK BINGHAM: Welcome to the podcast. Hear my Mummy talk about archaeology!
NIKOL CHEN: Hi, I’m Nikol Chen and this is The Good Leader. A podcast where we talk to remarkable individuals in all sorts of fields to learn more about how to lead with integrity and explore what the next generation of leaders is doing to solve the world’s most intractable problems.
Just a quick note - you can find the transcript of this episode, further reading suggestions and a list of references on the Laidlaw Scholars Network.
This is our first Scholar Spotlight episode. In these episodes, I will talk to current or former Laidlaw Scholars about their leadership journeys and how they are embracing the Laidlaw values of being ambitious, brave, curious, determined, extraordinary, and fast.
Each episode will focus on one value, and first up, to stand in for Ambitious, we have Charlie Bingham.
NIKOL CHEN: Hi Charlie, welcome to the podcast.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Hi, thank you for having me.
Charlie is a mature student and a Laidlaw Scholar at the University of York, studying Archaeology, and she found out about her scholarship offer in the most fitting way possible: at an excavation site.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: So, we were excavating in Malton - one part of our first year was do an excavation of a Roman site. Just up the road from here. And we were on a tea break, it’s been a really long day, and I opened the email on my phone and run down to the other trench to tell my friend.
NIKOL CHEN: In her research, Charlie looks at a pathogen called Ustilago maydis, which causes a plant disease called corn smut that attacks, you guessed it - corn. And here’s the thing about corn. It’s super important to humans. It’s produced on every continent around the world except for Antarctica, and there are over 3,500 different uses for corn. You probably consumed something today that has corn in it - it’s in foods like cereal, crisps, it’s even used for sweeteners contained in soft drinks, and it’s in non-food products too: soap, cosmetics, glue, just to name a few. Not to mention that it’s used as livestock feed, biofuel, and raw material in industry. In fact, in the days of the early North American settlers, corn was so valuable that it was used as currency.
So, Charlie is using ancient DNA methods to look at the differences in the genomes of historic and modern samples of this nasty pathogen. And by looking at its ancestral lineage we can identify where it’s coming from and hence, what we can do to prevent further introductions of it and how to fight it, so that it doesn’t go around attacking our precious gorgeous corn crops.
NIKOL CHEN: And so what are the applications and the real world use of your research?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I’m hoping that the findings will encourage further research into agricultural resilience. Especially how the UK can invest resources into the sustainability of cereals in the future. Obviously, we live on an island, so we need to be aware of what’s coming in and out, and how we can tackle any potential infestations. One of the things we are really looking at is the focus of food security and sustainability, and we’re hoping that this will help to develop methods and techniques to tackle agricultural vulnerability.
NIKOL CHEN: While Charlie is a mature university student, extracting ancient DNA in a lab, she is also a single mother of two wonderful sons - Jack and George, whom you heard at the beginning of the episode. Before having children, she was a dental nurse and after maternity leave, it was the right time for a change and a challenge. So, off she went to York University to be a full time student, a full time mother, and a full time star.
NIKOL CHEN: And so, you are a mature student, and you actually have 2 children…
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I do, yes.
NIKOL CHEN: So, could you tell me more about that, so what is it like to be a mother and a mature student?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Um, it’s challenging. That’s the main word that springs to mind. The kids are both in school or nursery, they are 3 and 4. So, once I drop them off, I’m kind of able to come into the department and go into student mode, if you like. Knuckle down with the university work sort of 9 until 4, then go and pick them up but I have to make sure I get the work down during that period because if I don’t, once I get home the other side of life kind of takes over, domestic life if you like. It’s been challenging when the kids are sick and I have to take time off to go and pick them up but the Archaeology department are really fantastic. They are super accommodating. My youngest has been to seminars before and just sits there in the corner. Really definitely helps.
I think once you walk through the lecture doors - that’s it. You’re a student. The mature students have the same opportunities. We may have a few more challenges but I think that really helps to teach you about time management, about prioritising.
There’s been times when I had to leave lectures to pick them up if they’ve been poorly at school or I haven’t been able to come in at all because of clashes with school holidays. That’s one thing that has been highlighted - kids have half terms, we don’t have half terms. So there’s often a week in February, a week in May, when I have no childcare, so he either comes with me to a lecture or I have to be off. And the university have things in place for that like lecture captures, so you can watch those back if you missed them. But it doesn’t really make up for it - I think you get the best information when you come to the lecture. It’s not the same watching it back. So, I think in times like that, I do feel it. But then, I think that everyone doing a degree has challenges and encounters problems, so I just try and think about it like that.
NIKOL CHEN: And so, do you receive support from their father? Does he help you out?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Yeah, he does. He lives just down the road from us, he’s really great. Probably without him, I wouldn’t be able to do half of what I’m doing. Especially in terms of the scholarship, you know having extra days to go in the lab, and they are really long days. He’s done things for me like take them away to his parents for a week or on holiday when I’ve had lots of deadlines just to sort of help clear my head and give me space to really do my best. So definitely without him and without my mum as well. My mum lives in Nottingham but she comes up quite a lot. If I ever have things on or different things I need to do, or if there’s a clash with childcare, she always comes up and helps me. Yeah, lifesavers.
NIKOL CHEN: As you can tell, being a mother teaches you a lot about leadership. Charlie demonstrates that resourcefulness is key. As well as asking others for help, being prepared do deal with things when they don’t go as planned, and being flexible and accommodating.
NIKOL CHEN: So, this is a very broad question, what is it like to raise a child?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: A minefield. I think when you have a child, you have an image of how it’s going to be... and it’s not. So when I had my first one I was very young, I was 21, wasn’t prepared at all. Not that I think that you can ever be fully prepared, but I wasn’t prepared at all. And I had this really rigid idea of what I was going to do and how I was going to parent. And within a few months, it had all gone to pot. So we were just doing what worked for us and for the baby. Then, introducing another one into the mix was just a whole new kettle of fish. It was mad. It was absolutely mad having 2 under 2. Enjoyable - I absolutely loved it. But yeah...challenging...we’ll use the word ‘challenging’ again. Yeah, I think you just have to relax into it and you can’t control everything and there’s always going to be things in life you can’t control whether it’s to do you know with your personal life or your education or your children. Or you just have to be open to change, yeah, I think that’s how we’ve done it really and how I’m doing the degree. Just by being open and flexible.
NIKOL CHEN: Did being a mother teach you about leadership? And did those two areas interact?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Before children, I was very...I didn’t really have much direction, I wasn’t very motivated but as soon as I had them it kind of gave me…”Well, you have to get up in the morning and do things, don’t you?" You have to get up and make sure they’re OK and get them to school and things. So, it gives you more structure. And I think that definitely helped not necessarily to be a leader to them but to be a leader to myself. I know that sounds really cheesy but I think I really needed that, I needed some kind of structure, so I could actually lead my own life successfully. Before them I was a bit...before them, there was a but of a point where, you know, I didn’t know where I was going and what I was doing. So they definitely helped that, So, I guess in a really cheesy way they kind of led me, if you know what I mean. But yeah, definitely, it teaches you about the challenges faced in leadership as well - parenting. Because you always have an idea of how you’d like things to go and humans are human - we are irrational creatures. So, we have to be accommodating to each other. Even though they’re only tiny, you still have to be accommodating to what they want to do and how they want to do it. Can’t all just be my way. And I suppose you can apply that to anything. You can apply that to just being a manager in an office or a cafe or somewhere. It can’t be all how you want to do it, you have to be flexible to how other people learn and work.
NIKOL CHEN: Moreover, motherhood reinforces the importance of empathy. Another vital skill in being a good leader.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I think a lot of people who aren’t parents say...and we’ve all done it - we’ve all judged a parent in a supermarket who has a screaming child, or we’ve all said “Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I had kids” or tried to give advice to someone who is a parent. And I think until you are a parent, you can’t fully put yourself into their shoes because it is so different - it’s, you know, there’s that meme that goes around on Facebook: “Are you a parent until you’ve carried a screaming 3-year old out of a supermarket under your arm?” [laughs] It’s those defining moments, so yeah, it’s definitely taught me to be a bit less judgmental of other people’s situations. Because you really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. And especially, you know, after school when my 4-year old just completely crumbles because he is so tired and he’s had such as busy exciting day. You know, you might see him in the street, absolutely having a wild moment and I suppose past me would have judged that situation but new me would sort of look at that situation and empathise a bit more and think “Oh, poor mum” [laughs]
NIKOL CHEN: Has that ever happened to you - carrying your child out of a supermarket, crying?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: More times than I’d like to admit [both laugh]
NIKOL CHEN: So, do you have any particular leaders that inspire you the most?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I think that’s a really hard question because I think leadership comes in so many different ways. I suppose as a mother, the ones that spring to mind are people like...is it Jacinda Ardern - the youngest prime minister of New Zealand? Who took her baby to the UN general assembly, and those cases like Larissa Waters - the MP in Australia - who breastfed her baby in Parliament. I think she was the first one to do it. And, you know, why shouldn’t women be able to do both? I think for me a leader, an inspirational leader for me, is any woman who is not afraid to challenge the idea of being a mother and a successful career person, because I think you can do both. And there is no reason why we shouldn’t.
NIKOL CHEN: As Charlie said, Larissa Waters is an Australian MP who became the first woman to breastfeed in parliament in Australia. She didn’t just sit there and breastfeed, she was breastfeeding while addressing the chamber and proposing a motion.
And Jacinda Ardern became the world's youngest female head of government in 2017 when she was 37. She is known for what she calls pragmatic idealism in her leadership - placing emphasis on compassion and community. One of her most notable acts as New Zealand’s leader is the way she addressed the mass shooting in Christchurch on March 15 2019, when an Australian gunman shot dead 51 worshippers at two mosques, killing nationals from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Egypt among others.
Just to note, Jacinda is no longer the youngest female state leader in the world. She was at the time, but now it is the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, who is 34. And the youngest overall is - the Chancellor of Austria - he is 33.
NIKOL CHEN: And what was the most challenging part of your research or your leadership journey?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I don’t think I’ve had the most challenging part of it yet. For me, I think the bioinformatic stage, which is the analysing the data - something I’ve never done before and I am so nervous about - I keep saying to my supervisor “Help, I don’t know what to do,” but I know that everyone in the department will be really really helpful like they have been so far. No one’s going to leave me floundering or stuck, so yeah. I’m kind of really nervous about that but also really grateful to have that support, But I think that’s going to be the most challenging part of it.
NIKOL CHEN: So what will you be doing this summer then?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: This summer I’m going to be analysing the data. So, when we get it back it’s a case of sitting, going through it, and then writing a report about it, and telling a story I suppose. That’s what archaeology is, I suppose - telling a story of the past and the future. I’m also going to be teaching people basic lab skills, going into the modern and the clean lab. Teaching them how to behave in the lab, different things like if you’re in the clean lab you have to wear the full suit, and hair net, and mask, and gloves, and everything. And just making sure people do those things, those steps correctly. Because if they don’t it will impact the results and what not. Yeah, so, I’m really focusing on the leadership side of things this summer.
NIKOL CHEN: And what do you think people listening to this podcast can do today to make the world a better place?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Well, I think we’re all aware that we’ve got to be kinder to the planet and what’s around us, and that’s an important message we all have to think about. I think just making small changes like, I don’t remember the name of it but there is this website where you can monitor your own carbon footprint and things like being aware of the carbon cost of air travel compared to rail travel, and you know just by analysing what you’re doing, it can start to make a small change. But I think it’s everyone that needs to make the change, us as individuals, big corporations, I think need to be aware of what impact we are having individually. And there’s so much negativity in the news at the minute, I think we just need to be kind to each other, and to ourselves - that’s a huge thing. People aren’t kind enough to themselves. I think yeah, by being kind to ourselves and everyone around us, we can help change our surroundings and our future.
NIKOL CHEN: How do you think you can be kind to yourself?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I think by self-care, being not so critical of yourself...I’m naming things I need to do [laughs]. Yeah, not being so critical of yourself, being more positive, being more open to opportunity. Just allowing yourself to be a bit more free. You know, not be confined by your mind or your thoughts. It's getting deep [laughs]
NIKOL CHEN: Another major difficulty that Charlie has faced is probably something a lot of people listening right now can relate to. Doubting your accomplishments. A fear of being exposed as fraud. Feeling like you don’t deserve to be where you are now. That’s right, Imposter Syndrome.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I really suffer from Imposter Syndrome…
NIKOL CHEN: Don’t we all [laughs]
CHARLIE BINGHAM: [laughs] Yes, but I really really suffer from that when I’m going into the lab with the PhD students and the lecturers and especially when it comes to helping the Master’s students later in this year, I’m really feeling like “Oh, should I be here?”, I just really feel like such an imposter. That’s one of the things that it really pointed out about confidence levels and things. And I’m trying to put things in place to help me with that, just by, for me, just by learning more about the subject and really applying myself to it. And then putting myself in the situations and realising “Oh, that wasn’t terrible, I am supposed to be here”
Whatever I do, I don’t know maybe it’s a confidence issue, a self-confidence issue. Like i always feel like “Do I deserve to be here?” not in a kind of “Ugh, I don’t deserve to be here” but in a “Am I knowledgeable enough to be here?”. I’ve always doubted my own abilities, definitely always doubted my own abilities. Yeah, but I’m learning. I’m starting slowly to get through it but it’s things like during my scholarship I’ve been allowed to go into the PhD office because it’s a good office space, it’s a quiet office space with computers and things, and I sit in there and I’m like “God, everyone’s looking at me, everyone’s thinking “Why is that undergrad here?””. No one is. No one cares. Everyone’s just like “Oh, you’ve got a scholarship in ancient DNA, that’s really cool”, everything just thinking that and it’s just about me trying to remember that. No one’s actually judging me and thinking “Ugh, she shouldn’t be here.” No one’s thinking that. Or I hope not. There we go - I hope they are not. Yeah, so, I think to manage it I’m just telling myself the opposite. Yeah, fighting those negative thoughts.
NIKOL CHEN: Yeah, I think a lot of our scholars could related to that, well, anyone really. Anyone in academia probably, in higher education. I personally struggled with that as well, struggle - not in the past tense.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Yeah, well I’ve spoken to lecturers and research staff - you know, they come and do the lecture and we all think it’s amazing and in awe of them. There’s this amazing academic in front of us and then they come out and they’re actually thinking “Oh, did I do that okay? Was everyone listening? Was it okay?” Yeah, I think we all suffer from it - just part of being human.
NIKOL CHEN: And I know you said you just tell yourself that no one really cares - are there any other techniques you use to kind of deal with it?
CHARLIE BINGHAM: Probably just about developing your own confidence, just throwing myself into situations. Okay, so I used to be painfully shy up until I was about 18, actually. I’d struggle to even walk across the restaurant to go to the toilet or struggle to go to a bar or pay for something in a shop. I was so shy. And one day I literally just told myself “Think of all the stuff you are missing out on by being so shy and the restrictions I was placing upon myself” Because that’s really what I was doing. And I just told myself “No more”, basically. And just put myself out there. So, inside, a lot of the time, I’m dying. [laughs] Dying inside. But I think just yeah, just by putting myself into these situations...it’s like how you get over phobias, well what they say you need to do to overcome your phobias - just face your fears. Well, it worked for me. I’m not sort of saying this is a method everyone should use but yeah, it definitely helped me just by lifting those restrictions that I put on myself.
NIKOL CHEN: Thank you very much Charlie for coming on the podcast, I’m sure that everyone was inspired by your story of motherhood and being a mature student, and your overall message that, you know, it’s never too late to start anything
CHARLIE BINGHAM: No, it never is.
NIKOL CHEN: Yeah, and just, as you said, just do it and go for it.
CHARLIE BINGHAM: I hope it inspires someone to just go for it.
NIKOL CHEN: You can connect with Charlie and find out more about her research on the Laidlaw Scholars Network, and follow her on Twitter @BinghamCharlie1.
Follow the Laidlaw Foundation on Twitter and LinkedIn to find out when we release our new podcasts episodes, and if you would like to find out more about our programmes visit www.laidlawfoundation.com.
Once again, you can find all the references, further reading suggestions and the transcript of this episode on the Laidlaw Scholars Network. Our music is by Broke For Free and Tours.
Thanks for listening.