(She) realised that it’s not academia that she loves, but learning. To grow, to build new skills, to be innovative.Abeni Wickham
Abeni Wickham is driven by her value to serve, both the public but also researchers. Her goals? To democratise the publishing system, make knowledge seamlessly accessible to everyone – and not only those who can afford it – and to speed up the review process for researchers to get their knowledge out there. She became founder and CEO of SciFree – a company providing open access management tools for universities, libraries, and researchers.
Abeni’s academic history reads impressively, but it surely must have been her upbringing in Guyana, facing limited access to research articles and thereby knowledge due to a poor economic condition of the educational facilities, that shaped her values and thereby her career path the most. Abeni performed her undergraduate studies in two majors: Philosophy and Biomedical engineering at Tufts University and her Master’s studies in Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering at the University College London. Even though she faced many challenges during her PhD at Linköping University she completed it very successfully, publishing two high impact papers influencing research within her field of polymer scaffolds and collagen fibril formation in a medical application context. At the time, it was the obvious path for her to continue in academia, so without further ado she joined the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany as a postdoc. Here, her start-up idea has its origin: while trying to read one of her own papers online, the access was refused, and she had to pay to view her own research.
She continued her love for research as a postdoc at Imperial College London. However a few experiences made her really wonder about the academic publishing landscape and being in academia in general. One being the grant rejections: not because of her research, her idea, or her merits, but solely because of her CV not being “impressive enough”.
Those experiences and the underlying pressure to either “publish or perish” let her struggle and doubt her choice of staying in academia. “But who am I without being a researcher? Who is Abeni?” The identity crisis hit her, and she “knew that she had nothing to return to in academia”. Retrospectively, breaking up with science was one of the biggest challenges in her life so far.
But Abeni is a brave woman. Her solution against her fears? Confronting them. One of the biggest of them: open water. She left her job, started to learn surfing, and realised that it’s not academia that she loves, but learning. To grow, to build new skills, to be innovative. She also learned during this time that it should be her values and not premade assumptions about herself she had gathered over years, to decide on her career path.
Her advice to everyone struggling to decide on which road to take in the future is to sit down. Really listen to oneself. Get down one’s values and start drawing a matrix of those that are most relevant for oneself.
“It is more important to take time to make this decision instead of running after one’s own assumptions”
she says. Being a PhD student myself, I was interested which skills she acquired during her PhD studies that she uses until now. Her answer was very clear and determined: the integrity towards research, the analytical thinking, the ability to cross-check before making decisions, but most of all
“the ability to sit around with uncertainty, being able to cope with problems and figuring a way out”
And this is what she did as well. While traveling the world, her idea of democratising the academic publishing system blossomed. She started pitching her idea to tech people and got acquainted on how to build a software. She laid out her business idea within a month in Indonesia and returned to Sweden to make her dream of SciFree come true. Her reasons to come back? Excellent tap water. In addition, Sweden was the place where her integrity for research was built and it is one of the few countries where data is owned by the researcher. Despite that, she had learned over time that it is important for her to have her friends and family close to ease her mind. She also cherishes an open-minded working culture where she could receive honest feedback over large investments and a fast access to capital, that could have been more simply obtained in the USA according to her. Again, she is ruled by her values.
Her core value to “contribute” resulted in her tech start-up SciFree. SciFree thrives to “share and serve” instead of supporting the current “publish and perish” system. To translate Abeni’s vision into action, SciFree among other things provides a search tool for researchers and librarians to give an overview of reputable journals, which agreements and payments between the journals and the university are in place and most importantly which licenses are needed to support open access.
Through this tool, valuable time of the researchers and librarians is saved. In the long run, her company thrives to provide a tool that allows researchers and their university to own their data and ideas and to publish and access research articles for free.
For all of you, who got now inspired but still vacillate about the future – here comes another small piece of advice from Abeni :